Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Book review: A Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin

Title: A Game of Thrones
Author: George RR Martin
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire, #1
Genre: Adult high fantasy
Published: 06 August 1996
Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavours to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.
A great start to what I expect will be a magical journey.

It is difficult to say what the story is in A Game of Thrones. It tells several stories that converge, diverge and intertwine, but pretty much never stay together for long. First off, the Starks in Winterfell are paid a visit by the King and his family. King Robert Baratheon wants Eddard Ned Stark to become his Hand of the King—basically, the person who rules while the King whores and drinks—because the old Hand mysteriously died. This visit is what sparks up most of the upcoming conflicts in Westeros. Meanwhile, in the neighbouring continent Essos, Daenerys Targaryen and her brother Viserys are the children of the previous King, Aerys The Mad King Targaryen, who was killed during Robert’s rebellion. Viserys sells marries Daenerys to Khal Drogo in exchange for an army of Dothraki so he can win back his “rightful” throne in Westeros.

I loved the story because it comprises like nine separate storylines. There is betrayal and incest and honour and family. There is morality questioned, and sexuality explored. We have Ned’s story in King’s Landing, along with his daughters Arya and Sansa’s respective stories. It is full of intrigue and danger. Then there’s Ned’s wife Catelyn’s story in Winterfell and then in the Eyrie. Her story converges and diverges from the story of Tyrion The Imp Lannister, who she believes is the culprit for a crime committed against her son Bran, of whom we also get a story, back in Winterfell. There are more stories in the bigger story that will affect all of Westeros.

The whole book is written masterfully. It has an uncommon structure. Each chapter is written in the third-person limited, with a point of view on a specific character. The reader can only get to know what the pov character knows. We can only know what the pov character thinks and knows and hears. It is the first book I have ever read that was written this way. The language used is great too. It has a very ancient feel to it. I have never before seen the expression, “He broke his fast;“ it always was, “He had breakfast.“

The world-building is amazing. We get maps right at the beginning, that’s usually a sign of a good high fantasy book. But everything is just so thoroughly built. The people from the North believe in the old gods, those from the South believe in the old gods and the new—a single god with seven different faces—. There are those who believe in the Lord of Light, Syrio Forel tells Arya that the only god is Death. In the Iron Islands, they worship the Drowned God. In Essos, Daenerys speaks the Common tongue, and understands the vulgar Valyrian spoken in the Free Cities, and learns Dothraki while travelling with Drogo. Westeros also has an extensive history, and we get snippets and small details as the story progresses. We can potentially get to know everything there is to know about Westeros and the rest of the world.

As George RR Martin himself once said, characters are the heart of a story. And they so are. Characters in this book are incredible. They are all round and developed and realistic. From the clever Tyrion to motherly Catelyn to the annoying Theon to the enigmatic Varys. They all have motivation, and they all have flaws and quirks. I just love all these characters as characters (of course, as people, there are some characters I hate).

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Book review: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Title: The Name of the Wind
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Series: The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1
Genre: Adult high fantasy
Published: 27 March 2007
Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of travelling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivalled in recent literature.
A fantasy world that rivals those of Tolkien and Martin, written by the hand of a truly poetic author.

The Name of the Wind tells two stories: Kvothe telling his life story and Kvothe’s story itself. In an inn in no man’s land, the innkeeper Kote decides to tell his story to Chronicler. Kote is actually a the most powerful wizard the Four Corners of Civilisation have ever seen: Kvothe. He tells from when he is a child travelling with his parents’ troupe, through a heart-breaking massacre into being a hobo and then a wizard at the University.

This book is amazing. It is written beautifully, and it has somewhat uncommon narrator. Some chapters, especially the first ones, are narrated in the third person omniscient, telling us how Chronicler arrives at the inn and convinces Kote to tell his story. But the rest of the chapters, around 70% of the chapters, are told in the first person by Kvothe. It makes this a great story because things happen in both stories. They each have their climaxes. The actual story is very good. It is an incredible coming-of-age story, but that is not the main point of the book. It did feel a bit Harry Potter-y, though, when young Kvothe is at the University. It’s oddly similar to Potter’s own experience his first year at Hogwarts.

The writing is majestic. Patrick Rothfuss has a way with words that makes his book a truly delightful read. It is not too descriptive. It shows, rather than tell. It is very light and very fast. One can easily read it in four days with some dedication, even though it is a pretty long book.

The world-building is something that I really need to talk about. It is fantastic, no pun intended. Even though we do not get to see much of the Four Corners of Civilisation in this first book, we do get a map, and I have to say that it is the most European fantasy country I have ever seen. We have a medieval Great Britain in the form of Ceald. Yll would be Italy, even though the Aturan Empire is more like ancient Rome. The Commonwealth is located where Greece would be, complete with its own Aegean Sea. We also get glimpses of the religion in the Four Corners. Religion is a very important part of society.

The world is also very different from our world. For instance, they don’t have seven-day weeks, instead they have eleven-day spans, of which there are four in a month. Their year only has 359 days. Not every fantasy writer takes the time to set their world on another planet, judging by the shorter times. Rothfuss also created languages, or parts of them. We get fragments in Adem and Siaru, amongst others. There are even three different currencies. This world was built astonishingly thoroughly.

The characters were well built and well developed. Kvothe suffers the greatest development, due to the sheer amount of turns his life takes along the book. But he never loses focus on what he really wants and why he really signs up for the University. Though, despite the development, he is a somewhat flat character, both as young Kvothe and as old Kote. Even Bast is a little rounder in some aspects.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Stacking the Shelves (4): In Which I Bought a Boxset

Stacking the Shelves is a weekly meme hosted by Canadian blogger Tynga at Tynga’s Reviews where we share any new books or goodies we bought, received, borrowed, etc. during the week.

On Tuesday, my mum sent me to the bookshop to buy a gift for a girl. As is natural, I searched the whole store, I didn’t just go and buy the book I was requested. The day after, I returned to the bookshop with money for me, I couldn’t not buy the boxset.

A Song of Ice and Fire boxset, by George RR Martin.
Variant, by Robison Wells.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Book review: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by JRR Tolkien

Title: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again
Author: JRR Tolkien
Series: Middle-Earth Legendarium
Genre: Children’s high fantasy
Published: 21 September 1937
Bilbo Baggins is a reasonably typical hobbit: fond of sleeping, eating, drinking, parties and presents. However, it is his destiny to travel to the dwarflands in the east, to help slay the dragon Smaug. His quest takes him through enchanted forests, spiders’ lairs, and under the Misty Mountains, where he comes across the vile Gollum, and tricks him out of his ‘Precious’ - a ring that makes its bearer invisible, and wields a terrible power of its own.
A marvellous journey with dragons, swords and magic, told by the wizard of language: JRR Tolkien.

The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins. He is a pretty normal hobbit who is visited by the wizard Gandalf in order to convince him to aid the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield and his company of twelve other dwarves. They want to get back their home Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, from the claws of Smaug the Magnificent, a dragon who took the Mountain for himself a long time before. Gandalf believes that Bilbo is just what they need, but no one else shares his thought, not even Bilbo himself. They set out and meet spiders, elves, and a plethora of other wonderful and terrible creatures along the way.

The story is great. It is a really good story of discovering one’s real value and of learning to accept others. Bilbo grows to be a hero, a thief, a friend of elves and dwarves, even though he began as a hobbit who had no real interest in meeting either of those races. The dwarves are all reluctant of having Bilbo come with them but end up greeting him as one of their closest friends forever.

The writing is magnificent. Tolkien really is the wizard of words. He knows exactly how to make language do his bidding when he tells it to. I loved that it was written in a really conversational manner, since it is a children’s novel. It wasn’t just conversational, it was as if Tolkien himself was sitting right in front of me telling me the story.

The characters were mostly great. We don’t really get to know the dwarves. But Bilbo and Gandalf were awesome. Most of the caharacter development happened to Bilbo. He starts out as a hobbit who’d really prefer not to go with Thorin and just stay at home, but he ends up being a hero, a real hero.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Book review: The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown

Title: The Lost Symbol
Author: Dan Brown
Series: Robert Langdon, #3
Genre: Adult mystery conspiracy thriller
Published: 15 September 2009
Famed Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon answers an unexpected summons to appear at the U.S. Capitol Building. His planned lecture is interrupted when a disturbing object—artfully encoded with five symbols—is discovered in the building. Langdon recognizes in the find an ancient invitation into a lost world of esoteric, potentially dangerous wisdom. When his mentor Peter Solomon—a longstanding Mason and beloved philanthropist—is kidnapped, Langdon realizes that the only way to save Solomon is to accept the mystical invitation and plunge headlong into a clandestine world of Masonic secrets, hidden history, and one inconceivable truth . . . all under the watchful eye of Dan Brown’s most terrifying villain to date. Set within the hidden chambers, tunnels, and temples of Washington, D.C., The Lost Symbol is an intelligent, lightning-paced story with surprises at every turn--Brown’s most exciting novel yet.
I love Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, and The Lost Symbol was no disappointment. It was amazing.

The story follows Robert Langdon in another of his, oh, so unfortunate adventures. Seriously, though. The guy is just a Harvard professor, why does he just get pulled into so much shit? So, he gets unexpectedly called to the Capitol by what appears to be a call from his mentor and friend Peter Solomon. But then everything goes down the toilet and Langdon is suddenly part of a manic Mason’s search for an ancient mystery that is supposed to allow him to achieve apotheosis, or becoming a god.

This book was just awesome. Conspiracy theories fascinate me. So do secret societies. And the Robert Langdon series has just that. This book was pretty much all about Masonry, just like the first two books had the Illuminati and the Priory of Sion, respectively. It had a really interesting villain, an anti-hero-ish dick, Langdon’s genius and a fantastic plot twist right at the end.

Robert Langdon is great, as always. I love his genius and knowledge. You got to know, I love people, fictional or not, who know lots of stuff. Sue me, I love knowledge. But I still don’t understand how his luck can be so bad. He’s just a sort-of-above-average Harvard professor of symbology. He almost saw the Vatican get ripped apart by antimatter. He discovered the real identity of the Holy Grail. And now he has to protect the world from an ancient knowledge that is dangerous as hell. I’d hate to be him.

The antagonist, Mal’akh, was terrifying and fascinating. His whole body is covered with tattoos. He has a disturbing devotion to the ancient mysteries he is trying so hard to find. He is willing to do anything in order to find them. All he cares about is himself. He is arrogant and selfish. He is definitely the best villain so far in the Bob Langdon series.

Inoue Sato, head of the CIA’s Office of Security, is sort of an antihero in this book. She chases Langdon, who is supposed to help Mal’akh in order to save Solomon. She wants to stop Langdon from unravelling the mystery because it seems like she knows a bit more than she should. But Langdon wants to help Solomon, about whom Sato couldn’t care less. She has good intentions, but she is still an annoying dick.

The ending was... weird. It was sort of underwhelming, but not really. I guess it has to do a lot with the symbolism used to represent the ancient knowledge and the interpretation of it. There was a really great and unexpected plot twist near the end. It really was great.

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