Terra

Full Disclosure: I am friends with the author.  This has happened before – you can judge whether it impacts anything in terms of fairness.

Coming off of the last book that occupied the better part of my life – well the life not spent watching television of questionable taste – I was definitely ready for something of a break.  Now granted, the notion of a “Young Adult” genre book was not something I was much attracted to – indeed the genre has a very tinny sort of marketing sound to it.  It is a genre defined in terms of a target audience – and says little about the genre itself.  Put another way, a genre that can claim works by Stephanie Meyer and Mark Twain does not seem particularly informative.  That said, I had some expectations for the genre – and one of them was a somewhat breezier experience than a George RR Martin doorstop.

Gretchen Powell’s self-published Terra certainly delivered on some of the expectations – a very readable story with some pretty good plotting and a lot of action.  If we are looking at writing as commerce (and it is hard to ask someone to be a writer without actually making some money), this might be good enough – especially looking at this book (as intended) as the start of a series of some sort.  But there is a lot of talent here, especially in the book’s science fiction notes and sense of plot (later in the novel particularly) – even as it is muddled with some less certain aspects and the typical struggles commensurate with any sort of “first volume” story.  Like works such as Reservoir DogsTerra is a messy, flawed introduction to an exciting storytelling talent.

Terra Rhodon is an 18-year old girl who has been forced to grow up awfully quickly, taking care of her fourteen year old brother as they live alone.  As the novel opens, Terra is off to scavenge, which Powell uses helpfully to start giving us some exposition.  At whatever time in the future we are looking at, Earth has shiftd catastrophically into a permanent underclass and a permanent upperclass, the latter which has moved to residences in the skies, while those like Terra are left to scavenge for items left over and hopefully convert them into wealth.  Powell takes her time with the minutiae here.  How do the markets work?  What is a collection? What sort of currency do or don’t the people use?  In a world with very scarce resources, where is the food coming from?  Powell’s detail in the day to day is excellent – the reader gets a strong sense of what it is like to this world, and you can appreciate the completeness with which Powell has crafted her vision.

But back to Terra.  During the scavenging trip, she takes a direction and runs into something she has never seen before.  When she turns it in for collection, the government official offers her a huge sum of money, but no indication of what it is.  The non-answers do not satisfy Terra, especially when a piece so lucrative is out there.  She then the next day heads to the location to try to learn and find more, but then raiders – something between gangsters and marauding pirates – find her and start pursuing her.  In these areas, Powell’s best qualities emerge.  Her descriptions and action scenes here work and are definitely involving.  These positive qualities in her action and setting writing occurs when Terra starts snooping around a bit too much for the government’s taste and she is whisked up to the area capital.  Indeed in the story’s key climactic chase scenes, they worked for me – and I cared about her and her folks being okay.  Powell has the thriller elements down.

Where the story is less certain is in the characters and the development.  Terra certainly makes a sufficiently sympathetic heroine and narrator, especially given the circumstances of her and her brother.  However, at least so far, I tended to find the characters relatively general “types” – Terra the dogged heroine who is trying to be responsible and protecting old wounds, Mica her brother as a moody teenaged kid, Adam (whom she meets under odd circumstances) as a an earnest “good guy”.   There is not the sense of these characters being fully explored as individual people – it seemed that Powell spent more of her time on the world and the plot than necessarily the relationships and characteristics of her players – which while giving us a pretty good story, does put a ceiling on the ability to truly connect.  Also, and this sort of dovetails with the former, the dialogue throughout is functional and conveys plot information, but there is a little bit of a lack of a conversational style here.  The characters are not saying particularly memorable things, even if they are doing some interesting things.  Also, Powell is trapped a bit with this being Book I of a series – there is a LOT of exposition and description of the universe her characters are in, necessary description, but description that prevents some of the crackling action scenes from taking place.  But given the mission of a multi-book series, I am not sure how to get around this.

One other problem is more of an issue with a plot and structure point – and since I do like this book and do not want to spoil it, I will tread carefully.  There is an encounter later in the book, which requires Terra to have ended up in the sky portion, the national capital.  When she is returned from the sky to her home – something very specific has happened, but it is waved away with a little bit of deus ex machina.  It seemed as if Powell had a place to end her book determined before the plot point in question.  This stayed with me, and was immensely frustrating, because it felt like this was a natural stopping point (before the deus ex machina) – and frankly her own brother’s struggles during this part of the story might make at least as interesting a Book II.  Considering how strong Powell’s plotting and action scenes and sense of atmosphere are, this part felt rushed.

Overall though, Terra is a solid debut entry for Gretchen Powell.  Her ability to describe atmosphere and to create an entertaining story is a tremendous gift, and the things where she is wanting (pacing, plotting, dialogue, character specificity) are all things that get better with more writing.  There is a ton of potential here.

A Dance With Dragons (SPOILERS ABOUND!!!)

A-ha!  So THAT’s how the picture is supposed to look!  After the meandering of A Feast for Crows and the curious decision to split the venues - A Dance with Dragons is a strong return to form for George R.R. Martin – a book that manages to recapture the pacing and tautness (despite 950 pages!) of the brilliant A Storm of Swords while giving the previous book more context. While I cannot recommend Feast except for hopeless Ice and Fire addicts, where we are left after the fifth volume gives me a bit more appreciation for the last two books in tandem.  But yeah – no doubt - A Dance With Dragons is a lot of fun.  We get the plot development (more on that – oh is there more – below) that is necessary, and the advancement in CHARACTER, all while digging further into the themes that have defined the series.  But more than that, this book intersperses this stuff with some spectacular action scenes (blessed are the viewers of the HBO program if they can make it this far) and real gameboard changing stuff.  Of course – what that gameboard really is seems to be different depending on who you talk to.  There is the game being played for the Iron Throne, but it is starting to feel like that game might barely matter.

Indeed, if all you did was watch the television series, it would be impossible to even guess exactly how the stakes have been raised.  Yes, we know that there is danger above the wall – as we have discussed before and the mysterious Melisandre seems to have some pretty cool magic, and that the Red tradition in general has given us reanimated dead people like Beric Dondarrion.  We also know that dragons exist.  But the first two books, and even most of the third are firmly grounded in the battle for King’s Landing, the Iron Throne and the various players.  What you end up getting out of this book though, is a sense that courtly machinations of the Tyrells, Lannisters, Boltons and Baratheons are kittens with balls of string in comparison to what the real issues are.

  1. Indeed, the only person who seems to fully understand the big picture – or at least the part of the picture that matters the most – is Jon Snow.  His scenes this time play like a cross between one of those nightmares where you cannot tell a loved one that he or she is about to die, and the frustrations that mediators in one of those Israel-Palestine peace negotiations must feel.  Jon’s origin story is still very foggy – but in his manner he is very much Eddard Stark’s son.  My heart went out to him as he tried to gather wildlings, giants, and his own very loosely banded together group.  In some ways it is a fool’s errand – we only need to recall the bloodshed at Craster’s to understand just how flimsy the ties are binding the Watch – but he alone understands where the real danger lies, and the level of manpower required to even begin to combat it.  Jon is trying so hard, so when the Watch turn on him, it is heartbreaking.  Now, could he really be dead?  Personally, it feels like it’d be cheating for Martin to wipe off the single most charismatic of the heroes – and as we know from the prologue, Jon’s connection to Ghost is much much more personal than even he understands.  He has a way out of his cliffhanger, if he knows how.
  2. Melisandre also understands the big picture – sort of.  Or at least her dogma has accomodated for the big picture – Rhillor and The Other.  There is Red, and there is everything else (which would be a slogan for Sammy Hagar too but no mind).  But this is just religious mumbo jumbo – I am not sure whether this is something she has any real experience with.  She can do some low level magic, like creating an illusion to get Mance Rayder on a clandestine mission, and she has visions – but I don’t think she really gets how close to the “other” of her teachings she really is.  With her and the odious Queen Selyse, Martin has neatly set up a possibility of these folks being totally duped by their religion.  However, considering Jon’s current situation, I am not sure how much vindication this is.
  3. Indeed, is the Red and Other distinct?  Sure, Thoros of Myr can reanimate dead people.  Sure, Moqorro could heal Victarion Greyjoy’s wounded, diseased hand.  But Others are (noticeably less loquacious) reanimated people too.  We know that there is reanimation, warging, the whole bit.  Are these really different things?  After all, Ghost seemed to be taken by Melisandre too.  I think this is all the same thing being tapped into – it’s not like Allah and Vishnu are describing distinct whatever-the-hell-you-call-them.
  4. So, three bullets and no dragons?  Oh there are dragons – are there ever dragons.  Quentyn Martell sure figured that out (talk about a cockamamie scheme).  Daenerys in Mereen has built up reservoirs of resentment and fear with her dragons and her emancipating ways.  Much like other historical epochs, ending slavery is nice, but you sort of need to consider what’s next.  She had a lot of interesting advice in this term – while Barristan’s was the most noble, Shakaz the Shavepate seemed to be the most practical, if not brutal.  Dany’s marriage made sense to me – if it was a mistake, it would have been one I made.  And in any case, it set up that marvelous scene with Drogon in the fighting pits.
  5. I guess a review/commentary would not be complete of course without Tyrion – who has to be the most loveable of the series, if not dripping with the tortured hero chops of a Jon Snow.  He of course is on the lam for killing his father – and kind of sort of for not exactly killing Joffrey.  He is very much far away from the ethereal struggles in the North, though he is certainly fascinated by the dragons too.  Certainly the ship he was directed to by Varys and Illyrio is interested.  Tyrion’s adventures this time are a weird rollicking sort of counterpoint, more actual adventure and travelogue.  Tyrion gets by on his wit, and that is a pleasure.  I have no idea if his scheme to get them on the Second Sons and to escape slavery will work – but it was the best card he had, and he is nothing if not a card player.
  6. And one of the people he played with was Young Griff on the ship.  Young Griff, and who he really is – is one of the great reveals in the book.  Did we ever really consider that Aegon Targaryen might not have died during Robert’s Rebellion?  It still seems far fetched, but there he is.  Or is it him at all?  Why did Varys send him on a boat with their hand picked choice to be the next king?  Indeed, why Varys cares – aside from loyalty to Rhaegar and the Targaryen previous – is hard to peg.  If this is a game for Iron Throne superpowers, it’s a long one.  And the young lad might not be up for cooperating from early indications.

Overall, this book is a return to form after the interesting, but decidedly “lesser” fourth book.  Considering the history of this series, we have to be prepared for anybody to die at any time.  That said, usually I think, the deaths come from obvious errors, if not morally at least tactically.  I guess Jon might be gone – but somehow, I doubt it, or maybe I hope it is not the case.  Who knows.  For a 959 page doorstop – it’s a good, taut, exciting sort of adventure, not in the league of the third book (what is), but probably the second best book in the series.

A Feast for Crows (SPOILERS ABOUND!!)

After the blistering action that permeated A Storm of Swords, that the next book would be comparatively sleepy is not at all shocking.  Certainly friends of mine who are fans of George RR Martin’s series warned that this book was the most worthless of the saga – if you were going to get a thumbs down, it would be here.  Is A Feast for Crows the least of the four books?  It is tempting to say so – but in another sense it is kind of unfair.  That said, it is rather odd to have the fourth book in a series sort of stop and deal with exposition and set-up.  Martin, in his narrative choice to split the books by the arena – has introduced some disruption into the narrative.  I’m not sure if it will pay off necessarily, but the end result is a book which is partly an extension of the series to date, as well as planting the embers of different players – sort of like Book 4 of one series with Book One of other plot threads working at the same time.

As mentioned above, the action after the events of the previous book split into two venues, the stuff above the Wall, and the stuff in the South, covered here.  When we left off here of course, Tyrion Lannister had given his father an unsavory sendoff – throwing the kingdom into even more chaos, and has since made his escape somewhere at large.  Needless to say, Cersei is distraught, but also terribly unwilling to cede control (or anything else) with the kingdom to anybody – least of all the Tyrell’s, the family of Margaery, King Tommen’s bride.  Her moves here (to be discussed after the spoiler warning) supply much of the court intrigue in in the book.  As a main throughline, this is totally absorbing and very much in line with the work Martin has done in the first three books.  As is the pattern before, Martin is very much concerned with justice – not so much justice as in moral rightness, but that the folks who avoid stupidity have just results.  Indeed, Cersei’s actions seem to point to the sort of things that would not go well – indeed breaking a particular tradition comes back to bite her.

The quirk of the book though is that while this thread is there, and we get to follow some of the folks we had followed previously (Jaime, Brienne, Arya, Sansa) – at the same time, Martin offers closeups into newer factions – so many that the book, unlike A Storm of Swords, is not at all free standing – and sort of incomplete.  You definitely have to be knee deep into the saga to get any sort of orientation.  Fortunately, that does describe yours truly.  Of course, here is where the obligatory spoiler warning comes and we go to bullets to describe plot points:

  • Cersei is a piece of work.  If you did not read the books, you might think she’s crazy.  Personally, she is very very angry – and acting in a way like the woman without release.  I have seen the comparison with Betty Draper in Mad Men as particularly apt.  Cersei has been promised to people before, she has not had many rights of her own.  Indeed, when she tried to be in charge and get her uncle’s help, her uncle was downright insolent to her – where is the respect?  Of course, throwing out all qualified advisors and surrounding herself with yes men and feeding her paranoias are all not a good way of handling it.  But Martin does a good job of highlighting the axe she has to grind.
  • Meanwhile Jaime’s reaction to Tywin’s death is peculiarly more subdued.  He is sad, but he also sort of let Tyrion escape.  Indeed he seems less involved with the gig and further detached from his old role and relationships.  Sometimes, it seems like his time with Brienne, with her real earnest belief in the Knight’s code, affected him – especially as it contrasts with the scheming of him and his folks.  When Jaime is assigned the role of trying to lift the seige on Riverrun, he seems to see it as a chance to reclaim his own glory and rebuild his knightiness.  With Ilyn Payne as an aide, he tries to regain his swordsmanship.  He frees Harrenhal at the same time while taking a side trip to Darry.  But in Riverrun, while he gets the job done, he lets Brynden escape as he spared Hoster Tully.  Indeed, it is a small miracle that Tully has not been killed by anybody, whether it be Jaime here or the Freys previously.
  • It is hard not to sympathize with Sansa.  Her life path had not given her many survival skills, and men have been feeding her various lines of bullshit for a long time.  So what happens?  She is now tied to Baelish, one of the more scheming schemers out there – certainly foolhardy to be expecting much truth here.  That said, Sansa at least knows where here survival is – so she is a good caretaker to Robert Arryn, and tries to do the right thing.  But then when Baelish offers his scheme – is that a claim for Sansa?  Baelish’s claim to the North makes sense in theory – but when seeing what happened to Winterfell and beyond, one is skeptical that this plan would actually go anywhere.
  • Arya fortunately has a story that is consistent – but at this point I have no idea exactly how Martin expects to tie this back.  Her adventures in Braavos are pretty cool – and the work with the Faceless Ones have a whiff of the classic martial arts origin story, like in Kill Bill 2.  But what of the wolf dreams?  We know Bran and Jon have them – and Arya clearly has them too, but she doesn’t seem to have any recognition.  The Faceless Ones are trying to get rid of people’s past – start them as blank slates – can Arya really do this?  It does not seem that the ability to free her mind is remotely possible.
  • The rest of the threads are interesting in and of themselves, but after so many players have been introduced – I am not sure whether the Iron Islanders or the Dornes have plans that work?  Doran Martell’s idea in particular is far fetched – especially as we know Viserys’ fate.  It is a little distracting to start in detail with this without payoff – I just don’t know the path that Martin has that does not seem wildly confusing.
  • Euron has seen dragons though, so maybe he is a more effective possibility to win the throne than anyone else in the Kingsmoot, but who knows.  By the way, it was funny how the Kingsmoot was so built up as this special ceremony and God speaking.  Frankly it seemed to be like a beachside version of the 1968 Democratic Convention or something – just pandemonium resulting in something or other.  I got a giggle from that.
  • Brienne’s journey is the hardest to see in terms of connection.  Did Martin just want to offer travelogue?  Brienne’s oafish sense of virtue is admirable – but I’m not sure what it means plotwise, if anything.  Maybe it was just to show us Lady Stoneheart – who is pretty darn angry herself.  Of course, you get your throat slit, it makes sense.  Of course, Stoneheart is Thoros of Myr re-animated Catelyn.  Her last memory was the Red Wedding of course, and retribution is all she seems focused on – alas Brienne wrong place, wrong time.
  • Maybe the only reason for the Brienne sequence is to see the Red Magic at work.  The book is notably “occult” free – seems like with Stannis going to the Wall, the next book will be where all that comes to a head.  But with the central mystery of the book being the magic threads along with the dragons and their relation with an otherwise typical story of geopolitical intrigue, it is interesting.  It almost feels that much of the action here could be subsumed by larger, truly cosmic events beyond anyone’s control.  We have seen the Old Gods act, and we know Red Magic has pop.  The Drowned God is a little less certain, and the Sept just seem like a basic religion without any actual magic juice.  Are these different forces, or are they part of a piece.  Is there a real way to control things?  All of that might destroy all of these petty concerns the kings have – but without knowing this book offers little insight.
  • And then there is the matter of dragons.  We remember the third book, and hear whispers of what a game changing force dragons are – like imagine some of the sentiment early on with the Heat after they landed LeBron James.  In the fourth book, while we get almost no magic, we get a lot of word of dragons.  In Sam’s voyage, where we get some hints at Red Magic (in why Jon switched babies), we also hear of dragons – and we see one of the more renegade Maesters in OldTown listening intently.  (we also get a dude named Pate, who is clearly a faceless one in hiding – but why is he there?)  And of course Euron Greyjoy talks of dragons during the Kingsmoot in the Iron Islands.  Are the dragons earthly?  (just rare) Or is there a connection with the divine forces?

A Storm of Swords (SPOILERS ABOUND)

I have to admit.  It is very funny to me to watch folks on the Facebook or friends I know follow HBO’s Game of Thrones series, which is currently in its second season and following the track of George RR Martin’s second book. (if you have not read that book and just follow the show on television, do not click on the recap link here)  The lurid detail, the action, the shocking twists – I empathize with folks smitten, but seriously, they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  It’s all really an appetizer.

First things first, let’s get this out of the way.  A Storm of Swords, the third in George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, is a thrilling, exciting, powerful tome – epic in scale, full of important story threads and compelling storylines and somehow manages to be over 1100 pages long without any real down moments.  It was easy to just tear through it.  Now, I hesitate to call it the best of the first three books – after all it works with the advantage of not having a ton of exposition to deal with.  The Battle of Blackwater which ended the second novel, left lots of things in tatters and a lot of reconfiguring.  That Tywin has taken the seat as Hand of the King, that Tyrion was tossed aside, that the Lannisters held on against Stannis’ attempt to usurp regal power, that Arya and company were on the lam, that Jon Snow had suddenly joined the Wildlings – all of the threads left a lot to mine.  Let’s put it this way, there was one hell of a foundation.  But Martin does not waste it, and over 1100 pages creates a compulsively readable tome, which builds upon the strong foundation of the first two books – and actually holds up quite well on its own as a book.  While some of the more comic touches were less prevalent here than in other places – we are dealing with a lot of plot and action here, there is a lot of payoff and setup as the gameboard is reconstituted.  As far as covering the story, as usual plot points abound, so read no further if you have not kept up with the saga through this edition.  (the plot points for the first book are discussed here):

  1. Above all, justice is an overriding theme in Martin’s tome, but justice from a tactical sense more than from a moral one.  One of the things that Martin has successfully wrought in the first three books is an exploding of the usual cliches of the swashbuckling and fantasy ilk.  Indeed, in the first novel readers were shocked (even more in the television program ) when Eddard – the erstwhile protagonist was killed.  In virtually any other narrative, he would have climbed from rock bottom.  However, along with his virtue and honor, Martin gives him some deficiencies in a tactical sense, and those deficiencies kill him.  In this sort of way, Tywin Lannister’s turn as Hand of the King (a position which frankly competes with Spinal Tap’s drummer for job security) is a neat little counterpoint.  If Eddard’s problem was a devotion to honor and “heart” that others lacked, Tywin in his own dealings shows a pure cold, calculating nature that while tactically sound, creates undeniable rifts in the family.  He is not a loved father – as separate histories with Tyrion, Cersei and Jaime all show.  When he meets his end, really it was entirely appropriate.
  2. Of course, before this, Tywin had taken over as hand from Tyrion – essentially the star of the previous book – who tried desperately to hold the kingdom together while exacting a sense of justice.  His plans were entirely sound, but like I said earlier, it was striking how little sentiment there was for his children.  The resentment of Tyrion was fairly easy to understand – I’m not defending it, but in such a macho ethos, siring an imp while his one true love died in the process can build ill will.  He saw his children as pawns and as we know in this sort of deal, marriage is an important tool in order to secure territory and alliances and such.  Tyrion’s own treatment of his marriage to Sansa was admirable relatively, but for him doing the right thing has continued to be a bane.  It was almost inevitable that he’d be fingered for Joffrey’s death – really the forces inside of him were building, so much that he left his conscience at the door with Shae – but his ending in the book was operatic in its scale.
  3. Wait, did I just mention Joffrey’s death?  Well it is obviously one of the biggest plot elements in the entire series so far (not the biggest, but just wait).  Tyrion was fingered sure, and we are pretty sure that Sansa did not do it.  But then, who has motive?  Tyrion had mentioned that Tommen would make a far better puppet as boy king than the truly loathesome Joffrey (the casting and performance of the character in the TV series is really one of the HBO program’s great virtues).  However, there is also the Tyrells to consider.  Margaery of course, was pledged to be Joffrey’s bride (after being pledged to be Renly’s wife – clearly men should be running scared here) – but her serious battle axe of a grandmother – the Queen of Thorns, was told by Sansa the unvarnished truth of Joffrey’s awfulness.  Is that enough motive to kill?  I don’t know – but the Tyrells in the book showed a lot more savvy than other families.  It helps to be a smooth operator for a clean regicide.
  4. It’s funny.  I had heard so much about the Red Wedding, that I had thought it was JOFFREY’S, seeing as what a big deal it was gonna be, and how early it was brought up.  But instead, we turn to the North.  Robb Stark had been doing so well, and despite Catelyn’s bizarre move to free Jaime (well not bizarre, but short sighted), he was winning battles on the field.  But then, Robb ends up marrying Jayne Westerling instead of the Frey he was betrothed to.  This creates a serious problem of course – a man who followed his penis and heart instead of his tactical mind.  The Freys obviously are displeased.  Martin is very skilled at the foreboding here, and the way he works, when Robb seemed to have a chance to apologize and make amends with the Freys, it felt like it could not have been that easy.  Even knowing this, the full impact of the massacre was mind blowing.  Catelyn’s death, Robb’s death and humiliating finish were especially gruesome.  The Freys end up making a claim for the North complete with Brynden Tully.  I’m not sure where this is headed – but just like the first book, tactical mistakes and Starks missing an angle cost them very very dearly.
  5. What made the second book fascinating in a lot of ways is not just that the story has all of this courtly intrigue, but the presence of forces – real forces – on the outer limits that have the possibility of making all these concerns silly.  On one hand, we have the Dragons, which Daenerys has used to start her march towards Westeros to claim the Iron Throne.  Dragons have not been factors for a very very long time, so their return has caused quite a ruckus – including her as this emancipator (particularly ironic given why Jorah Mormont has been along her side).  We also have the Red Magic.  This is shown in a few places, whether it be Melisssandre with Stannis, the Maester who is somehow keeping Beric Dondarion alive.  We also have Green Magic, or whatever the hell those Wolf Dreams are.  We know that this exists.  Bran DOES get inside of his direwolf – or maybe he doesn’t, but have to take this at Martin’s word for now – and so does Arya, though she does not connect with it quite yet.    And then there are the Others, who may or may not be different from the Red Magic folks.  Yes, Melissandre indicates that the real stakes are between Red and Black Magic, but what is main manifestation of the Others for now?  Zombified people – essentially what the Red can do.  Are they materially different?  It is hard to say – since at least Dondarrion speaks.  But it is interesting to ponder.
  6. Of course everything above The Wall gets particular notice this time around.  Meeting the Wildlings for the first time is pretty neat.  The Wall essentially has served as an artificial border separating two groups of Northmen, and as such – the similarities between the two are striking.  That said, the Wildlings and Mance Rayder have much more of a freewheeling, punk rock sort of style in their going with the non matching helms and talkin sass and whatnot.  Jon Snow’s fascination with them and eventual relationship with one of the ladies is one the neat arcs here.  His loyalties seem legitimately tested, and when he does go back to his side, it feels conflicted.  Somehow though, when he leads the defense of Castle Black and the Wall from Mance’s invasion he proves much.  One of the weird details that rang false though to me was how easily his team took him at his word after he left.  Sure there were some skeptics, but not nearly as many as I’d have expected.  But Jon’s ascent to the potential head of the Night Watch was one of the nicest moments of the entire saga so far.
  7. But Martin leaves so many questions open on Jon’s story.  In his time with the Wildlings and Ygritte, there is some indication that they knew his mother, and that maybe Eddard was not his father.  Certainly the version of events surrounding his birth are disputed.  Also while he ends up doing so well with the Watch, how did they take him back so quickly?  And anyway, Stannis has made him quite an offer regarding Lordship?  Martin seems to leave an impression that Jon will stand by his men, but by no means is that a guarantee.  My wife notes that the TV series which in previews show Jon on the Iron Throne is playing a cruel fanboy trick.

It is very hard to cover all the territory in the book.  There is just so much there.  But it plays as a terrific action thriller, one of the best I’ve read in fiction.  While it is brilliant as part of this Song of Martin’s, it is just one hell of an exciting read period.

Picked Up Pieces from Two Books of Ice and Fire (MORE SPOILERS!!)

Continuing the discussion on the first two books of the George RR Martin saga – the previous ones are here and here – and incorporating some of the commentary I got from both the referred entries and re-working some other thoughts.

  1. Obviously I forgot about Bran as one of the leads in the second book.  What is interesting about him is that while what has happened to him – especially in the first book – was a sad fate, what lies ahead is pretty interesting.  Yes he is learning the ways of being a lord and whatnot – and like many of the Starks, he is really more comfortable being a fighter, or at least more comfortable in activity than in simply being a noble twit.  His crippling has him down – but he is still young and has the spirit that comes with it.  He still wants to be active certainly.  His escape following Theon’s attempt to take over Winterfell is one of the better scenes in the book certainly.  The future is uncertain, especially as they try to stay away from the myriads looking for them.
  2. Wait, how could I be finished with Bran?  What’s with the dreams?  Indeed – dreams seem to be a common thread in the Starks’ world, whether it be Eddard’s inner conflicts and complexities in the first book – and what Bran has now.  The wolf dreams hint at much more than meets the eye.  Sure Bran can’t move – or can he?  We know that he can get inside the wolf’s vision – but is he driving?  There are hints either way.  Personally I would be surprised if this did not lead to a more amazing power.  Either way, it lends flavor to the saga, that bubbling of other worldly stuff underneath the intrigue of the day.
  3. The wolf dreams themselves seem to tie together one of the interesting narrative devices Martin employs throughout the first two books, especially as the number of characters and capillaries of plot threads start to pile up.  I know that I can’t keep track of every storyline, but one tends to think that Martin is not expecting you to either.  But what he has done is paint the characters – subtly and with detail yes – with broad brushstrokes of characteristics.  The winter and wolves are evoked so well in the Stark clan, for instance, that you almost feel the clouds and winter whenever a chapter comes up.  Winterfell feels like a place, sure – but moreover a clear contrast with the Greyjoys who clearly evoke a seafaring people.  Indeed knowing Balon and the Starks, it makes Theon’s quest all the sillier.  The Dothraki are sharply drawn as nomadic marauders.  I guess what this is a haphazard way of saying is that the various factions seem uniquely a product of their environment and the gods they believe in and the land they are from – and it helps keep certain things straight.  I guess knowing Winterfell and what it and the Starks connote in the mind’s eye – it leads to some impressions over the virtues that might succeed over the wall.  But I don’t know.
  4. One of the themes the book has carried through so far – and continues to ruminate on if not actually deliver profound insights – is our societial proclivity to not separate the art of war and the job of governance.  So many countries have made a fetish out of military virtue as a prerequisite for leaders – let alone the number of military let coups and dictatorships and whatnot – but can a country be ruled well with the skillsets that it takes to win in battle?  Obviously notions that our military instills, and talk about things like “leadership training” imply that it IS transferable, but really?  One can counter that war requires advocacy for your side against an adversary, while governance requires advocacy for the people as a general whole, over your own interests.  It is a different worldview.  I gave Eddard short shrift in the first book – as he made wrong move after wrong move in his time as Hand of the King (very much a Spinal Tap drummer position considering what has happened to the three hands we know about prior to Tywin Lannister) – but he DID take governing seriously.  We know that he went way back with Robert and cared for him very much – though he saw Robert’s foibles clearly.  Robert was certainly an example of the sort of guy who knew and craved war and being in battle, but not governing and being in boardrooms.  Eddard offered more than that – he just let personal loyalty and a bit too dogmatic view of honour foil his ability to embrace realpolitik.  It’s too bad.
  5. Considering he has the Lady in Red (and Chris Deburgh undoubtedly in the back of the battalion providing soundtrack), it is not too big a leap to think that the setback suffered by Stannis is only temporary.  As I noted earlier, I have no idea who is driving that train – can Stannis really harness the crazy sick power that this lady is offering him – but it should be good for one battle.  What is interesting is how his court’s fool Patchface in his seemingly inane ramblings spoke of the danger of the sea.  With the fallout of this battle, did a supposed halfwit really offer prescience?  It is interesting and worth tracking.
  6. Of course, I went throughout my 1500 word rambling on the second book without actually mentioning the genuine surprise in the middle.  Let’s put it this way – Eddard’s death was a surprise in the early book, only because it felt inevitable given his moves, but as readers we are conditioned (in this sort of genre at least) to think that something good will happen, deus ex machina or otherwise.  Here, the true gameboard changing surprise DOES come out of nowhere – if you thought you could pick Renly’s fate before, you are a smarter person than I.

A Clash of Kings (SPOILERS!!!)

It is hard to sit here and try to tell you that a 969 page book qualifies as fairly taut, but somehow A Clash of Kings, George RR Martin’s sequel to A Game of Thrones – which of course became the HBO series of the same name which launched Peter Dinklage into the lead for now over Warwick Davis in the greatest living little person derby – qualifies.  The book takes the virtues of the first novel – and expands the world and the established conflicts.  However, it does more than that.  One of the normal things with any sort of series I think is trying to figure out how to keep people ready for another novel while not jerking them around.  In the movie realm for instance, The Matrix in its secret of the universe or whatever, promised a lot and contained a lot of literate movie psycho-babble.  But when it came time to deliver, the movie was not equal to the task.  It is hard not to feel screwed.  What the book does deftly is provide emotional payoff, a measure of quasi-comic relief and still move the story forward and create more mysteries.  As far as the story goes, the various threads have grown, and I have to discuss it freely – we discussed the first book here – spoilers abound …

  1. Like the previous book, Martin tells his story as snapshots from various points of view.  Just like in the first novel, we have Tyrion, Jon, Sansa, Arya, Daenerys, and Catelyn providing viewpoints.  But this time we also add Theon, Robb’s former squire who has returned to his folks on the Islands to present an offer of peace, and something more.  In these choices – to be discussed a bit further – Martin has continued the practice of showing people who are looking up at the people with real power.  Tyrion and Theon here take the place of Eddard in the last novel, he who has a version of nominal power, but almost no actual power.
  2. Theon’s arc – like Eddard – does not even get out of this volume.  In a sense I think his story provides the sort of comic relief of the various story arcs during this stormy time in the kingdom.  Theon returns to his family after having been held “hostage” essentially since he was a youth.  His delusions of grandeur, his feeling that he will be welcomed as a conquering hero – his feelings about what a stud muffin he is – are all gloriously misaligned with any form of correct thinking.  It’s almost touching how silly he is if he wasn’t so boorish.  His meeting with his long lost sister is priceless.  It is a shame the suffering he unleashed on Winterfell as he tried to conquer his old stomping grounds (where predictably, those who knew him were either appalled or trying to see if he is for real) – but his comeuppance was gotten in spades.
  3. The split Stark clan show varying signs of awareness.  Arya was one of the most loveable characters in the first book, and she continues to show – frankly – that she might actually get through this.  She is made of tougher stuff than her male mates – I am not sure if she will survive her escape from Harrenhal, but The Bull did not have the guts to initiate it.  Sansa, so clueless and unprepared for the earthquake that was going to take place in her world, at least now recognizes the personalities she is stuck with.  Joffrey is still a wholly detestable prick – but she is not at all in the dark.  In some ways her knowledge is sad – no child should have to learn about dudes and whatnot this way.  As political football takes place, her fate looks ominous – but you never know.  There is not a ton of mobility for women being “respectable”.
  4. Catelyn is worried for her children of course, but she also tries to broker a peace.  That springs one of the real genuine surprises – and it is hard to get surprised when you have read enough books in your life.  Her father is on his way out, and with her family allied with the Starks – Robb’s exploits are promising, but it is hard to say just HOW promising.
  5. It’s clear the Red Priestess that Stannis has made a Faustian deal with (well, if those sorts of religious constructs existed) is doing something.  We see her power work in a couple of jarring ways.  We know she has considerable power, which poor Davos saw – and we know Stannis was tied of not being king or whatever.  But who is really driving here, and does he have the ability to manage Melissandre.  At some level, she is going to have to cash in the relationship – what does HE offer HER?  Davos is the protagonist here, but it feels like Martin does not really see him as any more as a narrative device.  He is telling this story from the eyes of the middle … the folks without much pull … so Davos makes sense.  However, Davos is the weakest of his main characters, he just seems to exist as a witness to the Stannis side of the plot.
  6. Tyrion, so close to the titular villains in this story – is one of the more interesting arcs.  Like all of the other POV characters, he is trying to prove himself – this time to his dad.  He comes in as Hand of the King until his father is able to take over.  What is interesting about his turn as Hand is that, unlike Eddard, he is not at all unaware of realpolitik.  It just feels like he did not have all the bases covered – and there is just not enough good counsel when everyone else is positioning, and frankly his family doesn’t have his back – at all.  Varys the Eunuch seems like the most useful – and Tyrion DOES use him correctly.  He gets the city employed and he does try to make things better.  Indeed, he does his job – despite how bloody the triumph was – but clearly he ain’t gonna be getting a medal for his role.  Only Podrick Payne seems to be in his corner – we’ll see if he gets any shit for that or not.
  7. Meanwhile, in a land far far away from the main battle, we have Daenerys, fresh from her triumph and rising as queen.  However, the Dothraki have largely gotten away from her, and she is trying to take over as queen and avenge the death of her father.  She is trying to move full speed ahead with the Dothraki and her ragtag team (picking up more at the end).  However, I’m not sure she is doing much planning.  She knows the goal and knows she wants it – but it feels like the tactics have been very improvised, just driven by putting out fires.  Does she have alliances?
  8. Finally, we get to the Wall.  I am not sure if Martin had terrorism in mind as an allegory or something – probably not though it is interesting – but the events of the Night Watch above the wall feel like a version of what he hear about with the CIA and that sort of double secret Men In Black/Jason Bourne sort of stuff.  All these people are fighting their wars down there, but there is a giant force underneath that makes all of our problems not amount to a hill of beans.  I don’t know if I am articulating it correctly.  At the end, Jon’s fate is particularly fascinating.  The threat there feels like the trump card here – but aside from offering a threadbare Night’s Watch of society’s refuse (not that they should be, just sayin’), the resources do not seem sufficient for the scale of the real threat.  Do the folks at Casterly Rock or King’s Landing GET the threat?  It feels like a no.  Aside from punishing deserters, do people really CARE about life beyond the wall?

Overall the stage is set nicely for the next book.  In particular, the battle at Blackwater is a great literary scene – and the image of the water being on fire and the hell that the Lannisters must survive to hold the throne is well worth those chapters.  The world Martin produces is very rich – and the next book promises much.

Notes on A Game of Thrones (SPOILER ALERT!!!)

I noticed that in my initial review of George R.R. Martin’s tome, that I seemed to focus mostly on writing style and the peculiarities of the genre.  It was a review more than a commentary on the substance.  However, as 800 pages of a 4000 page saga or so (and one definitely worth reading by the way), some comments on what actually is happening is worthwhile.  So, be warned, there are spoilers here.

  • One of Martin’s neat tricks is to separate the sympathetic and virtuous from the savvy and the wise.  The heart and the head are not in the same place often.  Most notably this is seen in Eddard Stark, who seems to carry many of the traits of the traditional hero – in terms of honor and virtue – also doubles as being intensely frustrating and mind-bendingly stupid.  Indeed his utter lack of survival skills in this sort of setting make me wonder about plausibility.  Of course Stark’s blunders brings to light the folly of putting military folks in charge of governing, as if they are similar skillsets.  However, we make a fetish of the military culture when following our politicians.  Hmm …
  • Daenerys is clearly the favorite of the rotating protagonists in the book.  In some ways she is Ned’s counterpoint.  She starts in a position of disadvantage, being pimped out by her brother to a dude who can’t speak her language.  No hand of the king at work here, but she figures out survival skills and politics on the fly.  The ultimate fate of her brother and her decisions leading up to that point are sublime – recognizing how institutions work – even something as “savage” as the Dothraki.  The final scene of the book is kind of awesome.
  • In terms of rating the protagonists, Daenerys > Arya > Jon > Tyrion > Sansa > Catelyn > Ned.  Catelyn is ultimately kind of sad – not bound to a code of honor to an insane degree like Ned, just basically rash.  Her decision to capture Tyrion ranks as truly bad.
  • Tyrion is of course enormously likeable on TV – how can you not be impressed with a guy played by Peter Dinklage?  His verbal wit and his ability to manipulate and escape situations is fascinating.  That said, exactly where he stands is hard to tell.  He feels like more of a survivor than “of” the evil Lannisters.
  • Joffrey is a first class twerp.
  • I give Martin credit.  I have no idea where the story is going, and for a lot of exposition, I had fun reading it.  The threads can go in a lot of direction, especially as more factions get introduced.  The stuff with the Night Watch and beyond the Wall is particularly fascinating.  I have no idea how it will fit into the big picture yet, though the signs are interesting.  We know we have at least one former “you coulda been somebody” in Master Aemon.  However, is that the extent or is there much more?  It can’t be that easy to just compartmentalize rivalries of past.

Anyway, I’m about 20% of the way through with A Clash of Kings at the moment.  We’ll see how it goes.