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!

Comic Book Review: Headache

Comic Book Review: Headache written by Lisa Joy, art by Jim Fern

Sarah Pallas is a 19-year-old girl who’s been institutionalized due to recurring nightmares in which her mother is murdered.  She’s also Athena, goddess of wisdom and strategy.  Her relatives are the Greek gods, and they want her out of the way while Zeus plans the end of human civilization.  Sarah must escape from the asylum, recover her memories and thwart her father’s plans–but whose side is her uncle Hades really on?

Headache

This graphic novel reimagines the Greek gods as a secret family of immortals who change with the times, blending in with each new era, and currently residing in Manhattan.  (Apollo’s a movie star.)  They squabble and feud, but most of them are down with the coming world war for one reason or another.  Athena objected, so she was given amnesia and locked away–now that she’s back, it’s necessary to kill her.  Death isn’t permanent for gods, more like a long quiet vacation, but it would put her out of the way long enough for Zeus’ plan to succeed.

To be honest, this is more of a graphic novelette, and feels very stripped down.  Events happen bang bang bang, and characterization is sparse.  (Surprisingly to me at least, Aphrodite is the most complex character in the story, resentful of her position as the goddess of love and beauty–indeed, sick unto death of it.)  Sarah is more action film heroine than anything else, with her ability to kick butt in hand-to-hand combat prioritized more than her brains.  (The author’s prior work is in action TV.)  And then there’s her “bad boy” thing for Hades….

Persephone shows up just long enough to explain that her marriage to Hades is in name only, which theoretically makes Sarah and his mutual attraction okay as long as you ignore the part where she’s sleeping with her uncle.  Erm.  Diana’s characterization is reduced to being sexually attracted to her twin brother Apollo and resentful that he doesn’t reciprocate.

The art is decent, but feels pedestrian; the fantasy sections could use a little more “pop.”

Mildly recommended to fans of modern retellings of Greek mythology, especially if you preferred the “fighty” bits of Buffy to the “talky” bits.

Book Review: Infinity Five

Book Review: Infinity Five edited by Robert Hoskins

This is the fifth and last (so far as I know) of the Infinity series of science fiction anthologies from Lancer Books.  As mentioned in my review of Infinity Two, they’re heavy on the New Wave style of story, free to have sex scenes and rough language (but not yet skilled at their use) and experimental storytelling styles.  The opening editorial mentions that SF has become a respectable genre for adults, but I’m not sure you could tell from this book.

Infinity Five

SPOILER WARNING: I’m going to be giving away some of the endings.

“The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” by Robert Silverberg starts us off with one of the more experimental pieces, Short fragments from different stories cobbled together around the reminiscences of an avid science fiction fan who has a recurring nightmare about possible futures.  It feels like Mr. Silverberg just grabbed random pages from rejected stories to fill out the length.  At the end, the nightmare becomes reality, and the fear vanishes.

“In Between Then and Now” by Arthur Byron Cover is about two immortal and nigh-omnipotent beings that have been fighting since they can remember.  One of them has a realization that his feelings have changed, but the other isn’t quite ready to accept this.

“Kelly, Frederic Michael: 1928-1987” by William F. Nolan is another “randomish fragments” story.  Mr. Kelly is dying on an alien planet, and his mind slips back and forth.

“Nostalgia Tripping” by Alan Brennert has people listening to oldies radio, except that what precisely the oldies are, and the history that created them, keeps changing.  It turns out that time travel has been invented and harnessed solely to change history to create these new “oldies” because 2003 is just that bleak.  An interesting concept, but perhaps wasted on such a short story.

“She/Her” by Robert Thurston is about telepathic aliens whose planet is undergoing first contact with humans.   Among the new concepts the visitors have brought with them is the significance of gender, as the humans innocently try to fit the aliens into their stereotypes.  This is actually a decent story with a good try at thinking in alien mindsets.

“Trashing” by Barry N. Malzberg goes back to trippy as an assassin attempts to kill a madman who is spreading riots and disorder.  Or is that really what’s happening?

“Hello, Walls and Fences” by Russell Bates is about an artist, or maybe an engineer, who’s asked to do something he finds repugnant by a wealthy man.   Unfortunately, he’s got a wife to feed (this was back when most married women were expected not to have jobs) and his solo work doesn’t sell, so at the end he has to accept the rich man’s job.  We never really find out what the process is or why the artist/engineer doesn’t like it.

“Free at Last” by Ron Goulart moves towards the silly.  A man with a Wide Open Marriage in 1992 is cheating on it by having a secret affair with his invalid aunt’s nurse.  Wide Open, of course, means no secrets.  As part of this, he’s also concealing that his aunt is already dead.  However, the man from the U.S. Department of Transition, which provides free funerals for all American citizens, is getting suspicious.  This one has a lot of extrapolating Seventies California goofiness into the future.  It’s maybe the best story in the issue.

“Changing of the Gods” by Terry Carr, on the other hand, takes a bitter approach to extrapolation.  It is a future where all the mainstream religions have collapsed, to be replaced with the Ancient and Apostolic Church of Christ, Pragmatist.  Yet they still have Fifties style ad agencies.  Sam Luckman is a creative type for one of those agencies, which has been chosen by the Pragmatists to create an ad campaign for “family control” to battle the hideous overpopulation of the world.  Luckman’s personal life is in the toilet, and his disgust with youth-oriented culture and the betrayal of his closest relatives boils over into the advertisements he creates.

Warnings for on-screen incest, pedophilia, castration, body horror.  Also casual homophobia: “homosexual rapists” are said to haunt restrooms.  This is all meant to shock, but just comes off as trying too hard.   One begins to understand why Mr. Carr normally was restricted to editing.

“Interpose” by George Zebrowski has Jesus snatched from the Cross by cruel time travelers.  Jesus is also an alien, not that it does him any good as apparently all his powers were withdrawn for the Crucifixion.

“Greyworld” by Dean R, Koontz is a full novella.  An amnesiac man who is probably named Joel wakes up in a suspended animation pod in a deserted laboratory.  After some wandering around, he runs into a faceless man and passes out.  When Joel awakens, he’s still amnesiac, but is now in a New England country house with his hot wife and distrustful uncle-in-law.  Several more layers of reality ensue.  It’s similar in many ways to Keith Laumer’s Night of Delusions, which I reviewed earlier, but has a more stable (if highly implausible) ending.

“Isaac Under Pressure” by Scott Edelstein wraps up the volume with a quick joke story about unusual genie containers.

Overall, this collection has not aged well, and is only worth seeking out if you collect one of the authors whose story hasn’t been reprinted elsewhere.

 

 

Book Review: Women of the Night

Book Review: Women of the Night edited by Martin H. Greenberg

With all the anthologies I’ve been reviewing, I’m surprised it took me this long to cover one edited by Martin H. Greenberg (1941-2011), who curated more than a thousand SF/F/Horror anthologies during his career.  He was an excellent packager:  If you wanted a book about alternate universe Elvises, he could find you a dozen decent to outstanding stories, even if he had to call a few authors to write them to order.

Women of the Night

In this particular case, the theme is “female vampires” of various sorts.  The introduction by John Helfers talks about how they have been relatively underrepresented as opposed to male vampires, but their literary pedigree is nearly as long.

The sixteen tales open with “One for the Road” by Stephen King, a sequel to Salem’s Lot.  A tourist managed to strand his family in what used to be Jerusalem’s Lot during the middle of a Maine blizzard.   He’s finally managed to find help, but it may be too late for his wife and child.  Spooky, but really requires you to have read the previous book for full effect.

The oldest story is from 1953, Philip K. Dick’s “The Cookie Lady.”  A young boy visits a nice old lady who offers him cookies and likes to listen to him read.  She’s a different kind of vampire.  Notably, the boy’s parents are right to be concerned, but for the wrong reasons–in a non-horror story, they’d be the bad guys.

As one might expect from the usual treatment of female vampires in fiction, there’s quite a bit of sexual references in the anthology, unfortunately including rape and pedophilia.  There’s also a fair amount of violence (what, you thought all blood donors were voluntary?)

Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” is an interesting twist on the Snow White tale, but I found it less transgressive than just kind of icky.  Still very well written.

“Sister Death” by Jane Yolen is better, I think, twisting together the myth of Lilith and the Holocaust.  Some very evocative imagery.

There’s a wide assortment of female vampires; sometimes villains, sometimes victims, and one or two are the heroes of their stories.  I think a couple of these have their endings muted because we know that there is a female vampire to begin with, even if within the story it’s a surprise.

The final story is “Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu” bu Norman Partridge.  It’s a take on the Dracula novel, some parts of which are true in the story, and others made up by Bram Stoker.  Quincey Morris returns to Texas to fulfill a promise he made to Lucy, no matter how much blood it’s going to take.  There’s a bit of suspense at the end–is Quincey too late?

It’s a good line-up of authors with some nice stories, it would make a pleasant Halloween present for a vampire fan.

Manga Review: Chaika: The Coffin Princess #1

Manga Review: Chaika: the Coffin Princess #1 Original Story by Ichirou Sakaki, art by Shinta Sakayama

It has been five years since the end of the war with the Gaz Empire, and up until now, there has been peace.  Not everyone has adjusted well to the post-war era.  In particular, Toru Acura based his entire identity around being a “saboteur”, a kind of super-warrior with the Iron-Blood ability to make himself stronger and faster.  He refuses to take any other kind of work, and has spent most of the last five years sulking in his bedroom.

Chaika the Coffin Princess #1

Toru’s sister Akari, tired of being their sole support, informs him that he won’t get breakfast unless he earns it himself, and he leaves the house for the first time in weeks, possibly months.  No one needs a saboteur, and he isn’t willing to lower himself to anything else, so he winds up in the woods looking for edible berries and roots.

This not being a story about wilderness survival techniques, Toru runs across a young woman who does not speak the local language well and is carrying a coffin on her back.  As it happens, she is Chaika, who is being pursued by a bloodthirsty unicorn creature.  Chaika makes a bargain to feed Toru in exchange for him helping her with this problem.  Turns out she’s a powerful wizard, but her spells require a lengthy start-up time, and Toru must engage the unicorn in battle until she can unleash destruction.

Thankful, Chaika buys Toru breakfast, and departs.  But soon she’s back.  It seems she needs the services of a couple of saboteurs, and she noticed Toru and Akari were out of work.  Because of Chaika’s communication difficulties, she isn’t able to convey the full meaning of this mission, which is unfortunate, because it turns out there are other people interested in the same target she is.

This fantasy manga is based on a light novel, which was also recently turned into an anime series.  There’s some interesting world-building going on here, and hints at a complex political situation.  I also like Chaika’s personality and those eyebrows.  The clothing choices are kind of dubious–Chaika’s outfit is in no way suitable for long wilderness hikes. and Akari’s has some obvious vulnerable spots not wise to have for a warrior.

Also, I like the language difficulties, not often realistically done in fantasy works.

However, I cannot recommend this manga to most readers due to something it shares with too many recent light novel adaptations.  Akari is constantly making incestuous remarks towards or about Toru.  Now I’m sure that it will turn out they’re not blood-related, or it’s her idea of a hilarious running joke, but I just don’t find incest funny, and that tainted the entire story for me.  If you are okay with this sort of humor, you will probably enjoy it more than I did.

Still, good art, some interesting story potential.

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.

Manga Review: Ayako

Manga Review: Ayako by Osamu Tezuka

Osamu Tezuka is best known in the United States for his early children’s manga and their subsequent animated adaptations like “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion.”  But later in his prolific career, he also produced quite a few works for more mature readers, such as “MW” and “Ode to Kirihito.”  Ayako falls into the latter category.

Ayako1

The year is 1949, and the last of the Japanese POWs are returning to Japan.  Among them is Jiro Tenge, second son of a wealthy landowning family.  Times are tough for the Tenge clan due to the occupation’s land reforms breaking up their holdings.  They’re desperately trying to hold on to their remaining prestige, a task made more difficult by the family’s dark secrets.  Jiro has his own secrets from the time he was in American captivity, and soon there is death in the story.

Soon, it is decided that the only way to protect the Tenge clan is to seal away the youngest  daughter, four-year-old Ayako, in a cellar.  There she remains for over twenty years while the rest of the family sows the seeds of their own destruction….Given the recent cases of women escaping from long captivity, the story has a resonance today.

Even Tezuka’s children’s work did not shy away from deep themes (parental abandonment and racism in Astro Boy, questions of gender identity in Princess Knight), but this is a particularly dark work.  In addition to the nudity and sexual situations you might have guessed from the cover, I need to issue TRIGGER WARNINGS for rape, child abuse, incest, torture, abuse of the developmentally disabled and domestic abuse.  None of this is depicted as good things, but it can be seriously disturbing.

This story uses few of Tezuka’s trademark “stars”, instead trying to come up with new faces for its cast.  One notable example is police officer Inspector Geta, who seems to be heavily inspired by Dick Tracy.

Inspector Geta
Inspector Geta and his mentor, Inspector Tanuma.

Bits of real Japanese post-war history are woven in, and there are footnotes indicating where this has happened.  Tezuka’s explanation of events is not kind to the American Occupation.

Again, this is a book for mature readers.  Late high school students might be able to handle it, but certainly not children.  (Given the NSFW cover, you might not want to read it in public even if you’re an adult.)  Recommended for Tezuka fans and those ready to explore the darker side of post-war Japan.

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