Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, Book 1: A Review

In Which Corwin Reaches for a Pack of Cool Amber Lights

I recently finished the first book of the Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny, the first of ten books which comprise two story arcs of five novels each. If you are unfamiliar with Zelazny and his work, you might think this is a relatively new novel, given today’s penchant for series of works, often voluminous. That would be a wrong estimate though, considering that this first work was published 46 years ago in 1970 and clocks in at brisk 190 pages or thereabouts in the paperback version — a veritable novella by today’s often bloated standards.

the-great-book-of-amberThis is my first work by Zelazny; I have not read his earlier work — reputedly dense and brilliant compared to his later work, according to Publishers Weekly — nor have I read any of his later work, so I really can’t comment on that. What I can say is that the plot was taught and fast moving, and that his use of … anachronism, for lack of a better word, although that’s not quite right in this instance, was intentional and worked for the characters involved — albeit, it was a bit confusing, at first.

While later books may prove to be simple and formulaic — again, Publishers Weekly — thus far it seems rather refreshing, given its sword-and-sorcery setting. Given that our main character wakes up in an ordinary hospital room in modern upstate New York but quickly moves on to become involved in dimension hopping and a race for a throne — or should I say “the” throne — it is rather off-putting, in a good sort of way, that he talks more like Sam Spade than Gawain and the Green Knight.

And cigarettes; let us not forget the cigarettes.

Probably anyone reading it for the first time won’t bother to think too much about Corwin’s — the main character’s — smoking cigarettes when he’s running around New York state, particularly when you take into account that it is, presumptively, 1970. Later on in the novel — I’ll tell you now there is some minor spoilerage ahead; if it is an issue quit reading now — when he’s stuck for years in a dungeon in the bowls of the city of Amber, the fact that an unexpected friend smuggles him cigarettes on a somewhat regular basis may jar some readers. Given the fact that Amber is at least a couple of dimensions away — again for lack of a better word; Zelazny never precisely says — in space and/or time away from Earth, and that few people can traverse the shadows, as it is called in the novel, of which Earth is but one of many, perhaps give some pause.

How do cartons of cigarettes get to Amber? Or do they? Perhaps they grow tobacco and roll their own, just like they do back on Earth; we never learn if Corwin smokes Lucky Strikes or Amber Lights. Perhaps tobacco and/or cigarettes were bought back to Amber years ago from Earth and now they produce said Amber Lights; we all know what happened when the Spanish bought tobacco back from the “New World.”

Again, Zelazny isn’t saying, at least in this first of ten novels, and that’s OK with me. Some may fault him for shoddy world-building, but I don’t think so. It works here, especially given this fast-paced novel which has little fat; Dashiell Hammett’s characters don’t lend much time to ennui and thumb twiddling — or vivid descriptions that may wow some readers but do little to otherwise advance the plot — and neither does Zelazny. This, perhaps more so than anything else, separates him from today’s serial novelists.

So, what’s next? Am I burning through the next novels? Not exactly. I’ll say again that I liked it, but not so much that I’m addicted, per se. I’ll return at some point, but don’t hold your breath; there are many others waiting in the wings. Plus I think — or rather, I know — that my tastes seem to be changing. But we’ll save that topic for another time and perhaps another blog.

Pulitzer Poo-Poos Fiction, Self-Publishing for a Published Author: Book News

Swamplandia by Karen Russell (book cover). One of three novels noiminated for but not getting a Pulitzer Prize in 2012.Pulitzer Panel Poo-Poos This Year’s Fiction While Publishers Panties Bunch, Readers Cry Pshaw

And that, kids, is how you write a headline. The biggest news in the book world this week is obviously this: for the first time in 35 years the Pulitzer Prize board will not name a prize for fiction this year. It seems the jurors couldn’t reach a consensus, so they just said meh, to hell with it.

Needless to say, this got a lot of people in the publishing industry, not to mention readers, bent out of shape and perhaps rightly so. The Pulitzer Prize award winner invariably sells a lot of books, after all. But then winning a Pulitzer Prize for fiction is no guarantee of literary immortality.

The New York Times‘ Julie Bosman has a good rundown of the ensuing hubub following the Pulitzer Prize board’s announcement Monday.

Why Would a Published Author, Under Contract, Turn to Kickstarter and Self-Publishing?

The publishing world – and consequently the world of literature and books – is in a state of flux, at the moment, to be sure; we are living in a Chinese proverb: these are indeed interesting times. At the forefront of this is the rise of the ebook market along with and declining print book sales.

What does it all mean? And perhaps more importantly, how does an author cope? When ebooks can be bought with a click – and subsequently pirated with a click – and at the same time when self publishing and independent publishing have become viable and cheap – what’s an author to do? Furthermore, how does marketing work in this postmodern publishing world?

Author Kate Milford, who is already a published author of so-called young adult fiction and is apparently currently under a contract with a traditional publisher, has an interesting approach to these publishing issues. Milford is using Kickstarter to self-publish work that will stand alongside novels published traditionally. As she relates to uber-blog Boing Boing:

I’m raising funds to self-publish a novella companion to my second traditionally-published YA fantasy, The Broken Lands. This is the first installment in what I hope will be an ongoing project with two goals: to combine traditional and self-publishing by releasing companion content alongside my hardcover books; and to use indie bookstore-friendly resources for the self-pub end of things.

The first novella, The Kairos Mechanism, also acts as a bridge between the stories told in The Broken Lands and my first book, The Boneshaker. It will be released in three editions: paperback (via McNally Jackson’s self-pub services and Espresso Book Machine); digital (via Google Play); and a Super-Special Digital edition, free or pay-what-you-like, which will be illustrated by young reader artists. The funds raised will finance the costs of publication as well as paying the young artists.

There and Back Again: It Was the Best of Nepotism, It Was the Worst of Nepotism

Charles Dickens is one of my literary pet peeves; if there was ever an author in the annals of Western Literature that was and is over-rated, it is him, or so I like to argue. And argue I do; people seem to hold him dear – even my friends who should know better (I’m talking to you, Johnny O).

J.R.R. Tolkien, on the other hand, is one of my favorites. While in some respects his works arguably do not stand the test of time, he nevertheless single handedly gave us the genre of modern fantasy. And more importantly, I still enjoy rereading his works; for me they do stand the test of time in spite of the faults that people perceive in his works today.

In any event, aside from my personal opinions one way or the other, both are so-called literary giants; there is no disputing that fact. So one wonders what they would make of this patently obvious gimmick: a British publisher is publishing two fantasy novels penned by Tolkien grandchild Michael Tolkien, allegedly based on stories told him by his grandfather.

As if this weren’t dubious enough by itself, naturally they will be tailored for young readers, the publisher says. Apparently adults don’t buy books anymore. Damn this young adult market/marketing trend, anyway.

Oh yeah. The accompanying audio books will be narrated by one Gerald Dickens, a great-great grandson of Dickens.


There is more at New York Times’ Artsbeat blog. Already exhausted your 10 articles for the month at Delete your cookies or go straight to the horse’s mouth, Thames River Press.

John L. Beiswenger's 2002 novel Link (book cover). Beiswenger is suing Assassin's Creed maker Ubisoft, claiming it infringes upon his ideas in Link. Science Fiction Author Sues Assassin’s Creed Maker Ubisoft Claiming Copyright Infringement

Tech blog Ars Technica reports that a science fiction author is suing videogame producer Ubisoft, the name behind a number of huge titles, such as Halo, Far Cry and Prince of Persia, alleging copyright infringement.

Author John L. Beiswenger claims in his suit in U.S. District Court that Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games lift ideas from his 2002 novel Link without his consent. As Ars Technica explains, Beiswenger’s novel centers around the device from which the novel takes its name, which enables users to relive memories of relatives and ancestors through DNA. This does sound almost exactly like the Animus devices of the Assassin’s Creed games — incidentally, I have played the first game in the series, albeit briefly.

The Ars Technica post also quotes a lawyer specializing in video game legal issues – what crazy times we live in – as suggesting that the suit may be without merit, regardless of whether or not the similarities are intentional or coincidental.

“The level of comparison they’re trying to make would be along the lines of both Back to the Future and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure have time machines as plot devices, so one must be infringing the other,” said Mark Methenitis, as quoted by the blog. “A copyright does not protect abstract ideas at that level.”

Even so, I doubt if that will encourage the two parties to be excellent to one another.

And I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me if Bill and Ted’s phone booth had been equipped with a flux capacitor, well, I’ll bet lawyers would have gotten involved.


Review: Redemption in Indigo

Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo is Not Your Parents’ Speculative Fiction

Karen Lord's debut novel, Redemption in IndigoHaving recently caught up on George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, as well as having gone back and reread Tolkien – damn near all of it; people with torn quadriceps tendons need comfort food – Karen Lord’s Rdemption in Indigo was quite a refreshing bit of fantasy, if you can call it that. It was nominated for a 2011 World Fantasy Award, so I suppose we can. But the term speculative fiction fits Redemption in Indigo better, however, as there are elements of physics – albeit of a fantastical flavor – interwoven with Senegalese folklore and spirits called djombi – reflections of its author’s Carribean roots (she’s a native of Barbados) and the larger African diaspora, perhaps, as well as a professional life steeped in academia.

Redemption in Indigo is remarkable in a number of ways, not the least of which is that it is a splendidly well-written first novel. But it seems remarkable to me that here is a rather slim and succinct book – in comparison to today’s genre fiction with its stereotypical bejillion-page magnum opus XI of XX – that has no swords in it and really no visceral violence to speak of contained within its pages. There are no swooning damsels – in distress or feeling randy – although our main character is certainly in distress of a kind (but not the kind that can be fixed by white horses and shiny armor).

Really it’s remarkable that books like Redemption in Indigo get published at all in this day and age gritty fantasy. But it’s fortunate for us that we do. Cheers to Small Beer Press, the dead-tree counterpart to Weightless Books.

The beginning – even books about the spirit of Chance and its tool, Chaos, have a beginning – of Lord’s Redemption in Indigo finds the aforementioned Paama fleeing her ten-year marriage. Her husband, Ansige, you see, is a gourmand in the worst sense of the word – “not an epicure, but a gourmand,” as Lord’s narrator tells us. In short, he is an irredeemable glutton. Thus we find Paama, getting close to the wrong side of youth, her marriage a childless and loveless failure, having retreated to her family’s home in its ancestral village.

It may sound trite, if not down-right yawn inducing, but in Lord’s capable hands, it doesn’t read this way at all. In fact the book’s opening vignette is rather skillfully humorous. As we meet bumbling and hapless Ansige, he is undertaking a perilous journey to Paama’s village – perilous because he is limited in the amount of food he can take and prepare along the way to sustain his usual-yet-ridiculously voracious diet. And it is here, even before we meet Paama, that we meet our first djombi, and get a hint that this book might be more than it initially seems.

It is here, too, that we first meet our narrator, the story teller. If I have a bone to pick with Indigo in Blue, it would be with Lord’s use of the narrator. But we’ll get to that later. Let’s get back to Ansige and Paama.

Ultimately Ansige, a minor character, turns out to be not a humorous figure at all but a tragic one; he has only himself to blame for his circumstances. Paama, on the other hand, is fate’s plaything – or rather that of Patience. And plaything is really not the right word; let’s call her an instrument of Patience, as she uses Paama to achieve the redemption of the spirit of Chance, or at least offer him a path to rehabilitation.

While Paama is a central character in Redemption in Indigo and of critical importance to its plot, it is Chance that is the main character; Lord uses the folktale of Paama and Ansige to introduce what I suppose we can call the spiritual dilemma of the undying djombi. As Karen Lord explained in a recent interview with Carribean Beat arts magazine, there are no fantasy elements in the original story at all; she added these as she developed the story.

Chief among those is the character of Chance, who has become disillusioned with humanity and subsequently filled with ennui. As an immortal being imbued with the power of Chaos, this is – well, I’ll let Lord’s narrator tell it:

Remember what we mentioned to you before. This is a dangerous person. He enjoys lulling the prey into a feeling of safety before killing it. That instant of betrayal, that twist of perception when one realizes that one’s entire universe is founded on a lie – that is the moment that acts on his boredom as splendidly as champagne on a jaded palate.

This description comes near the beginning of the story, soon after Paama has been given the power of Chaos unknowingly, and Chance has come looking for it. It is when he finds her that the story at the heart of Redemption in Indigo begins. Let us skip to the end of the story: having been confronted by the most powerful being in his pantheon, Patience, Chance is, shall we say, offered another chance.

“What changed, she asked him.

He walked a few more pensive steps, and then answered. “Paama is an unusual woman.”

… “Not as unusal as you might think,” she said, replying at last to his comment about Paama. “There are many women like her, considered by some to be virtuous and lyal, considered by others as foolish and week. What about Paama changed you?”

“Nothing stopped her from trying to do what she felt to be right, not even despair. She was willing to learn, and when she felt the lesson was beyond her capacity, she was willing to simply obey.”

“Ah, so you saw her duty,” Patience said, sounding pleased.

“No, not at first. She saw her duty long before I noticed it. There are many things that I once knew but which I had forgotten, and one of them was that human duty is not very different ours.”

And, later in the conversation, when Patience has put her offer on the table:

Chance looked at her and considered long and hard. He had tried isolation, and it had been sterile and useless. He had tried to do as he pleased with humans, and instead of senseless vermin he had found Paama, remarkable in her own ordinary way, and very burdensome on his conscience. He found himself running out of choices.

So what choice does he make? You’ll have to read the novel to find out. But Chance’s potential redemption is not the only one on offer in Indigo; there is that of Paama as well. Chance takes her on a journey through space and time in an effort to show her that Chaos is not a power that is easily wielded, even with the best of intentions. As Lord describes it early in the novel:

Chaos was a far subtler force than most people realized. It would be so easy to sense if it threw off thunderbolts or sent barely sensed thrummings through the fabric of reality, but it was nothing more than the possible made probable. It did not break or bend any laws of nature or tip the balance of the universe. How would a mere human understand how to manipulate it? They would end up thinking they were merely lucky, or blessed.

What’s more, our jaded immortal tries to convince her that humanity is not even worth the trouble. But in the end, Paama may have illustrated for him otherwise.

As for Paama’s own redemption, again, you’ll just have to read the novel. And you really should.

Raucous Storyteller or Unnecessary Convention?

Now, about that bone of contention. Narrators that stick themselves into stories that are otherwise told from an omniscient third person point of view almost always bother me. If a story otherwise told in the third person needs a narrator as character, then there’s a problem with the story (or the author). I think it is a convention that rarely works, even for accomplished writers. Furthermore, I think it’s often done because of writers’ lack of faith in their own abilities; sometimes those fears are unfortunately real, at other times unfounded.

While I can’t speak to the inner workings of Karen Lord’s mind, I can certainly say there is certainly no lack of writerly talent in Redemption in Indigo, and certainly none that needs to be bolstered by a narrator as character. Initially I was a little put off by the presence of this narrator – yes, it’s a bias, I’ll admit, but one with reasonable foundations, I’d argue – but in Indigo the narrator’s presence works and works well for the most part, enriching both prose and story, rather than getting in the way.

I read Redemption in Indigo on my Kindle, and when I looked through most of the quotes I had made from the book, the majority of them in fact comprise clever asides by the narrator. To wit:

Alton’s Love Poems to Neila have been famous for years, as everyone knows, but if you want to sample them for yourself, or try a verse or two on your own beloved, I fear that you will have to buy the published works or attend one of the performances still running in theaters in many of the major cities. A minor writer such as I cannot afford the cost of reproducing the words of the poet dubbed Love’s Own Laureate.

And to be fair, Lord’s narrator mostly keeps out of the way, while still offering up those clever asides, like this early description of our aforementioned poet:

A terribly shy man, he was far too self-deprecating, an unhelpful trait in any person who aims to sell snatches of empty air shaped around vowels and consonants, or worse, bits of white paper irregularly stained with black ink.

Or this gem, again with regard to the hapless poet:

Women fell into that category of fantasies and dreams that worked well when unfulfilled but presented all kinds of problems when brought out into the real world of trial and failure.

And lastly:

Many women, by their beauty and sheer presence, have reduced intelligent men to babbling idiots or gaping mutes, but few have inspired to such heights of eloquence a man who can only be described as mediocre. There is the secret. Show a woman that she has the power to improve you a thousand times over, and she is yours for life.

That last one literally made me laugh out loud when I read it. Like all good humor that relies on hyperbole, there is a grain of truth in there.

But there are times when Lord’s narrator becomes needlessly intrusive, and this is annoying at best.

… but I am hearing some rumblings from my audience. You are distressed that I have spoiled the moving and romantic tale of how Love’s Laureate courted his beautiful wife? You complain that I have turned it into a cobbled pastiche of happenstance, expediency, and the capricious tricks of the djombi? I bleed for your injured sentiments, but to dress the tale in vestments of saga and chivalry was never my intent. A sober and careful reading of history will teach you that both lesser and greater persons have been treated more roughly by fate. Be content. If it was only a djombi’s vanity and aversion to human company that caused Alton to become a merchant prince for one night, if it was fear of discovery and capture that made that djombi flee, thus settling a lordly mantle on Alton for all time, how does that come to be my fault? I am only the one who tells the story.

It is particularly annoying because her prose stands on it own and easily; it doesn’t need this sort of thing and it consequently only serves to disrupt the story. Fortunately this doesn’t happen often.

Karen Lord, author of Redemption in IndigoHaving said that, there admittedly may be a cultural nuance here that I’m missing or just otherwise don’t understand, being a native of an Ohio suburb. In the course of looking for some biographical information on the author, as well as some background on cultural beliefs with regard to djombis, I came across several reviews that praised Lord’s narrator as a reflection of traditional oral storytelling in African cultures and consequently the African Diaspora – namely the West Indies. The idea that our spirited narrator was a nod to cultural roots – either consciously or otherwise, never occurred to me, quite honestly. Furthermore, I have to admit that in that context, the feisty narrator as character makes more sense.

In any event, Redemption in Indigo is an excellent novel, at turns amusing and insightful. Let us hope that Karen Lord’s muse will inspire many more such works.

And now that I’ve read two of the six nominees for the 2011 World Fantasy Award in the novel category – Lauren Beukes’ amazing Zoo City – I’m curious to read the winner, Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death. It just occurred to me, incidentally, that all of these novels have an African connection. Zoo City is set in a South Africa of the near future, while Who Fears Death is set in a far-future Saharan Africa.

P.S. For an interesting review of Redemption in Indigo that delves into how Lord weaves physics into her narrative, check out review at Small Axe Salon.

P.P.S. This novel was the winner of a Mythopoeic Award, a Crawford Award and a Frank Collymore Award, in addition to being a World Fantasy Award finalist. It was also longlisted for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literatures and shortlisted for the Guyana Prize for Literature.

P.P.P.S. Longlisted? Er?

Get Karen Lord’s Rdemption in Indigo here.

Random News on Books, Vol. II

All sorts of miscellaneous book news to catch up on while I’ve been slacking lo the past week and a half or so. I have a good reason for this slackness: I’ve caught the graduate school bug yet again – it seems to strike every three years or so, but this time it feels likely to be terminal. I’ve even got it narrowed down to specific MFA programs I will try and get into (and the backup MA programs if I don’t, which is a distinct possibility). So the next six months is going to be spent studying for the GRE (again) and writing and workshopping (no, not technically a verb) the piece(s) I will submit with my applications.

But that’s neither here nor there.

First off: yet more awards are in the offing. Must be that time of year, I suppose.

Nothing is Absolutely So

Theodore Sturgeon in 1972 (reportedly). Not sure who took it or holds the copyright; if anyone can supply that info, please do. The above headline – or text in between the title tags – is Sturgeon’s Law, as stated by the man himself. Of course most people, myself included, have come to think of Sturgeon’s Law as the old saw about 90 percent of science fiction being derivative crap. Reportedly his actual quote was this:

Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.

One wonders what he would think of this year’s crop of his eponymous award finalists (and that’s not meant as a comment on this year’s field one way or the other). In case you are wondering, the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas administers/curates/decides Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award; is  by its intent is to honor outstanding short stories or other short works of science fiction.

Sturgeon, of course, was one of – some might even say “the” – authors of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, a contemporary of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and van Vogt. Not everyone includes Arthur C. Clarke in that list, but I most assuredly do. Anyway, without further ado:

  • Eleanor Arnason, “Mammoths of the Great Plains” – (chapbook)
  • Damien Broderick, “Under the Moons of Venus” – Subterranean (Spring)
  • Elizabeth Hand, “The Maiden Flight of McAuley’s Bellerophon” – Stories: All-New Tales
  • Geoffrey A. Landis, “The Sultan of the Clouds” – Asimov’s, September
  • Yoon Ha Lee, “Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain” – Lightspeed, September
  • Paul Park, “Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” – Fantasy and Science Fiction, January / February
  • Robert Reed, “Dead Man’s Run” – Fantasy and Science Fiction, November / December
  • Alastair Reynolds, “Troika” – Godlike Machines
  • Steve Rasnic Tem, “A Letter from the Emperor” – Asimov’s, January
  • Lavie Tidhar, “The Night Train” – Strange Horizons, 14 June
  • Peter Watts, “The Things” – Clarkesworld, January

You know, I’ve never read Sturgeon’s seminal novel, More than Human. I’ve read plenty of his stories in anthologies over the years, but somehow I’ve never read this novel. I think I need to remedy that forthwith.

One other interesting tidbit about Sturgeon: he had a profound influence on Star Trek and the subsequent Star Trek universe. He wrote the screenplays for two of the more popular episodes of the original series. Including “Amok Time,” the one in which Spock has to get his groove on – or die. Among the enduring impact of Sturgeon on Star Trek, he gave us: the concept of pon farr, the aforementioned Vulcan ritual for getting it on, i.e., mating ritual; the concept of the Prime Directive, which has helped fashion all manner of plots across the entire spectrum of Star Trek series; and then there is the peculiar Vulcan greeting, including the hand salute and the phrase “live long, and prosper.”

The proper, polite response to this is, of course, “peace, and long life.” Yes, I am a nerd in general and trekkie in particular. And yes, I opt for the phrase that most of my brethren shun. Bones is doctor, dammit, and I am a trekkie, not a trekker. Reclaim the word for our own, I say.

But I digress.

Nod to a Golden Age with the John Campbell Award

While Sturgeon is a seminal author, John Campbell was a seminal editor of science fiction, so much so that if it weren’t for him, there might not have been a Golden Age of Science Fiction; it might never have emerged from its pulp roots and into the realm of literature. Of course there are a lot of stuffed shirts who think that it still hasn’t, but we, dear gentle reader, know better, of course.

Anyway the Golden Age certainly would have been somewhat less gilded had it not been for Campbell. Without him it might have remained the Stone Age of Science Fiction; the field might have managed to make it to the Bronze Age of Sci Fi at best. Really if we were to continue this metaphor to its conclusion a more apt name would be the Steel Age of Science Fiction as opposed to the Golden Age. I’m just sayin’ (and digressing).

The good folks at the University of Kansas and the Center for the Study of Science Fiction are also responsible for the eponymous Cambell Award. This is apparently the center’s nod to the science fiction novel.

  • Yarn, Jon Armstrong (Night Shade)
  • Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear (Orbit)
  • Zero History, William Gibson, (Putnam)
  • C, Tom McCarthy (Knopf)
  • The Dervish House, Ian McDonald (Gollancz/Pyr)
  • New Model Army, Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
  • The Quantum Thief , Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz/Tor)
  • Veteran, Gavin Smith (Gollancz)
  • The Waters Rising, Sheri S. Tepper (Eos)
  • Aurorarama, Jean-Christophe Valtat (Melville House)
  • Anthill , E. O. Wilson (Norton)
  • Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis (Spectra)
  • How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu (Pantheon)

Notably, Nebula award winner Connie Willis is on here for her duology Blackout/All Clear. I just finished reading Blackout, and am reading All Clear. Also, I’m – somewhat – surprised that Gibson’s Zero History keeps showing up on all these award lists. Not that it isn’t deserving, because it is, but it’s not really science fiction. The so-called Bigend trilogy, of which Zero History is the third, is set in the current day, and none of the technology depicted in it, while advanced, all exists today, so technically it’s not science fiction, by the strictest definition of the term.

Of course if we take his entire oeuvre, we can call Gibson a science fiction author, so I suppose I’m splitting hairs.

Alison Bechdel Becomes a Fellow

An excerpt from Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, Fun Home. Copright is hers, of course.I love comic artist Alison Bechdel, the author of the long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For. If you aren’t familiar with DTWOF, as you might guess from the name it’s a so-called alternative comic strip; you would not have found it in your daily mainstream hometown paper. You might have found it in your hometown alt weekly, however. If you missed it the first time around there are several collections of DTWOF comics; I can highly recommend them. Dykes was probably one of my favorite comics of all time; it ranks right up there with Bloom County and its successors in my humble estimation.

Bechdel is also known for her graphic novel, the autobiographical memoir of her relationship with her father, Fun Home. Fun Home is a wonderful work, a truly moving piece. Some may debate whether the graphic novel is literature; to them I would suggest they read Fun Home and then tell me that it’s not.

Anway, Bechdel is going to be serving as a Mellon Fellow at the new Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago; she will be co-teaching a course on autobiographical comics.

Attention New York Times: Hüsker Dü Wasn’t Metal

Despite this assertion that Bob Mold made “metal music for the kind of people who don’t like metal” — the ironic  umlauts in the name must have fooled ’em — it’s cool that the New York Times reviewed Bob Mold’s autobiography See a Little Light, The Trail of Rage and Melody. Bear in mind I’m almost but not quite a nerd when it comes to metal and punk; I’m more of a geek in that respect, as opposed to a nerd (if you want to get fussy about the terms, and being such, I do).

I suppose some of his music might be classified by the ignorant as metal, but doubt any serious connoisseur/anyone who came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s would. But then labels are subjective. One person’s garage rock is another one’s proto-punk, for example. ]

Anyway, Bob Mold has published an autobiography. That’s news in and of itself. If you had asked me back in oh, 1989 or so, that someday I’d be reading a review of Bob Mould’s autobiography in the New York Times, I would have said something along the lines of “No way! GTFU!”

More Bad News

It has been a tough spring for science fiction and fantasy authors and artists, to say the least. Now we learn that British author John Glasby, a contemporary of the aforementioned Golden Era greats, died June 5; he was 82. A prolific author, he started out writing science fiction in the 1950s, but is perhaps better known for his later work in the fantasy and horror/supernatural genres. He continued to write almost up to the time of his death; his last work, a science fiction novel, Mystery of the Crater, came out just last year.

According to Locus many of his earlier works are soon to be republished here in the United States, and also has a few works yet to be published.

I also see on Locus that author L.A. Banks is in the hospital with late stage adrenal cancer. I’m familiar with her work – L.A. is short for Leslie Esdaile, presumably – from a few fantasy/paranormal short story anthologies; but she is quite prolific in several genres, including crime/suspense and romance. If you want to leave an encouraging note for Leslie, or even make a donation for her mounting medical expenses – no employer-supplied health insurance for authors – just follow that link.

As I was in the process of posting this and double checking a link, I saw a notice that author and editor Alan Ryan had died. I am more familiar with the many short story anthologies he put together and edited. But he also published a lot of short fiction in the horror genre as well. A more complete obituary for Alan Ryan can be found over at the Too Much Horror blog.

Obituary: Joel Rosenberg

Fantasy and science fiction author Joel RosenbergScience fiction and fantasy author – and presumed card-carrying NRA member — Joel Rosenberg died June 2; he was 57.

I confess I’ve never read Rosenberg’s work, but do know of it, thanks to my Dungeons and Dragons-playing friends back in high school. I believe Rosenberg was one of the first, if not the first, to to take the setting of DnD and similar role playing games and use them as the setting for several of his fantasy novels. That would include his first and perhaps most well-known series, Guardians of the Flame.

This series had an interesting conceit – very “meta” as the kids say today; it is literally about a group of college kids playing a DnD-like RPG who get magically transported to the realm depicted by the game. Suddenly they presumably have to wield actual swords as opposed to graph paper and 20-sided dice.

Let’s think about that a moment. So we have Tolkien and Lewis, et al, creating fantasy worlds that inspired the settings for tabletop RPGs. Then that came full circle with Rosenberg and everyone that came after him; today we have any number of authors writing fantasy series based on RPG games. It’s sort of the ultimate fan fiction, or perhaps meta marketing.

As I say, I’ve never read any his Guardian books, but I heard them discussed often enough; the first one in the series, The Sleeping Dragon, came out in 1983; over the next 20 years Rosenberg published nine more books in the series. I remember more than one DnD or some similar game getting an impromptu pause to compare and contrast the game in front of us with the one from Rosenberg’s novels.

More than once the dungeon master was compared to Rosenberg and found wanting.

The cover of The Sleeping Dragon by Joel Rosenberg, first in the Guardians of the Flame seriesNow that I think about it, I’m not sure how I never got around to reading any of his work. Many friends have read his stuff over the years; he was quite prolific, writing other fantasy series, such as Mordred’s Heirs – an alternate fantasy, so to speak, in which Arthur loses to Mordred. I know all this off of the top of my head, just from having listened to other people discuss it (okay, I did have to go to Rosenber’gs Wikipedia to look up the date Sleeping Dragon was published.

Apparently Rosenberg has also published science fiction – “I do write about Jews in space with big guns” – and mysteries (thank you Wikipedia). The Jews in space I believe refers to his Metsada Mercenary Corps series.

What I also didn’t know, having read a few other obituaries on Locus and whatnot today, was that Rosenberg was apparently quite the activist when it came to his Second Amendment rights – that would the be the right to bear arms, for those of you not paying attention in history and civics classes. No mention on whether he ever joined his state militia – arming state militias being the original intent of that amendment (something that gun lobbyists seem to be inclined to forget – sorry, couldn’t resist pontificating just a little bit; I’ll stop now).

Anyway, Rosenberg was a staunch advocate of gun rights and ownership; apparently he was involved in a legal brouhaha stemming from an incident in November of last year in which he walked into Minneapolis city hall wearing a handgun. How staunch was he? Very – I submit to you yon Youtube video in which Rosenberg demonstrates all the different ways one can wear a holstered handgun.

His wife posted the details of Rosenberg’s death on her blog:

On Wednesday afternoon, June 1, 2011, Joel had a respiratory depression that caused a heart attack, anoxic brain damage and major organ failure. Despite the very best efforts of the paramedics and the team at Hennepin County Medical Center, Joel was pronounced brain dead at around 5:37pm Thursday June 2nd, In accordance with his wishes, he shared the gift of life through organ and tissue donation.

He is survived by his daughters, Judith Eleanor and Rachel Hannah, and his wife, Felicia Herman. Today, June 3rd would have been his 32nd wedding anniversary.


It really is a shame to lose someone like that at only 57; surely there were more books to be written. Regardless of how one feels about the gun lobby, he sounds like an interesting character, and I know my young friends always spoke highly of his works.

Postscript: I cadged the photo of Rosenberg from his author entry at the Fantastic Fiction site; no credit is given on the photo. Should anyone happen upon this who does know who took the photo, please let me know.

Mythopoeic Society’s 2011 Award Finalists

If, like me an hour or so ago, you’re wondering what exactly mythopoeic means, and consequently who and what the eponymous society is, allow me to elucidate. Or rather, let me quote the society:

Mythopoeic Society's 2011 awardsThe Mythopoeic Society is a national/international organization promoting the study, discussion, and enjoyment of fantastic and mythopoeic literature through books and periodicals, annual conferences, discussion groups, awards, and more. We are especially interested in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, prominent members of the informal Oxford literary circle known as the “Inklings” (1930s-1950s). …

Scholars of the Inklings had observed that these men all created myth, so Society founder Glen GoodKnight borrowed a Greek adjective meaning “myth-making” as the name of the Society. Although the Inklings were all Christian authors, the Mythopoeic Society strives to follow what GoodKnight called “the Middle Way”: neither denying the religious beliefs and purposes of our three core authors, nor serving as an organization seeking to propagate those beliefs; and while urging the importance and relevance of our central authors, avoiding the trap of becoming a “cult of personality” for any one of them.

Karen Lord's debut novel, Redemption in IndigoI dunno, a cult of Tolkien personality, or a Lewis personality cult, might not be so bad. But anyway, that’s the Mythopoeic Society. I had never heard of them before, but then I’ve been rather preoccupied lo these past two years or so. I’m also not familiar with the authors they name in their awards list (as presented below), but if the book blurbs are any indication, they all sound interesting.

One might suspect that Mythopoeic Society awards finalists’ works would all be elves and orcs, dwarves and goblins and gnomes and whatnot. But that’s not necessarily the case. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, for example, is set in a parallel of China’s Tang Dynasty (he apparently specializes in the alternate history subgenre), while Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo is a retelling of a Senegalese folktale – this one sounds particularly interesting; Lord’s debut novel has garnered several other accolades as well.

Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature

Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature

There are also awards for scholarly works on this same genre. Here’s the complete list of the Mythopoeic Society’s 2011 Award Finalists.

Postscript: Credit where credit is due; I first heard of this while perusing Locus Online.

2010 Nebula Award Winners

And Don’t Forget the Hugo Awards

Connie Willis' BlackoutI almost forgot, so busy posting other book news — in fact between this and my other sites I’ve barely found time to get any reading done today, and here it is almost dawn/bedtime. Anyway, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) announced this past weekend this year’s Nebula Awards …  er, rather, this year’s Nebula awards for books that came out last year … wait, what?

I think I need a time machine to sort that out. Speaking of which — see what I did here?Connie Willis won the novel category for her two-part time travel opus, Blackout/All Clear. I’ve not read her before, although I shall endeavor to soon; the Nebula Awards rarely let me down.

Unlike some professional organizations, you pretty much have to be a published author to be a full-fledged member of the  SFWA, so the Nebula awards are decided by writers’ peers. One would hope and assume that these people’s opinions should be reasonably well informed.  You can see the list of this year’s winners — last year’s I mean — just follow that link above.

Want to have a say but aren’t a published author? Then the Hugo Awards are for you; these are the fan-voted awards.

But  you have to get your butt to Renovation, the 69th World Science Fiction Convention — or at least sign up as a supporting member. This year Worldcon will be held in Reno, Nevada, Aug. 17 to Aug. 21. Worldcon members — specifically supporting, attending, and young adult members — get a say in the voting.

Not thrilled with Reno? Full attendees get to vote on where the next one is where it is held two years from now  (gimme a break, it’s been a while for me). Reno’s actually kind of cool though; it’s where Las Vegas service industry folk go when they want to do what the rest of us do in Vegas. Ergo, it’s more laid back than Vegas, and the tourists tend to be a bit more hip than the run-of-the-mill Vegas tourist. I thought about going this year, but unfortunately it’s not an option for me for both chronological and fiduciary reasons.

I hope to get out to Worldcon 2010 though, slated for Chicago, which is not quite in my back yard, but close enough. August in Chicago though — gonna be sticky.

By the way: Connie Willis has won both a Nebula and a Hugo previously, so bring the Blackout.


Zoo City

Lauren Beukes Avoids the Sophomore Curse with Zoo City

Zoo City’s Only Fault? Inconsistent Awesome

Lauren Beukes' Zoo City; UK Cover by Joey Hi-Fi aka D. HalvorsenAt it’s core, if we strip it of most of its fantastical elements, Zoo City is a arguably just a crime drama – a so-called hardboiled thriller. Or so some blurb writers might have us believe – as well as whoever wrote Lauren Beukes’ Wikipedia entry. But even without the element of mashavi manifested as animals that criminals must bear as they go about their daily lives – imagine Hester Prynne having a scarlet ibis flapping along behind her throughout Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter – Beukes’ second novel is more than just a well-written thriller set in the seedier side of present-day Johannesburg.

Beukes, a self-described recovering journalist, has obviously put her Fourth Estate skills to work and put together an entertaining and rich yet subtle commentary on prejudice, culture and society interwoven with a work of gritty or realistic urban fantasy. Indeed, Zoo City owes more to Gibson and Gaiman than Tolkien and Lewis, to be sure. It’s also a credit to Beukes as an author that a work that could have easily been formulaic and derivative is actually original and eminently readable.

You People: Being Animaled in Zoo City

A bit of explanation is in order: Zoo City is set in an alternate present-day Johannesburg, South Africa. In the world of Zoo City, serious criminals are beset with their own specific animals that mark them as a criminal, making them a so-called “zoo.” In fact, in Beukes’ Jo-burg there isn’t so much prejudice between black and white as there is against the animaled – the zoos – from all quarters. The animaled are  “you people” in Beukes’ alternate world, regardless of the color of their skin.

Given that this is South Africa, many believe the animals attached to those that commit crimes are mashavi, the spirits of people that have left no descendants behind or whose descendants no longer honor or remember them. The idea of mashavi (that’s the plural, shavi is the singular) comes from the Shona people of Zimbabwe, or at least the term does; animism and belief in ancestral spirits is a traditional belief in many traditional African religions.

In any event, within the context of Zoo City, being animaled marks you in no uncertain terms in most people’s eyes, as we see through Beukes’ chief protagonist and first-person narrator, Zinzi December. Like her creator, Zinzi is a former and maybe would-be-again journalist. Unlike (presumably) her creator, Zinzi has served time in prison for a violent crime, and as such is animaled: she now lives with a metaphorical and literal monkey on her back. Only it’s not a monkey, in Zinzi’s case, but a sloth, and as result she lives on the margins of society, even though she has a college degree and professional experience, and has ostensibly paid her debt to society – but we all know how that works, real life or fictional.

Lauren Beukes' Zoo City; North American ho-hum cover artAnd it’s to Beukes’ further credit that she never actually resorts to that cliché about monkeys, backs and bad habits – implied, perhaps, but never stated. This, despite the fact that Zinzi is also an addict (or a recovering one, depending on your sense of semantics and vernacular).

Along with being animaled, being graced with a shavi also gives some people unique talents or skills akin to magic; in Zinzi’s case this is finding things that people have lost. As Zoo City begins, we learn that Zinzi uses this skill as her livelihood, since she is a marked woman in the eyes of society; the South African version of Vanity Fair (or its equivalent) is not likely to come knocking, looking for her byline.

When her current client dies unexpectedly before Zinzi can get paid, she reluctantly agrees to take a potentially lucrative missing persons job, something she ordinarily avoids. It just so happens the missing person is also part of a teenage popstar duo, and we’re off and running with our thriller plot, which is inextricably mixed up with mashavi and magic.

Didn’t Quite Get There: A Bit of an Anticlimax

In fact it would be difficult to have exactly the same thriller of a plot if we stripped away the mashavi; they are at its core. Nevertheless, if there is one disappointing thing in Zoo City, it’s the culmination of the plot. If we do take away the element of the mashavi, the climax leaves us with the standard, ho-hum stuff of pop-fiction thrillers.

But then it is Beukes’ talent that perhaps works against her in this respect; Beuke’s sophomore novel is so well done she perhaps sets up some unrealistic expectations. The characters in Zoo City are so wonderfully realized, the element of mashavi expertly woven into the otherwise common fabric of a seedy, urban backdrop — bringing something blessedly original to a crowded sub-genre – that one anticipates some mind-blowing, oh-my-gods-no-one-could-have-seen-this-coming climax to Zoo City.

And this is not to say that the climax is bad or not otherwise well written and realized, it is. It just doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the novel. Furthermore, this is also certainly not to say that you shouldn’t read it; you should; it’s nothing short of great stuff, particularly considering it’s only the author’s second novel.

Beaukes: Clarke Award Winner, Master of Metaphor

Zoo City is a winner of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award (I’m a nerd and keep track of such things as winners of Arthur C. Clarke awards; the master is still one of my favorites, too). In this interview with Beukes from the venerable science fiction podcast, Escape Pod – following the news of the award — one of the first questions the interviewer asks her is how she scored a book blurb from author William Gibson; the story of how this came about is particularly post modern.

Comparisons to Gibson and his contemporaries is perhaps inevitable, given the subject of her first book, Moxyland, it being an example of the cyberpunk science fiction, another crowded subgenre that Gibson himself helped define decades ago. I’ve read enough of Moxyland now to have a feel for it, but I have to say that it is Zoo City actually reminds me much more Gibson’s cyberpunk works, even though Beukes’ second novel is set in the present day.

While her writing style is somewhat akin to Gibson’s earlier works, it is the character, Zinzi, who is reminiscent of someone out of Burning Chrome or Neuromancer. Here we have someone who is existing on the margins of society, a member of a subculture that most people outside of it seek to either avoid or take advantage of. Here we have someone displaced by an omnipresent aspect of their culture and yet using the very same in order to get by – indeed, that aspect is inescapable; it drives much of the plot and characterization in Zoo City, as it does in Gibson’s cyberpunk works. In Gibson’s stories and earlier novels, that aspect was advanced technology; in Zoo City it’s mashavi.

In lesser hands, the mashavi and the colorful side of the Jo-burg tracks would overshadow Zinzi and the novel’s coterie – menagerie? – of other zoos; in the hands of a less capable author, Sloth would be a cutesy character that overshadows Zinzi. Fortunately for Beukes’ readers, neither is the case. Narrator Zinzi occupies front and center stage, albeit with Sloth – who is nevertheless a character in his own right – along for the ride.

In fact it’s surprising given her background as a journalist that Beukes seems to spill out such effortless prose as that in Zoo City; not all recovering journalists make good novelists. But it’s quite easy as a reader to become immersed in Zinzi’s world pretty much from the outset on page one:

Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears through my windows. My own personal bat signal. Or a reminder that I need to get curtains.

Shielding my eyes – morning has broken and there’s no picking up the pieces – I yank back the sheet and peel out of bed. Benoit doesn’t so much as stir, with only his calloused feet sticking out from under the duvet like knots of driftwood. Feet like that, they tell a story. They say he walked all the way from Kinshasa with his Mongoose strapped to his chest.

The Mongoose in question is curled up like a furry comma on my laptop, the glow of the LED throbbing under his nose. Like he doesn’t know that my computer is out of bounds. Let’s just say I’m precious about my work. Let’s just say it’s not entirely legal.

Only one more thing to say about this: hell yes. How could you not be hooked? By the way, you can hear Beukes herself read this passage in the Escape Pod interview.

And just in those few paragraphs, laden with a few but key details, we learn so much about Zinzi and her world. This is not a fluke; much of the novel unreels like this, bit by bit. It’s quite simply a pleasure to read.

Beukes also has a flair for interesting and colorful metaphor. This doesn’t always work, but it does much more often than not. And when it does, wow. For example:

Emmanuel’s grin drops from his face like a kicked puppy, bounces on the pavement and tumbles into the gutter with a pitiful yelp.


Mr. Huron, I presume, emerges onto the balcony with a flourish. He’s not so much a barrel of a man as a bagpipe, all his weight loaded in front …

Not so much a barrel of a man as a bagpipe. That’s … that’s brilliant; that’s brilliant, original metaphor. Color me green with envy.

Then there is this passage, when Zinzi tells Benoit that her current client died that afternoon.

“She died. Murdered, if you want to be technical. I was practically there and the connection just … withered up.” Saying it, I feel the kick in my gut again. Like a lost heart attack that’s wandered into my intestines by mistake.

It’s this flair for metaphor that brings Zinzi and her world to life, lending an actual flavor of realism to Zoo City, thankfully making that gritty urban world more than just a subgenre – or worse still – marketing label, in this case. To wit, Zinzi’s description of her first day outside of prison, after several years:

I spent most of that first day hiding inside the apartment, trying to figure out what my next move was. In prison, you can drift between claxons that regiment the day, just doing what you’re told, like a ball in a slow-mo pinball machine. I missed those claxons.

Okay, technically that’s a simile, but you still, you get the idea (yes, I’m a word nerd). This talent for metaphor is also one of the things that reminds one of Gibson. Just as he gave us a Chiba sky “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” the tiles of a dilapidated swimming pool in Zoo City “are chipped, the lapis-lazuli blue faded to a dull glaucoma.” Just as a Gibson character in Count Zero gave us meatspace as a metaphor for reality, as opposed to cyberspace (is it sad or cool that I know this off the top of my head?), Beukes’ Zinzi describes herself as “meat with faulty programming.”

I really wanted to believe that there were these magic celestial bodies that would direct my life, tell me what to do, and it turns out it’s not stars, it’s some bits of screwy DNA. I’m just meat with faulty programming.

Fortunately for us, Beukes’ meat is programmed with considerable talent for the written word.

Interested in Beukes’ first novel, the cyberpunk opus Moxyland? Follow that link.

Post script: As you may have noticed, there are two different covers presented here; one is the North American one, the other is the United Kingdom edition – the black-and-white one. I’d be curious to know why the publisher thought we needed the more standard cover here in North America – the artwork is fine, but it’s just a basic, standard pop-fiction cover. It wouldn’t stand out at all on a bookstore shelf.

The UK cover on the other hand, is quite arresting. In fact its creator, South African artist D. Halvorsen, won an award for the work at this year’s British National Science Fiction Convention for best cover art. Check out Halvorsen’s portfolio; it’s worth a visit.

Post post script: For some odd reason, the ebook edition I downloaded from Amazon – I pay for books from living authors, and you should too, if you are in a financial position to do so – has the North American cover, but the text uses spellings found in British English (presumably the standard in South Africa). What one English friend of mine once termed English English, as opposed to American English.

One could argue the efficacy of covers in the dawning age of ebooks, but we’ll save that for another time. As for English English vs. American English, well that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish (and chips, with vinegar, yum).

A Song of Ice and Fire: Part the Second

George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire:
The Long and the Longer of It

Seven Hells! Inconsistent prose and epic confusion

Editor’s Note: This is the second part — hence the title — of this review. To see the first part of the Ice and Fire review, go here.

The Wall -- the northern border of Westeros, in Martin's Ice and Fire, as portrayed in HBO's Game of Thrones.While its length allows Martin to delve deeply into some of his characters, others remain under developed or underutilized in the lengthy epic that is A Song of Ice and Fire.

Furthermore, this is only complicated by Martin choosing to narrate each chapter in a limited third-person point of view, from that of several specific characters for each book. In fact there are no less than 17 (!) characters who serve as narrators for multiple chapters, in addition to eight more who only get one chapter. I first read this on the Ice and Fire Wikipedia entry before I began reading the series a few months ago; I’m not sure I believed it. But now that I have the books in hand, I can verify that this is indeed the case. So it’s essentially impossible, or at least really difficult, to flesh out other important members of Ice and Fire’s considerable cast of characters.

The end result is that the characters you have come to know and appreciate in one book might not make an appearance in the next, or we only find out about their current fates in a tangential manner – one of the current book’s characters receives a report/rumor about another character’s adventures, accomplishments, or demise. It can be a little disconcerting for the reader, to say the least. In retrospect, I think Martin might have done well to utilize an omniscient third-person narrator; he still could have switched back and forth between the various plot threads and locations, ether from chapter to chapter or whole sections of a book.

Martin’s limited third person narrative is a further shame, too, because some of the most interesting characters are the minor ones that may only make occasional brief appearances in the story. While this is inevitable in a work of this scope, there are still several characters I’d like to know a bit more about.

Bronn the sellsword getting his fight on, as portrayed in HBO's Game of Thrones, based on the work of George R. R. Martin.Take Bronn, for example, Tyrion’s mercenary personal body guard who eventually gets elevated to the status of knight, gaining the appellation of “ser” in the lingo of Westeros (as opposed to “sir”) for his actions in defending a key holding in a battle for King’s Landing (the royal capitol). Ser Bronn’s not necessarily a sympathetic character, but he’s certainly an interesting one; alas we never get a chance to know what he’s thinking or what his motivations are. With an omniscient third person narrator Martin could have shed some light on these questions without necessarily adding significantly to the overall length of the story.

Littlefinger is another example. A major character introduced in the first novel, he plays a critical role in the third and fourth books. And yet, since he is never actually a chapter narrator; we never get inside his head. We only have a broad idea of his motivations from the recollections of others and his occasional dialog. And in case you are wondering, “Littlefinger” is a nickname based on the peninsula where his ancestral home lies.

On the other sword hand, this feudal cast of thousands is already difficult to keep track of, and that’s putting it mildly. There are often points, particularly in reading the latter works, where it is difficult to keep track of who is related to whom, and which knight did what or which lord or family is responsible for what domain. This gets even more complicated when we have many knights and lordlings and ladies with the same last name running hither and yon about Westeros on both sides of the game of thrones.

Martin provides lists of each family and characters in the back of the novels; they take up dozens and dozens of pages. I think some flow charts or family trees would also help. In fact there were times while deep into the third and fourth books of A Song of Ice and Fire that I consulted fan sites because I was confused about who Ser Dingleberry of the Long Pants was, and what it was he did or didn’t do in the various battles for the various thrones (at one point there are five declared kings in Westeros, if we include the deceased Robert – six if we include Daenerys and/or her brother, who is the heir to the throne prior to the revolution led by Robert nine years before the opening of the first book in the series).

And no, I’m indulging in a bit of hyperbolic parody; there is actually no Ser Dingleberry in Martin’s books (I think).

Sound confusing? It is.

But this is arguably an aspect of the genre; not even Tolkien is exempt – and I’m sorry Martin lovers, but Martin’s no Tolkien – as he can legitimately be criticized for the complexity of his elven and Numenorean family trees. I love and respect Tolkien so much that I read scholarly works and critiques of his oeuvre, but I’ll be damned if I even I can ever keep straight all of the various Fëanors, Finrods, Fingolfins, Finarfins, Fingleberries, Fimbulbs and Fiddlefarts, etc. and so forth, by the time I get to the end of Silmarillion. For the casual reader it’s difficult enough remembering that Pippin is a fool of a Took. So perhaps we can’t quite fault Martin for this, but casual readers of fantasy (those who’ve never been to a con, for example) should consider themselves warned.

The book’s length also contributes to unevenness across the span of the first four books in terms of the prose. I would guess that this has more to do with editing and publishing schedules than Martin’s technical writing prowess. Particularly in Game of Thrones and Clash of Kings, the first two books, there are delightful turns of phrase and vivid expository descriptions. To wit:

“Ned had known their faces as well as he knew his own once, but the years leech at a man’s memories, even those he has vowed never to forget. In the dream they were only shadows, gray wraiths on horses made of mist.”

This is, of course, describing a dream that Ned Stark tries to recall the next day, a dream about his youth.

Even in the later books, we are treated to passages such as this, told from the point of view of a direwolf possessed by a human in his dream – a warg:

“He could feel the high stone calling him. Up he went, loping easy at first, then faster and higher, his strong legs eating up the incline. Birds burst from the branches overhead as he raced by, clawing and flapping their way into the sky. He could hear the wind sighing up amongst the leaves, the squirrels chittering to one another, even the sound a pinecone made as it tumbled to the forest floor. The smells were a song around him, a song that filled the good green world.”

A lovely description, to be sure. But in the latter two books of the series the reader is at times subjected to unwieldy prose and metaphors that just don’t work; if I had to hazard a guess I would say these books were ushered quickly through production, as these are things any reasonably good editor would catch and fix, given time adequate to the task – that’s what a good editor does. Here’s my “favorite” example from Feast for Crows:

“Her face had been stone before he spoke; then it hardened.”

Er, what? I understand what Martin is trying to convey here, but it doesn’t quite work; what’s harder than stone? Diamonds, I suppose, but that would make for a silly metaphor. Rather, if we simply rearrange the sentence to read: her face had hardened even before he spoke; then it turned to stone, I think it works much better.

Another example from Storm of Swords:

“The tower stood upon an island, its twin reflected on the still blue waters. When the wind blew, ripples moved across the surface of the lake, chasing one another like boys at play.”

Um, er, boys at play are erratic. They run around in random, chaotic directions, like noodles in boiling water – not marching like neat, compact waves riding at specific, regular intervals across a lake. Perhaps if there were stiff winds switching and swirling back and forth, causing little white-capped waves to crash into one another like boys at play, that might work.

Now before any Martin fanboys get their panties in a bunch, let me add a caveat here: I think anytime you’re writing such a large work, there are always small (yet significant) problems like this. No, I’ve never written a 1,000 page novel (yet), but I’ve written pieces for print and online pubs that get into thousands of words. It is a problem even then, so I can imagine it is multiplied many times over when we’re talking about a series of interconnected novels.

I would say it just goes with the territory when you’re writing hundreds or even thousands of words a day, in a work that is some tens of thousands of words (or in Martin’s case, hundreds of thousands of words) in length; these kinds of nit-picky errors must be somewhat commonplace in the best writers’ work – in the first draft. Again, this isn’t so much a criticism of Martin’s writing as it is his editors and publishers; I think it’s obvious these last two texts in the series were a bit rushed, given the huge popularity of the first two.

Another editing nitpick I’ll throw out here, to both Martin and his editors: more (logical) paragraph breaks, please (at least in the ebook editions). There are some horrendous walls of text in Ice and Fire (I know, I know, pot and kettle, black, etc.).

Nitpicking the Expository Necessities

Another issue with the length of the series, complicated by the fact that it is ongoing for another planned three books (for a total of seven), is that while each is written more or less as a standalone novel, they are clearly written as part of a whole. Some subplots get tied up more or less neatly from book to book; others just seemingly taper or off or get left hanging, ostensibly to be picked up in an ensuing book.

Furthermore, while I’m sure Martin’s tale has grown with the telling, as Tolkien put it, clearly he’s had the main plot ideas in mind for Ice and Fire from the start. As a result, there is some repeated expository passages in the later books, here and there, to tie things together for readers who may not have read one of the previous books. I’m nitpicking here, to be sure; for someone who has already read the previous books, it’s a minor annoyance at best. But I think all readers would have been better served with a “story so far” synopsis at the beginning of each book following the first one – one that readers in it for the long haul could skip.

This would also better serve readers coming into the series in the middle; it would give them a chance to get to know the major characters better. It would surely be very difficult for someone who may have picked up the third or fourth book by chance to understand some of the characters and why they are doing what they do or are in the situations they are in, in the later books – Samwell Tarly and Arya Stark come to mind, for example.

But this last is a trifling matter, really, in the larger scope of this very large tome; most readers of this work will naturally start at the beginning – particularly now that Game of Thrones has become a series on HBO.

It’s Not (Splatter) Porn (But Sometimes It Seems Like It’s Trying)

Tyrion gets laid ad infinitum in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. Here he is portrayed in the HBO series Game of Thrones, based on Martin's work.Editor’s Note: There are some naught words ahead. If that’s a problem, stop reading — and if you’re that conservative in your sensibilities, A Song of Ice and Fire ain’t for you. Better had back to Narnia.

In the 1990s I remember picking up a magazine of questionable repute called Future Sex whenever I went to the tattoo parlor, piercing shop, or alterna-coffee shop — I know, big surprise, eh? A Song of Ice and Fire could be subtitled Feudal Sex.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But I could also suggest that the series ushers in a new fantasy subgenre called “sword and gore,” or “(flesh) sword and debauchery” (as opposed to sword and sorcery, for those that need it spelled out) and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration. There’s plenty of each in A Song of Ice and Fire. While it’s not as gratuitous as some critics might have you think, some of it, quite frankly is plainly gratuitous. If this is a problem for some readers, they would do well to avoid the series. But generally speaking, the sex does serve either plot or character development. Take the following for example:

“Tyrion put down the candle, took her hand in his, and pulled her gently to him. She bent to kiss him. Her mouth tasted of honey and cloves, and her fingers were deft and practiced as they found the fastenings of his clothes.

When he entered her, she welcomed him with whispered endearments and small, shuddering gasps of pleasure. Tyrion suspected her delight was feigned, but she did it so well that it did not matter. That much truth he did not crave.

He had needed her, Tyrion realized afterward, as she lay quietly in his arms. Her or someone like her. It had been nigh on a year since he’d lain with a woman, since before he had set out for Winterfell in company with his brother and King Robert. He could well die on the morrow or the day after, and if he did, he would sooner go to his grave thinking of Shae than of his lord father, Lysa Arryn, or the Lady Catelyn Stark.”

Here we learn some important things about Tyrion. At this point we already know that Tyrion is extremely intelligent and nobody’s fool. But here we learn that he’s not always the cold and calculating intellectual cynic; we learn that he can be a bit sensitive – as opposed to the ravishing whore monger he might have us believe otherwise. Not to mention the fact that he’s like anyone else; he craves the comfort of a warm body in his bed the night before a day that could be his last. And yet he’s intelligent enough not to fool himself, at least deep down, about the nature of a prostitute’s expostulations of love.

Indeed, it is through his sexual relationship with the camp follower Shae that we gradually come to learn about Tyrion’s childhood and one of the turning points early on in his adulthood. It is an event that comes back not only to haunt Tyrion, but his siblings and father as well. So arguably some of these sex scenes are necessary, and more interesting than just having a narrator tell us what’s going on in Tyrion’s head. This is one of the cardinal rules of creative writing, after all: show, don’t tell.

On the other hand, a few books later we have this scene between Tyrion and Shae:

“Tyrion turned to look. … The hidden doors are here somewhere, they have to be. That was as much as he had time to think, before Shae turned his head to kiss him. Her mouth was wet and hungry, and she did not even seem to see his scar, or the raw scab where his nose had been.

Her skin was warm silk beneath his fingers. When his thumb brushed against her left nipple, it hardened at once. ‘Hurry,’ she urged, between kisses, as his fingers went to his laces, ‘oh, hurry, hurry, I want you in me, in me, in me.’ He did not even have time to undress properly.

Shae pulled his cock out of his breeches, then pushed him down onto the floor and climbed atop him. She screamed as he pushed past her lips, and rode him wildly, moaning, ‘My giant, my giant, my giant,’ every time she slammed down on him. Tyrion was so eager that he exploded on the fifth stroke, but Shae did not seem to mind. She smiled wickedly when she felt him spurting, and leaned forward to kiss the sweat from his brow.

‘My giant of Lannister,’ she murmured. ‘Stay inside me, please. I like to feel you there.’ So Tyrion did not move, except to put his arms around her. It feels so good to hold her, and to be held, he thought. How can something this sweet be a crime worth hanging her for?

‘Shae,’ he said, ‘sweetling, this must be our last time together. The danger is too great. If my lord father should find you …’ ‘I like your scar.’ She traced it with her finger. ‘It makes you look very fierce and strong.’ He laughed. ‘Very ugly, you mean.’ ‘M’lord will never be ugly in my eyes.'”

At this point I think we could have skipped the sex and cut straight to the important dialog. The reader knows long before now that Tyrion’s father has forbidden him to bring Shae to King’s Landing, and yet he has. The reader also knows that the current plot line is coming to a head. Clearly here is an example of gratuitous sex; it’s certainly not the only one.

Besides, much as I really like the guy, I really don’t need Tyrion having sex in my mind’s eye for the upteenth time. That’s not a knock against dwarves per se; more a matter of aesthetics — I’m sure no one would want to see me having sex either, for that matter, myself included. Then again, if that turns your screw — noseless dwarves having sex with wanton young women in a eunuch spy master’s bed (no, really, it’s all in Ice and Fire), you’re in luck: popular fiction  is now catering to your desires. No longer must you hide in shame in the dark.

Anyway, as for violence, well, it’s an epic story about war; war inevitably involves killing – typically the removal of people’s blood and guts from their bodies, and occasionally limbs and heads as well. Like the sex, sometimes what we see as the reader is necessary for reasons of plot and characterization; at other times, it is arguably war porn, I suppose. At times as I read Ice and Fire I would catch myself thinking “Yes, yes, we’ve covered this. Battles with swords involves lots of gaping wounds, spilled guts,  chopped off limbs, caved-in skulls, etc. etc., and the smell of  blood and shit. Got it. Let’s move it along.”

But I wouldn’t say that Martin goes to extremes at every opportunity; in fact one of the best battle scenes in the book involves little to no gore, and is yet one of the most gripping and well written battle scenes in the whole series to date in A Storm of Swords.

Here John Snow, bastard of the Lord of Winterfell consigned to the Night’s Watch because of his illegitimate status, ends up commanding the remnants of the Night’s Watch as they defend Westeros’ northern border – dubbed The Wall for good reason – against a Wildling attack on the one open gate within the Wall. Here Martin takes us inside John’s head and let’s us experience every aspect of the battle, from the tension before it begins, to the constant rise and fall of adrenaline and exhaustion during the fighting, to the shell shocked yet emotionally intense and difficult aftermath; there’s nary a stringy bowel or spurting, severed limb or neck to be seen.

When Martin’s on his game, it’s good stuff.

And in Conclusion (Seven Hells, It’s About Time)

George R. R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire series, as captured by photographer David Shankbone.So, if you made it with me this far, you probably don’t need a summation. Nevertheless, here it is (this is the way they teach you in writing school). George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is not without merit; quite the opposite, in fact. At times it is a ripping good example of the realistic or gritty fantasy subgenre – gut and bodice ripping, that is. But it is not without its weaknesses, although these generally don’t detract so much from the end result as to make it significantly less enjoyable – at least not to the point that you wouldn’t want to read it. But don’t expect the perfection of an epic life’s work.

Furthermore, one more warning: if you’re troubled by gratuitous sex, violence and ambiguous morality, Ice and Fire is not for you.

P.S. If you’ve seen the first two episodes of the Game of Thrones television series on HBO and are considering reading the books now, I think it’s safe to say if you like the show you will like the books well enough (assuming you like to read, that is). I think the show is more or less true to Martin’s work, at least so far (as of this posting, HBO has broadcast the first two episodes).

Like most literary works brought to the screen, I think it’s inferior to the written work – although it works much better as an ongoing series, rather than it would have as a movie or even a series of movies. Would that Lord of the Rings had been given that treatment; then perhaps Peter Jackson wouldn’t have butchered The Two Towers quite so badly. But that’s another wall of text for another time.

P.S. II, Electric Boogaloo: All of the photos in this post are from promotional/press materials from HBO to promote its series, Game of Thrones, which is based on Martin’s Ice and Fire books.  Except that is for the author’s photo above, which was cadged from Wikipedia courtesy of photographer and scribe David Shanbone.

P.P.P.S. I made it to the end before I made a joke/reference to Pat Benetar’s Fire and Ice. This opposed to Ice and Fire. Is that why Martin called it that?

P.S., The Reboot: I’ve already linked to the Wikipedia entry for A Song of Ice and Fire somewhere above or in the first part; here it is again. It’s a handy reference for both new readers and veterans of the series. Also an excellent fan site/invaluable resource is The Tower of the Hand, especially this awesome map of Westeros.


A Song of Ice and Fire

George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire:
the Good, the Bad, the Debauchery

Grit, gore, grime and gams make for busy knights

The covers of the first five books in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire realistic fantasy series.What better way to inaugurate Barking Book Reviews than a review of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series? It’s immensely popular within the fantasy/sword-and-sorcery genre among both readers and critics; the various books in the series have all been nominated for Locus, Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards; the first in the series, A Game of Thrones, won a Locus award. The fourth book, A Feast for Crows, debuted at no. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list upon its initial publishing in 2005 – the first fantasy genre book to do so.

As if that weren’t enough, the fifth book in the series, A Dance with Dragons is already listed among the top 10 fantasy ebooks on; it was sitting at no. 10 as of this posting. The thing of it is, that’s just for preorders; it won’t be published until later this year in July.

Then there is the television series based on the first novel in Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones, that just debuted on HBO a few weeks ago. This is bringing Martin new fans judging by the appearance of the books in various book sales lists.

As for myself, I just finished the fourth and most recent book in the series, A Feast for Crows, and am looking forward to the erstwhile fifth book in the series, some six years in the making.

A confession: I’m a little skeptical of the gritty/realism movement in fantasy; if you can’t write well in the first place, trying to be gritty or modern isn’t going to help. Yet it seems many authors use this as a crutch, and manage to get published. But if I may indulge in a bit of grit myself: all the mayo in the world can’t turn chicken shit into chicken salad; would that it could. Plus … realistic fantasy – bit of an oxymoron, that. Furthermore, while I do not read a lot of fantasy and sword and sorcery, the authors I do read, I tend to read closely. In fact, I’m enough of a Tolkien nerd that I read scholarly critiques and annotated versions of his works.

But generally speaking, Martin does gritty better than others. At times over the course of the books (so far) he does get carried away with the grit – not so much in the first book, Game of Thrones, nor in the fourth one, Feast for Crows, both of which are fairly taught narratives. This is particularly true when they are compared to the middle works, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords; in these two there is plenty of gratuitous sex and violence. Now I like sex and violence when it serves to move the plot or characterization along. And there’s nothing wrong with gratuitous sex even when it doesn’t do those things – if it’s well written and titillating. The sex in Martin’s works isn’t particularly titillating – he probably shouldn’t forsake fantasy and science fiction for erotica – so some of the gratuitous sex is a bit annoying and distracting, at times. More on this later.

A Song of Ice and Fire: the Short of It

Warning, a HUGE WALL OF TEXT ensues — in two parts, no less; an epic in which each part spans hundreds of pages perhaps deserves a critique of several thousand words. Plus there is a huge wall on the northern border of Westeros, so this is apropos.

Want to skip it? Let it suffice to say that perhaps Martin doesn’t always do gritty realism as well as it could be done (but at times he does), but it is a cut – a detailed, bloody one from groin to collarbone that causes bowels and other assorted entrails to fall out – above the standard bookshelf fare when it comes to quote-unquote realistic fantasy.

And if you like fantasy and sword-and-sorcery epics, and you’re okay with the aforementioned grittiness and gray ethical areas, Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is definitely worth a read. It’s not without its faults, some of them considerable and some potentially deal breakers for some readers. But on the whole this epic is an enjoyable diversion, reasonably well written (usually) and at times even thoughtful.

On the other hand, if you want your fantasy more traditional – beautiful and immortal elves, elderly but powerful wizards, magic spells and charms, shining white knights skilled at swordplay and damsel rescue, orcs, goblins, dark lords specializing in ultimate evil and world domination, etc. – with clear boundaries between good and bad – A Song of Ice and Fire is not for you. And that’s not to imply that modern fantasy with those elements can’t be good (just look at Tolkien, the author who started us down this road). Rather, you simply won’t find it in these books of Martin’s.

The Long of It: The Strengths of A Song of Ice and Fire

One of the things that recommends Martin’s series and makes its considerable length justified is its characterizations. One of the things that proponents of gritty, realistic fantasy often cite about this genre – I suppose it’s probably considered a full-fledged subgenre, at this point — is that, like real life, seemingly nothing is black and white; there is no ultimate good and no ultimate evil.

You will find no Aragorn, Gandalf or Frodo in Westeros, the small continent (or perhaps a portion of a larger one) in which the majority of Ice and Fire is set. For that matter, you won’t find Sauron, Nazgûl, orcs, goblins – nary a hobgoblin, even. There are giants riding mammoths, dragons and the seemingly implacably evil “Others” but they are largely in the background of these first four works – although Martin uses the Others, an ancient evil that hasn’t been seen in Westeros in thousands of years, to bring about several pivotal scenes/plot complications in the third book, A Storm of Swords – not to mention the prologue of the first.

Yes, magic is there in Westeros and the mysterious, exotic lands to the east across the Narrow Sea, but it is in the background. In the foreground we have several dynastic families at the pinnacle of a feudal system reminiscent of medieval Europe – lords, ladies, servants, knights, lusty wenches and washer women, learned men in robes – there’s even an analog to the early Catholic Church, as well as the Old Gods, which are clearly analogous to Druidic beliefs (although unlike their real-world counterparts, these two belief systems don’t seem to be troubled with one another). In fact, while Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has been praised for being original in terms of fantasy, one could argue that in many ways it gives us a trite and stereotypical view of medieval Europe – but then, this isn’t a history lesson but popular fiction.

The cover of George R. R. Martin's A Clash of Kings.All of these families are warring for control of their various lands and ultimately, all of Westeros. Indeed, as many others have remarked, it reminds one who is familiar with British history of nothing so much as the War of the Roses and its aftermath; Henry the VIII would have been quite at home in Westeros – and probably would have fared much better than Martin’s King Robert, a fellow epicure. Certainly Henry would be quite at home with the heads that constantly roll from torsos in Ice and Fire.

Again, there are no elves to be found, and the dwarves are, well, really dwarves, as in people who fit the clinical, medical definition of a dwarf, as opposed to those of German mythology and Tolkien, et al. And unlike Tolkien’s dwarves, Martin’s Tyrion, a dwarf central to the ongoing plot of the entire series, can be valiant in battle, but only because he’s left little choice; it’s certainly not his idea of a pleasant way to pass an afternoon. As Tyrion himself says shortly after his first battle near the end of Game of Thrones:

“No, I’m done with fields of battle, thank you. I sit a chair better than a horse, and I’d sooner hold a wine goblet than a battle-ax. All that about thunder of the drums, sunlight flashing on armor, a magnificent destriers snorting and prancing? Well, the drums gave me headaches, the sunlight flashing on my armor cooked me up like a harvest day goose, and those magnificent destriers shit everywhere.”

Gimli he most certainly is not – although they largely seem to share the same opinions on horses.

Tyrion: Everyone’s Favorite Dwarf

Tyrion is one of the best examples of the in-depth characterization we find in Martin’s Ice and Fire. While in some respects the series’ length is a weakness, its length does lend itself to some in-depth character development. As for Tyrion, being a dwarf in a feudal society – even being the scion of House Lannister, one of the most powerful families in Westeros – is surely no easy thing.

He is a major character of the first three novels, and presumably will return in the fifth. When we first meet Tyrion he is seemingly drunk, debauched, cynical and more than a tad pompous, not to mention ugly, Martin tells us – he’s known even among his immediate family as The Imp – but we quickly learn in the span of a few chapters that there is more to Tyrion Lannister than his stature and cynicism might suggest. He realizes that as he has no means to be a champion of arms, like his brother Jamie – reputedly one of the best in the realm – his mind must be his weapon; it is his wits that he wields instead of a sword.

Over the course of the first three books we get to watch Tyrion wield his wits quite effectively as he navigates the politics inherent to the game of thrones, not to mention that of war and family; Martin also draws out Tyrion’s painful history in bits and pieces, as the debauched dwarf of the initial chapters becomes one of the most interesting and complex characters of the entire series. Indeed, many of the principal characters of the book remain one dimensional – granted, those characters tend not to last long, however, so I won’t name names – spoilers are the bane of a potboiler review, and at its core Ice and Fire is nothing if not a political potboiler. You’ll just have to take me at my word. But Tyrion becomes a fully fleshed character, and I confessed I missed his absence in the fourth book.

Fortunately, as relayed on on fan site, it seems Tyrion will be one of the character narrators when the fifth book, Dance With Dragons is published.

Jaime: One of Many Lannisters We Love to Hate

The cover of George R. R. Martin's A Storm of Swords.Serving as somewhat of a foil to Tyrion is his brother Jamie; he is everything Tyrion is not: literally a knight in shining armor that exhibits unparalleled prowess with sword and shield, and the object of many a maiden’s fantasy. He is the golden boy of House Lannister and the pride and seeming protege of its partriarch, Tywin Lannister (one of the aforementioned one-dimensional characters, he is almost a stock bad guy: intelligent, rich, cultured, manipulative, cold and evil; if Henry the VIII would feel at home in Westeros, Tywin Lannister would feel right at home in Tudor-era England, and probably in the offices of a modern-day global business conglomerate).

In fact, we quickly see that Jamie is despicable, and even evil. Again, details would only give away major parts of the entire story arc. Let it suffice to say that Martin establishes Jamie’s initial character quite early on in the first book.

And yet, over the course of the next three books, things happen to Jamie that change him – it’s not a dramatic change (although the events that drive these changes are) but a gradual one that Martin couples with glimpses into the recent past as well as the childhood that he shared with Tyrion and their sister, Cersei (the queen of Westeros at the time Game of Thrones begins, and really the spiritual heir of Tywin Lannister, as opposed to Jaime).

In fact, by the end of A Feast for Crows, Jamie, if not a sympathetic character, is at least not the one-dimensional, sick and despicable golden boy of A Game of Thrones; he becomes one of the more interesting and complex characters in the series. Furthermore – and this is a credit to Martin as a writer, in as much as his characterizations go – by the end of the fourth book it’s actually kind of hard not to like Jamie, at least a little bit, in spite of the awful things he does early on. We learn that he is not quite so single minded or as self centered as he seems and even displays a dry, self-deprecating humor in the face of diversity and life-threatening situations – again, I can’t say more without spoiling a major plot complication.

It is this humor, more than anything else, perhaps coupled with a sensitivity that one wouldn’t have thought he possessed – he’s almost downright philosophical by the end of book four – that makes Jamie likable, and even sympathetic (at least to me; I’m sure many others would disagree). With the house of power that Tywin Lannister built beginning to crumble – okay, bit of a spoiler, that, sorry – by the end of the fourth book, I found myself hoping that Jamie would escape the apparent worst of it to come in the books ahead – despite the fact that he undeniably deserves it.

There are other fully-realized characters as well. There is Arya, for example, the tomboy daughter of House Stark that serves as foil to her older sister, Sansa. Sansa ascribes to be a lady and dreams of being queen; she entertains fantasies of being courted by chivalrous knights and the magic of the royal court (at least she does in the beginning; later on she becomes … less than enamored, shall we say, with these ideas). Arya, by contrast, dreams of being a knight herself with sword in hand, dispatching her enemies with martial aplomb. Then there is Brienne, the warrior maid of Tarth; she could easily have been a stock hottie warrior maiden character and it’s to Martin’s credit that she is not.

The cover of George R. R. Martin's a Feast for Crows.Now I won’t presume to offer a feminist critique of A Song of Ice and Fire here, although that would certainly be interesting examination and discussion. Furthermore, I don’t think that anyone is going to mistake Martin’s writing for that of Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy or James Tiptree. But I would claim that there are more fully-realized female characters in this tome than one would perhaps expect, especially given all of the wenching, raping, pillaging – that gritty realism – and so forth.

In addition to its in-depth characterization, the series’ length lends itself to its political potboiler plot and subplots. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is arguably also an historical epic, albeit a fictional one. Needless to say it would be hard to squeeze into one standard novel-sized work all of these fully realized characters along with the sweeping milieu of warfare and politics that spans generations and sweeps back and forth across a continent – not to mention all the beheadings, bebowelings, hangings and raunchy medieval sex and rape. In this day and age when many readers seem to equate literary quality with quantity (sadly enough), Martin undeniably delivers on this score (each book in the series gives even the wordiest Leon Urises of the literary world a run for their word count) – and more or less reasonably competently.

Here ends the first part of the history of the War of the Ring Jeff’s review and criticism of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. The second part is called The Two Towers the same thing, but with a Part II appellation; it looks at the not-so-good aspects of Ice and Fire.