Friday, September 30, 2016

BOOK REPORT: A Dance with Dragons

This is the point  in the series in which the series starts heading off in a different direction, and almost all the choices the producers made are more sound and cohesive.

But Martin's story is still fascinating in his own right. In book five he recaptures the pace he lost when he got stuck in the mire of the somewhat muddled A Feast for Crows, resuming killing off key characters with ferocity and arranging his chess pieces for their places in the grand final conflict he envisions, although may never actually get to because he has been battling the world's nastiest case of writer's block for several years.

If the series ends here, that would be OK, allowing the hordes of unsullied fan theory crafters to eternally pitch their ideas back and forth. There would be sad beauty in the series staying unfinished, like one of Melisandre's prophecies flittering away in the flames before in manifests.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Book Report: A Feast for Crows

This is still a fascinating book, but a sharp dropoff from the previous three. It's as though Martin got to the midway point in his series and realized he had killed off too many major players and had barely delved into several unexplored society. The fix was to abandon several important storylines in favor of a rush job to prop up all sorts of new people, with their own accompanying belief systems and lore.

While Westeros feels more full and alive, many of the new characters just aren't as compelling as those who came before, so when Martin kills them off in his sadistic manner it doesn't sting nearly as badly.

The TV show avoided the same trap by introducing many of the characters earlier and continuing the storylines that Martin left aside to keep the overall story more cohesive. Everything in A Feast for Crows feels like more of a sketch than a completed portrait, and that carries through to the end, which simply stops an uninteresting sideline rather than casting a shadow toward the future and finishing on a chilling note like his first three books did.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Book Report: A Storm of Swords

I went through this book as I watched season six on TV, and both helped deepen my experience of the other, with all the references, callbacks and plots hatched in one that paid off in the other. It made me feel like Bran checking out history through the three-eyed raven's pensieve-style magic, and gave me the best possible way to appreciate the subtle ways Martin foreshadows and extends his characters and themes, giving a sense of order to the otherwise random-seeming way he hops among perspectives and plotlines.

Just as the show does, the story in the books only grows richer and more spellbinding as it wheels on. That makes it all the more jarring and painful when he takes characters away with such ruthlessness. Even when you know the beats come, they hurt just as severely. Bullet point by bullet point, the stories would seem like a gloomy death march, but the beauty and sense of joy Martin unearths as you move through his stories are what set them apart from nearly anything else ever written. He was a genius at the height of his powers when he wrote these, and even if he doesn't finish the series what he's accomplished deserves to stand as an incomparable masterpiece of an epic saga.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Report: A Clash of Kings

Martin makes good on all the momentum he generated in A Game of Thrones, bouncing around his landscape to check on characters he's built and destroyed while adding in new heartbreaks waiting to happen along the way. His ability to shift among voices and make no two characters seem remotely similar is astounding. The political themes deepend and continue to flower, and his storytelling delivers shocking, heart-shattering twists that stun and injure your psyche even if you see them coming because you've seen the show.

You need to have read the first book to have any hope of comprehending the context of what's going on, but Martin throws in some welcome background with convenient flashbacks and plot point rehashings. Many of those go a step beyond the norm to shade previous events you thought you understood, throwing in different perspectives to make you reconsider what you know. The book doesn't so much end as it pauses for a breath you have no interest in taking. Bring on book three.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Report: The Jungle Book

Rudyard Kipling definitely took whatever it was people used as crack in 1894. His animals talk to each other like they're having 19th century Paris salon political debates while throwing out "thees" and "thous" like they're in the King James Bible. There was one way to write this book, and that was to bore into it with eyes closed, teeth gritted and arms and feet pumping furiously, without any concern of appearing like a lunatic.

The Mowgli/Baloo/Kaa/Bagheera parts of the book are the only ones that make any sort of sense, and that's why filmmakers ignore all the rest of the junk -- and there is a metric ton of junk -- and focus on that sweet, inspiring tale. You get way more than just jungle when you enter this Kipling landscape. There are barely intelligible, way, way long, bizarrely musical stories about mongooses (mongeese?), walruses, seals, birds and -- why not, "Eskimos." Kipling hops across the globe, telling his strange tales through various animals, all who share the same demented voice. The book punishes you, entertains you, then punishes you some more, leaving you battered, bruised and left alone with the wolves.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Review: A Game of Thrones

George R.R. Martin is such a good writer that it's blatantly clear that he cut a blood magic deal with Mirri Maz Duur, cutting a horse at the throat and slaying the unborn Dothraki child of Khaleesi -- destined to mount the world -- to secure the unholy deal of granting him unimaginable powers in storytelling and word economy.

Martin bring's an unfairly skilled touch to his saga, matching the drama and tension of his sweeping, unpredictable story with masterly writing that would be unbearably fascinating even if it was about something boring and pointless. He fuses the descriptive economy of Hemingway with the storytelling momentum of J.K. Rowling to create something that makes all other popular fantasy writing seem pathetic and hollow by comparison. Compared to Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are hacks.

The narrative shifts of his chapters, moving from the point of view from one character to another, is a master class in granting distinct voices to the people inside a writer's head. One moment he can capture the whimsical view of a 7-year-old invalid, and the next have you sympathizing with the Machiavellian ambitions of an incestuous traitor. Martin has much to say about race, religious influence on government, geopolitics, the power of oral history as it relates to education, parenting and sexual repression, but Martin keeps his thoughts to himself and lets his readers sort it all out as they watch him juggle his fascinating, cruelly disposed-of characters he sends into dizzying entanglemes with one another.

A Game of Thrones is one of the best books I will ever read, but I will stop short of The Book Is Better snobbery, even if I wouldn't argue with those who swear it is. For me, the HBO is so damned amazing that even Martin's writing can't match it. You can watch the series, ignore the books like most everyone else and be just fine. But if you are at all interested in dorky oversexed fantasy and fail to start this series, you have failed at life and need to take a step back and re-evaluate things. Take the black, commit to the monastic duty of reading or listening to the written word, and let your imagination dance with dragons to see how it compares with the HBO vision.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Book Report: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Two-thirds of this is a history book and and exhaustive history of French architecture, and the other third is a much more brutal version of the story that became the Disney movie. This is a weird and frustrating book, best appreciated as an exercise in flowery descriptive writing than storytelling or forward momentum. It's like sitting down with a half-senile grandpa and listening to his conspiracy-laden stories from the olden times, and it quickly to the point that you're listening to him not because you particularly believe him or care what he has to say, but because it's enjoyable to listen to him talk.

The ending is harsh and abrupt, which is sort of the way it has to be because there is no good way to wind down a story so depressing and pathetic. The overarching theme is of the way prejudice and blind hatred thrive among regal beauty, reflecting the true nature of man with more honesty than art or architecture can convey. An evil clergyman, a deformed, blind and deaf hero who is more sensitive than those with working senses, and a hapless victim of cultural bias, framed to die for the sins of her own people as well as those of her oppressors. There is beauty here, but it's buried deep and takes a hell of a lot of effort to get to it. As a whole, Hunchback is not worth the effort.