Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

About three centuries ago, the land of Westeros was known as the Seven Kingdoms.  Then Aegon Targaryen and his sisters came from the collapsed civilization of Valyria with their dragons and conquered six of the Kingdoms.  (The seventh Kingdom joined up later semi-voluntarily.)  Eventually, the dragons died off, but the Targaryen dynasty stayed in power through inertia and intermittent smashing of rebels. Finally, King Aerys the Mad was such a poor ruler that a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and his supporters succeeded in overthrowing the Targaryens.

A Game of Thrones

Robert is…a better king than Aerys, anyway.  He had intended to marry a member of the Stark family, lords of the North, but she perished during the rebellion and Robert settled for Cersei Lannister, member of a powerful Western family.  The Lannisters have become powerful at court, but one of their intrigues is about to have a slight glitch, putting their plans in jeopardy.  Other noble families have noticed the success of the previous rebellion, and remembered that their ancestors were also kings.   Across the Narrow Sea, the last heirs of the Targaryen dynasty are still alive and dreaming of retaking the Throne of Swords.  Far to the North, beyond the Wall, an enemy older than the Seven Kingdoms itself is stirring with the coming of Winter.

If this were a history book, we’d be about to see a lot of maps with flags and arrows on them.

This is the first volume in the vastly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has spawned a TV series, Game of Thrones.  There are planned to be seven volumes, of which five are out and the sixth is scheduled for release in 2017.  This may mean that the TV show will need a completely different ending.  Mr. Martin started writing this epic fantasy series with the idea of making it more “realistic” (cynical) than  many of the doorstopper fantasy books then  on the market.  As such, things do not always go well for people who try to stick to ideals such as honor and justice, leading to cruel, pointless deaths for them or others.   I should mention here that yes, GRRM does go to rape repeatedly as a way of showing how gritty and realistic the setting is, and there are at least a couple of child marriages that are pretty creepy.  (I am told that the TV series aged a couple of characters up.)

This book is written in tight third-person, so we only know what the current viewpoint character senses and thinks about.  This allows the author to keep certain things a mystery until another character is the point of view, and to shade the interpretation of certain events.

Most of the viewpoint characters in this first volume are members of the Stark family.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is more or less the main protagonist of this book.   A childhood friend of King Robert, he’s now been called upon to become the King’s Hand, the person who handles most of the daily details so the king can concentrate on ruling.  Their mentor had been the previous Hand, but recently died, and his wife sent the Starks a letter accusing the Lannisters of having a hand in it.  Eddard is a very honor-bound man and constantly attempts to do the right thing.  Given the nature of this series, that’s not healthy.  His clan motto is “Winter Is Coming.”

Catelyn is Ned’s wife, originally of the Tully family.  Her sister is the wife of Jon Arryn, the former hand.  Catelyn is fiercely protective of her children, which causes her to make several rash decisions.

Robb Stark is the eldest child and heir to their castle Winterfell.  At fourteen years old, he must assume a man’s role before even his harsh homeland’s usual standards.  We don’t get any point of view chapters for him.

Jon Snow is allegedly Ned Stark’s illegitimate child of about the same age as Robb.  While he certainly does resemble Ned, the older man’s refusal to explain anything about Jon’s conception or mother  beyond “he’s my bastard” suggests there is some mystery about his actual parentage.  Catelyn doesn’t like him one little bit.  He’s sent North to the Wall to join the Nightwatch like his Uncle Benjen, only to find out that conditions there are not as expected.  (Benjen goes missing shortly thereafter, one of the big mysteries of the series.)

Sansa Stark is the older daughter, who is good at activities considered traditionally feminine in Westeros.  She’s also a huge fan of chivalric romances, and thinks that’s how the world works, at least for her as she’s clearly the lady fair type.  (Think of an eleven-year-old Twilight fan who actually lives in a world where vampires follow horror tropes.)  She’s engaged to Robert’s handsome son Prince Joffrey and ignores some important clues to his real personality.  (In fairness, her father told her none of his evidence of what was really going on.)

Arya Stark is her slightly-younger sister, who is initially more likable for modern audiences, as she gets all of the “rebellious tomboy” personality bits.  She gets some important clues early on, but only being ten and not having context, doesn’t get to do much with them.

Brandon “Bran” Stark is seven, and an avid climber.  This gets him in trouble when he passes by a window that should have been unoccupied and learns a dangerous secret.  His subsequent near-death experience causes him to forget what he learned, but the person whose secret it is can’t take chances on that, and the assassination attempt made on Bran moves much of what Catelyn does for the rest of the book.

Rickon Stark is the baby of the family at three, and doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book.  Nor does family guest/hostage Theon Greyjoy, who is slightly older than Robb and Jon, and is boarding at Winterfell as a hostage to the good behavior of his father.

Tyrion Lannister is the only member of his family to get point of view chapters.  Born with dwarfism, Tyrion was barely tolerated by his father Lord Tywin and sister Cersei, and marginally treated better by his handsome brother Jaime (now a Kingsguard.)  Clearly never going to win glory in knighthood, Tyrion has concentrated on honing his mind, and his razor tongue.  He is kind to Jon Snow and later Bran, but runs afoul of Catelyn Stark due to the manipulations of his enemies.

And then there’s Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen.  She and her older brother Viserys are the sole remaining grandchildren of the former king, and Viserys is thus the rightful ruler of Westeros for the Targaryen loyalists.  However, in exile in the Free Cities, their cause has not gone well, and the royal pair are broke.  In a last-ditch effort to raise an army which he can use to take back Westeros, Viserys arranges for Dani to be married to Khal Drogo, a mighty leader of the Dothraki horse nomads.

Despite his taste for child brides, Khal Drogo is a pretty good husband by Dothraki standards, and Danerys learns to love him.  Even better, their child is prophesied to become “The Stallion That Mounts the World.”  Viserys isn’t willing to wait until his nephew is born to start conquering things, and pushes a little too hard.  He probably never really understood what it means to “wake the dragon.”

Don’t get too attached to any of these people, Mr. Martin has no qualms about killing viewpoint characters in cruel and pointless ways.

Good things:  There are a lot of vividly-drawn characters in multiple factions–my edition has a list of the major clans and their members at the back, along with a timeline of the Targaryen Dynasty, and that still leaves out multiple members of the cast.  The politics are detailed but not too difficult to follow.  The main thing is that far too many nobles remember bad things that happened to their families decades and even centuries before, and operate on the principle of getting payback for that.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so other than “someone’s going to have a cruel and pointless death soon” it’s hard to guess what’s happening next.    Sometimes I did get frustrated by people making boneheaded decisions for stupid reasons, but the majority of actions made sense given earlier or later explained motivations.

Less good:  The content issues noted earlier; Mr. Martin likes him some earthy language too, and is overfond of the word “bastard.”   This is rather obviously not a standalone book, with most of the plot threads still hanging loose at the end of Book One, and I am told many of them dangling through the end of Book Five!  Perhaps I should have stuck with my original intention of not starting until all the books are out.

To be honest, this series has had so much hype that you probably already know if you’re interested in trying it.

Let’s enjoy the Sesame Street version of the plotline!

Magazine Review: High Adventure #143: Planet Stories Issue

Magazine Review: High Adventure #143: Planet Stories Issue edited by John P. Gunnison

Planet Stories was a science-fiction pulp magazine published between 1939 and 1955; it specialized in interplanetary action and daring-do.  (See my review of Planet Comics, its sister magazine that started publishing about the same time.  Covers tended to the formula of busty, scantily-clad (by the standards of the time) woman, handsome hero and bug-eyed monster.

High Adventure #143: Planet Stories

The stories in this reprint are from 1951 & 1952, by which time the general quality of the stories had improved and science fiction itself was trending towards more mature writing.  Most of the SF pulps that survived did so by switching to a digest format on somewhat better paper; Planet Stories was unable to make that transition.

“Zero Data” by Charles Saphro is a bit different from the usual for the magazine in that while interplanetary travel exists, it takes place on Earth.  Police officer Jason has been trying to get the goods on crimelord Lonnie Raichi for years.  But no matter what new crime-fighting equipment the police labs produce, Lonnie always escapes detection.  By 2009, he’s become THE Launcelot Raichi and the higher-ups of Government City are putting heavy pressure on Captain Jason to simply stop investigating.

Lonnie ascribes his success to his “Triple Ethic”, one of the tenets of which is paying the right people to produce solutions to his problems.  For example, the head inventor of the police labs was on his payroll, creating ways to beat the latest anti-crime technology before delivering that technology to the police.

Captain Jason has the last laugh, however, figuring out what Lonnie is after, and using the low-tech approach of being there in person with his human eyes.  He’s realized that Lonnie has never bothered learning the scientific principles his crime suit operates on.

“Thompson’s Cat” by Robert Moore Williams demonstrates the wisdom of bringing a housecat on your rocketship.  An exploration crew finds a planet devoid of life, looking like everyone died in a sudden attack by unknown enemies, but with no radioactivity or battle damage to the buildings.  On the way back to Earth, crew members start dying of something that turns their skin green.  The captain locks the ship into a course for the sun–if they can’t figure out the cause before they fry, at least Earth won’t be contaminated.  A fairly simple puzzle story, though raising some questions about the alien life cycles.

“The Slaves of Venus” by Edwin James is closer to the traditional “planetary romance” formula Planet Stories was known for.  A political figure exiled from Earth and Mars arrives on Venus to free it from the tyrannical interplanetary government.  Except that he himself is one of the former dictators who has been overthrown.  The actual hero unites Venus’ barbarian tribes to stop the slave trade and has a romance with the dictator’s naive daughter who bought into her father’s narrative.

“Evil Out of Onzar” by Mark Ganes has a shapeshifting intelligence officer assigned to bodyguard a scientist who has developed a new wrinkle on hyperspace travel that would make it easier for one side of the galactic war to win.  He fails, but manages to hook up with the scientist’s lovely daughter, herself a brilliant scientist (Planet tended to have pretty competent heroines who were of actual use to the hero once he saved them.)   Onzar turns out to be an important choke point in the hyperspace system, and an ideal place for an ambush.  Unfortunately, it’s run by a dictator who is himself bent on conquest.

The best character in the story is Pyuf, an amiable and hard-drinking fellow who has many jobs, not all of them legitimate.  Sadly, he leaves the tale about halfway through.  There’s also an interesting social divide between gold-obsessed males and religious females on Onzar.

“The Virgin of Valkarion” by Poul Anderson is in the “Barbarian Worlds” setting.  Humanity went to the stars, but the planets became cut off from each other and fell into more primitive societies.  Eons have passed since then.  Alfric, an outlander, comes to Valkarion, last vestige of an empire that once ruled the planet back when it had oceans.  He’s directed to a particular tavern, and the girl that comes with his room is of far too high quality to be an ordinary prostitute.

Turns out she’s Hildaborg, queen of Valkarion, whose husband just died–there’s a prophecy that Alfric fits to an uncomfortable degree, and she wants in on the ground floor.  The priest Therokos, on the other hand, wants to break the prophecy and rule himself.  (The title is a lie.  There is no virgin in the story.)

This could easily be fantasy; the only hints of SF are the alien planet thing and hints that Alfric’s sword is technological in nature.

“The Big Pill” by Raymond Z. Gallun finishes the issue with a colony on Titan.  It’s just suffered a tragedy due to defective equipment shipped in by Space Colonists’ Supply, Inc.  The current owner values profit over safety, and has blocked more modern equipment from being imported thanks to his monopoly.  Some of the colonists have a plan to make conditions on Titan better…using a descendant of the hydrogen bomb.  They must work against the clock as the corporate jerk is determined to see them all under his thumb instead.

Overall, this is a fun issue for pulp SF fans, which is better on the sexism front than much of the contemporary material.  (There’s some Mighty Whitey moments in “The Slaves of Venus” that  may be off-putting.)

 

Book Review: Whetted Bronze

Book Review: Whetted Bronze by Manning Norvil

Note:  This is the second book in the “Odan the Half-God” series, so this review will contain spoilers for the first book, Dream Chariots.

It is a time before recorded history, when what we call the Mediterranean Sea was fertile land, a basin between the continents.  The cities of the River war against each other, both for reasons of trade and power, and also to appease their gods.  One such city is Eresh, which worships the sword god Zadan.  Their greatest hero is Odan, son of a god and the mortal queen of Eresh.

Whetted Bronze

Odan seeks to become a full god, and this has led him to betray Eresh to its enemies, only to save it again when he realized he had been tricked.  But politics is complicated.  Odan’s feckless half brother Numutef is the heir to the throne of Eresh, but the king’s uncle wants his own son, the cruel Prince Galad, to become king.  Both Odan and Galad are interested in marrying the beautiful Princess Zenara, but this is forbidden to Odan as she is his half-sister.

Various sorcerers have their own plans, and the love goddess Tia desires to become queen of all the gods.   Can Odan’s great strength, battle prowess and mystic abilities prevail against all odds and bring him what he desires?  Or will he be led astray by his hidden desires, to the woe of all around him?

One of the fads of the 1970s was “Ancient Astronauts”, the notion that aliens came to Earth in prehistoric/early historic times and were worshiped as gods, as well as teaching the early humans all the knowledge they needed to start civilization.  The most famous book of this ilk is Chariots of the Gods  by Erich von Daniken.  Enterprising fantasy author Kenneth Bulmer (who wrote under many aliases)  mixed the ancient astronauts with the pre-existing “barbarian hero” sub-genre and wrote the Odan trilogy under the name Manning Norvil.

It’s all great fun if you don’t take it seriously.  The first chapter of this volume features a character named Kufu the Ox, a lowly shield-bearer who finds himself rallying his archery unit when it’s overrun.  Prince Odan shows up at the end of the chapter to help out, and we follow him from there on.  Odan is unsurprisingly in the Conan mold, a big brooding fellow who’s known as “Crookback” because he constantly has to slouch to talk to normal humans.  (In a hilarious bit, his mother keeps telling him to stand up straight.)

Odan was kidnapped by barbarians as a small child, and grew up learning their ways; but he also has limited magic powers from his god side.  The Zenara situation is kind of skeevy, but in fairness to Odan, he met and got the hots for Zenara (and vice versa) before he found out she was his sister.  And he also has to deal with his best friend Ankidu likewise pining for Zenara, but unable to pursue her due to his lower social rank.  Zenara is barely in this volume, being kidnapped as leverage against Odan by one of the multiple conspiracies working at cross-purposes.

One nice touch is that as the setting is a premature Bronze Age, the language used doesn’t have the words “iron” or “steel” in it, even as metaphors.  Also, there’s an appendix with a legend referenced in the  main text.

Overall, trashy fun for sword and sorcery fans.

Comic Book Review: Essential Sub-Mariner Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Essential Sub-Mariner Vol. 1 Edited by Stan Lee

Namor, the Sub-Mariner, first appeared in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939.  The son of Captain Robert McKenzie, an icebreaker commander assigned to the Antarctic area, and Princess Fen of Atlantis, Namor possessed hybrid vigor that made him stronger than any ten humans or Atlanteans, the ability to breathe both water and air, and tiny wings on his ankles that allowed him to fly.  (Best not to think about that too hard.)  Despite his mixed heritage, Namor considered himself an Atlantean first and foremost.

Essential Sub-Mariner

When surface-dwellers’ actions threatened Atlantis, Namor decided to conquer them to put an end to this.  By himself.  This didn’t go exactly as planned; while individual surface-dwellers were puny (but often decent people) en masse they were extremely dangerous (and hostile.)  After a massive battle with the original Human Torch (one of comics’ first crossovers) Namor chose to concentrate his ire on the most evil surface-dwellers, criminals and Nazis.  Thus he became superhero comics’ first successful antihero feature.

After the war, superhero comics were on the wane, and Namor stopped being published in 1949, with a brief revival in 1954-55 that did not pan out.

By 1962. however, superheroes were back in force, and Namor reappeared in Fantastic Four #4, when the new Human Torch found him as an amnesiac derelict in the Bowery district of New York City.  Exposure to the Torch’s flame and being dunked in the ocean revived many of Namor’s memories, and the Sub-Mariner swam home to Atlantis, only to find it flattened, supposedly by surface-dweller atomic tests.  Incensed, Namor once again became an enemy to air-breathing humanity, battling the Fantastic Four and the Avengers (and accidentally helped bring back Captain America.)

Eventually, it was discovered that most of the Atlanteans were still alive, if scattered, and Prince Namor brought them together to build a new Atlantis.  He also met Lady Dorma, who would be his romantic interest for some years.  This softened Namor’s approach somewhat, and Marvel decided it was time for the Sub-Mariner to get his own solo feature.  Which brings us to the volume at hand.

Essentials are the Marvel counterpart to the DC Showcase volumes I’ve reviewed previously, thick volumes of black and white reprints for a reasonable price.

The storyline begins in Daredevil #7, with Namor trying to resolve his dispute with the surface-dwellers through legal means, randomly selecting the law firm of Nelson & Murdock.  Sadly, Namor doesn’t really understand the American legal system and has the patience of a cranky two-year-old, so he’s soon on a rampage that Matt Murdock has to contain as Daredevil.. It’s a severe mismatch, as Daredevil is basically a very acrobatic middleweight boxer and Namor can throw down with the Hulk.  It’s a pity this one is in black and white, as it’s the first appearance of DD’s red costume.

We then go to Namor’s solo feature, which took up half of Tales to Astonish while the Hulk had the other half (due to a distribution deal with DC Comics, Marvel could only print so many titles a month, and so many of them were timeshares.)  We learn that while Prince Namor was in the Big Apple, Warlord Krang seized power in Atlantis.  Namor decides on a dangerous quest to get proof of his right to rule, assisted at points by senior citizen Vashti (who is made vizier in gratitude.)

Namor cannot get a moment’s peace.  Even after regaining the throne, he must deal with crisis after crisis.  If it is not some surface-dwellers accidentally endangering Atlantis, it’s an Atlantean pretender to rulership who wants to overthrow Namor and sit on the throne himself.  There are epic clashes with Iron Man and the Hulk, as well as classic villains Puppet Master and the Plunderer.

In 1968, Marvel Comics finally got its own distribution, and it opened up space for the Sub-Mariner to get a full-length book of his own.   As a lead-in, there is a plotline in which Namor is banished from Atlantis, and finally decides to pursue the question of just how he came to be an amnesiac derelict for several years.  This turns out to have been the work of a powerful villain calling himself Destiny, who also destroyed the first underwater Atlantis.  Destiny temporarily defeats Namor, who then spends the first issue of his own title recapping his origin.

And that’s where we leave off.  There are some pages of original artwork, a spare cover from a story that was not printed in this volume because it only had one panel of Namor, and Namor’s Who’s Who entry.

This was the era of bombastic Marvel dialogue, as Stan Lee was writing (to a degree) most of the line’s output.  This gives us such gems as “Eternal Atlantis!  How my very heart leaps at the sight of its undersea beauty!  This is the land I was born to rule, and nothing that lives shall ever rob me of my birthright!”  There’s also some great art from the likes of Jack Kirby, Gene Colan and Bill Everett (who designed Namor back in the Golden Age.)

Namor’s greatest weakness is not fire, which weakens his powers and saps his health, but his own overweening pride and hair-trigger temper.  Time and again, he leaps to conclusions, or reacts violently to minor slights, which leads to unnecessary battles and mutual distrust with the surface-dwellers.  Still, he does not wish to kill unnecessarily, and often goes out of his way to spare or save individuals who may not deserve it.

If you don’t mind a hero who consistently makes boneheaded decisions based on losing his temper, this is great stuff, and classic Marvel action.

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