Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: A Dance with Dragons, by George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin's fifth installment in his A Song of Ice and Fire series stumbles over its own excesses. A Dance with Dragons has the advantage over its predecessor in that it has some of the series' most popular characters: Tyrion, Daenerys, and Jon. However, it lacks the compelling story arc that A Feast for Crows had with Cersei. This book, and the previous one, has Martin trying to do too much with his world: too many characters to follow and too many details about settings outside of Westeros. It seems that Martin has fallen in so much love with his world and his characters he forgot to write a story around them. We learn "much and more" about the lesser known free cities across the sea, but as the goal of the series is to land somebody on the Iron Throne, why should we care about the history of the free cities? This is the first novel in the series that forgets its characters are supposed to be playing a game of thrones, and in the end it is the worst the series has to offer.

***Warning: This review contains spoilers. If you have not read at least the first four books in the series I would not recommend reading on.***

A Feast for Crows was the first novel in the series not to kill off a king, but it certainly had fun with a certain queen regent. A Dance with Dragons doesn't have quite so much fun with its kings or queens. The only two it features, anyway, are Daenerys and Stannis, and it may be surprising to learn that Stannis fares the better of the two. Stannis is the only character playing the game of thrones; anybody else interested in playing are too far from the action to make an impact. However, the problem isn't simply that nobody is giving this game a go, but that for those who aren't, very little happens, despite the promise of A Storm of Swords.

A Storm of Swords ended with a lot of very interesting events that gave readers plenty of reason to want to read the next book. Unfortunately, after two books the most interesting of these still have not come to fruition. If you remember, Tyrion murdered his father and fled with the aid of Varys and Jaime. Where he went and what he would do was one of the biggest mysteries of the series. It turns out he was shipped off to Magister Illyrio, who you may remember from the first book as the man who aided Viserys and Dany. The plan is to get Tyrion to Dany so he can give her some aid (or she could kill him for being a Lannister). Tyrion travels with a group led by Griff and his son Young Griff, who are both more than they seem, though I think it's a mistake for Martin to introduce two such high profile characters so late in the series. While the idea of Tyrion counseling Dany sounds fun, what really happens is that Tyrion sets off on a series of misadventures. Fortunately Tyrion's signature humor is still intact, at least early on. Later he becomes more serious, and he's continuously brooding over his first wife, Tysha, and wondering where whores go. This sudden obsession with Tysha slows Tyrion's sections to a crawl.

Dany, if you remember, was having an exhilarating time conquering the free cities with her Unsullied army and freeing slaves. Her path to Westeros seemed all but paved. However, readers will be disappointed to learn that Dany has decided to settle down in the city of Meereen, where a faction of people called the Sons of the Harpy have started a small rebellion against her. People are upset she has abolished slavery. Dany has a decision to make: stay and fight, or move on. Her conscience tells her to stay, though her closest advisor, Ser Berristan Selmy, tells her otherwise. Dany's sections are some of the novel's dullest, as she addresses the complaints of the Meereenese people, obsesses over the sellsword captain Daario, and begins to realize her dragons are growing larger and more unruly. Because Meereen is not Dany's end goal (or is it?), it's difficult to care about the city's internal politics.

Jon's conclusion in A Storm of Swords was just about as exhilarating as Tyrion's. I was looking forward to seeing him in action as the new Lord Commander on the wall. To be sure, Jon has the fastest and best start in the entire novel, but it's sad to say the highlight of the entire novel is when Jon punishes Janos Slynt for insubordination - and that's in the first hundred pages. Jon's main struggle is his balancing act between obeying the vows he made to the Night's Watch and his desire to help Stannis win the north. Once Stannis, leaves the wall, though, Jon's sections slow to a crawl. We learn far more about the wildlings than is interesting, and Jon broods over the fact that those who counsel him disagree with everything he does. Towards the end Jon's decisions grow more questionable. He mirrors Dany (and even Cersei) in the fact he makes poor decisions and fails to heed the counsel of those wiser than him. While this could have been intriguing, it gets bogged down in too many needless details.

Theon makes a return. For those who have kept up on the show, it will be no surprise to learn that Theon is still alive, but this is his first appearance in the novel since A Clash of Kings. Just as in the show, Theon has been kept alive as Ramsay Snow's pet. If you thought Joffrey was bad, wait until you learn Ramsay's hobbies. Theon has been reduced to less than a man, less than a dog, into a creature named Reek. He has become so fearful that he quickly dispels any thoughts of his previous identity. He is Reek, it rhymes with meek. However, Theon becomes instrumental in helping the Boltons capture a fort and then establish their claim to Winterfell by marrying Ramsay to a false Arya Stark. Though I thought Theon was a despicable character in book two, I found Ramsay so revolting I was hoping Theon would finally get the better of him. Theon's parts, however, move just as slow as the rest. So slow, that a promised showdown towards the end of the novel gets delayed by heavy snowfall.

As for the rest of the characters, a large number receive their own perspective at some point or other. Davos and Bran are some of the more interesting of these, but each only receives three sections and they are done halfway through the novel. Davos, in the fourth book, was reportedly beheaded. Whether that actually happens I will leave for you to discover. However, his parts are some of the most suspenseful and exciting in the book, thanks in part to an awesome showing by Wyman Manderly. Bran finally reaches the three-eyed crow, which turns about to be much different than imagined. Here Bran realizes his destiny, though the novel is done with him almost as soon as he gets started. Asha Greyjoy has a couple of chapters, though mainly for the purpose of keeping an eye on another major character. Victarion also has a few sections of his own, as he sets out on his quest to marry Dany. Some of Victarion's parts are actually some of the best as the novel approaches its end. He is one of the few characters actually taking action and there is some promise in what he has to offer.

Quentyn Martell promises to play a major role, though ultimately disappoints. In the fourth book, it was revealed that Arienne Martell had a secret marriage pact with Viserys, but Doran believes that pact might have some weight in convincing Dany to marry Quentyn. Quentyn's marriage to her would also have the benefit of lending her a large army in Westeros. However, he's not a very attractive fellow and doesn't have the stomach for bloodshed. Arya has a pair of chapters that show her continued training to become an assassin for the many-faced god, however not much happens. It's a shame where Martin has taken Arya's story and her character. Hopefully he improves on it later. There's an appearance by Areo Hotah, though I forget the contents, and Jaime has a single chapter that ends by closing up one cliffhanger from the previous book and simultaneously creating another. Late in the novel Barristan Selmy gets his own chapters. He's similar to Ned Stark and Davos in that he has a high regard for honor, only it's too bad he's not in a more compelling situation.

Part of the fun of the series has been watching people effectively or ineffectively playing the game of thrones. The problem with this last book is that very few people play at the game effectively. Dany and Cersei fail to listen to the wise counsel of those around them. Jon does the same on the Wall. Most of those who do have the ability to play effectively are either too far from the action (Tyrion) or not given a perspective (Varys and Littlefinger). Jaime's sections in the fourth book were so refreshing because he was actually getting things done, and Griff and Victarion also seem to be making very strategic decisions. It's just too bad those last two are newcomers to the series.

The first three books in the series are excellent because each chapter ended with a compelling revelation or twist. In A Dance with Dragons, you will find yourself underwhelmed by the conclusion of a majority of the chapters, and none of them will excite you. That's not to say this is a bad book. It's still an impressive feat and it still has its moments of entertainment. Overall, though, it feels like sitting on a roller coaster that climbs up and up very slowly, but once it reaches the top and begins its descent you realize you're only ten feet off the ground and wish you hadn't wasted so much time waiting in line.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review: Under the Dome, by Stephen King

Stephen King's ambitious Under the Dome plays out almost like a science fiction version of George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones series (and indeed it inspired a TV show as well). While geographically it's much more confined than Martin's epic, it boasts a nearly equal cast of characters. King's novel is longer than any of Martin's novels in the GoT series, but it's a quicker read because it's much faster-paced. While Under the Dome lacks in the character development category, it has an engaging, gripping story that at times transported me completely into its world.

Like Martin's A Game of Thrones series, the opening of Under the Dome will have you scrambling back and forth trying to figure out who's who and where's where. King tells the tale from many different perspectives, which means that by page 80 you've advanced no farther than the dome just dropping (it first drops on page 3), but you've seen it drop from almost every angle possible. The parallel structure of the story is most obvious at the start. First a woodchuck gets sliced in two, and then the story moves backwards very briefly to show a small airplane crash into the dome at the exact same moment the poor woodchuck meets its fate (for dramatic effect, it's a cow in the show), and so on. What happens is probably well-known by now. A forcefield-like dome surrounds the small town of Chester's Mill (population two thousand or so). Many animals die, people included. The dome is invisible, which creates a driving hazard, but it emits a static shock when you get close and touch it. Only once, however. Once the dome drops, all us helpless readers can do is watch and see how people react under this bizarrely (impossible) intriguing scenario.

Summarizing the plot will be impossible, as there are so many characters who want to achieve conflicting goals that it would take far too many words to give you a good idea of what's going on. So I will give you an idea of some of the main characters stuck inside said dome. There is Dale Barbara (aka Barbie), an ex-army captain and now short-order cook at Sweetbriar Rose. Barbie was just leaving Chester's Mill when the dome said otherwise. Barbie had gotten in a fight the night before with the son of the town's most powerful man, Jim Rennie. Rennie is the town's second selectman Andy Sanders, but he's the real muscle behind the town's leadership. This political situation invokes the Bush-Cheney era of American presidents, with Bush viewed as a dummy and Cheney as the brains. However, just as Cheney needed the charismatic Bush to achieve power, Rennie needs the charismatic Sanders. Rennie's son, Junior, is a psychopath. When we first meet him he is strangling Angie McCain. Junior has problems. There is also Julia Shumway, editor of the town's newspaper, the Democrat, and perhaps a romantic love interest for our hero, Barbie. Lester Coggins is a reverend with about just as many problems as Junior. Rusty Everett is a young physician's assistant, husband to police officer Linda and father of two daughters. Colonel Cox is the town's one outside contact who attempts (impossibly) to establish order inside. Romeo Burpee owns the town's largest wholesale store. Joe McClatchey is a computer geek who sees the dome incident as a government experiment and organizes a protest. Duke Perkins is the sheriff, and his unfortunate early demise (pacemaker explodes near the dome) paves the way for Rennie to achieve near-unlimited power.

This covers many of the main characters, but there are so many more. One of the problems with the characters is lack of dimension. Barbie is your typical good guy hero, and King's attempt to add some depth to him later feels like an afterthought. Rennie, on the other hand, is pure evil. His only motivation is power at any cost. I prefer the version of Rennie portrayed on the television show. That Rennie genuinely seems to love the town, and he actually helps the people out. However, flat characters are not always necessary for a good story. Charles Dickens was often accused of writing flat characters, yet he is one of the greatest novelists ever to live. The main problem I had with the characters, though, is that their decisions seemed to come at the whim of the plot rather than their own intellects. Too often the good guys do stupid things, such as decide to have a "chat" with the bad guy alone, that helps make Rennie's rise to power that much easier.

Thematically, King runs the gamut. The drive for power is a major theme. Chester's Mill does not, once we see its workings, seem like an ordinary small town (some crazy stuff is going on there, with one too many messed up people). However, it is apparent that if it weren't for the power-hungry Rennie, the town's operations would run much more smoothly under the dome. The townspeople want things to go well and they want to help one another. People instinctively know the right decisions to make. Barbie sees the wisdom in rationing Sweetbriar Rose's meal times. Shop owners see no use in rationing their own goods, not yet. However, Rennie has no care about wisdom. He sees an opportunity to gain power and to make a good name for himself once the whole dome thing blows over. One of the motivating factors behind Rennie's power grab is that he can get away with it. He has stuffed the police force with men loyal to him (and too stupid to question him). The dome also serves to his advantage because nobody on the outside can stop him. Chester's Mill, in a sense, becomes a separate nation from the United States, one that doesn't have to bow to the laws of Constitution. When put in such a situation, the majority of people will want to do the right thing, but it's the powerful minority that will abuse their power.

King's novel is politically-charged. He seems concerned with a radical movement within out politics, and I think it's safe to say his target is the Tea Party movement. Chester's Mill serves as a microcosm of the United States, and perhaps even the world, as a whole. The question King seems to pose is, what happens when a radical minority within our government decides to start making bad decisions for the rest of us? This radical minority can be a force that galvanizes the people because it's fresh and energetic, and some people will believe even the most irrational words to come from its speakers. King's villains take advantage of this fact in this very frightening scenario by enforcing irrational laws against the better wisdom of the majority of the people. Today's rabid political climate makes the situations in King's novel more believable. As much as I wanted to tell myself Rennie's actions were unrealistic, I could think to real life examples that told me otherwise. And if those individuals who lead our more radical political parties were to be trapped inside a dome like this, there's no doubt they would behave in a similar way.

There's also the importance of the human condition, particularly how it interacts with the environment. As the town is now enclosed in its very own atmosphere, the effects of pollution become much more apparent. With people still driving their cars and using propane to fire up their generators, the dome quickly becomes cluttered with the resulting pollution. Eventually people see a hazy sunset through a filter of pollution and they become afraid of what it means. The human condition goes hand in hand with this environmental problem. At one point we find animals who have committed suicide, likely due to the drastic and frightening change in environment. Eventually we also find humans doing the same thing. Humans and animals aren't so different after all. The last fifty pages contain some of the novel's most powerful passages, as great tragedy strikes and we see people at their most vulnerable, trying their best to survive and to ensure the survival of others. There are images that may stay with me for the rest of my life.

The story itself is very well-told, sometimes funny and sometimes thrilling. At spots it was difficult to put down. At other spots, such as when a dog hears a dead person speak, it was characteristic silly Stephen King. You'll get a good dose of King's slang, the types of words you don't usually hear in real conversation, but still have a poetic touch to them. You'll also recognize some of King's tropes, such as villains who suffer some unseen ailment: Junior suffers horrible migraines and Rennie suffers the occasional arrhythmia. The most unfortunate trope is the discovery of the origin of the dome. Anyone familiar with King can probably guess fairly early on what elements will come into play later, though I will say King handles it far better than I expected. There's currently a TV show, airing on CBS. I've watched the first two episodes and am amazed at just how different the show is from the book. This isn't a bad thing. It means I will get a different experience from both. One major difference I noted, however, is that the television show avoids the topic of religion almost completely, whereas religion plays a key role in the novel. What that tells me is books are much braver than television shows.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Review: A Feast for Crows, by George R. R. Martin

A year later, I finally got back into George R. R. Martin's massive fantasy series, A Song of Fire and Ice (usually referred to as A Game of Thrones). Due to the complexity of the plot and the world Martin has created, it was tricky getting back into the series after such a delay, so I can only imagine how difficult it was for fans who waited five years after the third book, A Storm of Swords, came out. Based on many reviews I've seen for the book, it seems this is where readers have begun to grow unhappy with the series. Perhaps it's because they were so upset about the long wait. Or maybe it's due to the fact that the series' most popular characters, Tyrion, Dany, and Jon Snow, are all MIA. There's also the problem that Martin takes up a few unclear plot threads that, by the novel's end, lead seemingly nowhere. These are legitimate gripes, but it's important to evaluate the book as it is and not as it should have been. Here you should find that A Feast of Crows, though uneven at times, is just as addictive as its predecessors.

***Spoiler Alert! If you have not read the first three book in the series, I would not recommend reading past this point.***

Wars in the previous books have left the Seven Kingdoms in shambles, but chaos and death are perfect conditions for crows to thrive in. Bands of outlaws have taken to raping, killing, and stealing. Some small groups such as the Ironmen have decided to make an attempt to fill the leadership void left from the death of several kings. Many have become more devout in their religion, and a group called the Sparrows has risen to cleanse the lands of corruption. Events in the previous book left the Lannisters as the lone bearer of power, though not without adversaries. It was the deaths of two characters in particular who have given cause for crows to feast.

While Robb Stark's surprise execution during the Red Wedding did away with the Lannisters' harshest opposition, Tywin Lannister murder by his own son, Tyrion, harmed the stability of the Lannister hold on the throne. However, it fits perfectly into the as yet unknown plans of the Tyrells, who saw to the poisoning of Joffrey, and now have a much younger, more malleable Lannister in Tommen to wed the twice-widowed Margaery. However, Cersei, as queen regent, has hopes of making herself the greatest ruler who ever lived. For Cersei alone this book is worth reading. She's a crazed, egotistical, paranoid woman who believes herself a goddess. She will do anything to hold onto the reins of power and knows how to use her sex appeal to win the obedience of certain men. Her paranoia, however, guides her decisions more than her wisdom. Against the good advice of those close to her, Cersei quickly removes as much Tyrell influence as possible, and as the second-most powerful family in the realm, you can probably see that's not a good idea. Cersei comes up with scheme upon scheme as though she can't have enough of the drink of power, and the desire to see how this scheming pans out makes the book difficult to put down.

Jaime makes a return from the third book, much humbled since losing his prized sword-fighting hand. He was the one who released Tyrion from prison and set in forth the events that led to his father's death. But Jaime has also grown suspicious of Cersei since Tyrion told her she'd been sleeping with Osmund Kettleback and their cousin Lancel (and maybe Moon Boy for all Tyrion knew). These words haunt Jaime. Regardless, it's clear that without his sword hand Cersei has become less attracted to him, and she grows upset with him when he begins to counsel her on how foolish her schemes are. As such, Cersei sends him along on a quest to get him out of her hair. Jaime's parts are welcome, as they give us insights into King's Landing from a more observant point of view, and then later let us see some of what's happening outside King's Landing. He also delivers the funniest line in the whole novel ("This must have been an uncommonly sinful horse"), which is certainly welcome in a book where humor is in such short supply.

Brienne is the third major character, and her parts are much better than you might expect. In the previous two novels, Brienne was accused of killing Renly, though his death was the work of Melisandre's black magic, and she later escorted the prisoner Jaime to King's Landing, through a roundabout way, on Catelyn Stark's command. The end of book three found Jaime sending Brienne on a mission to seek out and return Sansa, who disappeared after Joffrey's fateful wedding. Brienne, in previous books, was a bit of a dull character who spent much of the time sulking. On one hand I do sympathize with her for being a woman who does not fit in with the traditional ideals of a woman. Men tease her about her ugly looks and they don't believe it's right for a woman to take up the sword, but very few of those men would stand a chance against her in battle. Perhaps it was unfair for readers to see her from behind the eyes of Jaime in the third book, as he hurled insult after insult at her, but her character is much improved when seeing things from her point of view. One of the reasons I enjoyed her part is because she's the only character who truly gets to set off on an adventure, one with an unknown ending. That said, though, her finale is disappointing, leaving the reader in a cliffhanger.

Martin also gives the reader a look at characters we have not yet been acquainted with. Three Greyjoys each have a chapter or two. Aeron Damphair, Balon Greyjoy's youngest brother and a priest, starts the book off. The religions of the drowned men is a strange one. Priests perform an extreme form of baptism where men are drowned and then resuscitated, and it is Aeron's opinion that a man is no good if he has never been drowned. In the third book we learned that Balon Greyjoy, one of the many kings, died from falling off a bridge. At issue is who should be crowned king next. Euron "Crow's Eye" Greyjoy, the oldest brother behind Balon, is on a return voyage to claim the throne, as Theon is assumed dead, but Aeron wants the next oldest brother, Victarion, to become king because he is a godly man. Asha, Theon's sister, also has a strong claim to the throne, but she's a woman. The Greyjoy passages were much more interesting than I imagined. Aeron summons what is called a kingsmoot, which is a semi-democratic meeting to elect the next king. The Iron Islanders are a perfect example of the "crows" who feast on the remains of the bloody war of the five kings.

We also meet some of the Martells, people from Dorne. Here I had to consult the back of the book and the map several times to situate myself. If you will remember, the Dornish people hail from south of King's Landing. Prince Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper, visited King's Landing for Joffrey's wedding in order to win the head of Ser Gregor Clegane as justice for the death of Elia Martell, wife of the late King Aerys. Prince Oberyn had his chance when he championed for Tyrion, who was accused of murdering Joffrey, but in the fight with Ser Gregor the two killed one another (Ser Gregor's death much longer lasting and more painful). In Oberyn's stead rules Prince Doran, but Oberyn's bastard-born daughters, the Sand sisters, have been clamoring for rebellion. The Dornish sections, unfortunately, are a little scattered and confused. First we meet Areo Hotah, the massive bodyguard for the young prince betrothed to Myrcella Lannister, and then we see Arys Oakheart, the kingsguard sworn to protect Myrcella, and finally we stick with Arianne Martell, daughter of Doran and heir to Dorne. Some of this is interesting, but part of me wonders whether Martin would have been better off without it, and the revelations at the end aren't particularly earth-shattering.

Of course, there are still other characters. Samwell is the fourth major character, sent on a quest to take Gilly and her child to the Tarly home, while he remains in Oldtown to study to become a maester. I've always liked Sam, and I also like the choice of actors to play him and Gilly in the HBO show. His portions of the novel are a little slow and not as interesting as some of the others, but I still enjoyed them. I hope the best for Sam's fate in the series. Arya and Sansa play very small roles. Sansa's parts are rather good, as we get to see behind the scenes of Petyr Baelish's schemes and plots. Arya's parts, unfortunately, are not so good. When we last saw her, she left the Hound and headed for a ship to take her to Braavos, where she could find Jaqen. When we see her in this book, it's unclear what she's doing. Having heard a little bit regarding what happens in book five, I can see now what is she's up to, but Martin doesn't make it particularly clear in book four. Perhaps this is deliberate, but it doesn't do much to wash the bitter taste in the reader's mouth following her strange conclusion in this book.

What makes these books so great is the human factor. These novels are about human failures and the frailty of human success. Many of the characters have some major flaw, defect, pain, or weakness. Brienne is a woman with the build and looks of a man. Tyrion is a dwarf. Bran is a cripple. Jaime is a warrior without his sword hand. Sam is fat. Prince Doran has terrible gout. These are men and women who are unable to mask their vulnerabilities, but must work that much harder to make up for them in the novel's cruel world. Pain comes much more often than not. Almost all of the characters are strongly driven to achieve some goal, which makes it that much more disappointing when they come upon a powerful force working against them. The end goal of this series is that somebody will be crowned king/queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and maybe more. Only one person (or two) can achieve this goal, which means that most of the characters in the series are doomed to failure, and that's just a part of human life. We will fall in love with characters and root for them, but only one can win, and it can't always be the one you're rooting for.

While there is certainly a little unevenness in A Feast for Crow's story, Martin's accomplishment in this series is astounding. He has done the incredible feat of juggling a massive assortment of complex characters and intertwining them in a fantastic story. Part of my own feelings of disappointment lie in the fact that the book had to end. There's also the fact that I really wanted to know where Tyrion ran off to, and I want to see Daenerys continue to kick ass, and I'm very curious to see how Jon Snow handles his new Lord Commander position. At least book five is already out. My main concern is that by the time Martin finally releases book six I will have forgotten so much I'll need to keep turning to the map and the character list every five sentences. Nonetheless, the imagination of the author who wrote these books is phenomenal.