Book Review: The Black Stallion Challenged

Book Review: The Black Stallion Challenged by Walter Farley

Alec Ramsay and his faithful trainer Henry Dailey are wintering in Hialeah, Florida, where they hope to race their prize horse, the Black Stallion.  Provided, of course, that the Black has fully recovered from the hoof injury he received some months back.  One day Alec receives a piece of fan mail asking for his help.  It seems that young Steve Duncan has a horse he’d like to race, a stallion named Flame…if he can convince the racetrack officials to let him.

The Black Stallion Challenged

Unbeknownst to Alec or Steve, Flame and the Black have met before, and feel a strong rivalry towards each other.  Plus, Steve needs to make a lot of money very quickly, in order to save Flame’s island home.  The stage is set for a thrilling match between the two great stallions!

This is the sixteenth in the Stallion series penned by Walter Farley, and the last that’s a straight-up horse racing story.   There’s some time compression involved; the first book, The Black Stallion, clearly takes place in 1940 when it was written, and this volume takes place in 1964, but the Black is most assuredly not twenty-four years older.

However, the main attraction of the series is less the plausibility of the setting (one book had aliens!) and more the detailed descriptions of horse care and racing, and Mr. Farley delivers well in this volume.  (Some details are different–the rules of horse racing have changed since the 1960s, let alone the 1940s.)  The final race in particular is exciting as the outcome is in doubt until the horses pass the finish line.

The Stallion series is nominally children’s books, so I should mention that there is an operation on an injured horse that may be too intense a scene for sensitive readers.  Several characters smoke; one specifically mentions that he neither smokes nor drinks alcohol for his health.  I am told there’s period racism and sexism in some of the volumes, but this one manages to avoid that.

The book starts slowly; a one-page letter gets stretched over an entire chapter in a manner that does not build suspense in the mind of anyone who read the back cover copy.  A couple of scenes stuff a lot of telling about the personalities of supporting characters in, rather than showing by their actions.  And to be honest, Alec, Henry and Steve are not deep characters.  (Steve’s a bit more of a hothead here than in his solo appearances.)

But all of that pales compared to the exciting race scenes and the bond between the riders and their horses.  The hardback edition with illustrations by Angie Draper may be hard to find, but there are inexpensive paperback reprints which you can probably get through interlibrary loan.  Recommended to young horse lovers and horse lovers young at heart.

And now, the trailer for The Black Stallion movie, starring Mickey Rooney as Henry Dailey.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GlZJ4wVLdA

Book Review: A Clash of Kings

Book Review: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review contains spoilers for the previous book A Game of Thrones; if you haven’t read that one yet, check out the review here.

A Clash of Kings

Westeros has too many kings.  In the south, the King on the Iron Throne is Joffrey Baratheon, heir to the late King Robert.  He is a beardless boy, and cruel, and there are those who say he is not Robert’s trueborn son.  Still, he has the support of Queen Mother Cersei, Robert’s widow, and her powerful Lannister clan.

To the east is the King of the Narrow Sea, Stannis Baratheon, middle brother of Robert.  He is the one who instigated the rumors of his nephew’s illegitimacy, which would make him the rightful heir, and has a strong navy.  He is a hard man who has few friends, and has taken up with a foreign god.

To the west, his younger brother Renly is the King in Highgarden.  While Joffrey and Stannis yet live, Renly’s claim to the throne is tenuous at best.  However, Renly is a man who makes friends easily, and has the support of most of the southern lords who are not directly connected to the Lannisters.

The King in the North is Robb Stark, son of the former King’s Hand Ned.  He is barely older than Joffrey, but far more accomplished in strategy and battle, and has the support of the northern lords.  He may have too much of his father’s tendency to do the right thing rather than the wise thing, and grows weary of his mother Catelyn’s counsel.

Further north is Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, who is rallying the free wildling people for a journey south, as the Others begin to stir.

In the far west islands, Balon Greyjoy is styled King of Salt and Rock.  He has long chafed under the rule of landsmen, and intends to pay the “iron price” for such seaports as he can seize while Westeros is in chaos.

And far to the East, Danerys Targaryen is the last known descendant of the previous rulers of Westeros, and thus the rightful queen of that line.  But she has another, perhaps more important title now:  Mother of Dragons!

Perhaps this might be a good time for Westeros to switch to representative democracy.

This is the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, and source material for the Game of Thrones TV series.  It’s a thick book, with lots of events, though the tight third person narration means that many of those events take place “off-stage.”  Even the battle of King’s Landing, which gets a lot of detail, requires a key moment to be given in an after action report as none of the viewpoint characters are there.

So, let’s look at the viewpoint characters.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is dead (told you there’d be spoilers) and we still don’t get chapters for Robb or Rickon.  But the rest of the Stark family is represented.

Catelyn Stark (nee Tully) initially is with King Robb’s forces until he makes her ambassador to Renly.  She tries to mediate between him and Stannis, as their rival claims endanger them both.  It does not go well, and she is forced to retreat with one of Renly’s bodyguards, the female knight Brienne.

Jon Snow has joined a Night Guard expedition beyond the wall to learn Mance Rayder’s intentions and if necessary stop him.  There are dark doings afoot, both those of ordinary men and of the supernatural.

Sansa Stark remains a hostage of the royal family in King’s Landing.  She’s trying to retain what shreds of her optimism and belief in chivalry she can, but the story seems intent on crushing every last bit of her naivete.

Arya Stark has managed to escape the royal city disguised as a boy named Arry, only the first of several name changes.  She experiences the war from the perspective of the “smallfolk” who have no choice but to obey whichever master currently holds sway or be killed.  Her sections include a really cool character, but naming them would be a huge spoiler.

And Bran Stark learns that his body may be crippled, but he has powers of his own.  Also, being the eight-year-old lord of Winterfell castle is not as much fun as you might have thought, especially when enemies come knocking.

Meanwhile, Tyrion Lannister continues to be his family’s viewpoint character.  He’s appointed acting King’s Hand while his father Tywin deals with the military aspects of the multi-sided war.  His short stature is no handicap in a job that primarily involves making and carrying out plans, and Tyrion has more success than any other viewpoint character.  But because he took the post just as the ill effects of the war hit King’s Landing, he’s despised by the citizens.  And his relatives aren’t making things any easier!

Further afield, Dani is trying to parlay her baby dragons and handful of followers into a force that will retake Westeros for the Targaryen line.  This is the plotline with the most overt magical elements, including a trippy sequence where Dani gets a great deal of symbolic information that she can’t use because she has no context for it.  Apparently, dragons enhance magic merely by existing, but most magic is used in unpleasant ways so that’s not a good thing.

The first new viewpoint character is Theon Grayjoy, who appeared as a minor player in the first book.  He is at last released from his hostage status with the Starks so that King Robb can offer an alliance with Balon, Theon’s father.  Theon has a lot of resentment against his foster family, and is planning to betray them as soon as it’s convenient.  Balon, on the other hand, has no interest in an alliance in the first place–worse, he distrusts Theon because the young man has been too long away from their pirate island.  And indeed, Theon does very poorly trying to navigate between the differing ideas of correct behavior of the Northmen and the Ironmen.

Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight, is completely new.  He’s a former smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis Baratheon for services rendered, while also being punished for his crimes.  Thus Davos is one of the few men totally loyal to the would-be king while not having any illusions about his character.  Ser Davos speaks truth to power, which does not bode well for his longevity.

This volume is full of signs and portents, beginning with a red comet that a number of characters think is relevant to them…but they can’t all be right.  Several other clues are disregarded due to prejudice or past experience.

Content issues: Rape continues to be the go-to “gritty realism” thing in this volume; none of the viewpoint characters are raped this time, but it is frequently threatened.  Incest gets an increased emphasis, once played for comedy!  Lots of violence of course, torture is mentioned more than once, and frequent cruel and pointless deaths  And of course salty language.

There are some really cool moments and the general quality of the writing is high.  On the other hand, the survival rate of likable characters is low (and unlikable characters are only somewhat longer-lived) so this tends to be a depressing book.

Recommended if you liked the first book or the TV series.

Now, let’s have the TV show opening credits!

 

Book Review: Tuesdays With Morrie

Book Review: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

In 1995, there was fighting in Bosnia, O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder, and a man named Morrie Schwartz was teaching his last class about life.  It met on Tuesdays, and the student was sportswriter Mitch Albom.  Twenty years before, Mitch had been Morrie’s student in sociology classes at Brandeis University, and now that Morrie was dying of ALS, he reconnected with his old teacher for a series of conversations.

Tuesdays with Morrie

Like many people, Mitch’s life after college hadn’t gone as planned, his musical career not panning out.  After the early death of a beloved relative, his priorities shifted, and he found success in writing about sports.  But when he saw Morrie being interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline (the first of three interviews), Mitch realized he had lost touch with someone important to him, and the wisdom of that man.

Morrie Schwartz had been an unusual man all along, and had dedicated much of his years to learning how to live his own life.  He had developed a set of aphorisms that distilled this philosophy into understandable chunks.  When his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gherig’s disease) began to take away his ability to engage in everyday activities, Morrie sent out his aphorisms into the world to those he thought might be interested.  And they brought the world back to him, notably Ted Koppel, and through him, Mitch Albom.

As it happened, a newspaper strike left Mitch with some spare time to come visit his old professor, and he made more time when they reconnected.  They decided that Mitch would come again and again on Tuesdays, a day that was special to them, and they would discuss subjects like death and marriage.  The plan was for Mitch to write a book the proceeds of which would help pay for Morrie’s substantial medical bills.

This is that book, a bestseller that has spawned a TV movie and stage play, and changed many lives.  A new edition has been released for the twentieth anniversary, with a new afterword catching up with what’s happened with Mr. Albom since the end of the book.

The book intersperses valuable lessons about life and related topics with flashbacks to their relationship in college and biographical information about Morrie that helps explain how he became the teacher so admired by so many people.

It’s very well written; the outcome is known from the beginning, so the journey is the important part.  If what Morrie has to say sometimes seems trite or cliched, that’s because much of it is things we already knew, even if we ignore them in the hustle and pain of everyday existence.

My one caveat is that sometimes this sort of philosophy has been weaponized against people who are suffering systemic poverty and oppression to tell them that they shouldn’t fight back, but simply accept their lot.

The subject matter of death and dying may be a bit heavy for younger readers, but this book has been used in high school classes.

Recommended for people who haven’t gotten around to this book yet who are interested in philosophy and life lessons.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, a video of those Ted Koppel interviews.

Book Review: Doctor Dead: A Percy & Quincey Adventure

Book Review: Doctor Dead: A Percy & Quincey Adventure by Tyler Tork

Disclaimer:  I received a free download of this book to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Doctor Dead: A Percy & Quincey Adventure

Percival “Percy” Drew and his cousin Quincey Harker are enjoying an afternoon at San Francisco’s waterfront in 1904.  Until, that is, the young fellows are kidnapped.  It seems that the mad scientist Dr. Benoit believes the albinistic Quincey has a rare blood type that will enhance the endurance of zombis.   The boys must find a way to escape before Quincey is drained dry, or they are themselves turned into the living dead!

This young adult novel is set on an alternate Earth where some of Victorian fantastic literature is real, though often in a different form than the original stories.  (Dracula turns out to have been heavily fictionalized; among other things, Wilhemina Harker is not nearly as decent a person as in the novel.)  It’s fun looking for all the shout-outs.

The book is divided into four adventures, each building on the last.  The boys do escape Dr. Benoit in the first segment, but their elders make poor decisions that come back to bite everyone when Benoit turns out to have taken precautions in the event of being dosed with his own serum.

Most of the story takes place from the viewpoint of thirteen-year-old Percy, with only short sections from the viewpoints of Quincey and Native American (called “Indian” in-story) girl Mary when Percy’s not available to narrate.  Percy is very  bright and something of a mechanical genius, while fifteen-year-old Quincey is more interested in the medical field.

Mr. Tork has done his research on such topics as the manufacture of soft drinks in 1904, so it was a bit of a shock when one of the characters is said to have read H.P. Lovecraft, who would not be published for another decade.

There’s some period racism and sexism; thankfully the boys are only a bit ignorant and not malicious.  It feels at times that the book has trouble fitting in the YA category–a brothel is an important location in the plot, yet no prostitutes are ever “on screen”, nor indeed is it ever explained what goes on in a brothel.

Things become more difficult for our young heroes when a broken time machine comes into the plot; at least one of the adults who are nominally their allies cannot be trusted not to abuse such a device, so they have to keep it a secret from as many people as possible.  This prevents the boys from getting reliable help at various junctures.

There are some quirky supporting characters, and plenty of action to keep the plot moving quickly.  While no sequel is available, there are hooks for an expedition to the Galapagos Islands and a search for lost treasure, so if sales on this book pick up, they may yet be published.

Recommended primarily to teenage boys who’ve read some of the books this volume shouts out to.

Book Review: Goblin Quest

Book Review: Goblin Quest by Jim C. Hines

Jig has always lived in the mountain, only hearing third-hand stories about the outside world.  Even stepping outside the goblin warrens is dangerous, why risk going any further?  Still, he dreams of being promoted from his lamplighter duties (a child’s job) to a patrolling warrior.  Jig’s smart, but that counts little in goblin society when he’s also small and weak, with poor vision.

Goblin Quest

Then  one day Jig is bullied into acting as a scout for a lazy patrol, only to find himself captured by adventurers who have killed the rest of the goblin patrol.  A captive, Jig is forced to become a guide for the party of four.  There’s Prince Barius, a younger son touchy about his honor and his low status among his siblings; Ryslind, Barius’ brother whose magic seems to be adversely affecting his sanity; Darnak, a dwarven cleric and tutor to the brothers, and Riana, an elvish pickpocket who was also dragooned  into serving Barius.  It seems they’re after the Rod of Creation, a powerful artifact that supposedly created the mountain itself.  Jig’s chances of survival just keep dropping!

This is the first volume in the “Jig the Goblin” trilogy of comedic fantasy novels by Jim C. Hines, who was a Guest of Honor at Minicon 52.  It’s heavily based on the kind of “kill monsters and take their stuff” style of fantasy common to games of Dungeons & Dragons, and in specific seems to be parodying aspects of the Dragonlance series of D&D tie-in novels.

One of the common hallmarks of comedic fantasy is to tell the story from the viewpoint of someone who isn’t the typical hero of heroic fantasy stories, and in this case, it’s one of the “monsters” who would normally be cannon fodder to allow the protagonists to show off their prowess before getting to really tough opponents.

Jig is initially only sympathetic because of his underdog status; he’s cowardly, selfish and all too willing to let others suffer or die in his place.  As the story progresses, Jig has his horizons expanded as he learns about the adventurers from their perspective, and realizes that goblin social norms put them at an even greater disadvantage than they already had due to their small size and lack of technology.  He even finds a god!

Meanwhile, the adventurers are no heroes; Prince Barius’ motive for seeking the Rod is entirely self-centered, Ryslind has a hidden agenda, Darnak is at least honorable, but must serve the brothers’ will, and Riana is only serving due to a threat of prison or execution.

And that’s not getting into the truly strong and evil monsters that wait deeper within the mountain.

Once Jig is dragooned into the party, the plot is a fairly straightforward dungeon crawl with some backtracking towards the end.  The back half of the book reads quickly, and the ending is reasonably satisfying.

Recommended primarily for fans of the tabletop role-playing games the setting is based on.

Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Book Review: The Physics of Everyday Things

Book Review: The Physics of Everyday Things by James Kakalios

Disclaimer:  I received an uncorrected proof of this book for the purpose of writing this review.   No other compensation was offered or requested.  The final product,  due out May 2017, will have some changes, including a full index.

The Physics of Everyday Things

Today is no ordinary day.  While it may seem normal as you wake up and have breakfast, getting ready for a doctor’s appointment and a work presentation, today will actually be extraordinary.  For you will be accompanied at every step by Professor James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes, who will explain the physics behind the many objects you interact with every day.

In the tradition of Hugo Gernsback’s seminal novel Ralph 124C 41+, the narrative frame takes “You” (a prosperous business person with a late-model car and many of the latest gadgets) through a typical day in 2017 as an excuse to discuss the physics involved in such devices as digital timers, magnetic resonance imaging and flat panel televisions.  While not as thrilling as a superhero saga might be, the day is eventful enough to keep the story moving.  (And relatable for business people who might invest in scientific research.)

The book mostly skips the mathematical formulas that are the bane of non-scientists trying to follow physics discussions, but a basic understanding of high school level physics principles will make this book easier to understand.  There are figures to illustrate how some of the devices work, as well as both footnotes and end-notes.  T he finished product will also have an index.

Overall, the superheroes book was more fun, but is now outdated.  I recommend this volume primarily to business people and those who want to know a bit more about physics as it applies to real life.  (Well, except for a last discussion on flying cars and the physics of why we still don’t have them.)

Book Review: 14 Steps to Self-Publishing a Book

Book Review: 14 Steps to Self-Publishing a Book by Mike Kowis, Esq.

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

14 Steps to Self-Publishing a Book

Back in the day, self-publishing was the province of cranks and egomaniacs who couldn’t find a legitimate publisher.  “Vanity presses” preyed upon people who thought there was a large untapped market for dreadful poetry and paranoid ravings.  Sometimes a good book would manage to surface from the self-published world, but it was rare.  Times have changed.  New book distribution models, fancy software and the existence of e-books mean that self-publishing can be quite viable for the author who’s willing to put in  the effort.

It’s not easy.  There are still vanity presses that will charge big bucks for a worthless product, and the sheer variety of available options can confuse and frustrate the budding writer.  Thus this book, which provides a helpful template of things to do that will improve chances of success.  Mr. Kowis is the author of Engaging College Students: A Fun and Edgy Guide for Professors, and uses his experience with that project to inform his advice.

The first step, as it turns out, is not “write a book.”  Mr. Kowis presumes that you have advanced to the first draft manuscript stage, as his first step is “finalizing” that manuscript.  The final step is marketing the finished book, with many stops in between.

At several points the author suggests paying a bit more to hire a professional (for editing and cover design, for example) rather than attempting to do everything yourself.  (I note that I did not find any typos in this book, and while the cover is not spectacular, it works very well for the slim volume this is.)  The steps seem complete enough, and the author gives suggestions on where to search next if you need more information.

The second part of the book discusses costs involved in self-publishing, and the differences between Mr. Kowis’ first  book (kind of fancy) and this one (bare bones and reusing some resources paid for during the first book’s publishing.)

The third part is ten lessons the author learned from writing his first book–I’m not going to give many spoilers, beyond acknowledging that yes, it is difficult to get reviews even when there are free copies available.  Even folks like me who do reviews on the regular can feel like it’s pulling teeth, so don’t feel too bad if your friends don’t come through.

There’s an appendix which turns the 14 steps into a checklist, but I recommend treating the order as a guideline more than a rule as some things need to get done simultaneously.

There are lots of guides to self-publishing on the internet, but it’s nice to have it all in one place on your shelf.  Consider buying this one for your writer friend who’s been considering self-publishing.

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!

Book Review: Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History

Book Review: Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History by Antony Mason

For about 12 centuries, the English have been ruled by monarchs, and eventually this form of government spread to all of the British Empire.  That’s a lot of history, and many kings and queens to take account of.  This small volume with cartoony illustrations gives the reader an overview of those people and what they did.

Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History

There’s a brief discussion of monarchs before the official first king of the majority of England, Alfred the Great, starting in 871 C.E.  This includes the legendary King Arthur who may or may not have been based on an actual person.  After that is a chronological listing of English kings and queens, with a paragraph or page for each, with chapters cutting away to the Scottish monarchs.  (The Irish kings do not get the same courtesy.)  With King James I & VI, the lines are consolidated, and after that they’re all British kings and queens.

This is very much a highlights-only history book, with only the most famous bits of each reign mentioned for most of the monarchs.  There are, however, frequent sidebars on such subjects as palaces, revolutions, jewels, the Magna Carta and mistresses.  The serious scholar of British history is unlikely to learn anything new.  The book finishes up with a glossary, timeline, and index to make it easier to find the particular monarch you’re looking for.  It’s current as of January 2015.

Due to some salacious subject matter, I’d rate this as suitable for senior high students on up.  (There’s also a lot of violence; many of these people left the throne via murder.)  This would make a nice gift for your Anglophilic friend or relative, or Game of Thrones fans who have somehow never read the history that show is loosely based on.

 

 

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