Tag: books

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

One of the pleasures of the last three Harry Potter novels has been the way that JK Rowling has played with the scale of the dimensions of her world.  The last couple of books, the flawed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanand the brilliant Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling has taken Harry Potter from the hero of a children’s book to a kid growing up while discovering the awesome responsibility he has been born into.  Like Frodo, or Luke Skywalker – he has started to see how things fit in – and he has stared down the barrel at his rival Lord Voldemort.  We have a sense of the battle for the wizarding world Harry has been thrust into.

But this just makes Harry Potter another epic hero – which is fine and all, but he is also a teenager.  A whiny, snively, angry sulky teenager who has been through a lot, but is increasingly less generous with his friends – and convinced that he has unique powers and understanding of what has happened to him.  It is this spirit that permeates throughout Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a thrilling novel which never relaxes its tension for one moment while advancing the themes from the earlier books.  But for all of its value as a thrilling adventure, it is a superb character study of a teenager grappling with his own issues as well as the issues facing all of Wizarding.

Per usual, we start with Harry’s return to Privet Drive – but this time, something is different.  How could it not be?  After Albus Dumbledore threw the gauntlet down so memorably in the final passages of the prior book, it is hard to think that Harry could just return without having all the chaos surrounding Voldemort’s return just not visit.  Indeed, when an unexpected Dementor encounter trips up Harry and Dudley one night – it leads to both a startling revelation about his neighbors as well as a charge for the improper use of magic.  This leads to Harry being whisked away to the hideaway of the Order of the Phoenix, an organization which had existed and has been revived, now that the Dark Lord is circling his own wagons.  Of course, we see the adults discussing matters without Harry or his friends – a fact which is increasingly not getting lost on Harry.  The resentment that is building comes through in typically teenaged outbursts.  Harry is mean to his friends, and angry that nobody is telling his what is going on.  After all, HE is the one who subdued Voldemort – who else is in a position to understand?

This happens a lot to Harry as he is trying to muck through his key fifth year at Hogwarts.  The people in the Order of the Phoenix are treating him like a kid by hiding stuff.  Dumbledore will hardly look at him – even when he shows up to bail out Harry at his Ministry of Magic trial.  The other kids at school did not get to see him battle Voldemort – they just have the word of Dumbledore that he is back, and the powerful Ministry of Magic is clearly concerned with letting that out.  Frankly, Harry’s tale strains credibility for a lot of the fellow students and their families.  Nobody understands him.  All this, and his key exams at school are coming at the same time, and of course Quidditch.

Indeed, Hogwarts starts really giving him problems, as the Ministry of Magic has started to infiltrate the school to keep a lid on the Voldemort stuff.  Among the changes they force on the school is the inclusion of Dolores Umbridge as the new Defense of Dark Arts teacher.  She prefers however, a theoretical underpinning and pooh poohing the practical need (since dark arts are a non-issue).  This of course, is insane, for anybody who has read this series at all.  Of course her insistence on this worldview and getting the students to toe the line gets her on the opposite side of Harry.  Harry’s first detention with Miss Umbridge might be the scariest scenes to date.

Umbridge herself is one of the best recent literary villains.  Committed to the Ministry of Magic’s view of things, and committed to Dumbledore’s ouster – her decrees and clashes with Harry and the rest of the students is legitimately frightening.  When she starts exerting more power over faculty, it gets even worse.  She makes my skin crawl just thinking about her as I type this.

That said, the book is not all gloom and doom.  There is some lightheartedness as Harry screws up his first dating encounters, and has his first kiss and whatnot.  Ron and Hermione’s sniping continue to amuse in the sort of way that almost makes it inevitable that they will find each other.  And then there is “big story” behind the rest of it.  On that level, this book delivers as much as Goblet as we get an encounter with the Death Eaters, and a prophecy involving Harry and Voldemort’s fates which while interesting, sort of ends up a MacGuffin at the end of it all.  In particular, the revelations about Sirius Black’s family connections and an unexpected encounter with Neville Longbottom were particularly powerful.

There is a ton to unpack in this book – it is not quite Goblet’s  equal in its impact, but is nearly as packed with plot and story and character development.  I am sure I will return to some of these, perhaps as the sixth book unfolds.  But more than anything, we get a sense of who Harry is in a deeply personal way – it is hard not to connect with him if you have had any sort of teenaged youthhood.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

There is one scene that will forever stay with me, and it was when the stakes really changed.  There are some major plot points I will tiptoe through here, so forgive me if I get a wee bit circumspect.  There is a delicious battle scene mind you, and the sort of one-on-one confrontation the first three books of the Harry Potter saga had build towards.  But this takes place a shade earlier, when the confrontation begins.  Harry Potter has achieved one of his greatest, and most impressive triumphs.  However, for many reasons – he decides to share his triumph with Cedric Diggory, fellow competitor and one of the students from another house.  But suddenly, as the victory was being anticipated, Rowling throws us out of the reverie – Harry and the other student end up transported elsewhere where almost instantly, the other student is killed.  

When I read the book (in 2 sittings, mostly on a Transatlantic flight), I could not figure out why the death of a peripheral character shook me so profoundly.  Indeed, the battle continued, Harry was able to stave off Voldemort (there are future books after all), but his mate Cedric Diggory lay there, dead.  He was just a wizard who played Quidditch, played the role of a handsome teenager and hell, I was rooting for Harry to win the prize.  But now he is gone, in a situation he had no way of anticipating, a pawn of something much larger.  What had started as a journey of personal awareness and rivalry with Harry now, in fact, really matters.  Hogwarts is in trouble, and the Wizarding community even moreso.

This is just a small part of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one of the great works of fiction which will (and certainly ought to) certainly still matter when my own child is old enough to begin to take it on.  I had complained about Rowling’s previous attempt to expand the scale of the saga, where we were basically left with a “climax” which involved basically a bunch of people talking, but once you get this book, the entire story ties together.  This is not a rousing compliment to the previous work – you’d like these things to be free standing – but it adds to the richness of this book, a clear leap forward for the entire series, so much so that the first two books almost belong in a different genre.  

As always, we start with the goings on in Privet Drive with the Dursleys.  However, this time Rowling dispenses with Harry’s struggles fairly quickly as the Weasleys whisk him away to the Quidditch World Cup – tickets landed by Mr. Weasley due to his role with the Ministry of Magic, in a particularly hilarious encounter.  While there, things start to become very complicated, as the evening after the finale, there is a sudden appearance of a symbol significant to Voldemort’s return.  This casts a serious pall over the proceedings, as we know how scared the wizarding community is of the Dark Lord’s name.

Soon thereafter, the gang returns to Hogwarts for their fourth year – except this year it is decided that there would be another rendition of the Triwizard Tournament between Hogwarts and a couple of other Wizarding Schools.  (there are others??  You’d think Harry would transfer after all of the issues he has had to deal with).  Normally this event would be focused on seventh years, but somehow Harry is chosen.

The Triwizard Tournament is enough for a novel – at least a novel akin to the first two stories, but there is a LOT more here, and the tournament is really just an effective narrative engine.  Don’t get me wrong, the events themselves are all terrific scenes, particular one involving – well a talent that Harry didn’t actually have.  But Rowling has older readers here, and clearly senses it.  The readers can juggle a lot more, including a legitimate plot and subplot combination that is fully mature.  The Tournament works on its own, but we see the ball continue forward on all sorts of other themes:

  • Snape: Dumbledore’s loyalty to Snape has baffled Harry forever.  He seemed to be behind the plot against Harry in the first book, and he definitely loathes him.  Snape was also troubled very much by Harry’s father – Snape was certainly not one of the popular kids.  We see more on the relationship – especially where Snape’s Slytherin connection.  At this point we probably should not be doubting him.
  • Politics: One of the buried ideas in the books have been that while Harry has gone through a ton – aside from a few people, it is hard for others in the Wizarding community to believe what has happened.  After all, Voldemort is dead, right?  The Ministry of Magic has had the safety of the community as central to its image, so any idea that the Dark Lord is alive and well creates real problems.  We see newspapers spreading misinformation, head functionaries insisting “there is nothing to see here” and that “Dumbledore is an old codger”.  The final scenes in this story where Dumbledore and the head of the Ministry are staring each other down are powerful.
  • Racism: We heard the term Mudbloods as far back as the second book.  For many people, the idea of anything but pure Wizards represents inferiority.  Much of Draco Malfoy’s cruelty is rooted precisely in half-Muggles, half-Monsters.  Indeed, Voldemort’s own self loathing is central to much of what has driven him to this point.  Even in a clever subplot involving Hermione and the plight of the house-elves such as Dobby, the themes of just treating people better permeate throughout.
  • Adolescence: Sort of standing astride the larger ideas are some very personal ones.  Harry’s world is both growing more complex and shrinking.  Meanwhile, we see that he is growing more powerful as a Wizard, but every bit the scared, awkward teenager he should be, especially when he has to do the hardest thing he has ever done to date.  Women might not be the Dark Lord, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t intimidate a first timer.

But I still think of those amazing final scenes after the Tournament ends.  The sheer suddenness and quickness of Cedric Diggory’s death is as powerful a statement on death itself as anything else.  While Diggory was not really a major player (if you want to go there), one day he’s a 17 year old at the Tournament, and then seconds later dead.  There are vanquishings and magical accomplishments in the earlier stories, but to stare down the barrel at a cold blooded, normal, teenaged death is jarring.  Moreover, it was the death of an innocent – just collateral damage to this battle.  THIS is what shifts the canvas.  It’s not just a coming of age staredown with a kid and a villainous Wizard; this is a world being shattered, and people, whether they believe it or not, now truly having reason to be very afraid.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the least of the first three Harry Potter books, but indispensable all the same.  The first two books did a nice job giving us a sense of Hogwarts and Harry’s own world, as well as hinting at the complexities of Harry’s backstory.  What about his relationship with Snape?  What really happened that night when his parents died?  Who were his parents?  Why is Voldemort after Harry in particular?  Azkaban offers a lot of answers here – we learn a lot about Harry, but Rowling does it at the expense of storytelling.  What we end up with is a number of exciting scenes, and a lot of exposition – but the entire recipe does not quite precisely work.

But we’ll get to that in a little bit.  Where did we leave Harry?  But of course, we start with him back at the Dursleys.  As usual, things are not going particularly well.  We learn that there is an escaped prisoner Sirius Black on the loose – at least on Muggle television it seems – and Harry is having his usual difficult times.  Vernon and Petunia still loathe him and love their increasingly portly son Dudley.  Indeed, when Vernon’s sister shows up – she adds to the fun by talking about what a problem child Harry is.  Harry knows he can’t practice magic in Muggle world, but sometimes – things happen.  This one is particularly funny.  As Harry makes his own escape, he ends up on the Knight Bus, where Black turns up to be a very prominent figure in the Magic World also.  Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban, the Wizard Prison where Hagrid was sent in the prior novel – and he is alleged to have committed a murder.

It’s a particularly big deal when a Wizard criminal is also being outed as a Muggle one – it’s a high profile case, and Harry is kept close by the Ministry of Magic.  Hogwarts has also been facing new security due to this threat – manned by Dementors, particularly nasty creatures who eat souls and who guard the prison. Indeed, Harry faints every time he sees them.  Back at Hogwarts, this makes things difficult for him, especially when Dementors are at Quidditch matches or on the Hogwarts express.

Meanwhile, at Hogwarts, Harry has another year to trudge through.  Ron and Hermoine are still by his side, though Hermoine’s pet cat is giving Ron’s old family rat Scabbard a good scare.  It definitely causes quite a bit of tension throughout.  Hermoine’s overachieving in class reaches another level – as her class load seems impossibly large this year.  Some of the same professors are still at work – Snape seems to hate Harry even more, if that was at all possible.  The new Dark Arts teacher though, Remus Lupin, is a prize – and actually gave the students some useful advice, as opposed to Gilderoy Lockhart from the prior book.

All of the Hogwarts stuff is pretty good here.  Hagrid as the Magical Creatures teacher is particularly sweet, and his idea of appropriate lessons is very funny.  I particularly liked the introduction of Professor Trelawney, the Divination professor.  It sounds like a bullshit field to me too, although the way the class is run, and her own ways of sounding dire are consistently hilarious – and more or less how I’d imagine a Divination class to be.

But of course, there has to be more to the story than lolling about Hogwarts.  We still have Black to deal with, and this is where the book starts to slag a bit.  I recognize this is a big step up in complexity compared to the first two books, but we get an AWFUL lot of talking here.  First, in a crucial scene at the wizard village of Hogsmeade, we get to hear the Ministry’s view of Sirius Black and his connection to Harry Potter (it’s not a spoiler!  There had to be one, no??!!)  It is interesting, crucial information (particularly once you read the next book – and you must) but we are really just forced to sit through someone else telling us something.

This though, gets much worse in the crucial climax to the story.  Let me tread lightly here on the facts.  Essentially, our heroic three – for whatever – reason, have been dragged into a secret location, and Sirius and Harry meet.  And then Sirius explains how he knows Harry relative to the version Harry had heard before.  Sirius knew Harry’s father – nay, was close friends with him.  Fair enough.  But then we get a very long winded explanation of the dynamic, the murder Sirius is suspected of, and the one that is actually happening.  We also get some mistaken identity, and – God help me – time travel.  What we get a lack of is any real high stakes conflict here for Harry.  Yeah he gets to save somebody, which is nice – but it doesn’t really move the Voldemort ball along, and the scene lacked the sheer excitement of his first two conflicts.  Also, aside from a brief flash of his own abilities, we don’t get a ton new about Harry’s battles or the themes of growing into one’s own which Rowling mined so well previously.

The book that Azkaban evokes more than any other to me in this manner is A Feast for Crows, the fourth of the George RR Martin books.  There is a lot of information that Rowling needed to get out of there, and trust me – it pays off very much in the next book – but there was not really a compelling novel here, not the way she tells the story.  It’s too bad.  This certainly was not bad enough to skip the rest of the series – but it definitely did hit the tastebuds the way the first two books did.


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The first time I tried to write this review, I kept on thinking of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. in terms of children’s books – and picturing Rowling’s audience, and how they have grown and the book grew up with it.  But the more I kept reading it, I could not get over what sort of pseudo-academic dirge came out of me and onto these virtual pages.  Screw whether my daughter would like it (she would, but maybe not now when she’d be more likely to tear or chew it), this is a terrific entertainment, a worthy sequel to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, taking Harry’s world and not just re-hashing, but expanding the world and raising the stakes.  Along the way, we see Harry start to have to really contend with things, and with it author JK Rowling sneakily tells a powerful story about personal identity.

Just like in the first book, we start with the Dursleys.  Harry is back here spending the summer after his long, strange, twisted first year at Hogwarts.  As you might recall, and certainly Rowling recaps, Harry is not welcome with his aunt and uncle – pure Muggles – who have a great distrust of magic, let alone Petunia Dursley’s witch sister’s orphaned son.  They have taken care of him, but clearly their increasingly portly son Dudley has taken the brunt of the love.  Once again, Rowling shows traces of Roald Dahl in the portrayal of a truly odious, bourgeois in the worst sort of way, family.  Little Harry stands out here, and you can see a world he is intensely uncomfortable in.  How can a little boy fit in – certainly that need for acceptance from others is understandable.  He clearly is not a welcome part of this clan.  It is not too much of a spoiler to say that Harry returns to Hogwarts and gets to escape the Dursleys – and like in the first book, it is one of the best scenes in the book.

So, hooray, Harry is back at Hogwarts – but of course it can’t be that simple.  The faculty continues to change, with the famous (and as it turns out, a classic “famous academic”) Gilderoy Lockhart taking over as Dark Arts Defense teacher.  Of course the previous dark arts teacher tried to kill Harry (well, ok not HIM specifically) so much suspicion is warranted.  Of course, Snape inspired much suspicion in the first book – so here we have some expansion of the canvas by Rowling.  The scenes with Lockhart are funny – and his continual suspicions with the Famous Harry Potter are very inconvenient for Harry, who is just trying to be a regular student.

But that is just the staff – what about the students?  Yeah, you’d think that saving Hogwarts once would earn him lasting affection, but of course for Harry Potter it is not that simple.  Hermione, Ron and Harry grow closer than ever, but here the book develops the dynamic with Draco Malfoy, Harry’s rival from Slytherin.  He also makes a very useful guy to suspect when things go wrong.

And sure enough, things go wrong – again.  (if nothing else, these books have been poor advertisements for Hogwarts as a safe campus for children – or anyone else)  We see people coming up petrified, and Harry being inconveniently located when the crimes are discovered.  In particular, during one time, when he tries to convince those of his innocence, some of his wizard heritage ends up doing the opposite.  The kid that wants to fit in so badly in a world where he has stuck out like a sore thumb, it gets even worse.

This does not hint at the additional layers of plot of course.  There is a diary and an old student, and of course another encounter with Voldemort.  There is another chance to save Hogwarts – although I suspect Harry will have to reprove himself again.  There is also Ron’s little sister matriculating, as well as a haunted toilet, as well as a hint about Hagrid’s past and his expulsion from the school.  There is just a LOT more here compared to the much more linear plot of the first book.  I don’t think the book is any more difficult to read or follow for sure – but it clearly assumes the audience can handle a bit more, and as a non-kiddo reader, I am grateful.  I felt a letdown when the book was over – and that of course, is the best compliment of them all.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Is it possible that I am the last person on Earth to have dove into the Harry Potter series.  Undoubtedly this is possible – certainly the life partner has read the books, seen the movies etc.  I remember my friends in grad school preparing for the midnight openings and whatnot.  I always sort of glossed over it – I am not sure precisely why – they seemed like kids books (or whatever that means), and there is only so much time in the day to consume stuff.

Preamble aside though, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a terrific book.  It is terrific in all of the obvious ways that a good piece of fiction should be – the plot is absorbing, the scenes crackle with life, and the protagonists and villains are quirkily drawn.  But it is good in harder to see areas – including a writing style which complements the action perfectly.  It is hard to imagine a better piece of “children’s fiction”.

What is funny about reading the book now is that it is really a story virtually everybody knows – I have seen bits and pieces of movies (they are pretty much unavoidable if you have good cable), so even I can’t say I came to this in the dark.  Can I really spoil this?  In any case, as everybody probably knows by now, the first of the Harry Potter books concerns his arrival at, and his eventual first year at Hogwarts, the vaunted school of magic, sorcery and such.  But of course, it is not that simple – even in the beginning.

Rowling, in the tradition of the origin story – shows us Harry before Hogwarts, but takes the time to have fun with it.  We start with a portrait of the Dursleys, a decidedly un-magical family in London with a properly spoiled brat of a son named Dudley.  The details here would have made Roald Dahl weep with joy – as for some reason I was reminded of The Twits as we hear of what classical bourgeois awfulness the family embodied.  To them arrives their nephew Harry (and nearby a very interested feline) – but a nephew whose mother (Mrs. Dursley’s sister) is a subject of great consternation.  Of course Harry’s mother and father were famous in the land of wizards – as you can imagine, there is some X-Men Mutants on Earth level resentment.

This resentment, and the Dursley’s ensuing cruelty lead to both some sympathy for Harry as well as some comic relief.  There is sufficient British wit here to show what buffoons these “muggles” are.  Through these scenes we start to notice oddities – how things just seem to happen around Harry, especially when he is upset.  He seems to be able to talk to snakes or something and perhaps even transport himself.  Of course the folks in the magic side of town know this as well.  The scenes where Hogwarts tries to contact Harry are particular funny.  When he is finally whisked away, there is a sense of triumph – even if we have barely started his journey.

Throughout the book, Rowling is giving a lot of background – but without really stopping the action.  We learn of the various students – Hermoine Granger, Ron Weasley, Neville Longbottom.  There is a lot to keep track of, and Rowling uses a sort of literary typecasting to help us along.  Hermoine is the know it all, Ron is the guy whose older siblings went to school there, Neville could use a hug, Harry is a sort of everyman (at least for now) – all stuff we either knew (or were) in grade school.  We meet faculty, rival houses, and even learn about what Quidditch is.  Here, Rowling’s world seems boundless – she has imagined this world pretty fully, plundering lore certainly, but in a way that the corners are certainly filled.

Fortunately though, this is not all exposition.  A plot slowly starts to form as we start seeing parts of the school where students are forbidden.  We see professors and groundskeepers being evasive to the students.  As this happens, Harry, Hermoine and Ron start to get suspicious.  They go to the library and eventually discover the Sorcerer’s Stone and its ability to provide eternal life.  These elements are handled as a good, fast moving thriller.  Harry’s discovery and eventually the pursuit of the secret (really a MacGuffin here) are appropriately exciting and page turning – certainly something that any young reader would appreciate I’d think.  Even the resolution closes this story nicely while providing ample mystery for the future.

Overall, this was about fifty times better than I was expecting – the second book cannot come soon enough.


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.