Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume 9: The Millennium Express (1995-2009)

Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express (1995-2009) by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg (1935-still alive as of this writing) is one of the longest-running science fiction authors, having made his first sale in 1953.  Especially in his early years, Mr. Silverberg has been prolific, with his non-series short fiction alone filling nine sizable volumes.  This is the last in that series, but not necessarily the last collection of his short stories.

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express, (1995-2009)

As the author explains in his foreword and the story introductions, he’s slowed down some as he’s aged, for various reasons.  There’s “only” sixteen stories from fourteen years presented here, but most are longer, a few up to novella length.

The opening story is “Diana of the Hundred Breasts” originally written for sale to Playboy, but turned down by them.  A wealthy layabout goes to visit his brilliant archaeologist brother at his dig in Ephesus, Turkey.  They meet a retired minister who’s touring the area, and the brother takes the other two to see the famous Diana statue of the title.  A little later, the archaeologist uncovers what may be the true meaning of the statue, but the brothers are left with more questions than answers.

I found the story so-so.  Mr. Silverberg uses tourists as main characters in many of his late period stories, something the Playboy fiction editor chided him for.  Even when the characters aren’t tourists as such, the stories often include long sightseeing sections.

He also favors the setting of the very far future and having characters realize just how very old the universe is.  Of these tales, I liked “The True Vintage of Eruzine Thale” the best.  It’s set in Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” cycle.  Poet and wine connoisseur Puillayne is pulled out of his ennui by three suspicious looking men who claim to be fans of his work.  They turn out to be far more interested in Puillayne’s collection of rare treasures, especially the title liquid.

“The Millennium Express” is set in the relatively near future of 2999.  Four clones of great men have suddenly begun destroying the remaining treasures of the past.  A witness of one of their crimes becomes their pursuer, trying to discover their motivations and prevent them from wiping out the Louvre.  It’s a story about letting go of the past.

My choice for the strongest story in this collection is “Defenders of the Frontier” which first appeared in the Warriors collection, which I read previously.  A squad of soldiers man a forgotten outpost between their Empire and “the enemy.”  No orders or supplies have come to them in years as their numbers dwindled.  The enemy, too, has dwindled–they seem to have killed the last one in a thousand mile radius some weeks ago.  The soldiers can’t leave their post without orders, but if the enemy is truly gone, then there is no point in remaining.

I was reminded of the anime series Sora wo Oto, also about a small group of soldiers at a seemingly pointless outpost, though its mood is very different.

The final story is “Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar”, set in India as the British Empire is building railroads there.  Young Smithers learns of a legendary sound in the desert, as though there were invisible people there, or perhaps ghosts.  He drags his friend Brewster off on an adventure to investigate.  They learn the truth behind this mystery, but at a terrible cost.

Several of the stories have scenes of extramarital sex.  (Apparently, at one point Mr. Silverberg concentrated on soft porn when the science fiction market was in a slump.)  “Beauty in the Night” has rape, child abuse and general physical abuse.

Overall, a high quality collection.  Robert Silverberg is a fine writer who has honed his craft over decades, and took his time with these stories.  However, I think this volume might do best for older readers who have some life experience to fully appreciate the nuances.  Beginners might want to start with one of the earlier volumes.

Disclaimer:  The version I read was an Advance Uncorrected Proof, and the final contents might be slightly different–at the very least, the typos fixed.

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E Lockhart

Fantasy and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a big seller during his lifetime, but the loose setting he created of the Cthulhu Mythos, where humans are only the most recent inhabitants of a cold and chaotic universe, and many of the previous inhabitants are effectively gods, has become one of the most popular sub-genres of horror literature.  The twenty-seven stories in this volume are by second- and third-generation Lovecraftian writers.

The Book of Cthulhu

There’s an encouraging variety of protagonists; professors and prostitutes, hitmen and clergymen.  Some of them are from ethnic groups HPL would never have made the heroes of his stories.  There’s a variety of tones as well.  Of course there’s a number that are straight up creepy horror, but there’s also noir-ish crime fiction and deadpan penny dreadful humor.

The volume opens with “Andromeda Among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  A family guards a gate off the Northern California coast; but only one of them was truly born for the job.  I found the story rather slight, and one of the weaker ones in the collection.

The closing story is “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron.  Seven lumberjacks go hunting in the Pacific Northwest.  Not all of them are going to be returning.  This one makes good use of escalating creepiness, culminating in a scene where a monster makes its menace particularly personal.

Oldest story honors go to Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tugging” from 1976.  An art critic in a small British city is having disturbing dreams about Atlantis, which may tie into a comet with unusual gravitation behavior.  I’ve read this one before, and it’s interesting as an unintentional period piece.  I remember in my youth paging through great bound volumes of yellowing newsprint as the protagonist does here, instead of scrolling through microfilm, or today’s scanned files.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein is one of the editor’s favorites, according to the introduction (which is perhaps a little too generous to Lovecraft’s writing skills.)  An elderly writer who was a friend of HPL in his youth meets a missionary returning from Malaysia.  Over the course of time, the writer learns that at least one thing written by Lovecraft may be uncomfortably close to reality.  It is a good story, told well.

I also particularly enjoyed “Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe.  A Nebraskan teacher is collecting oral history in the Appalachian region.  An old man tells him about seeing the “soul sucker”, which seems like a tall tale at first…but it’s actually a warning.  This one held my attention fast.

Overall, this is a strong collection with many creepy stories and some marquee writers like Elizabeth Bear, Joe R. Lansdale and David Drake.  I should mention that one story features incest and marital rape.  Recommended to fans of the Lovecraftian type of horror.

Book Review: The Rebels

Book Review: The Rebels by John Jakes

Philip Kent, nee Phillipe Charboneau, would much rather be at home, caring for his pregnant wife Anne.  But after he was forced to kill his murderous half-brother in self-defense, Philip has gone all in for the cause of the rebels against British rule.  Thus it is that on June 17, 1775, Philip finds himself on Breed’s Hill near Boston, waiting for the order to fire on the advancing Redcoats.  Too soon, Philip will discover that the price of liberty is steep indeed.

The Rebels

Far to the south in Virginia, young wastrel Judson Fletcher dissipates himself with strong drink and other men’s wives.  Denied the woman he truly loves, and disgusted with the system of slavery that gave his family wealth but too weak to stand up against it, Judson dreams of the West, but does not have the courage to go.

Neither man knows it, but destiny will entwine the fates of these rebels who never meet.

In the mid-1970s, America’s mood was pretty glum.  We’d lost the Vietnam War, Watergate had done a hatchet job on trust in the federal government, and the economy was not doing at all well.  But we did have an important anniversary coming up, the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, generally treated as the birthday of the United States.  Two hundred years of freedom (more or less) was something to celebrate, and thoughts turned more and more to that period in our history as 1976 drew near.

One of the most successful tie-ins to the Bicentennial was this series of books, “The Kent Chronicles”, a sweeping saga of one family’s fortunes during the first century or so of the United States of America.  Extensively researched and well-outlined (the family tree in this volume indicates which family members appear in volumes that hadn’t been published yet), the series was well received, and at one point John Jakes had three volumes of the series on the New York Times bestseller list at once.

The story is told in tight third-person from the viewpoints of the two men (except for a brief section where Anne Kent is the viewpoint character.)  Philip and Judson both meet many historically famous people while never quite making it into the history books themselves.

Philip serves the Continental Army in several important battles and behind the scenes actions.  (It helps that he’s close friends with the Marquis de Lafayette.)  A series of hard knocks musters him out before the British surrender, but some wise investments by Anne allow him to start his own printing business.

Judson acts as a substitute delegate to the Continental Congress for his ailing brother Donald, even helping to craft the Declaration of Independence.  Unfortunately, his alcoholism and inability to keep it in his pants rob Judson of the chance to sign the document.  He then has an even worse failure of character before his last chance at redemption comes up.  His old friend George Rogers Clark needs men for a expedition in the West.  Beset by some of the worst luck a man can have, will Judson arrive in time?

There’s plenty of exciting action, but it’s interspersed with lengthy sections where Mr. Jakes catches the reader up on events our protagonists weren’t there for, but read about in the papers.  This is historical fiction with an emphasis on history.

There’s the expected period racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.  Violence abounds, and a couple of characters commit suicide just off-screen.  I had forgotten since I read the book as a teen just how much rape there is too.

Rereading this book after forty years, it’s pretty clear that the enormous popularity of the series was at least partially because they were the right books at the right time.  They’re very much a product of the Seventies, made for 1970s America.  That said, a blast of nostalgia every so often doesn’t hurt.

And now, a video about the Declaration of Independence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrSeCYSnj5Y

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!

Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

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

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

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.

Manga Review: Platinum End 1

Manga Review: Platinum End 1 Story by Tsugumi Ohba, Art by Takeshi Obata

Have you ever looked at the world around you and thought, “Wow, God’s not doing a very good job.”?  Perhaps you have even succumbed to hubris and thought you could do a better job if you, personally, had God’s power.  As it turns out, God’s retiring and has assigned thirteen angels to seek out candidates for the open position.  Each will be able to give their candidate special powers, and there will be a 999-day competition period, at the end of which the new God will be chosen.  Special rank angel Nasse already has someone in mind.

Platinum End 1

Which brings us to our protagonist, Mirai Kakehashi.  He’s introduced to us by tossing himself off a building on the day he graduates from middle school.  Seems that Mirai is an orphan whose life has been made utterly miserable by his abusive relatives (yes, shades of Harry Potter) and now that he’s past mandatory school age, aunt and uncle want him to get a job and sign over the paycheck in return for their “generosity.”  Nasse catches Mirai before he hits the pavement.

The angel explains that she has been keeping an eye on Mirai for a while as his “guardian angel” and she is at last able to intervene to make him happy.  Nasse grants him three nifty powers; wings to fly, red arrows that will make people love him, and white arrows that kill painlessly.  Mirai isn’t too sure about this, especially as Nasse suggests using these powers in ways that seem…unethical to the boy.  He does, however, wind up using the red arrows to resolve the issue of his abusive relatives.

Now that Mirai has a future again, he works hard to get into the same school as his crush, Saki.  While that’s going on, Nasse explains more about the “replace God” contest, and they become aware of a God candidate who is most definitely abusing his powers.  This story doesn’t really intersect with theirs, as he’s quickly taken out by a third candidate, who has decided to murder his way to victory.

“Metropoliman” uses his powers to appear to be a superhero so that he can  openly hunt for the other candidates with the public on his side.  This makes Mirai worried, but the murderous “hero” isn’t his top priority when a fourth candidate turns out to be going to the same high school.  A candidate who’s gotten the drop on him!

This monthly manga is by the creators of Death Note and Bakuman, and was much anticipated.   The art is certainly excellent!  But large chunks of the premise seem to have been lifted from the Future Diary series, and several of the characters in these early chapters are kind of blah.  In particular, Ohba seems to struggle with the right balance of competence and initiative for female characters.  I am hoping that future chapters will improve this.

That said, Nasse has a lot of potential as an angelic creature that doesn’t quite grok human morality.  Her design which makes it difficult to tell whether she’s wearing clothes or just has an unusual body is also nifty.

Content issues:  In addition to frequent mentions of suicide (and one on-camera attempt) and child abuse, there’s rape and female nudity in a sexual context.  While the series is aimed at high schoolers in Japan, it gets a “Mature Readers” tag in the U.S.

Primarily recommended to fans of the creators’ previous series.  Consider getting the physical edition–there are some neat effects on the cover that don’t come across in a scan.

Manga Review: Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1 by Hiroaki Samura

Manji used to be the samurai retainer of Lord Horii, and served faithfully until the day he discovered that the people he’d just killed on orders from Horii were in fact not criminals, but innocent peasants who were going to the government with evidence of the lord’s tax embezzlement.  In a fit of rage, Manji executed his master.  Now a fugitive, Manji wound up killing one hundred police officers in his efforts to remain free.

Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1

The last one turned out to be his sister Machi’s husband, and witnessing this event drove her mad.  This sobered Manji somewhat, and he reconsidered his habit of resorting to lethal violence while trying to take care of his sister.  It was at this point that Manji met the Buddhist nun Yaobikuni, who infested him with the kessen-chu (holy bloodworms) that regenerate any wound, making Manji functionally immortal.

After a ronin (masterless samurai) gang murders Machi to force Manji into a duel, he no longer has a reason to be immortal.  It turns out that he can be released from the bloodworms if he can complete a worthy goal.  Manji decides to make up for murdering one hundred cops by killing one thousand criminals.  But he believes he must have proof of evil before he kills someone, otherwise he’ll just be adding more stains to his soul….

This 1990s seinen manga series (originally titled Mugen no Juunin “Inhabitant of Infinity”) is set in the Edo period of Japanese history, but uses deliberate anachronisms to indicate that historical accuracy is not to be found here.  The creator states in an interview contained in this volume that he was trying for a “punk” sensibility.

After the introductory chapter, the story begins to focus on the other protagonist, a young woman named Rin.  She is seeking revenge on a man named Anotsu who murdered her father (in revenge for his grandfather’s offense against Anotsu’s grandfather) and had her mother raped before carrying the woman off.  The problem is that Anotsu is the leader of the powerful Itto-Ryu gang, renegade warriors who are out to destroy all other schools of weapon use.  Rin may be plucky, and can handle weapons, but she hasn’t had nearly enough training to handle expert fighters.

Yaobikuni suggests that Rin hire Manji to help her.  He’s dubious at first–he’s been lied to before, after all, and how does he know which if any side of a revenge cycle are the evil ones?  But because she reminds him of his sister, he’ll at least come along and see for himself.

As it happens, one of the Itto-Ryu members is locatable as Kuroi Sabato has been sending Rin love poems since participating in the murder of her father.  As you might guess from this inappropriate behavior, Kuroi is very wrong in the head(s), and Manji agrees to help Rin out with her revenge.

The remainder of the series is trying to track down Anotsu and getting him to stay in one place long enough for Rin to get revenge, while battling members of the Itto-Ryu and other enemies made along the way.

This omnibus edition covers the first three Japanese volumes.  The art is nifty with distinctive character designs (though the young women do tend towards same face.)  There’s plenty of exciting blood-drenched fight scenes, and musing on the cycle of vengeance and where it gets you.  The dialogue is generally good, but heavy on the snark from most of the characters, which can get tiresome.

Manji wears his namesake symbol, the counter-clockwise swastika, on his back.  This is in context a Buddhist reference and has nothing to do with Nazis.

More problematic is that there’s a lot of rape in this series.  While none takes place onstage in this volume, there’s discussion of it in the backstory , and male characters often threaten or express a desire to rape women.  (Later on in the series, one of the recurring villains is a serial rapist.)  Also, when we see Anotsu’s backstory, we learn that his grandfather was physically and emotionally abusive to both him and his cousin.

That cousin, Makie, has a story that’s centered around the ill effects of sexism.  Because she has a natural talent for weapons use that is far greater than any other person in the series, Makie can’t fit into the standard social roles for women.  (She tries being a prostitute for a while, and then a geisha; neither work out.)  But she can also never get the respect or rank that her skills would earn if she were a man.  To be Makie is suffering.

I’d recommend this series to fans of samurai revenge drama who enjoy some anachronism and can overlook the problematic elements.

There’s an upcoming live action movie, but in the meantime, here’s a trailer for the anime version.

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