Tuesday, May 29, 2012

And so the blackwater is under the bridge

Oh my. Last night, after three days working to turn our garden from wilderness to something resembling a place where you can hang out without fear of being ripped to shreds by thorns and / or wild murder wasps coming in great assault swarms from hidden boles, I sunk down into the couch with episode nine of, you guessed it, Game of Thrones Season Two. Now, we've had some absolutely incredible summer days here in the north, leading to sunburns and a cooked brain, but I was ready to see if winter was coming anyway. I've complained here and there about the second season being, well, not as good as the first one for various reasons (the main reason - deviating too much from the books), but this episode kicked my ass with its hard focus on King's Landing, some great dialogue retained from the books, a few "new" scenes that actually felt like they added to the story instead of distracting from it (The Hound / Bronn), and some of the best acting in the season so far (Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage). The last scenes felt a bit rushed and I can understand people getting all confused over what just happened (Lady Slynt had no idea what was going on and wasn't really able to connect Loras to the proceedings, but this will be remedied once we have a physical set with subtitles for the ... less Englishly-inclined), but there was so much goodness in this episode. Especially considering this is a TV production. Yes, they would need a Hollywood budget to truly do the Blackwater battle justice, but I think they got a lot out of it with the budget they had. The explosion was vivid and very much like I envisioned it, and how it has been envisioned by various artists over the years. It was an exciting episode, the buildup of tension was pitch perfect, and most of the changes from the book in this episode were at least understandable. I loved how we finally got The Hound. Up until this episode, he has been underused to put it mildly, but here he could finally shine.
It was an episode that left me thinking instead of being able to sleep, which the previous eight have not been able to do.
Seems George R.R. Martin's screenplay did wonders (but then, he got the choiciest bit from the novel to adapt); the direction was great, the interplay between quiet scenes and action scenes was spot on, and I felt there was way more dialogue from the novel in this episode than in the others (could just be me though). As I said to the lady as the episode ended, I wish they could make twenty episodes a season instead so we didn't have to lose so much. I miss the Sansa/Dontos subplot, for example.
But you know what I didn't miss? I didn't miss any of the other characters of the show, because King's Landing was intense. Jon Snow, Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaren, Theon Greyjoy, Catelyn Stark - they were all put on the backburner and I didn't even realize this until halfway through the episode. Could be because all my favorite characters were in this one (Tyrion, Bronn, the Hound, Cersei, even a quick cameo by Tywin) - and the episode didn't suffer for it at all. I guess next week we'll catch up on those - there's a House of the Undying to visit, after all. It better be creepy as hell to come after the Blackwater (I wonder whether it should have been the other way around - finish the season with Cersei on the Iron Throne being rescued in the nick of time by her lord father). I guess we'll also see Jon Snow hacking the fuck out of Qhorin and become a Wildling as a cliffhanger, and I guess they'll make some sort of cliffhanger out of the other characters' stories too. And maybe we'll meet Ramsay Snow.

In other news, some fans of the medieval strategy game Crusader Kings II have launched a modificiation to the game entitled Game of Thrones. If you own the original game, you simply download the mod files into the game's mod folder, fire up the game and click "Game of Thrones" in the menu. I did so last night just to have a first look, played a couple of years as Lord Roose Bolton. The replaced map was absolutely gorgeous, I noticed a few places where Europe showed up instead of Westeros (on certain pop-up windows) but other than that it felt like I was playing a Westeros game. My character even had the option to "legimitize Ramsay", so the people who put long hours into this sure know their setting. Find out more here. Download the mod and read what it can and can't do right here.

In other other news, I've once again fallen into the trap of reading too many books at once. I started with Peter Brett's The Painted Man but it doesn't hold my attention long enough so I began to switch, checking out this rather recent novel named The Mongoliad and so far it's absolutely superior and perhaps - and I haven't read much yet, mind you - a contender for the top ten list. Not just these two, I'm also reading a page or two of several other books inbetween, including a collection of Conan stories, Cthulhu short stories, Gardens of the Moon, A Dance with Dragons, Life in a Medieval City, and more. No wonder my head is spinning. Yeah, so The Mongoliad is really promising but I'm intent on finishing The Painted Man as well - some great ideas in there, after all. The whole demons-in-the-night thingy would be cool in a roleplaying game, kind of. Slynt out. So many papers to correct. Dizzy again.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

[Re-read] Jaime I: "Throwing a Wench in the Works"

Immense slow-down when it comes to re-reading A Storm of Swords, I know. Only the prologue so far. That's not much. How can I whine about authors not finishing writing their books when I can't find the time to write about those books? Well I'm not whining as much as I did back in the days, and also this blog is just for fun, so there's a difference right there. You could of course argue that it's not just fun as my first re-read was published as a book, but that came about long after I fired up this place and began jotting down my inane thoughts about A Song of Ice and Fire (and later, a lot of other geeky things too). Still, it's all in good fun. Something to do while waiting for A Dance... I mean, The Winds of Winter. So in the couple of days since I was left suffering offline for days, I've been getting back into geek shape by eating unhealthy food, playing Legend of Grimrock (a curse upon the ninth floor!), dabbling in Everquest 2, since it's free to play and I needed a levelling-up fix (but gods old and new, what a weird game), gathering ideas for a short story for SFF World, reading up on fantasy gaming news (curious about Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online, the latter game more in the train wreck-sense), participated in a Magic: Avacyn Restored pre-release draft online (winning a couple of matches but eventually ending up sixth or so), reading Peter V Brett's The Painted Man (how long hasn't that one been on my to-read list) as well as a book on the aftermath of Alexander the Great's death which is very interesting (it's called Ghost on the Throne). And tonight I'll be geeking out on the eighth episode of Game of Thrones of course. I still view the series as spiralling downward the more it deviates from the books (I know, I know, they are different entities but still), but I'm kind of hoping that things will be tied back together toward the end of the season. It's not bad, the acting's good and all that, but the story isn't as good as it should be. They would have needed more screentime, I know. Which is why they should've split A Clash of Kings over two seasons as well, instead of getting these incredibly cramped ten episodes and still missing a lot of vital stuff. Meh.

But hey, I was thinking of reading the first chapter of A Storm of Swords today. I remember the first time I opened the book how pleasantly surprised I was to see Jaime's name at the head of the first chapter. My eyebrows rose in apprehension, curiosity, surprise and tantalization. Martin subverted so many tropes when he gave Jaime the spotlight. It was a good thing. Though I admit I enjoy the bad guy Jaime more than the inverted-Anakin character. In A Storm of Swords, the transition fortunately is given time to develop.

...And that's how far I got before something came up that I had to do. Now, two days later, I aim to continue my re-read of the first Jaime chapter. In the meantime, however, I've seen the eighth episode of Game of Thrones and I was quite curious because I knew there would be the first scene between Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister. I remember this was a vivid spark of a combination of characters in the book, and the scenes where they traveled downriver toward King's Landing were highly entertaining. The scene in the TV episode was...well, it was quite good for what it was. The banter was there, and both actors look the and play their parts very well. But still...they left Robb's camp in the tiniest little boat ever, with no supplies. That was weird. I think I prefer the book. It all, once again, comes down to being able to accept the TV show for what it is, and continue to enjoy the books for what they are (much better, for a start). So, it's been a couple of years, maybe three or four I don't really know anymore, maybe it's as much as seven years ago that I read A Storm of Swords, prior to Feast being published. Seems it took the world a lot of time to catch up on how great these books are and now we are being overwhelmed with Game of Thrones everywhere we look. Nah, let's see if the first Jaime chapter is as cool as I remember it to be, or if I'm just wearing my nostalgia-tinted glasses again.

You know before I really delve into this, I loved how Martin kept Ser Jaime under lock and chain for so long. It gave me as a reader a real sense of Jaime being imprisoned for a long time, so that when this chapter kicks off and we get into his head, it does indeed feel like a breeze of hope after all that time in the darkness of the Riverrun dungeon: "An east wind blew through his tangled hair, as soft and fragrant as Cersei's fingers." Not only does mr. Martin in one quick opening sentence give us that feeling of freedom, but he also gets straight into characterization with Jaime thinking of his twin sister. It feels as if Jaime is aware of the world for the first time, with him noticing the birds singing and feels the river moving beneath the boat; his senses are tingling after so long in the monotonous dark and cold, making his experience so vivid. He even has to laugh out of pure joy - but now Martin is veering too close to happiness so best get both the reader and Ser Jaime back to the ground with a brutish "Quiet" from Brienne. Jaime thinks of her as an amusement, picturing her in Cersei's gowns (comparing her with his true love, in other words); but he also admits to himself that Brienne is a good rower. So there's that.

Unlike the TV series, they aren't alone, however. There's Jaime's cousin Ser Cleos, who isn't half as enduring and strong as Brienne. Jaime, exhilarated by being back in the world, is still manacled though. He spends some time thinking back to how he got to this boat but remembers only bits and pieces. We're told they bundled him in a traveler's cloak, so nice touch there, HBO - the cloak was in the episode. All in all, Jaime is in a much better position now than he was - he can even stretch his legs, which is a luxury now. So already here we see early signs of Jaime's transformation; he is beginning to appreciate things I assume he has been taken for granted all his life. I love how he thinks of how Tyrion is going to laugh when he tells him he slept through his own escape. Both because it's funny and because his dwarf brother isn't far from his thoughts. I like it when other people think of Tyrion with no hate. He deserves some love.

We get some banter, and Jaime definitely isn't courteous toward Brienne, which Cleos reminds him of. This only makes Jaime think of Cleos as a weakling ("The Lannister blood runs thin in this one"). We're given some background on Cleos (son of Aunt Genna Lannister married to a Frey), and Jaime's humble opinion of the man: Ser Cleos looked like a weasel, fought like a goose, and had the courage of an especially brave ewe. Yeah, being inside Jaime's head is fun. Also, I had to google 'ewe'. A female sheep. All right, another word for the vocabulary.

We're also told how Ser Jaime had to swear to never again take up arms against Stark or Tully, which is something to file away for later. Jaime doesn't think much of it right now, telling himself that he, after all, was chained and drunk and at sword point, but it'll come back later if I remember correctly. Jaime ponders for a bit, realizing that Catelyn Stark puts her trust in Tyrion, and not him; they are going to King's Landing to try and trade Jaime for the Stark girls, but it is Tyrion, as the acting Hand of the King, who may be the key to success for Catelyn. Funny how Jaime thinks of himself as a "man with shit for honor": does he truly realize this or is he telling himself this because that's what he always hears? A complex character then, somewhat like Theon in the previous book; doing some pretty nasty stuff, rationalizing said nasty stuff, and finally (hopefully) coming around to see himself  in a different light. Don't know if I made sense now.

There is more banter; some of it existing in almost similar wording in this week's TV episode, only in the book Martin can of course go a little deeper. There's a nice bit of subtle foreshadowing when Jaime hoots "Are there monsters hereabouts? Hiding beneath the water, perhaps? In that thick of willows? And me without my sword!" because, you know, they'll be facing "monsters" soon enough in the form of those awesome Brave Companions. We get a quick glimpse of Jaime's thoughts regarding him shoving young Bran Stark out of the window all those chapters ago (and two books) ago, but it's not really convincing as a rationalization ("Innocent? The boy was spying on us") - I had wished perhaps a deeper, or more complex, chain of thoughts regarding this little crime of his. Jaime continues to speak roughly about Brienne, Cleos sounds embarassed and tries to make him stop.

I know I'm not alone in thinking that Jaime's use of the word "coz" feels misplaced; as the story progresses we get more and more of these little words that most readers seem displeased with ("nuncle" comes to mind). I can totally see Jaime shortening words, being cool and all, but "coz" sounds so...I don't know, anachronistic? At the same time I know people think the swearing in these books is just as out of place (where did I read that Martin's books have been dubbed The Knights who say Fuck? I read it somewhere...) so I'm not complaining too loudly about a few small words. But I sure wouldn't mind if Jaime just called Cleos for "cousin". Anyway, this minor nitpick aside, Jaime begins to wonder about Cleos and what kind of man he is, and decides he is a lickspittle, in a rather funny sequence where Cleos seems to suck up to Jaime by telling him he's a great swordsman, at the same time perhaps warning Brienne not to go too far. Ser Jaime, though quite impotent at the moment, is after all one of the greatest swordsmen of the realm, so this is also a reminder from the author to the reader I suppose. A trapped lion. There's a small flashback scene between Jaime and Cersei which we saw in the first season of Game of Thrones (the scene where Jaime talks about "the war for Cersei's cunt", I am pleasantly surprised to see that this line was actually from the book- it's hard to judge sometimes what with lines spread across the series and sometimes spoken by different characters). More importantly, we learn that Jaime doesn't know who sent the assassin to kill Bran in his sleep; so now we know it isn't Tyrion and it isn't Jaime, but we don't know yet whether it was Cersei (or someone else). A long-standing mystery, for sure, and nearly forgotten midst all the other cool things happening all the time.

They continue their journey on the river, with more banter. Jaime tries to convince Brienne to go to his father Lord Tywin instead, but she won't hear it. Then, Jaime wants to have his head shaved: "The realm knows Jaime Lannister as a beardless knight with long golden hair. A bald man with a filthy yellow beard may pass unnoticed. I'd sooner not be recognized while I'm in irons."
Now, I guess this won't happen in the TV show, but in the books I believe this scene was added to symbolize Jaime Lannister's transformation. In this scene, we see his physical appearance - the exterior part of the character - undergo a radical change, to set us up for the lengthier, more complicated changes of the interior. That's how I read it anyway. But I'd perhaps have Jaime convince Brienne that it's smart to do this because then they won't have to deal with other Lannisters wanting to free him, bounty hunters, assassins, or even Stark men coming after them, disagreeing with Catelyn's decision. I mean, it's a better proposition is it not? No matter, off goes Jaime's hair.

By midday, Cleos is snoring. They pass a swollen Lannister-cloaked corpse. We get exposition on river trade and how the war has affected this, but it is mercifully short and to the point (and helps remind us about the situation). Then, when Cleos is up again rubbing his eyes, they spot smoke in the distance. They see a burning house and an oak from which many women dangle, hanged. Pretty grim sighting. This sighting segues nicely into a discussion about knighthood between Brienne and Jaime, further illustrating and contrasting their characters in an entertaining way. Brienne, being truly honorable, decides to land at the place and bury the dead. Jaime splashes into the water, noticing how bad his state of health is when he sees how thin he's grown in the water's reflection.
Next up is a discussion between the characters about who could have done this, which really covers up for the author reintroducing various factions at war. This again leads to Brienne revealing that she was one of Renly's seven Rainbow Guards, suggesting she is indeed a good fighter (which Jaime thinks unlikely). Before they can start digging graves (or burning the corpses, it's not entirely clear what Brienne has in mind, though Cleos mentions their lack of shovels), Brienne spots a sail on the river and so they run back to their boat. Turns out they are being followed by a Tully ship: someone wants to have Jaime back at Riverrun, and not off to King's Landing, which is quite understandable from a political point of view. And I love Martin for not skimping on the consequences of whatever actions characters undertake; I mean, he could just have them sail down to King's Landing and be done with it, but instead he considers consequences, and one logical consequence of Catelyn's rash decision to let Jaime go is that of course someone else at Riverrun will go after Jaime to recapture him. Awesomety.

The chapter becomes more intense now, exciting; we get a river chase. It's not the Death Star trench, but it's exciting none the less. Martin shrinks time effectively, giving us concrete details - "That is a river galley coming after us (...) Nine oars on each side, which means eighteen men (...) We cannot outrun her." Shorter sentences, quick and hard descriptions to get us into the scene, a little more humor (Jaime once again begs Brienne to take off his shackles, I can almost hear the despondency in his voice), and Jaime showing off his knowledge when it comes to combat tactics. Brienne's stubborness, Jaime going from cocky to commanding, Cleos a nervous wreck - this is Martin at his finest, a memorable scene from the series even though it is still just two probably fairly slow boats following each other on a river.

When the Tully ship is close, Jaime cups his hands and shouts at the ship's captain, Ser Robin Ryger, again very amusing banter back and forth. Also noteworthy how Jaime kind of naturally takes some measure of command aboard their little boat. Arrows fly. I love how arrows fly already in the first chapter. Nothing like a bit of a thrill early on in the book. Jaime challenges Ser Robin to a duel, which Ser Robin declines, not having "been born this morning" which is funny not only because it's true but also because Ser Jaime oh so cockily responds, "No, but you're like to die this afternoon." Splendid stuff. Gotta love Jaime Lannister. He's like the Han Solo of Westeros, only with a lot more badassery involved. Hopefully we won't get a revised edition where Bran pushed first.

Brienne meanwhile has scrambled off the boat, climbed up the cliffs and just as Ryger's archers are about to pepper Jaime and Cleos, she hurls rocks down at their boat disrupting their attack. The rocks and pebbles are followed by a boulder "the size of a cow", smashing their ship. It's a real adventurous, almost Indiana Jones-like scene, isn't it? Wonder if they'll add this in the TV series. I guess not; their version doesn't really need Ser Robin Ryger following them. Unfortunately. The scene shows us just how immensely strong Brienne is - as well as quick-thinking - and when she returns to them, having left Ryger and the Tully soldiers wet and cold in the river, Jaime offers her an oar instead of, well, smashing her in the head with it. Is he granting her some respect? Is he afraid of her now that she's shown her superior strength? Or does he now find confidence that she may just get him all the way to King's Landing? We don't know; Martin is wise enough not to dwell on the why, just telling us that "Instead he found himself stretching the oar out over the water. Brienne grabbed hold, and Jaime pulled her in." Martin lets us come to our own conclusions here, almost like the ending of a good short story, but that last sentence could be interpreted as laying it all out for us: Brienne grabbed hold, and Jaime pulled her in.

The chapter ends with the two going straight back into their banter, but the reader should understand now that these two characters, different as they are, are being drawn together though they are not aware of it yet themselves. That's some quality writing right there, don't you think?

Wow, it felt as if this chapter just flew by, it was really good to be back with Jaime and yes even Brienne again. The chapter is kind of light-hearted in one way (the adventurous feel), grim in another (the corpses, Jaime's rough verbal sparring), but sets up so much interesting stuff for later. Next up is Catelyn's first chapter, which will be interesting as we now know she is probably facing some repercussions after having let Jaime go with Brienne and Ser Cleos.

Now here was a chapter with traveling that didn't slow down with characters sitting about looking at stuff. This was a chapter full of characterization, plot advancement, exposition and all the works. And for a first time reader, as I remember fondly having been once upon a time back in the day, the story really can go anywhere from here (except where I expected it to go, I guess); who could have imagined, reading A Game of Thrones for the first time, that they'd be seeing the world through Jaime's point of view like this? Bloody brilliant first chapter, if you ask me.

Until next time :)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Five days offline

Yeah I've been five days offline. That's when you notice you're addicted to being online (or not). To be honest it was refreshing, but then I had no time really to yearn for the comfort of the Internet (if it can be called a comfort). What I did notice was that I didn't really miss anything when I came back ^^
Been on a trip to a desolate island, shut off from the world including the news, the net, everything really. It was good. Did read a little bit though. Such an amazing thing really to be carrying around an entire library using Kindle. I've started Peter Brett's The Painted Man, continue to read a couple of pages from Gardens of the Moon to keep the Malazan-fix alive, as well as a couple of history books.
And still forcing/stomping myself through Legend of Grimrock. Reached the ninth floor now, it's getting claustrophobic and ever more dangerous, but there must be a way out of this hellish...but cutely animated...prison.
Coming back home first thing to do was of course to watch episode seven of Game of Thrones Season Two. Again, I feel they are deviating too much from the books. I understand it's an adaptation but this is going too far for my tastes (again). Still, some good scenes, the actors are doing a good job, and it surely is the best thing ever on TV (with Firefly being the possible exception). Best scene in my opinion was between the Hound and the growing-into-a-stunning-woman Sansa because it echoed the books more than all the other scenes combined (or so it felt watching it). I am afraid all this deviating will lead the show astray but I am a born pessimist so who knows...maybe they plan ahead *cough*.

Also, Mr Martin himself has been busy blogging again after a period of nothing much (due to him travelling again). He writes that his A Dance with Dragons is receiving rave reviews from all the important places. I don't know, but I rather trust readers on, say, Amazon, than some idiot writing for a newspaper who's been told that these books are hot so give it a good review (this is how I feel about it, not necessarily the truth). And what do the people say? It's just not that good. Even with people trolling in numerous five-star reviews, the truth remains. The book is mediocre. But Martin? He puts on the blindfolds and that's it. Very promising for book six.

More importantly for any Ice and Fire fan is of course that he actually states that he's started The Winds of Winter, which is almost hard to believe considering all his other projects eating his time. But good for him. And hopefully good for us.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The soft breeze of Khalakhovo

Well, there you go. All quiet on the front. Looking around nervously I almost suspect an ambush of some chore  I must do, or some arrangement I've forgotten, or...you know. All businesslike. But it seems that I finally can settle back in the couch at least until I doze off.

So, anyway, I finally finished Bradley P. Beaulieu's The Winds of Khalakhovo (The Lays of Anuskaya) (if that isn't a mouthful...also, uh, Anus-kaya...uh huhuh huh uh he he uh. Yeah noticed they are reviving Beavis and Butthead. Something tells me it won't work). Felt so good to finish it. Now, the reason I picked up this particular novel was because over at Pat's friendly Fantasy Hotlist it was touted as one of the best, if not the best, fantasy debuts of 2011. Sounded like something I had to check out relatively straight away. And I can understand it to some degree. The author packs in a decent amount of fun fantasy fluff, the main attraction being airships that follow leylines between island duchies, coating it all in a medieval Russian flavor (though the flavor is mostly relegated to naming conventions as far as I could tell), but for some reason I just couldn't latch properly onto the story and its characters. I was wowed during the first chapters, found the pace fast enough, the shiny new things shiny enough, but about halfway through I began to lose interest and the latter half of the book (which I had read was where things would pick up, actually) was really a slog. Now I can understand why Pat raved about it, because his website has turned into a place where publishers can advertise product and he doesn't really dare to be honest (this is my impression - not a fact I can verify; though you may note that nearly no books get lower than 7.5 points out of 10); after all, he is being given all these books to review and has become a pretty big ally for the fantasy publishing industry. And I wish him continued success, just to be clear.

But I am not affiliated with anything remotely decent, so I can be crude and harsh and unforgiving. Which doesn't make me feel good by the way. Because I could never write anything close to as cool as The Winds of Khalakhovo. Though I wish I could. If only the laziness could abate! Get thee behind me, laziness yadayada. I respect the author's hard work, you get the feeling the story has been cooking well and long and the author has labored blood and sweat and tears, yet somehow it just didn't grab me. Trying to figure out why, I come to the following conclusions: The characters - especially main main Nikandr - are a bit bland; but probably on purpose - this is more of an external story than an internal one. Rehada is perhaps the best realized character in the novel. The plot - this might just be me not being a native English speaker but I found it, at times, hard to follow the plot. Partially because mr. Bradley doesn't give me enough exposition on a number of important elements of his setting, especially the havahezhan-thingies (took me a while to realize what they were), the soulstones - how they work, why they work - the leylines, there's a lot of good setting stuff but, for once I should say, perhaps too little explanation. The side-characters are relatively flat and I never really cared about them, and the rifts...no idea. War and assassination happens, but I'm not sure of the whys and hows; and finally, the whole plot revolves around a mute boy and his guardian (who I believe was supposed to be a wizard of some sort) yet we don't learn much. It's all a bit vague-ish. When I was reading the book's climactic final scenes I still didn't feel invested, even though I was presented with some cool fantasy imagery (particularly that of a small fleet of airborne boats flying through a blizzard); the story moves at one point in time, and...I could go on, but the more I write the more you'll reckon I'm clueless. Maybe a second, more thorough reading would give me a better understanding. I admit I glossed over the text at times, because the story couldn't captivate me enough. It's not like, say, A Storm of Swords where Martin grabs me by the whole body and yanks me inside his setting and I don't want to escape; it's not like Malazan where Erikson spends four books grabbing me but when he eventually does it's an amazing experience.

So, Khalakhovo has some good ideas (I must add that I loved the concept of these women floating about in icy cold water in order to connect with other minds and use magics), and if I'd understand the plotting I'd probably admire it too (there's a lot going on), but in the end it just doesn't come together well enough for me personally. If you've read it, feel free to post a comment about your own thoughts and feelings and let me hear if I'm way off the mark or echoing your own sentiments. I know this is the first in a planned series (aren't they all?) so maybe the author on purpose has left certain elements vague to be explored at a later point, but that doesn't help this book right now. So, with no publishers backing me up, I can (hopefully) safely say this book doesn't deserve more than let's say a 6 out of 10. Maybe 6,5. Aw now I feel bad. The concepts alone should probably add a point. The grammar and stuff is fine, too. Maybe I'm too harsh and Pat was right after all. But when I finish a book and am relieved to be done with it...It's got some great reviews at Amazon, but also some three-stars and even a one-star (which is very harsh). Guess I have to read those to see what other people think. And maybe find a plot summary somewhere.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaand there we go again. Now I have to use the computer to look up holiday resorts. Lady Slynt wants to take me south. As far as south goes. But Slynt not like holidays in warm countries. Slynt like northern lands with ancient ruins and castles to visit.

Why hasn't anyone made a Middle-earth theme park yet? Or a Westeros theme park complete with pillories, dungeons, brothels, headman's blocks and big fricking wolves? Pig-riding dwarves, burn a doll version of the Hound's face, knightly tournaments, Slap-a-Joffrey-machines?There's a new idea for you George $$ Martin, in case those computer games, miniatures, comic books, coffee table books, T-shirts, waterlodged RPGs etcetera don't work out. /trollface

All businesslike...or not

So, with me being so busy these days I figured I'll try and post using my Android phone but for some aggravating reason I can't write in the text box - only in the title box. Bah. But hey, found a minute of time right now to power up the computer. And yes. There's someone craving my attention right away. So much for posting. I was planning on doing ASOS I as well as a short review of The Winds of Khalakhovo because yeah I finally finished it, but there you go. Maybe later tonight, if not maybe tomorrow.
Until then, check out this combat trailer for the Game of Thrones CRPG which is out next week. I admit that even after the terrible flop called Game of Thrones: Genesis this trailer made me interested. Why do so many I&F-related releases flop? Guess I have to dig into that question at some later time. Just mentioning it because it looks like Green Ronin Publishing is failing massively with their roleplaying game products. Enough complaining, now I really have to run before I wake the dragon :)

Friday, May 4, 2012

Friday night is all right for fighting

Ah, I love these Friday evenings. With the possible exception that they move so fast. Before I know it, my eyelids are drooping yadayada. But I've had grand plans of geekery. First, a couple of rounds with Magic Online to test out my latest build (lost three games in a row so yay and over and done with), then half an hour of Dungeons and Dragons Online which I downloaded for the umpteenth time yesterday night with the goal that this time I'd try and get into it because I have this urge to adventure, followed by a round of Legend of Grimrock because what do you know after a couple of weeks (three?) of being stumped on the fifth level of the dungeon I finally managed, by some insidious saving, to get past a particularly hard crab and just get on with it. And after that, I'm going to read a Robert E. Howard story, 'cause, looking through the books on my shelves I discovered I had a collection of Conan stories and being in the adventuring mood, Conan sounds quite right. Swords and sorcery and all that. Finally, if I'm still awake by then, I'll try to finish The Winds of Khalakovo as I'm at 98% and the story itself is clearly in a denouement, though I'm still asking myself why - I'll try and answer that in a short review soonish. And, as a matter of course, I'll end the evening with a couple of pages from Gardens of the Moon, I really ought to write a full post on that particular re-read because it such a great experience. Tomorrow I'll be delving into the first proper chapter of A Storm of Swords, and another geeky plan is to read a Lovecraft story (I read one last night, The Haunter of the Dark, actually to get inspired for this month's short story compo over at SFF World, the theme being fear) - as a proper geek I'm of course also somewhat infatuated with the Chthulhu mythos, though I'm not a fanboi the way I love Westeros, Malaz, Star Wars, LOTR etc.

All this must be done stealthily, so the lady of the house believes I'm watching TV with her.. ^^

Yeah. That was a useful post.
Good night!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

[Re-read] Prologue - A Storm of Swords

So. May the first. That's a national day off here in these parts. I like days off. Especially days like this, with a clear blue sky, and spring almost on the verge of turning, prematurely, into summer. There is still snow in the shadows where the cold doesn't release its grip so easily, but out in the open it's surprisingly warm. And with a day off I'm finally finding the time and rest to delve back into George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga, and continue where I left off.

Having spent the last couple of months moving into a new house has been a somewhat burdensome experience. And there are still many things to fix. My office is, at the moment, basically a repository for all the crap we haven't been able to put elsewhere, with no furniture. But my bookshelves, those are back and up and running like a finely tuned YT1300 engine, with Martin's books occupying the honorary upper section of one shelf. Weird thing is there's one book missing and I just can't find it - A Dance with Dragons. Coincidence or the irony of fate? It has like, vanished. I can't remember burning it in a fit of rage nor, disappointed, giving it away, and really I have opened like a million crates these months and no dragons. Crows, swords, kings and thrones everywhere but no dragons. It felt so good getting my favorite books back in place in a house where there's actually room for them. Now I can walk by everyday and let their magic envelop me so that I can go inspired to work or wherever. I imagine tiny pixies buzzing about. Kind of. Speaking of books, I am - believe it or not - still struggling with The Winds of Khalakovo! It just doesn't want me to read it. There's this battle going on, and the imagery is strong, but I'm just not getting involved. Oh well, I will finish it since there's just a few chapters left. But every time I've read a chapter I immediately switch to a chapter of Gardens of the Moon (Erikson) because it's such a fun re-read. But for now, it is time to get back into A Storm of Swords, and you know what really prompted me to go back in - it was episode five of HBO's Game of Thrones, season two. Why? Because I feel the TV series is really branching away to the point that it's getting a little bit irksome. The real deal remains the books. Why can't they wait with the diverging until they get to season four? /trollface.

Well, I suppose upon cracking open this fat third book that this is where we got the first warning signal. Before anything else, we get a "A Note on Chronology" from the author. Why I'm calling it a warning signal? Well, when the author needs to explain - outside the story - how things are put together it is somewhat worrisome, because it could be taken as the author losing control over the flow. Easy to say now with hindsight, of course - it's not like I took notice way back when. The maps are what they are, I know I was excited that there was new ground covered but now of course I know where everything is so it's not like I'm hardcore studying them on this tenth re-read.  Skipping the cartography, I arrive at the...


And we're back, with an opening sentence so typical George RR: "The day was grey and bitter cold, and the dogs would not take the scent." That's mr. Martin all right, a short snappy two-part sentence, the first part setting the mood and the second part giving us direct information  about what's going on. This is the kind of sentence Martin uses often to kick of his chapters and reading it now is like meeting an old friend. Well, not exactly of course. You know what I mean. It's almost comforting. This is when A Song of Ice and Fire is still completely amazing and awesome. In one sentence we're reminded we're not in some fairytale land of the imagination, but rather a harsher world; and in the same sentence Martin sets up a question to hook the reader - what is the scent the dogs will not take? Pitch perfect.

Turns out the dogs are Chett's, a Night's Watch boy we met briefly in A Clash of Kings, and that having sniffed at bear tracks, the dogs refuse to cooperate. Chett isn't too happy about being out in the cold, thinking that he should be back at the Wall. Through his thoughts we learn that he is afraid though he doesn't admit it directly, which is cool - but it's tucked in there: "I should be safe back at the Wall (...)". Not afraid perhaps, but at least not feeling safe. Which helps with the atmosphere too, of course. It's all a bit ominous. We also learn soon enough that Chett isn't particularly happy with Jon Snow's existence. Angry, he snaps at the dogs as if they are to blame for him losing his steward's job to Samwell Tarly (in A Clash of Kings), threatening them which makes him look rather pitiful, which I guess is the point. Also, this is a prologue and veterans of the series will know that it may just be a little ironic that he's threatening them because he'll most likely end up dead at the end of the prologue.

Chett is not alone with the dogs; there's Lark the Sisterman, freezing and complaining, and Small Paul who is anything but small and who we'll meet again in a particularly exciting chapter later. From their talk it becomes clear that all is not well within the Night's Watch - seems Lord Jeor Mormont has lost a couple of respect points. In fact, from their chat it appears that these guys have been thinking about treason for a good while, and that they've been talking of killing off the leadership - another reminder this is Westeros, and it's great. Martin takes care to see things from all angles, not just from Jon Snow's perspective, or Mormont's, but we also get to see the disgruntled soldiers, the miserable and traitorous ones, completing the illusion of the Night's Watch organization as a real thing with both external and internal struggles:
"We been over this. The Old Bear dies, and Blane from the Shadow Tower. Grubbs and Aethan as well, their ill luck for drawing the watch, Dywen and Barmen for their tracking, and Ser Piggy for the ravens. That's all. We kill them quiet, while they sleep. One scream and we're wormfood, every one of us."
This says so much about Chett - Martin excels at characterizing through dialogue. At the same time he sets up suspense - so these guys are actually going to try and kill all these people! Exciting stuff. Not only that, Martin manages to use this new angle - Chett's POV - to give a quick reminder of where they are, what the Night's Watch is up to, in case the reader has forgotten, without it becoming too intrusive or breaking the flow. The most important point being, that Mance Rayder and his wildlings are coming down the Milkwater. It is clear Chett fears the wildlings - he doesn't want to stay around to meet them, he wants to be off, to live - another little irony right there - and has convinced these other guys of his treacherous scheme ("Schemes and plots are the same" - best line of Episode Five this week, and it wasn't even in the book).

What the author does not go into is the fact that, you know, Chett kind of has a right to be a little angry. He held a nice position as Maester Aemon's steward, which I guess is one of the better positions at Castle Black. Tending to an old blind man, staying inside to feed the fire, fill up the old man's goblet and write his letters sounds like the summit of comfort up there in the north - and he was demoted just like that. I'd feel sorry for him if he wasn't such a bastard. Whoops, sorry Jon, I didn't mean it like that.

Night's Watch miniatures. You MUST have them. That's a direct order from GRRM's wallet!

And so Martin gives us a little backstory as to how this small group of dissenters have prepared themselves. I like the sound of that word. Dissenters. It reminds me of something.
Then we launch into a quick reminder of the route the Night's Watch is taking - "the Milkwater would take them past the Fist of the First Men, the ancient ringfort..." Hey it's a fort again now.
Lots of reminders then, so that a reader can enjoy this book without having to go back and re-read A Clash of Kings. No worries, mr. Martin. You have created the second-most eminently re-readable series in fantasy literature.

We also get Chett reflecting on the plans the leadership is making. Summed up, Chett thinks they are kind of stupid. They are three hundred, the wildlings are reported to be thirty thousand. So far, Chett seems a rather reasonable fellow doesn't he? Sparta! Seems the Old Bear (that is Jeor Mormont, in case you forgot) is about to be convinced of the plans too - to strike with three hundred against thirty thousand. Well, there are shadow baby assassins and dragons in the world, so I can't complain it sounds unrealistic to agree to such a plan. Chett fantasizes about Jon Snow being dead, and this is where we have to draw the line, Angryboils. You can't go about wanting to kill people for putting you in a bad situation. Try talking.

More is revealed; Chett has been starving his dogs to make them mean and hungry, which is part of the plan he's been concocting. He is going to let them loose on the horses, to create havoc in which him and the thirteen others can escape. Not much of a nice fellow then, this Chett. No consideration for his allies. Even more backstory as to how Chett recruited these thirteen people, and through these thoughts Chett clearly thinks of himself as cunning, priding himself that he's the brains behind it. He dreams of how he is going to kill Samwell Tarly, has already decided on what he is going to say to him. In one way, it would be quite interesting if Chett's plan succeeded. If not entirely, at least partially. Would the story improve if, say, Chett slew Sam? Maybe, maybe not. Chett has also considered what to do with the ravens, so it seems from the text that he really has been giving this plan some serious thought.

They decide to return to the others, the dogs pulling him along. On their way back they talk about what they are going to do once they are free, which is ironic of course, but also adds that little touch of realism, showing us the hopes and dreams of these desperate men. Desperate to flee the Night's Watch before it gets trampled down by thirty thousand wildlings. But, again, Chett demonstrates a certain cunning; when Lark talks about how he's going to make for the coast, Chett thinks to himself that there is no way that's going to work, but he doesn't share that thought. Traitorous fellow indeed, but also careful in that he stakes his own course, not trying to be influenced by the others. A quick sketch of his background is given (he grew up in place called Hag's Mire, so bad he doesn't want to return there again ever), which is just enough. It is kind of clear that Martin is filling up the space of the prologue with this backstory and Chett thinking about a variety of things (how he could be the next King beyond the Wall, the whores at Mole's Town...) because in essence the prologue's plot is one quick event to set the stage for the rest of the novel (just like the two previous prologues really - in A Game of Thrones, the event was the Others slaying Ser Waymar Royce, yet Martin filled out the pages with descriptions, background etc., in A Clash of Kings the central event was Pycelle trying to assassinate Melisandre and having the (painted) table turned on him). So, with this in mind, one should read the prologue as a mood-setter, building up the atmosphere, reminding us of what has gone before, and then hitting us in the face with the event.

Chett goes from understood to disliked to disgusting, by the way, as he reminisces about the whore he stabbed. The way he thinks about it, with utter lack of empathy and/or emotion, really puts the character over the line. We also learn through these thoughts that he is a man from the fiefdom belonging to House Frey, and being connected to the Freys definitely pushes him over the line. Interesting though, that the Martin gets in a little "Frey-hate" right here in the very beginning of the book that had us hate the Freys forever after. At any rate, seems Chett's plan is to go and take over Craster's keep - metaphorically speaking, Chett wants to become the next Craster. The new Craster. 

Finally there's some dialogue to break up all the introspection when Small Paul (kind of a cliché character isn't he, but thrown into this motley gang of thieves and rapists it's almost refreshing) asks about "the bird" - poor dimwit wonders who will feed Mormont's raven when Mormont is dead. Funny how much this question tells us about the inner workings of Small Paul. A simple mind. Lark's comment, "Small Paul, thick as a castle wall" momentarily takes me out of the story as it reminds me of The Hedge Knight, not that it's a big deal, it sounds like a good proverb and it isn't overused in this series like certain other proverbs. The banter between Chett, Lark and Small Paul is for me the highlight of the chapter, it's not much, but it's funny and you just have to like Small Paul.

Finally they come to the hill, near the archery range. They see Samwell (also known as Ser Piggy) practicing.  Anyone else reminded of The Lord of the Flies here? The way Chett disdains Sam? Chett sends the others on, he tells them he wants to watch this, in typical bully fashion. Chett laughs loudly as Sam sends his first arrow deep into the woods. Here, Martin guides the reader further into disliking Chett; he really isn't an amiable fellow. We get a Dolorous Edd classic in here too, by the way, as Edd complains about how he once lost a white horse and it was snowing. Too funny. Actually, I think his next line, which is overlooked compared to the first one, is just as giggleworthy: "I believe you knocked a leaf off that tree. Fall is falling fast enough, there's no need to help it." Also a blink-and-you-miss-it reminder from the author that autumn is here, and -wait for it - winter is coming. In fairy tale fashion, Sam misses his second shot, then gets a hit with the third. When Sam asks if it was a killing shot, Edd dryly replies, "Might have punctured a lung, if he had a lung. Most trees don't, as a rule." That's three dolorous classics in a row. 

I can't help but be reminded of 80's high school movies with Chett being the angry bully and Sam the helpless victim, and I can just see Chett screwing his face up when Sam eventually hits the target. And just like in those movies, Chett gets a comeuppance when Sam proves to be not that bad after all. The nerd wins, the jockey is shamed. Kicking one of his dogs in anger (always helps to kick defenseless animals to gain the readers' appreciation), he stalks off. Once on top of the hill, he goes to report to Mormont.

Notice how cool and detached Chett is. This is the guy who is planning total murder come nightfall, and here he just saunters up and delivers his report. Ominously, when he leaves the commander's tent, Chett thinks it feels colder outside. Any astute reader will know what that means. Martin spends some more time establishing this cold - and Martin adds, the wind was rising as the shadows lengthened, surely a sign that something's up. 'The cold winds are rising', indeed. Literally in this case. Martin draws it out, getting us to twilight, dropping small bits of mood, clearly setting us up for a creepiness. In fact, twilight is creeping through the woods by the time Chett sits down to edge his sword. Dogs whimper as the sun goes down, the wood is too silent according to Dywen, there are looks shared, and once again Martin lapses back into a calmer sequence where Chett does some thinking, only to have a sudden shout, "Assemble!" wake up both reader and characters. 

Night's Watch shirt! Mr Martin doesn't want you to buy this one. It's not official.
Funny thing here is, Martin is playing a little bit with us, turns out the shout is just the leadership gathering the soldiers for a speech. Pretty cool, isn't it? Reminds me a bit of the trickery used in horror stories to unsettle and bewilder; here you're reading and expecting shit to hit the fan at any moment, then it's just a quick jolt before the real nightmare. I like how Martin on occasion trickles in some other genre conventions into his work; we've had fairy tales, high fantasy, adventure fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, comedy, drama and so on and so forth. Mormont informs the gathered soldiers of Mance Rayder and his host that he has finally settled on what to do. And he is in fact going to go with the plan of attack. Three hundred against thirty thousand. In his speech, Mormont explains that of those thirty thousand, many will be children and women (hasn't heard of spear-wives then) so the actual number they'll be fighting will be less. Besides, the wildlings don't know they are waiting (though Chett thinks otherwise). 

So here Martin is baiting us again, taking our attention away from his setup (the cold winds rising) to the wildlings and war, masterfully done in this instance, in my opinion. Seems the soldiers aren't entirely on board with Mormont's decision; Maslyn sums up their feelings quite well: "We'll die." Mormont shrugs it off, saying that yes, many - maybe even all - of them will die. Then goes on to add that this is why they wear black. Which is funny. He is just quoting another lord commander, it is not the real reason why the Night's Watch wears black, of course. It is because of the camouflage, as you could see in episode five of the TV series, they were practically invisible against the majestic Icelandic backdrop. Or not.

The oath is spoken again, there on the hill by the three hundred brave warriors (minus fourteen). When the chanting is done, and the decision has been made, Martin takes us back to the ominous mood - Chett once again hears the wind picking at the ringwall.....hey, wait a minute. Am I an idiot or what? I've been complaining earlier about Martin not being able to decide on "ringfort" or "ringwall" and not until now does it occur to me that, you know, the ringfort has a ringwall. Slapping the face with a sloppy herring.

Speaking of herrings...you're not fooling me, Martin. I've read this book before, you know. The cold wind and the eerie silence is so holding my attention while all the talk about wildlings is just blahblahblah to mine ears. I know what you're up to. And it is just as spooky now as it was the first time. Me loves it. The wind sounding like the wailing of a child; ice caking his beard; snow begins to fall...this is Martin telling us, with certainty, that WINTER IS HERE.

The falling snow means the ruination of Chett's plans, of course: They'll leave footprints (not that it has been a problem before in the series that I am aware of; but then again, I keep forgetting that there hasn't been that much snow). Ironically, since (Jon) Snow has disrupted his plans before. 
Martin tightens the suspense now: Chett decides to at least go and kill Sam. Not thinking clearly anymore, then. Confused and angry, bereft of hope...Hilariously (if you're not a Chett fan), when he finds Sam's tent, the ravens inside begin quorking "snow". Poor Chett. If anyone hates snow in Westeros it must be him. And then, finally, Martin hits us with the real danger of the prologue.
Just as Chett is about to go and slit Sam's bacony (can I say that) throat, a horn begins, er, ululating. That's a nice word mr. Steven Erikson taught me. 

And well, the rest of the prologue is action. Sam wakes up to the sound in time, Chett complains as a second blast is heard that the wildlings have come, but then a third blast, er, ululates across the hill and that means the Others. Martin writes it superbly, interjecting dialogue into the situation, timing the description and sequence of events perfectly. Really it must be read and appreciated.

(Sam) spied Chett standing there.
"Was it two?" he asked. "I dreamed I heard two blasts..."
"No dream," said Chett. "Two blasts to call the Watch to arms. Two blasts for foes approaching. There's an axe out there with Piggy writ on it, fat boy. Two blasts means wildlings."
The fear on that big moon face made him want to laugh.
"Bugger them all to seven hells. Bloody Harma. Bloody Mance Rayder. Bloody Smallwood, he said they wouldn't be on us for another -"
The sound went on and on, until it seemed it would never die.

That's good stuff, isn't it? Martin maintains the illusion - through Chett - that we are facing wildlings, that's all Chett's really been thinking of isn't it - and then there's the third blast, changing everything - the point of no return, so to speak, of this prologue. Intense. And it isn't made clear whether Sam suspects why Chett is there in the tent. In true Westerosi fashion, Chett pees himself when he comes to the realization that the Others are coming for them. I noticed we had our first pee-in-breeches sequence (that I'm aware of) on TV as well this week. I have to say I love the guy playing Hot Pie, perfect casting and he acts really well.

What did surprise me on this tenth re-read (mind you, it's been a couple of years, maybe three or four, since last I visited A Storm of Swords) was that the chapter ends with Chett still alive. I was certain that the prologue ended with him being slain by an Other or some such. Strange how memories can play tricks on you. Although, in this case, it may also be the meme that Martin always kills off his prologue POVs. Well, Chett survives the prologue, so goodbye pesky meme. Not saying he'll live much longer beyond the prologue, but hey, he suvived until the final punctuation. Go Chett. Yay. Woo and hoo. 

It's good reading A Storm of Swords again. Hope to see you follow along as I delve into the first chapter proper next time. My memory suggests the first chapter is Jaime Lannister, so we'll find out then if I'm playing tricks on myself again, or if I remember correctly.

In the meantime, stay legal.