Wish

What I want is to lie
with my back on the grass,
staring up at the sky
shifting shape with the clouds,
this vision narrowing
to that small sphere of life
out on 491
on the way up to Boone.

I would watch the water
in worn grooves trickle down
along the carved sides of
a cliff where men cut out
the highway. I want to
toss up dust from the ground,
swish my head among weeds,
smell the mist, pen a poem,

both to see and be seen.

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Book Review: A Song of Ice and Fire, Part Two (A Game of Thrones)

*Author’s note: This is the second in a series of reviews on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

**Author’s second note: Some minor SPOILERS are in this review, so read with caution.

FIRST IMPRESSION

When I began reading A Game of Thrones, it was after hearing its praises sung by numerous individuals whose opinions on literature I trust to be similar to my own. What was funny was that the book was recommended from people in so many different areas in my life. One of my fellow Creative Writing classmates hailed Martin as being one of the best living fantasy authors (and yes, Kindle Store, these books are fantasy – not science fiction). Another individual, one of my coworkers, extolled the intensity and depth of the world that Martin wrote about. I heard the book’s title being discussed in hallways as I walked past, and there were rumors that HBO was starting a television series on Martin’s epic tale. So it seemed fated that I would end up reading the books.

When I did, I have to admit that the first novel – A Game of Thrones – didn’t grab me right away. As I said in the last review, the sex scenes seemed really over the top and kind of creepy in that old guy staring at a young girl kind of way. But, I had to admit that the world itself was very interesting. All the Houses of Westeros had their “words” (or family motto), colors, castles, etc. And Martin makes sure to delve into all of the history behind practically every character. This was really fun in a nerdy sort of way, yet I also felt that the story was moving too slowly for my taste. See, I had gone into the thing expecting a fast paced, battle-filled, gritty epic. And while parts of A Game of Thrones are like that, most of it is concerned with setting up the characters and the multitude of plots for the rest of the series. Once I realized this, I started to like it more. The title is apt, since Martin is primarily preoccupied with the complexity of Westerosi politics. And might I add that the depth to the political intrigue in this novel is reminiscent of our own world’s politics. There are plots within plots within plots.

By the end of my reading of A Game of Thrones, I was thoroughly interested in reading the next books, but part of me still hoped for a change of pace. I still feel that the first novel is mainly a setup for the remainder of the series, and because of this it is probably my least favorite of the books (though it vies for that spot with A Feast for Crows, the fourth book).

LOOKING BACK (note: SPOILERS)

The reason I have to qualify “least favorite” with “probably” is that I have realized there is so much more complexity in the first novel now that I’m almost finished with the fifth. Sure, the direwolf being killed by the stag in the beginning of the novel is not a very subtle example of foreshadowing. But when you look back and realize that the two people Arya spies discussing an overthrow of the Iron Throne are Varys and Magister Illyrio, and that they are plotting to reinstate Daenerys Targaryen in place of Robert, you start to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Martin is a master at planting tiny little details that you forget about in the midst of the overall plot, and then all of sudden making you realize that there was a purpose to it all along. Combine that with the fact that he does this with almost every detail in the series, and you begin to see why people rave about him.

This book also starts to setup the characters, and along with that the fact that Martin will kill any character he pleases at any given time. Take Daenerys’ storyline: Martin explores and builds the world of the Dothraki, giving pages and pages away to the development of Daenerys’ and Khal Drogo’s relationship, and the ends up just killing off the Khal and changing the course of the entire story line. This is tough to do as a writer. You tend to get really attached to the characters and the story, and changing it on a whim like that is sometimes heartbreaking.

Of course, everyone’s favorite dwarf also plays a big role in this book. Tyrion Lannister’s capture and trial by Catelyn Stark is was pushes the two houses to the brink of war, and thus is the impetus that leads into the next book. But Martin also cleverly uses Tyrion to show the vileness of his father Tywin and his sister Cersei. You can tell from the treatment of the characters which ones we are to consider the bad guys and which ones we’re supposed to root for. But as I said in the first review, no one is without serious flaws (even noble Ned Stark is foolish and naïve). Though I guess a few of them have no redeeming qualities (I’m looking at you, Cersei, Tywin, Joffrey, and Viserys).

Overall, I’d say it’s a good start to a great series. If you’re interested in reading this book, though, make sure you go into it understanding that the pace is sometimes slow because Martin is laying down the foundation for the rest of his novels. Give it time; let it grow on you. I’m sure you’ll end up liking it.

OVERALL SCORE: 8/10

Book Review: A Song of Ice and Fire, Part One (An Overview)

The back of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons showcases, along with all the usual laudatory blurbs, a quote from Time that proclaims Martin to be the “American Tolkien.” There are some obvious parallels between the two authors. Tolkien spent much of his adult life working to elevate the genre of fantasy from the depths of childish stories in which it was drowning. In the same vein, Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series adds a decidedly adult spin to stories about dragons and medieval clans. In this way, the two authors both have sought to craft out of the stuff of our childish fantasies stories for adults to enjoy.

However, I think calling Martin the “American Tolkien” does a disservice to both authors. It sets the reader up for disappointment, because the style and essence of Martin’s writing could not be more different from that of Tolkien. Also, both men had markedly different approaches to and reasons for writing. George R. R. Martin has said that his approach to writing is like a gardener – he weaves stories and plants the seeds of ideas within them, and then allows those ideas to develop. He sort of lets the story go where it will. For him, writing is about the characters and their development. And, admittedly, Martin is ridiculously good at having characters go through believable progressions. Despite all the fantastical elements that the reader just knows aren’t true (the dragons, the magic, the very world), it feels like you are reading about real people. As an aspiring author, I can tell you that this is almost unfathomably difficult to pull off.

Tolkien, though, had a much different approach (at least, from what I can tell). I’m not a Tolkien scholar by any means, but I did grow up amidst the Lord of the Rings movie hullabaloo – and I have read the Silmarillion. Slogging through the dense narrative of that book and watching hours of DVD Special Features on the languages Tolkien created have left me with a distinct feeling that Tolkien was out to create a mythology. He wasn’t really about the story itself, per se. Rather, it seems to me that his main goal was to craft languages, cultures, and religions – and to do this in a writing style that mimicked the feel of ancient texts. It was supposed to feel like the reader found a piece of writing detailing the histories of Middle Earth. One of my friends (who is, by the way, a huge fan of both authors) recently made the claim that if Tolkien were alive today no publisher would take him on as a client. This is entirely possible. His works, while brilliant and amazing and highly deserving of the heaps of praise they’ve earned over the years, do not make for great stories. DISCLAIMER: I have not yet completely read through the LOtR trilogy (though I have read the Hobbit and the aforementioned Silmarillion). Don’t get me wrong: the history in Tolkien’s work is rich, deep, enjoyable, interesting, etc. etc. ad nauseam. But the characters are simply talked about by the narrator – they are not experienced by the reader in the same way that Martin’s characters are.

While the above paragraph will probably draw harsh criticism from Tolkien fans, the point I am making is: the authors could not be more different. I said earlier that few (if any) publishers would want to take on the task of publishing Tolkien if he submitted his work today. Martin, however, has achieved every writer’s dream. His seven-book series consistently tops the best-seller lists and has been picked up by HBO for television adaption. Indeed, the show is in its second season already and is making the big bucks. Why is that, though? Why do we all love Martin’s work so much?

Apart from the reasons I’ve already mentioned regarding Martin’s dedication to character development and story, I think the series is so successful because he’s a genuinely good author. He writes about fantasy in a way that is somehow believable and enjoyable. We build attachments to his characters, we become engrossed in the plotlines (the many, many, many interwoven plotlines), and we fall in love with the numerous cultures and religions of Westeros and beyond. The man can world-build like nobody’s business, and he does it through dialogue and not just dry description. We also love them because it is surprisingly difficult to predict the next plot-point. Not only is there a vast number of narrative lines told from the perspectives of multiple characters, but Martin does not always adhere to conventions. Just because someone seems to be a main character, and just because Martin’s spent a few thousand-page books developing that character, there is no guarantee that Martin is not going to kill the person off on the next page. And this makes the story more believable – but more importantly, it makes it exciting.

But let’s be honest: these works are not going to please everyone. I’ve talked with numerous people who have tried to read the books and have left off, disgusted. Set in a time period that somewhat mimics our own medieval days, Martin’s story does not pull any punches. Women have virtually no rights, they are consistently (and with detail) mistreated both physically and sexually, and the men pretty much use the women for their own entertainment. On the one hand, this is an example of Martin’s “going where the story wills” – he doesn’t make a character’s speech easier on the ears just because it is offensive. There is a substantial claim that Martin is just being true to the time period. On the other hand, the sex scenes (which to me are too detailed and could use a bit of cutting-away) often read like the fantasies of a dirty old man. Regardless of intent, it is creepy to be reading something and at the same time realizing that what you are reading is a rape or sex scene imagined by an old man in a basement. And while I don’t want to commit the fallacy of equating the narrative with the author’s views, the way the scenes are handled constitutes, to me, an odd voyeurism that sometimes leaves me feeling icky.

Another reason I’ve heard people give in defense of their dislike of the series is that the world is so big that the story moves very slowly. If this is your opinion, you are entitled to it and it is likely that nothing I say will change your mind. The pacing is sometimes slow, but there is always something important going on. Characters are developing, plot “seeds” are being sown, the world is being painstakingly built, the plot lines are converging, etc. Sometimes there is very little action, but that is fine by me. Those of us who like the series tend to be the kind of readers who want to know all the ins and outs of the story – we want to understand the political motivations of one faction or another, we want to learn about all these intriguing and novel cultures, we want to have our emotions tugged and pulled, and we want to grow attached to characters. The going might be slow, but the reader is always doing at least one of those things.

Finally, something that attracts me to the story (if “attracts” is really the correct word) is based on my own theology. As a Calvinist, I believe in something called Total Depravity. Without getting into too much detail, this doctrine essentially says that man is depraved in all parts of his being and incapable of good apart from the working of God. Even though we may do good things, this doctrine says, we do them for wrong reasons – reasons that bespeak a profound ugliness within our nature. So one of the things I really appreciate about this series is that Martin captures that. I don’t know Martin’s religious beliefs, and I certainly don’t think he was trying to provide an examination of Calvinist doctrine when he began writing his novels. But what is great is that each character in this book has his or her own set of serious flaws. Whether it’s oathbreaking, sexual immorality, murder, pride, or even just being a colossal asshole, Martin’s characters are – to the person – depraved. And this makes for a better, more believable story than just “here are some bad guys and here are some good guys… the good guys win.”

I say all that to say this: Martin’s series is phenomenal, but it is not something akin to Tolkien. The two might both have tried to take fantasy into the realms of adult literature, and both might also have two middle names that start with R, but the comparison really must end there. If you go into the Song of Ice and Fire series thinking it to be the American version of what Tolkien did, you will be sorely disappointed. Not because Martin is a worse author, but because he has his own unique brand of genius.

COMING NEXT WEEK: PART TWO (ON A GAME OF THRONES)

Book Review: Anathem

“Do your neighbors burn one another alive?” So begins Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem. If the quote seems strange, that’s because it’s spoken by a man who has been cloistered behind monastery-like walls for a decade.  The kicker: this man is a scientist-philosopher – not a religious devout. In the world of Arbre, where the novel is set, history has led to the “Avout” – the scientist-philosophers – being cloistered inside communes while the outside world (called the Saeculum) waxes and wanes. This has lasted for thousands of years, despite several “Sacks” (or infiltrations) of the communes. I don’t want to give too much away here, since discovering the world for yourself is one of the most rewarding things about this book, but the novel centers around and is told by one such Avout who happens to be living at a very important time. The novel’s synopsis calls the time one of “cataclysmic change,” and the story certainly fulfills on that promise.

As has been my habit, I will list the problems I have with this novel first.

Okay, now I’ll list the things I like.

In all seriousness, though, Stephenson’s novel is, to me, incredible. I have read it twice, and after this review I really want to read it again. Elsewhere, I have noted that Stephenson has a tendency to be really long-winded. His descriptions can sometimes tax the reader, and I have listened to several people list this as a problem with Anathem. I won’t deny it. Stephenson sometimes spends entire pages or even several pages listing the dimensions and functions of architecture. But for me, this wasn’t that big of a deal. First off, the novel is on another world – so it stands to reason that I need to know exactly how certain things function to be able to fully appreciate the author’s vision. For example, the cloistered communes are all centered around a gigantic clock. This clock, which is based off of the real-life Millennium Clocks being envisioned by the Long Now Foundation, serves both as a way of keeping time and as a mechanism for opening the Concent’s doors at the appropriate times. This is both important to the novel and really cool, so I both need and want to understand how it works. However, I understand that some people can get so bogged down by Stephenson’s descriptions that they lose interest. It happened to me with Reamde. I just thought that this story was intriguing and unique enough to warrant that much depth.

And trust me, there is depth here. Stephenson has created the history of an entire world, dating back thousands of years. Not only does this apply to the Avouts’ history, but also to the histories and theologies and technologies of the Saeculum. Several religions are also thrown into the mix. And, since the story is told through the eyes of one of these Avout, Stephenson also creates little lessons in science and philosophy called “calcas” that explain the way that the Avout understand the world. I have heard this novel hailed as an ode to science, philosophy, math, and technology, and I think that’s perhaps the best description that can be given for it. But be assured that Stephenson is really adept at handling all of this depth. Always, the story moves along. Always, the characters are developing and learning new things about themselves and the world around them. So for me, it works.

I will say as a sort of caveat that there is a significant section in which the characters are traveling that I personally thought went on a little too long. But other than that, I think this novel is as close to perfect that one can get when reading a work of speculative fiction.

The closest thing that I can compare Anathem to is Frank Herbert’s Dune (Stephenson even had to include a Dune-style glossary in the back to list certain words). I haven’t yet read all the Dune books, but the first one has a lot of the same feel that Anathem has. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Boston Globe has called Anathem “a daring feat of speculative fiction.” I would not disagree.

OVERALL SCORE: 9/10