Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

About three centuries ago, the land of Westeros was known as the Seven Kingdoms.  Then Aegon Targaryen and his sisters came from the collapsed civilization of Valyria with their dragons and conquered six of the Kingdoms.  (The seventh Kingdom joined up later semi-voluntarily.)  Eventually, the dragons died off, but the Targaryen dynasty stayed in power through inertia and intermittent smashing of rebels. Finally, King Aerys the Mad was such a poor ruler that a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and his supporters succeeded in overthrowing the Targaryens.

A Game of Thrones

Robert is…a better king than Aerys, anyway.  He had intended to marry a member of the Stark family, lords of the North, but she perished during the rebellion and Robert settled for Cersei Lannister, member of a powerful Western family.  The Lannisters have become powerful at court, but one of their intrigues is about to have a slight glitch, putting their plans in jeopardy.  Other noble families have noticed the success of the previous rebellion, and remembered that their ancestors were also kings.   Across the Narrow Sea, the last heirs of the Targaryen dynasty are still alive and dreaming of retaking the Throne of Swords.  Far to the North, beyond the Wall, an enemy older than the Seven Kingdoms itself is stirring with the coming of Winter.

If this were a history book, we’d be about to see a lot of maps with flags and arrows on them.

This is the first volume in the vastly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has spawned a TV series, Game of Thrones.  There are planned to be seven volumes, of which five are out and the sixth is scheduled for release in 2017.  This may mean that the TV show will need a completely different ending.  Mr. Martin started writing this epic fantasy series with the idea of making it more “realistic” (cynical) than  many of the doorstopper fantasy books then  on the market.  As such, things do not always go well for people who try to stick to ideals such as honor and justice, leading to cruel, pointless deaths for them or others.   I should mention here that yes, GRRM does go to rape repeatedly as a way of showing how gritty and realistic the setting is, and there are at least a couple of child marriages that are pretty creepy.  (I am told that the TV series aged a couple of characters up.)

This book is written in tight third-person, so we only know what the current viewpoint character senses and thinks about.  This allows the author to keep certain things a mystery until another character is the point of view, and to shade the interpretation of certain events.

Most of the viewpoint characters in this first volume are members of the Stark family.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is more or less the main protagonist of this book.   A childhood friend of King Robert, he’s now been called upon to become the King’s Hand, the person who handles most of the daily details so the king can concentrate on ruling.  Their mentor had been the previous Hand, but recently died, and his wife sent the Starks a letter accusing the Lannisters of having a hand in it.  Eddard is a very honor-bound man and constantly attempts to do the right thing.  Given the nature of this series, that’s not healthy.  His clan motto is “Winter Is Coming.”

Catelyn is Ned’s wife, originally of the Tully family.  Her sister is the wife of Jon Arryn, the former hand.  Catelyn is fiercely protective of her children, which causes her to make several rash decisions.

Robb Stark is the eldest child and heir to their castle Winterfell.  At fourteen years old, he must assume a man’s role before even his harsh homeland’s usual standards.  We don’t get any point of view chapters for him.

Jon Snow is allegedly Ned Stark’s illegitimate child of about the same age as Robb.  While he certainly does resemble Ned, the older man’s refusal to explain anything about Jon’s conception or mother  beyond “he’s my bastard” suggests there is some mystery about his actual parentage.  Catelyn doesn’t like him one little bit.  He’s sent North to the Wall to join the Nightwatch like his Uncle Benjen, only to find out that conditions there are not as expected.  (Benjen goes missing shortly thereafter, one of the big mysteries of the series.)

Sansa Stark is the older daughter, who is good at activities considered traditionally feminine in Westeros.  She’s also a huge fan of chivalric romances, and thinks that’s how the world works, at least for her as she’s clearly the lady fair type.  (Think of an eleven-year-old Twilight fan who actually lives in a world where vampires follow horror tropes.)  She’s engaged to Robert’s handsome son Prince Joffrey and ignores some important clues to his real personality.  (In fairness, her father told her none of his evidence of what was really going on.)

Arya Stark is her slightly-younger sister, who is initially more likable for modern audiences, as she gets all of the “rebellious tomboy” personality bits.  She gets some important clues early on, but only being ten and not having context, doesn’t get to do much with them.

Brandon “Bran” Stark is seven, and an avid climber.  This gets him in trouble when he passes by a window that should have been unoccupied and learns a dangerous secret.  His subsequent near-death experience causes him to forget what he learned, but the person whose secret it is can’t take chances on that, and the assassination attempt made on Bran moves much of what Catelyn does for the rest of the book.

Rickon Stark is the baby of the family at three, and doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book.  Nor does family guest/hostage Theon Greyjoy, who is slightly older than Robb and Jon, and is boarding at Winterfell as a hostage to the good behavior of his father.

Tyrion Lannister is the only member of his family to get point of view chapters.  Born with dwarfism, Tyrion was barely tolerated by his father Lord Tywin and sister Cersei, and marginally treated better by his handsome brother Jaime (now a Kingsguard.)  Clearly never going to win glory in knighthood, Tyrion has concentrated on honing his mind, and his razor tongue.  He is kind to Jon Snow and later Bran, but runs afoul of Catelyn Stark due to the manipulations of his enemies.

And then there’s Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen.  She and her older brother Viserys are the sole remaining grandchildren of the former king, and Viserys is thus the rightful ruler of Westeros for the Targaryen loyalists.  However, in exile in the Free Cities, their cause has not gone well, and the royal pair are broke.  In a last-ditch effort to raise an army which he can use to take back Westeros, Viserys arranges for Dani to be married to Khal Drogo, a mighty leader of the Dothraki horse nomads.

Despite his taste for child brides, Khal Drogo is a pretty good husband by Dothraki standards, and Danerys learns to love him.  Even better, their child is prophesied to become “The Stallion That Mounts the World.”  Viserys isn’t willing to wait until his nephew is born to start conquering things, and pushes a little too hard.  He probably never really understood what it means to “wake the dragon.”

Don’t get too attached to any of these people, Mr. Martin has no qualms about killing viewpoint characters in cruel and pointless ways.

Good things:  There are a lot of vividly-drawn characters in multiple factions–my edition has a list of the major clans and their members at the back, along with a timeline of the Targaryen Dynasty, and that still leaves out multiple members of the cast.  The politics are detailed but not too difficult to follow.  The main thing is that far too many nobles remember bad things that happened to their families decades and even centuries before, and operate on the principle of getting payback for that.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so other than “someone’s going to have a cruel and pointless death soon” it’s hard to guess what’s happening next.    Sometimes I did get frustrated by people making boneheaded decisions for stupid reasons, but the majority of actions made sense given earlier or later explained motivations.

Less good:  The content issues noted earlier; Mr. Martin likes him some earthy language too, and is overfond of the word “bastard.”   This is rather obviously not a standalone book, with most of the plot threads still hanging loose at the end of Book One, and I am told many of them dangling through the end of Book Five!  Perhaps I should have stuck with my original intention of not starting until all the books are out.

To be honest, this series has had so much hype that you probably already know if you’re interested in trying it.

Let’s enjoy the Sesame Street version of the plotline!

Comic Strip Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason

Comic Strip Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason by Thomas Siddell

After Antimony “Annie” Carver’s mother Surma dies, her father Anthony drops her off at her parent’s alma mater, a strange boarding school called Gunnerkrigg Court.  The court is an enormous place, looking rather like an industrial city, but large portions of it seem to be abandoned…by humans, at least.  There are robots advanced beyond anything in the outside world, bizarre events are commonplace, there’s a creepy forest just across a long bridge students are forbidden to cross, and Annie notices that she’s picked up a second shadow.

Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason

This noted fantasy webcomic has been running since 2005, beginning here (happily, the art style drastically improves over time.)  It’s got an intricate plot with many details planned well in advance.  (For example, in an early strip Antimony tells us it will be two years before she sees her father again.)  The Court’s architecture is somewhat based on the city of Birmingham in England.

At the beginning of this volume, Annie is in training to possibly become the Court’s Medium, an ambassador between the school and the magical Gillitie Wood.  The other two candidates, Andrew Smith (with the ability to bring order out of chaos) and George Parley (whose father expected a boy, and has the gift of teleportation) argue a lot but turn out to be attracted to each other.  This interrupts two simulations.

Then it’s time for a camping trip to a park that is actually inside the boundaries of Gunnerkrigg Court.  Campers start to disappear, and Annie and her best friend Kat (Katherine Donlan, daughter of two of the teachers who were friends with Annie’s parents) must solve the mystery.

After that, Kat, who is beloved by the Court’s robots due to her technical skills and repair abilities grants the king of said robots access to the portrait of Jeanne, the ghost that haunts the ravine between the Court and the Wood.  In return, he reveals the existence of a robot that has memories of Jeanne, and the very early days of the Court.  Those memories reveal a dark secret of the past.

In the next chapter, Annie visits the Wood and learns more about Ysengrim, the wolf with tree armor that is the current Medium for their side of the river.  Coyote, the trickster spirit that is in charge of the Wood, gives Annie a gift for reasons not fully revealed.

Then the subplot of Jack, who’s been acting increasingly erratic since he was exposed to the mass hallucination projected by a girl named Zimmy, comes to the fore.  He coerces Annie into accompanying him to a power station that might have something to do with why he can’t sleep.

This is followed by a spotlight chapter for Kat, who hasn’t been able to process her emotional reaction to learning what the Court did to Jeanne.  She’s finally able to recover her equilibrium with the help of an abandoned baby bird, and Paz, a classmate who can talk to animals.

Further research with the help of Andrew and Parley reveals some of Jeanne’s story from her point of view, and convinces Parley to be honest about her feelings.

Finally, Annie’s second year at Gunnerkrigg Court comes to a painful close when she and Renard (a fox spirit living in a stuffed toy) quarrel and reveal some very painful secrets to each other.  This leads to her choosing to spend the summer in the Wood rather than with friends.

At the end are some art pages and bonus strips about “City Face”, the pigeon Kat rescued.

The mood swings wildly between chapters, some being very comedic while others go deep into dark territory.  While we get several important revelations in this volume, the jigsaw nature of the overall plot means that many items don’t pay off until future volumes–I do recommend starting from the beginning.

As is often the case with webcomics collections, the material is all available on the internet for free, but if you like it, please consider buying the print version to make the creator more financially stable.

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Ogami Itto was once a samurai warrior of high rank, the official executioner for the shogunate.  He had a lovely wife and new son; life was good.  But another clan was ambitious, and framed Ogami for treason.  Under sentence of execution and with his wife murdered, Ogami asked his infant son to make a choice between merciful death and life on the run. now Ogami is a ronin, and an assassin for hire.  If you need someone dead, and you can find them, you can hire the Lone Wolf assassin who travels with his cub.

Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

This classic manga series was popular enough to spawn a series of live-action movies, a television series and several spin-off manga.  It was also influential outside of Japan, notably influencing the art and storytelling style of Frank Miller (who provided the cover for this omnibus edition.)  As such, it was one of the first manga series to be translated for the emerging American market, using the expensive and painstaking “double-flipping” method to make it read left to right.

This volume contains the first three volumes of the Japanese version, and these stories are very episodic, focusing on an difficult assassination, a particular facet of feudal Japanese life, or a philosophical point.  It is not until several stories in that anyone recognizes Ogami for who he is, and even longer before even a partial explanation of his past.

Ogami is a stoic character who works hard not to give away his emotions; his tenderness towards Daigoro is almost entirely seen in his actions, not his face.  This does not prevent him from placing his son in danger if it will help with an assassination plan.  Daigoro himself is one of the most ambiguous characters I’ve ever read.  He seems most of the time to act like the small child he is, but in other instances is far too mature for his age, even allowing for the massive trauma Daigoro has undergone in his short life.  It makes him kind of creepy to be honest.

The art is dynamic and varied, able to handle both exciting battles and calm scenes of nature.  There’s a fair amount of reused faces, which with the episodic stories make the manga feel like a television series with a limited pool of guest star actors.

As expected from a samurai revenge story, there is plenty of violence and death; not all of Ogami’s assassination targets are evil people deserving of death.  In particular in this volume, one target is a Buddhist priest who must die for political reasons–he teaches Ogami how to attain mu (“emptiness”) which allows the assassin to strike without projecting sakki  (“killing intent”).  This becomes an important part of Ogami’s personal sword style going forward.

There is also quite a bit of female nudity, and at least one rape/murder scene.  Ogami himself is decent to the women he meets, but feudal Japanese society is not a good place for them.

Because of its influence on the subgenre of samurai manga, this series is well worth reading and rereading.  Recommended for fans of this sort of thing.

Book Review: Galaxy of Ghouls

Book Review: Galaxy of Ghouls edited by Judith Merril

October is scary stuff season, so let’s look at a book of creepy tales.  This collection of 16 “science-fantasy” stories is themed around various monsters, from the classic to the out-there.

Galaxy of Ghouls

We open with “Wolves Don’t Cry” by Bruce Elliott, turning the traditional werewolf story upside down when a wolf inexplicably turns into a human being.  It’s an emotionally muted tale, with the primary sensation being loneliness.  The ending story is “”Mop-Up” by Arthur Porges.  The last human on Earth after the War and Plague meets the last monsters.  But none of them imagined there were other threats…some nice imagery in this one.

Notable stories include Manley Wade Wellman’s “O! Ugly Bird”, the first of the John the Balladeer stories, in which John and his silver-stringed guitar go up against a hoodoo man and his flying familiar; “Fish Story” by Leslie Charteris, a non-Saint story about a man who is far more familiar with the sea than you’d think, and “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak, which inquires into why no explorer returns from Jupiter

The general quality is high, although a couple of stories have become dated and creak a bit.  Judith Merril provides her usual helpful introductions to the tales and their authors.

This book seems never to have been reprinted, so you will need to haunt your local used  bookstore or E-bay.  Well worth a look for fans of science fantasy.

Manga Review: The Twin Knights

Manga Review: The Twin Knights by Osamu Tezuka

This is a sequel to the classic Osamu Tezuka work Princess Knight (“Ribon no Kishi” or “The Ribbon Knight” in Japanese), about Sapphire, a princess raised as a boy due to strange circumstances.  Queen Sapphire is now married and gives birth to twins, Prince Daisy and Princess Violetta.  There’s a question of succession, as the inheritance rules were changed to allow women to ascend the throne of Silverland, but don’t account for twins.

The Twin Knights

The equivalent of a coin flip makes Prince Daisy the heir apparent, which enrages the Duke and Duchess of Dahlia.  They kidnap the prince and have him abandoned in the Forest of Slobb.  To calm the people while the search for the missing prince is ongoing,  Queen Sapphire and her husband regretfully decide to have Violetta disguised as her brother on alternate days.

Years pass, and when Violetta is in her teens, things reach a crisis point.  She must leave the castle to seek out her brother, who, yes, is still alive.  Many perils await, and not all who begin this fairy tale will be alive at the end of it.

Osamu Tezuka innovated in many areas of Japanese comics, and Princess Knight was one of the first shoujo manga (girls’ comics) in Japan; certainly it’s the first one anyone still remembers.  This sequel was also written in the 1950s  It shares the same simple but dynamic art style and attitudes towards gender issues that were progressive for the time it was written but seem outdated today.

There’s a lot of exciting action, some comedy, and a bit of confusion involving mistaken identities.  Princess Violetta ends up impersonating Prince Daisy,  impersonating himself!   Even though Queen Sapphire is much more ladylike now, she hasn’t forgotten her sword skills.  In the fairy tale tradition, there are several deaths, with the evil tending to die gruesomely (but tastefully–this isn’t a gorefest.)

An important supporting character is Emerald, Queen of the Gypsies.  Although she and her people are depicted sympathetically (and Emerald is heroic when her temper doesn’t get the better of her), it’s still pretty stereotypical.  Parents may want to talk to their children about the real-life Roma and the prejudice against them.

I’d especially recommend this volume (and the series it’s a sequel to) to fans of the Disney princesses, as Tezuka took a lot of his early inspiration from the Walt Disney style.

Book Review: White Fang

Book Review: White Fang by Jack London

Like many a lad, I read this classic adventure story when I was quite young (despite it most assuredly not being a children’s book.)  I have long planned to reread it when I had the opportunity, and was fortunate enough to get it for Christmas.

White Fang

For those who have forgotten the plot, or somehow never got to read the book, the title character, White Fang, is a wolf-dog crossbreed who is born in the wilds of the Yukon Territory.  He is captured by native humans and trained as a sled dog, then sold to a cruel white man who uses White Fang in cage fights.  Finally White Fang comes into the possession of a kind man who treats him with compassion and retires to California.

This book is based loosely on Mr. London’s own experiences as a sourdough in the Klondike gold rush, and is a mirror to his book Call of the Wild, which is about a dog from California that is shanghaied to the Klondike and eventually goes feral.  The story takes its own sweet time getting to White Fang.  The opening paragraphs begin with spruce trees and ice in the Wild, then introduce dogs, then the sled they are pulling, and only then the humans who own the sled.

These humans are fleeing a starving wolf pack, and they don’t all make it out alive.  We then follow the wolves for a while as their party dwindles.  Finally two are left, and they spawn a cub who is named White Fang a couple of chapters later.

The harsh realities of death are constantly brought up in the story–most of the animals and several of the humans we are introduced to die, some of them at the fangs of our protagonist himself.    There’s also a fair bit of musing on the “nature vs. nuture” question, though never put in those terms.   White Fang’s behavior is based on his inherited instincts, but heavily modified by his environment; thus when he is finally shown compassion, White Fang can learn to love.

This is contrasted in the final chapter with an escaped convict, Jim Hall, whose circumstances have turned him into a hardened killer.  (And in an instance of dramatic irony, has a genuine reason for his grudge against the judge who sentenced him to prison–he was innocent that time!)  Hall never got that moment of compassion, and has passed beyond human redemption.

As you might have gathered, there are many scenes of animal abuse in this book which may be too intense for young readers.  In addition, the story is a product of its time, and its portrayal of First Nations people is antiquated.  (While White Fang “instinctively” knows that the white men are superior to the Indians, it’s made clear that this superiority is confined to ability to project power.  The cruel Beauty Smith is a much worse dog owner than the harsh but practical Grey Beaver.)

There’s also some dubious canine behavior, some of which may be because Mr. London was genuinely mistaken, and other bits exaggerated to make the story more exciting.

Overall, this is really one of the great dog stories, and highly recommended to readers mature enough to handle the themes.  This story is in the public domain and you should be able to find it in an affordable edition (often paired with Call of the Wild) even new, or readily available at any used bookstore or library.

Book Review: Wild Among Us: True Adventures of a Female Wildlife Photographer

Book Review: Wild Among Us: True Adventures of a Female Wildlife Photographer by Pat Toth-Smith

Disclosure:  I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Wild Among Us

This is a coffee-table book of wildlife photographs, with chapters for each kind of animal and the stories of how the photographer got the pictures.    There are indeed some lovely photographs in here.

The stories will be familiar to anyone interested in wildlife photography.  The elaborate preparations,  the missed chances, the miserable conditions and the brilliant moments when that one perfect shot is available.   Ms. Toth-Smith has several terrifying encounters with wildlife, but usually comes out okay, except for that one time with the mosquito.  (There are no mosquito photographs in this volume.)

Depressingly, the photographer details how she needs to take extra precautions from human threats because she is a woman who often travels alone.  Lucky so far, but a few terrifying moments.

The book is kind of expensive at $45 suggested retail price; consider it as a gift for people who love wildlife photography or animals in general.

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