Tuesday 28 August 2012

A Feast for Crows–George. R. R. Martin

Spoilers for previous volumes, may include minor spoilers for this one.


After the rollercoaster of shocks and plot twists that was A Storm of Swords, book four of A Song of Ice and Fire is a quieter, more contemplative instalment. I understand that in his planning of the series, Martin originally intended to skip straight to five years later. It shows. Most of A Feast For Crows concentrates on the reactions to the events of the previous volume, introducing characters who will presumably become key players in the game of thrones, and moving people to where they need to be. Politics feature prominently, but most of the people we’ve been following have been killed off and replaced with new, unfamiliar names that are hard to keep track of.

For the first time, there are chapters titled with more than just a character’s name: “The Prophet,” for example and “The Reaver*” These chapters are for the most part focused upon new settings: The kingdom of Dorne (where Princess Myrcella is being fostered) and the Iron Islands which we have seen briefly from Theon’s point of view in Clash of Kings (which reminds me – what has happened to Theon?) This ambiguous titling seems to be testing that readers have been paying attention.

Several of the main characters from earlier in the series are not even featured in A Feast For Crows – Tyrion is absent, as is Daenerys, Jon Snow is only seen briefly in passing, while Arya and Sansa only get a few chapters each. Both of these girls have taken on new identities, and the book itself has started to refer to them by their new names, as if to indicate that their old lives as members of the Stark family are being erased.

The main focus of the story is on Cersei Lannister, ruling as Queen Regent as her son Tommen is only eight years old. Cersei’s development as a character has been well-handled, really interesting but unpleasant. She started off as an Ice Queen, later revealed to be a pawn first of her husband, then of her father and even her teenaged son. With all three of these now dead, and with her relationship with her twin brother Jaime growing more and more fraught, Cersei has finally reached the position of absolute power that she’s always dreamed of. For the first time we see from her point of view, and it becomes abundantly clear that she does not have the first clue about ruling a kingdom. I suppose that, being a woman, she was never expected or intended to hold such power, nor taught the game of thrones as a player. Instead of ruling, she spends most of her time obsessed with engineering the destruction of her daughter-in-law Margaery Tyrell. As a girl, Cersei heard a prophecy that she would be replaced by a younger, prettier Queen, and as such she will go to extreme lengths to rid herself of Margaery. And yet, surely it is clear to the reader that this young Queen of prophecy is Daenerys Targaryen, not Margaery at all.

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Next up: A Dance With Dragons, which is another book split into two volumes for the paperback. I understand it returns to the characters who were not featured in this book – hurrah for the return of Tyrion, Daenerys et al. I wonder if there will be any mention of those who featured but briefly in Feast For Crows, or if I have to wait for book 6 to be published. So many of the characters’ stories ended on unsatisfactory notes – I want to know what happens next!

*The word “Reaver” made the Browncoat in me run away screaming. It’s a strange word to see out of the Firefly ‘Verse.

Friday 24 August 2012

Looking Forward: Doctor Who, Series 7

It's been a long wait, but the new series of Doctor Who is almost upon us. Since the cult sci-fi series' relaunch in 2005, it has aired in the spring, usually beginning around the Easter weekend, but this year Steven Moffat has kept us waiting until the end of summer. As the evenings begin to grow darker, the atmosphere intensifies, the monsters that keep viewers behind the sofas are that bit scarier, the nightmares a little bit more real. But what awaits the Doctor and his brave companions this time around?

Daleks again, for one thing. So often killed off for good, but they always return, bigger and more numerous and more imposing than before. Or, alternatively, brightly coloured and/or offering round cups of tea. This lot certainly look impressive - but I've started to tire of the question, "How do we improve on Daleks?" being answered with, "MORE Daleks!" It is, however, grand storyteller Moffat in charge, so I think we can count on some more plot than mere grandeur.

More monsters! Dinosaurs - on a spaceship! Weeping angels again, including a creepy, creepy weeping cherub. (Eep!) The Doctor getting out of control again, flipping back to his "vengeance!" setting. (He seems to flip between two settings - vengeance and mercy, which coincide with whether he thinks he is more dangerous travelling alone or with a friend.) America! And then the trailer ends with this image that the BBC have been plastering all over their marketing: the Doctor carrying a limp and lifeless Amy Pond in his arms.

But will they really do it? Come on, Moff. I dare you.

Time and time again, since the relaunched series, the question has been asked: will the Doctor's companion be killed off for real? First of all we had Rose's voiceover in her final episode: "This is the story of how I died." Well, I'm sure I don't have to point out the logical flaw in that. Two series later, Rose (who had been trapped in a parallel universe forever and ever, impossible to return or it would mean the end of the universe) returned, and warned Donna she was going to die. So did an insane Dalek.

Donna didn't die.

Both of those companions' departures were heartrending. Neither were ever going to leave the Doctor of their own free will. They got too attached, and I wonder if the head writer at the time, Russell T. Davies, felt that he had written himself into a corner. How was he ever going to let these characters go? But he found a way, and perhaps that way was more tragic than killing Rose or Donna outright. Perhaps.

At the end of series 6, I thought that Moffat and co had written Amy and her husband Rory out of the series quite neatly, with the Doctor realising that their travelling with him was too much of a risk, dropping them off at home to live happily ever after, a subdued but tidy tying up of their characters' journeys. So I was rather dismayed to read that their real ending was to be "heartbreaking." Now, I'm as big a fan of a good tragedy as anyone, but if every send-off is a tearjerker, does it diminish its power? Does that have to be the norm? (I know Martha's farewell wasn't a tissue-fest, but I think she was a weaker character anyway.)

But is Amy really going to die? We've been fooled too many times. Neither Rose nor Donna actually died when they were supposed to, nor - SPOILER ALERT - did the Doctor in 2011 and, if you want to include Moffat's other works, what about Sherlock? (Although that should have surprised no one familiar with the Holmes mythology.) Besides, if the BBC have put that image out so publicly, they've taken away any shock value of killing off Amy Pond. Haven't they?

But what if that's what they want you to think? Maybe they're double-bluffing. I dare you, Moffat! I dare you to actually kill off Amy. Who, by the way, is not the Doctor's only companion. I get so irritated when the TV magazines continue to show pictures of the Doctor and Amy posing together, as the Doctor has posed in publicity with all the other young, pretty girls he's taken for companions. Amy travels with her husband Rory, and their romance has been a key element of the last two seasons - so why must the publicists keep on leaving him out?

I'm ranting, sorry. The other part of Rory's story is that he is the man who keeps on cheating death. It's become quite an in-joke, in fact. How many times has he died since his character's introduction? He's lived for thousands of years - but perhaps, if Amy is really and truly killed off in this upcoming series, his fate will catch him up properly, and he will "greet death like an old friend."

Huh. That's rather a gloomy thought to dwell on, though. The other thing of interest is, of course, the new companion, Amy and Rory's replacement. Aside from the actress playing her, Jenna-Louise Coleman (young, pretty and female) the Moff has kept mum about this new character, not even revealing her name. This silence leads me to wonder what the big secret is. My theory is that she is not a modern Earthling. Perhaps she is from another planet, far in the past or far in the future, and that revealing her name as Gingledwina, Starshine or Aelfrida would spoil the surprise.
Head writer Steven Moffat and new companion Jenna
image taken from the Guardian website

Like last year, it appears that series 7 will be split in two, and, because of the unusual scheduling, the annual Christmas episode will actually come part-way through the series. How will that work, I wonder, if they leave part 1 on a massive cliffhanger as they did last year? The Christmas Special tends to be a stand-alone episode, but will they work it into the overall series storyline this year?

All these questions, and more, leave me shivering with anticip...

Saturday 11 August 2012

Concerning Hobbits

A few months ago, a small pub in Southampton hit the headlines when it found itself embroiled in a fight with Hollywood. The Hobbit, in Bevois Valley, was ordered to rebrand or face legal action for copyright infringement from the people who own the film and merchandising rights for much of J. R. R. Tolkien's work - and, apparently, the rights to everything inspired by the epic fantasy. Now, the Hobbit pub has been trading under this name for the past twenty years. Leaving aside the question of how a pub can be breaching copyright for a film not yet dreamed of, it's a funny thing that Hollywood chose now - with the forthcoming release of the (first of many) Hobbit movies to start its vendetta against the small businesses.

Needless to say, there has been a public outcry against this madness. The Hobbit is a popular watering hole and music venue, especially among students in Southampton, and notable names such as Neil Gaiman and Hobbit actors Sir Ian McKellan and Stephen Fry have pledged their support for the pub in their legal fight.

After all, The Hobbit was a novel for decades before it was adapted for the film, and the wonderful thing about literature is how it inspires other works of art: paintings, poetry, music... and in some cases pubs. Yes, a pub can be a work of art in itself. The Hobbit is more than just a name - it's the pub's identity, its clientele, its cocktail menu and decor - it is, in fact, the perfect pub for the kinds of people who would appreciate a pub called The Hobbit - arts students, goths, literature nerds, fantasy-lovers, etc. etc. People like me.

But it looks as though the only Tolkien-inspired art Hollywood would like to allow would be the official movie merchandise. I think it's a bit of a shame anyway when a well-loved book gets adapted into a well-loved film. Next year, most people's mental Bilbo Bagginses will have Martin Freeman's face. But if Martin Freeman is to be the only Bilbo Baggins allowed - and only then with permission - the world would be the poorer for it (meaning no disrespect to Mr Freeman!)

There is a hotel in London called the Mad Hatter - but Tim Burton did not insist upon its closure, rebranding or official endorsement with Johnny Depp's face. Imagine if the rights to Oliver Twist were bought up by the makers of Oliver! the musical - would no one else be able to make any art inspired by the Dickens classic? The Hobbit is a novel, first and foremost. The Hobbit film, just like the Hobbit pub, is a piece of art inspired by that novel. And it's sickening that the people who say who can or can't make hobbity art, have that right not through making the original hobbity art, but through money changing hands. And it seems these people have no understanding for the work they own the rights to. This bullying of small, peaceful people who are just minding their own business is not in the spirit of Middle-Earth in the slightest. Or rather, this is exactly what is seen at the end of The Lord of the Rings - it bears an uncanny resemblance to what Saruman and his thugs do in the Shire out of sheer spite.
" 'Yes, this is Mordor,' said Frodo. 'Just one of its works. Saruman was doing its work all the time, even when he thought he was working for himself.' "
It was reported after the initial outcry that the pub would be granted a license for a small fee to allow them to keep trading - however, this was inaccurate, and, though details are kept confidential, the battle continues. The Hobbit held a fundraising event today, and I went along for a few hours to show my support. I hadn't visited the Hobbit for perhaps six or seven years, but when my friend used to live in Southampton, it was her local and I fell absolutely in love with it. So how better to spend a hot, sunny day than mooching in the beer garden with a couple of Bilbos (cocktails) listening to music and knowing it was all for a good cause. Plus, though not present in person, none other than Mr Neil Gaiman did a question-and-answer session via Skype with a few lucky competition winners. (Sadly I was not one of these people.) There were live bands, a Caribbean BBQ, a peculiar superhero-sumo game, and an auction of art and books signed by the Hobbit's famous supporters.

So here's to the little Hobbit prevailing in its epic struggle against the Dark Powers that would crush it. We've read the book, and know how this story has to end. We can only hope that life imitates art in this case.

Thursday 9 August 2012

A Storm of Swords part 2: Blood and Gold - George R R Martin


Seriously, if you plan to read this book, don't read on any further. This will be a very spoilery review. 

Instead, watch this video and try to get the song out of your head afterwards. (Good luck.)

I realise I've probably sent away most of my readers, but I'd like to use this space to talk about what I just read. So if anyone is still reading this: hello.

I put up these warnings, because I was spoiled on some of the details of this book that made me foresee what should otherwise have been a massive shocking incident in A Storm of Swords. I would rather not have even known that there was a massice shocking incident because that knowledge in itself prepared me - and in turn I was not so shocked.

Two weddings and a whole lot of funerals.

All I knew about this book before I read it was that there was a major event known as "The Red Wedding" that was a shocking game-changer for the series. All through volume one, as King's Landing prepared for King Joffrey's wedding, I supposed that this would be the wedding in question - that it may take place in the Red Keep, and would turn to massacre. Then volume 2 opened with the preparations for another wedding, that of Edmure Tully (uncle to King Robb Stark) to a daughter of Walder Frey - to make amends to Frey when Robb married someone else when he ought to have been marrying a Frey girl. And Walder Frey is not someone you want to offend.

The Song of Ice and Fire novels are noted for containing many, many characters' stories, all across the continent of Westeros and beyond. So I noticed when Martin spent a few chapters switching between Catelyn, at the wedding, and Arya, who was travelling towards the wedding venue, and thought this is leading up to something big. And the wedding feast scenes were packed full of foreboding: the bride's evident fear that seemed so much more than of the wedding night, the discordant clashing of badly-played music, the absence of minor characters who ought to be there - all came together to create an atmosphere of something not being quite right. Although I wasn't surprised when it culminated in the murders of two important characters - and a whole host of extras - instead I took time to notice how Martin built up the feeling of dread and horror through everything being a little bit off.

It seemed to me that somehow Robb knew what awaited him - his naming Jon Snow as his heir, and his staying in his seat instead of escorting the bridal couple to the honeymoon suite, and some other things he said and did, all seemed to point towards him preparing for his own death - though why this might be, for a young man still in his teens, I can't say. 

Though unsurprised by the Red Wedding scene, there was so much in this book that did catch me by surprise. Martin has won me over to this series by now - he is a master storyteller by not making the story do what you think it will. Daenerys (she of the dragons) has been mustering an army to take over Westeros and regain the Iron Throne for the House of Targaryen - and instead, after liberating three slave cities, she has decided to stay where she is, and rule there instead. Will she never come to Westeros at all? Her story has always been apart from everyone else's, being on another continent, but it seemed that they would come together. If she stays where she is, how does her part fit into the story as a whole? We shall have to wait and see.

The Red Wedding is not the only wedding of note in this volume, however. King Joffrey's wedding is quite as eventful, if with a lower body count. Still, when the corpse is the groom, it's quite a significant body count nonetheless - and I wonder if anyone will grieve him save his mother? I certainly rejoiced for a moment.

But only for a moment. The times of rejoicing are given only to make the next blow harder - I'd barely caught my breath from Joffrey is dead - and good riddance! before Tyrion, my favourite character, is arrested for the crime. And this storyline is so full of twists and shocks and revelations that I almost got whiplash! Ever since we met the character of Shae, Tyrion's mistress, my best friend and I have been predicting a brutal death for her as a result of her liasons with Tyrion. Yes, and no - but we'll come to that in a moment. Perhaps to others it was obvious, but I wanted to believe in Shae - and she betrayed Tyrion, testifying falsely against him in his trial and breaking his heart, a heart that he tried so hard not to get attached to her. Then, trial by combat (in which Tyrion's champion reminded me of nothing so much as The Princess Bride's Inigo Montoya) turns against him at the last moment - and finally, Tyrion is rescued from his cell by his brother Jaime. But Jaime confesses a cruel lie he told a teenage Tyrion, which reveals a crueler truth. Tyrion responds by taking brutal revenge on those who betrayed him in one tragic and awful scene, followed by one that is both horrible and awesome at the same time. And despite committing terrible acts, I didn't think any less of his character.

In my review of part one, I wondered how Jon would make it back to his post as a Night's Watchman on the Wall, defending the "civilised" world from the attack of the wildlings and "Others." But, after all, he managed it, in between volumes. (One thing that slightly irritates me about this series is how Martin only shows half the story, while the rest happens off the page, and only later does he fill us in about how a character got from A to B.) The Night's Watch has been fighting a seemingly impossible battle while all the kings have been bickering between themselves, oblivious to the danger they're in - that if they don't unite, there will be no kingdom for them to rule even if they do survive. But now one of the kings has come himself: the dour and self-righteous Stannis Baratheon.

I'd had no liking for Stannis before this point. He claimed to have no particular desire for the throne, but would fight for it because it was his "by right." He's either a huge hypocrite, or someone who really, devoutly believes that he is the chosen one and that all he do is what is best all around. His red priestess Melisandre supports this view and butters him up, while Davos (no R) the Onion Knight, is the voice of reason in Stannis's council.

Meanwhile Jon Snow has been offered two great opportunities: to be Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, or to rebuild and rule Winterfell as Ned Stark's son and heir. He doesn't even know that he has also been named Robb's heir. Ever his father's son,* he chooses his duties and oaths with the Night's Watch - but will he, too, be drawn into the game of thrones?

The game continues, but with two major players removed - Robb Stark and Joffrey Baratheon. Joffrey is easily replaced by his small brother Tommen - who will be a mascot king while the Lannisters carry on their merry way plotting and scheming. Others may put forward his sister Myrcella and set the siblings against each other to be their political puppets. And with his march against the Wildlings and Others, Stannis may prove to be a more prominent player. But with Robb out of the picture, Jon oblivious to his potential role and Daenerys staying the other side of the ocean, I don't know whose side I'm supposed to be on any more. It's not straightforward.

Though I thought I was prepared, this story was full of twists I'd never foreseen, and it has been thrilling seeing the story unfold before my eyes wondering just what would happen next. But one thing, the least likely of all my predictions, turned out to be correct - though as with everything else, it did not happen as I had expected.

Catelyn Stark really, truly, came back as a zombie.

* I've been thinking about it, and wondering whether Jon really is Ned Stark's son at all - or his nephew, son of Ned's deceased sister.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Olympic Readathon mini-reviews: Ray Bradbury and Sarah Waters

Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury
One strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early. One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.
When Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show comes to town in the middle of the night, best friends Will and Jim sneak out of their homes to investigate – but once in, the boys are ensnared in the carnival’s dark secrets, and it doesn’t want them to leave.

something wickedThough only 260 pages, I found Something Wicked… quite a slow read, because Ray Bradbury works his words hard: telling a story, making poetry and music, capturing snapshots and philosophy, evoking terror and joy and exploring just what it means to be human. Stunning and extraordinary, Something Wicked… is full of memorable characters and rides: Cooger and Dark, the Illustrated Man, the Dust Witch and the Seller of Lightning rods, the mirror-maze and the carousel that ages its riders up or down with every turn. There is something terrifying in the manipulation of time on the body: I was reminded of the creepiest parts of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Harry Potter’s Department of Mysteries, and the Master’s torture of the Doctor in Doctor Who. Bradbury has created a circus that will trouble the mind long after the pages have closed, and I suspect I’ll never feel quite comfortable visiting a fairground after dark again.

Tipping the Velvet - Sarah Waters

 When oyster-girl Nancy Astley falls in love with a male impersonator on the stage of the music-hall, her greatest dream comes true when Kitty asks her to come with her to London. After spending time employed as Kitty's dresser, Nancy is asked to join in her act, and it soon becomes inconceivable to think of one without the other, whether on or off the stage. But after the dream comes the waking, and when Kitty abandons Nan for a man, Nan finds herself a single woman having to make her own way in the harsh world of Victorian London.

Though nearly 500 pages, Tipping the Velvet is a quick read, a page-turner. Sarah Waters keeps the story fresh by changing Nan's situation regularly and introducing a cast of memorable characters, both lovable and awful. The story is told in stunningly authentic period language, and enlightening about the underground gay and lesbian cultures of 1880s and '90s London. Tipping the Velvet is hilarious and heartbreaking, more than a little saucy, but I felt that there was a sad, sordid feel to it in the middle sections - a sense that Nancy doesn't value herself and lets others take advantage of her - before she finds a place for herself among the socialists, feminists and "toms" of the East End.

Tipping the Velvet is a brilliant exploration of sexual and gender identity, but more, it is a gripping story. Ms Waters writes with confidence and poetry, and this book is all the more remarkable for being her first novel. It is a masterpiece from one of Britain's greatest contemporary writers.
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