Monthly Archives: June 2011

Sleepless in Scotland, by Karen Hawkins

Sleepless in ScotlandTitle: Sleepless in Scotland (MacLean Curse #4)
Author: Karen Hawkins
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Regency Romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 2 stars

The best thing I can say about this book is that it’s a quick read. Of course, that may be because when I’m bored by a book, I tend to read it really quickly, in the hopes that it will get better.

It didn’t.

My chosen word for this book is “pedestrian”. It’s not just that the story’s dull — it actually could’ve had some potential, except that Hawkins seemed to shy away from potentially interesting plot twists rather than embracing them. But the storytelling itself is utterly lacking as well. This book suffers from the syndrome of “telling, not showing” more than anything else I’ve read recently (or at least since The Valcourt Heiress).

Caitriona is a responsible girl with a reckless twin sister, Caitlyn. Caitriona hies herself down to London to try and extricate her sister from a mess involving Alexander MacLean, but she winds up in a compromising situation with Alexander’s brother Hugh. It’s an unfortunate confluence, both of them trying to protect their siblings but getting netted themselves, and with Caitriona’s reputation in danger, they’re forced to marry. Hugh, who has no interest in having a wife, decides that they’ll be together for a few months to let the scandal die down, and then he’ll pack Caitriona back off to her family, a respectable but estranged wife. (I don’t know how this wouldn’t cause more scandal; estrangements are always good gossip, but we’re meant to believe no one would raise an eyebrow).

So, this happens, over the first fifty or so pages of the book, which is fine. It’s a nice variation of the marriage-by-compromised-virtue trope that we frequently see in Regency romances. Unfortunately, Hawkins then bores the stuffing out of the reader by retelling that sequence of events six or seven times during the course of the novel. Not even kidding. Each time a new character is introduced, someone who wasn’t there and doesn’t know what happened, the reader has to retread the course of events over again. Now, I know she needs to explain how other characters get the information, but there are way more creative and interesting ways to do that, and none of them involve forcing your readers to experience the same sentences over and over again.

This book is also really dialogue-heavy. Now, I’m a fan of witty banter. I love fun dialogue. And I like emotional heart-to-hearts. But this is just so… pedestrian. I’m really having trouble reaching other words for it. The characters don’t have their own voices, unless you count Grandmother Nora’s Scottish burr, and Hawkins tells us almost nothing about the emotionality behind the words. It’s not enough to know what someone’s saying; you have to know how they say it, what expressions or gestures accompany the words, and what feelings are behind them. This book had almost none of that. And so much of the dialogue is explanatory. No one makes discoveries about each other — instead, Grandma Nora wanders in and explains away all of the emotions.

That lack of emotional depth permeates the book. The reader never gets to see a character working through troubling thoughts or difficult emotions. When Hugh is grappling with letting himself feel affection towards Caitriona, we don’t get a description of what that feels like for him, or what thoughts go through his head. No, Hawkins tells us, “He hardened his heart.” Seriously, that’s the sentence. I don’t know what better example I could think of for something that needed to be shown, not told. So much of the book is like that, too — we get the end results, but none of the emotional journey, and it’s thoroughly unsatisfying.

There are also huge gaping plotholes. Some of them, I’m willing to overlook, on account of I discovered after I started reading that this is the 4th book in a series — so I’ll grant that some things may have been explained more thoroughly earlier on. Like the MacLean curse, which means that the men in the family cause storms when they lose their tempers (this is supposed to be a bad thing, but is it just me, or isn’t that a superpower?). Anyway, the reason behind it is obscure, and it always bothers me when magic doesn’t have definable rules, but — I’m willing to give benefit of the doubt there. But some of the gaps are just ridiculous. Hugh, as it turns out, has three daughters. Except he doesn’t have three daughters. He was briefly in love with their mother, apparently before she had any of them, but none of them are actually his get. He takes care of them and loves them, though, and while I can buy that, it made me a little crazy that we got no explanation at all about how that happened. The revelation just drops in, crammed into half a page towards the end of the book. The characters spend absolutely no time on it whatsoever. The mother is also a totally missed opportunity; we hear all book long about what a reckless and dissolute character she is, and how she keeps popping back up to make Hugh’s life difficult — and it would’ve been a great plot element if she’d actually done so. But, nope, nothing happens there.

Overall, this book was a disappointment and a bore. I don’t recommend it. So much of it felt like things I’ve seen elsewhere, only done better (for getting the hero’s kids to like the new mom, for example, see Charming the Prince by Teresa Medeiros, or To Sir Phillip With Love by Julia Quinn, a book with which I have many issues, but which does the stepmother thing really well). I have the final book in the series, and I don’t know if I’ll actually pick it up or not — it focuses on the other twin, Caitlyn, who at least seemed to have a more appealing personality, but if these stylistic issues are typical of Hawkins, I’m not encouraged to spend more time with her.

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Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Wyrd Sisters Wyrd Sisters (Discworld Witches)
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1988
Length: 265 pages
Genre: fantasy / humour
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

I haven’t read all of the Discworld novels.  I really had trouble getting into the City Watch series, I like the Death/Mort/Susan books okay, and some of the stand-alones are fun, but, for my money, the highlights of the series are the Witches books.

In Wyrd Sisters, the first proper Witches book (apparently there’s a brief appearance in Equal Rites, but it’s not a full focus), the kingdom of Lancre — a tiny mountainous realm near the magical Hub of the Discworld — is in danger. Its previous king has been murdered, and while that alone isn’t much of a problem (being one of the usual ways for kings to exit the world), the kingdom itself isn’t taking to the new ruler. It can sense that he doesn’t care for it. Unfortunately, he’s being pushed along by his highly ambitious wife — who pretty soon realises that the presence of three witches nearby could pose a significant challenge to her reign.  She’s also concerned about the missing son of the dead king — who the witches have packed off with a traveling theatre troupe.

And who are these three witches? Well, there’s Granny Weatherwax (Esme), a curmudgeon of the highest degree famed for headology, indomintable will, and impenetrable boots. There’s Nanny Ogg (Gytha), matriarch of a clan that would put anyone in the Ozarks to shame, who had an adventurous girlhood and doesn’t much appear to have let up even in her advanced time of life. And then there’s Magrat, junior member of the group, a soppy young thing who firmly believes in . I’ve always enjoyed the contrast between Magrat and the others, as Magrat is such a delightfully accurate parody of the New-Age-y types, whereas Esme and Gytha know that the intent and focus of the witch matters a lot more than the type of crystal she’s using or the precise incantation she utters. This leads to a really excellent scene where they summon a demon (despite Esme’s misgivings that demons shouldn’t be pandered to) to try and get some answers out of him — using a washboard for an octagram and a copper stick for a sword of art. They also demonstrate a degree of irreverence for spirits which I thoroughly appreciate:

“Who’re you?” said Granny, bluntly.
The head revolved to face her.
“My name is unpronounceable in your tongue, woman,” it said.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” warned Granny, and added, “Don’t you call me woman.”
“Very well. My name is WxrtHltl-jwlpklz,” said the demon smugly.
“Where were you when the vowels were handed out? Behind the door?” said Nanny Ogg.

In Wyrd Sisters, the trio begins their practice of interfering in as precise a way as possible. They’re not supposed to, you see, and in this plot, it’s particularly complicated, because a kingdom ruled by witchcraft just doesn’t work (and they don’t want to have to be solving everyone’s problems all the time anyway). So they have to find a way to fix things without fixing them. It’s the sort of thing they explore even more throughout the rest of the Witches series — a lot of it has to do with narrative causality, a concept I find fascinating and which I’ll talk about more when I re-read Witches Abroad.

As for that theatre troupe, they’re balanced precariously on the edge of time between when actors were just wandering vagrants in search of an innyard and when they started becoming just a little bit more, building their own spaces, settling down, making the crowds come to them. During the course of the book, they start construction on the Dysk. The troupe is led by Vitoller, an excellent Burbage analog. Their chief playwright is a dwarf, Hwel (a hilarious pun if you know much about the pronunciation of consonants in 16th-century English), through whom Pratchett exercises a great many of his Shakespearean illusions. As Pratchett explains creativity:

Particles of raw inspiration sleet through the universe all the time. Every once in a while one of them hits a receptive mind, which then invents DNA or the flute sonata form or a way of making light bulbs wear out in half the time.

Hwel, both fortunately and unfortunately, has a head that attracts inspiration particles like a magnet attracts iron filings, with the result that he ends up trying to find room for rollerskating cats or Abbott-and-Costello-esque comedy routines in the middle of his lofty revenge tragedies. And then there’s Tomjon, the missing prince that the witches convince Vitoller and his wife to adopt. Suspecting that they’ve fulfilled a traditional fairy-godmother-type role (though not so much as they will in Witches Abroad), all three witches give the baby blessings — though certainly not your traditional kind. No, they give him far more sensible gifts: that he will always make friends, that he’ll always know all the words, and that he’ll always be whoever he thinks he is. These gifts have the side effect of turning Tomjon into a staggeringly successful actor, who declaims his first words in iambic pentameter, and who can halt a tavern brawl just by standing on top of a table and starting to talk.

I love the witches, and there’s so much delightful about them, but my real glee in this book is with the theatre troupe. There are the obvious Macbeth references, but Pratchett clearly knows his Shakespeare, because he slips in a ton of other allusions as well — Julius Caesar, Henry V, Hamlet, Richard III, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even Henry IV, Part 2. (And lspace.org has a really excellent annotation if you’re interested in sussing them all out). There’s also a lot of heart and psychological truth (or, as Granny would call it, headology) in the book. I’ve seen it described a lot as Monty Python meets Macbeth, but I think that’s selling the story really short. Take, for instance, the dreams of Hwel. It doesn’t matter that he’s a dwarf who doesn’t like mining and who has rejected the dwarvish lifestyle in favour of taking up acting. It doesn’t matter that he gets called a lawn ornament when he goes out drinking in Ankh-Morpork. It doesn’t matter that he’s a parody of the greatest English scrivener of all time. What matters, at least in this passage, is that he’s a writer.

Hwel snored.

In his dream gods rose and fell, ships moved with cunning and art across canvas oceans, pictures jumped and ran together and became flickering images; men flew on wires, flew without wires; great ships of illusion fought against one another in imaginary skies, seas opened, ladies were sawn in half, a thousand special effects men giggled and gibbered. Through it all he ran through with his arms open in desperation, knowing that none of this really existed or ever would exist and all he really had was a few square yards of planking, some canvas and some paint on which to trap the beckoning images that invaded his head.

Only in our dreams are we free. The rest of the time we need wages.

I think anyone of a creative inclination knows that feeling. That kind of incisive poignancy cuts through so many of Pratchett’s works. These are humour books, they’re parodies, but there’s still something so real about them. Pratchett uses humour in the absolute best way — to reveal humanity’s soul.

Overall, this is the start of one of my favourite series of all time. It’s been a few years since I read Wyrd Sisters, and I’d forgotten how short it is (really, the only reason I knock off half a point, I could’ve done with a hundred more pages of madness). It’s a really entertaining story, though, and very cleverly crafted. It’s one of my go-to books when someone asks me to recommend them something. Pratchett’s writing is super-accessible without being in any way dumbed down or juvenile. It’s just wonderful, which is why these are some of my favourite comfort books. I can pick them up any time and be happy.

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Every Which Way But Dead, by Kim Harrison

Title: Every Which Way But DeadEvery Which Way But Dead (Hollows #3)
Author: Kim Harrison
Year of Publication: 2005
Length: 501 pages
Genre: urban fantasy / magical realism
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.5 stars

These books are weirdly addictive, considering that I still find the heroine too stupid to live, that I still think it would be better told in the third person than in the first, and that I like almost all of the secondary characters more than the heroine.

And yet… I tore through this. I mean, it’s not a challenging read, by any means, but it is longer than the first two in the series, and long for a MMP. And it’s engaging. The plot of Every Which Way But Dead is a lot tighter than in the first two books, and it moves along at a better pace.

In Every Which Way But Dead, Rachel has to deal with the implications of having become a demon’s familiar, in The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, in exchange for his testimony against the vampire Piscary, who was trying to kill Rachel at the time the deal was struck. Piscary now being in jail, Rachel also ends up having to deal with the fallout from that: a city-wide scramble to take over his former areas of influence. Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s been following the story thus far, Trent Kalamack is mixed up in it. There’s also a new player on the field, a Mr Saladan, an accomplished ley line witch. Thanks to this mess, the danger in this book gets amped up a bit.

The characters also all get a little more well-drawn in this book. Ivy’s fallen off the wagon and is a practicing vamp again, which is troubling but also seems to have a good effect on her temper. Jenks has a temper fit when he learns Rachel’s been keeping the secret of Trent’s species from him. Kisten turns from a vapid playboy into someone we see really struggling, hurt by Piscary’s dismissal of him in favour of Ivy, trying to hold Piscary’s business together with both hands. Trent lets Rachel in on more of her own background as well as his, and his current situation and elven politics. We also meet Ceri, the demon’s former familiar, a 1000-year-old elf, and David, a Werewolf insurance agent. As I said — the rest of the cast is intriguing and complex. It’s Rachel I find annoying and dim. My biggest problem with her is that she will full-out know something is a bad idea, will admit that it’s stupid and going to get her into trouble… and then, invariably, does it anyway.

And, I’m not afraid to admit it — I like the smut. Wish there was more of it. I will cheer the day Rachel and Trent get it on (because I simply can’t believe the series won’t end up there sooner or later), but in the meantime, Kisten’s pretty entertaining. I like him better than Nick, who runs off, unable to deal with the backlash from Rachel accidentally making him her familiar. (And are you noticing how all the plot points are the result of poor decisions or incompetence on Rachel’s part?). He always seemed like a placeholder, though; Rachel’s vague thoughts about being truly serious with him always rang pretty false.

Also, if the combined forces of Kisten and Trent can get Rachel to stop dressing like she collided with the clearance rack at Hot Topic, I will be so thrilled. I cringe every time Harrison starts describing leather pants and red halter tops. I can’t decide if she’s trying to be ironic or if we’re genuinely meant to find that cool, but either way, it’s pretty dreadful.

So, overall — I’ll probably stick with this series. It’s not a priority, but I’ll keep alternating them into my schedule so long as they keep getting better rather than backsliding. These books are Twinkies for the brain — no nutritional value, pretty empty fluff, not going to fill you up, but, y’know, tasty enough for a quick sugar fix.

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TV Review: Game of Thrones – S01E09 – Baelor

Show: Game of Thrones
Channel: HBO
Episode: S01E09 – Baelor
Original Air Date: 12 June 2011
Spoiler Warning: In effect for both books and series — and this episode has the big-daddy spoiler of the first book/season, so reader beware

Arya BaelorThis episode is the moment when all of us who have read the books got to watch all the newcomers discover just what kind of a story GRRM is writing. And I must confess to a somewhat sadistic thrill from it, as I watched Twitter explode last Sunday night. Anyone who hadn’t already picked up on the message knows it now: no-one, but no-one, is safe here.

The opening scene is familiar, Varys visiting Ned in the black cell, making another try. I’m still disappointed by the lack of fever dreams, but I was sort of ready for that, since we hadn’t had anything of that kind up till now. I love Varys’s performance here even more than in the last episode, because he’s all of a sudden so fierce. He’s genuinely disturbed by the spiral into violence and chaos, and he’s so earnest when he tells Ned to stop being an idiot, to serve the realm rather than letting his honour fling him into his grave. Telling Ned to save himself isn’t working, but plucking on the thread of his daughters’ safety gets him farther.

In the Riverlands, we finally meet the Late Lord Frey, who is as creepy and curmudgeonly as could be hoped. The scene definitely gives the sense of decay and corruption in his hall. All of his brood, from his grown sons to the herd of daughters to his awkward fifteen-year-old wife, are cowed and grey, thoroughly under the control of a petty tyrant. It’s hard, knowing what happens later on, not to cringe at the entire negotiation between him and Cat. Frey strikes a hard bargain, knowing he’s got Robb over a barrel – Robb and Arya are both promised in marriage to Freys. (I’ve got a suggestion for the next ruler of Westeros: build a bridge that isn’t controlled by a local lord. Seriously, whose idea was that? Just asking for trouble).

The Lannisters take the field against the Stark forces – only to discover that Robb deliberately misled them, letting them think he was taking all 20,000 of his men down one side of the river, not knowing he’d split his forces. He sacrificed 2,000 men so that 18,000 could have victory – and quite a victory he gets, capturing Jaime Lannister in the process. I feel thoroughly cheated, though, out of not seeing the Whispering Wood. Robb shows a lot of maturity and judgment, refusing to fight Jaime one-on-one to settle the dispute (because, as he notes, “If we do it your way, you’d win. We’re not doing it your way”), and then reminding his bannermen that one victory does not a won war make.

Up at the Wall, Jorah Mormont is making plans and putting a lot of faith in Jon Snow – who is once again feeling his loyalties tested. Just when he’s feeling a bit sorry for himself, Maester Aemon turns up to snark some sense into him. He starts off speaking in the abstract, telling Jon that “love is the death of duty.” But when Jon’s still being sullen and insisting that no one knows how he feels, Aemon reveals that he is, in fact, Aemon Targaryen, son and brother and uncle to kings, who had to sit and watch as his family’s dynasty fell to pieces. Sorry, Jon; for familial drama, no one out-crazies the Targs.

Across the sea, Khal Drogo’s strength fails him; the wound he incurred defending Dany’s preferences last week has festered (and kudos to the makeup team for the detail there – you can really see the streaking red lines which indicate certain death, the point of no return). Desperate to save him, Dany turns to blood magic wielded by Mirri Maaz Duur, one of the slaves Dany redeemed in the last episode. No one’s happy about this – not Jorah, who wants to get Dany the heck out of dodge as fast as possible, not Irri and Doreah, who are frightened to bits, not Rakharo, even though he defends Dany and stays admirably loyal to her, not the other Dothraki, who consider blood magic cursed and evil. One of Drogo’s bloodriders challenges her, Jorah defends, and we see an interesting reversal of the Bronn-Vardis fight. This time, armor defeats speed; the curved Dothraki sword isn’t a match for plate and chain mail. Unfortunately, Dany starts going into labour, none of the Dothraki women will tend her, and Jorah carries her into the tent, hoping for the maegi’s help.

I was actually a little let-down by this episode, not going to lie. Overall, I wanted more action. I know that battles are expensive, but it would’ve been nice to see something, and, sorry, I don’t feel like Tyrion, Shae, and Bronn playing Never-Have-I-Ever made up for it (and I’m not quite sure about foreign, savvy Shae, for another thing). I’m also annoyed they took Tyrion out of the battle, because that’s such a proving moment for him in the books. It’s one of the few changes so far that’s really rubbed me the wrong way. And dammit, I wanted to see Grey Wind eat some Lannisters. I also didn’t think the Mirri Maaz Duur stuff was as creepy as it could’ve been – the business in the tent isn’t nearly as scary in daylight, without the dancing shadows — and Jorah was just an idiot. “Hi, I’ve just killed a guy to keep him from going in there, but I think maybe I’ll just stroll on in with the princess.” Poor judgment, there. Something about this whole episode just didn’t ring right for me. Except for Varys and Aemon, who were magnificent, and Arya and Sansa’s reactions during Ned’s execution.

I also had trouble finding a theme for this episode, which I don’t think would have bothered me if I was viewing more casually, but since I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been really impressed by how cohesive each episode’s been, to some central idea. This episode lacked that a bit, and I found that I missed it.

There’s no way to deny the power of the last scene, though – even though I was too busy not feeling sorry for Ned to appreciate it as much as I should have the first time around. I really do feel less pity for him each time around, book or show, because of how much he brings it all down on himself. But it’s beautifully shot. First we follow Arya, scruffier than ever, through the streets as the bells peal in the background. She climbs atop a statue of Baelor the Blessed to watch as her father is dragged through a jeering mob – though you get the sense they’re not quite sure why they’re jeering, they just feel as though it’s expected for the afternoon’s entertainment. Ned looks to Sansa before he confesses, confirming for everyone that, yes, it’s concern for her that’s made him do something detestable to him. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late, because Cersei’s created a monster – Joffrey, with a smarmy, self-satisfied smile, exercises his newfound power and decides to have Ned executed rather than sent to the Wall. Sansa, Arya, and Cersei all react beautifully here – Sansa in hysterics, Arya looking near-numb with shock and almost disbelieving at the angry reaction of the mob, and Cersei appearing rather alarmed at things not going according to her plan. Pycelle and Varys, too, look quite taken aback – and did anyone else notice Littlefinger smiling? You have to look real damn close, because the camera’s not focusing on him, at about 54:21, but he definitely doesn’t look as distressed as anyone else on the scene. I do enjoy the change that Ned sees her, and knows she’s there – and he looks for her right at the end. He doesn’t see her, though, as she’s no longer on the statue. Fortunately, Yoren’s got her by then – Ned told him as he passed, with the single word “Baelor”, the title of the episode.

And with that, I am primed and ready for tonight’s episode. Here’s hoping HBOGO picks up faster than it did last week – I don’t like being twenty minutes behind on the Twitter feeds. I am made of excitement, though.

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TV Review: Game of Thrones – S01E08 – The Pointy End

Show: Game of Thrones
Channel: HBO
Episode: S01E08 – The Pointy End
Original Air Date: 5 June 2011
Spoiler Warning: For both show and book seriesArya Pointy End

This episode examines mercy and sacrifice, and where those things do and don’t get you. And it begins with a display of no mercy whatsoever, as Queen Cersei’s men brutally slaughter all of the Stark men they can find – soldiers, servants, everyone. When Cersei makes a move, she doesn’t screw around – she goes for the jugular. Ned’s failure to do so, as we saw in the last episode, is what seals his fate. These moments show us two phenomenal sacrifices, though, as Septa Mordane (who is a lot cleverer and quicker on the uptake in the series than in the book) and Syrio Forel take defiant last stands to protect their charges. The Septa’s quiet dignity as she walks calmly towards the Lannister guards, seeing but not flinching at their bloody swords, is a beautiful, harrowing moment. This series made me like her a lot more than I ever did in the book, and though we don’t see what happens to her – we can guess. For sheer badassery, though, the award goes to Syrio, First Sword of Braavos. He fearlessly faces down the men sent after Arya, giving them a thorough whooping with his wooden practice sword – we get to see him really and truly in action for the first time, to see just how good he is. But a wooden blade, ultimately, is not a match for steel – Arya runs before we see what comes of his battle. We have to fear the worst – and yet, the series definitely leaves certain theories about his survival open as possibilities. Arya chants his refrain “Not today, not today” as she flees – and she makes it out, giving this episode its title, putting Needle’s pointy end to use for the first time. Arya gets her first blood, and then runs like hell (not to be seen again in this episode). Sansa’s not so lucky. I understand all the San/San shippers are quite disappointed, but having no dog in that fight, I couldn’t care less.

We then find Ned in a black (but quite spacious) cell, visited by Varys – who gives a phenomenal performance. Conleth Hill is so delightful in this role – he plays everything with such nuance. When Varys tells us he serves the realm, because “someone must” – do we believe him? Can we hope to? Varys is the one who points out to us that Ned’s mercy is what killed King Robert. The lighting and cinematography in this scene is really beautiful – it gives such a sense of how low Ned’s fallen. We met him in all the foreboding glory of the North, spacious and open, sky and trees – and we see him here, framed by darkness, in the flickering light of the single torch Varys brings.

I still don’t like Sansa, but I started hating her less in this episode. She becomes more pitiable here, at least. She’s terrified and surrounded – and she sues for mercy. She thinks she’s getting it, and she believes so much in it that she, unwittingly, betrays her family again. It’s an interesting contradiction in her – she believes so strongly in courtly honour and in chivalric ideals, but she can’t adhere to her own family’s strict moral code. She would rather her father confess to treason and that her brother bend the knee than that they pay the price honour demands. I’m not making a judgment about who’s right or wrong, or which decision is smarter, but it’s an interesting incongruity.

Meanwhile, in the Vale (where, have you noticed, everything echoes? It’s a nice touch), Lysa is crazy and selfish, Cat looks convincingly distraught. Tyrion and Bronn, on their way out, run into the mountain clans, who could kill them quite easily. Tyrion, with his silver tongue, convinces them to show mercy – or, rather, bribes them into it. (As a side note, did anyone else think that the clansmen look like something out of Monty Python?). Tywin Lannister is not a man much acquainted with mercy, and he certainly shows none to his son. Their conversation is illuminating in many ways, though, particularly as Tyrion realises just how much events have spiraled into madness in his absence. He looks so genuinely alarmed when he finds out that Robert’s dead, that his nephew sits the throne, and that his sister is now exercising her power.

Across the Narrow Sea, Dany tries to impose mercy on a culture that doesn’t have much of a concept of it. She’s suddenly finding being a khaleesi and a hopeful conquror more than a little morally complicated, as the Dothraki burn, pillage, enslave, and rape – in her name. They need to claim goods and sell slaves in order to get money to buy ships to take an army back across to Westeros. Dany’s not too happy about the way the riders are abusing the conquered people, though, and she starts claiming all the women she can find for her own – which doesn’t sit too well with some of the riders. If you re-watch this episode, pay attention to Irri and Doreah behind her – their reactions to everything are both telling and interesting, even though they get almost no focus. Irri is so skeptical of what Dany’s doing, whereas Doreah looks pleased and proud. Cultural differences.

Poor Robb is also finding leadership a little complicated, as he has to convince his proud bannermen to work together and accept his command. Of course, a little help from his direwolf goes a long way, as the Greatjon finds out. He loses two fingers for his pride, but Robb gains his loyalty from it. (As a side note, Bran’s reactions during this scene are brilliant – he looks so alarmed by what’s going on, at how much the men end up laughing at the idea of going to war). He’s struggling with his responsibilities, but he’s bearing up as admirably as can be hoped. Cat drops by, and as inconvenient as a mother is to a boy trying to become a man and a leader, she has sound advice for him – the only hope is to kick Tywin Lannister’s ass as thoroughly as possible. When the Stark men capture a Lannister scout, however, Robb reminds everyone that his father understood mercy – so he lets the scout go. Of course, Robb’s using some craft along with his dose of mercy, sending the scout off with false information. We also finally get some words out of poor little Rickon, and Bran talks with Osha – previous benefactor of Robb’s mercy – about messages from the gods. Not as much to work with there, but it’s seeding things that will pay off in the next season.

I haven’t said much about events up at the Wall, mostly because the theme there isn’t as knit together with the rest in this episode as in others, but that doesn’t make events there less important. The Night’s Watch is getting its first solid indication of what’s stirring out there in the cold, white wastelands: the dark powers at work can’t be denied or laughed off as children’s fables when the dead are coming back to life and trying to kill your Lord Commander.

At the end of episode, Cersei makes a critical misstep, dismissing Barristan Selmy from the Kingsguard. And he’s really not happy about being put to pasture. He vows, “I am a knight; I shall die a knight,” and when he unsheathes his sword, he reminds the 5 other knights of the Kingsguard present that he could cut them down easily. Barristan storms off – and Cersei’s just made herself another enemy. Those who’ve read the books, of course, know where he’s going. I wonder how the TV series is going to disguise him so that we don’t know immediately when he returns – or will they? Will the TV audience get to know what Daenerys doesn’t?

We wrap up not far from where we began, with Sansa on her knees, begging mercy for her father. In a trembling voice, she makes a promise we can’t be certain she can keep – that her father will confess his supposed crimes in exchange for his life. As the episode ends, the cameras panning strategically, she literally disappears underneath the throne, looking so small.

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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J K Rowling

Title: Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireGoblet of Fire
Author: J K Rowling
Year of Publication: 2000
Length: 734 pages
Genre: magical realism / young adult
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read, many times
Rating: 4.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: In effect for the whole series

It’s strange, because everyone remembers this as the book where Voldemort returns, where Cedric dies, where the horror really begins. And yet, reading it this go-round, what struck me most is how funny this book is. I think it’s the funniest of the whole series, up until the end. There are just so many brilliant jokes in it — and, for the first time, the humour’s starting to become a bit more adult in some places. I mean, this is where we first hear about…

“An excellent point,” said Professor Dumbledore. “My own brother, Aberforth, was prosecuted for practicing inappropriate charms on a goat. It was all over the papers, but did Aberforth hide? No, he did not! He held his head high and went about his business as usual! Of course, I’m not entirely sure he can read, so that may not have been bravery.”

Ahh, Aberforth. (In light of what we see of him later, though, Albus’s disdain seems a bit unfair — but that’s a discussion for Book 7). So much of the humour in Goblet of Fire is also so dry and subtle — she’s not playing for the laughs here, she’s just letting the wit take over. As in:

Just then, Neville caused a slight diversion by turning into a large canary.

Or the bit about Professor Flitwick “whizzing resignedly past” the group while they’re practicing Banishing Charms. And then even at the tail end of the book, even after the worst has happened, JK lightens the load a bit, when everyone hexes Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle on the train. There’s comic relief throughout this book, and I wonder if that’s part of the books maturing — when things start to get heavier, you need more of the lightness to balance it all out.

The story also starts to feel so big here — in part because we start getting the international angle. Actually, one of my major complaints about the series is that JK never did as much with that as I had been hoping she would. I was so hoping that Fleur and Krum were going to end up being really significant for bringing in foreign allies as support against Voldemort… but, nada, most we got was Fleur marrying Bill (which, admittedly, I do enjoy — just not quite as politically important as it might be) and Krum getting a personality transplant. I also love that it took so much longer just to get to Hogwarts in this book, because you start seeing so much more of the rest of the Wizarding World. The World Cup is magnificent for that — this glimpse into what wizarding culture is like outside of Britain. Or, really, just what adult wizards are like when they get together. And even if I don’t understand why adult wizards have so much trouble dressing themselves, it did give us another hilarious moment, with Archie and his love for a healthy breeze. This is also where the Ministry gets introduced properly — I know we first meet Fudge in Book 2, we get a little more in Book 3, but this is the first time we find out more about how it really works, and we start meeting so many more Ministry officials. It sets things up nicely for actually seeing the Ministry in Order of the Phoenix.

At the same time, though, this definitely is the real beginning of the darkness. You get just a taste of it in Prisoner of Azkaban, but here, it becomes real. Voldemort is back. The title of the last chapter, “The Beginning”, is perfectly fitting. This is the beginning of the Second War, right here, even though it doesn’t become open war until much later.

I remember the chills I got the first time I read the end of this book, too — the first time reading:

“Sirius, I need you to set off at once. You are to alert Remus Lupin, Arabella Figg, Mundungus Fletcher — the old crowd. Lie low at Lupin’s for a while. I will contact you there.”

That excited me so goddamn much. Because it may be dark and terrible and scary, but there’s that glimmer of hope — there are still people who will fight. And they can be brought back together. It’s the sense of camaraderie, of banding together, of being the happy few standing against all odds — there’s something, forgive the term, magical about that. I also love the revelation towards the end of the book that Sirius and Dumbledore have been in contact all year. I would love to read that correspondence. (Or I might just, y’know, fic it for my own benefit).

This book, much as I enjoy it, isn’t without plotholes. It’s sort of a stretch to believe that Barty Jr couldn’t have found some way to get Harry to Voldemort way earlier on — the whole “it has to be at the third task” plot doesn’t really hold up to a lot of scrutiny. I would say it’s hard to imagine that the Triwizard participants would be placed in so much real danger, dragons and sphinxes and acromantuale and the like, but… given what we see of wizarding education, no, that part actually makes complete sense. The spacing of the tasks across the year doesn’t make much sense, though. Barty Jr’s escape from prison stretches credulity.

Overall, Goblet of Fire is a really solid bridge book in the series. It really does straddle the line between the lighter half and the darker half of the saga. It’s probably my fourth favourite out of the seven, but that’s only because the three I rank above it are just so out-of-the-park amazing in my opinion. This book is, as its 4.5 stars indicate, really amazing. And it’s a magnificent launching pad. I’m having to force myself to alternate projects before I start on Order of the Phoenix — which is, full disclosure, my very favourite of the HP books, so I’m quite excited to return to it.

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M Valente

Title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland #1)The Girl Who...
Author: Catherynne M Valente
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 247 pages
Genre: fantasy-folklore / young adult
New or Re-Read?: Brand New!
Rating: 4.75 stars

This book is so thoroughly charming.

I love the way Valente weaves stories. I adored her style in The Orphan’s Tales (which I will eventually re-read and review here, but in the meantime, I’ll just say: if you haven’t read them yet, do so, immediately), and it’s just as delightful in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

September is one of the Ravished, invited into Fairyland by the Green Wind and a Leopard. Given this chance, she jumps at it, without a second thought or even waving goodbye to home as she departs — and, as the narrator tells us, in the moment that made me know I was going to be passionately in love with this book:

One ought not to judge her: All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one. But, as in their reading and arithmetic and drawing, different children progress at different speeds. (It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.) Some small ones are terrible and fey, Utterly Heartless. Some are dear and sweet and Hardly Heartless at all.

And this idea of the heart traces through the rest of the book. As soon as September makes it into Fairyland (after passing through customs), she has to choose which path to follow: to lose her way, her mind, her life, or her heart. And she reasons that, of the four options (with losing her way being the direction she just came from), losing her heart seems the least perilous option. Pretty soon, she meets some witches and accepts what seems like a very small quest — but, as is the way of things in Fairyland, it spirals into a much larger one. She also encounters a Wyverary (the son of a Wyvern and a Library), who knows everything there is to know about anything, as long as it begins with the letters A-Through-L; the Marquess, a rather nasty piece of work; her panther, Iago; a Marid, a djinn of the sea, named Saturday; a herd of free-range bicycles; several proper Fairies; a pooka and her mother; a golem made of soap; graduate students in alchemy; a land where it’s always Autumn; houses and villages which get in the way; and a whole host of other fascinating personages and places.

The whole story is enchanting. September may be Somewhat Heartless, but she has a strong moral compass and demonstrates tremendous loyalty to her friends. The narrative voice hits just the right balance, childlike wonder mixed with wry humour and a fair few sophisticated jokes, invoking the sense of old-fashioned fairy tales without crossing the line into too terribly twee. Valente indulges in enough description to evoke the otherworldliness of September’s surroundings and encounters, without losing the story. The world itself is whimsical, but with a very definite underlying structure. Fairyland is not pure chaos, not entirely random. Though characters and events may seem, at first, to exist in a vacuum, independent of other parts of the story, there are tenuous threads connecting them, and I imagine more will come to light in future books (and can I just say how excited I am that this is the first of a series?).  I can easily understand why Neil Gaiman contributed a cover blurb: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland… reminds me of Stardust and his poem “Instructions” more than anything else, though I’ve seen other comparisons to Alice in Wonderland. (Not having read that since I was a very small thing, I can’t comment on similarities there).

What I like best about Valente’s writing, though — and this was true of The Orphan’s Tales as well — is that the writing gets into your head. For a while after reading, the world just seems a bit more magical. Your thought patterns take a subtle shift and seem to echo the graceful, explorative prose. At least, mine do, anyway. This is a story that sticks with you. It doesn’t stay locked up inside the books, even though Valente tells us that is the whole purpose of books:

…no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move. And, perhaps, we do not truly know what sort of beast it is, either. Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.

I don’t know if the Fairyland books will cause so much trouble, but they’re certainly not staying safely in their pages. This is the sort of story that lingers, that follows you around, whispering its little truths and revelations to you long after your eyes have left the printed word. And I find that so magnificent.

I knock a quarter-point off simply because September doesn’t seem like she’s 12. More like 9 or 10. She just doesn’t have that cusp-of-puberty feel, and it distracted me a couple of times. I wonder how that will progress through the rest of the novels.

Overall, though, this book is nearly flawless. It’s a wonderful celebration of imagination and a gorgeous venture into Fairyland. This is meant to be a children’s or a young adult novel, and I’m sure I’ll read it to my own small ones when I someday have them, but there’s absolutely no reasons for adults not to enjoy it themselves, on its own merits, as well. The tale is, as all the best are, thoroughly transporting. I eagerly await the next installment.

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