Tuesday, April 26, 2011

21. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

I watched the first episode of the HBO mini-series and decided to finally read the borrowed book that had been sitting on my shelf for a month or so. What I can say is that this book is enthralling. I had a hard time putting it down. Martin, a well-known fantasy writer that I've been planning to read for years, creates a fantasy world of Seven Kingdoms where winter and summer each last for years. One of the longest summers in memory, nine years, is coming to an end, and winter is coming.

We meet the Stark family, a Great House from the North, who once were kings, but are now united under the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. The father, Lord Eddard Stark, helped win the throne of the current king Robert Baratheon. The mother, Catelyn Stark, is of the Tully family of Riverrun, a Southron Great House. Their five children are Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Rickon. Eddard also has a bastard son, Jon Snow, who lives with the family, but whose mother's identity is unknown to everyone but Eddard. The king comes to visit the Starks, with his wife Cersei Lannister and her two brothers, the handsome Jaime, murderer of the last king, and the ugly dwarf Tyrion, also known as "the Imp." Eddard doesn't trust the Lannisters, but when his king asks him to serve as his Hand, his chief advisor and executor, he can hardly refuse.

What I like about this book are the characters. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, each of whom has a unique voice and perspective. I even wished I could hear more perspectives at some points, which speaks to Martin's character-building skills. I think this is what gets people into the book. These characters are sympathetic, interesting, relatable. But this is what makes it worse when bad things start to happen. The book is so mesmerizing because a torrent of misfortune falls on the characters you're rooting for and you keep reading to see them finally succeed. They don't, not in this book at least. It's a soap opera tactic though, what more horrible things can I do? At some point, it's senseless. I've come to expect every minor character to die, so I know not to get attached.

While I understand that this is a series, I prefer it when books, especially first books, follow a sensible arc on their own and stop in a reasonable place. Eddings does not do this either, but, in my opinion, he's the better writer, so I'm more willing to forgive him. A Game of Thrones ends rather abruptly, so that there aren't even loose ends, it's as if it's simply unfinished. Of course, it is, and there is a second book, and a third book to come out soon that fans have been waiting on for years. While now I'm in the mood to read more, give me a few days, and I could easily move on. I probably won't read this again, because the shock value is over.

This probably isn't going on my list of SFF Literature, but then again, I wouldn't contest somebody's argument that this is a Good Book. Yet, my criteria are more about feelings than hard facts. I want to somehow acknowledge that this book has entertainment value and even some social value in its portrayal of characters' actions and reactions, but that its value is somehow not significant to forwarding human understanding through writing? Or not insignificant, but not hugely significant? I'm working on it.

*Edit* I incorrectly stated that there are only two books in the series so far, there are actually four books already out and three more forthcoming.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thoughts on King Lear

20. King Lear

"Oh reason not the need..." it's hard not to feel pity for an elderly man thrown out in a rainstorm. Yet what did he do to Goneril and Regan to make them behave like that? Lear is no wise old man for sure, and in his haste to censure, damn, and disinherit his own children, it's no wonder they've followed his example.

What happens when mistreated children are put in charge? Chaos, murder, and mayhem. Gloucester's eyes are plucked out, Lear abandoned, good men banished, and good women hanged. All for parents' failure to see the results of their own actions; Gloucester cannot see that his treatment of his bastard son Edmund fosters resentment, Lear cannot see the bruises from his favoritism for Cordelia and how his daughters actually feel about him.

Lear may be a story where we feel sorry for the old and disgusted with the young, save the faithful Edgar and Cordelia, but it's a tragedy not only of misjudging evil, but mistakenly fostering it. When Lear was thinking of his own emotional needs, he should have thought earlier of his daughters'.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A 19th Century Perspective on the Elizabethans

19. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott

I've wanted to read Kenilworth for years, ever since I heard of its existence. The story of Leicester and Elizabeth by the author of Ivanhoe? I'm in.

Scott tells the story of the murder of Amy Dudley, Leicester's wife, whose death is still a mystery, though often imputed to her husband's ambition to be king. He converges Amy's story with Leicester's later secret marriage to Lettice Knollys, creating a plot that differs from history, but has its roots and intentions in a greater mythical rendering of an Elizabethan legend. In Scott's fiction, it is 1575, and an impetuous Leicester, ambitious favorite of the queen, marries an equally impetuous, obscure minor noblewoman, Amy Dudley. He elopes with her, but instructs her to keep the marriage secret and essentially keeps her under lock and key at a secluded manor, Cumnor Place, in Berkshire County. Her guardians are Anthony Forster, who was a man suspected of colluding in the death of the real Amy Dudley, and Varney, a man of ambition and no scruples, who serves as Leicester's master of the horse. Her only companion is Forster's daughter Janet. Meanwhile, her betrothed, a minor lord named Tressilian, comes looking for her, as he and her father both believe that Varney has seduced her and made her his mistress. It's a tale of trickery and deception, a historical romance, a tragedy, and culminates in the festivities at Kenilworth, where Leicester has prepared a celebration of several days in honor of his Queen, the formidable Elizabeth, who appears here as vain and power-hungry, a demanding and exacting mistress whom Leicester's failure to please will have disastrous consequences.

I'm not going to lie, this is a long slog and much of the prose can seem unnecessary, but Scott is creating a mythical history. The dialogue and descriptions are reminiscent of a play, but the narrator frequently interjects to remind us that all these events happened long ago and the historical sites are now in ruins or in repair, remnants of a long-ago society, which Scott feels should be celebrated, along with the social and intellectual progress that has since been made. There is a distinct rejection of Elizabethan ideas about astrology, alchemy, and fate, Scott seems to suggest that these beliefs are what made the Elizabethans behave so foolishly. He also shows the Elizabethans looking back to earlier ages, particularly Arthurian legend, and in some ways makes the Elizabethan mythos an extension of that, by introducing the character of Wayland Smith, whose origins are in Germanic pagan beliefs, but who was also said to have been the smith who created Excalibur. Scott's Wayland is situated in the Elizabethan era, very much a flesh-and-blood human being, but we see how he creates the myth of the demon smith who shods horses unseen for payment placed on a rock.

Overall, Kenilworth is well worth reading and enjoyable for narrative pleasure as well as historical perspective and literary analysis.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

18. The Belgariad Volume Two: Castle of Wizardry and Enchanter's End Game by David Eddings

These last two novels only heightened my admiration for Eddings' writing. In the first book, we see a resolution of what has come before, the Quest for the Orb, as Garion takes his place as the Rivan King and Ce'Nedra seethes at being a lower rank than her intended husband. It also sets us up for the Final Battle between Garion, the Child of Light, and Torak, the Maimed God or Child of Darkness. We get to know the entire cast of major and minor characters much better here, which helps explain how they act later. I also like how each character, down to the most minor, could clearly have another book or legend written about them, and I hope Eddings does. I especially want to know what happens to Relg, the zealot, and Taiba, former slave and Mother of the Lost Race, and their future child, for whom the Gods have a special fate in store.

The second book details the parallel journeys of Garion and Ce'Nedra to Cthol Mishrak, lair of the evil, asleep but waking, Torak. Garion and his many-great grandfather, the sorcerer Belgarath, and the subtle Drasnian spy Silk, or Prince Kheldar, sneak through marshes and wasteland into the evil lands of Mallorea. Ce'Nedra, accompanied by Polgara the Sorceress, Belgarath's daughter and Garion's aunt-mother, and several other friends and allies including numerous kings, raises an army from among the lands of the West, to encounter Torak's Angarak peoples in battle.

Again, the depth of the characters, inventive terrible creatures, and diverse, well-developed cultures, distinguish Eddings from many of his peers in fantasy fiction. I will not hesitate to call the Belgariad literature on par with Lord of the Rings. This series is not only written in clear, cohesive language, but it is imaginative and reflective on human nature and society, and presents absolutely realistic characters, while appealing to the ancient mythic storylines that seem to be embedded in our biology.

I will seek out as much of Eddings' work as I can, The Malloreon is the sequel series to The Belgariad, and promote his work wherever and whenever possible.