Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Uncritical fans: A liability for the quality of GAME OF THRONES the HBO series?



Now, in this little piece I will be referring to the Star Wars movies as well as A Song of Ice and Fire, but bear with me. There are similarities I need to explain to shed the proper light on what I am trying to say – that the forumites of Westeros.org, the so-called ‘premier’ website for A Song of Ice and Fire are endangering the quality of the remaining seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones series. The following thoughts occurred to me while sitting with my seven year old son, who is turning into something of a Star Wars fan and wanted me to draw pictures of Star Destroyers, Boba Fett and Yavin IV with him. As I was doodling I began to wonder (once again) what the upcoming Star Wars trilogy has in store. My son is anxiously looking forward to the new films while his dad can only hope it is going to get better than the prequel trilogy, which, in the words of those who defend the second trilogy, ‘raped my childhood’.




All right, let’s see if I can present this in a readable manner. As a child, I became a fan of Star Wars, sometime between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. In the years that followed I played with my toys and made up my own stories and wondered about the backstory like most other fans of the original trilogy. There were many references to this backstory in the original films, most obviously in lines such as Princess Leia’s “General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars”, or Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “For a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic” (taking this out of my head so apologies if the quotes aren’t entirely correct).




When the news hit – hard in the gut – that Lucas was making the prequel story a reality, I became very excited (putting it mildly); as the years went by and news of the production began to trickle in, I became more and more hyped, pumped, and even though I had outgrown my toys I began buying toys again – and everything else Star Wars I came across. At that time, the mid-nineties, I was rather uncritical and expected gold. I became a member of theforce.net’s forums. Now, theforce.net is to Star Wars what westeros.org is to A Song of Ice and Fire. There, I found a home where I could meet up with other fanatics discussing the finer points of the original movies and speculate about what was to come. I became obsessed. And then, in May 1999, Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace hit the theaters. To make a very long story and thousands of posts at theforce.net short, I couldn’t find it in me to like much of the film. Others at theforce.net also showed their dislike. Points were made, discussions flared into flame wars, and from then on, the Star Wars fan base became divided between the “gushers” (those who ‘defended’ the prequel movies) and “bashers” (those who ‘attacked’ the prequels). This led to the establishment of the infamous “Basher’s Sanctuary” threads, in which “bashers” were allowed to vent their frustration, anger, disappointment, what-have-you over the prequel movies, safely out of sight for the “gushers”. If you, as a basher, ventured out of the virtual prison that was one thread to comment on other threads you were warned, given a timeout, or banned. Myself, I was banned after 5000+ posts when some person made a post about the original Star Wars movie not being all that. I couldn’t resist and put up a post countering that person’s observations with my own – and bam! Banned for defending the original, the very original Star Wars (all right, I may have peed a little bit on the prequels while doing so). One after another, “bashers” were banned so as to be driven away from theforce.net, presumably because showing a divided fanbase wasn’t good for the franchise (I remember a heated discussion as to whether theforce.net had been contacted by Lucasfilm).




Now, why all this nerdy history? Because it happened again, at westeros.org. A Feast for Crows is published, and many readers (myself included) aren’t all that happy with it, begin discussing its flaws as well as its merits, and what happens? As if by magic, dissenting opinion is first removed quietly (deleted posts and threads), then people are given timeouts, and finally people are banned – driven away from the premier site. Dissent not tolerated, because well, it won’t look good to newcomers if people are complaining instead of praising the book. Interestingly, when A Dance with Dragons was published, the first week or so the boards over there were flooded with mild “bashing”, before any and all threads with a negative slant were automagically gone.




There’s a reason we folks over at Is Winter Coming? call the ‘premier’ website Censoros.




So here we have two examples of divided fanbases, with one side not being allowed to speak up (until they skulk off to make their own website – which happened in both cases). So even though the majority of the geek world agree that the Star Wars prequels are crap, and that A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons likewise are subpar, the two prime forums for these two franchises pretend as if nothing’s wrong.




And that’s where my thoughts led me while I was drawing with my son. I was thinking of Star Wars: Episode Seven, and first I thought “it can’t be worse than the prequels” and THEN I thought – wait a minute, if they go check out what fans think at theforce.net, they’ll be thinking that the prequels are actually well-liked! There are people claiming that Jar Jar Binks was a good idea. There are people who actually want Hayden Christensen to return as ghost-Anakin in Episode VII (my apologies if you are one of them). I mean, art is subjective and all that, but sometimes bad is bad. There is a lot of delusion out there. I believed myself, after the first viewing or two of The Phantom Menace, that it wasn’t all that bad. Little did I know that the next film in the series would be even worse (another similarity: I had the exact same feelings with regards to books four and five of Ice and Fire). When all negative opinion has been erased, there is no balance to the Force. If J.J. Abrams checks out theforce.net – and why should he not – it is the largest gathering of star-nerds on the web), he’ll scratch his head and think that maybe the prequels were loved by all Star Wars fans. Recently they hired, among others, Doug Chiang for Episode VII. Chiang was the lead designer for the disastrous prequels. That’s a pretty bad omen for a hardcore warbasher like myself. Of the countless things that went wrong with the prequels, surely the design was one of the biggest culprits. Compare the interiors of the two trilogies’ main starships (as an example). Which one looks real, feels real, seems lived in?




With all dissenting opinion removed from westeros.org as quickly as it appears, Game of Thrones producers Weiss and Benioff face the same (invisible) problem. “Everybody” loves absolutely everything Martin puts out, and that seems to include things coming from his lower regions. Brienne of Tarth’s pointless journey in A Feast for Crows becomes a glorified epic full of hitherto unknown depth and quality; Jon Snow’s character arc in A Dance with Dragons isn’t about excitement it’s about the human condition – it’s lit, man.

In an interview last year D&D admitted they hadn’t been aware of the so-called “shadow sites” (I suppose that includes Is Winter Coming?) and that there were people angry with Martin for a variety of things. It means they have been focusing solely on the input at westeros.org entirely unaware that not everyone finds the developments in the last two books to be satisfying or even close to the quality of the first three. They might believe that season five or six will be best served by showing us Brienne farting around in the riverlands looking for Sansa in each episode (although they have the luxury of moving things around so that the new viewers actually don’t know where Sansa is at the time). They might think that the increasing violence and sexual awkwardness in the series is “inspired”, or “realistic”, and keep it that way, potentially scaring away viewers by sheer offense (suppose the Theon/Jeyne/Ramsay/dog scene was in the first season..)




All I can do is trust D&D to see and read the books for what they are. I cannot believe that they can be delusional about these books – there’s too much at stake – and they will have to see that there is much less material to work with (three pages of describing the food available in the Night’s Watch stores does not magically turn into good TV, nor does endless repetition, sidetreks without a point, people standing around for entire chapters etc.) I respect your right to claim you think the two last books are good, but I dare you to say the last two books are good fodder for TV adaptation. They just aren’t.

Ironically, one of the westeros.org gangleaders is quite vehemently bashing the TV series and for some reason that is not frowned upon over yonder – but say, jokingly, that Martin will need another century to finish a book, and you’re banned for life. There is a lot of hypocrisy going on, a lot of bullshit pure and simple, but this little rant isn’t about all the things that have gone wrong with Ice and Fire. I’m genuinely worried that by only heaping praise and glory on Martin and his two latest books, it may lessen the TV show as well because there’s nobody telling D&D that Brienne’s story in Feast should be condensed to one or two scenes, Varys is totally out of character in the Dance epilogue, or Daenerys lounging in Meereen is as interesting as reading Martin’s blog updates.




You’ve got to be intellectually honest about it. You can say that, yes, Pate’s prologue in Feast isn’t very interesting but I sure liked to see Oldtown – you don’t have to say that the prologue was exciting or well written just because it was Martin’s. You don’t have to go to amazon.com and throw in one-line “reviews” giving Dance five stars just because you feel bad for Martin. That’s not honest.




To wrap it all up, I still have hopes for the TV series. It seems D&D have some measure of control over things, but they’ll have to cut a lot of excess fat from books four and five (honestly – because you can’t have Dany talking to people with similar unpronounceable names for ten episodes, you just can’t) which in turn will lead to leaner seasons which in turn will lead to Martin getting behind with his writing which in turn will lead to the TV series wrapping up the saga before the author, which is a situation I’m sure none of us want. On the other hand, not allowing dissenting opinion on the biggest website dedicated to the story generates an unbalanced view of things.

Why not allow all opinions – Ramsay Bolton is a cute, misunderstood boy, Ramsay Bolton is the most interesting character, Ramsay Bolton is a perverted psycho, Ramsay Bolton is a projection of Martin’s inner wishes, Ramsay Bolton sounds like he’s from Bolton or somewhere, Ramsay Bolton better get his comeuppance…why can’t opinions clash? Because of the money these sites generate for the creator of the franchise? Is that it? Is it?




Will Star Wars Episode VII be more like the prequels than the originals? Will The Winds of Winter be more like the first three or more like the last two? Time will tell.




Be critical. Be skeptical.




Whew, now it’s time to do something useful. I just had to get this off my chest. I’m worried about both franchises’ futures (in case you couldn’t tell).

What if westeros.org allowed a forum section, perhaps hidden or password-protected, for those who think Darkstar isn’t the coolest character ever? For those who’d like to opine that the story has gotten away from George, or that the story has become bloated, or the increasing perversities present in the tale are lessening its quality? A place to be critical and skeptical? Not that I need it. It’s too late for that now, anyway, innit.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A most tragic bloodletting

Aaand we have our first in-depth look at Martin's latest offering. In my last post I mistakenly called it The Princess and the Queen, but apparently the full title is (don't hold your breath while reading it)

The Princess and The Queen, Or, The Blacks and The Greens: Being a History of the Causes, Origins, Battles, and Betrayals of the Most Tragic Bloodletting Known As the Dance of the Dragons, as set down by Archmaester Gyldayn of the Citadel of Oldtown ((here transcribed by George R. R. Martin))
Yeah, what can I say? It doesn't sound very promising. And what the fuck is that ((here transcribed by George R.R. Martin)) doing to my sense of immersion?!

For a very detailed look at Martin's latest return to the world of Westeros, clickety-click right here. Personally I don't really feel it, as I've said before, I don't really care so much about the Targaryens and their history, but as the author of the review reveals, there are some interesting bits in there pertaining to the "real" saga, most notably that dragons refuse any rider not of Targaryen blood. Insert drum roll.

With that piece of fiction out of the way, though, I can only imagine Martin continuing his diligent work on The Winds of Winter.

Here is an actual sample of the text.

Monday, July 29, 2013

[Re-read] Davos III: Down in the Dungeon


PART ONE OF TWO

So, I've kind of settled back into routine over the last day, and have, since the previous post, realized that what Martin is giving us in the upcoming anthology Dangerous Women isn't a story at all - but rather cliff notes related to a dynastic war pre-A Game of Thrones. Certainly an appetizer for the Targaryen loyalists among us, but frankly I'm not really feeling it (but then I'm a Lannister loyalist kind of). It feels like Martin is focusing in the wrong direction. I refuse to believe that many fans of the series are particularly interested in the history of House Targaryen as opposed to, say, the characters and events surrounding House Stark, House Lannister and/or House Baratheon, the three houses that always were the most integral to the most interesting parts of the plot. 
The publishing of these particular notes - The Princess and the Queen - also reinforces that lingering suspicion that Martin has lost interest in A Song of Ice and Fire except the Targaryens and their back story (maybe he's become fascinated or enthralled by "building" their history, much like J.R.R. Tolkien was enchanted by the creation of the Silmarillion legends); and it doesn't really help that in the last years we've seen Mr. Martin being excluded from another anthology (and that's the one I guess the fourth Dunk & Egg story was supposed to appear), had to have others step in to finish editing work for him, that his contribution (lack thereof) to The World of Ice and Fire has postponed that particular volume for years (all the while he's busy making up small nuggets of, you guessed it, Targaryen backstory)... I don't find it particularly strange that people grow more and more suspicious of the author's motives. I find it strange that it's taking so long for people to catch up, perhaps. But now, even HBO executives are asking Mr. Martin to write faster. One can only shrug and think of the past thirteen years spent waiting with varying degrees of excitement for more ice and fire...

...or one can sit, isolated, in a warm and dark cell, like Davos Seaworth does at the beginning of this third chapter of his. His situation is reminiscent of Lord Eddard Stark's in A Game of Thrones. The now headless lord of the north was also spending time in a dungeon, in a King's Landing. I'm pointing it out because I've mentioned before that the characters of Dave (can I call him that?) and Ned are similar in many ways (stoic, trying to do the right thing, bearded) and here is another similarity. So even if we lost Ned in the first book, we were given Davos so the character type lives on. I still feel that Davos should have been given a characterization more befitting his profession/character class, though - he's an ex-smuggler, but he sounds like a noble goody-two-shoes. No swearing, no cunning or stealth (that I can think of at the moment, at any rate). But now I'm ranting about Dave instead of getting into the chapter. 

In the opening paragraphs of the chapter, Martin tells us that the passageways below Dragonstone are "always warm", and - as Davos has heard it said, in the darkness below it gets even warmer. It sounds like they built Dragonstone over the gate to hell, then - but seriously, this passage(way) has me curious: Why does Martin bother with this information if there's not something more to it? We know Winterfell has hot springs giving warmth, but it seems that at Dragonstone, the warmth remains a mystery to the inhabitants. Martin safes by making it "hearsay" though - but Dragonstone is a location in Westeros that comes rather close to ye olde fantasy castle complete with dungeons below (and I mean dungeons as in Dungeons & Dragons) - mayhaps there are traps and fire elementals and loot below? Old tales say that the stones themselves were "stones of hell"; can't be a recent story since the south believes in seven hells (as if one isn't enough), but we also know that legends often twist the truth, so my suggestion for now is that this story is telling us that Dragonstone is built with stone brought over from old Valyria. Dragonstone is the only remaining Targaryen stronghold after the Doom. Guess I have to move on. But Dragonstone is an intriguing location, it feels more fantasy-like than many other castles in Westeros. I hope we'll see more of it in future installments of the series, should they be published.

We're told that Maester Pylos tends to Davos' wounds and one day he feels strong again. We're told about the two gaolers in charge of his imprisonment though I fail to see that they have any impact on the plot, so its just some coloration. Of course, one can argue that they are there so Martin can describe some food they bring to Davos. 

With this chapter, Martin faces the same problem he did with Ned back in A Game of Thrones: how to keep it interesting when the POV is sitting in a dark cell without, well, anything. Well it's not really a problem, its more a matter of having enough useful things to tell us while the character is isolated, so much of a chapter like this will be inside a character's head, thinking on past and future - until someone shows up for the character to interact with, obviously. It makes for what feels like rather short amounts of time spent in prison and you never get that feeling of being locked up for a while because Martin has to move on or the character's story will stagnate quickly (herein lies the problem - I'd like to feel the imprisonment, but you can't keep the reader interested that long). So you get descriptions like "Neither sun nor moon shone in the dungeons" which isn't all that surprising and feels like an unnecessary thing to write (it feels like padding, and it is padding to give the illusion of imprisonment at least for a little while). 

Suddenly Martin breaks his own narrative style with a present tense authorial intrusion (it feels like it, anyway; forgive me if I'm off): "A man grows lonely in the dark, and hungers for the sound of a human voice." It almost feels as if Martin looks up from the book he's reading, staring me right in the eyes as he reads this line (nasally). Like, you must understand, dear reader, that a man grows lonely in the dark... before continuing in Davos' past tense POV. A small, but jarring moment there. 

He continually asks the gaolers questions but doesn't receive answers from them. After a while, Davos realizes they mean to keep him alive ("Oh really?" Maester Pylos said, shaking his head ruefully. "Must be the milk of the poppy slowing your wits.") 
And then Melisandre appears, choosing red for the occasion, eyes gleaming, and every reader dulled by the (I admit short) descriptions of imprisonment are shocked back into interest because you just know that when two characters of opposite alignments meet in this series, it's going to be rife with good dialogue and perhaps a shocking revelation or two.

She tells him that the torch burning in the wall sconce is all that stands between him and the darkness, callingmade for a single purpose: To keep the darkness at bay. Davos says he doesn't believe that. At least he holds to his convictions. He knows she wants to hear him say "yes", but he just can't do it (echoes of Ned). Oh, here we get a little more to make us understand Davos' position: He sees the "miracle" (if you'll allow me to use that word) of the shadow assassin's birth as quite the opposite, a foul thing, leading to another great line: "You are the mother of darkness." Awesome. So here we have a mother of darkness, and to the east we have a mother of dragons. Are there more parallels (we know Martin likes them parallels)? Catelyn is the mother of, uhm, dead kids? Cersei is the mother of three? Anyhow, what if we put Melisandre square in the middle? To the far right you have Ice (Jon Snow, Bran Stark), in the middle we have Melisandre, and to the far left you have Daenerys. If we assume Melisandre is more of a shadow thing, I mean - the confusing thing is that Melisandre kind of enters the story after it is firmly established that we have the two opposing forces of ice and fire, but Melisandre represents the factions of darkness and light. Should we assume that ice = darkness (which suits the Others and the wights just fine) and light = fire (which suits the Targaryens)? If so...and now I'm scratching my head (again). And where do we place the Seven in all of this (especially the Stranger)? For all the detail and complexity that works like a well-oiled engine in this series, Martin is kind of losing me when it comes to the religions and the gods. So I'll just shut up about that now since there are far cleverer readers than me around the web coming up with interesting, convoluted, eyebrow-raising theories.
the fire a gift of R'hllor. The interesting thing is that Davos has already seen Melisandre's powers and should be, if not already converted, at least a little bit in doubt as to R'hllor's existence. Of course, she can be a witch who uses her magics in the red god's name, but still... we're talking medieval society, a low-born smuggler and a very convincing priestess here. When he begs her not to douse the torch, she is satisfied and says he has "come to love the fire" which is a nifty little line o' dialogue, but he tells himself he is not going to beg her. Melisandre tells him she is an instrument of R'hllor - like fire -

Part Two coming up whenever I find more time. Right now, Baby Slynt is crying and I mean that in the shrieking, ear-piercing way and Lady Slynt is not in the house so yeah there you go now you know why this chapter has been split into two posts very interesting is it not? Next: The way the world is made!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Home is where the geek is

It's good to be out in the wider world with the family on vacation, but it is also nice to come back home. I did feel some Internet abstinence while I was away, but not as bad as I expected. Goes to show that life is more than the Internet after all.


Since I've been away with people not remotely where I am geek-wise, there has been little geekery, though. I received an extra memory card for my smartphone from a brother-in-law, which allowed me to port my PDF collection of Dragon magazines to it, so I've been reading old issues of Dragon whenever I wasn't too full of beer or was doing stuff with the family (years ago, I bought the Dragon Magazine Archive set of CD-ROMs, and I'm still having fun with it). 

Also, while in a city, I found a geek store and there I bought a few cute dice which have been rattling in my pockets since. When you're out in real life and a fantasy fix is desired, just put your hand in your pocket and touch those dice. Worked for me. Now, if I only had more people around me who actually enjoy games using dice like these...but they are so far away, so far away. Sigh. Look at those cute dice, just begging for a good old roleplaying yarn.

Coming back late last night I felt like I *had* to go online right away in case I had "missed" something. Of interest to me personally was that tor.com have released excerpts from the upcoming Martin-edited collection Dangerous Women, and the site promises an excerpt from Martin's own piece as well (I thought we were getting a fourth Dunk & Egg novella but this The Princess and the Queen - stuff sounds like something different). Not a very inspired title if you ask me, but then again you aren't asking.

In other news John Williams is scoring Star Wars episode VII, which I suppose is a good thing if they can let him do his thing and not cut the music the way they did in the prequels which was frankly terrible. And Ed Greenwood's released two more lore articles for his Forgotten Realms. And there's been some Game of Thrones season 4 casting, including Ellaria Sand. 

So I haven't missed much, and I had a great time away (except when my oldest son convinced me to join him in a rather fast and furious roller coaster - I'm getting too old for these things). But winter is coming...but fortunately not quite yet. I'm off to another country soon before I'm going back to work. I can't complain, I have a very long summer holiday compared to many others but they still pass by so fast it breaks the heart (I like freedom). 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lannisters floundering

Last night I finally - finally - got the chance to play a game of Battles of Westeros, a game I purchased years ago in some small board game shop in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Since then, it has been standing proudly - and unplayed - on a shelf. That is, until last night. 
A brother-in-law came visiting and turned out interested in the game. I warned him it was going to be more complex than your average game of Yatzy, but we dived in anyway. 

I (uhm, naturally?) picked House Lannister and he was House Stark. We looked through the rules quickly, realized it was going to be a long night, then proceeded to setup the board for a scenario named "Clash on the Kingsroad", according to the game the simplest so-called 'battle plan' to play. There was some head-scratching but once we sorted the million little pieces into piles we began to get an idea of what was going down (seriously, there are so many pieces). 

So the Starks, under the leadership of commander figures Maege Mormont and Rickard Karstark, were
The fords were most of the slaughter was done.
going to defend a river crossing near the Kingsroad, while I had to capture two areas held by the Stark host, using cavalry and footmen under the command of Ser Addam Marbrand and Lord Kevan Lannister. As we plodded along making sense of the game's structure and figuring out when you could initiate engagements, how to use cards and tokens, and whether archers are allowed to fire into a unit already in battle with another enemy unit, we began to find the game's shape and to look for strategies and tactics.

Eventually, the river was running red with Lannister blood, as my men soldiers fell by the thousands (if you count one figure as, say, thousand guys) into the river by the fords, their corpses clogging the waters to create an unholy stench of death, their banners poles sinking to the river bottom, leaving only the once proudly fluttering pennants and banners to float in the stream. 

Only after the game ended did we realize that during setup, I had given my Lannister footmen the wrong rank - they should have been one rank higher, thus giving them an extra battle die every round which probably would have made the battles at the fords a little different.

Anyway, the Starks fought valiantly, with archers climbing a hill to assault my ford-crossing wrong-ranked soldiers from on high, Ser Addam Marbrand making a cunning attempt to cross the river near Maege Mormont to stab her from behind, and the War Host of the North using the road to rapidly setup a defense against the incoming Lannister cavalry....
...
as you can guess, the game was inspiring and fun, and felt like A Song of Ice and Fire's military engagements (though to be fair, the game would have been just as fun and atmospheric it was set in the real world's Hundred Years' War or War of the Roses). 

All in all a good night's fun - I think we played that scenario (while learning the rules at the same time mind you) for more than four hours, downing caffeinated soda and potato chips like there was no tomorrow...for the armies of Casterly Rock. The 'battle plan' book that comes with the game has nine more scenarios to try out, and there are even more online, but I think I want to try out the "Clash on the Kingsroad" one more time with properly ranked (experienced) footmen..

...in other geekery news I've been dabbling with Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition (the original is my favorite game ever, so it was only a matter of time before I tried this more recent incarnation), reinstalling Medieval II: Total War and well, I almost don't want to admit it, but read the first eight chapters of the final book in The Avatar Trilogy, the one called Waterdeep, not that the writing has improved since the second book but hey, everyone needs a guilty pleasure.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

1356

{From the author's website:}
Thomas of Hookton, a veteran of Crecy and many other battles, is the leader of a mercenary company of bowmen and men-at-arms who ravage the countryside east of Gascony.
Edward, Prince of Wales, later to be known as the Black Prince, is assembling an army to fight the French once more but before Thomas can join, he must fulfil an urgent task.
A fascinating hero and the pursuit of a sword with mythical power,thought to be concealed somewhere near Poitiers – Go with God and fight like the Devil….in 1356.


Is it just me or are the summer days flying by faster than they used to? I've just returned home from a trip across the country, having spent some time in a cabin which allowed for some time to finish 1356, Bernard Cornwell's novel about...well it isn't really about that year per se; there is a significant battle (Poitiers) taking place but story-wise it wouldn't really matter whether it was set in 1356 or 1362. Because it is fiction, with medieval history - and that famous battle - as the backdrop. The author makes it clear in an afterword what was real and what he invented, which made it clear that most of the interesting stuff (aside from said battle) was mostly invented. 
And it is a nice book to read, and I believe that fans of A Song of Ice and Fire will find Cornwell a stimulating read, especially if you're a fan of the medieval side of Martin's story-telling. There are knights, there are somewhat-outlawed-but-cool-good-bad-guys (the Hellequin), chivalry and not-so-chivalrous acts, insidious scheming, torture, and so on and so forth - the stuff that inspired Martin in the first place. 
It is not nearly as well-written as Martin's books, though - at times it reads like a lecture, and Cornwell doesn't use the limited first person POV Martin excels at - and which I miss when I read stuff like this. For example, the main character is a likable enough rogue, but Thomas of Hookton never really comes alive the way, say, Jaime Lannister does, because we only scratch the surface of the characters in 1356, never really getting into them, if you know what I mean. Instead, the author flits through characters at will, presenting their thoughts when necessary (sometimes it gets confusing) - its the same style (I believe they call it omniscient?) as the Forgotten Realms books I've been reading and it's really jarring when you've gotten used to the styles employed by Martin, Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Erikson et al (yes they differ in style but somehow they convey character so much more efficiently).
In the end, the book will probably satisfy medieval history fans more than Ice and Fire fans (maybe); still, the framework of this work would have been so nice to see written in Martin's prose (sans the endless food descriptions). A recommended read, then. It could easily have delved deeper into character and plot, it's rather short (at least if you're used to fantasy) but at the same time it gives a good look at medieval times. 



Thursday, July 4, 2013

[Re-read] Bran II: No cure for elusiveness


Holy imps and opossum shrimps, I haven't actually re-read a chapter from A Storm of Swords since Tuesday, May 21st! I do bow my head in shame, folks. That's too long. It's been three busy months, though, I have to say, but still - inexcusable.

As I said in my previous post, I have a hankering for some high quality fantasy prose (as opposed to the drivel I've been reading - purely for educational purposes mind you). Anyway, we've come to the second Bran Stark chapter (kind of weird that the TV series has come farther than I have, I do hope Martin won't have to get intimate with that feeling).
"I love you, Hodor." "Hodor?"
, so that's a good an excuse as any to get back into George R.R. Martin's well-written world of Westeros (I did stand by one of my bookshelves earlier today slobbering over my Steven Erikson collection, wanting to just tear into the Malazan saga again but when you see all those fat books lined up next to each other you realize it's such a massive undertaking, and no matter how cool they are, there are still so many other fantasy novels to explore)

Ah, reading those first lines of description in this chapter, which establish mood and setting, is refreshing after the clumsily written Tantras. It's not typical Martin to open with an entire paragraph of landscape description, but then, as I've mentioned before, the Bran Stark - chapters come perhaps the closest to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings both in style and atmosphere, so there's that. The opening of this chapter could have been in Tolkien's classic (if it were twice as long):

'No roads ran through the twisted mountain valleys where they walked now. Between the grey stone peaks lay still blue lakes, long and deep and narrow, and the green gloom of endless pine woods. The russet and gold of autumn leaves grew less common when they left the wolfswood to climb among the old flint hills, and vanished by the time those hills had turned to mountains. Giant grey-green sentinels loomed above them now, and spruce and fir and soldier pines in endless profusion. The undergrowth was sparse beneath them, the forest floor carpeted in dark green needles.'

That's quite a lot of scenery description from mr. Martin! Also, I am convinced if you asked twenty randomly generated people where this description comes from, a good percentage would answer either "I don't know" or "The Lord of the Rings". Anyway, Martin does a nice job giving us a clear mental picture of the localities, so that we can go on reading about the characters. The now broken fellowship (ahem) is still on its way north, there's a reference to Martin's short story The Ice Dragon (it also features in this book as a constellation), we quickly move into Bran's perspective as he wonders where Osha is (along with the rest of the readership I suppose), some name-dropping (fat Lord Manderly who will become so much more prominent, and the Greatjon lest we forget him), Meera Reed is getting a bit bored with the whole journey-on-foot thing as she complains, "Up and down, then down and up. Then up and down again". They should be glad they don't have that annoying donkey from Shrek with them. Bran retorts that she had said earlier that she loved mountains, so why is she hating on them now? To which wise little Meera responds, "Why can't it be both?" and so we have Martin touching on the series' essence in a subtle way - ice and fire, why can't it be both? "Like night and day, or ice and fire," Meera says (so maybe we're not being so subtle after all come to think of it) - and then we have little grandpa adding, "If ice can burn, then love and hate can mate," and now why would Martin add this little nugget in here? Reading between the lines, one could almost say we are looking at an early hint that we'll see a certain two hook up - a certain bastard of the North and a certain mother of dragons. Or, what this dialogue may imply, there will be no future for Westeros if not Jon and Dany can cooperate. Their differences must not matter - they are one. 

There's bound to be a little mumbo-jumbo in Bran's chapters of course (and much more to come in that department!), contrasted with the mundane task of traversing the high glens forcing them to double back and slowing them down. We are reminded that Summer is with them, and Hodor carrying Bran in his basket. Jojen Reed has decided that they will stay away from the roads so as to not be seen (wise decision I'd say). When Meera asks if nobody lives in this desolate countryside, it's time for ye olde exposition, courtesy of Bran who knows a lot considering his age. Good upbringing. We hear of the Umbers and the Wulls, the Harclays and the Knotts and Liddles and Norreys and the Flints, which in turn leads us to some more tantalizing bits of background story - Meera recognizes the name "Wull", because a Wull rode with their father during the war (Robert's Rebellion, that is); "Theo Wull," Jojen confirms, and any Ice and Fire fan eager for juicy lore is of course all ears by now. Not that there's much we learn, but it could always become essential later on. Buckets and stuff. Bran knows already that the mountain folk already know that the fellowship is wandering through their lands - he has seen them through Summer's eyes.

They meet one mountain person, Bran thinks he is one of the Liddles because of a clasp shaped like a pinecone, which is the sigil that family has adopted. Incidentally I was mowing the lawn the other day and a damned big pinecone got stuck between the blades. A curse on the Liddles! Bran asks the stranger if they are close to the Wall, to which he replies - in a very Tolkienesque manner I may add - "not far as the raven flies" (which of course is ironic too, considering Bran is going north to learn to fly). There is one line that makes me suspicious about this Liddle guy, however - take note: 

"The Bastard's boys, aye. He was dead, but now he's not. And paying good silver for wolfskins, a man hears, and maybe gold for word of certain other walking dead." 

Curse you, disruptors of gardening.
Liddle is telling Bran that not only are the Greyjoys about, but the Boltons have become enemies as well - so far, so good. Liddle is also hinting that the Boltons are looking for Bran. But what really makes me itch here is the way the Liddle says, "a man hears" and how this Liddle knows all about the various bounties being placed - to me, he sounds like, you guessed it, a Faceless Man. However, in the very next dialogue from this character he talks about "me mother" which definitely doesn't sound faceless-ish, so maybe I'm jumping at shadows. The Liddle does know a lot for being a random wanderer in them high glens, though! He knows what happened up at the Fist of the First Men as well as what happened at Winterfell. He knows about the Greyjoys and the Boltons. And he sounds despondent and bereft of hope - so it's nothing but sheer coolness when Jojen brings up the retort "The wolves will come again". I just wish Bran had said it, with eyes narrowed and the hint of a Summerly snarl in his voice. That night they huddle together with the Liddle in his cave, Bran spending the night inside Summer. In the morning, the mysterious Liddle is gone, but has left some nice oatcakes (lembas anyone?) and Bran tells himself that one day the Liddles will be repaid a hundredfold for "every nut and berry" (baked into the cakes); will we see this come to pass? Or will we get a scene where a Liddle says, "we don't know a guy like that?" and the stranger is indeed a faceless man? I can only ponder and speculate and hope that we will see an end to this magnificent tale of ice. And fire.

The travelogue continues as they follow a trail and by noon the sun breaks through the clouds, and you would be forgiven for forgetting you're in Westeros and not Middle-earth. There's an eagle in the sky (Orell's eagle scouting?) and Bran tries his best to warg into it, but it doesn't work (because it's already "possessed"?) 

And now for some exposition on none other than Hodor! Hodor! I love how Martin through thousands of pages has stuck to his bastard swords and not be tempted to have Hodor suddenly talk coherently - he has stayed the simple-minded giant all this time, never uttering anything but "Hodor". From the first time I met him in A Game of Thrones, I've always wondered about Hodor, and now Bran is going to give us a tiny tiny little bit more on this character: His real name is Walder. There you go. Oh, and he is in fact related to Old Nan, "She was his grandmother's grandmother or something." And that's all we get, a couple thousand pages into the story. But it's fine. I like that Hodor remains a mystery - and I suspect that Bran will find out more about Hodor in The Winds of Winter or the final book; I suspect he'll want to "go back" to listen to Old Nan's stories, perhaps? This could be hinted at when Meera comforts Bran by saying, "Remember the way she told them, the sound of her voice. So long as you do that, part of her (Old Nan) will always be alive in you." Bran can do one better, I suppose - he will have the power to actually see her again, kind of. If I read my A Dance with Dragons some years ago correctly, that is (I know I wouldn't have used that kind of power on Old Nan, though; I'd be more interested in following Arianne Martell around I guess; or go to a certain tower of certain joy to find out a certain something to sate my curiosity). 

Story-telling time commences as the group climbs the game trail between stony peaks (still evoking that Middle-earth feeling); first, we learn that the bogs around Greywater Watch are full of dead knights - could become a plot point, though the mention could be just to explain a little bit about the Reed home - I mean, either we learn that the Watch moves around and no one has ever conquered them and therefore the Reeds are still alive and kicking, or we'll get scenes where the dead in the bogs become part of the story - maybe they are resurrected R'hlorr-style?) - at any rate, the mystery of the Reeds is largely unresolved but it seems to me that the story has to feature Daddy Howland Reed at some point to wrap up certain plot points. Also, again Martin strays into Tolkien territory with the dead knights in the bogs reminding me not just a little of the dead marshes north of Mordor. Martin really is the American Tolkien, when he writes Bran Stark chapters. 

Anyhow, story-telling time isn't really about the bogs and the Reeds, it's Meera Reed's very interesting story of the Knight of the Laughing Tree. It is perhaps the most famous "in-world" lore, a story that has been dissected by fans for more than a decade, with people trying to draw conclusions on what it really is about (those elusive Reeds, they really are like the wizards of fantasy tales that never can say things outright, cloaking their words so that the hero doesn't really have a clue). The story of the Knight has been discussed so much, however, with everyone pitching in their arguments and thoughts, that the mystery of it is all but solved and there's no real disagreement about it anymore:

The "curious lad" who lived in the Neck, could breathe mud and run on leaves and make castles appear andare, Children of the Forest. Anyway, Howland was so bold that he decided to visit the Isle of Faces, where " the green men" live. Howland meant to find these green men. There's the most obvious hint that the character Meera talks about is in fact her father: Bran imagines the character as looking like Jojen, only "older and stronger". Apparently, Howland did meet the green men, but that's for another story - the point is that after having stayed on the Isle for a winter (for what, we do not know), he left and ended up at Harrenhal. Meera, being ever a bit annoyingly vague gives us descriptions that we can match with characters, at least if we've learned our House sigils and all that; there's the White Swords (aha, the Kingsguard), the king himself and his son the dragon prince (Aerys and Rhaegar), the storm lord (Robert), the rose lord (Mace), the great lion (Tywin) stayed away for he had quarreled with the king. Why is Martin being so obtuse about it? I don't know, but it does seem to work - by avoiding names it becomes more "mythic" if you will, there's an aura of mystery kept intact when told like this.
disappear is obviously Meera and Jojen's father, Howland Reed. Meera says they are a "small folk" and seldom venture far from home (again, Tolkien shines through as this could be used to describe hobbits as well) - this is a hint that the crannogmen descend from, or actually

Yeah, there's no point going through the entire story, I suppose anyone reading this is familiar enough with it, suffice to say that the story gives us the background for Howland Reed's friendship to Lord Eddard Stark; it gives us a glimpse of Ned's sister, Lyanna Stark and thereby some additional information to add to the "Promise me..." - plot points, there's a host of detail here, wrapped in that cloak of elusiveness, for fans to enjoy. Now, it's been a good while since last I read these books and so I can't, without cheating, say who the "porcupine" knight or the "pitchfork" knight was, for example, but the basics the story provides are easy enough to grasp. Was the mystery knight of the tale in fact Howland, or was it Lyanna? I don't think anyone doubts who it was, but Martin can still play with it, up until any final reveals of course. The story leaves open the option that Rhaegar did find the mystery knight which in turn gives credence to the rest of Lyanna's story and I guess that is why Martin included it. It is basically exposition on backstory in disguise, and it works fine just like that. And it clearly is important, as the tale of the Knight of the Laughing Tree simply concludes Bran's chapter, with Bran thinking that there was magic on the Isle of Faces (thus supporting the idea that Howland went there to learn green magic) and that he wants to find it too, and maybe one day be able to be a knight too (through magic) - what I am feeling here, using the Force, is that we'll have a scene where Bran actually witnesses the tale as it happened, and maybe, just maybe, we'll see him slip inside one of the knights at the tournament...? Will he learn that Lyanna Stark was the mystery knight, or was it Bran all along helping her out? Who knows? The tale of ice and fire has grown rather strange in the Bran department and the developments in A Dance with Dragons truly makes me reconsider almost everything I'm reading in these earlier Bran chapters. And it kind of annoys me, because I don't like this particular development, and yet there it is changing everything from A Game of Thrones onward in various ways.

Oh well, it was good to read something well-written and well characterized again. Next up is Davos Seaworth, who is currently reciding in a warm cell somewhere in the depths of Dragonstone. Geez, I have to hurry up I don't want HBO to be ahead of me. That goes triple for you, master of (s)wordplay Mr. Martin!

In case you'd like to revisit the Knight of the Laughing Tree's story and who was in it and who was not, I refer you to the Tower of the Hand's summary complete with footnotes explaining who's who. Maybe you too had forgotten the existence of Richard Lonmouth. 


Monday, July 1, 2013

Tantric secrets not really revealed

After a couple of days of chores around the house I finally found an hour to finish Tantras, the second book in The Avatar Trilogy by pseudonym Richard Awlinson. Where I found the first book in the trilogy, Shadowdale, somewhat entertaining, I had a hard time getting through Tantras. While I enjoy "seeing" places from the role-playing game come to (wooden) life - in this case the city of Tantras in particular - the story is weak, the characters are bland, and the writing is, and I almost feel bad about it for saying it because I do love the Forgotten Realms as a setting - simply atrocious. There are descriptions repeated so often (carrying over from Shadowdale) that I roll my eyes every time they appear, which means I'm rolling my eyes a lot, which in turns makes me dizzy. Which is not good. The main villain of the story, Bane, God of Strife, Black Lord and all that, comes across as the least intimidating, most stupid evil character I've read in a long time; it reminds me why I stopped reading Dungeons & Dragons-novels in the first place, many moons ago (in fact, when I was recommended A Song of Ice and Fire, my encounters with tales such as R.A. Salvatore's The Icewind Dale Trilogy and Weiss' Dragonlance-tales could have stopped me from accepting the challenge). 
This leaves me wondering whether I dare finish the trilogy with the third book, Waterdeep. Sure they are quick and easy but also so irritating in all their deficiency. They leave me wondering what Steven Erikson could have done with the plot outline. Now that would be interesting! Or George RR Martin for that matter. From my ventures online I realize that The Avatar Trilogy is among the lower ranked novels of the countless Realms novels so I am not giving up quite yet - I have three more Realms novels on the shelf, Evermeet: Island of Elves, Gauntlgrym, and Cormyr: A Novel - but before I begin those, I am definitely going to dive back into A Storm of Swords just to get some well-written fantasy again. I also have The Red Knight waiting which looks promising, and as always The Way of Kings. Buried beneath a veritable pile of Forgotten Realms sourcebooks, all of them more entertaining than Tantras, heheh. 
I know I should give you some examples of why Tantras is such a lousy read, but you know, time and all that. No, really; all the levels of wrong I could go into with this book. But that's not really what Stormsongs is about. So expect a new re-read post in the very soon.

In other news, my story The Hauntress did win the June Flash Fiction Contest over at SFFWorld, and so I have the honor of hosting the July Contest. For the theme I chose Dungeons & Dragons in the hopes to see stories of high fantasy that are actually well written. Back to the shelf with you, Tantras. A shame really. You have to read it to believe some of it. Almost Robert Stanek-level.