Book Review: A Storm of Swords

Book Review: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first two volumes in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

A Storm of Swords

The Battle of King’s Landing is over, and the forces loyal to King Joffrey are triumphant.  But the War of Five Kings rages on, with no part of Westeros left untouched.  Lord Tywin Lannister returns to power as the King’s Hand after many years and his iron grip is soon felt both by the people of the land and his own family.

The various factions scheme and negotiate and betray, but all of this may soon be pointless as the Others gain strength and seek to slay all who live.

This is the third and largest volume so far in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series.  In a foreword, the author explains that the chapters from different points of view do not immediately follow each other chronologically.  Indeed, the first few chapters of A Storm of Swords take place before the last few chapters of A Clash of Kings, catching us up on some characters who were not at the Battle of King’s Landing.

The members of the Stark family remain a plurality of the viewpoint chapters, but other folks are catching up.

Catelyn Stark takes a calculated risk in freeing Jaime Lannister to exchange for her daughters, which angers some of her son’s bannermen.  Thus she has little room to talk when King Robb himself makes a major diplomatic faux pas.  (Robb still doesn’t get a viewpoint chapter.)  With their alliance falling apart, will the King in the North be able to mend fences before his enemies regroup?

Jon Snow infiltrates the Northern Wildlings as he was ordered, in order to learn what Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, is up to.  Like many spies before him, Jon learns that the Free Folk are people not so different from those he has loved and sworn to protect, despite their odd customs and desire to invade his homeland.  It is a bitter pill to swallow, but realizing that you know nothing is the beginning of wisdom.

Sansa Stark, trapped at King Joffrey’s court, continues to be a political pawn, valued primarily as a possible claim on the lands surrounding Winterfell, and if rebuilt, the castle itself.  She’s forced into a political marriage which she will need all her courtesy and will to survive.  The wolf may be caged, but she has not forgotten how to wait.

Arya Stark may have escaped the ill-omened castle Harrenhal, but the land is still torn by war, and one thing after another delays her reunion with her mother.  Among other events, Arya falls in with the Bannerless Brotherhood.  Once the enforcers of the king’s law, a change in government has made them outlaws who steal from the rich to give to the poor.  (For certain values of “rich” and “poor.”)  Arya may need to cash in a certain favor if she is to survive on her own terms.

Bran Stark, presumed dead after the fall of Winterfell, is headed north with the faithful Hodor and the Reeds.  (He has parted company with Rickon, who still gets no chapters.)   His link with direwolf Summer continues to grow, and he learns new facets of his powers.

Tyrion Lannister, badly wounded by an assassination attempt during the Battle of King’s Landing, finds himself fallen from power.  His father Lord Tywin grudgingly admits that Tyrion did a decent job as King’s Hand, but is soon back to treating his little person son like dirt, including saddling Tyrion with a cruel arranged marriage.  Queen Cersei and her son King Joffrey also take every opportunity to mock and belittle their relative.  How much can one man take before he snaps?

Daenerys Targaryen has come to realize that while being the Mother of Dragons is way cool, her reptilian wards are not yet big enough to win Westeros for her alone.  She needs an army, but where to get one?  Dani’s also finding that celibacy is becoming a harder stance to hold than when she was newly widowed.  Ser Jorah Mormont loves her, but the queen doesn’t love him that way back.

We don’t get any chapters from Theon Greyjoy’s perspective this time, though he is reportedly still alive and in possession of at least some of his skin.

Davos Seaworth, on the other hand, managed to survive the burning of the Blackwater, and returns to the service of King Stannis Baratheon.  The King of the Narrow Sea has been listening to the counsel of the Red Priestess Melisandre, and is prepared to sacrifice his nephew Edric Storm if that’s what it takes to gain enough power to rule Westeros.  Davos makes what is perhaps the smartest choices in the book when he realizes that Melisandre may be reading her prophetic visions backwards.

New to the list of point of view characters is Jaime Lannister, known as the Kingslayer.  Released in the custody of the female knight Brienne in order to get back to King’s Landing in exchange for the Stark daughters, Jaime must cross a hostile land with almost every hand against him.  We learn the reason he became the Kingslayer, and Jaime has to face up to how his past misdeeds have helped put Westeros in the mess it’s in.  Like Arya Stark, Jaime just keeps getting delayed on his journey until it is perhaps too late.

Finally, we follow Jon Snow’s less combat-effective friend Samwell Tarly, a steward for the Night Watch.  While Jon goes off on his secret mission, Sam assists the other Black Brothers in their scouting mission beyond the Wall.  The Others are deadly, but what may finish off the Night Watch might be treachery in their own ranks.

This is the book that really cemented the series’ reputation for having anyone die at any time, and kills off major and minor characters left and right.  (One character who seemed like they were going to be very important in the second volume dies offhand in a single sentence here.)  But that comes with a caveat that anyone who is only reported as dead may in fact be alive, and being dead doesn’t mean not making any more appearances.

The big theme of the book is marriage; there are multiple weddings, none of which turn out particularly well.  There’s also several songs that recur throughout, most notably the bawdy “The Bear and the Maiden” and “The Rains of Castamere”, which has more sinister connotations.

Parts of the book do become a slog as there are multiple characters trying to get from one place to another and not getting there over and over.  A couple of the Stark family just miss meeting each other, and some plot twists are gratuitously cruel.  (As are some actions taken by the characters.) A few of the mysteries in the first two volumes are solved, for what it is worth.

As always, there is plenty of gory violence, some sex, attempted rape of major characters and off-camera rape of minor characters, and great steaming heaps of rough language.  Torture takes place off-stage as well.  But if you weren’t warned by the first two volumes, there’s not much I can say.

There’s some nifty world-building, and a handful of great scenes.  Primarily recommended to people who liked the earlier books in the series.

And now, a song!

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows by Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin

The universe is vast, and intelligent life has arisen on many worlds.  Over millennia, these different lifeforms have spread out from their points of origin and met each other.  Sometimes, these meetings have led to friendly interaction, sometimes they have ended in interspecies war.  No one remembers precisely when, or who did it, but an artificial habitable environment was created to serve as a meeting place for diplomats.  Each new species has added on to that space station to create Point Central, our last, best hope for peace.

Ambassador of the Shadows

Now at last it is Earth’s turn to preside over the Council in the Hall of Screens, and the new ambassador from that planet has big plans.  Plans so big, he needs to be guarded by top spatio-temporal agents Valerian and Laureline.

Valerian and Laureline is a French comic book series originally published from 1967 to 2010, very popular in European comics, and an influence on the look and feel of the movie The Fifth Element.  A new live-action movie version is coming out this summer, so I thought I’d check in on the source material.

The future Earth civilization, Galaxity, is based on time travel technology, which their space travel utilizes for faster than light speed.  This technology is dangerous in the wrong hands, thus the need for special time/space agents.

Valerian is a native of the 28th Century, and initially is quite respectful of authority, and does not question his orders, even when they seem ethically dubious.  That said, he is a good-hearted fellow who does the right thing as he sees it when the chips are down.  While in Middle Ages France, he recruited Laureline as a guide, and she proved so effective that he brought her home with him as an agent.

While Laureline is a fast learner who quickly adjusts to her new surroundings, she has an outsider’s view of them.  A fiery redhead, Laureline is impulsive and suspicious of authority figures, especially when their behavior is fishy.  (She initially was scheduled to be a “girl of the week” but was so well-received by the audience that she became the co-star.)

Earth’s ambassador initially emphasizes the “ass”, but that quickly becomes moot, as both he and Valerian are abducted by mysterious parties immediately upon arrival at Point Central.  Laureline must track them down through the labyrinthine construction and clashing cultures of the diplomatic station.  Comic relief is provided by a cowardly protocol officer Laureline dragoons into service as her sidekick.

The story becomes something of a shaggy dog when things going on in the background make the heroes’ actions irrelevant in the big picture, but this volume is important to the continuity because it introduces two recurring elements.  The Grumpy Transmuter from Bluxte is an astonishingly rare animal that can create copies of any item it ingests; since it’s a tiny animal with a small mouth, it’s limited to things like gems and pharmaceuticals.  Since the galactic community has no common currency, it’s like a portable cash machine and becomes Laureline’s pet.  Also, the Shingouz, greedy information brokers who will dispense helpful data in exchange for large payments.  Laureline becomes one of their favorite customers and they frequently appear in later stories.

The art is good, with the setting allowing the artist to go wild with interesting alien designs.  I’m not a fan of the coloring, though, which is often garish and inconsistent.  In particular, the humans often have bright orange skin.

There’s some violence, but it’s non-lethal, and one scene takes place in an alien brothel where we see some scantily-clad aliens (including Laureline in a disguise.)  Say a PG-13 rating.

Recommended to fans of science fiction adventure and/or French comics.

The City of Shifting Waters

And now a special bonus review of The City of Shifting Waters, which is as of 5/13/17 available for free download on Kindle.  This is an earlier adventure, when Laureline was still a new partner for Valerian.  A mad scientist named Xombul has escaped confinement and used a one-way device to travel to New York City in 1986.

Time voyages to that era are forbidden as global disaster, including melting of the polar ice caps, wiped out the existing civilizations, and there’s a blank spot three centuries long in the history books.  It’s not clear what Xombul is up to, but he must be stopped, so Valerian is sent back.

The secret time portal in the Statue of Liberty becomes inoperable shortly after Valerian arrives when the statue collapses, and the agent is pressed into service by a gang looting the flooded city.  While Valerian does manage to find a clue as to what Xombul is doing, he can’t do much with it.

Until Laureline shows up.  When Valerian didn’t report back in, she went to the time portal in Brazil and worked her way up to New York.  Reunited, the time agents make a deal with the leader of the looters, Sun Rae.  Since there are no historical records of this period, one petty warlord or another makes no difference but allowing Xombul to take over would change the future unpredictably.  They’ll let Sun Rae keep any 1980s science Xombul has gathered in exchange for his help against the intruder.

Turns out Xombul has big plans indeed, and intends to spread his “benevolent” rule over all of space-time!  Will our heroes (and their not so heroic ally) be able to stop him before the future vanishes?

The faces are a bit more cartoony in this volume; perhaps the artist hadn’t quite settled his style yet.  Valerian also comes off a bit more sexist, with some stupid remarks.

Thankfully, even in this cartoonier style, Sun Rae (who’s presumably African-American) doesn’t look too much like a racist stereotype.  When he’s first introduced, we learn he was a flutist before the Great Disaster, and he’s pretty sharp, instantly grasping the advantages of having scientific knowledge once he’s alerted to the idea.  He also doesn’t go out of his way to be evil despite his ruthlessness.

Xombul’s a bit more of a stereotype, given to explaining his brilliant plans to his enemies before disposing of them, and wanting to try out new cool gadgets on human subjects before they’ve been completely tested.  His captive slightly saner scientist, Schroeder, is clearly based on Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor but is better at social skills.

The writing isn’t quite up to the peak of the series, but is pulpy good fun.

Here’s a trailer for the movie!

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: 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: The Book of Andre Norton

Book Review: The Book of Andre Norton edited by Roger Elwood

Andre Alice Norton (1912-2005) was a prolific author,  best known for her science fiction and fantasy novels marketed to the young adult sector.  (I’ve previously reviewed her 1960 book Storm Over Warlock.)  Her output of short fiction was much less, but enough good stories were available for this volume.  The hardback edition was titled The Many Worlds of Andre Norton.

The Book of Andre Norton

The introduction is by Donald A. Wollheim, the publisher of DAW Books.  He notes that he republished one of her “juveniles” with a new title and without mentioning its original marketing category, and it sold just fine, thank you.  At the time of his writing, “young adult” was still a new name for the category and felt awkward to him.

“The Toads of Grimmerdale” is about a rape survivor named Hertha.   Her homeland of the Dales has recently managed to repel an invasion, but at a high cost, with the land impoverished and the various fiefs thrown into confusion.  The man who assaulted Hertha was not one of the invaders, but of a Dalish army.  She didn’t get a look at his face, but there is a clue by which she will surely know him.  When it became clear that Hertha was pregnant, her brother Kuno offered her a choice of a dangerous abortion…or exile.

Hertha undertakes the harsh midwinter journey to the shrine of Gunnora, goddess of women, and is assured that the evil of its father will not taint her child.  But Hertha also wants revenge, something Gunnora (who only has domain over life) will not offer.  So it is that Hertha also seeks out the title creatures, which are not toads in any human sense, who do offer vengeance.  But it is said that the gifts they offer are often not to the pleasure of their supplicants.

Then  we meet Trystan, a mercenary who is no longer needed by his army, and looking for a place to settle down.  He may or may not be the man Hertha is looking for, but soon he must deal with the Toads.  But can either man or woman stand against the gods of the Old Ones?

This is the cover story, and that illustration is at least in the right neighborhood.  Of note is that the Toads do something to Hertha’s face that makes her hideous to men, though we never get a description beyond patches of brown skin.

“London Bridge” is set in a post-apocalyptic city.  It was sealed against the pollution of the outside world, only to fall victim to a plague that killed all/most of the adults.  (It’s not clear if “Ups” are the few adults that remain, driven to madness by drug addiction, or people the same age range as the protagonist who are drug addicts.)  Lew is the leader of his gang of youths and children, and is on the trail of “the Rhyming Man”, a mysterious figure who speaks only in nursery rhymes and seems to be responsible for the disappearance of the younger members of this and other gangs.   This story seems to be more fantasy than science fiction, as the power of belief is an important plot point.

“On Writing Fantasy” is an essay by Ms. Norton about where she gets her ideas and the process of writing fantastic stories.  She was a big believer in reading history and historical fiction to get inspiration and technical details, and shares a list of her favorites.  (The history books may be a trifle dated due to new discoveries and scholarship.)   She also talks about writing Year of the Unicorn, her first book with a female protagonist.  Reader response was apparently very divided–girls really appreciated Gillan, while boys did not like her at all.  (“The Toads of Grimmerdale” turns out to take place at roughly the same time as this book, but does not share any characters.)

“Mousetrap” is a short tale set on Mars.  A man destroys a priceless alien artwork and suffers the consequences.  Hard to discuss further without spoiling.

“All Cats are Gray” also starts on Mars.  A computer operator approaches a man down on his luck with the news that a derelict spaceship loaded with loot is returning to the general orbit area.  She invites herself and her cat along on the salvage mission, which turns out to be a very good idea.  Ms. Norton’s themes of bonding with animals and distrust of computers are both seen here.

“The Long Night of Waiting” is set in a new suburban housing development.  The children of the first family to move in meet two children who are very out of place.  This is despite the pair having lived there to begin with; they’ve been trapped in the land of the Fair Folk for what seems like a short time to them, but more than a century to those outside.  The ending might be happy, or chilling, depending on your attitude.

“The Gifts of Asti” is another story that blends the fantasy and SF genres; the last priestess of the title god flees her temple in advance of the barbarian hordes that have sacked the nearby city.  Passing through underground passages with her telepathic lizard companion, Varta emerges in a valley that has not seen human life in a long time, possibly because of the glass plain where a city once stood.  Varta finds a gift preserved from a time when the ancient towers were not yet built, and this provides hope for the future.

“Long Live Lord Kor!” is a novella-length work.  Mental time travel has been invented, but restricted to meddling with planets whose populations are dead in “the present” to try to bring them back to life.  Special agent Creed Trapnell is assigned to follow up a failed mission.  For reasons not fully discussed, it is only possible to be projected back into a brain that has near-zero intelligence of its own.  Trapnell finds himself not in the body of the oracle he was intended to inhabit (and why would an  oracle be devoid of thought?) and instead inhabiting Lord Kor Kenric, the son of the king.

It seems Kor recently took a bad wound to the head, and was not expected to live, let alone recover with only a case of amnesia.  Now the new merged Lord Kor must seek out the “sorceress” who is the primary agent in this time period and attempt to complete the mission before the oracle sets the planet on the road to nuclear war.  Turns out there were some important things left out of Trapnell’s briefing…but did the supercomputer ZAT deliberately conceal these topics, or just not know?

There’s some use of what used to be acceptable medical terms for people with mental handicaps, but are now considered slurs.

“Andre Norton: Loss of Faith” by Rick Brooks is a survey of the themes in her work, and what seemed to be an increasing pessimism in her books.  Many of the darker sides of her settings had been there all along, but Mr. Brooks felt they were becoming more central in the late 1960s material.

The volume ends with a complete as of 1974 bibliography for Ms. Norton.

I enjoyed “Mousetrap” and “Long Live Lord Kor!” the best; “The Long Night of Waiting” felt too “old person complainy” for my tastes.  Overall, a strong collection of stories, and it’s been reprinted several times so should be available in better used bookstores as well as libraries.

Book Review: Nexus

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.”  One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.

Nexus

Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five.  It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels.  Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology.  Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available.  These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.

After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights.  In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity.  Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.

Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD.  It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work.  The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory.  If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently.  Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him.  She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.

While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller.  Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory.  The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.

One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing.  The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies.  Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives.  Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work.  A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony.  But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.

Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.

Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse.  The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.

In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.

Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.

Comic Book Review: Noble Causes Archives, Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Noble Causes Archives, Vol. 1 written by Jay Faerber

Liz Donnelly is nervous about meeting her future in-laws.  After all, she’s just a normal bookstore manager, and they’re the Noble Family, celebrity superheroes, beloved across the world.  Her fiance Race Noble is nice enough, but Liz soon learns that behind the glitzy facade, the Noble family has severe problems that are tearing them apart.  When tragedy strikes, it could be the ending of Liz’s world, if not everyone’s.

Noble Causes Archives, Vol. 1

This Image Comics offering was a series of miniseries before getting approved for an ongoing (with a soft reset.)  It takes the soap opera aspects of modern superhero comics, and the idea of superheroes as celebrities, and runs with it.  Indeed, the soap opera is so central that it’s several issues before we see one of the family do something that matches the “hero” part of the genre.

At the beginning, the family consists of “Doc” Noble, an inventor/adventurer who has retreated into his laboratory more and more as the years have gone by, rather than interact with his brood; his wife Gaia, a nature mage from another dimension who craved the celebrity lifestyle and has crafted the family’s public image; Icarus, Doc’s robot assistant, who considers himself the dutiful son; Rusty, who recently suffered an “accident” that required transplanting his brain into a robotic body; Celeste, Rusty’s gold digger wife, who was unfaithful to him even before he became all metal; Race, a super-speedster who has the best emotional balance of the crew; Krennick, Race’s best buddy and son of family enemy Draconis, who has an unrequited thing for; Zephyr, only daughter and a rebellious teenager whose promiscuity has gotten out of hand; and Frost, Gaia’s son by a brief affair, who officially does not exist, and has been sleeping with Celeste.

Liz’s marriage to Race helps precipitate a series of events that bring to light several family secrets and relationship crises.  The series is really good at issue-ending cliffhangers.

This black and white reprint volume covers up to issue #12 of the ongoing, and the resolution of the Zephyr pregnancy plotline.  There were a number of back-up stories that flashed back to events before Liz met the family; instead of being bundled with the main stories of each issue they were published in, they have been placed at the end of the volume.  These stories explain some motivations and sometimes make the characters’ actions more sympathetic.

Content warnings:  There’s a fairly gory scene early on, a lot of talk about sex (and some near-sex scenes) and some rather disturbing implications in the backstory.   I’d say senior high school and up for readership.

Many of the characters are not particularly likable.  (When Doc suddenly starts being a somewhat better husband and father, Gaia worries that he’s terminally ill.)  But there are enough of them that are sympathetic or enjoyable to keep reading.

The art is by a number of different creators, mostly in the decent to acceptable range.

Recommended to comic book fans who are really into the soap opera aspect.

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2 mostly written by Marv Wolfman and art by Gene Colan.

When the Comics Code restrictions on horror were loosened in the 1970s, DC primarily went in for horror anthology comics, while Marvel Comics based entire series around horrific heroes and villains.  One of these was the classic (and public domain) character of Vlad Tepes, aka Count Dracula.

Essential Tomb of Dracula Volume 2

This series revealed that Bram Stoker’s book (highly recommended if you haven’t read it, by the way) was highly fictionalized, and Dracula had not in fact finally died at the end of it, only being very inconvenienced.  He had been various places, doing various things, temporarily being put of commission now and then…and this storyline opened with him once again being awakened to start his reign of terror anew.

Opposing the Lord of Vampires was a crew of vampire hunters including Quincy Harker (the son of Jonathan and Mina), now an elderly man confined to a wheelchair by injuries received in past battles with Dracula; Rachel van Helsing (great-granddaughter of Professor van Helsing) a crossbow-wielder who wasn’t always as effective as she’d like; Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula (before becoming a vampire) who had wasted his wealth and had to man up over the course of the series; and Taj Nital, an Indian man who had been rendered mute when Dracula injured his throat.  Independent of them were Blade, who only hunted Dracula because he hated all vampires due to the murder of his mother by Deacon Frost, and Hannibal King, a detective that Deacon Frost had turned into a vampire, who avoided taking blood from living humans.

Of course, Dracula didn’t just have vampire hunters after him, but people who either wanted to become lord of all vampires themselves or otherwise exploit him.  The most persistent of these was Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who’d been turned into a disembodied brain hooked up to a computer, who wanted to take over the world.

At the start of this volume, Dracula learns of the current whereabouts of an artifact called the Chimera, which re-sparks his desire to conquer the world himself.  (He’d had to put that on hold as a vampire army large enough to take over would promptly drink the rest of humanity to extinction, and then where would they be?)  Fortunately for the world, Dracula is not the only one after the artifact, and it ends up smashed.

Dracula has noticed his powers waning, and this leads him to a near-final confrontation with Quincy Harker, before learning that it is in fact Doctor Sun behind it, and the action moves to Boston.  There the cast adds nebbish “true vampire story” writer Harold H. Harold and lovely but ditsy secretary Aurora Rabinowitz, who act as comic relief.

After the Doctor Sun situation is resolved, Dracula takes control of a local Satanist cult and marries a woman named Domini, who he believes will give him a proper heir.  (The leader of the Satanists, of course, has other plans.)

Mixed throughout this volume are soap-opera subplots involving the various supporting cast, and interludes of Dracula’s adventures in other times and places.  Marv Wolfman’s writing is often excellent, but he sometimes doesn’t consult previous issues, resulting in some minor continuity glitches.  Gene Colan’s art is more consistently outstanding, and fits the mood well, especially in this black and white reprint.  (Some stories from the Giant-Size side series are included, with art by the less impressive but very competent Don Heck.)

Make no mistake, Dracula is the main villain here, and rare is the issue where he does not murder at least one innocent person just to remind us of that.  Much of his time is taken up with petty revenge against people who have crossed him and when he acts against other villains, it’s usually out of pride or personal vendetta.  Every once in a while, he does show a moment of kindness, but the door soon slams shut when his darker nature prevails.  Because he’s the title character, Dracula has what TV Tropes calls “Joker Immunity”; he can never be permanently killed off, only temporarily thwarted, so the heroes seem ineffectual.  (Quincy Harker broods about this frequently.)

These stories do take place in the Marvel Universe, though this series avoids most of the implications of that.  Brother Voodoo helps Frank Drake through a bad patch in his life, and Doctor Strange actually temporarily kills Dracula (but is hypnotized not to notice it’s not permanent until later.)

In addition to the expected violence (but relatively little gore–the Comics Code was still in effect), Dracula’s attacks on women are often treated in a sexualized manner.  There are some instances of suicide, both voluntary and forced.  Dracula is also depicted as being racist (mostly against Blade) and sexist (he is not at all kind to the memory of Lucy Westerna.)

And speaking of sexism, one story includes a woman who’s a bit of a “straw feminist”; the owner of a fashion house who only hires women even if a man would be more competent at the job (except one dress designer who might be gay given the coding) and who has an enormous grudge against the various men who tried to keep her down.  Dracula agrees to kill her enemies in exchange for information she can get more efficiently than he, but leaves her in a sticky situation at the end of the story.

Despite often high melodrama, there are some very well-written moments as well.

Recommended for vampire comics fans, Blade fans who want to see his early adventures, and those who enjoy Gene Colan’s art.

Comic Book Review: Our Army at War

Comic Book Review: Our Army at War edited by Joey Cavalieri

Back in the day, DC Comics had a fine line of war comics.  Primarily focused around World War Two, they paid tribute to the American military and the Greatest Generation.  Which is not to say that they were mindless patriotic propaganda.  The stories often depicted the costs of war, and to an extent the gray areas of combat.  The Comics Code of the time prevented them from showing gore and some of the atrocities of wartime, or going too far in criticizing the officers, but the stories often showed U.S. soldiers who did not live up to strict moral standards, and the human side of the enemy.

Our Army at War

Also, they had some of the best art at DC, with Joe Kubert as their iconic presence.  As I mentioned in my review of Weird War Tales‘ Showcase volume, sales of the war books started to fall in the 1970s with the unpopularity of Vietnam and a general revulsion towards the military.  At the same time, the Comics Code eased and (relatively mild) horror took a rise in popularity, resulting in “weird” elements being inserted in some of the lesser war books.

Eventually, the various series petered out.  While there have been war books for short runs since, they’ve never been the sellers they once were.  However, DC still has the trademarks for the titles, and some classic characters, so in 2010 the company published a handful of one-shots to keep the trademarks active.  They were combined for this graphic novel version in 2011.

Our Army at War itself leads off with “Time Stands Still for No Man” by Mike Marts and Victor Ibañez.  It compares and contrasts World War Two and the then-current Afghanistan War by following the stories of a volunteer soldier in each conflict.  The WWII section has Sergeant Rock and Easy Company, but they are mostly background, as are the mercenary Gods of War in the modern section.  It’s the most innovative of the stories in structure.

Weird War Tales is split into three shorts.  “Armistice Night” by Darwyn Cooke and Dave Stewart is a darkly silly tale of the annual get together of the ghosts of history’s great warriors.  “The Hell Above Us” by Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein spins a yarn of the sole survivor of a sunken submarine…and what he finds when he surfaces.  “Private Parker Sees Thunder Lizards” by Jan Strnad and Gabriel Hardman is one of those borderline cases–is the blinded, dying soldier conjuring up dinosaurs to battle the Nazis, or is it all a fantasy his buddy is enabling to allow Private Parker pass away with a smile?

Our Fighting Forces stars “The Losers”:  one-eyed and -legged PT boat captain without a boat Captain Storm; Johnny Cloud, the lonely Navajo Ace, and Gunner & Sarge, the sole survivors of their Marine platoon.  Four misfits assigned to the toughest missions, who somehow come out alive to nurse their survivors’ guilt again.  In “Winning Isn’t Everything” by B. Clay Moore, Chad Hardin & Wayne Faucher, they are assigned to take out an isolated Nazi air field, but the route mapped out for them is just a little too obvious.  Their innovative solutions may win the day, but is that for the best?

G.I. Combat is back to the weird with “Listening to Ghosts” by Matthew Sturges and Phil Winslade is centered on the Haunted Tank, a M3 Stuart tank with a commander named Lieutenant Jeb Stuart.  The lieutenant often sees and gets advice from his namesake, Civil War general J.E.B. Stuart.  Usually the ghost only warns of danger with cryptic utterances.  In this story, Lt. Stuart finds that his friendly rival Lt. Billy Sherman, who commands a M4 Sherman tank, has been killed by Nazi snipers, and he must use the unfamiliar machine to assist his regular crew, with another ghost whispering over his shoulder.  Notably, the iconic Stars & Bars flag flown from the Haunted Tank in the original series is absent in this story without explanation.

Star-Spangled War Stories represents the non-American contingent of the Allies with French Resistance fighter Mademoiselle Marie.  “Vive Libre ou Mourir!” by Billy Tucci, Justiano, Tom Derenck & Andrew Mangum has the beautiful and deadly anti-fascist parachuted in to a new Resistance group who she will lead in destroying key railroads.  But treachery is afoot–the local Maquis du Gevaudan would rather use the money Marie brought to buy rifles for direct combat.  More treachery ensues.  Non-explicit sex scenes and some kink, as well as the standard violent death.

It’s a decent collection, but inconsequential.  The Darwyn Cooke story is the most interesting.  I’d say it’s a good choice for someone who wants to sample DC’s war comics characters without needing to find spendy back issues.  Some great art.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Seven

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Seven by Makoto Yukimura

Quick recap and spoilers for the previous volume:  It is the age of Vikings.  Canute, King of Denmark and (by conquest) England, needs cash to fund his occupation army.  Therefore, he has engineered an incident to force the wealthy Ketil family into outlawry and seize their lands and property.  Meanwhile, on the Ketil farm, slaves Thorfinn, Einar and Arnheid face the consequences of Gardar’s rampage–Snake and his men are not happy at all.

Vinland Saga Book Seven

Ketil returns home on Leif’s ship, in great emotional distress because of the king’s treachery.  He learns of Gardar’s attempt to rescue Arnheid (Gardar’s wife and Ketil’s slave) and reacts by beating Arnheid mercilessly, despite her being pregnant with his child.

Then Canute arrives with his thegns (top warriors) and fearsome Jomsviking mercenaries.  Ketil rallies the farmers who owe him money, but that and his small band of “guests”, veteran fighters though they may be are no match for the royal forces.

Thorfinn could just walk away from all of this, none of these people are saints or innocents, and he has no more obligation to them.  But his new commitment to pacifism as a way of life means he has to at least try to resolve the situation peacefully.

This volume of the long-running manga is filled with scenes of violence, often quite gory.  There are extended sequences of beatings that are painful to look at.  Rape does not occur on panel, but is referred to, and one character threatens it in an attempt to force consent.  There are numerous deaths, including important characters.

There are some lighter moments, however.  Canute and Thorfinn’s meeting after so many years leads to at least a temporary peace.  And chapter 100, the last of the volume, is primarily comedic as Thorfinn returns to Iceland at long last only to have no one recognize him.  There’s some humor derived from the fact that there’s another Thorfinn about the same age in the crew, distinguished by being nicknamed “Bug-Eyes.”

The legendary scene of King Canute ordering the waves to stop is in here, as the young ruler makes a point about his power compared to God’s.

The art and writing continue to be excellent, so if you enjoyed previous volumes, you’ll like this one.

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