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 Big Time | The Mind Spider and Other Stories

Book Review: The Big Time | The Mind Spider and Other Stories by Fritz Leiber

Have you ever noticed that something isn’t in the place you last remembered putting it?  That an event you remember happening one way is described as happening a different way in  the history books?  Perhaps you have suddenly felt that you weren’t even  the person you thought you were?  Maybe you’re going insane…or maybe it’s the Change Wars.

The Change Wars are fought over the entire breadth and depth of time and space, two factions known as Spiders and Snakes battling to have the course of universal history go their way.  It’s not precisely clear what the two sides want, if one is good and the other evil or if human morality even applies, or what the victory conditions would be.  It is known that both sides lift people out of their own timelines shortly before their deaths to become Doublegangers, to act as Soldiers or Entertainers or other, more obscure occupations relevant to the Change Wars.   This Ace Double is largely concerned with those Doublegangers and how the Change Wars affect them.

The Big Time

The Big Time is set in The Place, a building-sized rest station outside of normal time-space.  A number of Entertainers are quartered there to help Soldiers recover physically and emotionally between Change War battles.  Our narrator is Greta Forzane, who died in the Nazi invasion of Chicago in the late 1950s.  This makes her affair with Erich von Hohenwald, formerly an Oberleutnant in the army of the Third Reich, rather fraught.  It doesn’t help that his idea of fun sex involves giving her bruises.

If one side or the other manages to score a major victory, the Big Change can have effects on the Doublegangers’ original timelines, giving the Doublegangers phantom memories.  Erich was snatched from his personal timeline when he died on a Norwegian battlefield, but now he has memories of having lived long enough to become the hated Commandant of Toronto.  And if the Big Change makes the original person die before they “originally” did, it kills the Doubleganger.

Thus, each time The Place’s Door opens, the Change Winds may bring nightmares or even death.  This time it has deposited six Soldiers of varying start times, two of which are aliens (but from within Earth’s solar system) and one a warrior woman from ancient Crete.  The problem begins with a new recruit, a British poet from World War One, who has some idealistic notions bordering on mutiny.

While everyone is reacting to his incendiary rhetoric, somehow The Place undergoes Introversion, being completely cut off from normal space-time.  And the only device that can open it back up has vanished, despite a lack of plausible hiding places.  Oh, and just to add to the pressure, an atomic bomb has been activated and will kill everyone within thirty minutes.

This novel won the Hugo for Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) in 1958 after being serialized in Galaxy Magazine.  One of its interesting features is that it’s a “bottle episode” taking place in only one location, a large stage-like area with curtains separating different parts, and most of the action placed in the reception area.  I could easily see this being adapted for an (expensive) play or a juiced up episode of The Outer Limits.

As it is, there are almost too many characters, and a couple of them turn out to be red herrings who get almost no development.  Once they’re whittled out, the tension rises considerably.

Sex is only alluded to, and Erich never hits Greta during the story, but it’s clear that it’s an expected part of her (and the other Entertainers’ ) job if that’s what the Soldiers need to unwind.

There are a lot of interesting ideas going on here; it’s certainly worth hunting down for science fiction fans.

The Mind Spider and Other Stories

The Mind Spider and Other Stories makes up the other half of this Ace Double, six short stories from about the same publication years.

“The Haunted Future” says it’s set in the early 21st Century, but the timeline works better if it’s the middle 21st Century.  The peaceful community of Civil Service Knolls rests outside of New Angeles.  It is almost time for the annual Tranquility Festival, when the locals celebrate how nice and quiet it is in their bedroom community.   Yes, everything is smooth going in this happy village.

Except that the community members are snapping into violent insanity at an alarming rate, and now some people are claiming that a creature of darkness haunts the sky and peeps in their windows.  Judistrator Wisant is trying to keep these disturbing facts from becoming more widely known, but when his own daughter stops wearing clothing and starts stabbing pillows, some begin to wonder about Wisant’s stability.

This is a cautionary tale about a society that has pursued tranquility and conformity too far, until insanity has become the only escape into individuality.  It’s leavened by humorous touches–Bermuda shorts and sandals are now mandatory men’s business attire.

“Damnation Morning” is  the first of three Change Wars stories.  A man is recruited by the Spiders, and must flee an unknown doom.  Once again, the mysteriousness of the Spiders and Snakes’ true natures is emphasized, particularly with the twist ending.  (Content note: suicide.)

“The Oldest Soldier” starts in a liquor store as old soldiers swap stories.  Max has the best stories, but they can’t be true, can they?  Except that when one of his drinking companions accompanies Max home, there’s something crouched on the fire escape that is not of Earth, and Max realizes that he must return to his unit.  This one was clearly Lovecraft-influenced.

“Try and Change the Past” has a Snake recruit get a rare opportunity to alter his own death.  Turns out the universe has ways of preventing that, which makes the Big Changes even more impressive.  An impressive use of contrived coincidence.

“The Number of the Beast” is a change of pace.  The police chief of High Chicago must discover which of four telepathic aliens murdered a peace delegate from Arcturus, all the aliens being sworn to silence on the matter unless the Young Lieutenant correctly divines the guilty party.  If he guesses correctly, the assassin will give itself up truthfully.  But if he guesses incorrectly, the falsely accused alien’s race will declare war on the Earthlings.  The Young Lieutenant consults his retired predecessor on this mystery.  You have all the clues they do; can you divine the true meaning of the Number of the Beast?  Some casual sexism.

“The Mind Spider” rounds out the book with the tale of the telepathic Horn family.  Five mutants who can communicate with each other mentally, the Horns are horrified to discover that there is a sixth telepathic presence on Earth.  Horrified because it is not human, and because it was imprisoned in Antarctica for the crime of stripping planets of their life-supporting environments.  It has waited eons for telepaths it can summon to free it.  One of the Horns manages to get a mind shield up in time, but can he stop his relatives without killing them?

“Try and Change the Past” is perhaps the best of these stories, and “The Number of the Beast” more of a logic puzzle than anything else.

If you can get this in the Ace Double form, swell.  “The Big Time” has been reprinted separately; the other stories may take a bit more tracking down.

Anime Review: Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Vol. 03

Anime Review: Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Vol. 03

It is the year 2030, and after the effects of World Wars Three & Four, Japan is relatively unscathed, having become one of the world’s economic and technological powerhouses.  In particular, they lead the world in cybernetics, and various cyborg upgrades are commonplace.  Of course, this means that cybercrime is even more of a threat than in 2002 (when this series first aired) and the government agency “Public Security Section 9” is detailed to deal with those crimes, especially if they also involve terrorism.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Vol. 03

Section 9’s top agent is Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is a full-body cyborg, a “ghost in the shell.”  She has been in this state since childhood, and is adept at transferring her consciousness into alternate robot bodies (though she has a strong preference for ones shaped like female human beings.)  Along with her superior combat skills, this makes her a whiz at secret agent missions.

The Major and her colleagues will need every bit of their skill to battle the world-class hacker and cyberterrorist known as The Laughing Man, whose real face is impossible to see by anyone or anything with cybernetic connections, replaced by a bizarre logo adorned with Catcher in the Rye quotes.

Standalone Complex is a science-fiction anime series based on the Ghost in the Shell cyberpunk manga by Masamune Shirow.  While it shares many characters and most of its background with the manga and previous adaptations, it is not necessarily in continuity with those, so there are some minor contradictions.  “Motoko Kusanagi” (a name rich with connotations in Japanese culture, equivalent to naming a British secret agent “Victoria Excalibur”) may not even be the Major’s real name.

The structure of the show is interesting; odd-numbered episodes are “complex” and tie into the Laughing Man plot arc, while even-numbered episodes are “standalone” and tell individual stories.

As it happens, I got the third DVD volume of the series for Christmas, so let’s take a closer look at that.

Episode 9, “Chat! Chat! Chat!” takes place almost entirely within a virtual reality chat room for discussion of the Laughing Man phenomenon.  This…is not a good episode to come into the series on, as it is largely just people sitting around having conversations.  And not even the main characters (except the Major in disguise) but a bunch of people who probably didn’t appear before and won’t appear again.  We do get some background on what is public knowledge about the Laughing Man (not much) and some discussion of whether it’s even the same Laughing Man from previous incidents or a copycat.

Episode 10, “Jungle Cruise” focuses on Batou, a former Army Ranger with obviously cybernetic eyes.  A serial killer is loose in the city of Niihama, who skins his victims alive in a distinctive fashion.  The identity of the killer is quickly revealed when two CIA operatives from the American Empire (World War Three was not kind to the United States, which split up into three countries, of which the Empire is the most active in world affairs) appear to ask Section 9 for help capturing him.

We learn that the killer was part of a CIA black ops mission in Southern Mexico known as “Project Sunset.”  It involved murdering civilians in particularly horrific fashion to break the will of the enemy.  Batou, as part of the UN peacekeeping forces, encountered the killer, but was unable to stop him.  The killer’s war has not ended, now brought to the shores of Japan,  Does this also mean that Batou’s war is not over?

Episode 11, “Portraitz” follows Togusa, the least cyberized field agent of Section 9 (just a “cyberbrain” that allows him to communicate with other people who have cyberbrains) as he infiltrates a facility for children  with Closed Shell Syndrome, a condition where one becomes too dependent on cybernetic communication, making it difficult to operate in the real world even while becoming a savant with computers.  There’s something sinister going on in the facility; but is it one of the staff who’s responsible, or one of the patients?

Episode 12, “Escape From” is two related stories.  In the first half, a Tachikoma (an artificial intelligence robot that serves as a small tank for Section 9) goes walkabout without orders, heading into the city and learning about the human concept of death.  Along the way, it picks up a mysterious box.  In the second half, we learn that if someone cybernetically connects to the box, their “ghost” vanishes inside it and won’t come out.  The Major must investigate, but will she too be seduced by what’s inside the box and lost forever?

This one manages to touch on some deeper philosophical topics:  death, the rapidly developing individuality of the Tachikoma AIs, escapism and artistic integrity.

Each episode ends with a short comedy skit starring the Tachikomas, usually tying in with the plot of the episode somehow.  Also included in this volume are interviews with Batou’s actor and the sound director.

The opening credits are full-on CGI, which is a bit jarring, and really showcases how silly the Major’s default outfit looks, especially from behind.  (It reminds me of the US superhero comics fad for putting their heroines in costumes that were basically glorified swimsuits.)  The music is good, though.

I liked “Jungle Cruise” best of the episodes in this volume.

Content notes:  “Jungle Cruise” does involve skinning people alive, and we see some of the results.  There’s a nude female statue in “Portraitz”, which some parents might find unsuitable for younger viewers.  (But honestly, if you let them watch the previous episode…)  The dub version may have some rough language.

Overall, I am looking forward to seeing the entire series so that I can make more sense of the Laughing Man episodes.  Recommended to fans of other Ghost in the Shell versions, and cyberpunk fans in general.

Here’s the opening music, for those who like that sort of thing:

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