A Shadow in Summer, by Daniel Abraham

“Everything is going to be fine.”
“It isn’t,” [he] said. His tone wasn’t despairing or angry, only matter-of-fact. “Everything is going to be broken, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

 

Sometimes, the popularity, or lack of popularity, of a book perplexes me. An example I’ve used a lot this year is James Branch Cabell – how has a writer of such fluency, pathos and humour, of novels so easily read, been so forgotten in an age in which pale imitators of his style continue to be sucessful? Only sheer bad luck seems to explain it.

Daniel Abraham is not James Branch Cabell, in almost any way. But his name’s trajectory through the consciousness of genre readers seems to show a similar pattern, albeit in miniature. Abraham attained considerable notability as a short story writer – nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the WFA – before producing this debut novel, A Shadow in Summer, to great acclaim, if not to immediate blockbuster sales. My copy comes complete with blurbs from George RR Martin, Connie Willis, Jacqueline Carey, S.M. Stirling, and Walter Jon Williams. Jo Walton thought it worthwhile including reviews of all four books of this series in her collection of writings on “re-reading the classics” of the genre (though to be fair, it’s a big collection). In my poll back in 2010 of around 100 members of a fantasy fan forum, Abraham ended up in the top 20 living authors, and this quartet, The Long Price Quartet ended up in the list of 10 genre works to read from the 21st century (alongside works by Abercrombie, Bakker, Chiang, Erikson, Lynch, Mièville, Morgan, Stover and Valente – books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, American Gods, The Road, and Cloud Atlas all got runner-up honourable-mention placings). Six years ago, people were excited by the name of Daniel Abraham, even if they hadn’t always gotten around to reading him.

Now, they aren’t. Well, I’m sure some are, but more don’t seem to have heard of him; his books rarely if ever feature these days in the endless merry-go-round of Goodreads group read nominations, and hardly anyone I know has read his works, at least under that name. The Quartet was followed by the Dagger and Coin series, which apparently is still ongoing, which I didn’t even know because his new works don’t seem to make any waves in the various circles of bloggers and reviewers I loosely keep an eye on. Now I should be clear: the guy’s not suffering. In fact his popularity is growing all the time: it’s just that that fandom is attached to a different name, that of James Corey, author of the (as seen on TV) Expanse novels, of whom Abraham forms one half. He’s also probably made a fair few pennies as the writer for the graphic novel adaptations of A Game of Thrones. So, well done Daniel Abraham, he’s doing pretty well for himself. But part of me has always wondered what happened to the original version – how come so many people recommended these books to me, and now how come so few people seem to have heard of them today?

Like I said, sometimes the fickleness of public interest is just inscrutable.

Other times it isn’t, and this is one of those times.

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Fool’s Fate, by Robin Hobb

And here we are now, at the end of the tale of the Fitz and the Fool.

[Except we’re not. Because despite all the protestations to the contrary over the last ten years, Fool’s Fate is not the end, and the next installment, Fool’s Assassin, is out next year. Which is to me a source of both fear and joy. But anyway, let’s pretend for now that this is the end…]

Fool’s Fate is a very strange book. I think I said in my review of the previous book, The Golden Fool, that the climax(es) of that book occured halfway through the book, leaving the book itself with surprisingly little ending; well, I think now that the second half of The Golden Fool was the beginning of a new book, and the first half of Fool’s Fate is the logical second half of that book. Because to say that the climax of Fool’s Fate is halfway through the novel is an understatement. Halfway through the novel we get a series of scenes that are effectively the climax to the first half of the book and the second half of the last, and the climax to the trilogy as a whole, and the climax to all nine Realm of Elderlings books. This is the big bang. And then we get…

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…epilogue. It’s not called an epilogue, but it’s the same material that other authors would have in an epilogue. Now, some authors have their epilogues be one page long. Some have an entire chapter, ten pages of epilogue. Some have massive, sprawling epilogues dealing with every possible loose end, a hundred pages long!

…and then there’s the epilogue to Fool’s Fate, which at somewhere between 250 and 300 pages depending on where exactly you consider the climax, is longer than most novels outside the fantasy genre.

It doesn’t feel entirely fair to go on about this structural peculiarity right from the gun. It’s a huge and complicated novel with a lot that could be said about it. But let’s be honest, the pacing and the structure are the azhdarchid in the room (sorry, just been reading about pterosaurs).

On the positive side, the structure gives us the benefit of surprise. Even going in to this knowing how it worked, I was fooled again – the slow, deliberate pace that feels as though it will lift us all the way to the final pages suddenly bursts into chaos and confusion at a surprisingly early point, creating a pretty thrilling climax.

And the epilogue isn’t without worth either. Far from it. This is a character-centred novel, and Hobb uses the long epilogue section both to develop character in response to the earlier events and to show us how characters have changed. It also gives us a lot of the material that has been promised to us throughout the series but perpetually delayed, and without which the book would feel like something of a con. And it’s surprisingly gripping, too. Authors who feel they can’t excite their audiences without fights and shocks and thrills would do well to read this. Hobb hasn’t forgotten that the heart of drama is relationship, and this may be 250 pages of talking about emotions and developing relationships, but if anything it’s more compelling than the action scenes were.

But it’s just too long. Yes, I was gripped, but there comes a point, without anything happening or any prospect of anything happening in future, where the reader moves from “I can’t put this down until I find out what happens next” to a less satisfying “I can’t put this down until the damn thing finally ends!” It’s not the writing, it’s not the content, it’s the structure – people just aren’t built to take in the scenary when they’re gliding to a stop on a rollercoaster.

It’s why so many people don’t like the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings, however necessary people (myself included) insist they are. And this is like The Lord of the Rings, if instead of coming home to the Shire and finding things terribly wrong and in need of fighting, the hobbits instead came home and went around meditating on life and death and having long, awkward conversations with all the hobbits who had stayed behind. Twice. Because there is a sting in the tail here – the main result of which is that the hero needs to go around having all those conversations a second time as a result of what happens.

It isn’t ‘boring’ exactly, but it’s… not right.

And then there’s the end.

I have only thrown one book in my life. This wasn’t it. But I very nearly did throw this one right across the room. What held me back was probably less the lack of rage, and less the veneration of books, and more the concern that since this was an 800-page hardback, the wall might not be able to survive the encounter.

The second time I read this series, I loved the end to bits.

So this time, the third time? I can see both sides.

The main reason I hated the ending the first time (aside from the common Hobb flaw of an overly pat and neat conclusion) was, in hindsight, the way it completely tore up all my memories of the end of the Farseer Trilogy (which was rushed and deeply flawed, but also incredibly poignant). More than that, the ending of this novel seemed to negate everything that had gone before. I felt it was a betrayal not only of the first trilogy but of the second, a horrible, terrible, unnecessary, probably money-driven betrayal. Like when the studios ripped up The Magnificent Ambersons and added a happy ending instead. That sort of atrocity.

On a second and third re-reading, however, I’ve come to see that the ending wasn’t a sudden betrayal at all, but an inevitability. The whole of Tawny Man was headed toward that ending. I just hadn’t noticed. That’s because to a large extent not only the ending but the entire trilogy are largely positioned as a re-analysis of the assumptions of the first trilogy. Those of us, myself included, who bought into both the decisions of Fitz in the first trilogy and the assessements of Fitz-the-narrator in that trilogy (it’s important to remember that although the narrator in the first trilogy is writing long after the events, he’s still writing before the events of Tawny Man, with the narrator of Tawny Man living at some time even later) have had a bumpy ride at times as old sureties have been re-assessed. In that light, the ending is simply the final nail in the coffin of an old assumption. That’s why I loved it the second time around, precisely because it challenged me (in particular, many of the things that younger Fitz thought of as being mature and adult are now reassessed as childish and naive, and sometimes vice versa).

But on a third reading: I can appreciate what Hobb is trying to do, but I don’t feel she does it in the correct way. The ending is far too neat – not just because neatness is often a flaw in an ending, but specifically because neatness in a controversial ending is a form of arrogance: it’s a high-handed declaration that not only is the author right and the reader wrong, but there isn’t even any room for doubt or complications. That’s it, case closed, all done.

Specifically, and trying to avoid spoilers here, I think the novel should have ended Fitz’s story, as it were, one step earlier – leaving the ending that we got as a possibility, a clearly-announced potential future development, but not as a fait accompli. This would have largely gotten across Hobb’s point while not so greatly alienating some readers, and leaving more of a sense of there being some unfinished business. And doing this would have allowed Hobb to instead give us more time focusing on the most tantalising relationship in the trilogy, the one that really ought to be dealt with more fully before we move on to the ending we were given.

As a result, I end up suspecting that my opinion of this may change considerably, in either direction, next year, when we pick up the story again. To me, it comes down to this: will the Fitz we see next admit that he was wrong here, will he deny that he was wrong in the face of all the evidence, or will the events of this trilogy be left as they are while Fitz moves on to new adventures? I’m not necessarily hoping that Fitz will repudiate all his character growth and changes in opinion and revert to how he was at the start of the trilogy, not at all – but I would really like to see some sign that this new Fitz isn’t right about everything either, that perhaps he only replaced one over-simplistic point of view with another. In short, I want the new books to re-evaluate the events and beliefs of Tawny Man in the same way that Tawny Man re-evaluated Farseer. And if that happens, my problems with the ending of Tawny Man will dwindle to a very small residue.

[Some people find the ending of the book not only thematically controversial and overly simplistic, but also highly implausible. I can certainly see their argument there – I agreed with them on my first read. But after some consideration I don’t think this is fair. This argument has largely bought in too far to Fitz’s earlier assumptions – some things he considers implausible, tells us to be implausible, are perhaps more likely all along than Fitz thought. I think if we consider the situation from the point of view of characters other than Fitz, there is nothing impermissably implausible here.]

[[And yes, I am aware that sometimes in trying to avoid spoilers yet still trying to talk about things, I probably end up being more teasing and frustrating and annoying than if I’d just given names and dates upfront. Sorry about that. Fortunately, there’s a cure – go back to the beginning of the Realm of Elderlings books and read through to the end, and my vague gesturing will have been completely forgotten by the time you get to the relevant chapters!]]

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Can I talk about the rest of the book now?

Well, OK, but again I have to start with a complaint. Namely, one particular climactic chapter where (some of) the Good Guys meet (some of) the Bad Guys, and learn (some of) their Evil Plans.

There is much twirling of moustaches and evil cackling.

It’s godawfully terrible.

Doubly terrible, frankly, for how much nuance and sophistication has gone into all the rest of the characterisation in this book. And then that whole approach gets thrown out of the window for a little moment, in favour of cliché and hamfistedness.

Why? How can such a good writer go so wrong? Well, I think the roots of the problem are a deeper issue Hobb has with good and evil. Hobb’s novels are always filled with moral complexity and ambiguity, that’s what gives a lot of the emotion and vividness to her characters and the details of events; yet her epic plots get their compelling drive from moral clarity. In order to make us care about the big stuff – and to make us agree that sometimes the big stuff has to overrule all that little stuff that we’re so invested in – she needs the big stuff to ultimately come down to good and evil. And in order to bring clarity to complexity, she has to cut through the knot. In Farseer, this is done firstly by making the Red Ship Raiders be (almost) entirely a faceless and motiveless external force of destruction (which she gets away with by having them be so peripheral to most of the events) and by having Regal come dangerously close to being a moustache-twirling villain (which she gets away with in my opinion (some feel she doesn’t) through the nuances of characterisation she’s able to give him over the course of three novels). In Liveships, this is done less succesfully and more obviously by using ‘slavery’ (poorly defined and explained, with no real examination of its social or economic nature) as such an unambiguous Big Bad that everything and everyone else can ultimately be defined through their relation to it, giving the series a clear moral compass (anything that reduces slavery is good, anything that increases it is bad). But in Tawny Man, Hobb ‘s vision is her most challenging yet, with the future desired by the ‘good guys’ actually looking really, seriously unappealling. To her credit, Hobb recognises this explicitly, with many characters expressing doubts and second thoughts… so how can she get her readers to accept unconditionally that this is the ‘good’ outcome and its opposite is ‘bad’?

By making the guys who want the opposite outcome incomparably evil, of course. Flawlessly evil. Evil, as in embodying every possible complaint from risqué clothing decisions through to totalitarian fascism, stopping off at torture and an unconscionable lack of respect for fine art works along the way. The Bad Guys are designed to push every possible button the reader might have, to make it impossible to support them. And they have to do all of this in, basically, one chapter.

It’s stupid.

To explain exactly how stupid it is, I’ll use an analogy. You write a story about a political activist who is in favour of imposing crushing import tariffs on foreign manufacturers. In the story, your hero gets into a debate with a rival political activist, who explains exactly why import tariffs would make the domestic consumer worse of, and would lead to inflation while reducing domestic industrial competitiveness and making it harder to export, let alone the problems that would occur if other countries retaliated with tariffs of your own. Your hero and his friends acknowledge that the anti-protectionist has a good argument, but then point out that the anti-protectionist is an antisemitic neonazi who eats babies and rapes chickens and that he’s controlling the minds of the populace with a magic corkscrew and if something isn’t done to stop him there’ll be human sacrifices to the elder lords being offered up in every village hall within the year, so obviously imposing a 4% tariff on manufactured goods entering the company, phased in over a three-year period, is the only possible way forward.

[Hobb’s thing is environmentalism, and the problems of noxious externalities in a market with insufficient regulation of industry, rather than protectionism, and is expressed in more spiritual and less economic terms, but you get the idea]

Frankly, it feels like she’s taken a sledgehammer to the ribcage of her own series.

But then there’s the other side of the book.

Because, that chapter and some dubious pacing decisions aside, this is actually a really well-written book. It’s a testament to Hobb’s skill as a writer that even when the big picture is at best provocative and at worst ridiculous, there is still plenty of excitement at groun level. The big plot that began in the previous volume and concludes halfway through this one sounded at first like something both straightforward and over-familiar, but things are rarely either with Hobb, and the plot is filled with suspense, mystery, twists, readjustments of emphasis, relationship drama, character development and growth, and glaciers. Even as someone who had read it twice before, I still found it fresh, surprising, moving, and gripping.

And then there’s the second half of the book. Yes, the pacing is questionable, and some of the decisions the author makes are questionable and will be controversial, but as I said above this is still a compelling read. This is a character we’ve lived with for nine volumes showing growth and change, trying to find a reasonably happy ending for himself, and it’s impossible not to empathise with him (let’s face it, if you don’t love Fitz you won’t have made it this far in the first place). Assumptions are questioned, consequences are explored, loose ends are tied up neatly, and a few little threads are left tantalisingly open.

In terms of the writing, and most of the content, this book is just as good as the previous installment, which I said in my review was possibly my favourite novel ever; and in some ways this one is even better, thanks to more stuff actually happening.

So in conclusion, this is a seriously good book let down in just a couple of ways, and that’s not enough to stop it being a wonderful read. It’s a pity that this review focuses so much on the negative, even more so than usual, because I don’t think that really expresses my views: yes, I was intensely frustrated with the book, but in an affectionate, even loving way. Unfortunately, flaws are so much easier to pinpoint than successes, particularly when an author’s been getting the same things right for nine books in a row. You run out of ways to praise the strength of her characterisation, the depth and complexity of the questions her characters force the reader to consider, the extent to which her books can be re-read with fresh eyes and from new angles.

So, despite all the negative things I’ve said here, I can’t wait for next installment.

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Scores:

Adrenaline: 4/5. The exciting bits are exciting, and the non-exciting bits are… still quite exciting. But there’s a lot of the merely ‘quite exciting’ bits, too much to get top marks here.

Emotion: 4/5. Well obviously. You don’t live in someone’s head for this long and not get emotional at the climax of their story!

Thought: 4/5. Considerably more provocative than the usual fantasy novel, both in terms of the big picture and in terms of the personal level. Not to mention a suspenseful plot with plenty of mysteries along the way, and the author also leaves the door open to interpret a lot of character issues in multiple ways.

Beauty: 3/5. As always, Hobb’s prose is solid and effective and occasionally pretty, but isn’t going to win awards for its beauty.

Craft: 3/5. Gets some things very right. Gets other things very wrong. I’d have hoped she’d have been more able to do climaxes and conclusions by now.

Endearingness: 4/5. Mostly loved it, but loses a mark for its missteps, and for some doubts I still have about the ending.

Originality: 4/5. Can’t give it top marks because technically a lot of things here are drawn from mainstays of the genre. But the execution is entirely original, both in its original details and in its character-driven approach.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. It certainly had some flaws, and I don’t think it was as good as the previous volume – maybe better in its heights, but with more problems too. But it’s still a very good book, and a perfectly adequate conclusion to a very good trilogy. If she’d managed to deal with the central conflict more adroitly, and had tightened up the long, lingering anticlimax of an ending (not lost it entirely, but tightened it up, and maybe loosened its end), it might even have been brilliant.

 

 

The Mad Ship, by Robin Hobb

Short version of my reaction as I went through this novel: “YEAH!…ok!… ok?…. er?… [twiddles thumbs]… oh, yeah!”. Or to put it more comprehensibly: the second novel of the Liveship Traders takes off where the first ended, and seems to be getting even better, before suffering something of a mid-novel hiatus and being revitalised at the end with a rousing finale.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the middle portion exactly – it’s just that, as not uncommonly with Hobb – the author seems to take her foot off the accelerator and lets it all coast along a bit too sedately.  The underlying problem is that her style, particularly in this trilogy, is a slow one, with a lot of introspection by characters and a lot of reporting and reflection and reconsidering of things that have happened off-screen. When the plot is strong enough to drag the reader through this heavy meal, or when it is sweetened by high-octane scenes (at which Hobb is surprisingly talented, given that they don’t seem to be what she’s interested in), the result is a satisfying feeling of fullness. When the plot slackens and slows and we go too many chapters without a seamonster or a kidnapping or an assault, the result is that we’re left picking through a perfectly-pleasant-and-nutritious grey porridge of events in the hope that something exciting will happen eventually. When it does happen, it’ll be twice as good because of all the set-up (and I don’t mean bland exposition – every chapter is a good story in its own right and things are always happening – they’re just not thrilling in their own right), but while we’re going through the set-up it’s a little slow. It’s important to stress that this slowness isn’t Jordanesque ten-pages-describing-a-dress filler; it’s all important character development and plot development – but it sometimes feels like a lot of healthy food without much sugar.

That means that this book isn’t brilliant and I don’t adore it. I do, however, really, really like it.

Ship of Magic was a character-driven complicated story, as various tangentially-connected individuals tried to go about their lives and ran into complications. The Mad Ship is still heavy on character, but now the events of the first book have taken on a life of their own, and the wheels of plot have pulled out of the hands of the characters. This lends procedings a rather desparate air – things are getting worse and worse and less and less controllable. That doesn’t mean we don’t get to see a lot of in-depth character work, though. On the contrary. If you like you fantasy to focus on character, come read this book. Towering above it is the incredible character of the pirate king, Kennit, who goes from being intriguing to being one of the greatest creations of the fantasy genre. I’ve recently been watching HBO’s wonderful In Treatment (the second season), and at times that’s how The Mad Ship feels – a slow, elliptical exposure of the surprising and paradoxical layers of Kennit’s psychology. Unfortunately, Kennit’s power, both as a work of art and as a person within the novel, rather overshadow some of the characters near him (no spoilers!), including particularly one of my favourites from the first novel. My other favourite becomes increasingly less likeable, as their experiences leave them more experienced, and more calloused – personally I preferred the naïve and endangered version. Meanwhile, though, other characters rise to the fore. Etta, for instance, gets more screentime; a new character, Serilla, is introduced (and promptly spends almost the entire novel travelling at a pace of about an inch per page), and with her a new mode of femininity. Indeed, much of this trilogy feels like an exercise in discussing different ways of being female – although there are male characters, and important ones, they seem almost independent of one another, while the women are more closely linked thematically. In part, this is because the main male character, Kennit, is (at least apparently) the only truly freely-acting person in the trilogy, while the female characters (and Wintrow, who in the first book was frequently likened to a woman in his behaviour and psychology) are forced to react to hardships. How they deal with those hardships defines them – the trilogy is perhaps (leaving Kennit aside) a study in how women can come to terms with, and attempt to transcend, positions of powerlessness: Althea, Keffria, Malta, Ronica, Etta, and now Serilla all attempt to do this in different ways. Nor, I think, is it a coincidence that the two immensely important characters introduced near the end of the novel are both female. This is not to say that it’s a feminist novel, or that the lessons of the women are not meant equally to be heeded by men (after all, in today’s society the division between powerful men and powerless women is rather less clear and unambiguous than in the trilogy’s setting – and by the end of this novel it’s starting to seem as though it’s going to be subverted even within the trilogy). But as a man, I have to say with an earnest explosion of relieved sighing: by heavens, it’s good to finally have a fantasy novel about women. I love feisty tomboys with swords, and I can accept both narratively and historically the need for mothers and swooning love interests ‘back home’, but it’s good to finally get a work where women are at the centre – and such varied women that you’d have to try hard not to like at least one of them.

Malta, I might add, is fantastic in this novel. The first time I read it, I thought that what Hobb did with Malta was genius on the level of what she did with Kennit. The second time, watchful and not taken by surprise, I found I could see through the gaps, as it were, a little better – but it’s still true that she’s a fantastic piece of work that should act as a lesson for everyone out there wanting to learn about character development. And even about character per se. The obvious comparison is Martin’s Sansa, but Malta is both more realistic and more infuriating than Sansa – and her character development is more impressive and more believable.

Going back a moment: if you want to know who this paragon (no pun intended) of characterisation, this “Kennit” is, I can summarise him, broadly, roughly, approximately, like this: he’s Deadwood’s Al Swearengen, mixed with Battlestar Galactica’s Gaius Baltar. And we see inside his head. Yes, that is as awsome as it sounds. In fact, when reading the first novel, encountering this little trinity of Kennit, Sorcor and Etta, I found it hard not to believe that David Milch must have read it, and that this was the basis of Deadwood’s Al, Dan and Trixie. Hobb’s versions, though, are better. And to Baltar I owe a curious semi-revelation halfway through the novel: remembering Baltar’s prison scene, in which he talks about his father and reverts to his native,  peasant accent, I experimented with giving Kennit (like many real-life pirates) an uneducated West Country drawl, rather than the supercillious RP that I first imagined. I’m not convinced it’s the best interpretation, but it certainly helps cast him in a new light. And no, I’ve still not come to terms with the fact that he has a moustache with pointy ends – I’m sure that fits in somewhere, but I don’t yet understand quite where.

However, despite what I’ve said above, this isn’t just a character-driven low-magic fantasy saga. Oh no. In Ship of Magic, it began to become apparent that Weird Things were going on beneath the surface. Well, in The Mad Ship those weird things smash their way to the surface – the all-important words start being bandied around in the very first few chapters, and by the end it’s clear that world-shattering events are unfolding.

That additional dimension adds a sparkling finish to the saga, because the fantastical dimension of Hobb’s world-building is extremely impressive: doubly so for the way that the revelations of this novel merge with, reframe and underpin the revelations of the earlier Farseer Trilogy, while at the same time standing alone in their own right for those who have not read those books. This, in a way, captures the essence of Hobb’s approach: to give the –sometimes confusing – impression of a world far larger than the one we see, and in the process to allow each individual thing to stand independently. I suppose what I mean is that, for instance, if a reader of this trilogy were told that there was another trilogy set before this one in time, there would be three or four possible times and places where one might imagine that that earlier trilogy was set. As it happens, Farseer is set in the Six Duchies and neighbouring areas a few years before the events of The Liveship Traders, and its events cast one light on the events of this trilogy – but if it had been about something else (Kelsingra, perhaps, or the Others, or Jamaillia, or the founding of Bingtown, or Chalced, or the lands to the south) I get the feeling that it could have cast a different light on things. Hobb’s world feels big and complicated and shrouded in mystery – a puzzle that all fits together somehow, but half the pieces are lost, and we don’t know which pieces will be found again and which are lost forever. There are a dozen clever references to Farseer, but there are just as many things that could equally well be references to other books – which happen not to have been written.

More prosaically: the creatures Hobb starts to describe in this book, and their lifecycle, are as imaginative (and yet weirdly believable) as anything you’ll find in epic fantasy.

I have to try to talk about problems, though. Well, as I’ve suggested, although there’s always something happening, a lot of it isn’t important or exciting in its own right, only in terms of what will happen next, and that makes the book slow (not a problem, only a taste) and uneven (perhaps a problem). The prose remains… uninspiring, though in no way bad by the standards of the genre. The more practical, sociopolitical side of the worldbuilding sometimes feels a little cardboardy (although political developments in Bingtown are well-handled). AND I WANT A PROPER MAP, DAMNIT. That was more of a problem for the first book, where I kept looking on the map to find places, only to realise that hardly anywhere is actually marked on the map at all, but it continues to be a frustration in this installment. If you’re going to provide a map, could you please mark places on it that are mentioned in the text? You know, just some of them, maybe?

Adrenaline: 3/5. Sounds high given what I’ve said, but there are exciting and gripping bits here – just sometimes spread too far apart.

Emotion: 3/5. I suppose one complaint is that this volume didn’t really kick on, emotionally, from the first. In part, I wonder if that’s because of the multiple-POV system: with so many characters developing simultaneously, it’s maybe harder to get fully caught up in the feelings of any one of them, because ten pages later we’ll be wrenched out and put in an entirely different head.

Thought: 3/5. As with the first volume, this isn’t thinky-fantasy, but it’s not stupid fantasy either. The underlying magical-biological mystery intrigues but does not perplex; the moral dilemmas are interesting.

Beauty: 3/5.*shrug*

Craft: 4/5. Almost 5/5, but I suppose the pacing could be a little better, and the prose needs to sparkle more as well. Mostly, though, extremely sophisticated. Handles a wide range of characters in an impressive way, including both development and revelations.

Endearingness: 4/5. Almost loved it, but not quite. Perhaps a bit too cold and ponderous to really be adorable. Plus, my favourite chapter in the series isn’t in this book (probably Athel on the sealer).

Originality: 4/5. Pushed up by the weird life-cycle, and generally distinctive world-building, and things like showing the political dimension through the eyes of an annoying brat.

Overall: 5/7. GOOD. Pretty similar to the first book in the trilogy, maybe a little better. Continues to be well-written and enjoyable, and suprisingly sophisticated for the genre; critics may wish it was a bit more full-blooded.

A Dance With Dragons, by George RR Martin

 

A Dance With Dragons is the fifth volume in the ongoing epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. And because it’s volume five, I’m somewhat limited in what I can say that’s not a spoiler. But in any case, I recently read and reviewed the first volume, A Game of Thrones, and was rather unimpressed – but between the promising elements of that novel, my memory of enjoying volumes two and three, and my re-awakened desire to find out what happens next after many years away from the series, I decided to buy the latest book and give it a go.

My first impression: it’s a lot, lot better.

The general portrait of the strengths and weakness of the author that I gleaned from the first novel remains true. Martin is an author who is best at the big scale, best at telling an engaging story, best when he has a lot of words to work with, building things (characters, plots, themes, foreshadowing) up with layer after layer of words. He is rather less good at the details – the prose, the incidents, the incisive, delicate sketchwork. That remains true – but the weak points have been considerably strengthened. ADWD feels like a novel written by a man entirely at home in what he’s doing, where AGOT often felt nervous, unsure, as though the author weren’t quite sure what he was doing.

The difference is obvious within a few chapters: the opening chapters of ADWD are far more polished, far more compelling, far more satisfying by themselves, frankly far better written in every way. Within pages I knew that I would never – as I did with AGOT – ask myself whether I could be bothered finishing this novel.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems. Although Martin’s narrative voice, an attempt to merge the fauxdieval intonations of epic fantasy with a more modern, more realistic way of speaking, feels a lot more coherent and settled than it did in the first volume, he’s still not quite in control of it. This leads, for instance, to the repeated use of crutchwords that he seems to have recently discovered and is determined to impress us with – thankfully, the endless “nuncles” that appeared in the fourth volume (Martin evidently learned between books three and four that ‘nuncle’ is an older form of ‘uncle’, though since none of the rest of the book is written in Middle English I don’t see why this matters) have largely, though not wholly, been eradicated, but in their place is an inundation of “neeps” and things that are “leal” and/or “niello”. Thank you George, it’s nice to know you own a dictionary – but a pity that you don’t also own a thesaurus. It’s an even bigger problem on the level of phrases, where Martin’s inability to think of alternative ways of saying things leads to repetitive and boring prose – even if we only talk about the really distinctive, memorable phrases, there are a distracting number of things that are “as useless as nipples on a breastplate” (lampshaded when one character actually finds a breastplate with nipples on – it remains to be seen whether these nipples will prove useful in any way), and there are half a dozen instances where substances (not all the same substance!) “trickle down her thigh”. [Incidentally, many people may find the gratuitous sex and violence an issue – personally, I thought it was most handled fairly well, though it got a bit silly now and then – the implied bestiality, for instance, reads like a very lazy way of making a point]. Sometimes Martin seems to confuse “pervading themes” with “words that are repeated again and again by many different characters” – most notably, rather than (or, charitably, in addition to) demonstrating in many circumstances how stated intentions can be misleading or in vain, he just forces us to listen to a score of characters repeating every few pages that “words are wind”. Likewise, I think it’s been well-enough established that we are dealing with political intrigue without repeatedly being told of a “game of thrones” underway. All these phrases, when occurring in dialogue, would be a lot more convincing as ‘things people in this world say’ if people had been saying them before. If “words are wind” is such a ubiquitous proverb in several different societies on this planet, why weren’t we hearing it in previous novels?

But, despite these problems, the writing here is a lot better than in the first volume, and generally is quite good. There are other things worth praising too. First off has to be the astounding, awe-inspiring scale and ambition of this story. A Dance With Dragons covers events on two different continents (in half a dozen locations), through the eyes of nearly twenty point-of-view characters and a supporting cast of hundreds if not thousands, over a time period of… I’m not sure exactly, but I think many months, if not years. The links between events are tangential or even by now non-existent, as though there are many unrelated stories being told at once (it would be fascinating to diagram the different story threads and how they interacted). This is the biggest and broadest that novels can get. The impression is a sort of controlled confusion, much like listening to a complex fugue – we follow one strand and then another and if we try to grasp to many strands at once we’re overwhelmed by the scale of it. This effect is amplified by the unstable timeline – some threads have so little connexion to anything else that they may be occurring before or after any of the others, and when we can compare timelines directly it seems that later chapters may occur before, or at least begin before, earlier ones.

Then again, the scale of this book makes the whole notion of timeline, of simultaneity, highly questionable – one of the triumphs of the series is that it deals honestly with the relativity of pre-modern society. The length of time it takes news to travel from one place to another is so long, and so unpredictable, and so dependent on routes of travel and on relative location and on the type of information being relayed, that it is impossible for any character, or for the reader, to have an unambiguous timeline of which events happen before other events. In this case, this effect is made even more prominent by the fact that the first half of the novel (roughly speaking) occurs ‘simultaneously’ with some events in the fourth volume (and some of the fourth volume is ‘simultaneous’ with some of the third volume). This means we have been told about some things, from the perspective of characters appearing in the fourth book, ‘before’ they have ‘actually happened’ from the perspective of the characters who witness them firsthand; while other events from the fourth book have clearly ‘happened’ by the end of the fifth book, even though most characters in the book don’t know that they’ve happened (and likewise, some chapters in the fourth book depict events, first-hand, that we’ve already heard about second-hand in the third volume…). Some might call of this messing about with the timeline ‘lazy’ or ‘confusing’, but I think it’s a brilliant idea – it reflects the actual state of affairs in this sort of society, and is a rich source of dramatic tension and tragic misunderstanding.

Also demanding respect is the greater imagination of this volume. Both in its alien-society-full-of-wonders sections on the continent of Essos and in its dark – sometimes horrifically dark –, fairy-tale-imagery sections in the North, ADWD manages to hit a more fantastic, out-of-this-world note, while still managing to make it seem a natural evolution of what has gone before. Several of the Northern chapters in particular were thrillingly evocative of the long history of dark-forest-in-winter nightmares of European storytelling. And I do mean dark. This novel gets stunningly, overwhelmingly, how-will-they-ever-be-allowed-to-film-this dark – and although it feels a bit artificial in its darkness now and then, a bit sensationalist, that’s actually a fairly rare problem, and most of the time it manages to make journeys through the pits of hell more or less realistic and believable. Remarkably, despite the length and breadth of the narrative threads, many of these chapters felt satisfying and complete in and of themselves, to a degree I don’t recall having encountered in previous Martin novels. Again, though I was dispirited after reading the fourth volume, the long wait for the fifth seems to have sharpened the author’s skills rather than rusting them.

On which note, one last note of acclaim: as always, Martin’s writing here is very cinematic, and the imagery of some chapters is breath-taking – I would say that I couldn’t wait for HBO to get to these chapters just to see what they look like on screen, but unfortunately I know they won’t have the budget to do them justice.

Praise duly given, however, I must return to criticism. I’ll set aside the complaints I’ve already made about Martin’s writing in general and just talk about this book. In this book, the biggest problem is that it’s all pointless. Most of the book – particularly the sections set in the East – feels like filler, and I really don’t understand why either A Feast For Crows or A Dance With Dragons was necessary. It could all have been dealt with via a five-year gap. Even if he didn’t want to give us so many flashbacks, it certainly didn’t need two massive doorstop tomes. The process seem to be that to fill in a section of events he creates characters, and those characters need stories and things to do, and then those ‘things to do’ have causes and consequences, and then those causes and consequences require more characters to be involved and more things to happen and… . Although by the end of the book, Things have started to Happen, most of those Things are really just resolutions for plot threads only introduced in this novel! Very little progress is made on the overarching plot. In fact, much of it feels like a step back, with characters returned to old positions and plot lines reset – near the end one character even muses explicitly that ‘to go forward you must go back’, and this feels like quite a narrative cop-out. I’m left with the inescapable fear that if Martin wants to actually get on with the story he will have to write-off most of what happens in ADWD as ‘learning experiences’ for some of the characters and then ignore the fact that any of it happened. Meanwhile, the fact that it HAS happened will have consequences – so much time has been spent on resolving the relatively minor fallout from the third novel that not having such resolution of the main plot climax of the series will feel unbalanced and deceitful (assuming that the main plot doesn’t end with ‘everybody dies’, which seems to be the only case when Martin will allow ‘and that’s the end of the story’ to be true – everything in his books has consequences, which is an admirable level of realism but will surely make it hard to wrap it all up convincingly). More immediately, while some characters have reverted, others have managed to entangle themselves in very complicated situations, which will surely take a huge number of pages to unravel.

In short, this novel not only doesn’t get us much closer to the end of the series, it actually makes the end look further away. Given the length-to-content ratio of this book, it’s hard to imagine Martin finishing in only two more volumes. In some ways, the constantly-increasing attention to detail is a good thing – it’s a big part of why this is a more satisfying book than AGOT – but the combination of obsessive detail with vainglorious breadth means that this could take half a century to complete.

Myself, particularly for Dany’s storyline, I think a cold opening going straight from the end of A Storm of Swords to the end of A Dance With Dragons, missing out everything that happened in-between, would have been the greatest opening to a fantasy novel ever… but I realise that that’s probably a minority taste!

So, it’s a fun read but doesn’t get us very far. But some of it isn’t even all that fun. Personally, I didn’t find any of it intolerable, but it does go on for a very long time, and many chapters are devoted to world-building with little or no action in them. I can’t fathom why Martin thought certain characters needed so many chapters of exposition – of the three main POVs in this book, only one didn’t feel as though it was killing time, and not much even happened in that one! The vast bulk of the book was made up of these three characters not doing very much, and I was desperate to have some more from the ‘minor’ characters, whose chapters were actually both exciting and plot-advancing! Page allocations seem to have been done more on the basis of which characters are the designated stars and less on the basis of who has most to say and do. Meanwhile, other characters just pop in once or twice for little “I’m still alive! Don’t forget that I exist! I’ll probably be important in the future! Maybe!” cameos. Nor does the weird ‘book four characters merge in halfway through except for the one that’s there all along due to the timeline being strange’ structure work all that well. These characters got only one or two chapters each, wrapping up the cliffhangers set up at the end of the last book, and reminding us how pointless the last book was. The main effect of these was a slap in the face, returning us to a world that felt very different – and more boring – than the two worlds explored in the rest of the novel.

The length and dullness of some parts of the book was ameliorated for me by the exciting plot twists. Or, I should say, by the expectation of exciting plot twists, since Martin’s style is as much about building tension as it is about shocks. So actually, although there were slow patches, there were enough thrilling sections to make it, on balance, pretty exciting. Unfortunately, there are very, very few actual shocks in this book, and although I really enjoyed reading it this time, I fear that on a re-read, now that I know what does and doesn’t happen, I would probably find much of it quite boring and hard to chisel through.

On the subject of shocks: Martin came to fame as a ‘brutal’ author, somebody who could kill off anybody, no matter how important they were, no matter how loved they were. Where did that Martin go? I understand that it’s harder to kill characters now, because now that we’re closer to the end of the story, the surviving characters are more likely to actually be important, rather than being decoys. And yet Martin retains his obsessive need for cliffhangers and life-in-the-balance thrills – which works a lot less well once you realise that everyone’s safe. I lost track of how many dead, believed-dead, probably dead or almost dead characters turned out to be alive in this book. It’s ridiculous. This meant that when, toward the end of the novel, there were what looked to be a major plot twist, I didn’t really care, because I knew that it wouldn’t really matter. Everyone affected will turn out to be never-dead, not-quite-dead or dead-but-not-dead in some way or other. So what’s the point?

Lastly: the problem I identified in AGOT regarding background characters is still there. Martin’s background characters seem to fall into two categories: Boba Fetts, who, it is suggested, are Deep and Complicated and Mysterious and Cool and Dangerous even if it’s not always clear how exactly, and Other People, who are mostly cartoons. Both tendencies become annoying over time.

By now, the criticisms have probably lead you to think that this isn’t a book worth reading. I don’t know whether that’s what you should think or not. By itself, it stood alone as an enjoyable reading experience, but of course it cannot actually stand alone, inasmuch as there are four books before it and at least two more to come. As I say, I enjoyed reading this: but given its length, it was also a major investment. Does that investment pay off? I think we have to wait and see. If Martin manages to pull off the end of this cycle well, this novel will stand proudly as a strong, enjoyable, well-written part of the whole – not perhaps the most plot-advancing part, but an interesting and engaging slower middle movement. If, on the other hand, the end of the series doesn’t succeed, this novel will stand sadly as an overlong, over-ambitious symptom of a promising writer losing their way. If the series fails as a whole, there’s not enough in this volume to be worth wading your way through it all; if it succeeds, there’s enough in it to be a valuable part of the whole that will really add to the experience of it all. I really don’t know which way it will turn out. I think primarily this novel has heightened the ambition – I’m now less confident that it will end well, but if it does end well, it’ll be even better than I thought it would be.

Finally, of course the higher quality of this novel relative to the first in the cycle should stand as a proxy for the quality of the intervening novels, which I have not yet re-read (and won’t for a while – too many pages read for now).

Adrenaline: 4/5. I may be being charitable, because there were long, boring bits. On the other hand, there were a lot of non-boring bits as well. Some bits were genuinely heart-pounding.

Emotion: 2/5. I did connect with some of the characters, but few of them had really emotional stories in this instalment – I guess it’s a slow period of set-up and construction, rather than the part of the story that tugs at the heart-strings. There’s certainly emotional potential here…

Thought: 3/5. It’s a vast and complicated plot, which kept my mind very active. On the other hand, no great mysteries really grabbed me, and for the most part I was willing to sit back and watch things unfold.

Beauty: 4/5. The prose is adequate, though there are nice bits here and there. The strong point in this respect is the scenery, which is strikingly filmic at many points.

Craft: 4/5. Assuming that the entire novel doesn’t turn out to be a mistake – which will depend on what happens next – there are no massive blunders here. There are certain repetitions in the prose, and certain plot twists feel too sudden and unjustified (in one case it seems as though the author expects readers to have been reviewing internet speculation for the last five years, since one familiar-to-scholars-of-the-novels development (no, not THAT one!) is treated as though fairly obvious and uninteresting, but to virgins in the series it’ll be baffling, shocking and entirely unforeshadowed). There are slow periods, and page-time is misallocated. But nothing really hurts too much. On the other hand, some scenarios are built up very well, there is an astonishing control over a staggeringly huge cast (you could spend hours reminding yourself where various minor characters have been glimpsed before, or who they’re related to and why that matters), and some chapters could stand well as polished short stories in their own right.

Endearingness: 3/5. Some POVs I really enjoyed; others I survived. I could see myself selectively reading the good ones again, but the bad ones I don’t like the thought of having to re-read. So it balances out, I think.

Originality: 3/5. Bound by the limitations of its setting and structure; nonetheless, its sprawling plot and travelogue elements do make it a bit more exotic, and unusual, than earlier books in the series.

Overall: 5/7. Good. It’s definitely a step up from the first book, and as far as I remember it’s at least equal to, and possibly superior to, the second and third volumes in terms of writing quality – although it can’t match the third volume for thrills, as rather less happens here. As I say above, the ultimate verdict will have to wait until the series is completed, but this book was certainly good enough to make me want to read The Winds of Winter when (if!) it comes out, and it gives me confidence that the second and third volumes may actually be as good as I remember them being (which is very good indeed).

A Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin

 

I first read A Game of Thrones in 2003. I didn’t like it much at first, but by the end I was gripped, and I raced through the next two books. I read them again in 2006, when I also read the fourth. Since then, I haven’t touched them. But now I’ve watched the TV series, and the fifth book has just come out, so reading them again seemed appropriate. Perhaps that wasn’t the best idea. In any case, having once liked them, I now approached them with a sense of trepidation.

And… not, it seems, without cause. There are good things and bad things about A Game of Thrones. I’m going to start off with the bad things, because frankly they’re what I discovered first. So I’m going to have to be critical – but do bear in mind that later on, I’ve got some nicer things to say as well.

So. Problems. Problem one: the writing. In particular the dialogue. Much of it is very ripe indeed – ripe enough that in 2003 I, as a fantasy fan who had read a thousand TSR novels, found the high ground to disdain it. The quality is variable, and certainly not all of it is bad – but much of it is cheesy, clichéd, and lacks character, by which I mean that most of the dialogue sounds fairly robotic and identical, displaying little of the nature of the people uttering it. What’s more, Martin’s fabled more-contemporary dialogue feel is applied unevenly – the most ridiculous renn-faire fauxdieval juts up against the most jarring anachronisms of speech, and the mangled juxtaposition makes both styles seem even more conspicuous and objectionable. Ugly writing is not a massive problem by itself, but it’s a problem that the reader is confronted with again, and again, and again.

What’s more, the robotic dialogue is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of characterisation flaws. The plain fact is, Martin seemingly has no talent at all at showing us character – not only the inner nature of his characters, which might be hidden strategically, but even their superficial feel. Even reading it with the voices and appearance of the HBO actors in mind, it felt like painting-over a black-and-white photograph. When I saw the series I was struck by how greatly some characters differed from how I had imagined them, and reading the book I now see why that is: there is so little indication of character on the page that a wide range of interpretations are possible. Even Tyrion, perhaps the most distinct of the inhabitants of the novel, is played wholly differently from how I had imagined – but the book allows this, as it doesn’t come down off the fence. It leaves us to join the dots for ourselves. Worse, characters often do not feel wholly consistent (Tyrion particularly springs to mind), and many lack clear character progressions. I’m disappointed to discover, for instance, that the clear progression I remembered Danaerys having in this book simply isn’t there – it ought to be there because that’s what the plot demands, and HBO thoughtfully inserted it, but it isn’t. Until very near the end, she vacillates between imperious self-control and naive submission and self-doubt without any apparent rhythm or rationale.

Even more disappointingly, the potentially interesting multiple-POV system is criminally wasted throughout the book. Rather than distinct, identifiable streams of thought, we just get the same narrator telling us about what different characters can see – for some events, I can’t even remember which character was the POV, because it just doesn’t matter that much. In a single-POV novel, this lack of intimate, personal timbre in the narrative would be a minor objection, but in a book that explicitly, ambitiously flaunts its multiple-POV structure, it becomes painfully obvious that the author lacks the talent, or the knowledge, or the feel for his characters, that would enable him to carry out his plans as they deserve.

(It should be mentioned here that a partial exception to this problem is the POV of Sansa, more overtly different mentally from the other characters and therefore easier to portray distinctively. Unfortunately, she’s distinctively annoying, which rather detracts from the accomplishment here).

Some writers can sketch out a believable, sympathetic and unique human being in a few paragraphs of observation. Martin gives us 800 pages of dense point-of-view exposition, and by the end, I still have less feel for his characters than I get from some short stories. As for the background characters, he doesn’t even try to do them justice, and all we get are a procession of stock clichés enlivened by occasional ludicrous grotesques, who feel as though they belong in a children’s book and not in the dark, adult, gritty fantasy that this purports to be. (I also felt distinctly uneasy when this was applied to entire groups and races: the sub-Klingon Dothraki most obviously, but even more extremely to the hill tribes, who came across the way Africans were sometimes written by Victorian writers).

While I’m talking about problems: criticisms must also be made of the worldbuilding and of the plot. The former is all but entirely unremarkable and uninteresting, almost lazy in its easy adoption of familiar tropes of the genre. Most parts of the world being a close analogue of our own medieval era, they have neither the verisimilitude of real-world painstaking research, as one might want from a historical novel, nor the vivid imagination, the defiance of the pedestrian, that we might hope for from fantasy – and what fantasy elements there are are largely derivative and familiar. The plot, meanwhile, particularly early on, feels continually rushed and gratuitous – by which I mean that the author seems to have decided that a number of things have to happen and has tried to get them all out of the way as soon as possible, and the result is less a rollercoaster than an uncomfortable ride over a series of small potholes – brief moments of manufactured, melodramatic tension interrupting periods of otherwise tedious meandering.

Oh, and it’s also continually irritating how Martin chooses to begin almost every chapter in media res, or more accurately in media nihil, and then not even flashing back bodily but simply narrating in the pluperfect. We get a paragraph or two of nothing happening, and then we’re told what has recently happened. It’s a fair enough technique for variation, but its constant repetition means that we’re rarely shown anything, we’re just constantly told about things.

So: you might well assume that my reaction to A Game of Thrones was negative. Well, it was – until I got halfway through, when a number of interesting things happen. Above all, the turning point of the novel is the Tower of Joy scene that begins Chapter 40 – insignificant in itself, but the point from which everything changes.

Why was the second half more impressive? Well, some elements improve over time – the prose becomes more confident, and the pacing and the plot settle down and start to pull together. In part, I put this down to a writer working in an unfamiliar genre – at first he seems to be trying too hard to write as he imagines epic fantasy writers must write, and it takes him a while to find his voice. In part also, his original intention for a trilogy was extended into a planned sextet – and there is an unpleasant tension between these two conceptions. The trilogy idea forces an unwarranted speed, while the sextet idea slows everything down. Later in the novel, when it seems the author has definitively realised that this cannot all be dealt with in three books, the narrative seems to become more assured, deeper, more nuanced.

The big change, however, is not that the problems go away but that the virtues become more obvious, and the reader finally gets a sense of why he is reading the book, why he is bothering to give Martin the benefit of the doubt. And the answer is: Martin isn’t here for his prose. He’s here to be (in Lev Grossman’s description) a “crafter of narrative”. That’s the phrase that makes sense of this novel. It’s not the form, it’s the content. And what’s more, it’s not the small scale, the little incidents – it’s the big things.

Think of this novel as an immense oil painting with broad brush strokes, or a little pointilist impression. If you look at it closely it doesn’t look like anything much – it looks like a bad painting. It’s only when you stand back and look at it as a whole that its virtues become apparent. It’s as though Martin is taken the stuff of the genre and forming it with his hands into a giant sculpture. If you look at it with a microscope, you see how coarse and rough the fabric is, but you have to stand back to see what shape it’s been given.

In this case, the chief virtue is the plot, which stands out from that of lesser imitators through its utter ruthlessness, its refusal to stay within the bounds of traditional expectations, and its sheer audacious expanse. Of course, the criticisms I gave above about the plot still apply – it still feels rushed, and the particular incidents still feel manufactured and unnatural – but as we pan out and see the broader scope of the greater narrative arc, those moment-by-moment objections become less important.

Perhaps even more stunning is how this broader perspective changes the characterisation. I stand by what I wrote above: Martin just doesn’t have the skill (or perhaps the desire, to be charitable) to make living characters with simple strokes of the pen. So instead, he constructs them impressionistically, over great expanses of time. We compile our concepts of the characters not through searing insights into their souls, but through the aggregation of action after action, response after response. And yes, the result is still something a little left-to-the-imagination, a little fill-in-the-gaps: but that is not necessarily a defect. Once enough colour has been added, the lingering element of ambiguity, of mystery, only makes the characters more compelling. Most striking in this respect is the central character of Ned himself – at first he seems bland, uninteresting, barely alive, and to be honest, if we look only at his words and his thoughts this remains true all through the novel. But against that wooden backdrop we have the bright colours added through his sometimes perplexing and contradictory actions, through the reports we gain from others, through his own enigmatic memories. By the end, we’re left convinced that all the pieces fit together somehow, but not quite able to complete the puzzle – a sure recipe for addiction. We are left with the impression of three-dimensional complexity, even though none of that is there in the individual brushstrokes. The same, I suppose, is true of the narrative – by the end of the first novel, there is surprisingly little in place of a conventional epic plotline, but the ingredients are all there, and we can almost see what the recipe is for… almost

In a way, A Game of Thrones is not epic fantasy at all: it has the soul of a mystery novel. Who are the mysterious and dangerous Others in the icy North – what do they want, and how can they be stopped? How did Jon Arryn die – and why? Why are the exiled Targaryens being supported by the wealthy Illyrio? But above all there are the mysteries of the past. Who is Jon Snow’s mother? Who was Rhaegar Targaryen, really? What happened to Lyanna, and what was Ned’s last promise to her? The present tells us about the past – and we have to know about the past, because with such ambiguous characterisation, the past seems like our key to open the present. We hope that if we learn, for instance, whether Rhaegar was a good man or a villain we will learn something about Viserys and Danaerys, about Robert and Ned. We will perhaps know who these people are. But to know about the past, we can only learn about the present. What may have started as a flaw – Martin’s bland characterisation – becomes central to the whole project of the series. It becomes ideological: we cannot know who anybody really is, because the facts alone are meaningless and contradictory. Ned Stark, for instance, is a man of unquestionable loyalty who, it seems, will never disobey his duty or the law – but he is also the man who rebelled against his lawful king. He is the man who is kind and gentle, but also the man who remembers the bodies of dead children murdered by his allies. He is the man who is devoted to his wife and his children and rigid in his opposition to all vice – but he is also the man who fathered a bastard, demanded that he be raised in the house of his wife, and who refuses to tell either his wife or his bastard child the name of the child’s mother – a name that he readily and casually reveals to his friend. Who is this man? We see what another character thinks of him:

How dare you play the noble lord with me? What do you take me for? You’ve a bastard of your own, I’ve seen him. Who was the mother I wonder? Some Dornish peasant you raped while her holdfast burned? A whore? Or was it the grieving sister, the Lady Ashara? She threw herself into the sea, I’m tod. Why was that? For the brother you slew, or the child you stole? Tell me, my honorable Lord Eddard, how are you any different from [me]?

We want to believe that Ned is different. Ned is ours, Ned is the hero. But as we become confronted with the past, we cannot be certain any more. Ned will not tell us what really happened in the past, or why – and we cannot be certain that he really is as pure as he appears. He wants to be, that is clear – but is that enough?

Beside this slow-gestating monster of a narrative, and the great oil-portraiture of the characters, and the honest intellectual ambition of the cycle, its commitment to subvert and examine the assumptions we have about fantasy, and more importantly about stories in general, and most importantly about how we apply our fantasies, our stories, in interpreting events in our own world, the final ingredient is a thoroughgoing cleverness and mastery of events, exhibited through his control of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is common in fantasy, but here it is not relegated to prophecies – indeed, the prophecies are often false – but is woven into the fabric of the novel. Reading the novel again I am astounded by how much Martin has planned out in advance, by how clear he makes some things so that they become obvious in hindsight. He seems to almost be mocking the reader – on several occasions, one character will be tormentedly mulling over a difficult question, while a seemingly unimportant conversation in the background, or a minor detail overlooked, reveals the answer… but only to those who know where to look. The technique isn’t flawless – sometimes it feels a little precious, or a little overdone – but it’s impressively ambitious, and commendably organised, compared to the apparent make-it-up-as-you-go approach of some fantasy novelists.

[Again, however, the original trilogy idea bites the author in an uncomfortable place. Several strands are laid down in A Game of Thrones that I now know to be picked up in the fifth installment, or that I believe will be picked up in the sixth – but by now such a long time has passed and so many other things have happened, that I had forgotten all about them. Reading the first book again, it feels as though several narrative arcs that originally were to take place quite quickly have now been surreptitiously been placed on hold for several thousand pages]

That’s probably enough talk for now. How have I scored it?

Adrenaline: 3/5. Charitable. It was really a 2, but I’m marking it up because I suspect that having read it twice before and literally only just having watched the adaptation has dulled the tension and excitement somewhat.

Emotion: 2/5. Never really connected with any of the characters, and nothing particularly interesting happens to them (with one exception) anyway. Only in the last quarter of the book or so did I start to care.

Thought: 3/5. Again, being charitable on account of reading it at the wrong time. If the plot isn’t fresh in your memory, this would probably keep you guessing a fair bit, although the first half or two thirds is a bit familiar.

Beauty: 2/5. Only thing worth mentioning here is the ungainly prose. Some nice images, I suppose.

Craft: 3/5. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, because offsetting the nervousness he seems to have about tone and voice he has clearly put a lot of care and attention into it, and as we get to the end of the book its larger-scale craftsmanship comes to the fore.

Endearingness: 2/5. Surprising myself a bit here, but I just didn’t find much reason to love it. The first time I read it, I didn’t like it much, but the latter sections hooked me with anticipation for the next instalments; this time, I already know what happens next. Relying so much on plot twists does impact the re-readability, I’m afraid.

Originality: 2/5. It’s plain, straightforward, nearly-by-the-book epic fantasy. There are deviations from the normal tropes – one big deviation in particular – and hints that later novels will be more original, but if we’re honest this is innovative only by the standards of a genre long since grown sadly stale, not from a broader perspective.

Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. I’m genuinely surprised by how little I liked it, and it only scrapes into ‘not bad’ by virtue of that surprise, and the feeling that I should have found some reason to rate it higher. On the other hand, the end of the book does have promise, and I remember the second and third volumes being rather better –in fact, I remember them being very good indeed. I was going to go on and read them at once, but this book took so long to read and was so wearisome that I decided not to – and then I heard good things about the fifth book, and remembered how much I wanted to know what happened next, so I’ve decided to skip straight through to reading A Dance With Dragons. I may come back to the other three volumes later…

The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb

As is my wont, I thought I’d create a single post to link to to cover reviews of all three parts of the trilogy.

Don’t worry, I’ve tried to make all three spoilers more-or-less spoiler-free, so unless you’re a puritan about such things, you shouldn’t be scared to read them before you read the books.

My reviews of:

Assassin’s Apprentice

Royal Assassin

Assassin’s Quest

 

 

 

Assassin’s Quest – Robin Hobb

The Six Duchies would fall. The world would end.

We went to fetch blankets.

**

“Even while [they] were raping me, they seemed to take no pleasure in it. At least, not the kind of pleasure… They mocked my pain and struggling. Those who watched were laughing as they waited[…] It was a thing they could do to me, so they did it. I had always believed, perhaps childishly, that if you followed the rules, you would be protected, that things like that would not happen to you. Afterwards I felt … tricked. Foolish. Gullible, that I had thought ideals could protect me. Honour and courtesy and justice … they are not real.”

When I talked about Royal Assassin, I made a lot of the gradually increasing pace, which slowly mounts from a standing start to a frightening end. Assassin’s Quest is the opposite of that. The first half of the book continues at the same pace – if you put together second half of RA and the first half of AQ, you’d have a thoroughly riveting all-action adventure – but as it goes on it gets slower and slower and slower. I still enjoyed it, but it became heavy – I would read a chapter, enjoy it, but then feel that I needed a break. Hence why it has taken me so long to finish.

Assassin’s Quest is in some ways quite a disjointed book, easily split up into segments. There are approximately seven stages of varying lengths, which fall into two clear parts, although they aren’t labelled as such.

Part One is the mirror of the second half of Royal Assassin. Where that novel depicts the ‘teenager’ phase of Fitz’s maturation (not necessarily in age, but in role), with the lovelorn boy gradually confined, pressured, restrained and crushed by heavy weights, unable to escape either from his situation or his location, Part One of this novel relates what happens after the lid has been taken off the pressure. Predictably, it’s explosive. It is, as some have complained, not entirely wise – like many young men suddenly freed from the bonds of childhood, some of his goals and decisions are not perhaps the most sensible – but it’s enthusiastic, even exhilarating in its liberation, even as we simultaneously feel the great weariness within Fitz. There are three sections to this: the first, wrapping up the ramifications of the events at the end of the last novel; the second, showing new determination, and the third, a period of doubt and uncertainty. The first section is a little ungainly, but that couldn’t be helped; the second section is the most straightfoward adventure, and the third introduces more depth. All together, the first part is twisty and turny and full of event, but not without psychological acuity as well.

Part Two, as the momet of elation passes into a man’s dedication to a cause, his re-entering of the adult world, this time as an equal, is more problematic. And unfortunately it comes last, which doesn’t help the reputation of the book as a whole, as this is what they remember. In fact, the bit people complain about only lasts a few chapters – but it’s a few chapters of increasing sloth where we expect increasing speed.

That sloth is not without reason. The first section of this part, the bulk of it, is the procession to the ending, and because it is an emotional ending as well as a purely narrative ending – the novel remains primarily character-driven – it tries to impress the importance of the character development with weight and significance. It feels much like the way some pieces of music become slower and louder as they build to a solemn conclusion, or the way a river broadens and slows at nears the ocean. If it convinces you, it’s a moving and majestic – if it doesn’t, it’s an interminable travelogue filled up with boring character interaction. Indeed, the whole of the book has been accused of being a travelogue – I had no problem with this. Not much time is spent lingering on the surroundings, after all, it’s just a background for a character who keeps moving. Frankly, I’m surprised this is the part people have a problem with, rather than the previous novel, which was set almost entirely within a single building (and only about four rooms of that building). And then there’s the end. Or rather: then there’s three endings in a row. There’s the climax, the anticlimax, and the epilogue. (Not marked as such, but that’s clearly what it is). The climax (or climaxes, as there are actually two) work well enough, and the epilogue is sheer genius; and although I remembered the anticlimax as terrible, it’s actually not that bad. Basically, Hobb wanted to reach the epilogue, which requires eveything to be wrapped up, but the soul of the book is finished with the climax, so she has attempted to pass very rapidly from climax to epilogue with a whistlestop round-up of all the loose ends. I think that maybe because I was reading slowly this time it worked for me – if you go at full speed through all the slow weight of the climax and then suddenly drop off a cliff when you get to the anticlimax, it may well annoy you.

Hobb’s strengths are her plotting and her characters. She has a particular way of producing plots that are eventful and unexpected but that do not feel manipulative or artificial. In this sense, she is a true story-teller. She’s able to do this because her characters feel so natural (except Kettle. She may have hidden depths that help explain her, but for too much of the novel she’s a stock cliché), and because she allows them all the room they require. They are not railroaded into the plot, the plot evolves out of them. This authorial philosophy is seen most strongly in the character of Starling, who is, in the final analysis, entirely superfluous to the plot. There’s no reason for her to exist! But she does, and she’s a brilliant character, and she’s there because Hobb wanted to tell us about the character.

Of course, if you don’t care about characters per se and only want action, this renders the second half of the book rather dull. And it also makes the books very reliant on the likeability of their characters – particularly in the first half, where Fitz is more alone (both literally and metaphorically) than at any other time at the series. Now, I love Fitz, so for me this was a highlight, but those who find him whiny and stupid [patronising views, I think, from people who judge with the benefit of an omnipotent viewpoint, and who do not remember adolescence] are likely to groan when they find him alone and free to monologue internally. And it should also be said that those who [equally unfairly in my view] complain about how much suffering and physical damage Fitz has to go throw will also not be best pleased. There aren’t any prolonged and graphic torture scenes or anything here (and Hobb never feels gratuitous, even when discussing the worst things possible), but he does get put through the wringer. I think that’s entirely appropriate – Fitz isn’t a god, he doesn’t have superhuman powers of badassery, and his continued survival in dangerous situations is due to a combination of good luck and superior determination. Personally, I think that making the hero someone stubborn enough to not give in until he’s won, rather than making him someone so universally superb that he can win everything easily, a good decision. Others may disagree. He’s sort of an anti-Mary Sue: he’s set up with skills and abilities and knowledge in so many different areas, but as it turns out he’s only minimally or averagely competant in any of them, and generally hopelessly outmatched by his enemies.

Her characterisation, in my opinion, is superb; but some may not find it so. This, as I suggested in my other reviews, is because her characters are very natural – they are not all exceptional individuals, they are not strikingly good or strikingly bad or strikingly peculiar or even strikingly complex. They’re just people. This series, I think, is the epitome of the “gritty fantasy” that’s now become popular – but it feels distinct, because this doesn’t flaunt its violations of taboos or wave its ideology in your face. It’s very low-key and very matter-of-fact. Very human. In a way, that makes it even darker. A great example is the one I quoted above, where one character talks about being raped. The scene occurs in the dark, so that nobody can see them crying, but other than that it’s very straightforward. We don’t see graphic depictions of rapes and murders, we don’t see people wailing and screaming about how terrible the world is, we just get one person talking quietly about what has happened to them, and how it has changed them. It’s very brutalised – and very alienated. The book is full of moments of casual brutalisation. A character doesn’t just kill an enemy soldier and take their money – they take note of the personal items in the dead soldier’s purse and wonder about their lives. At one point Fitz kills somebody he recognises, and spends some time thinking sadly about shared memories from his younger years. It’s not – in my opinion – mawkish or sentimental, it’s just that the author is always at pains to remind us of the human suffering behind every action – even the actions of the heroes.  I think another reason people may not like Fitz is that he doesn’t slaughter his enemies with badass puns – he pities them. Humanity – albeit humanity in the most constrained and terrible of circumstances – is his strongest characteristic, and the core characteristic of the trilogy as a whole.

Indeed, the moral ambiguity in general is worth mentioning. Although we’re assured that the good guys are doing things that are For The Best, we almost have to take it on faith, because in this world The Best is still pretty awful – we realise this at the end in particular, when we zoom out to understand the underlying causes of the conflicts in the trilogy, and have a bittersweet comprehension of the possible consequences of “victory”. Indeed, hints that we should be somewhat uneasy crop up as early as the second book, where we see, amongst other things, the oppressive nature of the Outislander regime (that is, many ‘enemies’ are actually just as opposed to the enemy government as the good guys are), the racism of the ordinary people toward the Outislander refugees, and an uncomfortable number of references to seeking a “final solution” to the Outislander problem. Our real-world knowledge should warn us at this point that final solutions are never the end of the matter, and the determination to seek them can lead to unsavory consequences.

The naturalism that underpins her characterisation is also seen – tangentially, but symbolically enough that it’s worth mentioning – in the topic of knowledge. Fitz lives in a confusing world, and much of the third volume is discovery, and piecing together of facts. From an omniscient viewpoint, many of the conclusions of Fitz and others are wrong – but we don’t get that in the books. We get Fitz’s viewpoint. It’s only in the later trilogies that we actually get to see from another direction and work out how Fitz is wrong – in this trilogy, all we have is a slight confusion, the unease that he clearly hasn’t got eveything quite right. But where Fitz’s knowledge and intellect run out, so does the book – it shrugs its shoulders and does not explain. Again, I liked this. Others have found it frustrating.

I’ve been praising her a while, but Hobb is not without faults. The writing is the least awkward of any of the three books; and she also largely avoids the problems with recapping that cropped up in Royal Assassin. In part this may be because she has become a better writer – Assassin’s Quest, I think, is in all technical ways the best written of the three – but it is also partly because Royal Assassin  and Assasssin’s Quest form a clearly-linked duology, whereas Assassin’s Apprentice is largely an independent preliminary adventure designed to set up the pieces for that duology: instead of having to restart, as at the beginning of RA, here the action can flow directly onward (though with a few nods in the first chapter or so to remind readers of where we are). But she is still not perfect. The slightly-fauxdieval language is largely unobstrusive, but there are still uncertain moments, particularly the insistence on “did I know, I should not have”-type conditionals. The pacing is… understandable but still trying. Toward the end, some of the psychobabble becomes unconvincing; and having so much of import happening through the intangible sense of the Skill and the Wit makes it hard to keep describings things in a way that’s understandable without being repetitive. I’m not entirely convinced by some of the metaphysics, in terms of its continuity and coherency. And another problem is that Hobb seems to have hedged her bets too much, and tacked on a heroic framework that just doesn’t seem required or justified. The story works perfectly well on the level of personal and national crisis – and then she has to tack on the prophecies and the annointed heroes and the saving-the-world stuff, which doesn’t fit in, and doesn’t serve any real purpose. And the prophecies in particular add to that metaphysics worry I mentioned. They also are one way in which we can see constant retconning throughout the trilogy – some of it is actually explanation of things that were unknown earlier but make perfect sense in hindsight, but other bits feel like later additions. And Fitz is a little too perfect an observer to put us in full ‘unreliable narrator’ territory, so the moments that remind us that he ISN’T perfect are a little jarring. They also lead to “Fitz is an idiot” complaints, since the quick-witted audience will work some things out long before Fitz does.

That said, this is an impressively ambitious and original book, that tries to put gripping storytelling, imaginative worldbuilding, deeply personal and relatable and naturalistic and memorable characterisation and a profound and steadfast conscience (some may find it occasionally preachy at points, but I think this would be a very hostile reading; to me, the morality expressed both through the characters and through the events seems to evolve naturally, even inevitably, out of the characterisation and the world, and I never felt lectured at – which is actually somewhat rare for me) all together in a pleasantly entertaining, yet brutally dark and sophisticated (but never gratuitous or manipulative, or for that matter depressing, or unrelentingly bleak; Hobb doesn’t shy away from the darkness when it appears, but doesn’t go looking for it, and the darkness is thoroughly lightened by the moments of humour and humanity), mature and complex story, embedded in and offering glimpses of a larger and stranger world beyond the confines of the page.

It isn’t entirely succesful in any direction, and in it’s epic-storytelling-with-a-literary-tone, many may find it (as I think it is) neither sufficiently enjoyable nor sufficiently literary. Nonetheless, I personally find the attempt itself to be of value, and while it is neither the most thrilling trilogy nor the most incisive, I found it by and large highly readable, highly likeable, and highly memorable. It isn’t a perfect work by any means – but it is good solid adult (in the true sense of the word, neither prudish nor sensationalist) epic fantasy. I don’t think there’s a lot of that.

Adrenaline: 3/5. Some people may find it deathly dull, but I didn’t. The first half of the novel in particular I found very exciting. The second half is slower-paced, and my attention wandered at points, but although it took me a while to read the book I never took any length of time to read the chapters. Mostly, I’d say it was heavy rather than slow. So overall, I think an average score here is fair.

Emotion: 3/5. I mostly found it a surprisingly cool and distant book; but there are a few points where the emotion does hit home. The final page is one of them. In general the emotion tends to the bittersweet and the sorrowful.

Thought: 3/5. It’s still fairly straigtforward, but as we come toward the end the wider mysteries about the world, the moral complexities, and at some points simply the difficulty the main character has in grasping what exactly is going on, do start to keep the mind rather active. There are also some intriguing points here that will only be noticed and understood by readers of the later trilogies.

Craft: 4/5. By and large, I think it’s very well written (if you don’t mind the diction, but if you’re reading fantasy at all you probably don’t). It’s not perfect, though – the diction occasionally becomes objectionable even to me, and the pacing doesn’t do the book a service (though its hard to see how it could have been improved without totally rewriting the story).

Beauty: 3/5. Not a lot of infelicity to object to, really. And the bittersweet ending counterbalances any problems there may be.

Endearingness: 4/5. I like it a lot – but I did find it a tad tiring and slow in the second half. I loved the ending, though.

Originality: 4/5. The plain plot alone is pretty peculiar. Add in the psychological dimension, the strange multiple ending, and the genre-unusual moral and character complexity and the imperfect (not dishonest, but limited) narrator, and I’d say it’s definitely odder than average!

Overall: 5/7. I think it’s right up there with Royal Assassin in terms of quality, although this is certainly likely to be the more opinion-dividing of the two, as it’s considerably more thinky and less pacy (or at least it feels that way, since the pacing is reversed compared to the earlier book).