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: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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

Twice Told Tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: Festival of Crime

Book Review: Festival of Crime Edited by Christine Husom, Mickie Turk & Michael Allan Mallory

Minnesotans have a reputation for being a bit mild-mannered and reserved.  But we love celebrations just as much as anyone else, and the state is filled with fairs and festivals, from small-town scarecrow contests to the crowded Pride in Minneapolis.  And sometimes crimes happen at these events.  Thus this collection from Twin Cities Sisters in Crime, a local writers group.

Festival of Crime

Most of these 19 tales are indeed crime stories, but not always murder, and a few have mystery elements.  A couple have supernatural elements, though only one has it proven.  Some merely take place at or near a festival, while others have it essential to the plot.

The collection begins with “Sawbill Checkpoint” by Michael Allan Mallory (wait, isn’t he one of the editors?)   A man is shot during a dogsled race, and his final word may be a vital clue…if only someone knew what it meant.  The last story is “All Sales Final” by Douglas Dorow.  A pair of art dealers discover a treasure trove owned by two elderly women.  Now, how to get it away from them before the old ladies figure out how much it’s worth?

Stories I enjoyed the most were “Looney Daze” by Cheryl Ullyot, in which a gambler woos a woman obsessed with wiener dog races; and “Corn on the  Cob” by Colin T. Nelson, about a sheriff faced with criminals he can’t put in jail, and an election coming up.

“No Time Like the Present” by E.B. Boatner is about a man who spots some anachronistically-dressed people, and learns their secret.  It feels a little too tidy, with a long-winded wrap-up.

Content warning:  homophobia, torture and domestic abuse come up in different stories.

The writing is decent on average, and I only spotted a couple of minor typos.   There are author bios in the back if you decide one of the stories makes you want to read more.

Recommended primarily for Minnesotan crime story fans, as they’ll be most familiar with the local color, but any fan of crime stories should be able to enjoy this.

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: Child of the Sun

Comic Book Review: Child of the Sun written by Michael Van Cleve, art by Mervyn McCoy

Disclaimer:  I was provided with free downloads of this comic book for the purposes of review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Child of the Sun

It is 1300 B.C.E., and the people of Israel have fallen into wickedness.  Thus they are unprepared when the People of the Sea invade and conquer their land.  But all is not lost, it seems, for a divine messenger tells of a baby soon to be born.  A baby that will be named Samson.

This is an independently published comic book series loosely based on the Biblical story of Samson.  How loosely?  One of the supporting characters is Heracles of Zorah, who may or may not be the Heracles of Greek myth.   I have to hand the first two issues.

After a nearly silent prelude showing the advent of the People of the Sea and the annunciation of Samson’s impending birth, the comic skips ahead to introduce us to Heracles, who then meets the now-teenage Samson after a drunken celebration (as Samson does not drink alcohol, he is the clear-headed one here.)  Heracles takes Samson to Timnath, and introduces him  to Adriana, a priest of Astarte, goddess of love and sex.

The naive Samson falls in love with Adriana, but her life has made her cynical about such things, and her job is, after all, to give sexual pleasure.  While Samson’s Nazirite vows don’t prevent him from having sex, they do cause some friction between the couple, and he strongly objects to Adriana having sex with people who are not him.  She seems to be warming up to him when Samson punches out a man who wanted to rape her.

And cue a flashback to Samson’s childhood and him pulling the head off an oversized cobra.

The third issue concerns “Samson’s riddle”, one of those Bible stories where no one comes off well.  At the beginning of the feast celebrating his wedding to Adriana, Samson sets a riddle that cannot be answered without knowing an experience only he had.  The guests are not well pleased, and cheat in an ugly way, causing the marriage to collapse almost immediately.

This comic is “suggested for mature readers” due to violence, sex , lots of nudity and a rape scene.   I really can’t recommend it to more conservative Christian readers.

The art is pretty good–primarily in black and white, with color for important or emotionally relevant pages by Jonathan Hunt.   The depiction of women is heavy on the “sexy”; mostly excused in these issues by the majority of women in question being in the entertainment industry, but Samson’s mother is in a distractingly iffy pose during the annunciation.

It’s not quite clear where the plot is going, as the scenes flit back and forth in time.  This series is set for seven issues, so presumably the fourth issue will be clearer as to the direction the author intends.

It’s difficult to judge a mini-series by only the beginning–the creators may pull everything together nicely, or it could fall flat.   If it sounds like it may be your sort of thing, please consider buying the individual issues to support the creators and increase the chances they’ll be able to finish and release a collected edition.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4 edited by Mort Weisenger

Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are two of the most enduring characters in comic books, thanks to being attached to the one and only Superman.  Lois appeared in the first Superman story in Action Comics #1 (1938), a snarky but skilled reporter who initially had little use for Clark Kent but admired the mysterious superhero.  Jimmy appeared first in the radio adaptation in 1940, first as a copy boy and then as a cub reporter/photographer, being brought into the comics proper in 1941.

Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4

As popular supporting characters, they appeared often in Superman’s stories.  In the 1950s, they got their own continuing series, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane.  As you can tell by the titles, Superman was the co-star of each of these series, appearing in every story.  Eventually, the series, along with Supergirl and some other Superman-related characters, were merged into an anthology comic titled Superman Family.

Jimmy’s stories often centered around him suddenly gaining a superpower, a special advantage, or undergoing a weird transformation.   He would figure out some way of using this, until he got cocky and needed Superman to bail him out of the resulting trouble.    Other stories revolved around his falling in love with women who almost invariably weren’t going to stick around.  His most frequent love interest was Lucy Lane, Lois’ little sister, who was much less invested in the relationship than he was.

Jimmy had an ultrasonic signal watch which he could use to summon Superman in case of trouble, though the watch itself often caused trouble, or Jimmy would misuse it.

Lois also got temporary superpowers often, but her stories focused much more on her relationship with Superman.  She often tried to trick him into marrying her or discover his secret identity.  She also met quite a few men that were ready to marry her right away, though all of them turned out to be flawed in one way or another.  Often Lois was pitted against Lana Lang, Clark Kent’s childhood friend as fierce rivals and best friends.

Sadly, the period where Lois initially got her own series was also when she reached the nadir of her characterization.  Back in the Golden Age, she’d been independent and often gotten herself out of fixes before Superman could rescue her.  Her personality hadn’t revolved around her love of Superman nearly as much either.  Early Silver Age Lois was too often a “damsel in distress” and came off shrewish.  (She remained a crackerjack reporter, though.  Half of the danger she got in was because of her successful investigative journalism.)

It’s no wonder that Superman often played mean pranks on Jimmy and Lois to teach them a lesson.  Sadly, those lessons never stuck.

It is important to remember that these stories (this volume covers 1960-61) were aimed at children, who were expected to only read comics for a few years.  Thus plotlines were often recycled as the previous readers weren’t going to notice, and the status quo remained as steady as possible so that the experience was consistent no matter how many issues you might have missed.  They were never meant to be read all in a row by adults.

Some standout stories in this volume include “Jimmy’s Gorilla Identity” which has an appearance by Congo Bill and Congorilla (Bill, a “great white hunter” , could swap minds with a golden gorilla); “The Curse of Lena Thorul” the first appearance of Lena, who was Lex Luthor’s long-lost sister (and later became one of Supergirl’s supporting cast); and several “Imaginary Stories” peeking into possible futures where Lois Lane and Superman finally get married.

Supergirl and Krypto also pop up a few times; as this was during the period when Supergirl was Superman’s “secret weapon”, she has to be careful that neither Lois or Jimmy realize what’s going on or who she is.

There is period sexism (a couple of stories mention that married women are discriminated against in the job market), hussy-shaming (“slut” was a word you couldn’t use under the Comics Code), fat-shaming, and a general attitude of lookism even by the good guy characters.

All that said, these are fun stories with inventive ideas, often having more plot packed into eight pages than many modern superhero comics do in eight issues.  Highly recommended for the nostalgic Superman fan, moderately recommended for other fans (check your local library.)

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