Saturday, April 26, 2014

Starship Troopers review

Starship Troopers is listed amongst the recommended books by the United States Air Force for a reason. For those who plan on pursuing a military career, this book exhibits the very ideals upon which our current military standards are based. Camaraderie, Sacrifice, and Responsibility are more than mere words to the protagonist. The distinction between a fighting man and a soldier is made. The distinction between a superior rank and a true officer is made. Johnny Rico is a soldier in more than merely name, and the reader discovers this through this narrative.

For those of you who have seen the film incarnation of this story, simply forget it. It won't aid you in understanding or predicting the outcome of this book. The tempo, messages, and level of seriousness are completely different. Most of you know the pitfalls of watching the movie first, so I implore you to read this book before seeing the movie. If you have already seen the movie, as I stated before, forget it.

There is one thing I would mention that is perhaps the fault of this book. Heinlein shapes a militaristic, possibly even oppressive society, out of the remaining nations on earth. He touts the virtues of citizenry only being earned through dedicated service. At the same time, he manages to skirt by some of the more practical and realistic attitudes of people. The society could very well work if it was implemented exactly in the fashion it is described in his novel, but the transition from our current societal structure to this system of government is EXTREMELY unlikely. It takes the edge off of the bold concepts, making this book only a 4 star.

To end on a positive note I'll say this. When I finally finished this novel I had a brief spark inside of me. For once in my entire career, I felt a sense of pride in being a soldier. No military training, no officer, and certainly no civilian has ever made me feel as proud of my profession as that novel ha

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Stranger in a Strange Land

Apparently a classic of the sci-fi cannon, I'd never heard of this book until it came up on a book club here. It took me a long time to read only because of lack of time, and a rather annoying trait the author has that I'll go into later.

This is one of those books that tells us more about the period it was written in than anything else, so it's important to note that it was first published in 1961 and later again in 1968 - when moon fever was running high and people seemed to have high expectations for human achievement.

Events are set in an undisclosed future but the older characters seem to remember the first moon landing, so I wouldn't be surprised if Heinlein was thinking of it being set around about now. With a mix of very daggy technology like "stereo tanks" (TVs) and large, clumsy listening devices, alongside hover crafts and spaceships to Mars, the scope of the setting is hampered by a 50s' imagination.

Stranger in a Strange Land is about Michael "Mike" Smith, the "Man from Mars", offspring of two of scientists on board the original mission to Mars, who was raised by Martians. He is more Martian than human, especially in his thinking and outlook and philosophy, when he is brought back to Earth. Heir to a shitload of money care of his parents' heritage, it's unsurprising that the bigshots on Earth are wanting to keep him locked up tight. A nurse at the hospital where he is first kept, Jill, offers him a glass of water and in that one action becomes a "water brother" - the highest accolade for Mike. She rescues him from the politicians with the help of her journalist friend Ben and takes him to the home of a grumpy, reclusive man, Dr Jubal Harshaw, who lives with three young women who serve as secretaries - Anne, Miriam and Dorcas - and two men who take care of the property - Duke and Larry.

Mike's particular talents slowly reveal: he can vanish things, including people, if he recognises there is a "wrongness" in them; he can withdraw from his own body and shut down his body so there is no heartbeat; he can teleport and think telepathically; he can absorb books in minutes and regulate his own body, making it muscular and mature at will; and so on. All of this can be done with understanding of the Martian language, which Jill starts to learn.

He's completely ignorant of human ways, of human concepts - things like jealousy, possessiveness etc. are all alien to him. He doesn't understand religions and he has never laughed.

After months on the road with just Jill, learning and "grokking", he finally knows why humans laugh and how to do it himself, and gets the human condition. It leads him to start his own "church", though it's more of a way of life open to people of all religious denominations, with free love and open mindedness, and abilities gained through mastery of the Martian language. With Mike set up as a new Messiah, a prophet, there's only one logical conclusion for this story.

As a story, Stranger in a Strange Land is enjoyable and original. Yet, as a story, it's also bogged down with sermons, with Heinlein's opinions, and a very out-of-date mentality. It reads very 60s and 70s, though it was written before then. Not as far-sighted as it would like to be! It's especially noticeable in the relations between men and women, which have that faintly liberated tinge that's all really lip service, and a great deal of sexist language. Which is ironic, really, considering Mike's free love cult. There's also an affectionate insult for a Muslim character who's nicknamed "Stinky" that I couldn't help but be offended by.

It does make it hard to read, though, when you come across lines like this, as spoken by Jill very matter-of-factly: "Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's partly her fault." (p304) While today the statistics are more like "nine of ten times, a woman's rapist is someone she knows", the idea that it's "partly her fault" is still considered true by way too many people. To hear this come out of Jill's mouth makes it especially awful.

Another example is Jubal saying: "Pipe down, Anne. Close your mouth, Dorcas. This is not a time when women have the vote." (p382) Granted, they ignored him and did what they wanted anyway, but there're a lot of these flippant, dismissive remarks all through the book. Product of its times, sure: just not at all futuristic.

Then we come to the proselytizing, which the book is rife with. Today, reading this book, the opinions shared are very "yes, so?" - old hat, in other words. Though it is fun to read the rants, the set-up is cringe-worthy. Jubal is the main lecturer, and the characters around him serve as props. There are a great many "Huh?"s from educated and knowledgeable people so that Jubal can share his abundant wisdom. One "huh?" is okay, but when each long paragraph of Jubal is responded to with a "huh?" it gets a bit silly. Frankly, it's bad writing. It reminded me somewhat of The Da Vinci Code, which also uses characters to expound the author's theories on religion etc. at great length.

While these things did at times make it harder to read the book, essentially the book is easy to read and often quite fun too. Jubal's sermons (and when Jubal isn't around, other characters fill the role, like Ben and Sam) can be a bit heavy-handed and obvious but a lot of it I agree with, so it wasn't rubbing me up the wrong way. Mike is a challenging character to write, because in order to write a naive, ignorant character to this extent, you need to be incredibly self-aware. Heinlein has fairly good success here, and Mike's growth, maturation, development and resolutions fit the character and work. He has charisma and is definitely intriguing; yet because he lacks the human flaws, he's also somewhat unapproachable and alien: a good balance to achieve

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Malazan Book of the Fallen review


I’m going to state it right out – The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson is the most ambitious epic fantasy series ever written – this is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. Rather than ambition, fans of epic fantasy are much more likely to honor tradition and nostalgia, but the genre has come far from where it was effectively defined by The Lord of the Rings and fans have grown as well. These days gritty and subversion seem to be the buzz words of fantasy fans, and while The Malazan Book of the Fallen certainly meets both in numerous ways, it really is much more.

It’s been ambitious since the start when Erikson proposed Malazan to be a 10-book series back in the 1990s – there was never any trilogy-creep, this was always going this long. But of course it isn’t so simple – the series is not Erikson’s alone. The Malazan world was co-created with Ian C. Esslemont who has written three books of his own that support the series, with three more to come. While Erikson’s 10-book series is complete, once Esslemont finishes his parts it will be more complete, perhaps making this review a bit premature.

The Malazan world has its origins in Dungeon’s and Dragons and GURPS role-playing campaigns played out by Erikson and Esslemont and has since grown in ambition. In many ways the series is meant to be more of a response to epic fantasy than a part of it. Not in the same ‘FU’ manor as The First Law by Joe Abercrombie, but again as something more. Ultimately, it’s about the human condition and the cost of civilization, but again it’s more. The series is also about deception in something of a post-modern, meta-fictional way. While the foreshadowing is present, and even a rubric to the whole series buried in one of its volumes, it’s still difficult to see beneath surface. It’s all light, darkness and shadow with more than a bit of sleight of hand.

However, don’t let me mislead you into thinking that it’s not epic fantasy, because it is. Like most epic fantasy, this is a book of war and magic. And the magic plays an incredibly important role – it’s powerful…all-powerful. The scope and horror of magic is laid out from the beginning, while the mechanics of it remain an enigma. In every book we meet a hidden power that rises to tremendous, spectacular heights. Of course that’s the point of it – readers may want to call foul, may want to shout dues ex machina, but they miss the point.

The series begins as a tale of a conquering Malazan Empire that has overextended itself. In Gardens of the Moon (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) the reader is dumped strait into the middle of it all without the typical build-up. This can be exhilarating, overwhelming, and off-putting, though I found it immensely rewarding. We get a feel for a mix of races and species that is huge and a rich world history with gods and other powerful immortals that literally walk the land, interfering with mortal lives. Though some mortals interfere right back, for gods can die too. It’s through this complex tapestry that Erikson focuses on humanity. Every soldier is a philosopher, every person an everyman (or everywoman, though even with numerous female characters, the series has an overwhelming male-ness to it), with the view of it all is just as often through pawns as kings and queens.

‘These Malazans, they shame the gods themselves…’
An important point the series is put right in the series title, perhaps the most important point: The Malazan Book of the Fallen. It’s the word fallen that focuses it all. For this series is not (necessarily) about those that live to fight another day, to see another book, who survive the ultimate convergence of power – this series is about the people who fall along the way. The price, the toll, the compassion, the sacrifice, and eventually, the reward. This is a series where the dead tend to not go away and the fallen may not die. Each book itself shows something new, a new style, a new theme within the overall series, but in the end there is a method to the madness of it all.

I will remember this. I will set out scrolls and burn upon them the names of these Fallen. I will make of this work a holy tome, and no other shall be needed.
Hear them! They are humanity unfurled, laid out for all to see – if one would dare look!
There shall be a Book and it shall be written by my hand. Wheel and seek the faces of a thousand gods! None can do what I can do! Not one can give voice to this holy creation!
But this is not bravado. For this, my Book of the Fallen, the only god worthy of its telling is the crippled one. The broken one. And has it not always been so?
I never hid my hurts.
I never disguised my dreams.
And I never lost my way.
And only the fallen can rise again.
It’s in his ambition, this response to epic fantasy that Erikson gets in trouble. Yes, it’s epic fantasy in the extreme – the magic and powers overblown, the gods both more and less than they should be, the grunt suffering through it all somehow becomes the most powerful of all. It chafes fans of epic fantasy. It’s supposed to. Fans often decry the seeming over-emphasis on suffering, marching, the camp-fire conversations, the little people. While the action is incredible, it is interspersed with long and tedious ramblings that become philosophical and at times down-right didactic. While Erikson certainly over-indulges himself, many fans seemingly miss the point. Or perhaps they don’t care about the point. Many will fail to complete the journey of the series, many will be upset, disappointed, even angry with Erikson for what he writes. The criticisms often wielded only show Erikson how much they missed the point. Erikson plays with this in the text – often proactively for areas he knows that will bring especially pointed criticism. He knows these books aren’t for everyone, and that if everyone likes what you are doing, you are doing it wrong. But it clearly it stings, and sometimes Erikson seems to lash out in response.

‘Sad truth,’ Kruppe said – his audience of none sighing in agreement – ‘that a tendency towards verbal excess can so defeat the precision of meaning. That intent can be so well disguised in majestic plethora of nuance, of rhythm both serious and mocking, of this penchant for self-referential slyness, that the unwitting simply skip on past – imagining their time to be so precious, imagining themselves above all manner of conviction, save that of their own witty perfection. Sigh and sigh again.

Ultimately, there is a hope to it all – this is not the nihilistic proclamation so many claim. It’s a grand plan for the better of humanity. Only at times the darkness, the faults and flaws, and humanity itself seemingly deserve no hope.


Hedge was waiting, seated on one of the tilted standing stones. ‘Hood take us all,’ he said, eyeing Fiddler as he approached. ‘They did it – her allies – they did what she needed them to do.’
Aye. And how many people died for [it]?’
…’Little late to be regretting all that now, Fid.’
‘…They used all of us Hedge.’
‘That’s what gods do, aye. So you don’t like it? Fine, but listen to me. Sometimes, what they want – what they need us to do – sometimes it’s all right. I mean, it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes, it makes us better people.’
‘You really believe that?’
‘And when we’re better people, we make better gods.’
Fiddler looked away. ‘It’s hopeless, then. We can stuff a god with every virtue we got, it still won’t make us any better, will it? Because we’re not good with virtues, Hedge.’
‘Most of the time, aye, we’re not. But maybe then, at our worst, we might look up, we might see that god we made out of the best in us. Not vicious, not vengeful, not arrogant or spiteful. Not selfish, not greedy. Just clear-eyed, with no time for all our rubbish. The kind of god to give us a slap in the face for being such shits.’
…’Ever the optimist, you’
This review both coincidently and intentionally reads like the series itself – perhaps full of insight, perhaps full of bullshit, always seeming a bit of mess. It’s overly long (at least compared to what I tend to write), it’s defensive, dismissive, disagreeable and likely to piss a few people off. The review is journey, a misinterpretation, and it gets it right. And it’s ever self-aware, perhaps to a fault. It’s the most ambitious review I’ve ever written.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen isn’t for everyone, and in many ways it may not be for fans of epic fantasy. While it is absolutely for the fans. And it’s the most ambitious epic fantasy out there – period. Though the Malazan series by Erikson is over, something of an epilogue remains to be written by Esslemont and Erikson has promised two more trilogies and a continuation of the novellas set in the world. The dead don’t stay dead. The fallen may not be who you think they are and can rise again. Perfect.


And now the page before us blurs.
An age is done. The book must close.
We are abandoned to history.
Raise high one more time the tattered standard
Of the Fallen. See through the drifting smoke
To the dark stains upon the fabric.
This is the blood of our lives, this is the
Payment of our deeds, all soon to be
Forgotten.
We were never what people could be.
We were only what we were.

Remember us

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Catching Fire review

This is most possibly the WORST (or best depending what you go on) cliffhanger I have encountered in all my reading days. It leaves you more than just hanging, you are grasping for your life on a thread that is fraying and there is nothing to do but hold on (well metaphorically of course).

One word that can sum up this book is intense . Everything is just felt more. The compassion, threats, action, betrayal, gestures, words all of it. This has to be the reason why it is so addictive. As expected from this series we are in for a ride. Some things are hinted out, but the full affect of what is going on isn't totally revealed till the very end. Though I felt frustrated at times this is a grand slam of a sequel.

You know it's hard to hate Katniss for being the object of the whole love triangle. I usually get annoyed to no end and can't help wonder what people see in the person, but Katniss is different. Though you don't think that Katniss is particularly more special than others, but that is part of what you admire about her. Plus she is critical of herself so you don't necessarily get a good feel of what people think about her other than what is said with dialogue. I totally love this because frankly that is what it's like in real life. It's others that can show you who you really are when you aren't able to do it yourself. Peeta and Gale are both incredible guys and what makes them so great is that they both are good friends , something that is lacking in other books at times. Don't get me wrong there is a lot more to the series than the love triangle. Suzanne Collins gives us a lot to mull over till her much anticipated final climatic book Mockingjay.

BTW Excellent Excellent covers!!!

Later added: For those of you who didn't know there is a movie coming out for the first book The Hunger Games! Here is the link to the trailer. Now just to wait for the second movie trailer...and the second trailer has arrived! Click here to view it. I got the chills guys.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Hunger Games review

zanne Collins has balls ovaries of steel to make us willingly cheer for a teenage girl to kill other children. In a YA book.
Two reasons why this book rocks: (a) It is not Twilight, and (b) I really hate reality shows.

Seriously, how long would it take for reality shows to evolve from "Survivor" to "Hunger Games"?

Yes, this book is full of imperfections. It often requires a strenuous suspension of disbelief. It can cause a painful amount of eye-rolling and shaking fist at the book pages. Its style is choppy and the first-person present tense gets annoying. The story is simple, and the message is heavy-handed. But is does set a better example for young impressionable pre-teens than gushing stories about sparkly co-dependency. And here is an obligatory taken out of contest Twilight-bashing quote:
“But just the fact that he was sparkling leads me to doubt everything that happened.”
So why did I add it to my to-read list for my future (hypothetical) daughter? Because Katniss is cool and a badass. She is fierce, independent, resourceful, intelligent, and skilled. She is loyal to her friends and family. She is a survivor. She will never allow a guy to carry her around as though she is a delicate flower. She skewers that apple in the pig's mouth with an arrow in front of the Gamemakers in the most awesome way imaginable. For all that, I love this imperfect, surly, prickly, sullen and perpetually pissed-off, quick to jump to judgment, and sometimes clueless girl.



And I love this book because - despite The Hunger Games being YA literature that seems to hinge on the romantic puppy love - the happiness of Katniss does not revolve solely around a cute male lead. Yes, there is a (hated) love triangle here *eyeroll* but there are other issues that occupy Katniss' mind - such as the survival of her friends, family, and herself rather than just pining over a cute boy. (*)
* Unlike other so-called "books", where a boyfriend of a few months dumping you is a valid reason for catatonia and almost-suicide.(**)

** And yet we still get readers who divide themselves into the incredibly annoying "Team Peeta" and "Team Gale". (***)

*** Because clearly nothing else ever matters besides sappy love - in a book about children murdering each other. *eyeroll*



Now, here is what bugged me about the romance that DID make it into the book. There is actually a LOST OPPORTUNITY here to have a YA book where people CAN be just friends, where devotion and loyalty stem from friendship and respect and not from attraction.

Katniss and Peeta could have had plenty of other reasons to care for each other that don't include puppy love - they are from the same district, same school, he gave her that bread, she trades with his dad, etc. But alas, that did not happen. I understand that Collins had to cater to the way that YA publishers and Hollywood tend to view us, the female audience. At least Katniss escapes the perils of insta-love. But poor Peeta - all of his actions are colored by him being "Lover Boy", and I think it detracts from his personality and reduces him from a kind compassionate person to a fool in love who'd do anything for Katniss only because of his physical attraction to her. Yeah...

...Rue...Oh, Rue...

Now, back to the GOOD. Rue, my favorite character. Little, fragile, almost-too-perfect Rue who was clearly doomed from the start. Who despite her appearance was neither weak nor helpless. Whose (view spoiler) brought the human side to Katniss (who, until that point, was almost bordering on robotic). There was real grief and anger and sadness in that scene, and from that point on I began to care.

Suzanne Collins strictly follows the "show, don't tell" rule. (Actually, she does it to such an extent that the book reads almost like a screenplay.) The plot moves along at a fast pace, only slowing down a bit in the drawn out Capitol makeover and cave makeout sessions. Collins does not shy away from gruesome scenes, making many parts of the book hit home.
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I enjoyed it despite the imperfections. Katniss easily beats the majority of the popular YA heroines. And because of all her coolness, this gets 3.75 stars.
"Exactly how am I supposed to work in a thank-you in there? Somehow it just won't seem sincere if I'm trying to slit his throat."
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EDITED TO ADD:
So I saw the movie today. All I have to say - Suzanne Collins may have given life to Katniss, but Jennifer Lawrence definitely gave her heart. Lawrence's Katniss has such emotional depth, and she brings such truthfulness to her character. Excellent adaptation with a great balance of tugging on the heartstrings and darkness.

I CRIED TWICE (yes, apparently I am less of a cynic than I thought).
First time - when Katniss volunteers for Prim and people salute her. I JUST CHOKED UP. It felt so real. I have a brother who is much younger than me, and all I could think at that moment was how I would do the exact same thing for him WITHOUT ANY HESITATION. It wouldn't even be a choice. Just like it wasn't for Katniss. *Sob*
The second time I teared up - Rue. Oh Rue... And the salute from District 11 - so powerful and so touching. I...I...I just can't...

PLEASE EXCUSE ME WHILE I GO AND GRAB A BOX OF TISSUES. OR TWO. OR TEN. *SOB*

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Dance with Dragons

Dear George R.R. Martin. Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You may have killed my favorite character. Prepare to die roll in dough as we continue buying your brick-sized creations.


(The above is what you'd expect from a book titled "A Dance with Dragons." Disclaimer: For the vast majority of this book's pages, none of it happens.)
Yes, I have a few problems with this latest installment in GRRM's neverending magnum opus. I have high standards for GRRM after ASOIAF 1-3. Hey, I read GRRM before I ever read Tolkien. He showed me that it was okay to hold fantasy to high standards, for crying out loud! And now I am disappointed. *sadface* So allow me to use this review space for the gripe-fest.
A thousand-plus pages doorstopper (this book can easily serve as a self-defense weapon in a dark alley) - and yet the story advances by a few millimeters at best. Nothing gets resolved. The characters spend pages and pages going about mundane tasks, participating in endless drawn-out conversations, pissing, eating, drinking, pissing, whoring, eating some more, pissing again. Is it supposed to make the story GRRM's trademark "gritty and realistic"?
Seriously, I have not encountered this much information about bodily functions and food outside of nephrology textbooks and Food Network.
This overload of description of landscapes, clothing, banquets, people, and food makes me snooze. FILLER! And it makes me wonder whether any editors AT ALL were involved in the creative process.


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GRRM's trademark move is ending everything with an "OMG CLIFFHANGER!!!!!". Maybe it stems from his TV-writing days: the notion that the readers will tune back in, despite nothing really happening in the entire episode, only if the hero is left hanging off the cliff at the end?



That's what this book felt like to me: pages and pages of very little happening, of a narrative stagnation, of endless repetitive conversations. And then, with a few chapters left to go - BAM! POW! BOOM! ((view spoiler) Which guarantees that we will read the next book. Cheap and lazy trick, Mr. Martin.

In the meantime, I see another Tyrion or Dany or Quentyn or Davos chapter and get a nagging feeling - wait, haven't I read this already?
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WORDS ARE WIND - GRRM seems to hammer this message in on what feels like every other page. Yet if this book is any indication, given the lack of overall storyline development, HE HAS PASSED MORE THAN ENOUGH OF IT.


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Neverending repetition in this book is grating. Just to name a few: "Words are wind", "leal", "neeps", "where do whores go?", "kissed by fire", "Reek rhymes with...", "jape", "nipples on a breastplate", "kill the boy", "it is known", "must needs"... Enough already! I miss the times when I was just eyerolling at "You know nothing, Jon Snow". Which makes its appearance here as well, by the way.
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My problem with this book is that I expected a story. You know, where things are happening and storylines advance. VERY LITTLE OF THAT HAPPENS. Very few of the storylines led anywhere. Those that advanced somewhat were Jon's, Dany's, and Bran's (and the first two should have been trimmed a bit), and Theon/Reek's story was fascinating in its horror (Ramsay Snow Bolton joins the list of most hated characters EVER). And yet we are still barely a step away from the events that transpired back in Storm of Swords.

And as for other storylines... Tyrion gives us a travelogue, and nothing that we could not have covered in a single chapter. Arya is doing pretty much the same stuff as before. Jaime's chapter traded one cliffhanger for another, and frankly, just like Cersei's chapters, was not necessary. Davos's and Quentyn's arcs could have been summed up with a sentence each in somebody else's POV. The ironborn, Dorne, Barristan - why were they needed in this book, again?


A pictographic summary of ADWD.
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Which leads me neatly to what I think is the root of all evil. GRRM's trademark move number two is supposed to be killing off characters. I call BS on that. Yes, he killed a few protagonists. BUT IN THEIR STEAD HE UNFAILINGLY SPROUTS WHAT FEELS LIKE DOZENS MORE.

It seems that everyone and their grandmother is getting a POV chapter these days, which bogs down the story quite a bit. I really only care about the characters that we met in the first couple of books. I do understand the need to occasionally give us a perspective through a fresh set of eyes. That's cool. But here is a problem:
(a) Do I really need an insight into the head of EVERYONE? Leave me with some mystery, please.

(b) Too many cooks spoil the soup. I lose track of the overall story which comes to a standstill dealing with its ever-expanding cast.

(c) The entire story arc of Quentyn Martell. Why? The details of his voyage were unnecessary to the story. His ultimate act was interesting, yes - so why not dedicate just ONE chapter to him (view spoiler)
The story by now seems to have sprawled too wide and out of Mr. Martin's control. How can he satisfactorily wrap up this monster of a story with only two more planned volumes unless he pulls a Steven King in The Stand and suddenly kills off most of his POV characters? Which raises a question - why the need to introduce them in the first place?

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Martin is still a better writer than many out there - despite the gripe-fest above. But this was a mostly unsatisfying read which could have benefited from some serious editing and trimming of the verbal diarrhea. I will still read the next installment (when it's out, in a decade or so) - mainly because I need some resolution to this story despite its declining quality. I hope the next book will resemble the first three volumes. 3 stars.