Monthly Archives: May 2011

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J K Rowling

Title: Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsChamber of Secrets
Author: J K Rowling
Year of Publication:  1999
Length: 341 pages
Genre: magical realism / young adult
New or Re-Read?: Many-times re-read
Rating: 4 stars
Spoiler Warning For all 7 books, considering that I talk about how this one relates to the story as a whole.

In some ways, it’s weird that this is my least favourite of the Harry Potter books, because it introduces so many concepts that I find crucial to the overall series. (It also introduces so many things that come back in Books 6 and 7, but that’s entirely another matter).

1) Purebloodism. The whole ethos behind the Dark Lord’s rise to power first gets introduced here (previously it was just slated as a lust for power, with the vague notion that “some families are better than others”). We learn about Mudbloods and Squibs, about pureblood prejudice, about various feelings on interbreeding with Muggles.

2) House-elves. I don’t know how others feel about them, but Dobby was annoying and dangerous to me from the very beginning, and I don’t quite get the warm fuzzies that others have for him. I have no patience with characters who, while well-intentioned, are pretty much just screw-ups who get in the way and who never learn from error (same reason I dislike Hagrid so strongly), so Dobby grates on my nerves real fast. Regardless — what with Kreacher and Winky and all, house-elves become quite important characters in later books, and we first learn about them, and their special brand of magic, here.

3) School rivalries still affecting adult relationships. We get a little bit of this in Book 1 with Snape hating Harry because of James, and we’ll see far more of it in Book 3, but we start seeing more of it here. The scuffle between Arthur and Lucius in Flourish & Blotts is a particularly entertaining example.

4) Founders. Again, mentioned in Book 1, but we get a much deeper look here, particularly at the personalities, the friendships, and the betrayals. I believe this is the first time we get their first names? We learn a little more about what went into putting Hogwarts together, and what could go into tearing it apart at the seams. I have a special fondness for Founders-backstory, and I wish that we got even more of it than we do, but I like the introduction to it here.

5) Many other details. Small things, one-off topics, far too numerous for me to recount here. If I’d been thinking properly, I’d have kept a list while I was reading. But… the Whomping Willow. The opal necklace in Borgin & Burke’s. Expelliarmus. Polyjuice Potion. Basilisk venom. Godric’s sword. All of these things that come up, that become so critical (but many of which don’t come back until Books 6 or 7), first appear in CoS.

6) The most ultimately important of all of those seeds? The idea of Harry as a Horcrux, even though we won’t read that word for another four books. This early on, we learn (through the Parselmouth revelation) that Voldemort left something of him self behind, in Harry, unintentionally. We don’t know what this means yet. I daresay most of us shrugged it off at first, thinking, “Oh, yeah, sure, that must happen with powerful curses.” We didn’t know it mean Harry actually had a piece of Voldemort’s soul.

And yet… I still just can’t get on board with this book.

I wish I could put my finger on why. I think it may be that it suffers from some of the same problems as Sorcerer’s Stone — very linear plot, unsophisticated style, fairy-tale feel, lack of psychological depth — but it doesn’t have that shiny new series smell as the first book. There’s not the same adrenaline rush of exploring a new world to cover up for those flaws. And Rowling does re-use some of the same plot elements, which she’s better about nuancing in the later books.

Still, good is good, and even the worst book in the series is still a four-star book by my reckoning. And for what it’s worth, after finishing this re-read, I was so eager to get on to the next one that I broke my rule about alternating reading projects and went straight on to Prisoner of Azkaban.

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Changeless, by Gail Carriger

Title: ChangelessChangeless Gail Carriger (Parasol Protectorate, Book #2)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 374 pages
Genre: steampunk paranormal romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: a very strong 4 stars
Spoiler Warnings: The first part of this entry will be spoiler-free; however, there will be a spoiler-full portion at the end, so I can talk about the important bits that go into Blameless.

Well, Carriger did not disappoint me. Changeless is a delightful book, and while it’s not perfect, it definitely improves on Soulless. The twee elements are definitely toned down here — the narrative voice didn’t aggravate me nearly as much as in the first book. Carriger’s stopped trying to convince the reader that she can emulate Victorian styles and is letting far more of her natural wit show through, and the book is much better for it.

The plot in this book is more a true mystery. A plague of humanization has incapacitated supernaturals, first in London, then moving up the Isle and all the way into Scotland. Alexia, charged by the Queen to investigate just this sort of thing, treks northward, with a most unusual party in tow: her beyond-bratty half-sister Felicity, her feather-headed friend Ivy, an excitable actor-turned-claviger called Tunstell, and a crafty, cross-dressing French inventor, Madame Lefoux.

Can I just say? I adore Genevieve Lefoux. She’s just the sort of alternate strong female character I was hoping for throughout Soulless. She’s warmer, more affectionate, and more charming than Alexia, which makes them excellent foils for each other. I also love Carriger’s willingness to let her characters have alternate sexualities — between Akeldama and his drones and then Lefoux’s proclivities, it’s quite refreshing. Yes, Madame Lefoux doesn’t just eschew feminine frippery in favour of well-tailored male clothing, she’s also a lesbian. I find myself hoping that Genevieve will eventually get to have her way with Alexia, who does seem to get a frisson of excitement out of their interactions. Probably not likely, but still something I can hope for, and if not in canon… well, there’s always fanfic. 😉

I love that we got to see more of werewolf dynamics in this book, and that some of the pack rules are explained in more detail. And I also do get that Alpha female I was hoping for — Sidheag is quite a treat. Irascible and prickly, yet somehow likeable at the same time. I hope we’ll see more of her in the future — I feel like there’s a decent setup there, with Conall having re-established contact with his old pack, and with her, after all, being his multi-great grand-daughter. There’s potential in her.

The plot rolls along at a good place, with some exciting twists and turns. If some of them stretch credulity a bit… well, it is paranormal fiction, so that’s probably to be expected. Carriger really has drawn the details of her world quite well, from the basic rules that her alternate universe operates under to the visuals of places, people, and things. I suspect the overly-elaborate discussions of clothing might be trying to the patience of some readers, but I, with my affection for Victoriana garb and my aspirations as a costumer, quite enjoy them.

I think my major criticism of this book is Ivy. She was frivolous but not a complete idiot in Book One, but she’s hazardously dim in Book Two. It’s a little unbelievable first that someone could be that dense, but even more than Alexia would remain friends with such a person. It went past my ability to suspend disbelief, and it really pressed my patience. She went from character to caricature, and it wasn’t becoming.

My other complaint is that I wanted more sizzle out of the sex scenes in this book. They were a little repetitive — Alexia wants to talk, Conall gets handsy, Alexia pushes him away long enough to talk, Conall eventually prevails, curtains fall over the scene. I sort of feel like Carriger didn’t quite use the irresistible passion they supposedly have for each other quite well enough. I’d love to be shown, not told of, more of the heat.

Those two complaints are pretty minor, though, and overall, Changeless excited me so much that I had to start Blameless immediately upon finishing, even though I’ve intended to be alternating between my various reading projects. Why the imperative? Well… That has to do with the emotional cliffhanger of an ending. Alexia finds herself in an awfully tight spot, and how she deals with it gets held off till the next book.

Warning: Spoilers Beyond This Point

First off, the solution to the mystery — Alexia was kind of an idiot to trust Angelique so blindly. I mean, seriously, how did she never suspect her of misdoings? For someone who’s supposed to be so practical and level-headed, she had an enormous blind spot there. I suppose that might be a commentary on Victorian class structure and the ignorance of the uppers as to the doings of their social lessers… but I somehow suspect not.

The big thing, though, that requires the spoiler warning? Alexia is in, to put this Victorian-ly, in a delicate condition. And I am so pleased with how Carriger is handling the pregnancy. Because I guessed very early on that Alexia had, somehow, gotten knocked up. And honestly, that disappointed me a little. It was so predictable, so stereotypical, such a pedestrian progression for a romance series to take. Married in book one, pregnant in book two, baby in book three. I was feeling a little let-down.

And then Conall reacted.

And this is why I was so anxious to get along to Blameless. There’s no baby yet, she’s still pregnant in the third (and, I believe, fourth) book, so Carriger’s not rollicking along to that particular point. And it isn’t happy-ever-after. It’s exactly the opposite. Conall, under the belief that werewolves can’t procreate (being, technically, dead), accuses Alexia of infidelity, and the novel ends with the two of them severely estranged. I must say, he’s kind of an idiot — I’d assumed from the beginning that, since he’s returned to humanity when she touches him, he’d likely be restored to potency as well.

So! There’s that deliciously harrowing emotional entanglement, and I’m on to Blameless, over a hundred pages in already, actually, and quite excited about it.

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J K Rowling

Title: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneSorcerer's Stone
Author: J K Rowling
Year of Publication: 1997
Length: 384 pages
Genre: magical realism / young adult
New or Re-Read?: Re-read
Rating: 4 stars

That’s right; the Great Re-Read of 2011 has begun. Well, one of them, anyway. (Along with A Song of Ice and Fire, Pratchett’s witches and Agent Pendergast slotted for the summer, and now that Mark Reads is on to His Dark Materials, I suppose I need to crack open The Golden Compass again as well). So, here it goes — between now and the release of the last movie, I intend to get through the whole series again, to be perfectly primed for the finale.

Re-reading Sorcerer’s Stone is a very mixed experience — so much nostalgia, mixed with so much… awareness, I guess is the right word. Because now, with the retrospective viewpoint, with having read all seven books, it’s hard not to see the vast difference in writing style and in tone between 1 and 7. Even just between 1 and 5, 1 and 3, J K got so much more sophisticated as a writer. Sorcerer’s Stone is, by comparison, a fairy tale. It really does contain so many of those elements — the abused child (but without any of the psychological veracity that would make that situation scary rather than Cinderella-ish), the entry to a new world, the element of sheer dumb luck. And the story itself is so plain-spoken, so straightforward. There aren’t any subplots in this book. So many of the characters are caricatures. Even Hermione is so flat, such a stereotype, without the emotional depth (and cutting wit) she develops later on. It’s just not as involved a story, not so detailed, not so emotionally compelling as the later books. It’s not as complicated, I think is the main thing — this story is so simple. Delightful, but simple. And I do love complications.

So, with all seven in mind, Sorcerer’s Stone is far from my favourite book. It probably falls between 5th and 6th in ranking, depending on how I’m feeling about Half-Blood Prince on any given day. I can’t help feeling that it really is more of a children’s book than the rest of the series.

And yet…

This is the book that started it all. I remember the giddiness of my first time reading it — all that delight, all that fascination, taking so much joy in J K’s twists and turns, her mythological and historical references. There’s such a sense of joy and nostalgia. (Anyone who doesn’t follow Mark Reads, by the way, totally should — because experiencing both his first read and now walking through his re-read with him hits all those nostalgia buttons so hard. I almost did a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, but with Mark’s out there, it’d be redundant). And it’s not that it brings up childhood for me — I was sixteen when I first read the series (only released to Goblet of Fire) at that point. I picked Sorcerer’s Stone up on a whim at CVS while running errands for my parents, read it when I was supposed to be studying for my physics final, and… it was love at first page-turn. So it’s something else — my love of engrossing story, reawakened each time I open these books.

And the value of hindsight works in J K’s favour here, too, because there’s just so much foreshadowing and seeding going on. Sirius Black, Snape and James and Lily’s entanglements, Hermione’s increasing comfort with rule-bending and -breaking. Even the tensions over Muggles and Muggleborns, which get explicated in the next book, are foreshadowed here. What I find really interesting, actually, is the viewpoint of the “good” wizards about Muggles. Even the ones who are pro-Muggle do treat them as primitives, as quaint, interesting little things. Wizarding privilege: not a market cornered by Slytherin, ‘s’all I’m sayin’. Sorcerer’s Stone also contains the very first instance of CAPSLOCK!Harry — it’s brief, but it’s there, as he’s convincing Ron and Hermione they have to go after the Stone. And that made me smile.

Ultimately… I will never not love re-visiting this series. The beginning is, in my opinion, weak compared to what comes after… but it’s still the beginning, and it will always have that special glow.

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TV Review: Game of Thrones, S01E05 – The Wolf and the Lion

Show: Game of Thrones
Channel: HBO
Episode: S01E05 – The Wolf and the Lion
Original Air Date: 15 May 2011
Spoiler Warning: Active for show and books

Subtlety was not the primary concern of this episode.

And I’m kind of okay with that.

For an episode that’s a lot of conversation, it’s also a lot of in-your-face things happening. Mind, this series hasn’t ever shied away from showing us the gory bits, or the sexy bits, but in this episode, the visuals are joined by a lot of verbal, character-driven bald-facedness. The funny thing is, for an episode where everyone’s talking about backstabbing, deceit, and sinister dealings, what the audience actually sees is a lot of people being themselves, just as they are.

Let’s take Lysa Tully, for example. In the book, you’ve got a chapter or two, as I recall, to see just how much she’s cracked. You know she is, as Tyrion puts it, a bit touched, but it isn’t until the end of the conversation, when she whips her tit out for her six-year-old son to feast from, that you really see just how deluded she is. In the show, they open with that. No easing into it at all, just bam! Crazy mother and bloodthirsty brat. I love how you can see, so clearly, on Catelyn’s face, that she realises she’s made a pretty severe error in judgment. Then, of course, poor Tyrion (who can never hide what he is, and so doesn’t bother to hide much else) gets thrown into a sky cell, where, as the books tell us, a prisoner is left open to the scrutiny of the gods.

Then there’s Renly and Loras. In the world, of course, they’re hiding what they are. To the audience, it’s right out there – far more explicit than in the books, where it was always rather coy and shy. (In case I haven’t said it before, bless HBO and their equal opportunity nudity. Between Theon, who I hate as a character but cannot help but drool over as a body, and then these two, it was a good episode for those of us who favour menfolk). I like that Loras is more, well, badass than he comes off in the books. A little more snarky, a little more unflinching. It somehow makes him seem more appropriately Tyrell. Here, enjoy a gif that I shamelessly stole from this awesome chick.


And for another, less-happy couple, Robert and Cersei, bluntly honest with each other about their miserably failed marriage. They know what they are and what their marriage has done for the kingdom, good or ill. Perhaps for the first time in their marriage, however, they admit some things, answer some questions, stare certain untruths in the face.

These little revelations trail through the rest of the episode, through other characters, as well: Gregor Clegane sure doesn’t hide the fact that he’s vicious and crazy. Varys comes clean with Ned (more or less), and even he and Littlefinger, squaring off, lay a few cards out on the table. Then there’s Arya, who refuses to be anything other than as she is, to the point where it’s now obscuring who she’s “supposed” to be. Watching her dress down two goldcloaks was just entirely too entertaining. And when Jaime Lannister, never a man for subtlety or subterfuge, challenges Ned, and we see both Jaime’s true concern for his family and his own brand of honour.

I missed Jon, Dany, and the rest at the Wall and in Vaes Dothrak in this episode, but I understand leaving them out, and I expect we’ll get plenty of both in Episode 6. Their stories have quite different themes from this one, so I think they would’ve been discordant notes in what’s otherwise a nicely flowing hour of television.

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Soulless, by Gail Carriger

Title: Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate, Book #1)Soulless
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 357 pages
Genre: steampunk paranormal romance
New or Re-Read?: New, on a friend’s recommendation
Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed the hell out of this book. And I wasn’t expecting to. I’d heard enough mixed things that I approached it with some trepidation. But I was very, very pleasantly surprised. That doesn’t mean the book is without its flaws — but, as I’ve noted before, a book doesn’t necessarily have to be technically superior to be enjoyable. And there’s much to like about Soulless.

Alexia Tarabotti has no soul. Apart from leaving her little creativity in her dress (and perhaps making her over-sensitive to flamboyant fashion sense in others), it doesn’t really affect her daily life. It’s just a fact of her being. It also gives her the power to neutralize supernaturals, who lose their powers in her presence, and this fascinating ability has started to attract interest from unexpected quadrants.

I love the approach to the supernatural here, because it’s so refreshingly new. But not in a Twilight-I’m-going-to-ignore-all-folklore-and-history-and-just-make-up-my-own-crap-based-on-whatever-I-think-is-cool kind of way. In a very clever, thoughtful kind of way. Carriger has decided to attribute the phenomenal success of the British Empire to supernatural beings – primarily vampires and werewolves. (I dare to hope she’ll introduce the Fae in some later book, but that might be a wild desire on my part; I’ve just always thought the Fae must’ve had something to do with Britain’s inexplicable dominance). Her explication is that supernaturals have, in their lives, an excess of soul, and that allows them to become something else after death rather than just progressing on into the usual afterlife. (What this implies for Alexia’s eventual fate, I’m not sure). In the typical manner of Victorian Brits, folk in this world are experiencing a scientific desire to pick this concept apart and figure out exactly what it is that gives one person more soul (or less) than another. The crux of conflict comes when not everyone’s willing to explore the matter through appropriate and genteel methods.

I think what I really enjoy is the focus on werewolves. Too many books favour the vampiric side of things, and I personally find vampires so much less interesting (all due apologies to Lord Akeldama, who is, I must admit, a real treat). I’m a hot-blooded pack animal by nature, so my sympathies have always lain with werewolves among supernatural creatures. Lord Maccon, pack Alpha and head of the British agency supervising supernaturals, is a delight — a hot-tempered, snarling, Scottish delight. The werewolves make the book for me, because they introduce, well, chaos and mayhem. The wolves are just a little bit bonkers, and I find that tremendously appealing. It’s a lot more interesting than the emotional reticence of vampires. I do like that we get some variation with the vamps as well, though. Lord Akeldama might stray a bit too far towards the Sassy Gay Friend stereotype, but he’s still pretty damn entertaining, and it’s nice to see a different kind of vampire. His drones are also pretty hilarious.

The main reason this gets four stars instead of five is because, particularly in the first half of the book, the writing style is a little too precious. The author’s too self-consciously imitating/parodying a pseudo-Victorian style, to the point that it sometimes drowns out her storytelling and her wit. Which is a shame, because once that haze gets cleared away, the wit is really quite good. Towards the end of the book, it’s like Carriger forgot to be twee and just wrote, and the book is so much the better for it. I’m hoping that improvement carries on into the next book, but I worry she’ll open with more of the same affectations.

It was also a bit annoying to be constantly reminded of Alexia’s age and appearance. I’m not sure precisely why Carriger feels compelled to drive home that she’s Italian, dark-complected, and has a big nose about once a chapter, but she does. (I also find the cover model choice a bit strange, as she looks nearer forty than Alexia’s twenty-six). I’m also hoping for some more strong female characters in the mix (a nice Alpha female werewolf heading another pack, perhaps?). Right now, there’s something vaguely chauvinistic in how Carriger portrays every other woman in the series as empty-headed, status-obsessed, twittering idiots (with the exception, perhaps, of a vampire queen who, we can presume, will prove a villainess later down the line). I know it’s the Victorian era, but it’s also, y’know, fiction, and fantasy at that. There’s room in that world for more than one intelligent, capable female. Carriger could take some cues from several popular romance authors (I’m thinking of JQ and Kleypas, in particular) on how to build a network of strong, smart women, rather than piling all feminine worth into one figure. Alexia needs a friend who’s on her level. If the only way to make her special is to make all the other women around her vapid and useless… well, you don’t have much of a heroine on your hands. And the thing is, I think Alexia is strong enough as a character already — Carriger just doesn’t seem to be giving her own creation quite enough credit.

In general, Soulless is a mash-up of genres. Judging from some other reviews I’ve read, this has been a detracting point for some readers, who were expecting an adventure, or a romance novel, or a paranormal urban fantasy, and got some of that and also a lot of other things they didn’t expect. It’s made other reviews interesting to read, as some deride the lack of romance and others complain about the overabundance of it. For me, it’s an attraction. I like genre mash-ups and stories which defy easy categorisation. For the first two-thirds of the book, the steampunk element is quite lightly handled. It’s really more a paranormal romance for the duration, with a bit of steamy flavouring; the more distinctly steampunk elements come in towards the end, with the technologies at play. I sort of wish this had been more prominent throughout, but I suspect we’ll be seeing more of it in later books.

Overall, I enjoyed Soulless and I’m looking forward to Changeless, the next book in the series. The premise of The Parasoal Protectorate is intriguing and engaging, and I think many of the problems in Soulless may be those of a first novel. I hope the twee elements will get toned down, and I hope the cast of characters will expand to include some more girls who aren’t complete ninnies. Carriger certainly has room to improve, but she’s set a solid enough foundation that I have faith in her abilities.

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TV Review: Game of Thrones, S01E04 – Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things

Show: Game of Thrones
GendryChannel: HBO
Episode: S01E04 – Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things
Original Air Date: 8 May 2011
Spoiler Warning: Armed and active, for series and particularly for books

My reaction to most of this episode was, “Hey! Finally!” Hey! Finally the three-eyed crow shows up! Hey! Finally we see Grey Wind! Hey! Finally Ghost is being his amazing intimidating self! Hey! Finally some backstory on Theon! Hey! Finally we talk about the dragons! So, all in all, I’m pretty pleased with Bryan Cogman, who wrote this episode. He’s working in a good bit of the mythos, which gives the story such texture and richness.

This episode is aptly named, not just because we get Tyrion’s fabulous quote, but because it so accurately describes so many of the characters and situations. Bran’s just the most obvious. We then move on to Samwell Tarly, a broken, craven man, afflicted by a cowardice that the other men of the Night’s Watch treat like a disease, afraid it might be catching. Alliser Thorne, broken by his own bitterness and cynicism, driven to break others. Daenerys, who has been a lost girl her whole life, her spirit broken by her brother’s dominance, but who’s now finally turning the tables on him, putting the splintered parts of herself back together and forging something stronger out of them. Jorah Mormont, the exile. Jon Snow, the bastard, the most prominent of all the bastards we’ll meet in this series, who refuses to make more like himself. Gendry Waters, another bastard, one who makes things, things that are both beautiful and strong. Sandor Clegane, burnt and deformed and barely containing his rage at the world.

Not all of these broken things will manage to put themselves back together. Not all of them deserve pity. Not all of them are honourable. Not all of them use their brokenness to effect. Not all of them even accept or are aware that they’re broken. But they form an interesting theme, which this episode highlights particularly well. And it’s not just broken people – we’re starting to see much more. Broken marriages, broken promises, broken families. The Starks make – and will make – probably the best case study, though the Targaryens put in a fair play for it as well.

The scene between Doreah and Viserys is interesting for a couple of reasons. It shows a bit of humanity in Viserys… which he then immediately undoes. It’s a lot of backstory, and I can’t escape the niggling feeling that this scene was designed to keep those uninterested in exposition focused on Doreah’s pert breasts so that they wouldn’t switch the channel. I get it, Doreah; dragons make me hot, too. 😉 Harry Lloyd is still fantastic, though. I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to him soon, however happy I am to see the end of Viserys. I also wonder about having him talk about the skulls – are we still going to get to see them? That scene where Arya overhears Varys and Illyrio talking is so important in the books, but I wonder how it would play on-screen.

The Targaryen scene from this episode that we’re all talking about, of course, however, is Dany bitch-slapping her brother with a metal belt. I love that Dany’s strength is becoming visible – she’s not this pale, lifeless, soft thing anymore. She’s got muscles, and a suntan, even a little bit of a burn. She’s a little shaken by the realisation that she has more worth than her brother, that the only person she’s had to trust in, her whole life, isn’t worthy of it, isn’t strong enough.

One again, we get some more of Jaime, and his conversation with Jory reveals a lot. First, that he has respect for the sword – and little else. He only thinks Jory worth a moment of his time after realising they’d fought together at Pyke, and the men very nearly have a friendly moment, until Lannister prickliness gets in the way. Admittedly, Jaime’s got a lot on his mind at the moment.

And then, the tourney. Ser Hugh of the Vale wears the least practical helmet for jousting ever, and so I sort of don’t feel the least bit bad about his death. I mean, yes, he was murdered by the Lannisters, but my stars, he sure made it easy for them. I love how both of the Stark children stare unabashedly at his death, which happens practically in their laps. It gave me a smidgen more respect for Sansa for not coming over all faint-hearted. I also love how we get a quick shot of Myrcella looking all horrified, bless her.

So, I watched this episode with my mother, who may just be Tyrion’s newest biggest fangirl. She utterly refuses to believe he had anything to do with Bran’s crippling, and she loves how he dresses down pretty much everyone he encounters. (Also, his reaction to hearing about Lord Frey’s new wife is fantastic – as is his reaction to being accused of attempted murder). As such, she’s very angry with Catelyn for picking on the wrong Lannister. She’s also quite fond, however, of Petyr Baelish, which I feel shows poor judgment. I mean, even without knowing the books, he’s just so smarmy and smirky in the series – true to form, absolutely, and now that Aidan Gillen has introduced some modulation into his voice, he’s doing quite well, and there’s something really interesting to watch about his gait, the way he moves and holds himself – but I don’t find anything attractive about him. I also have no idea what motivates him to tell Sandor’s story to Sansa.

Like the previous episode, this one feels more thematic and more of a set-up. The story’s gearing up to go into high-action mode, but it hasn’t quite gotten there yet. I think they’re setting the ground well, though, and a slower pace at the beginning will serve them well. Once things really take off, expository breaks will be more jarring.

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TV Review: Game of Thrones, S01E03 – Lord Snow

Show: Game of Thrones
Channel: HBO
Episode: S01E03 – Lord Snow
Original Air Date: 1 May 2011
Spoiler Warning: Active, for TV and books

Yes, I know this post is ridiculously late (and Episode 4’s review will follow close on its heels, I promise, if not tonight then tomorrow). My apologies – I’ve been on vacation, and I’ve gotten quite behind in reading, viewing, and reviewing. So! Here we go:

“Lord Snow” traces a lot of heightening tensions. I’d say the dominant theme of this episode is of fracture points starting to show, of friction starting to rub hot, and of factions, not yet closing ranks, but eying each other and wondering which direction they’re going to have to bolt. It’s not a very action-packed episode, but a lot of information gets disclosed, and it’ll all be important later on.

I really can’t help but love Jaime Lannister. Which is interesting, because it took me a damn long time to warm up to him in the books. They’re definitely moving to make him more sympathetic early on in the series, which makes sense — a third-season sudden conversion doesn’t make nearly as much sense as finally getting his POV in the books does. I’m really not coming at this as a Jaime fangirl, but I’m finding him really appealing, despite all his unsavory elements – probably because he’s so unapologetic about them, so unashamed. He owns what he is, in a way that contrasts pretty sharply with so many other characters, all of whom are striving to hide what they are, battle what they are, change what they are. Jaime is totally comfortable in his own skin, and that’s, well, very attractive. This scene also goes a long way towards illustrating just how much Ned Stark’s sense of honour blinds him to, well, everything else. It’s funny, because both these characters actually are fundamentally honest — just in very different ways (and Jaime does, of course, have that one damning secret).

We’re back to more “As You Know, Bob” trope going on in this episode, which is inevitable, I suppose, with so many new characters to introduce in King’s Landing. All of the Small Council seems very well-cast so far. Petyr is skeezy, Varys is just as I imagined, Renly isn’t as cute as I’d hoped but is very appealing nonetheless. Pycelle’s Maester’s chain is nothing like I pictured. Together, they let us and Ned know a lot about how things stand in King’s Landing.

The conversation between Cersei and Joffrey is really interesting, for a lot of reasons. We see Cersei nudging him along in political thought, which is something we really don’t see in the book. It makes her look more, well, responsible, and less just like she’s spoiling the brat past all human sympathies. “The truth will be what you make it” sums up really so much of Cersei’s worldview, though. It’s interesting to hear Joffrey admit his own cowardice and shame, and then to see the explosive anger that comes out of that.

Arya continues to rule my world, and Sansa continues to be an insufferable little bitch. This second parent-child conversation is interesting as well – Ned makes a somewhat valid point in saying that Sansa has to take her future husband’s side, but Arya makes a far more valid point asking how Ned can let her marry the little prick. Ned, having no answer, swiftly changes the subject. It’s all interesting enough that I suppose I can forgive them for leaving Lyanna out of it. (But could we hear her name sometime soon? Please?) I do feel, though, like the Lyanna-Arya connection is important – for how Ned reacts to her, and for that warning, “Beautiful, and willful, and dead before her time.” Maisie continues to be so perfect, and she is going to be such a stunner when she gets a little older. She has such a beautiful face, but she definitely commands that wolf look as well.

It took far too long (34 minutes) to get to Dany in this episode. She’s finally starting to come into herself a bit, though I really wish they’d let her be the one to order Viserys to walk, like in the book. It’s the first moment we really see her assert herself over him, and they sort of undercut that by making it the suggestion of (the ridiculously attractive) Rakharo. I’m still not sure I’m thrilled with what’s happening with Dany/Drogo, largely because we don’t really get to see the transition. We’re not seeing them together enough for me to buy that all of a sudden she’s just pregnant and happy. I sort of love Jorah and Rakharo talking battle techniques, though. And man, the Dothraki language sounds brilliant. I also sort of ship Irri/Rakharo now, because watching them bicker was just too entertaining.

Meanwhile, up on the Wall, Jon’s learning some tough lessons about what the Night’s Watch has truly become. He’s finding out it’s not all noble men who serve for honour, like his uncle; the Watch is, in large part, the outcasts of the world, men and boys with no other place. Between some stern words from Benjen and some snarking from Tyrion, Jon decides that, rather than sulking about this fate, he should make the best of it and see if he can’t turn the rabble into something a little more impressive. Kit Harrington is growing on me, though there’s still something about his appearance that just rubs me the wrong way. I sort of can’t express how happy it makes me, though, that Tyrion does, in fact, piss off the Wall, like he wanted.

Finally, Arya and Syrio. Syrio is not at all how I pictured him – I expected a tall, wiry sort, whippet-thin and lanky – but he nails the attitude, just dead-on. I really enjoyed the music in this scene – so far the score hasn’t impressed me. Hasn’t been bad, just hasn’t been that much worth noticing. Here, though, it definitely hit the mood and energy just right. The episode ends with Ned apparently having a PTSD flashback – the audience has to wonder just about what.

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Broken Wing, by Judith James

Title: Broken WingBroken Wing Judith James
Author: Judith James
Year of Publication: 2008
Length: 440 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 2.75 stars

I seem to be in the minority in preferring Libertine’s Kiss to this.

The theme of Broken Wing is pretty much there in the title. This is a story of emotional damage. Gabriel St. Croix has grown up in a brothel, every bit as abused as that would indicate. Sarah is an eccentric noble lady searching for her kidnapped younger brother, who has ended up in that brothel. Gabriel’s been protecting him from the worst of the atrocities, and so when Sarah comes to retrieve her brother, the kid wants Gabriel to come along as well. So he does, setting off a chain reaction of improbabilities.

Broken Wing is perfectly acceptable brain fluff, and I totally appreciate James’s willingness to go to dark places. That said, this particular trope is just not up my particular tree — I’m not a big fan of hurt/comfort scenarios. If you are, however, you’ll eat this book up with a spoon. Gabriel is definitely a broken bird in need of healing, and a lot of the book focuses on his internal exploration and development. He’s dealing with abuse, he’s internalized it, he self-harms — unusual fare for a romance novel, to be sure, and as in Libertine’s Kiss, I like that James breaks the mold. I just don’t enjoy the particular way she breaks it as much here. Some of the dialogue also verges on the ridiculous — these characters who supposedly have so much trouble opening up and dealing with their emotions are awfully effusive and flowery in their language. It’s hard to imagine anyone having some of these conversations, much less characters as emotionally damaged as these.

I do love James’s exploration of unusual aspects of history — the diversion into Barbary works particularly well to open up the usually somewhat claustrophobic, London-centered world of early-19th-century romance. The book is set just a touch earlier than typical romances, Napoleonic rather than Regency. The trouble is that James sort of bends the rules of the world to the straining point of credulity. Both Gabriel and Sarah act in ways that either just plain don’t make sense or that would never be considered remotely acceptable, yet everyone else in the world just sort of goes along with it. As a result, there’s a lot about the book that just doesn’t ring true, despite the psychological depths she plumbs.

Overall — I wasn’t enthralled, and I doubt I’ll ever feel particularly moved to re-read. It just isn’t my thing — but I know it’s a lot of people’s, so I don’t want to condemn the book for anyone who enjoys these tropes more than I do. I’ll look forward to more of James’s work in the future, though — since I liked her third book better than her first (still haven’t read the second and can’t decide if I intend to), I’m choosing to believe that she’s improving as she goes along, and that I’ll enjoy whatever she puts out next.

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The Great Night, by Chris Adrian

Title:  The Great NightThe Great Night
Author: Chris Adrian
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 304 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars

I’ve said before on this blog that there are often gaps between how good something is and how much I enjoy it. Usually this means that I find great pleasure reading something without particularly high technical merit. In this case, I think it’s the opposite. I can appreciate that this is, for a certain literary set, well-written. I’m just not as fond of it as I might be.

The Great Night is a modernised retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco in 2008. A group of humans stumble into a disaster implemented by the Faery Queen, Titania, who is in the throes of deep sorrow. Following the death of their latest changeling child, Titania and Oberon had one of their marital spats — but this time, Oberon doesn’t seem to be coming back. Desperate to get the King to show himself and so absorbed with her grief that she loses all sensibility, Titania lifts the controlling enchantment off of Puck, also known as the Beast, freeing him to wreak havoc in the park. (The greater world is protected by walls of air — nothing, mundane or fantastical, gets in our out of the park while those walls, presumably conjured by Oberon, are up). The mortals trapped within are: Molly, recovering from the suicide of her boyfriend; Will, in love with a strange woman who dumped him a year ago; Henry, who can’t remember any of his life before the age of thirteen, and whose obsessive-compulsive habits drove away his boyfriend; and a group of homeless people rehearsing for a musical version of Soylent Green, led by Huff, who believes the Mayor of San Francisco is feeding the indigent population to each other in the soup kitchens. These mortals get wound up in the actions of the faeries, who are either giving over to sensual indulgence in what they presume to be their last hours, or who are seeking ways to put the Beast back under control.

There are things about this book which are really great. It’s definitely at its best when the faeries are the main focus. Titania and Oberon are sweeping, dramatic figures, and Adrian describes the lesser faeries in a way that balances nicely between whimsical and grotesque. The flashback section where Titania and Oberon have to watch their changeling child die is the strongest portion of the book. Because their magic cannot work on anything they care for, they have to turn to human medicine to try and save the Boy. They’re also struggling to deal with the emotional consequences of actually caring for a mortal child, as their self-absorption usually prevents such deep attachments to their changelings. Adrian does a great job showing how mortals perceive the faeries when they enter the mundane world, how the little magics affect them. He also — through his own background as a pediatrician — is able to evoke the tormented feelings of parents watching a child die with great sympathy and precision. The emotionality of this section is strong and compelling, and it paints a very clear picture.

As for the humans, their stories generally start off well enough — Molly, Will, and Henry, at least, inhabit complex emotional and psychological worlds. Huff and his tribe I could have done without. They seemed extraneous, none of them besides Huff developed any real personality, and I can’t figure out the purpose of the Soylent Green trope. Not having enough of a familiarity with that source material, I don’t know if there’s some larger theme at work there, or if the fixation is just a way to demonstrate the extent of Huff’s delusions. Regardless, it seems like that subplot only exists as a tacked-on way to have an analog for the Mechanicals, so that Titania has a fool to dote on when the Beast places her under an enchantment. But the lover-analogs are fascinating, if not wholly likeable. They all enter the story in liminal states, hedging between decisions, scared to take decisive action in controlling their lives, hesitant and varying degrees of pathetic. In this way, they’re precisely the opposite of Shakespeare’s lovers, who take to the woods for very specific reasons, but their ambiguity serves the opening of the story, because it makes them vulnerable to ethereal interference.

The second half of the book degrades into confused chaos, though. As the humans fall deeper under the faeries’ spell, the narrative quickly becomes jumbled and hazy. Molly and Will, whose stories had been compelling, get lost entirely in the enchanted shuffle. Henry’s experience is only somewhat clearer. The reader does learn some more pieces of the backstory, some threads that tie these seemingly unrelated people together, but there’s no real sense of a greater point to it, no driving force behind what’s happening, and no ultimate goal for them to work towards.

And perhaps that’s all to the author’s purpose. Perhaps that chaos is precisely what Adrian is aiming for, to portray the senselessness of the whirlwind the Beast creates. Which is why I say, if that’s the case, then it’s extremely well-done. But even well-done, it interfered with my ability to enjoy the book. I like a good, solid story, some sense of cohesion, which The Great Night lacks. As the mortals falls deeper into the madness of the night, their experiences become clogged with symbolism. Adrian takes it a step too far, I think, laying the metaphors on a bit too thick, and the story loses both coherence and emotional engagement as a result. Certain sections also edge into what I would consider pointlessly pornographic territory. I’m no prude and I’m certainly not against sex in literature, but so much of it felt like Adrian inserted it into the story just so he could shockingly juxtapose crude earthiness with the idea of the faery magic, or just so he had an excuse to jar the reader with naughty words. It’s yet another discordant thread — perhaps intentional, but it didn’t particularly serve the story.

The ending of the book is a problem. Abrupt and anticlimactic, it circumvents any kind of resolution for the characters. The mortals’ stories, set up so well at the beginning, reach no conclusion. They don’t even move along — we don’t see any indication that they’ve been changed by their time in the woods, that they’ll go back to real life different than before, because we don’t see them at the end. There’s no sense of alteration or growth. No one has a dramatic arc except Titania, perhaps, and even her story ends ambiguously, with no denouement. Adrian throws the reader into a maelstrom and then never calms the seas. Again, this confusion might be intentional, but it’s unsatisfying.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read this book. I always enjoy seeing how other writers interpret Shakespearean themes, and sections of The Great Night are quite strong and worth reading. The story as a whole, however, just doesn’t hang together. The disparate threads never reconnect, too many characters never reach resolution, and too much seems extraneous. The Great Night is an interesting experiment, but the book would have profited from more tightening and precision.

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