Monthly Archives: August 2011

Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow, by George R.R. Martin

Not a lot for me to say about this book at the moment: I read it on holiday with small children so occasionally had divided attention, but I think I got the main points. Sansa’s married Tyrion – an interesting if unexpectedly natural development – putting paid to all the plans of various other people to help her escape from King’s Landing; Bran’s continuing his escape to the Wall and Jon’s continuing his trek from it (one of the best reader-realisation moments I’ve had so far); and people continually act for immediate good that ultimately leads to tangles in the long-term plans.

It is the first half of a longer book, which does affect some of the pacing, but a second volume included with this one would have been unwieldy in a number of ways, including pages. I am starting to feel like I need a diagram, and a differently structured diagram to the appendix, to keep track of both characters and their schemes. It is becoming more and more difficult to keep track of who’s allied to whom and who wants what from whom and where all the different threads are going.

We don’t have a copy of the second volume yet, but we will do soon….

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Clash of Kings, by George R.R. Martin

So, there are kings. And they clash. Stop now if you don’t want to be spoiled for either this book or Game of Thrones.

Robert is dead. His son Joffrey has been crowned king, but since Joffrey wasn’t actually Robert’s son, Robert’s brothers Renly and Stannis have each declared themselves king. And Robb Stark has proclaimed himself King in the North. And you can’t forget the exiled Targaryens – Daenerys is manuevering herself and her dragons into position. And with all the proclaimed kings fighting in the south, old rebels start to become restless.

There are some new points of view in this book, as the intrigues begin to extend. There’s Theon Greyjoy, who’s finally been released from the Starks (whom he doesn’t trust) and returns to his father (who doesn’t trust him). One of the most entertaining chapters is the chapter where Theon returns home and meets his sister for the first time in ten years.

And then there’s Stannis’s company, told from the point of view of one of his liege men. Stannis is, of course, the rightful king (as much as anyone is), but he’s gone about it almost entirely the wrong way. No one’s going to believe that Stannis is the true king until they know that Joffrey’s not, and Stannis waited far too long to declare himself and the truth. During the prologue, when he was still at Dragonstone, the impression I got from him was that he was waiting for other people to declare him king, because obviously he is since Joffrey’s not Robert’s son. But no one knows that, so how can they declare him king?

And then there’s Stannis’s number one ally: the red priestess. How creepy is she? Plus, there are vague hints that it’s a Christianity based religion: it’s the only monotheistic religion we’ve encountered, for one, and they call their god “Lord of Light”, which is very reminiscent to me of Jesus, light of the world. I don’t know if there are supposed to be parallels: she’s creepy no matter how you look at it.

Catelyn Stark is another interesting character. She’s very much in stasis since Ned’s death: continuing on beause she has to, existing just for her children. Everything she’s doing, she’s doing out of dutiful maternal love, not personal desire. I almost feel like I know her less in this book than I did in Game of Thrones. I think she’s either going to implode or explode before too long – she won’t be able to take the strain of losing all her roles so suddenly. In fact, depending on the outcome of her interview with Jaime Lannister, it might happen sooner than even I expect.

Sansa and Arya are in very different circumstances, but very similar situations. They’ve both been completely overwhelmed and left relatively powerless by the events around them (as, the feminist in me notes, women often are). Sansa stays within the situation and starts to make movements towards either changing it or at least adapting to it (there’s a great scene during the siege of King’s Landing where she temporarily takes control of all the women in the castle, and if she could marshal that power more often, she would be a much more interesting character). Arya, on the other hand, actively works to make her situation one that she has more control over. She fits herself to her circumstances, and then makes her circumstances work for her. She’s more intelligent than Sansa at doing this – but she’s also had more practice. Sansa will get there, I’m sure, but she just doesn’t have the experience of actually using her brain yet.

The other very interesting thing that has developed with Sansa is her relationship with the Hound. Here is this man who apparently hates everyone (with reason), is scarred beyond belief, and lives a life dedicated to violence – and yet he is the only one in Sansa’s current life who treats her with any sort of consideration, understanding, or help. This is Sansa’s main struggle in this book: moving from her idealistic view of Game of Thrones that her prince would rescue her and life would be perfect to accepting that the outer view of people is not always the accurate view of people. She’s still clinging on a bit to her dream of a knight in shining armor, but she is realising more and more – mostly because of the Hound’s attitude and actions toward her – that your rescuer may not come in the storybook guise you expect.

There’s not much for me to say about Jon in this book, at least until the end. His connection with the wolves makes him just as much of a Stark as Ned always claimed him as – I hope that someday he will accept it as his bloodright despite Catelyn’s attitude toward him. The end of Jon’s story in this book opens up all sorts of possibilities for the next few books, too – he’s joined the men in the North, but on orders from his current commander in the Black and in part to save his life and get information that ultimately (we hope) will get back to the Wall. I can’t wait to see what happens there.

Probably the most shocking/intriguing part of this book was Bran and Rickon’s end. First of all, Bran’s connection with the wolves is getting stronger and more deliberate. Second of all, the way that they escaped from Theon at Winterfell was nothing less than genius. I refused to believe that they were dead – although I started to have my doubts when they were describing the two boys’ bodies at Winterfell – but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t breathe an audible sigh of relief when Bran’s point of view came back. And that last chapter is amazing – detailing their plan, catching up with Bran’s development as a wolf-spirit (for lack of a better word), and sending them off in their separate directions to lead into the next book.

Which I’m going to start right about……..now.

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Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy

I go into Hardy books with more than a little trepidation.  They tend to be beautiful and mesmerizing – and usually emotionally devastating. Tess is shattering, Jude is so heartbreaking that I couldn’t function after reading it, A Pair of Blue Eyes is frustratingly sad.

Far from the Madding Crowd is not. It’s still got the beautiful language (to the point of lilac prose), but the heartache isn’t nearly as extreme or inevitable as in his other books. I think there are at least two reasons for this. Firstly, the book has an ultimately happy ending. The two main protagonists are touched by the tragedy but not destroyed by it. It’s not really their tragedy. It does directly affect Bathsheba, of course, but the tragedy is Fanny’s, not hers.

And that’s the second reason that this book isn’t as devastating as even A Pair of Blue Eyes. There’s never an impossible decision. Tess, for example, has to choose between starvation and essential prostitution. Bathsheba doesn’t even come close to a similar dilemma. She makes two ultimately foolish decisions, but the consequences are not far-reaching and she accepts them as her due. Gabriel is similar: he doesn’t really make any foolish decisions, but he accepts the consequences of his actions and incorporates them into his life. He’s kind of the epitome of “hard work is its own reward” – even when misfortune befalls him, he is able to pick himself up and get back to life the way he understands it, ultimately getting back to an even higher position than he was in before.

The tragedy of this book is really Fanny Robin’s. If it had been her book, rather than Bathsheba’s, it would have almost been more Hardy-esque. She runs away to follow her sweetheart – who’s such a player that it’s sickening – mixes up the church at which they’re supposed to get married (at which point he walks away from her), and ultimately ends up dying with her illegitimate child in the workhouse.

I have to admit, I was a little bit lost in timeframe at some critical points in the book. I couldn’t tell how long Bathsheba and Troy had been married or then, by extension, the progress of Troy and Fanny’s relationship. The obfuscation around pregnancy also didn’t help – I am assuming that Fanny died in childbirth but to a modern reader that’s not at all clear. The main question in my mind is whether Fanny became pregnant before or after Bathsheba and Troy met. It doesn’t affect the story as a whole, but it does affect how much of a cad Troy is.

Because he is a cad, there’s no question about that. He plays on Fanny, apparently never expecting that she’d take him so seriously as to follow him to the regiment’s next posting, abandons her when she mixes up the church for their wedding, and then proceeds to work on Bathsheba – at one point even claiming that she was the one who trapped him into affection when he was the one who made all of the overtures. He’s very much the type of man who only wants what he can’t have, and once he has it doesn’t want it anymore. If he’d really loved Fanny the way he claimed to, he would never have abandoned her, pursued Bathsheba, or, more importantly, married Bathsheba.

But it’s not Troy’s story, Fanny’s story, or even Bathsheba’s story alone. It’s the story of Bathsheba and Gabriel – one of the few healthy relationships I’ve ever seen presented in Hardy. Gabriel never gives up in his love for Bathsheba, but he also doesn’t smother her with it or expect anything from her just because he loves her. He’s simply there, constantly working for her good without losing himself in the process. Bathsheba loses herself briefly in infatuation with Troy, but easily realises Gabriel’s worth, even before she develops deeper feelings for him – and even when she’s caught up with Troy, she’s enough herself to keep the farm running and to keep from alienating everyone she knows.

I almost wish I’d read this as my first Hardy, rather than Tess. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Tess (and am probably due for a reread sometime soon), but if I’d read this first I don’t think I would have been nearly so nervous about starting new (to me) Hardys. Until I’d hit Jude, of course.

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A Fool’s Alphabet, by Sebastian Faulks

I have decided that I really do like Sebastian Faulks’s writing. There’s nothing specific that I can point to and say, “This is why I like Sebastian Faulks” but I really do find him very evocative and readable and beautiful. I found this even more with A Fool’s Alphabet than with Human Traces: Human Traces was very much about the ideas being discussed and developed, while A Fool’s Alphabet is about the style and the structure.

The structure is deceptively simple: each chapter takes place (sort of) in a different location, and each location starts with a different letter of the alphabet. I say sort of, because some of the chapters start out in one place and then flashback or actively reminisce to another one. I did learn very quickly to take the dates at the start of each chapter with a grain of salt – it was not always clear just how much of the chapter took place with its relevant date, or even how old Pietro (the main character) was . Some of the math I was doing for the dates didn’t really match up, so eventually I stopped paying attention to them. (At least one of the places was sort of dodgy as well: Terminal 5 for “T”? Really? It could be a statement about airports and whatnot, but somehow I doubt it.)
The structure works very well with the story, in that there isn’t really one. It’s very much a character study of Pietro Russell, an English/Italian post-war baby. There’s no plot in the “things happen” type of way: things happen, of course, but they are often irrelevant to the other events. It’s a sketch of a life, not a story. There’s no lesson, no moral, no overarching theme that I could see on first reading. (There may be one on close reading, but not on first reading.)
I’m not sure if I like Pietro. I was interested enough to keep reading about him, but I think that was due to the style rather than the character himself. I think, if I met him in real life, I wouldn’t notice him and probably wouldn’t have any desire to.
One of the interesting things, overall, is that the epigraphs at the beginning of the book are not upheld. Sometimes the epigraphs give you a clue to the theme or the “moral” (for lack of a better word), but this time they were actively denied at one point. This amused me, and reassured me, because I really hated the epigraphs and found them simplistic, Eurocentric – Western Eurocentric and Anglo-centric specifically – and wrong. I had a whole rant prepared about one of them, and if it had been a factor in the book, I probably would have stopped reading. But luckily, that was the one that Pietro also questioned, so I didn’t have to throw the book across the room. (I’ve done it before, with Last of the Mohicans; I have no qualms about doing it again.)

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