A Dance With Dragons

Title: A Dance With Dragons

Author: George R. R. Martin

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Length: 959 pages, circa 400,000 words

Read: July 12-23, 2011

Summary: Awesome, but not without issues.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

My charge through book 5 of Martin’s epic fantasy series was a bit drawn out by my need to concentrate on the second draft of my new novel Untimed, but I finally finished. Before I launch in, it should be noted that this review is full of spoilers.

Dance is huge, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages. This itself is actually a welcome and comforting fact because these books are something to savor. Overall, I would rate this volume as better than A Feast of Crows and slightly worse than the first three. Still, it’s a fantastic book. Prose-wise, Martin is still a master at both people, places, plotting and reversals. It’s just that this book suffers from a few pacing and structural issues.

Most of these stem from his controversial decision to pull out half the characters from the bloated manuscript of Feast and push them into Dance by themselves. So the first two thirds of the new book is everyone who didn’t get a turn in Feast. Now, for the most part, this saved the best for last. Dany, Jon, and Tyrion make up the bulk of the book, particularly this first two thirds, and they are some of my favorite characters. But overall this leaves both Feast and Dance feeling a little more threadbare than the first three books. Personally I think he would have been much better off winding out the story chronologically, trimming out some useless threads (Aeron Damphair, Victarion, and probably the Dornes), and rearranging the plot so as to have some kind of sub-climax at the end of each book.

As it is, Dance reads excellently for the first 2/3, feeling fairly focused on its three mains. But it’s weird to rewind in time and revisit certain happenings from Feast from the other side (for example Sam leaving the Wall). When we get to the cut off point, however, some of the characters from Feast start to weave back in. This mostly has the effect of slowing the narrative and making it more diffuse. At least until the set of cliffhangers and deaths that come in the final chapters.

I also think that Martin is letting his pacing slip a bit. It’s not that each chapter isn’t entertaining and well written — they are — but many threads there have multiple chapters where the happenings could’ve been collapsed without loss. If we hadn’t known a few of those details were there, we would never have missed them. Worse than the pacing issues, however, is a weirdly increasing fondness for skipping some of the big moments. Now Martin has always done that (the Red Wedding, the “death” of Bran & Rickon, etc) but it’s worse than ever. He has a real tendency to build slowly toward a big event, then skip the event itself, showing what happened to the characters obliquely through other eyes at a much later point.

I’m going to go through some of my opinions and analysis thread by thread.

Prologue

I don’t really understand why fantasy authors are obsessed with these. It was kind of interesting, but didn’t advance anything.

Jon

His thread is fine (until the end), but it does feel a bit static. While he’s certainly grown into command, he mostly sits back at the wall and fields interference between factions (Stannis, his queen, the Red Priestess, the Wildlings) etc. Then at the end, he mysteriously decides to rush off to Winterfell. This is a move that makes no sense as he has refused to enter into family entanglements about six times before, and while he is goaded, there is really less at stake for him. Then out of nowhere comes a reaction to this decision that leaves us in a bad cliffhanger. Boo.

Tyrion

The Imp is funny as always and now I can hear Peter Dinklage cracking each and every droll line. Still his thread is also a little dragged out, although it does involve some great sightseeing and is certainly entertaining all along. In the first part of the book it feels like he (and everyone else) is heading toward Dany, but then he gets within inches and turns back. Using him to introduce us to Griff and “Young Griff” is however an excellent device and works much better than an extra POV would have. It is mostly through Tyrion and Dany that we get a sense of the complex and old slave societies of the mainland. Unlike Westeros which feels like late Medieval England, these realms feel more like the ancient east (perhaps an updated Babylon vibe).

Dany

Her chapters are mostly political. She does feel a bit passive. I don’t really understand why she doesn’t try to get a handle on her dragons earlier, this is obviously a key move which could trump all of her political problems. Instead she dicks around (literally and figuratively) with various factions. This is all fairly entertaining, but feels like treading water. Then “a big event occurs” (at least this one is on screen) and she rides off on Drogon. That’s all great, but her narrative disappears until the last chapter. When it returns nothing is resolved at all, but a new out of the blue cliffhanger is introduced. I do really like the world of Meereen and the slave cities, although it feels like we are lingering here a bit long.

Barristan

The hero serves to replace Dany as the POV in Meereen. He’s actually a great POV character with all his lingering thoughts about events during and before Robert’s Rebellion. I really enjoyed his chapters. But they didn’t come to any resolution.

Theon

The hier to the seastone chair returns to us, a few bits worse for the wear. I hated Theon in books 2 & 3, but I enjoyed his chapters immensely here. His transformation into Reek and back again is very deftly handled, with a very proper (and sordid) period quality. It isn’t for no reason that Tarantino used the phrase “medieval on his ass” and that is exactly what the Bastard of Bolton has done to Theon. His pseudo redemption is good. Still, we have classic Martin avoidance of the action with the actual escape from Winterfell. In the cut between Theon jumping from the wall into the snows and his delivery to his sister is a big blank. Not that we needed the travel, but whatever battle happened at Winterfell needed some detailing.

Asha

I could have lived without her POV. It mostly serves to fill in some parts of Stannis’s story when he leaves the wall. The technique is sketchy and I ended up having no idea what really happened during his brutal snowy march and the seige of Winterfell. This I thought was the weakest part of the book structurally, as I’m basically confused.

Quentin and the Dornes

Cut! Dull for the most part, except for some info about the cultures they traveled through. I couldn’t have cared less for these characters. The attempt to steal a dragon was interesting, but was also vaguely described. I’m thinking that Martin, for all his brilliance as a character and world builder, isn’t actually the best at action scenes.

The Dorne chapter back in Dorne: It was okay, but we didn’t really need it.

Jaime

This sucked. I like Jaime’s POVs, but this single chapter had a bunch of crap, followed by one of those annoying Martin reveals that just serve to highlight the gap in information. Brienne returns and they ride off. You don’t find out how she escaped her predicament, what she knows, anything. It just kinda sucked. The effect of her cliffhanger was entirely spoiled.

Cersei

These were pretty good, and I enjoyed seeing her get hers. Martin certainly knows how to throw in the creepy little details so your mind fills in the rest.

Victarion

Cut! I could have lived without these, and they basically just told you he was heading off to Dany with a horn and a Red Priest. Although he’s better than his brother — I’d take any chapter over Aeron Damphair.

Arya

These were great. I have no idea where they’re going, but that’s fine. Arya has always been one of my favorites. Give us more. To be honest it felt like these were the chapters that should have gone in Feast and this the conclusion that book should have had for Arya’s thread. Probably that was Martin’s original plan.

Bran

His chapters were good, but so little, and it all felt dropped as his last chapter is about midway in the book.

Davos

I’ve never been a fan. I think we could have just had these told by raven.

Epilogue

This was actually very good, really being a Kevan in King’s Landing chapter in disguise. I loved the return of Varys at the end — particularly his dialog.

Some observations: There is more magic of sorts in this volume. Martin has a real thing for nubile slave girls — but then again, what self respecting fantasist doesn’t? The scope of this book, with it’s gigantic foreign cities reminiscent of the ancient world is going to make for some hard adapting should the TV series get this far. As I noted in my series reviews the show already has problems with handling large scale people scenes. These slave cities and the like will make that even harder. Likewise with the slave sex and slave violence. I’m all over it (in fiction) but some of it will undoubtedly have to be cut/changed. Sigh. I like that Martin at least highlights some of the sad reality of actually being a nubile slave girl.

Overall, Martin’s books are among my all-time favorite novels. I enjoyed the book immensely, and eagerly await the the next volume (and I’m sure I’ll be waiting for a long time), but I can’t help but think it could have been SO much better if Martin had taken all the material in both Feast and Dragons and reedited them together into two chronological and slightly leaned down volumes.

Also check out my reviews of each episode of Season 1 of Game of Thrones (the HBO series):

[12345678,910]

Game of Thrones – Episode 3

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 3 – May 1, 2011

Status: First Season now airing on HBO

Summary: Amazing!

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Episode 3 is titled “Lord Snow,” in reference to Jon Snow‘s nickname at the wall. This episode continues, and I think essentially wraps up, the trio of scene setting episodes. This world is so complex, with so many characters, it needed a three hour pilot. Still, it’s a damn enjoyable setup.

We do find ourselves with a different feel than last week’s “The Kingsroad.” This episode is brighter and faster, better I think, but also lacks any real momentous events or a dramatic conclusion. Episode 2 started off slower, but ended with a bang. Episode 3 just fundamentally introduces the Wall and King’s Landing. But both are fun. Varys and Littlefinger are a delight. There are a lot of very strong scenes in here, mostly in the area of character development and exposition. The scene where Robert, Barristan, and Jaime discuss their first kills is terrific. Others will and have quote it, but I will again. “They don’t tell you that they all shit themselves. They never put that part in the ballads.” Just awesome.

Tyrion and Arya continue to rock, Jon is building momentum. There’s good work with Arya and her sister, even better work with her and her father, and the fan fave delicious introduction of her “dancing instructor,” Syrio. No one who’s read the books doesn’t love Syrio and the waterdance. You can see subtle little nods to the characters, like Arya listing off those she hates, as this will flare into the flame that keeps her warm in the dark cold nights.

There are also curious absences. What happened to Ghost?  (Jon Snow’s albino wolf)  And Commander Mormont’s raven?  And time pressure makes a few of the scenes feel very very fast indeed for those viewers who haven’t read the books (particularly the Dany scenes this time around). If any of readers are in this camp (not having read the books), please comment below and offer your opinions of the show, I’m really curious. I love it, but some of this is propped up by my encyclopedic knowledge of the characters and their relationships.

I do also have to say that I don’t love the weird mixed race look of the Dothraki. The Khal is fine, but I would have just cast the rest as Mongols and made them straight up raw and tough. The blood rider is so young he looks soft, and middle eastern to boot. Who’s with me in thinking that Endo from Lethal Weapon would have made the perfect blood rider? — 25 years ago.

King’s Landing (aka Malta) has a different sunnier feel than I imagined it in the books, but I kinda like it, down to the interesting little detail of the floors always being dirty. And in a number of scenes the CG view out the windows is gorgeous, high up on the towers with the whole city laid out beneath like in Napoli. I also liked Maester Aemon, but he needs those white “blind guy” eyes because that’s how I imagine him.

Exposition or no, I enjoyed every minute of this episode, and we’re poised for some serious stuff in the hours to come ahead. Next week, jousts and dwarves in a pickle.

My reviews of other episodes: [Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4].

Click here for some trailers for and about the series.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.

The Wise Man’s Fear

Title: The Wise Man’s Fear

Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: High Fantasy

Length: 380,000 words, 1000 pages

Read: March 4-12, 2011

Summary: A worthy sequel.

_

The Wise Man’s Fear is one of 2011’s two most anticipated Fantasy novels, the other being George R. Martin‘s A Dance with Dragons (due in July). WMF, however, can be all yours right now. It’s the sequel to The Name of the Wind (which I REVIEW HERE). This is High Fantasy of a rather less epic sort. Not that it’s any less fun to read, even weighing in as it does at 1008 hardcover pages. Although, who thinks about pages these days, as I read the Kindle version on my iPad (wouldn’t want to mess up that nice hardcover first edition I had signed by Mr. Rothfuss last week!).

Despite the length, it’s well worth it. This book is seamless with the first in the series, despite the four years gap between their publication. I read The Name of the Wind a second time last week, and WMF picks up and continues with exactly the same style and pace. There is still the box story in the present, but this accounts for no more than 5% of the pages. The action mostly takes place in the past with our hero, Kvothe, continuing on for a bit at University and then venturing out into the wider world. While we sense that some bigger events are in the works, this is still a very personal tale. And it defies all normal story telling expectations in that it just meanders along. My editor’s eye says that whole chunks and side plots could be snipped out without effecting anything. And to a certain extent this is true. But would the novel be better for it? Perhaps it could have lost 50-100 pages in line editing, but I’m not sure I’d take out any of the incidents. As the novel itself says, it’s not the winning of the game, but the playing of it that matters.

That is very much what The Wise Man’s Fear is about. It’s a story about stories. It’s rich and lyrical, a luxurious tapestry of world and story, without the distraction of the intricate mechanism of plot. The little glimpses into different sub-cultures show a deft eye for details and invention. This feels like a real place, not so much explained, but revealed through the narrator’s eyes.

As Rothfuss said in an interview, Kvothe is  older now, and he gets himself into more trouble. There’s more sex and violence this time out, although the main romance is still endlessly unrequited 🙂 Kvothe it seems, is a hero of many talents, and that includes those in the bedroom. Rothfuss doesn’t focus on these details gratuitously, it’s not a book filled with battle (or bedroom scenes).

I’m curious to see how Rothfuss wraps this up in the third book (and I suspect the trilogy might expand). Things still feel early. We find out barely anything new about the main villains. In fact they don’t even show in this volume. Just like the first book the end is completely limp and anti-climatic. Kvothe just wraps his story up for the day and we wait (hopefully for slightly less than four years).

But I’ll be waiting. Probably for so long that I’ll have to read book one and two again. I won’t mind.

The Name of the Wind

Title: The Name of the Wind

Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: High Fantasy

Length: 255,000 words, 720 pages

Read: May 2008 & Feb 28-Mar 2, 2011

Summary: Best new fantasy of recent years.

_

In 2008, I read this 722 page novel in Xian China during a single sleepless night, and I reread it just now for the second time in preparation for the sequel (released this week): The Wise Man’s Fear. NOTW is a beautiful book. Of all the Fantasy I’ve read in the last 15 or so years, this is perhaps second best after The Song of Ice and Fire. But that’s not to say that they have much in common, other than both being good Fantasy. George R. Martin‘s books are full of characters, POVs, violence, politics, and a darkly realistic sensibility. NOTW is much more focused and relies on more traditional Fantasy tropes. How focused can a 700 page novel be? Not very, but it is good, and it concentrates on a small number of characters and a single (albiet meandering) storyline.

Kvothe is the protagonist. He’s a young man of many many talents, of no means whatsoever, who winds his way from the actor’s troupe to the mean streets to the magical University and to (implied) great and terrible things.

If I have any beef with the book, it’s that the meta premise of the tired hero telling his story is too drawn out. This volume opens in the “present day,” where very little happens except to set us up for the life story of the hero, which is brilliant. Much like Lord of the Rings or Hyperion, the reader must slog for a bit to get to the gold. In this case about 50 pages in. But the slogging isn’t exactly painful because Rothfuss’s prose is lyrical and masterful. Seriously, it’s a wonder given the tangents, bloated conversations (the dialog is great but not efficient), and the like that this book is so easy to read — but it is. Damn easy, even the second time.

The world and the hero juggle uniqueness and heavy — but delicious — borrowing from classic Fantasy of the best sort. I sniffed out a bit of Ursula K. Le Guin (think Wizard of Earthsea), Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time), and who knows how many others. The world is extremely well developed, and feels big, but it doesn’t doesn’t have the camp and cheese of Wheel of Time (although it does pay homage). I love origin stories and I very much enjoyed Kvothe’s journey. He’s a great character: humble, proud, skilled, lucky, unlucky all at once, but in a fairly believable way. Perhaps the most important relationship in the book (and there are actually relatively few) is the romance, and it has a tragic quality that feels very refreshing, and slightly reminiscent of the best of Orson Scott Card (think his old stuff like Song Master) or Dan Simmons.

The magic is very unique and interesting, and we focus on it quite a bit, as this is a story that spends a lot of time in the Arcane Academy. This ain’t no Hogwarts either, it feels altogether more mysterious and dangerous. There are several different magic systems interwoven in what is a world overall fairly light on magic. But this is also a world that feels a bit more technological than most Fantasy, with larger cities, a little more like antiquity than the Middle Ages. The “magical bad guys” have a nice character and bit of mystery to them. I don’t like all my mystery explained. There is a lot of music and theatre in here too, and that just helps heighten the lyricism.

But what exactly makes this book so good?

Proving my geek-cred, swapping some Crash Bandicoots for signatures with Patrick Rothfuss

Fundamentally I think Rothfus is just a great writer, and a very good world builder. I don’t think he’s a great plotter. The story drifts along, relies a bit on coincidence and circumstance, and the end fizzles then pops back out of the interior story and waits for the sequel. But that doesn’t really matter, because the prose, world, and characters keep you enjoying every page.

CLICK HERE for my review of the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear.

Book Review: The Spirit Thief

Title: The Spirit Thief

Author: Rachel Aaron

Genre: Light Fantasy

Read: Dec 7-16, 2010

Summary: Ethereal fun.

 

Between a trip back east, mega editing on my own book, and another parental visit last week I only had time to read five or so novels in December, about a quarter of my usual rate.

Don’t confuse this fun little book with The Lightning Thief, which I also just read and reviewed. The SPIRIT Thief straddles a fairly unique line between totally straight up 80s fantasy and comedic fantasy the likes of River of Dancing Gods or Myth Conceptions. It’s not however as totally comic as those, and somehow seems a bit smaller and lighter (if that’s possible).

The voice is very good, and the opening scene brilliant. There’s a nice new magic system here, where every living thing has a spirit inside that wizards can bargin with, enslave, or what not. Like comedy fantasy Shinto. It’s not entirely evenly developed, but the book is at its best during the magic fights. Although they do have a certainly sketchy quality too them, where the action doesn’t feel entirely blocked out, but I still liked quite a bit of this. The master swordsmen are really nicely done, combining the intrinsic magic of the book with a slightly Robert Jordan-esque blade-master feel. There were moments that almost felt super cool.

The prose can be very wry, in a good way. Funny, without laugh out loud. A lot of this involves attributing emotion to inanimate objects, which given the magical system is perfectly in line. When it’s on, this is certainly very fun to read. But at the same time this levity makes it hard to take the characters too seriously, and certainly not their perils. So it works for and against. I found oddly marooned in a peculiar — albiet unique — tone.

For some reason it also reminded me a bit of Shattered World, one of my high school favorites. Probably because the protagonists is a thief. I maybe wanted it to feel more like that, but it doesn’t feel as big. Everything takes place in a fairly short time and place, and the stakes seem a little local. The light tone also works against the emotional intensity of the characters, and I for the most part feel that they existed to either service the plot, or like the author was more sure of their personality than the character. The villain in particular is of the “i’m very bad, and very mad, and bad at being mad” sort.

So overall I would call the book a snack. But a tasty one.

Book Review: The Lightning Thief

Title: The Lightning Thief

Author: Rick Riordan

Genre: MG Fantasy

Read: Dec 1-6, 2010

Summary: Okay read, but really cheesy.

_

In my ongoing research of novels: both bestselling and good, I figured I should give this one a try. Sure it’s for a young audience, but I’m also a big Greek history buff.

Hmmm. The voice is engaging, and it’s certainly easy to read. The idea is great. The characters fine, not good but fine. The writing is stiff, and the plotting… oh the plotting is pretty awful. I really don’t understand why it sold so well. Perhaps it’s a vaguely educational angle?

Percy himself is likable, although he is unrealistically brave in this just-go-for-it-because-I-know-as-protagonist-I’ll-win way. The rest of the characters are pretty one dimensional, although they do fulfill the requisite positions.

The flip style is good, but not exactly ground breaking, and the sentences are clunky.

I’m a stickler for accuracy with regard to mythology. But mostly, that part isn’t too bad. Sure he completely goofed Satyrs, as they are hybridized horse people, not related to goats (although they are partial to the beasts). You can see my detailed post on Satyrs. And on a related note, Dionysus was lamely portrayed, missing out on any of the interesting nuances and dichotomies of the god. That’s the name of the game for this book — shy on nuance. Sure he throws in all sorts of figures from Greek myth, but very little of their subtle and interesting character is retained. But the modernized updates are sometimes fun. Even so, this wasn’t my big problem with the book.

The plot. The premise of modern day child of the gods is great. The overall arc of the plot is fine, that a war of the gods is brewing. It’s just they way the main quest is actually architected. The middle 50% of the book consists of a series of encounters with monsters literally concatenated with nary a thought as to connection or relevance to the overall story. In fact, you could delete quite a few of them and never notice. This is always bad writing. If a scene can be deleted without incident, well then, it probably should’ve been. The overall taste we’re left with is one of ludicrous coincidence, where everything just happens to the hero.

Then we get to the end. Can we say cheesy melodrama. There’s no real menace, or challenge. Things just kind of happen. Mostly the hero solves them by whipping out his sword disguised as a pen. It all works out. It didn’t have to be this way. Harry Potter is much better plotted.

Now I have to see the movie and compare. This may be a chore. I wonder if the series gets better, but I don’t have the interest to find out.

Inside Game of Thrones

HBO has been working on a new hour drama based on my favorite fantasy series, Song of Ice and Fire, which they’re calling by the title of the first book, Game of Thrones. Last night they ran a 15 minute teaser which can be seen here.

I need to do a full review of the series, which you should all immediately read if you haven’t, but it totally rules, and the HBO show looks fantastic too. The books are long, but incredibly fast paced. Set in a sort of fantastic reinterpretation of late medieval England, the magic is very lightly handled. In fact, the story concentrates on extremely vivid and ambiguous characters caught in a vicious political struggle. It’s very dark and real — giving new meaning to the Tarantino phrase, “I’ma get medieval on your ass.” However, nothing’s gratuitous, just well done.