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.


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?
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.

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.
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.
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?

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.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Storm of Swords review

This book made me want to throw it against the wall in anger and disbelief. It made me root for the death of a child (and then despise myself), love a hated character, cry angry tears, and bite my nails because of all the suspense.

**Pictograhically, all of the above was happening to me.**

I did not throw the book across the room. Instead, I put it aside and stared at the wall for a few minutes in grief and disbelief. If you read this, you know which part I am talking about *SOBBING* Then I picked it up again, because at that point I was so hooked that nothing could have stopped me. (I also MAY HAVE cut my neurobiology class to finish it. I know, I'm bad, very very bad.)

Ah, you guys... Look at you, all innocent, before this book rips into you...

A Storm of Swords is, in my opinion, an undisputed high point of the series so far. It expanded the story in delightful, wonderful ways. It gave it a truly epic feel. It delivered the cruel punch in the gut with the (view spoiler)(excuse me as I go and cry myself to sleep) and reinforced the axiom that nobody is safe in the world GRRM created. (*)
* It was heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and unexpected. But it was necessary, even if just to remind how cruel and brutal this world is, and how little choices can have huge consequences.

I loved this book because of the amount of promise it brought to the series. It brought our characters to the brink of greatness, put them in the positions that were surely going to change the course of this entire story.
Examples: Jon and Dany. It was amazing to see how these two very young characters grew and developed due to all the battles, losses, and betrayals that they suffered. Both of them at the end of this story carry such potential for the future of this series. (view spoiler)

Ah, our favorite despicable Lannisters... Look at you BEFORE all the hell broke loose for you. Does it make you feel any sympathy for the Starks now? No? I thought so.

The character complexity parallels the story complexity - both are done masterfully. The characters feel alive and real. They are interesting and fascinating, and fluctuate between likable and despicable in a not too predictable fashion (*). The previously unseen connections between characters and events are mind-blowing. And seeing the select few skillfully manipulating so many others is unsettling.
* Let me use Jaime and Tyrion as my examples here:
Jaime became one of my favorites: understanding where he's coming from and seeing him humbled by his experience changed him from a monster to a deeply flawed but ultimately sympathetic man. (What he did to Bran was terrible - but child's play in comparison of all the other mindf***ery GRRM gives us in this book. What he does with his sister - gross, but they are competent and consenting adults, and it's not my place to judge them).
Tyrion, on the other hand... What he did to Shae reminded me that darkness can live inside everyone, even our favorite Imp. (view spoiler)
Don't get me wrong. I gush about it, but this book is far from perfect. Just like its sequels (and predecessors) it suffers from overload of descriptions and repetitions, gratuitous bodily functions and banquets. Some storylines already begin to drag (Arya, for instance). But most of the faults were easily overshadowed by the great characterization, masterful story, and wonderfully built suspense. This is what I felt was unfortunately missing from the books that followed, and what I hope they return to eventually.

5 stars from my (many moons ago) yet-not-jaded self that happily gobbled up this delicious brain candy.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Feast of Crows

This isn’t going to be a cutesy review. I am well into the third book. I fear that if I don’t blurt out my thoughts about this one soon, then all the books in the series are going to meld together in my memory. Here are my three main impressions:

1. Bleak, dreary, and dismal

Don’t expect any happiness in this book. Martin is merciless with his characters. And if you do see a bright light, don’t trust it. One character learned she won’t have to marry an abusive, horrible guy. She and I were elated. Then someone pointed out that her ex-fiancĂ© could still rape her as he desires and few would be able to stop him. Darn.

2. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

It occurred to me halfway through a big battle that I didn’t know who I was rooting for. The defender is a cruel king and has a tenuous claim to the throne, but I like a few of the characters in his castle and feared what would happen to them if they lose. The attacker would probably be a fair king, yet he is cold and distant. He has a better claim than most to the throne. However I doubt he could hold it for long. Precisely who did I want to win? It was not a problem of apathy. Martin drew the characters and politics so craftily that I just could not decide. Honestly, instead of picking, I sat back and enjoyed the twists and turns.

3. Better keep up!

The scope of the plot is ever-expanding. I give Martin kudos for having such a grand vision and keeping it all straight. I don't feel that any of the storylines are unnecessary (except, I hate to say it, maybe Arya’s). And I have complete faith that they will culminate in the most amazing way by the end of series. Yet it is inevitable that you will prefer some perspectives over others. I counted the pages in between Daenerys’ chapters – an average of 130 pages! And this is a middle book. There are no cliffhangers, but very little is resolved. If it is resolved, that means someone died. Unless they are only pretending to be dead, of course.

I lied. One more point.

4. Awesomeness

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Game of Thrones

I know no one reading this knows me much (well some of you may) but I DON'T reread books. I usually read a book once and its quite well locked into my brain. As much as I've enjoyed many books I've read, they just don't require a second read for me. I read them, now its time to move on. "A Game of Thrones" is different. I loved this book and its characters so much, and crave the world and narrative so much that I couldn't wait for Martin to get the newest installment out. So I started rereading the first book I've ever reread.

Let me just say that I didn't find ANY of the characters boring. Even the characters that I would find an anoying personality type, are deeply engrosing in this tale. And those types of characters number just 2 for me in this book. There are so many characters, with such a broad range of personalities that there is someone to match everyones likes. Yet even the characters I initially found myself repulsed by, grow and change and are just as fascinating as those that I admire and empathize with.

Normally I dislike when an author has too many characters and jumps from character to character from one chapter to the next, not so in this book. Martin's ability to tell a story and hook you on it, is so great that I started to look forward to these jumps to different characters. With this many characters you really are provided with a great narrow and broad picture of the currents of this world and narrative. Its like watching individual storms all over the globe, all adding up to the global weather system.

Which leads me to my next point, his pacing. I've read my share of epic fantasy series. In particular Martin's two major contemporaries/rivals for the top spot of the epic fantasy genre: Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan. Both these authors have good parts, and bad parts to their books. There are momments in their books where I stop and think, "That was the coolest thing (event) I've ever read". Yet there are way more parts in both author's works where I was thinking "when are we going to get to the next awsome and exciting event? Why are we still walking/riding/working/...etc(you get my drift)". I came to expect this in any book, particularly epic fantasy. I just thought that when a book/series gets as long as these tomes, you end up having to spread some borring filler in there because one imagination can only do so much exciting work. Martin broke that mold for me. I kept waiting for a momment where part of my mind would start, metaphorically, tapping its foot in bordom thinking, "are we there yet?". It never happened. Each chapter would grab me, and by the time the chapter ended I was groaning at having to leave behind this story thread because I was wrapped up in its narrative path. Then I'm instantly swept up by the events of the next chapters story thread.

Finally there is the commitment by the author to this narrative. Many stories have jeopardy but you kind of know that in the end, the main character can't die, there are more books to come. Don't ever count on that in "A Game of Thrones". Everyone of the characters is fair game, and people/characters will die in horrible and tragic ways. In this book and in subsequent ones in the series, I literally threw down the book and got up in shock. Sometimes even shouting out to no one at all, "Oh my GODS!, he killed !". It gives me confidence in Martin and his own level of commitment to telling me the best and most real story possible, complete with unfair and tragic events happening to good AND bad people (though in the case of the bad people I suppose it would be "fair and happy" when negative things happen to Ok, thats it, I can't believe how much I wrote here. Hope this gets some folks to read this book. Cause once you read the first, you'll be hooked.

03/22/2009: I just finished re-reading this book, and have to say it was even better the second time around. I caught subtleties to the plot that I never caught before, particularly about Jon Snow, Lyanna Stark, and Eddard Stark. I also found it interesting how much more the tension in the book was increased for me because I knew certain great momments were coming in the book, and the tension that created for me was most enjoyable. This is quite possibly THE best first book in a fantasy series I've ever read. I can't wait to re-read book #2 now, if only I had more time to read