I love love love this series but I really don’t think I’ll ever be able to give any of the individual books five stars. A Storm of Swords was4.5 Stars
I love love love this series but I really don’t think I’ll ever be able to give any of the individual books five stars. A Storm of Swords was a huge improvement on A Clash of Kings but, like the previous book, the writing sometimes grated and it lacks a defined plot. Of course, the later is simply the nature of all epic fantasy series – the middle books aren’t intended to be cohesive stand-alone stories, they’re about moving the pieces around, getting the characters in position for the next book and setting up new plot threads – and it’s something this book does exceptionally well, so it probably comes as close to a five star book as this series is ever going to give me.
It might lack the narrative drive which the first book had in the form of Ned’s quest to uncover Jon Arryn’s murder, the characters might be scattered all over Westeros and beyond, but Martin does an excellent job of moving all the competing storylines forward and ending the book with every point of view character in a really interesting place. This is the book that is often lauded by fans as the ‘best of the series’, and I can see why. A lot happens in this book – like seriously, a lot. And not just small things, huge, game changing ‘woaaaah!’ things.
The writing, I’m not going to lie, is still not great. The prologue, in fact, was an abysmal mess of terrible fantasy writing and poorly sketched stereotypical cartoonish villains (there’s the ugly cunning one and the big childish one who takes orders but is really a gentle puppydog deep down). But once I got past that and onto the characters I actually cared about from previous books it improved vastly. The tables have turned since A Clash of Kings and fewer point of view characters are in positions of power and luxury, so the ridiculous lists of foods, jewels, and clothing have been mercifully reduced. They still appear on occasion, but it’s not every single Tyrion chapter anymore. There’s still the odd phrase Martin is inordinately in love with such as ‘in his cups’ and Ygrette’s catchphrase of ‘you know nothing, Jon Snow’ but, for the most part, the writing, like the plot, is way less waffly and repetitive and much better than it was in the previous book.
But onto storyline and characters! A Storm of Swords adds in two new point of view characters, both of whom I really enjoyed: Jaime Lannister and Samwell Tarly. Jaime was one of the main villains in the first book, so it’s great to see things from his side and, for a would-be child murderer, he’s a very fun character. Not necessarily sympathetic, at least not in everything, but he’s amusingly arrogant and provides a much-needed voice of reason against those characters who keep calling him ‘Kingslayer’ as if killing a crazy monarch who routinely burnt people to death for fun was a bad thing. And Sam provides another voice on the wall and amongst the black brothers while Jon’s away.
Of the returning characters Jon and Tyrion probably get the most interesting storylines with Jon off adventuring beyond the wall, playing the turncoat to the Wildlings and trying to inform his brothers of their invasion plan, while Tyrion remains the main eyes and ears for the constant backstabbing politics in King’s landing. Now I’m probably almost alone in this but I don’t like Tyrion very much. His chapters are definitely among the most interesting but that’s because of his position, not because I find him very interesting himself. He’s neither as clever or funny as either he or the people who love him seem to think and he always, always, seems to repeat things repetitively in ways that gradually get me more irritated. Last book it was ‘I’m in love with a whore’ or variations of, which got repeated ad nauseam. This book it’s ‘my sister tried to kill me’/'my sister is evil’, after about the fifth time it’s mentioned in his introductory chapter I kinda got the point. Dany is also finally doing something interesting! Unfortunately she’s still waaaaay oversexualised, but she is doing something – which is a major improvement on the last book.
For me though, it’s all about the Stark kids. Arya is still bumbling around running into one nasty character after another, creating a kill-list that’s a mile long, and providing the ‘what normal people make of all the civil war’ perspective. But even there there’s also some real plot movement for her in this book, even if it isn’t in the way she wanted. She’s one of my absolute favourite characters and the ending left me intrigued as to what will happen to her next. Sansa continues to grow on me as well. Like many people, I have to confess to finding her irritating in the first book, but with every shit thing that happens to her and the way she deals with it I end up liking her more and more. She’s way up in my favourites at this stage and I really hope things get better for her soon. Poor Bran was probably the most shortchanged of all the characters, getting the shortest and most simple storyline in this book – but the promise of a very important part to play in later books, so I guess it balances out.
And to be honest, I can’t really say much more about the plot and events without worrying about spoilers, so I won’t. I was spoiled myself on one of the big plot points and it ended up being a huge anticlimax, which was disappointing, but there were many, many other scenes which took me completely by surprise and I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil for others. What I will say is that it’s miles better than A Clash of Kings (which I enjoyed), the overarching plot progresses a hell of a lot and questions from the first book (who tried to assassinate Bran? What happened to Jon Arryn? Where did the guy who was meant to kill Gregor Clegane go?) are finally answered. It also contains some of the most memorable scenes in the whole series so far, and all the characters end the story in a very different place from where they started out. The ending alone was just…brilliant....more
Since this pops up in people's newsfeeds and I talk about things that happened in books 1-3 I am going to put the whole thing in spoiler tags 3.5 Stars
Since this pops up in people's newsfeeds and I talk about things that happened in books 1-3 I am going to put the whole thing in spoiler tags. Shouldn't be any real spoilers for the book itself though.
(view spoiler)[ So I caved in and gave up on reading each book just before the corresponding TV series started. It was working well for me but eventually I got fed up of people who thought they were being subtle spoiling big events: ‘ooooh, I don’t want to ruin anything but wait til you get to the Red Wedding!’ Fuck off. I mean seriously, stop it, it’s not subtle and mysterious. Anybody with a brain can work out that the term ‘Red Wedding’ signifies a massacre at a wedding feast and then use basic logic to guess at whose wedding - so clearly you either do want to spoil or think I'm really thick. Thankfully not many friends do this to me, but I encountered enough people who thought they were being really enigmatic by blatantly giving away key plot points that I decided to just read ahead so they would stop annoying me with their ‘I know something you don’t know’ twattery as if they’d been inducted to the cult of Cybele or something.
Anyway, book four of A Song of Ice and Fire picks up almost imediately after book three. And there my main problems with this book start. Martin’s initial plan for the series was to include a several year timeskip between books three and four – and you can really tell . Book three rounded most of the characters plots off to a point that made it perfect for a timeskip – Arya was setting off for Bravos, Sansa had escaped kings Landing, Jon had been elected Lord Commander, Joffrey had been replaced on the throne by his brother Tommen and, most crucially, Dany had decided to put off her invasion of Westeros and get some Queen-ing experience over in Myreen. It was ripe for a bit of off-page development and a ‘five years later’ type introduction. Martin’s plan went awry, however and was forced to continue straight on from the previous book instead. This means that things developed a bit too fast for my liking. Cersei’s plot – which is really the meat of this volume – should have been one of slow-burning political machinations spanning years but instead seemed rushed and squeezed in to just a few months.
In an effort not to scrimp on showing any of the characters, Martin has also split the narrative in two with A Feast for Crows catching up with only half the cast and the fifth book, A Dance With Dragons, showing what’s been happening with the others. This means that fan favourite characters Tyrion and Danny don’t appear at all in A Feast For Crows. Given that I find Danny’s chapters the worst with their over sexualisation, exotification, and marked reliance on fantasy clichés when compared to the other chapters, I didn’t particularly mind losing out on those. And Tyrion gets the best chapters only by having the best supporting cast but is quite an annoying character on his own so again, I wasn’t fussed. I did miss Bran and Jon though. After all, I am much more interested in what’s happening at and beyond the Wall than I am in Danny’s boobs or Tyrion’s cock (who could probably get chapters to themselves by this point).
So I was mourning a couple of characters I’ve enjoyed since the first book when A Feast for Crows introduces a whole slew of new viewpoint characters on me; the Greyjoys of Pike and the Martells of Dorne. And partly due to their newness and distance from the main Westeros plot and partly due to the naming convention of their chapters I found it difficult to get into these characters. Instead of their chapters being titled ‘Arys’ or ‘Asha’ you get ‘The Soiled Knight’, ‘The Kraken’s Daughter’ and such – all of which rather invites you to see them as narrative devices rather than major characters or players in the Game of Thrones. Although I came to quite like the Martells and their scheming for revenge and rebellion, I found the Greyjoys plot line fairly dull. I assume it will be important later, but it’s hard to care about it.
The meat of the story, though, is Cersei’s and for the first time Martin gives us Cersei viewpoint chapters. As a Cersei lover I was both looking forward to and dreading this because Cersei worked so well in the first three books when other characters could only guess at her thoughts or motivations. And yeah, although I still love her I was kind of disappointed with what I saw in her viewpoint chapters and how quickly she lost her grip on things after Tywin’s murder. Most of this, though, comes from aforementioned squeezing down of the timeframe. As Littlefinger lampshades ‘I never expected she [Cersei] would do it quite so fast. . . I had hoped to have four or five quiet years…‘. You and me both, Littlefinger, that's about what I would have expected as well at the end of book three. The rapid development of Cersei’s plot just feels too fast to me, while I could perfectly see it happening at a slower pace. They’re still some of the best chapters in the book, due to being the main Kings Landing ones but it all just seems a bit too much too fast.
Other characters such as Sansa, Arya, Brienne and Samwell all put in appearances as well, but the plot of this book is definitely about the political landscapes of Kings Landing, Dorne, and the Iron Islands. Other chapters (although I loved Arya’s) really do come across as removed interludes to main meat of the story, essential for the wider plot of A Song of Ice and Fire, but not for the smaller plot of A Feast for Crows. Martin did some interesting things with the Stark girls, playing with their sense of identity now that they are both in hiding and disguised, but most of Samwell and Brienne’s chapters often felt unnecessary with plot points dragged out over two or three chapters that could have easily been done in one. This was the other pacing issue with this book, while previous instalments in the series may have been long there always seemed to be a point to every chapter, book four feels a lot more aimless.
That said, and I know Ive been pretty critical, I enjoyed this book. Martin’s prose is still not great and occasionally terrible (the prologue is, just as in the last book a real struggle to get through) but once I got used to it it was a very enjoyable and compelling read. It’s not as good as previous books in the series, but that doesn’t make it bad either. I do hope, though, that when book six finally comes out with all the characters back together again, that the series will return to A Storm of Swords quality. (hide spoiler)]...more
I’ve spoken about my love of all things Arthurian before, so I was really expecting to enjoy this book. All the ingrediCrossposted from my blog
I’ve spoken about my love of all things Arthurian before, so I was really expecting to enjoy this book. All the ingredients are there – it’s centered on a character I normally like, on events that are often just skated over as prologue, and grounded in more unique ‘realistic’ Dark Age Britain than the typical ‘castles and knights’ setting. It was also pretty popular back in its day. Alas, I learn, yet again, that popularity often has little to do with quality. It’s not that I actively dislike the book – it’s solidly in ‘ok’ territory – but I can’t really think of anything I liked about it either. There were a lot of neat ideas but, like every character in this novel, they were never developed.
It’s told, first-person, from Merlin’s perspective as an old man looking back on his life. However, the first few pages of the prologue, where Merlin describes how his memory works as an old man ‘the recent past is misted while distant scenes of memory are clear and brightly coloured’ is the last time the narrator sounds the age he is meant to be. When describing his childhood, he sounds like neither a child or an old man looking back on events – his voice simply narrates things, as they happened, with very little passion or personality, even when describing his strongest feelings. It’s all a bit too measured and distanced so that, despite being the narrator, I never felt remotely drawn to him or that I had any sort of grip on his personality. Since Merlin was both the narrator and the only character that seemed intended as more than a bunch of familiar stereotypes, this was a pretty big problem.
The story chugs away pretty slowly and, because I wasn’t enamoured with the narration, at times it felt a bit like wading through treacle. Even when things did happen, though, I didn’t feel particularly excited. Everything had a tendency to happen to the characters, rather than the characters doing things for themselves. Even declaring war seemed to be just a natural course of events rather than a proactive decision made by a person. This lack of agency was only enhanced by Merlin’s magic – which rather unsatisfactorily seemed to consist of knowing what to do and that he would get out ok. As he says himself ‘I am a spirit, a word, a thing of air and darkness, and I can no more help what I am doing than a reed can help the wind of god blowing through it’. Which means that, since Merlin never once tries to stray from this path or do anything for himself without ‘the wind of god’, that there’s really no tension, and that anything Merlin does achieve isn’t something that can really be attributed to his character but to the undefined ‘god’. It robs Merlin of the moral ambiguity he should have and makes him a dumb, uninteresting, tool instead of a great, cunning and complex character. Throughout the later sections of the book when Merlin’s reputation had grown far and wide, all I could think of was ‘why? He’s done nothing for himself yet’. If his personality had been more complex, this wouldn’t be a problem, but his personality was simply ‘I am the breath of god’ and never got any further than that.
And if you don’t like Merlin there’s really no one to relate to or care about in this book. His servants Cadal and Cerdic are both quite likable – but almost completely interchangeable. His teachers Galapas and Belasius have quite different methods and attitudes, but don’t get meaty enough roles for this to even be an interesting contrast. Ambrosius is wise and patient, Uther is rash, petty and impulsive. Every female is either a saint, ‘slut’, or nursemaid. The simplistic style of both the narration and the characterisation actually left me stunned when, in the last half I discovered through repeated casual use of the word ‘slut’ and one boob-groping almost-sex scene that this wasn’t written as a children’s book. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that makes it unsuitable for most kids (I would probably have really enjoyed this book about 15 years ago) but it’s a pretty stong indicator it wasn’t meant to be aimed at them. Which left me naturally wondering who exactly it was aimed at, because it really doesn’t read like a book aimed at adults either.
Eventually, the author’s note at the back of the book clued me in – people who enjoy the Arthur myth. Well, I love the King Arthur myth and it didn’t work for me. When Merlin visits the well outside Galapas’ cave I wasn’t thinking ‘oh, that’s a really clever reference to a line in Monmouth’ or when Belasius becomes Merlin’s tutor I wasn’t going ‘Ah, the romanised name of a character who got mentioned in an offhand remark in Monmouth’. Was I hell, I was hoping that they would be interesting and relevant characters and events in this book, the one I was actually reading. I’ve got nothing against these little references, actually I really like them usually, but if they take up that much page-time they need to serve a narrative purpose too. As it is there was a huge section of ‘part II’ that dealt with Merlin discovering that Belasius was a druid – and that’s not even a spoiler because literally nothing developed out of this multi-chapter waste of time and it was hardly mentioned again. The only purpose, seemingly, was to fit in the names of a couple of characters from Monmouth – one who did reappear towards the end, but in such a totally minor role that he may as well have been introduced to the reader then.
Despite all that I wouldn’t say it’s a bad book. Most of it would make an alright children’s novel and the only thing I really took offense to was the casual misogyny and the way in which every single female character was portrayed. And yes, part of this is the setting but I don’t think that’s an excuse – A Song of Ice and Fire has an even more misogynist setting with an even more pervasive rape culture, but it still manages to have strong female characters and to indicate that there is something deeply wrong and unpleasant with the anti-female attitudes of the societies it portrays. Merlin, however, despite hearing that his mother was beaten almost into miscarriage for getting pregnant outside marriage, despite observing the way she was treated, even despite learning later exactly how long his mother had known his father, still goes about throwing words like ‘slut’ around to describe a serving girl in a relationship with her master and then has the audacity to complain that she left him to fend for himself when her master leaves the house. This on the same page as he’s mooning over a totally transparently non-celibate nun. Only Niniane and Ygraine escape with anything remotely resembling complex characterisation – and even then it’s all about their love lives.
All in all a disappointing book on a huge number of levels for me. But I wouldn’t tell other people not to read it. I can see why people might like it but it simply didn’t work for me. As a retelling of Merlin’s early life I guess the ideas are quite interesting, as a story in its own right it’s simply dull. The elements are all there, but they’ve been stuck together with plasticine.
I’m half tempted to read the rest of the series anyway, just to see how Stewart handles King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but there are so many other books out there that I know I’ll enjoy, that I probably won’t bother....more
Mwaha! After 24 years I finally managed to finish The Hobbit! And I enjoyed it a lot more than I though I would.
To explain my apprehensions a 4 stars
Mwaha! After 24 years I finally managed to finish The Hobbit! And I enjoyed it a lot more than I though I would.
To explain my apprehensions a bit more: I tried to read The Hobbit many, many times in my childhood and each time utterly hated it and failed miserably. I think several of the very numerous creases and damage to the cover of my family’s copy may even have come from me hurling it away in disgust. What annoyed me most though, what really, annoyed me was always that it was a story I should have absolutely loved – all the plot ingredients were there; quests, dragons, dwarves, goblins, treasure, all that fantasy stuff I used to practically live and breathe – but I just simply couldn’t get over the fucking tone of the book. I felt patronised by the narrator, annoyed by the constant outbursts of song, and generally talked down to. In fact, when I was about five, I very stroppily insisted that my parents never tried to play the audiobook in the car ever again (it was a staple for long journeys at the time) because, although the bits with the trolls and the goblins and the dragon were great, I was fed up of hearing how ‘Bilbo Baggins wished he was back in his hobbit hole. Not for the last time!’ repeated every few minutes.
So, despite loving the basic plot and absolutely adoring Lord of the Rings, I'd never managed to finish The Hobbit and was very, very apprehensive about giving it another go – but all the same I really wanted to at least try before I went to see the film. And actually I’m really fucking glad that I did, cause read with adult eyes I actually really liked it (though I confess to still being annoyed by the songs).
As I’m sure everyone will know, The Hobbit tells the story of the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and his many wonderful aventures after becoming reluctantly roped into helping the least-prepared band of dwarves ever reclaim their treasure from the dragon who ruined their homeland. It also (again as everyone knows) serves as a prequel of sorts to The Lord of the Rings, though is very different in tone. Written for a younger audience it’s more episodic in structure and fun in nature than its sprawling sequel. The quest to recover the dwarvish treasure serves as an overarching plot but, for the first half of the book at least, the journey to the Lonely Mountain where the dragon lives is made up of a series of random encounters and seemingly unrelated adventures. More than being a fun adventure story, however, there’s also a strong character arc (for Bilbo anyway) and a surprisingly mature finale. For a rather slim book there’s a hell of a lot happens and, save for the stupid songs, there’s almost never a dull moment. So although I hated it as a child I have to admit that it’s not at all hard to see why it is such a very beloved children’s classic.
The first part, where the dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf have to overcome obstacle after obstacle to reach the dragon’s lair is still probably my favourite – I’ve always been a sucker for ‘journey stories’ and all the really memorable incidents happen here, the trolls, the goblins, Gollum. But it’s also where the tone is at it’s most irritating – the ‘not for the last time!‘s are frequent (though thankfully not as frequent as I seemed to recall) and the Rivendell elves who sing the ‘O! tra-la-la-lally/here down in the valley!/ha ha!’ song deserve thirteen dwarven axes to the fucking head, but the Gollum episode alone makes up for that. Gollum is, quite simply, the absolute best thing about Middle Earth – full stop. I loves him, I loves him, I loves him.
The rest of the story never quite reaches the brilliance that is Riddles in the Dark where Gollum appears, but it’s still pretty damn good and, as the journey portion concludes and the company realise they actually have to face the dragon, Smaug, you begin to really see the influence that sagas and epic poetry had on Tolkien’s writing. At least one episode with Smaug is lifted almost directly from Beowulf (maybe more, I’m only partway through Beowulf at the moment) and the characters prove to be far more flawed and selfish than you normally find in the heroes of children’s books. It turns the fun romp through the forests and mountains of the first half into something more poignant and mature. I’m not entirely sure I would have got on with this section so well when I was younger – I was normally asleep by this point when we played the audiobook in the car and I probably wasn’t used to protagonists turning out to be dickish and random people who had only just been introduced doing important deeds that would normally be reserved for the heroes – but I liked it and it is, I think, one of the things that sets The Hobbit apart from similar children’s adventure stories.
And onto the downsides. Again, I found the songs and poems (with the exception of Gollum’s riddles) annoying, far too frequent, and mostly unneccessary. The last chapter alone had three songs in it – none of them needed. I guess there must be people out there who like them but I’m really not one. They were shorter than I remembered though, which was something at least. The amount of stuff per page ratio also meant that very few of the characters apart from Bilbo ever got that much focus or do much for themselves. The thirteen dwarves are, for the most part, completely interchangeable and there seems no reason for half of them to be there except to bulk up the numbers so that Bilbo can make the group a ‘lucky fourteen’. Thorin is the leader and a bit of a pompous dickwad, Kili and Fili are the youngest and therefore get all the shitty jobs, Balin is friendlier with Bilbo than most of the others and Bombur is constantly refered to and berated for being fat enough for two. And that’s literally all the character traits I can remember. I think Oin and Gloin light a candle at one point but I can’t remember them doing anything else even remotely useful. It’s the nature of this type of epic adventure storytelling of course to focus almost solely the main character (few of Odysseus’s sailors or Beowulf’s companions are even given names for example) but it does make them feel rather like dead weight a lot of the time. Combine that with the fact they’re also the most incompetent bunch of adventurers ever, constantly in need of rescuing and never managing even a single thing for themselves, and I feel rather sorry for the dwarves. They clearly didn’t know (or stop to consider) just what their quest actually entailed. They’re so clueless about their planned adventure that they pack musical instruments but no proper weapons! I can’t help but feel that Gandalf really should have given the poor things a better briefing.
Overall though a very enjoyable little book. The bits that annoyed me as a child still annoyed me as an adult though not to anything near the same extent. I do wish there had been a bit less singing and a bit more of certain characters in it, but I liked it all a hell of a lot more than I was expecting to. A pretty solid 4 stars....more
I seem to be going on a bit of a supernatural binge recently; first Dracula, now this, and next it’ll probably be that werewolf book that’s been gathering dust on my shelves. If this isn’t your thing, sorry, I’ll be back to reviewing other genres again soon, I just need something easy but fun while I get through the last of my exams. And onto the book… I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting but what I got was a modern (if we can call something written in the 1980s and set in the 1850s modern) vampire novel that didn’t make me pull a face in disgust, roll my eyes, click my tongue, or hurl the book across the room. For that alone it should get at least four stars. Extra marks for being a damn good yarn and just the sort of book I was in the mood for. It’s not a perfect book but it left me with a happy ‘just what I needed right now’ afterglow.
The vampires are no Draculas – like almost all writers, Martin gives his own spin on the realities and fictions of vampire lore – but they are wonderfully dark, seductive, and chilling – with the emphasis where it should be; ‘dark’ and ‘chilling’. Simultaneously both more complex and far more simplistic than Dracula, these are the sort of vampires to run away from really really fast. But they’re not all the same either, there are distinct personalities among them that make them relatable, in their own way – no ‘all vampires are soulless and identical’ stereotyping to make it easier for humans to guiltlessly eliminate them. Although I wasn’t too keen on some of the changes Martin made to vampire lore – the physical differences between human and vampire anatomy for one – I did approve of the handling of the vampires personalities. Even the idea of whether a vampire could go ‘vegetarian’ if they wanted was floated in a way that didn’t make me rage too hard (which is an impressive feat) and some good mileage was gotten from the ‘are we really any different from humans who eat meat’ line. You can see the inspiration from Stoker there, of course – Dracula has his ‘brides’ (who are quite frankly pretty ineffective), the bad guy here has a whole mixed gender entourage, Dracula has Renfield, the vampires here have Sour Billy and Abner Marsh to do their bidding and assist their aims during the daylight hours. The details and mythology are changed but the ideas remain – and I thought the idea of having the vampires as pack creatures with an ‘alpha-vampire’ was a lovely, and very sinister development. People who can calmly command others to do horrific things are almost always more scary than those that do horrific things on their own (in fiction at least)
What really suckered me in though, as well as the refreshingly dark vampires, was the setting. New Orleans is one of the few places in the USA I really really want to visit and somehow it just seems the right place to dump vampires, and the slave-trading 1850s the perfect time period for it. It’s not just the vampires; the whole society of the place is rotten and festering and violent and ugly, hiding beneath a thin outward veneer of beauty. And the Fevre Dream herself is the same – beautiful and grand and hubristically opulent, it’s almost asking for the trouble it gets. As her journey downriver just gets worse and worse and the boat travels deeper and deeper into slave trading county towards New Orleans, the tension and foreboding atmosphere is almost palpable. And there’s a certain simple genius in the idea too – vampires on steamboats, travelling up and down the country able to stop off and kill at any point along the river, all the while living in complete luxury…it just fits somehow.
The one thing I had misgivings on after reading the blurb, some of Martin’s stylistic tendencies, didn’t actually bother me in the slightest. Yes, Martin does list everything that ends up on a character’s plate, but here it works far better than it does in A Song of Ice and Fire because his main character is an overweight glutton. He’s also brilliant and brave and stubborn, but he loves his food and it makes perfect sense for it to be mentioned so much in the third-person limited narration. And the clothes descriptions…thankfully few and far between, or at least it felt that way, mainly reserved for first impressions and significant outfits.
The characterisation is well, what you’d expect from a George R.R. Martin book really – pretty solid for the main characters, a bit simplistic for some of the side ones. I loved that the hero was a fat warty old(ish) guy. There aren’t enough ugly protagonists and I really loved Abner Marsh not just for that but for being a straightforward, slightly slow but not unintelligent, normal bloke. Joshua York I was less enamoured with, but he was more interesting than your standard vampire even if he came off a little cliché at times. Few of the other vampires were really given enough pagetime, Julian was a monster, but a suave one, Valerie was flighty and romantic, others you ot a general impression of, but there were a number of names that I’m not sure ever did get paired with personalities or faces. I would really liked to have seen a bit more of Jean and Catherine in particular as they both seemed interesting characters in their own right, but I understand the limits of the narration style and the character relationships didn’t allow for that. A good enough job was done in establishing the vampires as not all being of the same temperament and opinions that I can’t complain too hard that not all of them got intricate backstories. Sour Billy, though…he’s written to be hated; a nasty racist, sadistic, little shit of the highest degree, but to be honest I spent a lot of the book feeling pretty ambivalent towards him and seeing him more for his role in the story rather than taking his character too much to heart. Probably because his brand of violence is true to the setting and time period, I reserved almost all of my disgust for the concept and history of slavery and the real life people who abused and still abuse others they view as below them, rather than for Billy, who is only a fictional character. When he does horrific things to the black slaves, and non-slaves, I didn’t feel the surge of hatred towards Billy that I should; just shock and outage for the more minor characters and all the people who really went through that experience.
Now I realise I haven’t said much about the plot other than what can already be inferred from the blurb; that’s because it was surprisingly unpredictable, taking a couple of turns I hadn’t quite expected, and I don’t want to spoil anything. This makes saying what I didn’t like so much a bit problematic. I’ll just say that the rating reflects purely how much I enjoyed the book rather than how wonderfully well written, fully fleshed out and likely to become a classic it is. I had several mostly minor quibbles with Joshua’s backstory when we finally get it, but it was written before a lot of the newer vampire stuff that’s turned that storyline into such a cliché, so I’ll give Martin some leeway there. I’m not entirely sure everything always played out in the best way but it was enjoyable and that’s all I really asked of this book. The only scene I have to say that I genuinely disliked was when, to show off how lawless a place was, a random background character stripped an unconcious girl naked and started unbuttoning his trousers only for someone to intervene – by telling him to carry her upstairs and do his business there. It served the purpose of showing how unconcerned everyone there was very well but I didn’t like it, and the later back-reference of ‘it’s ok, she probably woke up and slit his throat’ just seemed to trivialise the rape/intended rape a bit too much for my liking. I know Martin was pulling the ‘nobody is innocent, and everyone here is a criminal’ card by turning the implied rape on its head but it was such an offhand comment it didn’t really work for me.
Apart from that one bum note, however, it was a really enjoyable read. Not something I would recommend to anyone who passionately dislikes vampires, genre fiction, or George R.R. Martin - but if you’re willing to give any of those a try and you like your vampires pretty dark, it’s worth giving this one a go. Sure, it’s not ‘great literature’, but for what it is, it's very good - and a damn fun way to spend a few hours (especially just after a very stressful exam!)....more
Again, this is going out to my newsfeed so whole review under spoilers for discussion of books 1-4
(view spoiler)[Running concurrently (for the first half at least) with events from A Feast For Crows, A Dance With Dragons follows the characters who didn’t appear there – mostly Tyrion, Jon and Daenerys. With the main cast scattered across the Narrow Sea up or North of the Wall it works better as a Song of Ice and Fire book than A Feast For Crows did. In the last book the plot felt very centred around Kings Landing with chapters set elsewhere feeling very much like interludes, A Dance With Dragons is a return to the feel of the first three books – geographically diverse and nominally ‘separate’ plotlines all interweaving to form a much larger story.
It also brings the return of some of my favourite (and least favourite) characters. Bran is back! I’m not sure there’s enough of him, to be honest, but he’s back and he’s north of the Wall. Also Davos. No matter what anyone else says I love Davos. Theon (who I hate) is back, and actually has an interesting role to play this time in an interesting plot line. And then there’s the ‘big three’ – Tyrion, Jon, and Daenerys – all of whom have big things going on for them in this book. Dany is trying (and failing) to rule the conquered city of Myreen (why do people want her as queen of Westeros again? She’s just as terrible as you would expect a power mad overly entitled 15 year old to be if you gave her a throne), Jon as the newly elected commander of the Nights Watch is giving the Wall a serious shaking up, and Tyrion is on the run after murdering the most powerful man in the kingdom.
So right from the offset there’s a wider variety of things going on than in the previous book – which also means that some of the story lines are probably more hit-or-miss too, depending on what your reader preferences are. Personally, I found the Dany chapters tedious and unpleasantly colonialist (nothing quite as bad as the third HBO season’s white saviour shot of her crowdsufing her rescued brown subjects but yeah… that imagery certainly came from somewhere). I also wasn’t keen, and never have been, on the way she, as a very young teenage girl, is presented as a male sexual fantasy. Compare the treatment of her character with that of Sansa, who is only a year or two younger, and I actually feel quite sick. And this book especially was big on the ‘sexy Dany’ as she considers both offers of political marriages and her own inexplicable attraction to a man who dies his beard blue. Yes, girls did get sexualised younger in earlier time periods that Martin uses as his inspiration, I have no real problem with the characters doing that but the way its presented (and has been from book one) by the author always makes me feel as a reader that I’m meant to enjoy and be complicit in the sexualisation and I’m really, really not. Possitives though – at least this time she’s and active agent in her sexuality and sex life, making her own choices rather than being sold into sexual slavery and raped. Aside from the skeevy pervy bits I also found her chapters pretty dull and I could see where most of it was going well before we got there.
I vastly preferred Jon Snow and Tyrion’s chapters. Jon is really coming into his own, proving to his men that he isn’t just a kid but that he’s a Commander who will take control, shake things up, and try to reform the Night Watch to the power it once was. But, as with all reformers, not everyone will agree with him. I will be very very interested to see what happens on the Wall when book six eventually comes out. And Tyrion, as always, gets some of the best chapters by merit of the most interesting and varied supporting cast. But he still has the unfortunately repetitive habit of repetitively repeating the same things repeatedly. In previous books it’s been ‘I’m in love with a whore’ and ‘my sister tried to kill me’, this book it’s ‘I killed my father and King Joffrey’ (only one of which is true) and ‘Maybe I should ask her/him/them ‘where whores go”. Also there’s the fact that in the third book he murdered a woman for the crime of sleeping with someone who wasn’t him. There’s not really any coming back from that in my eyes, no matter how witty you are.
Which, funnily enough, is also the problem I have with relatively new viewpoint character Victarian. Introduced in A Feast for Crows, he returns in this book when the timelines merge once more. Brother of the new king of the Iron Islands, and experienced raider, Victorian bears a grudge against his brother for shagging his saltwife and ’forcing’ Victarian to kill her. No sympathy. Really. None. Anyways, he’s been given the mission of bringing the Dragon Queen, Daenerys back as a wife for the new new king of the Iron Islands. So there’s a lot of him travelling on a boat, raping a ‘dark mute’ his brother gave him as a present, and plotting to marry Dany for himself. And he’s not the only one, Quentin Martell of Dorne is on his way to Myreen as well to court the new Queen and persuade her to return to Westeros and take an army of Dornishmen as a wedding gift.
So lots going on in this book. Some worked for me (mostly the bits in northern Westeros and north of the Wall), some didn’t. It felt more like a Song of Ice and Fire book in structure and plot than the previous volume did. But I found that this was the book where I found popular criticisms of Martins style the most valid – the sexualisation bothered me more than in previous books and seemed more out of place, I felt there was a lot more rape happening on page and that it was presented in more worrying ways than in earlier volumes (a prior relationship with a man – only revealed after the sex scene – does not give him the right to corner you outside your bedroom and fuck you until you cry after you say ‘no’.) and there was a heavy-handed and exoticism and otherising in the way non-westerosi characters were portrayed that made Dany’s conquest and rulership uncomfortable. Probably most annoying from a purely narrative perspective, though, was that Martin’s penchant for unexpected twists and ‘it can always get worse’ meant that at the end of the book I was left with a ‘well what was the point of all that then?’ feeling. The place that Martin chose to wrap up the book (apparently earlier than he had wanted, pushing some already written material back into the next book) meant that several of the plotlines, for me, ended up feeling like a five-book-long shaggy dog story.
So yeah, I really enjoyed this book, it’s highly readable, and I really look forward to the sequel – especially for what’s happening in the north and at the Wall – but I did have some pretty big problems with it too and I don’t want to gloss over them. Hope to see all the characters together again properly in The Winds of Winter, whenever that comes out. (hide spoiler)]...more
First off I want to state that despite giving this review only one star I did not hate it, neither, however, can I in good faith rate it as 'ok'. It wFirst off I want to state that despite giving this review only one star I did not hate it, neither, however, can I in good faith rate it as 'ok'. It wasn't ok, it was a total mess, but lurking in the first few chapters there was the potential for a good book - if only the author had been more concerned with the writing than the pictures.
The book's Wikipedia page says 'This children's book was originally intended to be a picture book featuring photographs Riggs had collected, but on the advice of an editor at Quirk Books, he used the photographs as a guide from which to put together a narrative.' and you can tell. The photographs aren't used to illustrate the story so much as the plot has been stretched out of shape to incorporate the pictures. The especially sad thing about this is that I would have loved the original concept - it was the photographs that drew me into buying this book and dissapointment at the mangled plot that made me donate it to charity.
The writing actually starts off well enough. For the first few chapters I was hooked, I even recommended it to my younger sister who hardly ever reads. It was tense, atmospheric, and the use of photographs - presented as once belonging to the protagonists recently deceased grandfather - made sense. However once the protagonist reaches the Welsh island he thinks will hold the answers to all his questions about his grandfather the plot takes a turn into WTFery.
Putting aside the irritating clichéness of the setting - a bleak windswept island that's barely heard of modern tecnology and the even more irritating superior attitude of the American protagonist who has heard of modern technology (such out of reach places do exist, afterall). The plot decided to take a bizare turn from creepy and atmospheric children's-horror -which was what it had been sold as - to (view spoiler)[a time travelling romance with kiddy X-Men. (hide spoiler)]
The use of pictures became increasingly poorly justified as we moved away from ones that were part of the Grandad's collection, and it soon became clear that the photographs were a crutch for both the plot and the writing. Why write a detailed description when you can say one short sentence and then stick in a picture? And then consistency issues within the photographs themselves started to appear too - I gave my book to charity so I can't double check but the protagonist's love interest looked like a different person in each photograph she appeared in and none of them matched the protagonists repeated textual description of her as 'totally hot' (maybe I'm just being shallow there though and if I'm wrong about it being a different girl in each do correct me).
After a very promising start the middle section was dragged out and dull - a cross between Tom's Midnight Garden (without the charm) and (view spoiler)[the X-Men (with none of the excitement) (hide spoiler)] with an unnecessary dose of emotionally disturbing romance. Then along came the ending; an info-dump and an anti-climax leading to a 'to be continued'. Thanks, but no thanks, the gimmick couldn't be sustained past the half way point of one book, let alone prop up a whole series.
I feel bad giving a debut author such a bad rating so some positives: I really enjoyed the first few chapters, Riggs writes well in the first few chapters and the depiction of a grieving teenager with post-traumatic-stress was well done right up until the point they got to cliché Bleak-Island. If he hadn't commited himself so hard into stringing along a plot purely to including his favourite photographs, Riggs could have written something quite good (or better than this at least)....more
First thing’s first – I adore Venice and so am horribly biased in this books favour. It’s a far from perfect book, and I’ll get onto that later4 Stars
First thing’s first – I adore Venice and so am horribly biased in this books favour. It’s a far from perfect book, and I’ll get onto that later, but it really does capture the magic of the city. Or at least it did for me; how someone who has never visited the place would find it though…I’m not that sure. In fact I would probably only gift this to a child who already had some knowledge of, or better yet had actually been to Venice. There’s a handy map with key locations on at the very start of the book and a fantastic set of very accessible author’s notes at the back, but to get full enjoyment from it I do think the reader has to have at least seen a photo of Venice. Because, putting aside the beautiful and lovingly depicted setting, the storyline and characterisation are fairly standard children’s fantasy fare.
Teodora is an orphan, with no knowledge of her real parents but a deep yearning to see Venice. We can already see where the backstory will be going, yes? She also has some pretty nifty abilities, not least a form of magic synaesthesia where she can see people’s words, written in their handwriting, hovering above their head when they speak. She also has a photographic memory, can read people’s hearts and deepest emotions by touching their chest, and can read upside down. After years of nagging, her adoptive parents finally and reluctantly take eleven year old Teodora to see Venice. Problem is that they’re scientists, and the only reason they’re in Venice is for urgent scientific discussions on how to save the city from the sudden and bizarre series of problems that threaten to destroy it; the wells spout boiling poison water and the high lands flood while the lowlands stay dry. And if you think that sounds more like a magical curse that science won’t be able to solve you would be absolutely right.
So it’s a typical orphan discovers a magical society, saves the world/Venice and discovers their true identity after teaming up with a member of the opposite sex that they initially deeply disliked. Oh, and throw in a prophecy that could only be talking about her as well… I probably read hundred’s of these when I was a kid. What sets it out from the rest is the setting and the history. Every little thing – from the big-bad of the book, his child-killing henchman, to the winged lions and giant cats who protect the city – have their basis in Venetian history, folklore, or art. The henchman, horrifically, is apparently from the first group and used to sell a very popular cannibal stew before he was discovered and executed – like a real life Sweeney Todd without the hairdressing or the middle-woman. And it’s titbits like that that really brought the story to life for me and sucked me in. It’s an amazingly informative book and you can tell the author has done a shitload of research, but the facts are worked in almost seamlessly into the story and I rarely felt that I was being lectured or info-dumped on.
And because the writer has such a grip on the sense of place and history, the sense of atmosphere comes off very well too. The prologue is a beautiful thing; a wonderfully creepy and unsettling introduction to the undead antagonist and his powers as, against all advice, a young family attempt to cross the lagoon on a foggy evening to baptise their infant daughter. It’s probably the best moment of the book but the creepy atmosphere does pervade the rest of the novel as well, not least the Brustolons dripping blood from their mouths that start appearing everywhere (though I was very glad when the racist history of these objects and the horrors of the Venetian slave trade were finally addressed). Like most good children’s books for this age group, it’s dark, creepy, and atmospheric with a real sense of danger and doesn’t shy away from the idea of death.
Where it falls down though is the characterisation. Brownie points for Teo’s adoptive parents being genuinely loving towards her, but a couple taken away for making them the sort of oversimplified scientists who don’t get ‘the arts’ at all – at least until the very end. And the rest of the side characters are similarly sketched out or stereotypical. Even Teodora and Renzo I never felt had all that much depth to them. Renzo is clever – which means he knows local history – and a bit of a snob, while Teodora is a generic ‘nice to everyone’ protagonist. Out of the two of them this makes Renzo the more interesting character with the larger story arc, although he doesn’t end up doing that much except providing Teodora with explanations for things. Teodora meanwhile has all these amazing talents but constantly forgets to use them – in fact I’m not sure why the ‘can read people’s hearts by touching them’ power was there at all if it wasn’t actually going to be used for anything. Maybe it’ll be used more effectively in the next book.
The end half of the plot left a little to be desired as well, with the way to defeat the big bad being far too easy and slightly underwhelming. And I wish the magic of The Key to the Secret City had been either a bit more explained or had nothing directly to do with the mermaids. But, to be honest, for what I was reading this book for, these are fairly minor nitpicks. It’s a decently told pageturner with some original touches that I really liked – Theodora’s ability to see the spoken word, for one, and the mermaids having learnt ‘human’ from sailors all having rather coarse language (though it could have done with being more distinctly Italian or mishmash of languages than ‘pirate’ /’cockney’). Teodora’s not the most compelling main character and I wish Renzo had done a bit more, but I still liked them both and they’re probably on about the same level as most children’s protagonists.
In fact that’s probably something true of the whole novel – a very good children’s book but, if not for the magic of the Venetian setting, not an outstanding one. I enjoyed it a lot, enough to get a copy for my friend’s birthday and reserve the next book at the library, and I would definitely recommend it, but it’s not mindblowing....more
In many ways this book is very similar to another I’ve read this summer; both are European-inspired fantasy, both first-person narratives of an3 stars
In many ways this book is very similar to another I’ve read this summer; both are European-inspired fantasy, both first-person narratives of an older man looking back on his youth, both main characters are royal bastards with magical powers looked down upon by their contemporaries and more at home with servants, and both go on to use skills and cleverness, even more than their natural magic, to become invaluable weapons and support to their royal patron. The difference is, however, that The Crystal Cave is pretty rubbish, while Assassin’s Apprentice is very good. So why then only 3 stars? Well, quite simply it was one of those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ books – I enjoyed it very much when I was reading it but every time I put it down it just didn’t have the ‘grab’ factor to make me want to pick it back up again straight away. And without that ‘grab’ factor I don’t think I can really award it 4 stars or above.
And there were other factors as well that led to reduced stars.To be honest, this book and I didn’t quite hit it off right from the start. On the very first page in fact, after the extract from the ‘history of the setting’ textbook which prefaces each chapter, I almost hurled my book across the room with a dramatic ‘Noooooooooo!‘ when I saw that the first line was ‘My pen falters, then falls from my knuckly grip‘. A whole 400 plus page book in first-person present tense? Say it ain’t so! Thankfully, reading on a couple of pages proved it wasn’t so as the narrator slipped back into telling his story in the past tense. Even so, it was an unpleasant scare and one that probably affected my enjoyment of the early parts of the book more than it should have done.
But I got past that and, by the end, I was really enjoying the book. Fitz is an interesting character, a little slow at times perhaps, and unusually prone to having people just reveal important facts when he’s around, but interesting and fairly realistic and sympathetic in his flaws and concerns. Other characters…Verity I quite fancy actually. As a middle sibling I think I have a lot of sympathy for the second son, always overlooked in favour of his brother, trying to come to terms with the inevitable comparisons and do his best despite not feeling adequate. Burrich…I believe I was meant to like, or at least grow to like him. But I didn’t. Not that I hated him either; I could see all the reasons why I should like him and why he was a complex character but it all seemed so obviously designed to make me like him that in the end I just felt a bit ‘bleh’ ambivalent about him. And that’s a fault I found with the characters all the way through actually. While the good guys were not perfect (the main character’s training to be a killer after all) they were notably sympathetic while all the bad guys were unambiguously evil, untalented, petty, jealous and vindictive with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. All of which made the final confrontation rather predictable and unsurprising. Even the reveal had me going ‘well yeah, how could you not have worked that out for yourself already?’. It didn’t help that this plotline was rather rushed, being pushed into and then resolved in, only the last few chapters.
While Assassins Apprentice is a very good introduction to the world of the ‘Six Duchies’, the key character’s that inhabit it, and the overarching plot for the whole series, it fell down a little as a self-contained story. It’s the first part of a three-book ‘biography’, and it reads that way; the majority of the page count is spent on Fitz growing up and the experiences that effect his development, so much so that the final conflict comes off as rather rushed and forced, having only been a very minor thread for the first four fifths of the story.
But that’s not all a bad thing. The overarching story of external threat being set up for the series as a whole is much more interesting than the almost cliché political scheming for power that this first book concludes with. Had the story had more of a single-book plot focussing more on what became the eventual climax of this book, I would probably have read it as a standalone and not been fussed about picking up the next in the series – but the mystery of the Red Ships and the sense that the shit’s going to really hit the fan in some nasty, scary, and sinister ways in the next couple of books has me hooked.
So overall this was a book I enjoyed and, while I didn’t love it, I can see why my friend who recommended it to me does. As someone who read a lot of fantasy (both good and totally horrendous) when I was a child and teenager, a lot of the elements did feel like stuff I’d ‘read a million times before’ and that probably did affect my enjoyment. But the characters and the larger set up for the next books outweighed the familiarity of the main conflict in this one. The rest of the trilogy is definitely going on my list of books to get out of the library and I expect to enjoy them very much. After that though…I probably won’t bother with picking up any of Robin Hobb’s other books unless those two wow me....more