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.

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