12.17–A Clash of Kings

This novel, in case you don’t know, is the second in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.  By no means as interesting as the first, much of it feels rather like filler.  It takes a very long while for the events to get moving. For a novel that’s 969 pages long, reading through 400 pages in which mostly nothing happens is pretty difficult.  Still, the events of the latter half of the novel make pushing through the first part worth it, and I very much look forward to starting the next novel.

As ever, the story of the Seven Kingdoms is told from multiple third-person points of view, following a large number of different characters.  One of the most frustrating things about this series is the sheer number of characters (I believe I read somewhere that throughout the series of five books so far there are over 1,000 named characters).  Their names are unusual and some of them are very similar, making it extremely difficult to keep track of everyone.  At times I only followed the story based on some vague concept of a person’s character–this man is bad, this woman is benevolent, this man can’t be trusted, this one can be bought for gold–instead of attempting to memorize all the names. It helps to read the appendix at the back, and keep referring to it as the novel progresses.

I will say this for Martin: with his main players he takes a great deal of care, crafting them into multi-faceted, many-sided characters.  My favorite in this novel is Tyrion Lannister, a witty man whose lack of brawn has turned him into a clever schemer–the man who really controls the country, though from the shadows so that no one knows it. Arya, my favorite in the last book, lost most of her spunk for this one, though she gained it back at the end to reclaim her place in my heart. Sansa, whom I hated in the first novel, certainly earns the reader’s sympathy in this one, as her mad betrothed, Joffrey, abuses her horribly, both emotionally and physically.  Cersei Lannister and her son Joffrey are both evil to the core–Joffrey a spoiled, mad child who has been given a crown, and Cersei the mother who will do anything to protect her son and see him hold on to the Iron Throne.  Each of these characters, and the others, evoke specific emotions within the reader, and once the chapter ends and we don’t know how soon we’ll see them again, there is a little bit of disappointment.  I’ve considered skipping ahead to the next chapter belonging to a character I’m particularly interested in, but I know that by the time the novel gets around to that next chapter, so many things have changed that nothing will make sense.

The plot moves swiftly and the fortunes of characters change in a flash.  In this novel, as in its predecessor and presumably its sequels, nothing is certain–life or death, good or evil, victory or defeat.  Even when it looks as if a battle can have only one outcome, Martin surprises us with some new trickery.  With five kings vying for one throne, and two more self-styled monarchs eyeing the throne from a distance, there is no well-defined line in the sand, no clear hero for which to cheer.  In this, Martin creates realism far beyond what most authors will do.  These people could be walking around in an alternate universe, where fate does not always favor the noble or the good.  Though the world he created is very thorough, complete with topography, geography, history, religion, language, culture, and the previously spoken-of characters, it is this ability of his to not give us the happy ending we want that truly brings the story to life and makes it believable.

Though I did not enjoy this novel nearly as much as the first, I still had difficulty putting it down, especially the nearer I drew to the end.  The simmering pot of the Seven Kingdoms explodes into a boil, and it gets to be a very exciting read.

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12.11–The Pirate Queen

I picked up this book in a tourist shop with an assortment of Irish interest books.  The back cover text makes it seem a lot more exciting than it really is. It is a historical book whose enticing teaser text invites the reader to enter the exciting, adventurous, romantic world of Grace O’Malley–the Pirate Queen. In the 16th century, Grace unofficially ruled the west coast of Ireland with her armada. Theoretically this book should have been really interesting, but sadly it was more a history of the conflict between the Irish and the English.  Grace herself occasionally surfaced in the book, and all the events sort of centered around her, but it wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy my desire for a really good pirate story. The history was interesting, but not what I wanted to read about.

Since probably no one is going to read this book, I won’t spend much time on reviewing it. I don’t even know if it’s available in the US. Maybe it is, but honestly I’d pass it by. There are other, better books about pirates out there.

12.10–Fire

Fire by Kristin Cashore was fantastic in a way that only action-filled, sexually charged teen lit can be.  I read a lot of reviews that condemned the novel for being too mature for teen audiences, but I disagree whole-heartedly.  Fire is 17 year old, is burdened with more than her fair share of unusual problems, and yet suffers the same fears and insecurities as the general teenage population.

I’m getting to an ago where teen lit is a guilty pleasure.  Five years out of teenager-hood, I should be over it. But I still find myself craving it often, mostly because it is fast-paced, fun, interesting, and lacks the forced introspective depth that a great deal of adult literature writers feel it necessary to stuff into their novels. Fire gave me exactly what I was looking for in a novel.  Stuck in the middle of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I needed to find a book that would actually encourage me to like reading again. So I bought it in an Eason in Dublin, and cracked it open immediately, feeling the soothing balm of an engaging story ease my mind and bring a smile to my face.

Fire is the second book by Kristin Cashore set in the same world as Graceling (also amazing) but on the other side of the mountains in a land known as The Dells. The main character is also called Fire, so named because of the color of her hair. In The Dells there are monsters, creatures that look like normal animals except for the fact that their fur or feathers or scales are brightly and unusually colored–magenta, marigold, purple, jade, turquoise, etc.  They are also extremely vicious, and even monsters whose animal counterparts are usually very mild hunger for the flesh of humans and other monsters alike.  Fire is half monster, the result of the union of her insane monster father and one of his human sexual conquests.  She can read peoples’ thoughts and emotions, and even control the minds of weak individuals or collected groups.  She is also extraordinarily beautiful, and men often go wild at the sight of her, either with lust or with hatred.  However, she is part human, and is therefore appalled by her father’s behavior and, for most of her life before the events of the novel, refuses to use her powers at all.  As the political situation in her kingdom deteriorates, she finds herself faced with the choice of using her power to help save her country or watch as it all falls apart.  Either way she risks losing the people she loves.

Of course, being in the Graceling trilogy, there is a romance involved as well.  Fire grows up alongside her best friend Archer, who eventually becomes her lover. But though he constantly proposes to her, is jealously protective, and wants nothing more than to spend forever with her, she is never able to love him in the same way. Instead, she finds throughout the novel that a romance is blossoming between her and someone very different from Archer.  It’s quite sweet and innocent, and I fear I don’t understand my fellow reviewers who seem to thing Fire is a slut.  Yes, she sleeps with Archer.  But she’s only with two men, one of which she marries (we assume).  Except to the ultra-religious, that number (ahem, 2) is extremely low–lower than the number of lovers a lot of teenagers will have. So let’s just reserve our judgement, shall we?

I enjoyed Fire as a character a great deal.  I saw a little bit of myself in her. Extremely beautiful, plagued  by the attention of men…totally kidding.  Her fears and reservations, her insecurities–what girl doesn’t go through those things?  Despite the fact that she’s a monster and therefore not quite human, and incredibly lovely, she suffers the same things as women everywhere.  She doubts the love and intentions of others because of the power she unwillingly has over others.  She is lonely. She is faced with very difficult choices. She worries over the people she loves.  She’s tough, but still delicate enough to be feminine and alluring.  She’s loyal and protective.  And she’s interesting, because at the end of the day, her biggest problems set her apart from us regular humans, and one can’t help but compare her reactions to what oneself might do in her situation.

I wish I could do more justice to how much I loved this book. It is extremely emotional, and Cashore is adept at making the reader feel what Fire is feeling.  In the midst of tragedy, the reader is heartbroken. In romance, the reader’s heart is full and excited with the hope that maybe they’ll have that someday (or maybe they already do?).  In times of fear, the reader fears for Fire and her loved ones.  For regular Bibliography readers, this is a common theme in the blogs about books that I really love: it absolutely has to make me feel some kind of emotion. If it manifests itself physically (tears, a sigh, catching my breath, etc.) then it is truly an effective and moving piece to me.  This is one of my favorite things about this novel, and Cashore wins major points.

As I said, it’s the second book in a trilogy.  I highly recommend this book, but you will definitely want to start by reading Graceling (Book 1 of the trilogy).  Have fun and enjoy it! Great book!

12.7–Monster Blood Tattoo, Book 1: Foundling

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D. M. Cornish is truly an unsung hero of children’s literature. I’ve been wanting to read this series since I worked at Barnes & Noble and my eye was caught by the beautiful cover art.  What I didn’t know at the time was that Cornish did all of the artwork himself.  The novel includes, in addition to the cover art, illustrations of character, diagrams of various uniforms, ships, and extremely well-done, detailed maps of the Half-Continent–the world that Cornish spent years dreaming up.

Book 1: Foundling, tell the story of Rossämund, an orphan boy whose girl’s name gets him in a lot of trouble with his peers. He dreams of a life on the vinegar seas around the Half Continent, but when it comes time for him to leave the “marine society” where he has grown up since his abandonment as an infant, he is drafted as a Lamplighter in the service of the Emperor.  It is a disappointment to him, as it’s a life spent on land.  The only redemption is that, out in the wilds between fortified cities and along the road where he’ll be maintaining lamps, monsters hunt their human enemies.

From the moment he leaves the shelter of the marine society, he is duped and misguided by the world and its inhabitants.  He is kidnapped by a man claiming to be his guide to his new life, when in fact he is a smuggler of contraband creatures.  After his escape he meets Europe, a renowned monster hunter who has altered her body to be able to fight them more effectively. Their ensuing adventures together transform Rossämund from a green boy who only dreams of adventures to a young man who’s had them, and he bravely faces monsters both large and small with a quick mind and a straight sense of right and wrong. The book ends when he finally reaches his destination and is about to begin his duties as a Lamplighter. I have no problem revealing this, as there’s really no surprise ending. The novel does not end. It merely pauses before the next book.  As as there were about 150 pages of Appendixes (glossary, maps, diagrams, etc.), the end quite took me by surprise.

There are several things I love about this book, but they mostly all come back to the creativity and care that Cornish took with his dream world.  One gets the impression from many novels that the author creates a plot and then forms the world around that plot, making it seem patchy and incomplete.  Cornish spent incredible amounts of time composing drawings, dreaming up a dialect, creating maps, and building character profiles so that, by the time he began creating the plot the world felt entirely real. There is a wholly unique feel to the book, part fantasy and part science fiction.  Really, I would say it’s closest to steampunk.  Rossämund is a character that the reader can really get behind. He is a kind boy. He has courage and does what needs to be done, even when he is desperately afraid.  His moral compass is extraordinarily true, and he feels guilt at the imprisonment and slaughter of harmless monsters, and elation at the victory of right over wrong.  His loyalty is unwavering to those who protect him, even when he is unsure of their moral compass’ orientation.

The world in which he lives is full of surprises and possibilities. Rather like our world in the Victorian age, except crawling with monsters and surrounded by seas so poisoned by minerals and salts as to have turned strange colors and become hazardous to men’s skin.  Rossämund is a fairly normal human being, but there are others who has strange boxes affixed to their faces so as to enhance their senses of smell and sight or have their internal organs altered or replaced in order to fight monsters. As in our world, there are pirates and smugglers, although these deal in contraband monster flesh and the perverse human creations that are fabricated from them.  At some point the reader sees a ship whose engines are driven by living muscle tissue, reminding me of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series. I thoroughly enjoyed my break from the norm of paranormal romance or dragons and fairies (though  I do love my fairies…).  I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is a fan of YA or steampunk.  I’d love to see this author gain in popularity.