Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Song of Storm

Before I get on with my re-read and other Ice & Fire-related posts I just want to talk a little bit about a certain series of graphic novels / comic books that I have been in love with since I was a wee little boy living in Holland. When I was back last week, I realized I had missed the four latest releases in the series, and so I just had to bring them with me home, because the stories are so vividly creative, unusual and, well, I suppose I just can't stop when I have all the books that have come before - so with books #25 - #28 in my baggage I went home. Couldn't resist reading two of them on the plane, though. The series I am talking about isn't well known outside of a few European countries, but it has been published in the English language. The series is called Storm.
Storm is the titular character, the guy with the blood-tipped sword and the blaster in a holster. The red-haired almost naked lady is his companion through all his adventures so far. I believe her English translated name is Ember, but for me she will always be Roodhaar ("Redhair"), my first fictional love interest. As the image to the left might suggest, this is a series that takes a dash of Frank Frazetta-esque epic fantasy and mixes it up with space fantasy and science fiction (the blaster pistol), though through the course of the many adventures of Storm and Ember, there have been many genre mix-ups, from near- hard scifi to comedy, western, fairy tale, and much more. Basically, this series blows wide open the gates of genre and doesn't care one whit about it. It allows for very creative visuals, which for the most part of its long run was painstakingly painted by the masterful Don Lawrence (1928 - 2003). Especially in the early books, Lawrence painted some fantastic visuals, be it characters, monsters or locations, putting to life the sometimes very unusual ideas put forth by the writers (there have been many writers, more on them later). Some of the ideas I first found in Storm I later saw in other fantasy and science fiction books and movies; other ideas were reworked from other genres into Lawrence's operatic vision. Each album (or book, whatever you want to call it - a slim graphic novel) presented new adventures, new and exciting locations and foes, each image hand painted to give it a fantastic look. That look, by the way, was already presented in Lawrence's previous series of scifi/fantasy, which perhaps is better known - The Rise and the Fall of the Trigan Empire, basically a mash-up of Flash Gordan, the history of the Roman Empire, and the seeds of creativity that would later blossom fully in Storm.

My first encounter with Storm and Ember came when I was around eight years old or so, when I was given as a Christmas present, the seventh story in the saga, the album The Legend of Yggdrasil. The cover artwork blew my mind - what was this? A big freaking dinosaur-guy against some half-naked fellow, both with swords. David vs Goliath. The story was fascinating and brutal (perhaps too brutal for an impressionable eight-year old) and of course I now needed to get my hands on the six previous stories that had been published, because I didn't really understand how this all hung together.
There was time travel, swords but also firearms, certainly obscure language, arresting images, a seemingly complex back story I had to figure out, and in the end, the story also touched me emotionally.
Since then, I have been a fan of this series; it has changed a whole lot going forward, to the point that the most recent works feel like a different series using the same characters - the stories are the visions of several different writers, but they all manage to capture that which makes it so entertaining and above all, original (mostly in how the series mixes things up - some of the stories are really unoriginal in concept, but shine in execution - for example, the book I read last night is basically "Ember gets kidnapped, Storm must free her", a classic damsel-in-distress story (and not the first, unfortunately for Ember), but the way it's packaged in vivid creative ideas makes it stand out none the less).

Eventually, as I got my claws on the previous books and began collecting the series from book 8 and onward, I got the full story, and have been reading it ever since. Because the series is hand-painted, image by image, new books weren't published that often and I was able to keep up even after I left the fatherland behind. Many set pieces in my tabletop role-playing game campaigns have been borrowed from this series, and I once developed a space fantasy setting mixing up Storm with Star Wars which was quite fun for all involved (I believe).

The first book in the series was written all the way back in 1978, though an English publication wasn't published until 1982. The book is The Deep World, and is the first of nine books taking place in a far future, with astronaut Storm, lost in the red storms of Jupiter, returns to a forever changed Earth. In the sense that in this first book, Storm is a character from our near future ending up in our far future, the story is closer to science fiction than the space fantasy the series would later evolve into (by book ten, you will most likely have forgotten that Storm is a guy from Earth but for a few comments here and there). However, the far future of the Earth is one of barbarism and violence and sunken sea levels and the changes to the world are so radical it might as well have been a different planet. Still, I find it an inspired story. And the artwork takes it all to another level, of course.

So, the 21st century astronaut Storm appropriately ends up in the biggest storm of the solar system - the Great Red Spot on Jupiter - and when he comes home, Earth is but a barbaric primitive place, with some remains of its high tech past. Storm has ended up millions of years in the future, and is quickly captured by primitive sword-wielding barbarians and thrown in a dungeon. Here he finds another prisoner, Ember. Together they escape and end up in an underground power station which Storm recognizes as a relic of the past. He manages to get it running, which results in the seas being pumped back up from below, destroying the barbarians on their heels and leaving Storm and Ember to sail on a float into the horizon and further adventures. A simple story on the face of it, the genius lies in the way the story manages to sell its concept, and the many neat details that make the unusual setting come to life - such as the winged spiders. I still shiver as I think of them. It certainly isn't the best Storm story, but it sets up the next eight stories. Most Storm stories in this first cycle (later named The Chronicles of the Deep World) are self-contained, but books 4,5, and 6 can be seen as a trilogy.

One of my favorite Storm stories is book two, The Last Fighter (1979). I have read that one many times. It was the first Storm adventure written by the Dutch Martin Lodewijk, who would return to become the series' only writer for books 10 - 23 (or thereabouts). He is the most creatively mad of the Storm writers (and I mean that in a good way) although I guess he had to rein himself in here, when Storm is still on Earth. While the deluge Storm caused at the end of book two returned the seas to Earth, the Earth as he knew it is still a long forgotten memory and he has to get used to a lot of strange stuff. The Last Fighter runs a little closer to a traditional epic fantasy tale than science fiction, as Storm and Ember are picked up by a traveling circus where Storm is forced to become a gladiator. He can't refuse, as they put this terrible creature on his back. The creature has two powerful claw-like protrusions; if Storm so much as tries to think about escaping, snap and his head goes off. Such a neat little concept right there, which terrified me as a young one, obviously. And so Storm becomes a fighter, and later it is revealed that the caravan master has a specific plan - only the best fighters are allowed to enter an ancient dungeon (which is actually a stranded starship from the past - another neat detail) - each year, fighters are sent into the starship to try and conquer it, but so far none have returned. So what you get is basically a dungeon adventure, but with a twist. The story also allows for Storm to get into the starship with a group of other fighters, taking on that "fellowship" feel of high fantasy. All the while, Ember remains a prisoner so Storm doesn't think of running away. And she's being kept in a cage above a monster buried in the sand, predating the Sarlacc of Return of the Jedi as a concept by five years - only in The Last Fighter, the buried monster is actually the face of a giant man, hungry for flesh. There are so many neat ideas dressing up the basic plot, I still enjoy reading this tale (although, as I have aged quite a bit since I first read it, it doesn't awe as much these days). Most arresting image in this epic tale is the skeletal plain outside the starship - an endless waste of bones through which Storm and his companions must navigate before even reaching their destination. If you want to check out Storm and see if you're captivated by it, try The Last Fighter. If you like it, you'll like the rest. If you don't, I don't think it's worth bothering with Storm's adventures (even though the later adventures are radically different in many ways).

In the third story, The People of the Desert, Storm and Ember are once again captured - Storm is trying to make a sense of the world he has come to, and is still rather naive and not the hero he eventually turns into, and so he gets easily captured - this time to become workers in a strange mine out in the most glaring, harsh desert you can imagine. A plot involving almost Nazi-like experiments in creating an 'übermensch', bandits who have maintained and control flying vehicles from the distant past, salt storms and eventually Storm and Ember coming out as victors, flying off into the sunset on a speeder bike-like vehicle makes for another intriguing reading experience.

The next three books in the series - The Green Hell (featuring a disturbing jungle setting with an interesting frontier town nestled against a cliff), The Battle for Earth (taking the series back to a more science fiction-like approach) and The Secret of the Nitron Rays are one continuous tale in which Storm discovers that the reason Earth has been set back to barbarism is because humanity was attacked by a superior otherworldly race, the blue-skinned Azurians. Over the course of these three stories, Storm and Ember discover how the Azurians have kept humans down on a primitive level while they ruled the Earth as the overlords - and how, through Storm's knowledge of technology, humans can finally fight back and eventually oust the Azurians. It is a trilogy again full of weird ideas but with a more focused plot, eventually taking Storm to the Nitron Mines on the Moon where the fate of mankind will be decided.

I liked these three tales well enough, and I remember finding some of it scary even. There are some neat ideas, some provocative, and some predictable. It is not the strongest story line of the series, but it does answer the questions that have been unanswered since book one. The story takes the concept of low technology versus high technology and lets low technology win, just like the Ewoks bested the Emperor's best legions on the forest moon of Endor back in the day - only in Storm it is a more believable reversal of fortunes.

Which brings me back to book seven, The Legend of Yggdrasil, with which I began this series of comic books that have continued to inspire me. Storm, who has been looking for a way to get back to his own time, finally manages to get himself back to the Great Red Spot of Jupiter (by way of capturing the space-travel technology of the Azurians in book six), where he attempts to get back in time - only to be sent even further into the future (thus leaving behind the setting of books 1-6 in one quick stroke), the future where dinosaur men rule the Earth. Again, Storm and Ember must fight seemingly impossible odds. They learn of a device Storm might use to correct his time traveling mistakes, located on the south pole, and the book ends with the pair going there to find it.

Book eight, City of the Damned, featuring a stunning cover painting in true Frazetta-style, sees Storm and Ember approaching a massive, mushroom-shaped city on Antarctica, where new and strange mysteries await. Inside the city, a rot has corrupted it, effectively dividing the city in a dark and a light side. In this book Storm learns that a great tragedy befell the Earth right after he left his time. He still wants to go home though - his homesickness is strong - but as the city is assaulted he finally comes to realize that if he wants to live, he must accept living in the far, far future. He has Ember at his side, though.

In the book, the pair have to navigate the corrupt, dark part of town and here they encounter a number of disturbing obstacles, such as the grasping hands seen on the cover to the left, and a Darth Vader-like armored knight whose sword sheds bubbles containing flesh-eating monsters (told you it's pretty wild).

The ninth book is the final book in The Chronicles of the Deep World, the last story to be Earthbound so to speak - The Creeping Death (though a more accurate translation of the original title would have been The Slumbering Death if you ask me) is an adventure that takes Storm and Ember to what looks like Latin America for an adventure involving rivaling Aztec-like brothers and the reactivation of ancient nuclear missiles of terrifying size and power. With this novel, the quality of the artwork took a dip for some reason, and it would never reach the same heights as books seven and eight again.

With book ten, Martin Lodewijk became the permanent writer for Don Lawrence's Storm, and together they decided to move Storm and Ember off far future Earth (or the Deep World) and to a setting entirely of their own devising; the spectacularly creative, bizarre and sinister multiverse where the living planet Pandarve takes center stage, giving this new collection of tales The Chronicles of Pandarve. Storm has been discovered by the illustrious theocrat of Pandarve, Marduk. Because of Storm's time travels, Marduk takes a great interest in the former astronaut, and using some sort of intergalactic tractor beam he beams Storm and Ember to Pandarve - and the most creatively unique tales can start.

Each entry in The Chronicles of Pandarve, from book 10 and still going on today (albeit with new artists and recently also new writers), is a veritable explosion of quirky ideas covering relatively straight-forward plots. I'm not going to detail each and every book because this post is long enough as is, but it has to be said that at first I didn't really like this new direction, and only later have I warmed to it as I began to enjoy the weirdness of the setting. The duo of Storm and Ember becomes a trio in book 10 when the red-skinned warrior Nomad joins the group, and he has remained part of the story lines since. Several other characters (mostly enemies) make several appearances as well, giving all the Pandarve-set stories more unity than the first nine tales.

Among the strange, but cool ideas thrown around in these tales are lava-sailing steamboats, the aspect of a god taking on the likeness of Alice (from Alice in Wonderland), a journey through a mathematically created Death Star-like planetoid where Storm encounters Virgil (from Dante's Inferno) and an upside-down city (among many other things), synthetic ring worlds, gladiator-like games to the death fought on randomly sliding pillars, space with air in it (allowing sailing boats to move between planets), space whales, wind surfing on mountains so tall they jut into space, Eternal Princes kept alive by brain coral, a circus train running wild through a world that loops on itself, a robot human rights activist, battling the subconscious of a god-planet, and much and more. I could go on about all the ideas packed into these 50-page albums. One fun little detail is how Storm's introduction of the game of chess is transforming the culture of Pandarve and the nearby planets (including Eriban, a planet shaped like a crystal).

While the artwork has diminished and the stories in the most recent albums feel a bit more stale (how many more times can Ember be captured?) I'm still buying them, perhaps out of misguided loyalty, but also to spot any new fun ideas and concepts. The two albums I read yesterday, The Red Trail and The Mutineers of Anchor both felt very "safe" - in one, Storm is captured, in the other Ember - but there was still much fun to find within, like roller coaster-like launch pads for ancient machines that shoot you into a windswept ravine, a city seemingly made out of piping and tubes, and a "beggar assassin" on Storm's trail, but at the same time this series seems to need an injection of new plot threads and story lines.

All right, time for some finishing touches in my preparations for this weekend's epic tabletop role playing game session. The story that we began in 2005 is beginning to come together, and while the end is not in sight yet, at least a few plot threads might just finally get tied up. Have a nice weekend.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Martin made me do it

Well, all right. It's been a strange week. I finished Rogues, which is strange all by itself considering how fast I usually don't read. There was the tragedy in Ukraine, the day after I landed in Amsterdam, where I've spent the last week. Well, not in Amsterdam, but in the vicinity.

And now I'm home, and can check my blog properly. It's all a bit of a hassle writing on a smartphone, I think. So I logged on to write this post, only to note that the splendid author Mark Lawrence himself has visited my tiny corner. That is almost as awesome as his trilogy about Prince Jorg of Ancrath. Well, he was just pointing out I had my titles wrong, but still. An occasion I shall celebrate with a cold beer.

So, what did Martin made me do?
That's what I was really going to post about, before I was taken aback by said Lawrence's visit.

Well, as I've stated before, through A Song of Ice and Fire I ended up becoming enamored with the high medieval ages, finding a sudden interest in tournaments of chivalry, the politics and intrigues of the courts of medieval Europe etc etc. This has also led me to try and visit at least one medieval castle every time I'm abroad just to suck in the atmosphere.

This week I visited the castle Gravensteen (literally "dukestone"), a castle in the middle of the old city of Gent, in Belgium. Walking the towers, studying the armor and weapons on display and imagining being the victim of some of the instruments of torture not only is interesting on its own, it also feeds into that love for A Song of Ice and Fire and it inspires as well. For a moment there I wished I had a sword strapped to my belt and a flapping cloak. And for a moment I imagined scenes from the series playing out within the castle, and realized (once again) that I wished the TV series' King's Landing looked more like this. But I can deal with it, surely!

Without further ado, a few pictures from said keep.

Sigh, it's lovely, isn't it. Castles and armor and stuff and stuff. Makes me feel ready to get back to my A Storm of Swords re-read - but I've got a couple of things that I need to get done first, primarily I'm finally getting together with my buddies for a real around-the-table role playing weekend which we haven't had since...February or some such. Love those weekends of careless gaming, with dice clattering and our sordid imaginations trying to outdo Martin. Always.

Monday, July 21, 2014

[Rogues] Finished

Another book done.  Yes, I remain a slow reader but at least I read, keeping those brain cells fit. Nothing said about physical excersise.
And now I can really finish Mark Lawrence's excellent Prince of Thorns.

The final shorts in the anthology are by some of the biggest names in fantasy, but none of them entertained me as much as some of the earlier works in Rogues.  The young ones usurping the throne? Not that these last stories are bad or anything, not at all.

Rothfuss' lil' tale of Bast, known from the two hit novels The Name of the Wind and its sequel The Wise Man's Fear is the best of these, a sort of spin-off story that fans will appreciate. It gives us insight into the character of Bast,  whose dealings outside of the inn are curious, interesting and surprising, giving Rothfuss' setting a very fairy tale-like quality.  Fae is the word. Technically it hurts a little that the narration shifts between first and third person.

As for Neil Gaiman, this author really upset me when he came with his "GRRM is not your biatch" rant years ago. Gaiman came off as arrogant and belittling and not understanding what the fuss was really about.  Consequently, I haven't read anything by him since then, though I remember a time when I was in deep awe of the profound creativity of his main work, The Sandman.
His piece in the anthology is just as creatively weird as I expected, and the main character is pretty weird too - which made it hard to sympathize as a reader, making it harder to become immersed. Instead, the story feels gimmicky, in the sense that it was entertaining, but it didn't leave me with any feeling - wheras the fae tale of Bast still lingers - Gaiman never grounds his story, relying on his weird ideas alone. It never felt real.

I don't know if Connie Willis is as big a name but her story Now Showing certainly was a fun and different look at a near future where people are herded to massive cinemaplexes not realizing how they are being manipulated. Well written and fairly interesting, but with a distinct lack of that most precious of literary qualities .. epic fantasy.

I don't know who decides that Martin has to be the last entry in these last two anthologies, but I bet they reason that the big star at the end will be like the main attraction everybody reads toward. Well, in my opinion there's not much of a spectacular finale. Many of the early stories in the collection are much better and as such Joe Abercrombie deserves that headlining spot much more. Martin remains the most prolific of the authors, of course, but this truncated history lesson about Daemon Targaryen feels less vivid and inspired than the previous lesson in Dangerous Women. It's a slice of Westeros, but Martin is best when he's in a POV. So for the next anthology,  I suggest a chapter from The Winds of Winter or another Dunk & Egg tale. Or a chapter from, say, Ser Criston Cole's point of view. Texts like The Rogue Prince belong in a role playing game sourcebook, or Wikipedia or whatever. Oh, or The World of Ice and Fire: Up to Book Five at Any Rate of courses for horses. Still, all that being said, Daemon's quite the fellow, isn't he.

Friday, July 18, 2014


I was going to post a couple more impressions from Rogues now that I am reaching at last the main attraction by Mr. Martin, but the terrible news of the plane shot down over Ukraine, with body parts raining from the sky, has left me shocked and disturbed and sad. It feels so close when you were at the airport in Amsterdam the day before.
A tragedy that does nothing but give grief and sorrow and only escalates tensions the world is not served with.

It puts complaining about the lateness of a book into perspective.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

[Rogues] Lisa Tuttle: "The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives"

Lisa Tuttle is, of course, the author (authoress?) who collaborated with George R.R. himself on the novel Windhaven. Back in the day, when I had devoured the three existing Ice & Fire novels and I just didn't know what to do with myself because I needed moar, moar, moar, I bought Windhaven (and the RRetrospective, and Dying of the Light). I never finished it, although it had some neat concepts - and if I recall correctly, a few names would later return in A Song of Ice and Fire. I didn't finish it because it bored me to be honest. It wasn't bad, but it didn't keep me hooked either.
With "The Curious Affair..." I struggled to get through the first page because the opening of this story is a bit dull as well, but once I got into it, this short story turned out to be quite interesting for most of its length. The 'curious affair' is an interesting concept - an undertaker offering people to be buried alive so they can experience the silence of the grave - with the main character being a female detective who agrees to investigate this matter when a young girl goes missing. What begins as an eerie, almost ghost story-like tale, ends up being something quite different, but Tuttle manages to keep the atmosphere and mood, and I did have to finish the story before going to sleep which is the highest recommendation from a fellow like me, who does so love to sleep.

I'm going to miss Divinity: Original Sin when I'm going away for a couple of days (going to visit a medieval castle, though - an essential part of summer). You should have seen my unlikely duo fight its way through the cemetery northeast of Cyseal last night, and surviving to boot. What a game.  Best fantasy experience since I don't know. Still highly recommended. Can't wait to finally have saved up enough cash to buy a decent gaming rig so I can play it on something else than the lowest of low settings.

Monday, July 14, 2014

[Rogues] Phyllis Eisenstein: "The Caravan to Nowhere"

Another story in Rogues has been devoured. This one, written by one Phyllis Eistenstein, who I suspect is the person who made Martin put the dragons in A Game of Thrones, is a well-written and mostly interesting tale of Alaric, a minstrel with the ability to blink himself to wherever he wants in an instant, a powerful teleportation ability. Yet, Alaric decides to join a ponderous camel caravan across a deadly desert, but I suppose the story does a good job of painting this decision in a believable way. Toward the end, Alaric does have to use his power to escape death, and this sudden burst of powerful magic kind of changes a story that so far has felt more like a low fantasy vision of a world and set of characters reminiscent of pulp fantasy - a touch of Conan, a hint of Elric of Melniboné (not just the similarity of main character names) - without ever actually being pulpy. It just has the same tone or atmosphere, I suppose. The author introduces early on a mysterious character, the son of the merchant heading the titular caravan, which is a device that kept my interest. I wanted to know what made this character tick, why he behaved so erratically, but in the end the story kind of petered out and the intriguing possibilities both with the character and a "phantom city" (is it a magically moving city, using an ability similar to Alaric's - or is it just a fata morgana?) were never explored much. It is kind of the whole point of the story, as it plays with illusion and reality, also introducing a powerful drug which the author uses as a device to further blur the lines, but I had hoped for a stronger resolution to the tale. Alaric himself was fun enough to read about, if a little bland, and I can imagine him existing in a hundred different adventures, much like Conan the Barbarian wandered about the world seeking adventure. Maybe he already does; I had never heard of Alaric before reading this story.
At any rate, I am getting closer to Martin's latest addition to his own canon, but I am not yet sufficiently curious. To be honest, I find a lot of the fan ramblings on the Internet (articles at Tower of the Hand, discussions at Westeros, madness at Is Winter Coming?, comments at Winter is Coming) more interesting than another dry historical, and a lot of it should be collected and published as a book unto itself. The Fandom of George R.R. Martin: In their Own Words, Volume I. A sort of archive of interesting things written by fans, during all the years of waiting for new Ice & Fire novels. I bet you could make a great read out of it, if properly edited.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

[Re-read] Jaime VII: Porridge for Morning, Consensual Rape for Noon

Winter definitely doesn't seem to be coming at the moment, what with the bright blue sky and the heat. We did have a few days of heavy rain though, so much that a nearby river flooded and came all the way up to the lawn, but fortunately for us it didn't reach the house. The neighbors were less lucky - the river did come into their basement, pretty much ruining their summer vacation plans. What does this have to do with A Song of Ice and Fire you might ask. Well, swollen rivers are an important part of A Storm of Swords and so I was reminded of the Hound and Arya crossing one of the Forks when I came home from a small trip to see half the hill next to our home ... simply gone. A big crater has been left by the angry river, but we weren't there to witness the destruction unfortunately. Looking at the gaping wound outside, I am reminded of the powers of nature, and wonder how much of a role nature itself has in Westeros - or how many "divine" happenings (catastrophes like, say, the Doom of Valyria) are natural rather than god-made (or man-made). Thinking further, I began to wonder whether the Children of the Forest are meant to be a metaphor for nature in some manner. I'll keep a metaphorical eye open when I get to A Dance with Dragons.

The 63rd chapter of A Storm of Swords, however, is all about Ser Jaime Lannister and his development from child defenestrator to...something more. So it's about nature, all right, but human nature. Jaime's nature. Naturally.

Perhaps my favorite character, I was so surprised when he got his own POV in this book. I still remember how fun it was to open the book for the first time and find his name headlining a chapter. We had seen him for a good while through the eyes of other characters, but now we were getting inside his head, and it's an entertaining place to be (take that, Quentyn Martell). Little did I know that Martin had a most peculiar plan for this character's development. I thought we were getting inside a bad guy's head, but hey, there's more to him than being a kickass Kingslayer. And Martin does this transition, which changes a reader's perception, rather excellently. I know there are probably some people who hate Jaime's guts just as much now as they did when he pushed Bran out of the window, but for most readers I believe it has become much harder to see him as a black-only character. Martin has a lesson or two to teach us about morals, but without telling us what he thinks is right or wrong; we have to judge for ourselves, based on his actions, how much we can like Ser Jaime without feeling guilty about it. So it is kind of weird to be a fan of a character who tries to murder children. Am I a fan of Jaime? Well, yes, he is a fictional character. I wouldn't be a big fan of a real-life Jaime, obviously, and that's the trick isn't it? I mean, with Star Wars I always loved the bad guys and everything Empire the most, and on the good side I liked Han Solo the best: the one least morally white on that side (to begin with, at least); both Han and Jaime undergo an internal transformation, only Jaime's character is much more extreme. Other than that, the characters have many interesting similarities in the way they develop. I only hope Jaime won't become as boring as Han became in Return of the Jedi. I'm not worried (yet). Anyway, the chapter. Man I do ramble sometimes.

The chapter opens with Jaime learning that "the king is dead" - Joffrey, his very own son - but Jaime does not delve into despair. In fact, his thoughts rather swirl about who he is and how those who are sharing the news with him would react if they knew they were telling the renowned Ser Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard and House Lannister. In this regard, Jaime is not very likable is he? He has never been a father to Joffrey (and Myrcella and Tommen), always kept his distance, and let King Robert believe he was the father of the three golden-haired children. So for him, Joffrey is distant, but still - it's his flesh and blood, and by not giving his son's untimely demise much thought, Martin shows us both how Jaime is a self-centered character (except for when he thinks of Cersei, although one can argue that she's really just an inverted mirror image of him) and, more plot-related than character-related, that he never had to deal with those three children and in that sense never was their father. In other words, you can explain Jaime's lack of grief both as an egocentric act and the fact that Jaime never knew Joffrey and thus doesn't have the need to grieve. Or whatever. You know.

At any rate, Martin uses the opportunity to once again showcase how an event changes through word of mouth across the realm - among the "options" as to how Joffrey died are: Tyrion slitting his throat and drinking the boy king's blood; poison; Sansa Stark was an accomplice; "and a ghostly direwolf was seen prowling the Red Keep." I'm italicizing this latest bit because, after reading those Moments of Foreshadowing threads at Westeros, I've learned that Martin - apparently - has hidden a number of clues in the text that point to - could point to - Jon Snow becoming the King of Westeros. And here I found such a clue all by myself. A ghostly direwolf prowling the Red Keep, indeed! Maybe I'll find more of those now that I know to look for them. Whether Jon actually ends up on the Iron Throne isn't that important to me (I still believe the books will end with the Iron Throne gone; much like the One Ring ended up gone from the world), but it seems then that we will indeed see Jon Snow go south to King's Landing. Though I can't imagine how Martin can fulfill this plot line within two more books (considering all the other plot threads that also need resolution). Ghostly direwolf...taste it. Not only does this fit Jon Snow, it sounds like maybe Jon will go south while being warged - which is what I, and most readers, assume is what he did at the end of A Dance with Dragons - warging into Ghost.

Jaime lets the words wash over him. He tries to conjure up an image of Joffrey, but thinks of Cersei. He thinks of how she will look in mourning; a valuable piece of character information on Cersei is that she only cries in Jaime's presence, showing us that she is more vulnerable than what we've been led to believe (it really is a shame she got her own POV chapters in Feast, I feel that Cersei is much more interesting and intriguing when we only see her through other eyes). Believing she will be needing him in her grief, he insists that they ride harder the next day. But is he really concerned about her welfare, or is he longing for the love of his life?

It's refreshing that in the next paragraph, he arrives in King's Landing. No need to spend another chapter detailing the travel, just get on with the story. Good good. Nage carries the peace banner, riding next to Steelshanks Walton. Jaime rides up, and Walton wonders what is stinking. Jaime explains that this is how King's Landing is supposed to stink and we learn that Walton has only smelled White Harbor before. Also, Jaime mentions that the city smells of treachery - I assume he's thinking about the gates opening for Tywin Lannister, followed by a certain sack. And, of course, a certain blade through the Mad King.

Riding into the city, Jaime wonders why he feels so little about Joffrey, and we do indeed learn that he never felt attached to the boy. He was there when Joffrey was born, but didn't even hold him. He has never considered Joffrey his son. He wonders very briefly whether Tyrion truly could have killed Joffrey, but it's more like he toys with the thought - it never feels as if he believes it. "Robert was rotting in his grave, and Jaime was sick of lies." Such a macabre yet uplifting line at once. It is an important little line. It showcases Jaime's gradual change of heart.

Jaime rides back to Brienne, and tells her she's kept her vow and delivered him to King's Landing, "but a few fingers and a hand". She reminds him that is only half her vow, though: She also told Catelyn Stark that she would bring her back her daughters. We also learn that Jaime and Brienne have received the news of the Red Wedding. At this news, Brienne seems to have gone into a shock-like state of mind, "broken and done" as Jaime reflects. He tells her he can try to arrange her return to Tarth, or stay and serve the city - she will not serve "oathbreakers and murderers" (the Lannisters, basically). To this, Jaime thinks Then why did you ever bother putting on a sword? which is a very apt and poignant thought that says so much about the setting; I only wish he had actually said it aloud. I'm actually curious how Martin would then write Brienne's response. A nice little detail is that Brienne talks of "oathbreakers" and then later she'll be carrying a sword named "Oathkeeper". Jaime kept her comment here in mind, then.

They pass the Gate of Gods, where they are preparing for Halloween as he spots wagons loaded with barrels of cider and apples and some of the biggest pumpkins ever (of course, said goods also reflect the season). Some more exposition is provided - like the fact people have to pay a toll to come inside the city to sell their goods, which is another nice detail that keeps the setting alive. Jaime learns that Tyrion was the master of coin until he was arrested for the murder of King Joffrey Baratheon.

To effectively show how little Joffrey was loved, Martin simply gives us this: If King's Landing mourned its dead boy king, Jaime would never have known it. Cunningly, Martin also inserts a "throng of Tyrell soldiers" (and small children) to show us how the Tyrell presence has grown in the political climate without needing to tell us. Lovely. Jaime realizes that no one recognizes him; and barely anyone seems surprised to see his strange company (Brienne, Qyburn) - Jaime, who has lived life like a rock star, now has to come to terms with another effect of the loss of his hand - his infamy might be lost as well.

Ser Meryn Trant and a dozen gold cloaks bar the gates to the Red Keep when they finally arrive, but Jaime recognizes the Kingsguard knight. Ser Meryn does recognize Jaime, however. The knight immediately opens the gate and Jaime realizes he had forgotten how much he likes to be obeyed. Instantly. In the courtyard he meets two new Kingsguard, Ser Loras Tyrell and Ser Balon Swann. Jaime immediately takes it as a slight that they have been appointed without his consent (he's the new Lord Commander, after all), not knowing how this was done. Jaime seems to lack a certain knowledge of schemes and intrigues and politics, since he doesn't even consider that maybe she was forced to give them the white cloak for political reasons. When Jaime asks where his lord father is, they tell him Tywin's breaking bread with Mace Tyrell and Oberyn Martell, which Jaime finds even stranger.

All of a sudden, the scene changes completely - Ser Loras and Brienne come face to face. Loras claims Emmon Cuy swore, with his dying breath, that Brienne murdered Renly; Brienne defends herself, telling the truth about the shadow (because telling the truth is always helpful in King's Landing). Swords are drawn, and you half expect a fight to erupt, but Ser Jaime steps between them, and being the Lord Commander, he fortunately has the authority to have Ser Loras sheathe his sword and give it up. I like how this scene is a direct result from a scene way back in A Clash of Kings, showing us that Martin remembers to tie up loose threads when possible. Unfortunately, as the story has expanded, those threads have in most cases only become further apart. But will we see a third encounter between Brienne and Ser Loras, when there is no one to stop the Knight of Flowers from trying to kill the Maid of Tarth?

When Loras calls for her arrest, Jaime complies but it feels as if he does this to stop the situation from escalating rather than him believing Brienne is guilty. As he says, his horse could come up with better lies than Brienne. Jaime is annoyed that Brienne doesn't understand he orders her imprisoned for her own good; and thinks it all goes back to Aerys, the Mad King. I think it's a big leap, to jump from Brienne looking hurt by the decision to blaming it on his murder of the Mad King. But, it's Jaime and Jaime's world mostly revolves around himself, and so he mentally finds a way to make Brienne's hurt feelings be his fault (when, one can assume, she's hurt because he treats her like crap). The TV series made it very clear that Brienne loves Jaime, but in the books you have to read a little bit between the lines to see any developing infatuation, and this "hurt look" of hers might be one such example.

Jaime then wanders off to the sept, where Swann told him Cersei will be. He is stopped by another Kingsguard he doesn't recognize; some arguing later he learns the name of Ser Osmund Kettleblack, a name that will linger in his mind a few gazillion times come Feast. Have to love Osmund's big mouth before he realizes who he is talking to, though: "You'd best learn some respect, cripple, or I'll have that other hand and leave you to suck up your porridge of a morning." It's not a well-written line, but the insolence is brilliantly ironic for us who know Jaime. "Porridge of a morning"? Wouldn't it read better/sound better if he said something like "leave you to eat scraps from the floor" or some such? And when Jaime says he's the queen's brother, Osmund is, like, "Oh, you have grown" and Jaime must remind him Cersei has another brother. I chuckle every time. A dolt, indeed.
Jaime tells him to let no one else inside, because he wants to speak to Cersei alone. Oh, what have we here - a scene that certainly encouraged online debate in the wake of the TV version.

Inside, Cersei is praying at the altar of the Mother, and Joffrey is chilling beneath the Stranger - the aspect that leads the newly dead to "the other world" (we hear little of this other world) - a connection between the Stranger and the Faceless Men, then? Cersei looks over her shoulder, eyes brimming with tears. She doesn't rush into his arms (reading a little between the lines, the text seems to suggest that Jaime would love it if she rushed into his embrace). He has probably also envisioned a number of nice reunions, and none of them began with Cersei saying, "Why couldn't you come sooner?" But that's what she asks; and then she comments on how harrowed he looks, and then he shows her the stump and her eyes go wide. Cersei turns away from him and tells him that Tyrion is the murderer. He still can't believe it, but he begins to wonder. She asks if Jaime can kill Tyrion for her. It is a question that certainly belongs in the category "moral dilemmas". No?

He tells her he needs to learn more of all that has transpired in his absence before deciding on such a rash action. He feels it's wrong ("the thought turned his stomach"), and she explains that he will, because there's going to be a trial. She gives him a little kiss, which awakens his lust, a lust he has contained for a very long time. I love the irony that Ser Jaime is seen as a most unchivalrous knight, yet he's one of the few men in the series who sticks to one woman (even if that woman is his sister). "No," she whispers as he sticks her tongue in her mouth, he kisses her more until she moans; then he lifts her upon the altar of the Mother - and she pounds on his chest, murmuring about the risk, the danger, their father, the septons, the wrath of the gods: in other words, if you ask me, the TV version wasn't much wrong in showcasing it as rape. Cersei is resisting, if weakly, but she is resisting. And he's pounding, not hearing her (but he does hear her, how else would we know she is murmuring?) - and then Cersei has given up, tells him to hurry, be quick about it, but I have the feeling she just wants to get it over with at this point, egging him on (as evidenced when she tells him he's home) - and indeed, the moment he has spilled his seed, she tells him to let her up before they are discovered. Reading it now, I do indeed feel I have read about a rape, and not consensual sex. Next to the corpse of said lovers' son. In a temple. On an altar. What a scene to dream up! All right, and Cersei is having her period, as well, in case you didn't think the scene was perverse enough.

Aside from the rape, there are two other things I'm taking away from this particular scene: They couple on the altar of the Mother, which suggests that Cersei will become pregnant after this (and, if I recall correctly, there are further hints in Feast - maybe the fourth child of Cersei will be the only living Lannister left at the end of the book, like an inverted Jon Snow? That would be cool); and, the blood smeared across the altar of the Mother suggests that Cersei Lannister will die (obvious now after Feast, but not so obvious a decade or so ago). Jaime muses that he wouldn't have noticed that the sept was on fire, further indicating that he was, to use a term from criminal prosecution (!), "temporary insane". What a scene, people. Romeo and Juliet can go home (as raised wights).

Cersei tells him they must be careful, what with their father nearby. Jaime is not only sick of lies, he is also sick of being careful - another hint at internal change. The Targaryens wed brother to sister, he suggests, so why shouldn't they? Weirdly he tells her they can make another son, while in the presence of his first born's corpse. Temporary insanity = still on. Cersei tells him he has changed, and not just lacking one hand. Seems she realizes it before he does. "Don't tell me to leave," Jaime begs her. "Leave me," she responds. Ouch!

Oh well, he laces up his breeches and trots off to the Tower of the Hand to visit his lord father. Their lord father. Love Tywin's ever-present casualness: "Jaime," Lord Tywin said, as if they'd last seen each other at breakfast. Knowing all Jaime's been through, it becomes even funnier. Tywin knew he would arrive, but he didn't know about Jaime's missing hand. He looks away, disgusted; Jaime learns that Vargo Hoat is being slowly disassembled by Ser Gregor Clegane - we also learn that his band of misfits have spread (setting us up for later encounters with these least savory of characters). Tywin also reveals that Joffrey couldn't have choked on pie - and that the wine was poisoned, indicating Tyrion's guilt. Jaime asks if Tywin would execute his own son, and he will if the evidence mounts up. Jaime goes on to tell him he will continue to serve the Kingsguard, that he'll find some precedent for continuing even though he has lost his sword hand. Turns out there are even more things Jaime is sick of; basically, everything. And when Tywin tells him he wants him to leave the Kingsguard and ride for Casterly Rock, he's had enough.

Jaime has decided to stay with the Kingsguard, to uphold at least one oath - which leads to Tywin going from "You are my son--" to "You are not my son" in the span of a short, strained silence. And thus Jaime Lannister has shattered the first of the chains that have kept him to the ground for so long - his father.

A very interesting chapter when it comes to character growth, then, and I was surprised to see how closely the show followed this chapter after all. I'd love to have more dialogue/conversation between Jaime and Tywin, but in the end the few lines they exchange are enough to drive Jaime's arc forward. He is now free of his father, so to speak; he has made a vital decision, to take back control of his life. But he should be really ashamed of himself for the way he treats his sister in this particular chapter; I find it easier to dislike him for this, actually, than for him pushing Bran out the window because that action was not selfish, while the rape in this chapter is an egoistical crime. At least Martin makes us think about black, grey, and white and all that's in between. I could probably write another hour just trying to get a grip on the complexity that is Ser Jaime Lannister, but sometimes you just have to go with the flow and see where Martin takes us.

Friday, July 11, 2014

I'm a sinner

Hód Astyron and Ilaera of the Night (!!!) in glorious low detail.
I'm so weak. I'm a sinner.
No, I'm not a repenting priest.
I caved in and purchased Divinity: Original Sin, the shiny new computer RPG that, according to reviews and user comments, is the new Baldur's Gate III or as close as you can get to such a dream come true. I've been hankering for a solid RPG for a while and I certainly don't mind the isometric view/party thing, and from what I could gather it had a lot of nice little improvements on the formula even if it doesn't renew the genre. So it kept nagging at me until I gave up and added it to the list of games on Steam I don't have time to play anyway...
...the character creation wasn't all that, and after a few attempts at building two roles I'd like to play I ended up with two characters I liked well enough, and entered the story. And that's when the game grabbed me, a sprawling mass of NPCs and dialogue and quests and all the little details that make an RPG an experience beyond simple gaming.
Now, I am taking it real slow, but I've given the game a few hours, getting into the town of Cyseal and meeting colorful characters, and it is really like wandering through a new Baldur's Gate again, with similar dialogues, similar small quests, only this takes place in the fictional world of Rivellon instead of the Forgotten Realms.
A few nifty new concepts make the game (and the genre) even better - such as being able to play off your two main characters; a much more interactive environment (as an example, use lightning spells during rainy weather for increased damage); creativity and attention to detail gives you countless small nooks and crannies to explore; the genre's best quest journal with all you'd expect from a game that doesn't lead you by the hand, but it isn't unforgiving either; fantastic turn-based combat with heaps of options; it's all pure candy for a geek like myself.
Stylistically, the game is more Dungeons & Dragons than, say, A Song of Ice and Fire (still holding on to the hope of a game of this quality in Westeros), with an early scene in the main quest very closely modeled on the pocket plane sequence from Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal. Other nods to the Baldur's Gate games include a graveyard where the epitaphs are humorous, and I expect to see more homages as I actually get around to play some more (I have only three hours played and two achievements..achieved).

My characters are, not surprisingly, somewhat modeled on Ice & Fire characters although I had no idea before I was well into the game and suddenly realized I was playing Ser Jaime Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen adventuring together. Well, kind of.

Hód is a scoundrel with charm, and the witch Ilaera is rather charmless; cold and ruthless. Actually, I called Ilaera "of the Night" because I thought that if the mighty DARKSTAR had a sister, it would be her. So I chuckle to myself every time an NPC addresses Ilaera as Ilaera of the Night. Of the niiiight!

I'm running the game at lowest quality but the gameplay makes me forget I'm not seeing things as well as I could; sometimes the game crashes (which is an issue on 32-bit systems they are aware of) when saving; some punctuation errors and minor grammatical glitches in the dialogue trees; and some of the plot that was revealed seemed a bit "huge" so early in the game; they took "EPIC!!" and threw it right in my face, which I didn't like as I love it when the story gradually, slowly, branches toward said epicness. Or is it epicallity? Epicity? Epication? Whatever.

At any rate, if you like Baldur's Gate, Divinity: Original Sin is pretty much guaranteed to tickle your fancy. Not all your fancies, perhaps, but most. The game even has an editor so you can make your own RPGs with it, so I expect Ice & Fire mods to prop up sooner than later. I haven't checked it out, obviously. I keep forgetting I'm a responsible adult with no time for games. Boo!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

[Rogues] Walter Jon Williams: "Diamonds from Tequila"

A cold fog has crept in over the surrounding landscape, and yesterday's sweltering heat and piercing sun is but a memory. It gives a man time to enjoy another short story from the Rogues anthology.

Williams' Diamonds from Tequila is certainly an entertaining and well-written piece, written in the first person perspective. The character who narrates this strange tale is basically a bit full of himself, but it works really well within the context. Here we have a semi-successful movie star whose view of the world gives the story it's own peculiar tone and atmosphere, and it was really easy to get into it as the writing's pretty clear. As a story set in this day and age (complete with 3D printers, drug abuse and some explanations of what different crew members on a movie production actually do) it is not the kind of story I'd normally choose to read but I still found it a worthwhile addition and a story that lingered long after I had finished it.

And it took my mind of the Netherlands losing to Argentina last night. Boo and/or hiss!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

[Rogues] Garth Nix: "A Cargo of Ivories" & Martin's finger

It's the hottest and sunniest day so far this year up in the far north, but I found time to read another short from the Rogues anthology. I've passed the halfway mark, and so far I am very happy with the anthology, with mostly good stories so far. A Cargo of Ivories, which at first sounded like some Blood Diamonds-type of story, turned out to be one of the good ones. Entertaining, fun, adventurous, entirely in the spirit of Steven Erikson's Bauchelain & Korbal Broach short stories in the sense that the author gives us the impression of a huge world with few words; the way the plot unfolds (although far from as complex as Erikson's stories tend to be - this one has far fewer characters, but they are every bit as quirky as Erikson's - there's even a puppet, reminding me of Hairlock from Gardens of the Moon) - and even the naming conventions have a Malazan smell to them. Which means that I of course liked it, with a pretty clear-cut simple plot, fun banter, some silliness and an exciting race to the finish line when the two main characters confront a very powerful being aboard a sinking ship while being bombarded from a coastal fort.

Elsewise, I'm still reading Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns, trying to savor every moment of it as it is my first read and it is definitely going straight into my favorite fantasy novel list (not sure where I rank it as of yet). This Lawrence-fellow sure can write in an engaging style, and he definitely masters first person style, and I know he's got a new book out these days and that one is supposed to be pretty rocking too (if not as overly cynical/dark/grim as the tale of Jorg of Ancrath). Ah, but I will still have to read the sequel to Prince, which is Emperor of Thorns, and that one I'm going to buy as a ebook. Reading real books has become such a hassle now that I'm spoiled with ebooks. I guess I'm not the only one with that first world problem.

Tonight, though, I am putting geekery aside to watch the Netherlands hopefully beat Argentina, while regretting having forgotten to put on some sun lotion or cream or whatever you call that stuff that helps you from getting fried on a hot summer day.

Oh, there's a George R.R. Martin newsbite today, I almost forgot. In this video interview he tells people who are afraid he's going to die before finishing the series to fuck off and shows 'em the finger. Now I absolutely agree that Martin should feel offended - however, I do believe a number of people are afraid they will die before getting to read the end of the saga we all know and love™ and that's a different matter. In fact, both Is Winter Coming? and Tower of the Hand (very recently) have lost huge fans of the series and it is sad that they never got to know if Arya would indeed be found frozen with a needle in her hand, or whether Bran will be able to change the course of history.
It seems as if Martin is taking the message - "Don't die on us before you have finished the story" - personally when people really are giving him a great compliment, in that the series has become such an important obsession for so many people. It is the way it is phrased that is the problem. And people will still clamor that Martin's health and age might just end the series abruptly, only you cannot phrase this is in any manner that isn't offensive.
All this being said, I actually defended Feast and Dance at TOR's website where people are discussing Martin's "fuck y'all". Seems I am coming around. Good times.

But still no winds.
We want it so bad, Mr. Martin.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

[Rogues] Two for the road

It's summer and I'm on the road, but I've brought Rogues (and A Storm of Swords, so I hope to do a re-read or two as well) and now I've finished two more short stories from this anthology.
First up was A Better Way to Die by Paul Cornell and I have to be honest and say this story didn't work for me. The language was cumbersome with long sentences that forced me to start the story over again several times before I got into it. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, of course, I do like a challenge, but the challenge here was never met by a payoff I felt was worth the investment. There are some very neat concepts in this story, but I never felt attached to it, maybe because I didn't warm to the main character. I was at times confused by what was going on (and no wonder, considering the subject matter of 'optional worlds') but I did like the setting's alternate history and thought it would provide a more interesting story. As it was, I ended up force-reading through it and when I got to the end all I had was a shrug. Still, I am sure there are others who will praise it to the skies.
Next up was Ill Seen in Tyre, by Steven Saylor. Now this was the exact opposite in terms of storytelling: a very simplistic plot, laid out with a clear and simple language, with characters that were easy to get into. Upon seeing the title I was reminded of Fritz Leiber's books (well, Ill Met in Lankhmar in particular, obviously) and I was surprised to see that Saylor did indeed mix Leiber's characters - Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser - into his ancient Mediterranean setting. It's a fun, brief story. I won't reveal anything of it because I believe it works best without knowing too much about it. Easy to read and follow, with a few predictable scenes but also at least one unpredictable scene.

Speaking of predictability, I have continued to read through those 'Moments of Foreshadowing' threads I linked to earlier and if you take all the theories and suggestions and boil them down, you can basically see where A Song of Ice and Fire is going (provided there's at least some truth in some of the theories) - this is kind of satisfying in the sense that I can kick back and not worry too much about the rest of the series actually ever being published, as I now have a vague-ish sort of sense of knowing how it will end up. Or could end up - many arguments have good support in the text even though we can't know for sure just what Martin intended as foreshadowing and what is just coincidental. But I won't be surprised  if we'll see Ser Jaime Lannister on the Wall, to give you an example of what deduction has lead people to "see". Very interesting stuff, and if Martin indeed has put as much foreshadowing in his text as the threads imply, I am even more amazed at how tightly woven Martin's tapestry actually is. In other news, Martin is still coming to Switzerland and France, Game of Thrones season five is already something that's becoming real (with Spain coming in for Dorne, I assume), and ... well, that's it I guess for news from the lands of Westeros.

But those Moments of Foreshadowing...they really make my head spin as I think of all the possibilities laid out in the existing books. What if Martin has no qualms killing off characters because they will be reused by the Others? What if Arya does indeed die before the last page of the last book? Will Sansa Stark end up removing Littlefinger's junk with a knife? Is Bran going to become a dark force rather than a force for good? Will Petyr and Varys end up as heads on spikes? These are examples of questions that people seem to have found answers for by analyzing the books. And there is much more. It really makes me think about the books and the story in a new light. One of the most interesting theories that seem to have been laid out before us in the books is that we in fact already may have met Howland Reed. Man I'm going to pay so much more attention when I get to A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. Did I underestimate the author when I read these books? Maybe, in the sense that I didn't read between the lines hard enough. Those lines remain, for now at least, not that interesting, though, such as Daenerys' chapters, but maybe just maybe I'll come back to the two latest novels with a more positive attitude. And I hope I'll end up realizing that they are better than the impression I have at the moment. That would be good.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

[Rogues] Daniel Abraham: "The Meaning of Love"

Behind the boring title of this piece is a very good fantasy story that in terms of style and tone and writing could fit right into George RR Martin's Westeros (or rather, the setting feels like it could have been part of it - in particular, the setting in The Meaning of Love reminds me of a better detailed, more original Flea's Bottom in King's Landing, with a dash of the Free Cities thrown in).
The main character, a rogue female named Asa, could just as well be a Martin character, and the other characters present in the tale too.

I was a bit skeptical at first as the story opens with a long paragraph describing the highly independent city state within a city, but it works really well because Abraham evidently is a master of setting description, making it come alive before the mind's eye so much the setting becomes a character unto itself. The story, too, is pretty solid with, indeed, shades of love but mostly shades of immorality, Martin-style. It is a story that feels like a chapter taken out of a larger epic (maybe it is, what do I know), and I'd like to read more about Asa, the exile prince, Rouse, and the setting (again, maybe the setting is featured in other Abraham works, but it feels like a new invention, the way he goes out of his way to describe it). Come to think of it, I actually have a collection of Abraham stoires - Leviathan Wept and Other Stories - somewhere deep in my to-read pile, and now I want to move it closer to the top. The only other work I've read by him was A Shadow in Summer and I wasn't able to finish it because it just didn't keep me hooked - something The Meaning of Love definitely did.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Old Hats

Old hat perhaps, but in case you missed it, Tower of the Hand's solar has had a discussion about The Legacy of the Children in which I also had a few words to say (admittedly few compared to the others). An even better read if you're interested in how one can link A Song of Ice and Fire to Joseph Campbell's well-known "hero's journey" (I actually bought Campbell's works on this stuff back when I was a Star Wars buff, because that saga is always very often used as an example of how Campbell's theories work; but I never finished it - too dry - and I had recently discovered this book called A Game of Thrones) ... deep breath... is The Hero with a Thousand Faces and One, also on Tower of the Hand.

This week I've found time to read a little further in Mark Lawrence's King of Thorns (sequel to Prince of Thorns) and every time I wonder why the heck am I not just devouring it and be done with it, because this is pretty damn good stuff! An impressive collection of one-liners in an unusual story so cracking it blows most other fantasy novels away, which is quite impressive considering these were Lawrence's first books. The covers imply generic stuff, but it's anything but. Closest comparison is Joe Abercrombie I guess, but there's a dash of Martin in there too, and a whole lot of Lawrence himself; or rather, Jorg's (the main character). If you thought Ser Jaime Lannister was a scumbag in the beginning of Thrones, wait until you meet Honorous Jorg in Prince of Thorns. The positive reviews at Amazon are, for once, mostly spot on. Lawrence takes the whole cruelty/misery/grit one step further, though, so be warned.

I'm also trying my hardest to avoid buying Divinity: Original Sin which everybody is heralding as the best computer RPG since Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn. I want to believe that. Have a feeling it is good, too, but it's rather expensive and, you know, I have realized it's been thirteen or fourteen years since I actually had the time to complete a game (with one exception, Legend of Grimrock, which I digested in nice little chunks at the expense of all other hobbies and activities for a while). 

The news that there finally is a good CRPG again (and by CRPG I am thinking the stats-heavy, dialogue-heavy type, not the Diablo III bash-em-all type) made me think how wonderful it would have been with a proper CRPG based on A Song of Ice and Fire, preferably on the ASOIAF RPG from Green Ronin itself. That would have been nice. Not a game where your character is predetermined, but a game in which you construct a character from the ground up. Or even an entire House, using the excellent and fun Green Ronin rules system. 

[Rogues] Cherie Priest: "Heavy Metal"

Despite the alluring title, Heavy Metal is my least favorite piece in Rogues so far. That doesn't mean it's bad, it's just that the quality of the stories has been really high; and this one certainly has it's moments as well, in particular the most important scene, where the main character encounters something he has been looking for, is well written and exciting.
But for some reason this story didn't quite grab me the same way the others have done. Maybe because the beginning led me to believe the main character would indeed listen to some heavy metal as he figured out what was going on around the copper mine he's investigating, and then he turned out to be more of a modern day paladin complete with a bible as a shield. Somehow, this element of the story, making the main character into something like an exorcist, didn't work for me, because the story felt like it was going in a different direction for a while. I don't know. The first half of the story is more of a mystery, where the main character interviews persons trying to find out what's going on, and the second half is more of a fantasy, and I didn't feel the two sections hung together well enough to make it flow. The ending was left rather open - either I'm too dim or it was too open because I sure didn't grasp what it meant other than it felt either ominous or divine. Anyway, it was another short story read and to learn something from, and one cannot like everything. Technically it is well written and the dialogue feels right, so I am sure there are others who would count this story among the best in Rogues. Even though I feel this story is the least connected to the collection's theme. Next up is a familiar guy, Daniel Abraham.

TOR have, by the way, published an excerpt from Ian C. Esslemont's final novel in his Malazan Empire series, Assail. Me happy!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

[Re-read] Sansa V: Shades of Black

[Series-wide spoilers ahead]

Wow, I just lost two hours to a number of threads about foreshadowing over at Westeros. I am amazed at how many details attentive readers can pry out of the books, and how people collectively have, through observing carefully any and all clues in the texts, kind of figured out where the story is going (of course, until we have those books, it remains speculative but there are a lot of convincing arguments there). Here are some of the threads, practically overflowing with thought-provoking suggestions as to what is, and what is not, foreshadowing in A Song of Ice and Fire.
It feels like Martin went out of his way and beyond to make every sentence constructed either foreshadowing, allusion, or [insert other literary technique]. Needless to say, not everything can have been correctly understood, but still if half of it turns out to be right, Martin is still the most amazing gardener ever. Needless to say, don't dive in if you haven't read everything Ice & Fire.

In other fantasy-related news, the re-read of The Crippled God, the breath-taking, awe-inspiring and challenging finale to Steven Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen cycle, has begun. Follow a first-time reader and a re-reader as they embark on this dense, complicated volume of lore that might just be even deeper than Martin's work in terms of [insert literary techniques]. And Steam is tempting me sooo much with the new CRPG Divinity: Original Sin, with people calling it the best RPG since Baldur's Gate II, but I must be strong and withstand the temptation. I do not have time for this frolickery! But I wanna...

Let's squash that bug and read some Sansa V instead. Sansa Stark, Queen of Darkness! ... Maybe?

So, flipping back from Tyrion to Sansa again, the drama continues and was heightened with the poisoning of Joffrey Baratheon. We learn right away that Sansa has fled the throne room and now finds herself among the trees of her somewhat-secret hideout. She doesn't actually know that Joffrey is dead; we as readers do, as it was described as quite a definite end in the previous chapter. She remembers how terrible it was and that she couldn't watch - instead she ran off, followed by Lady Tanda who found the time to tell Sansa that she has a good heart, and that "not every maid would weep so for a man who set her aside and wed her to a dwarf". I find it strange that Lady Tanda found the time to compose such a long and convoluted sentence as they were both running off, so Martin must have felt he needed it in there; right away, Sansa laughs at the thought that she has a good heart - a clue that foreshadows her character arc going in the direction of, if not outright fantasy evil, a cold/calculating character? Feels like a solid reason to include the minor detail, at any rate. But I still chuckle at the thought of the two fleeing the throne room, then as they take a pause to breathe, Tanda comes up with that long line of dialogue before they both rush on. Of course, there's also the dramatic irony - Tanda doesn't realize that Sansa is not weeping for Joffrey. She even wonders, as she listens to the bells toll, if her tears are the tears of joy. I'm thinking that the tragic circumstances piled upon all the tragedy she already has endured, is more than enough to make her sob. She wants to dance, though, showing us that she is happy with the outcome in the throne room in one way, suggesting that indeed she might develop a "colder armor" - becoming an Ice Queen, perhaps? If not literally, maybe figuratively? Watch me ponder and speculate after having read seven threads on foreshadowing. Lady Tanda had even more to say, we find out, but it doesn't feel as important as the first. Just a bit o' salt in the wound when she says the gods must be cruel to take him at his wedding feast, which no doubt is a statement that would hurt Sansa's heart (as her own brother and mother were murdered at her uncle's wedding feast). The dialogue Tanda has here just gives us examples of how she is a somewhat dim character who doesn't read other characters that well. 

Eventually Sansa realizes she is weeping for her brother -indeed- and Margaery as well, not wishing this upon her ("twice wed, twice widowed"). She wriggles out of her gown and puts on the clothes she has hidden in an oak, and she remembers Ser Dontos Hollard's words of advice (and again, the possibility of foreshadowing Sansa's "turn to the Dark Side"): Dress warmly, and dress dark. Martin spends an entire paragraph describing the look of her new costume, and - again - now I wonder if there's some symbolism or hidden foreshadowing or whatever at play (several posts in those seven threads discuss Martin's seemingly very determined use of colors): Thick brown wool might suggest that she becomes nondescript, which is useful for fleeing of course, but also turns out to be true in the sense that she becomes Alayne Stone; it is decorated with freshwater pearls but the cloak will cover them; could mean that she won't be found anytime soon; the cloak's a deep green; she might end up with Robin Hood; and the shoes are simple and sturdy - showing that she will come to appreciate simpler things in life and not have her head in the clouds all the time. Also, she thinks of her skin as having turned to porcelain, to ivory, to steel, which could symbolize her character arc; from the brittle porcelain princess she was in AGoT, to the ivory betrothed of the King, and now to steel - dangerous and deadly. Ah!

She discovers that one of the stones in her hairnet is missing, which is Martin telling us there was indeed something up with that hairnet. The stones in the hairnet were black amethysts from Asshai; but I have no idea whether this has any bearing on the plot, whatsoever. I don't think so. One could wonder where the Tyrells had gotten Asshai amethysts, perhaps? Silver is mentioned twice here, suggesting the moon perhaps - or night. Problem is you can read into details until you go bleary-eyed, but sometimes one must assume things are just what they are without seeking deeper meaning. Lest you go mad and join the ravenous hordes of Westeros dot org. Dammit, silver's mentioned thrice. Sansa remembers that Dontos had told her that she absolutely had to wear it at the wedding, and that it was magical. Interestingly, Martin has her think What kind of magic? and in the next sentence she thinks of how the king is dead - linking, however faintly, to Melisandre burning three leeches; one for Balon Greyjoy, one for Robb Stark, and one for...Joffrey. She is worried that Ser Dontos won't show up, but before she can get overly nervous, he appears, "reeling drunk".

Calling himself the Florian to her Jonquil, he evidently sees this encounter and rescue as quite more romantic than scared, sobbing Sansa does. Of course, Sansa's notion of romance has changed quite a lot since she began her journey, and Martin choosing to remind us through Dontos' idealizing of the situation brings the point home (perhaps bluntly). She knows now that the story of Florian and Jonquil is hopelessly romantic, and the real world is less so. He catches her arm, and Sansa pulls away from his touch, which says everything about her stance. Suspecting foul play, Sansa asks what sort of stones were in the silver net, and he tells her they held magic, and she counters that with "There was murder in them!" Dontos tries to assure her Joffrey choked on his pie, and that the black amethysts in her hairnet had nothing to do with it. When she continues, he tells her to be quiet, denying that he did anything but leaving it open for the reader to continue to assume that Sansa is on to something with regards the hairnet (and of course, the TV show made it quite clear who was behind the murder of Joffrey). He tells her they have to run, because they will search for her, and her husband Tyrion has been arrested. She is shocked to hear this, suggesting Sansa has no suspicion of Tyrion in the matter.

She follows Dontos, and as they run she begins to wonder if Tyrion might be involved after all, which leads to her realizing that if he is arrested, suspected for poisoning the king, then she will be suspected as well - after all, she is his wife. It is still strange, after all these decades of having read A Storm of Swords, to think that Sansa Stark is married to Tyrion Lannister. For me, it remains THE twist of the tale so far. It's not a twist exactly. Rather an unexpected plot development. She even has good reason to kill Joffrey, she cleverly (being Sansa this is pretty clever thinking) realizes, making it even more possible that she's a prime suspect. She pulls up her hood to hide her face, and Dontos leads her on, stopping to retch. She notices he is wearing the arms of House Hollard and he explains that for once, for this moment, now that Joffrey is dead anyway, he wants to be a knight - he wants to do at least one thing right.

Down some steps they flee, through a small courtyard, into a dark gallery lined with rows of empty armor; the light from Dontos' taper makes their shadows stretch into shapes reminding Sansa of dragons - and she thinks, "The hollow knights are turning into dragons." Here again I feel that Martin is spending a sentence on something that seems like nothing but a stray thought, but might just have a deeper meaning. My personal take on it is that the Knights of the Hollow Hill, aka the Brotherhood without Banners, will end up serving either Daenerys Targaryen or (the presumably fake) Aegon - both "dragons" (Targaryens). Mmm, I didn't see this line in any of the "Foreshadowing" threads (admittedly I didn't read all closely because it got tiring after a while - in the meantime I have discovered there are parts 8 and 9 as well, by the way).

Dontos opens a door, and Sansa finds herself atop a cliff, below her the river and above the sky, both black (there's black again, Martin using dark colors to describe Sansa's flight might just also "color" her arc). Dontos shows her the secret ladder carved into the stone and they descend to meet a boat that will row them out to a waiting ship.

He has to convince her to climb down, she's afraid, but in the end she complies if he goes first: an interesting little look at how Sansa is changing - she's always been a little cold at heart, I suppose (when it comes to others, at any rate), and now she is thinking it is better he go first so she doesn't get him atop of her if he falls. Of course, he's drunk so she has to take some precautions, but it reminds me that Sansa Stark in other scenes earlier in the story also has shown herself to be somewhat detached and calculating. Here's an example to prove the point, from as early as A Game of Thrones:

Jeyne Poole wept so hysterically that Septa Mordane finally took her off to regain her composure, but Sansa sat with her hands folded in her lap, watching with a strange fascination. She had never seen a man die before. She ought to be crying too (...)

This part shows us that Sansa feels no compassion for a "hysterically weeping" friend, and that watching a man die fascinates her rather than makes her frightened, or hysterical, or sad.

Speaking of weeping, Dontos is weeping, as Sansa realizes (again, in a somewhat detached way; will Sansa end up a person stripped off emotions?) - it makes her decide Dontos killed Joffrey, which we know is not true, and then he gives her a sloppy kiss and begins the descent. As she waits for him, she listens to the bells still tolling, before beginning her own descent. Ironically she thinks she has to be brave like "a lady in a song", precisely the type of character she no longer can believe in. Not daring to look down, we get a slowly written paragraph of her descent which reflects how slow the going is, which is pretty brilliant. When she finally gets down, Dontos pulls her to her feet and leads her to a small skiff with a mysterious man. Dontos names him Oswell. Since we only know of one Oswell in the story, it must be Oswell Kettleblack and this might be our first indication that he works for Littlefinger. I guess he is disguised, as the appearance described sounds more like a Halloween-costume than a corrupt knight. Martin continues to play with words related to darkness: shadows, black river, black shadows. I love the image of this clandestine boat-trip through a river filled with wreckage from the battle: "(...) sliding above the sunken galleys, past broken masts, burned hulls, and torn sails." I missed the wreckage on screen.

The fog grows thicker, suggesting Sansa is heading into unknown territory not only literally but also figuratively; a change to her arc, new possibilities but also new dangers. I suppose that traditionally fog symbolizes confusion, danger, and the unseen, and all three of them will be part of Sansa's continuing story. Again Martin reminds us the waters are dark before they come to a galley waiting out on the Blackwater. Sansa thanks the rower for his assistance before boarding the galley. Two sailors await by the rail, I'm glad to report (the ship in the TV series felt like a ghost ship with no crew - or maybe I just didn't notice them). Littlefinger stands waiting for her, together with Ser Lothor Brune. When Dontos asks for his reward, Littlefinger has three men pelt him with crossbow bolts and then they light the little boat on fire. Sansa seems to be horrified, but again it seems to be more for altruistic reasons (because he saved me). Still, she does retch over the rail in disgust with the current events. She wonders if she's actually done something stupid, going from worse to worst. Littlefinger though claims Ser Dontos was just after the money (though the way Ser Dontos acted made it look like the man had some honorable intentions at the same time, just that his alcoholism was stronger).

And so Littlefinger's teachings begin in earnest, right away: "You told me that life was not a song (...) Is it all lies, forever and ever, everyone and everything?" Littlefinger responds that, yeah, pretty much, well except for the two of us, of course. He goes on to reveal that it was him behind the note leading Sansa to the godswood; then, he tells her he will show her the cabin because she must be weary. Astute observation, there.
On their way down, Littlefinger, like a classic movie villain, reveals more of his involvement: it was him who had hired the jousting dwarfs but the intent remains unclear except that Littlefinger suggested it would annoy uncle Tyrion a deal, which made Joffrey agree to have the dwarfs at the wedding. What it seems then, is that Littlefinger did actually attempt to have Tyrion arrested so that he is blamed for the poisoning and summarily executed - "Widowhood will become you, Sansa" is the clue here. By removing Tyrion, Littlefinger can have Sansa for himself. Which makes me think that the other part of the scheming - the poisoning of Joffrey - was a Tyrell thing only. It didn't matter for Littlefinger if Joffrey lived or died, but combining the two deals was of course what he needed to free Sansa from her marriage. Quite clever then. But it would perhaps have been easier to just poison Tyrion. Plans within plans, plots within plots, plots and schemes are the same thing yadayada. I guess Petyr made a deal with the Tyrells (he's already shown to be on good terms with them in A Clash of Kings) and so both parties got something out of it.

Littlefinger shows her the cabin, and a chest full of fresh clothes. Not quite the clothes deserving of her beauty, as Littlefinger creepily notes, but Sansa only thinks that he had this all prepared just for her. Ah, and here Littlefinger confesses he had no motive for killing Joffrey. However, he is supposed to be in the Vale, so he is sowing confusion among his enemies, which is the point he tries to hammer home rather bluntly, because Sansa is going to learn to play the game of thrones. He goes on to tell her how he could never have Catelyn Stark, but in another dimension (so to speak) Sansa could have been his daughter. It all amounts to showing us that Petyr is motivated by a twisted sort of love or lust for Sansa, a replacement for the Catelyn he never had. "You are safe now, that's all that matters. You are safe with me, and sailing home."

I remember coming to this point the first time I read the novel, some fourteen years ago. At the time, I didn't quite see how creepy Littlefinger is (the TV show this season made it quite clear, however, strange how images and sound can change perception). At that moment, I still thought that Sansa was indeed safe now, and that it was a good thing Littlefinger came for her. Re-reading it and getting all the details right, of course, shows that already here Martin suggests Sansa is in as much trouble as ever. What with the constant use of dark colors, Littlefinger casually ordering Dontos dead, and the way he talks to her. Quite a brave thing, too, by the author, to portray a character like Petyr Baelish. Quite unusual type, especially for a fantasy tale. I, like the rest of fandom, eagerly await his comeuppance, which no doubt will come. The most logical solution would have to be Sansa outmastering the master of the game in some way, but maybe Martin wants to avoid that most obvious of routes. Knowing him, we might just see a different outcome, but we won't know that...until if and when we get the rest of the story.

I am afraid I have resigned to the belief that Martin will not be able to finish the saga. It feels like time has run out, in a way, but I hope I am just overly pessimistic. Game of Thrones is breathing down his neck; a fanbase growing out of all sane proportions have begun to feel the sting of the Long Waits; and yet he thinks it is prudent to fly over to France and Switzerland for some fun. Yes, it is his choice, but it does mean that The Winds of Winter will be even later. In this particular case, maybe just by a few days (a week?) but still. It's like everybody is watching the train come in at full speed, and Martin is supposed to be running the train but he is busy editing a superhero collection on his lap at the wheel.