Archive for August, 2011

Jennifer Haymore’s “A Season of Seduction” is not Nearly Seductive Enough

Jennifer Haymore’s A SEASON OF SEDUCTION is a historical romance set just after the Regency Era in England that stars slightly-scarred Lady Rebecca “Becky” Fisk.  Becky’s a wealthy young widow who’s sworn off marriage but not off men.  As you might expect, her friend Lady Cecelia Devore, a slightly older and wiser widow, has helped Becky come up with the perfect solution — an assignation with thirtyish sailor Jack Fulton, a well-known rake, at a local hotel that promises the utmost in discretion.

With a premise like that, A SEASON OF SEDUCTION sounded like fun, especially as it’s set right around Christmastime; it sounded like the type of romance I’d like, something like Sherry Thomas’s excellent PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS (previously reviewed at SBR here) in that the heroine sounded atypical and more in control of her passions than the usual naïve ingenue.

But Becky is only twenty-two, and while she believes herself worldly and sophisticated, she obviously has a great deal of living and learning to do.  This is something her love interest, Jack, takes advantage of as he starts to take advantage of Becky; the twist here is, Jack really doesn’t want to do this as he deeply respects Becky for her intellect, for her hidden passion, and rather than ruin her (even with her more-than-willing assistance), he’d much prefer to marry her instead.

Why would a rake, someone who is described straight-up as “fling material” rather than a steady, sober man, be Hell-bent on marriage?  Well, finding that out was one of the two things I enjoyed about A SEASON OF SEDUCTION (the other being the cover), and I shouldn’t say much about it except that Jack’s reasons for marriage are, in a twisty way, honorable despite the fact that it looks like he solely wants Becky’s money.

At any rate, while there’s some good characterization here, particularly when it comes to the minor characters and Jack, there’s some really big problems with regards to the nature of the set-up to this romance. 

First, Becky is way too young to pull off the sophisticated woman of the world premise.  This is a woman who was understandably scarred by her first marriage — an affair that lasted a few months until her late husband’s timely and unlamented death — and hasn’t dated or looked at a man since.  Yet now Becky is hard up to have a man, any man, especially if he’s as good looking as Jack?  Which is why she’s willing to have an assignation with him, a man she barely knows, because she’s so hot for him that she can’t think straight?

Consider the milieu for a moment.  It’s 1827.  Becky is twenty-two years old.  Her brother is the Duke of Calton, a high-placed, extremely wealthy man who is rich and powerful, so even if Becky herself weren’t wealthy — she is, of course — there would be many men out there looking to trap her into another loveless marriage.  And if she doesn’t realize it, the much wiser and older people around her should; that they haven’t prepared Becky for the potential downside of her scheme makes absolutely no sense.

Next, there’s the major problem of this romance being mostly written on one level.  There are very few ups and downs here, with most of those being due to the nature of how Becky is initially misled by Jack.   That means the ups and downs seen were more plot-derived than flowing naturally from characterization.  Which is a very bad thing, because you must care about the characters in a romance.  If you don’t, why should you finish the book at all?

The last question here is, “Despite all that, is the nature of the romance between Becky and Jack somewhat realistic?”  Well, if you can handle the contrived nature of it all, yes, some of what happens with the pair makes sense.  I appreciated that the scarred-on-the-inside Jack bonded with the scarred-on-the-outside Becky (she has only one good, wholly usable arm) and thought that with only a bit more accurate set-up, this romance would’ve worked a whole lot better.  I also thought the descriptions were both accurate and excellent, which proved that Ms. Haymore can indeed write well when the mood strikes her.  But these pluses, good as they are, are not enough to outweigh the book’s minuses, and more to the point, they do not seduce the reader anywhere near enough in the bargain.

Because of all the problems I listed here, my recommendation is for you to read one of the many Regency or slightly-past Regency era historical romances that are better than A SEASON OF SEDUCTION instead.  Find one of them in your public library (start with Georgette Heyer, then look to see if your library has any of Rosemary Edghill’s excellent Regencies, then go from there) and skip this book. 

But if you really wish to read A SEASON OF SEDUCTION anyway, my advice is to treat it as the literary equivalent of a bon-bon.  Something to be devoured and forgotten; certainly not anything to be seduced, savored or appreciated for any long-term merit as it just doesn’t measure up.

Grade: C-.

— reviewed by Barb


Anjali Banerjee’s “Haunting Jasmine” — Paranormal Romance, with a Twist

Anjali Banerjee’s HAUNTING JASMINE is the story of Jasmine Mistry, a recently-divorced Indian-American woman who is angry, bitter, and wants nothing to do with men.  She’s been called home to Shelter Island (in Puget Sound) to watch over her great-aunt Ruma’s bookstore as her great-aunt insists that she has a “heart problem” and needs to be treated in India.  But what her aunt didn’t tell Jasmine is that this particular bookstore is haunted by the spirits of dead authors, and that Ruma believes that Jasmine (whom she insists on calling “Bippy,” a childhood nickname) may have the same talents that Ruma herself has to talk with spirits.

Ruma is an extremely sympathetic character from the start, which helps propel the book until Jasmine finds her feet.  This takes approximately three chapters to do.  Until that point, we know that Jasmine must have worth as she came home immediately despite it potentially causing trouble with her job.  We also see a little of Jasmine’s caring personality as she and Ruma interact until Ruma leaves in the second chapter.

The other things that are going on — her sister’s impending marriage, her ex-husband’s wish for Jasmine to sell their condo to him for peanuts, and Jasmine’s interactions with Ruma’s bookstore manager, Tony (an “out and proud” gay man who’s a reluctant writer, avid reader, and believes in the psychic gifts Ruma has without seeming to have any of them himself) — are all present, but muted in such a way that I have to believe it was a deliberate authorial choice. 

You see, Jasmine shut a lot of herself down once she divorced her ex-husband, and Ruma knew it because she and Jasmine had always been close.  Ruma’s wish for Jasmine to take over the bookstore in Ruma’s absence while living in the upstairs bedroom (because the spirits get very rattled if no one is in residence) is Ruma’s way of telling Jasmine that life still has something to offer even if it’s not exactly what Jasmine had ever intended or desired.

Of course, Ruma doesn’t spell any of this out, so Jasmine struggles to understand why anyone would want to work in this run-down, out-of-the-way bookstore.  This is a place where many out-of-print and unusual books proliferate, and Jasmine doesn’t understand why her aunt doesn’t have more best-sellers and fewer out-of-print oddities because she really doesn’t believe in psychic gifts at all, which means Jasmine has pretty much missed the point as to why she’s there at that place and time.

Then, into Jasmine’s life comes an enigmatic stranger, Connor Hunt.  Who is this man, and why is Jasmine immediately drawn to him?  (Hint, hint: this man is exactly why this book is classified as a “paranormal romance.”  And if the reader doesn’t pick that up right away — I know I sure did — Tony the bookstore manager is right there to give some gentle hints, which of course Jasmine ignores as she’s maintaining her sturdy rationality for as long as she can get away with it.)

The romance between Jasmine and Connor is good, but not exceptional.  I really liked Connor as a character, but I knew right away that this was a type of romance that is enough to heal someone, but not enough to stay forever.  (Jasmine knows that much, too, even though she’s not sure why at first.)  The reader discovers this along with Jasmine in a pleasant but undemanding fashion, which is an unusual way to show a meaningful romance but gets the job done.

What makes HAUNTING JASMINE special is due to the various literary characters Jasmine encounters along the way.  We meet Jane Austen, Julia Child, and many other deceased authors well-known and not, and the interactions Jasmine has with them are stronger than any of the interactions she has in the day-to-day world with the possible exceptions of Ruma and, later on, Tony.  We find out that Jasmine does indeed have powers similar to Ruma’s, and can literally “match” a book to someone who needs that particular book — she can “see” it, somehow — which leads to a few life-changing moments for the bookstore’s customers, always for the better, once Jasmine accepts that she truly does have this ability. 

The minuses here mostly have to do with the slow start due to Jasmine’s implacable anger and hostility (understandable though it is, it’s a hard slog until she starts behaving more like an adult) and with the undemanding nature of the romance between Jasmine and Connor.  I understood that this romance was likely to be short-term (not merely because of the paranormal element), but I like to see a little more passion between lovers than I saw here.  (Not sex, mind you; deep feelings that matter, no matter how long or short the relationship.)   And while I really enjoyed Tony’s character as he stole every scene he was written into, in some ways I didn’t understand what he was doing there except that Jasmine obviously wouldn’t have been able to handle a straight bookstore manager at first — even a straight, faithful, obviously married one probably wouldn’t have worked due to her anger with all things heterosexual male at the start of this book.

All that being said, HAUNTING JASMINE is a fun book and a quick read, but with some unexpected depth.  I enjoyed the literary flair, the sprinkling of Indian culture and cuisine, and Jasmine’s spiritual and sensual reawakening, and would gladly read something else by Ms. Banerjee down the road.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided” — A Curmudgeon’s Frustration with the Cult of Positive Thinking

Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara EhrenreichBarbara Ehrenreich’s BRIGHT-SIDED is all about what Ehrenreich called “America’s obsession with positive thinking,” and how it’s helped to wreck our culture and economy.  Ehrenreich carefully showed the beginning of the positive thinking movement and includes major figures from it like Mary Baker Eddy (the founder of the Christian Science faith) to the present, and uses well-known examples along with more personal ones to show that by our culture insisting that we think positive even when the worst-possible things have happened (like the loss of a spouse, home foreclosures, losing your entire retirement due to the stock market meltdown or Bernie Madoff’s mismanagement), we’ve lost our empathy somewhere along the way.

Ehrenreich started off BRIGHT-SIDED by discussing what happened to her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.   From the start, she was told to “think positive,” almost as fervently as if she’d just been to church, and she saw pink everywhere — pink “therapy bears,” pink ribbons, pink coffee mugs, all sorts of things that were meant to cheer up a breast cancer victim but only depressed her due to these things being so omnipresent.  Worse yet, Ehrenreich’s true feelings of anger and frustration over the breast cancer diagnosis were not able to come to the fore right away due to so many people (including some medical personnel) insisting that in order to fight the disease of breast cancer, she must “think positive” all the time or the cancer cells wouldn’t go away.

Of course this whole thought process is ridiculous on its face, but most people in the grasp of cancer are not rational; they grasp at straws, and aren’t able to push away nonsense like this.  And even well-intentioned nonsense (as this could arguably be considered) is unhelpful, as is covering over your true feelings of anger, despair, etc., merely because other people are uncomfortable with it.  Ehrenreich’s breast cancer diagnosis showed her how few other survivors were willing to even admit they were angry with what happened, while most told her she was “being unhelpful” when she pointed out that positive visualization of something like “eating the cancer cells” isn’t any more likely to work than anything else.

Ehrenreich then turned her weather eye on to other things, like the stock-market meltdown and the woefully out-of-touch CEOs.  Some of the rituals she uncovered there would make a NeoPagan blush, things like CEOs being led by “motivational speakers” who’d help them find their “power animals” in order to better take over the market** rather than rational, cold-hearted analysis of the risks and benefits of various forms of trading, including commodities and derivatives.  Worse yet, when someone underneath the CEO in question would point out a possible monetary risk, he or she might be ostracized (at best) or fired (at worst), which led to ever more stupid decisions by those who were in charge of companies like Countrywide Financial, Lehman Brothers, and Citigroup because no one was willing to risk either of these things even though many knew the foundation they stood upon wasn’t stable.

Now, this last shocked me, because I’d always thought of business people as sturdy rationalists who did their financial homework as a matter of course.  But in the cases Ehrenreich studied, she found that when the worst struck, these muzzy-headed positive thinkers often had to call upon a specialist — someone who was trained the old fashioned way to do his homework and try to salvage something from whatever hot mess was going on at the time.  The “last resort” specialists would have to go in and say something like, “You won’t like this, but this crisis is not an opportunity.  The only thing we can do now is salvage whatever we can.”  (Note these are not exact quotes.  They are my best paraphrase of the last two chapters in Ehrenreich’s book, which showcase some of the worst business decisions ever made, mostly because these folks refused to believe the stock market was about to crash due to their belief in “power animals” and the like.)

The middle chapters, though, are in some ways the most devastating, as Ehrenreich discussed the founding of America up to the present.  She pointed out how many Calvinists came over here, worked hard, abjured all temptation for work, work, and more work, which seems OK.  But that same hard-headed rationalism somehow eventually led enough people toward positive thinking, to the point that in our culture, we are told that if we’re not “thinking positive” no matter what calamity is going on, there’s something wrong with us.

At any rate, this overreliance on positive thinking led some to write books like Napoleon Hill’s 1937 classic THINK AND GROW RICH! or Rhonda Byrne’s more recent THE SECRET.  These books insist that it’s the power of our mind, our thoughts alone, that determine whether or not we’ll win the lottery.  Or die in a tsunami (as Byrne reportedly said) if our thoughts “aren’t in resonance with the universe.”

Now, the latter attitude — that it’s our thoughts alone that power everything — is absurd.  Because think about it, folks: it’s more likely than not that if most humans had their way, there would be no death.  There would be no disasters.  There’d be no poverty, disease, infirmity, or anything else bad whatsoever, including breast cancer.  Ehrenreich rightly excoriates this attitude that everything is our fault if we don’t think positively enough, because this attitude is, at best, a way of refusing to be empathetic.   At worst, it’s emotionally depraved.

You see, if human beings really were as powerful as all that (as THE SECRET claims), and we humans were able to “create our own reality,” then what would disasters like tsunamis be?  The work of mental terrorists?

This makes no logical sense at all, yet it’s what Byrne claims to be the truth.  (Not the mental terrorists part; that’s my own elaboration.)  Byrne believes that anything that comes to us is because of us — that we’re poor because we “want to be,” which is so asinine as to make me want to spit nails. 

But that attitude is not limited to the authors Byrne and Hill.  It’s also why Christian Scientists refuse to give their diabetic children needed medicine, though there, at least they believe God — a Deity — who loves us will provide.  That’s a hair better than insisting that we humans are in control of everything, so if we’re ill, poor, weak, or helpless, it’s somehow our own fault.   It’s why breast cancer victims are told to “battle” or “fight” their illness, to use active verbs rather than the more passive word “victims” even though that’s exactly what they are (not that they can’t fight their illnesses, mind you, but to be told they must, that if they have one day of crying over their bad health that they’re possibly forever damaging their chances of healing?  What sense does that make?).  And it’s why those clueless, out to lunch CEOs, who went from limosine to catered lunch to palatial homes or hotel rooms, didn’t have any idea about human suffering and forgot what they were supposed to be about in their relentless search for the winning edge — which, for some, led them to power animals, of all things, rather than do the work to make informed, rational decisions as you’d hope they’d do as custodians of inordinate wealth.

Look.  There is nothing wrong, in small doses, with thinking positive.  I know that I, myself, have asked people to “think good thoughts” at times, especially when talking to atheists whom I know do not believe in an afterlife of any sort (much less a positive one).  I do not think there’s anything wrong with doing this, because I’m willing to do the work of living.

In short, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to learn, to grow, to change, to have meaningful human interactions, and most importantly, not to deny the reality of suffering on this plane of existence.  My word, Gautama Buddha pointed out many centuries ago that “All is suffering” and that in order to transcend to a better existence, it was necessary to understand that and try to ease it — not to ignore it completely because supposedly we’re so much in control of our own lives that if we’re poor, ill, disabled, or worse that it’s somehow our fault for thinking the wrong thoughts.  And most Buddhists believe that positive action — what they call “right action” — like working to improve poverty, or against corruption, in other words, doing the actual work of living is the way to improve life while we’re here. 

This, to my mind, is a far batter attitude than insisting that the “law of attraction” will bring you opulence if that’s what you desire.  Much less the far worse corollary to the law of attraction, which is that if you don’t have opulence, it’s your own damned fault.

So the upshot here is, Ehrenreich knows she is a curmudgeon.  But she’s also right.  BRIGHT-SIDED makes a very strong case for empathy and against stupidity of all sorts, most especially of the wrong-headed pseudo-religious variety espoused by people like Byrne.

Grade: A-plus.  Highly recommended for its wit, its empathy, and its refreshing belief that sometimes circumstances do win out over positive thoughts.  Or perhaps that circumstances should be fought no matter how bad they are, rather than giving up and saying, “My thoughts must not have been positive enough and that’s why I’m in this mess.”

— reviewed by Barb


** Note: there is a time and a place for things like “power animals” in some legitimate religious displays.  I do not think the well-being of American CEOs, who are or were opulent beyond the dreams of avarice, falls into that category.

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Ryk Spoor’s “Grand Central Arena” — Imaginative Space Opera

Ryk Spoor’s GRAND CENTRAL ARENA is an imaginative piece of space opera that’s set on a near-future Earth where artificial intelligence — AI — is taken for granted.  Most people have what are known as AISages — that is, artifically intelligent personalities — that work with them inside their heads to the point that people who refuse to have them are considered, at best, weird.  Many things have changed, including bio-mods in the womb (changing hair color, eyesight, skin color, etc., to something completely unnatural), but most things are understandable to the reader, including the fact that humans are still restricted to the Solar System and haven’t done extensive amounts of space travel due to the lack of a practical FTL system.  Because of that, humanity has not discovered any other intelligences than our own at the start of this novel.

At any rate, our heroes are the bold, fearless space pilot Ariane Austin, enigmatic power engineer Marc C. DuQuesne (his name and some of his personality is based on the E.E. “Doc” Smith’s character, and is no accident), pretty-boy physicist Simon Sandrisson (discoverer of the Sandrisson Drive, which allows for faster than light flight), and five others, including a doctor and a biologist; they’ve been chosen by the Space Security Council to take the first manned interstellar FTL flight.  Austin was hand-picked by Sandrisson in order to be a last-ditch “fail-safe” mostly because of her outstanding piloting skills, and partly because he’s sexually attracted to her.  (I suppose there are worse reasons.)  These are powerful individuals with very strong personalities, which is emblematic of the whole classic space opera style.

The first quarter to third of the novel details the various aspects of how the crew, once picked, gets to know each other and what Austin, DuQuesne and the computer specialists do to retrofit the newly-christened Holy Grail spaceship with non-AI-augmented circuitry, as they realize in a true emergency the AIs might go down.  This can be slow going at times, with an odd, disconnected feel that’s thrown in by the strong reliance on AIs by many members of the crew, but bear with it because things are about to get interesting.

Once the Sandrisson Drive is engaged, something truly bizarre happens: the Holy Grail emerges within what appears at first to be a large tin can.  (No, it’s not literally made of tin.  But it’s not something the humans understand, either.)  Only Austin’s skills — plus all that retrofitting she, Dusquene, and the computer specialists did beforehand — are able to save the ship and get it to stop before it crashes into the walls of the enclosure.  Next, they have to figure out where they are and what to do about it.  But they’re hampered, some of them more severely than others, because their AIs have all gone on the blink and refuse to work anymore; the humans now have to rely simply on themselves in order to figure things out.  This gives the reader fully understandable people to root for, and adds to the overall tension nicely.

But what, exactly, have they gotten themselves into?

Once the crew explores a bit, they find out that they’ve come to a place that features an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere similar to Earth along with all sorts of intelligent xenosophonts, a place that’s similar in some respects to Grand Central Station in New York (hence the title).  In other words, this is a place where many different types of intelligent life have gone through it on the way to other destinations.  

Which means it’s time to meet the aliens. 

First, we meet Orphan, the last member the Liberated faction, who’s sort of like a bipedal, intelligent scorpion.  Orphan is a resourceful survivor-type who is willing to help the humans — almost too much so, which makes DuQuesne (one of the few survivors of a failed social and political experiment called “Hyperion,” a plot point that’s more important than it seems at first) extremely nervous.  Then, in rapid succession, we meet the Shadeweavers, who aren’t so much one particular species as they are a philosophy, that of using power for its own sake in a way that may as well be called “psychic” though it quite probably is no such thing; the Faith, who uses the same power the Shadeweavers do, but feel the powers they’re using are gifts from God (or at least some sort of Deity figure) and also admit many different physical types; and the Molothos — a seven-legged species that is pitiless, merciless, and nasty as Hell mostly because they hate all other species than their own.

As you might expect from this cross-section of other species, this place is not necessarily beneficent, which is where the “Arena” portion of the title comes into play.  Austin and the others quickly discover that in order to be considered an adult species — one that reasons and can think for itself and choose its own destiny, much less even return to Earth again — humans will have to answer a challenge successfully.  And answering, in this case, means only one thing: surviving the challenge, and living to tell the tale. 

So, can the humans survive long enough to figure out the Arena?  What’s up with all these aliens, anyway?  Which ones will Austin and the rest become allies with, as obviously Orphan by himself isn’t going to be enough to help them, formidable though he proves to be?  Will they be able to return to Earth any time soon?  And, finally, which of the two men, Sandrisson and DuQuesne, will have the better chance with Austin?  The answers to these questions riveted my attention until the final page was turned.

This is an intelligently written space opera with a great deal to recommend it.  I thought the science here — the Sandrisson drive, the AISages, even the bio-mods — enhanced the futuristic feel, and made sense in context.  The aliens were well-drawn for the most part, with understandable motivations despite their disparate cultures, which is consistent with the overall homage Spoor has said he intended to old-fashioned, rip-roaring space opera.  And I appreciated the characterization of the humans, especially that of DuQuesne; all eight humans go through realistic changes, and all eight have obvious flaws that enhance the narrative rather than detract.

The biggest thing that concerned me was the novel’s start, which as I said before was slower than I’d expected (I’ve read Spoor’s DIGITAL KNIGHT, which has a faster build-up) and somewhat disconnected due to the humans’ reliance on the AISages.  But providing you can get past the whole “supplying the spaceship” bit, you should like GRAND CENTRAL ARENA a great deal because it’s a lot of fun.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” — A Winning Hand

AGameOfThrones.jpgGeorge R.R. Martin’s A GAME OF THRONES, book one in his Song of Ice and Fire cycle, is about the various families that make up the Seven Kingdoms on the continent of Westeros, particularly the Starks of Winterfell.  The main character most of the action revolves around is Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, whose home of Winterfell is so far north that snow often falls in the summer and their pithy family phrase is the matter-of-fact “Winter is Coming.”  These words, and the character of Ned Stark in particular, have a great deal to do with the coming problems in the Seven Kingdoms.  Stark’s canny plays at the “game of thrones” may save the realm as a whole — or damn it utterly.

You see, Ned Stark is the rarest of the rare: a truly honest man who doesn’t want power.  He loves Winterfell, his wife Catelyn, his children Robb, Sansa, Arya, Brandon (called “Bran”) and Rickon, and his bastard son Jon Snow.  But when King Robert Baratheon comes to call, Ned must become the Hand of the King (the King’s Chief Counselor, second in power only to the King himself) as the former Hand died under mysterious circumstances and Robert doesn’t know who to trust anymore.  That Ned and Robert are long-time friends, and fought together to take the Seven Kingdoms fifteen-plus years ago from the corrupt and vicious Aerys Targaryen, is part of why Ned feels he cannot turn Robert down even though he would rather do anything else than accept.

Now, there are other powerful families that must be accounted for along with the Starks and Baratheons.  First among these other families are the Lannisters.  There’s Cersei Lannister, Robert Baratheon’s Queen, who’s beautiful, avaricious, and completely amoral.  Next, there’s consummate fighter Jaime (pronounced “Jamie”) Lannister, called “the Kingslayer” because while a member of the Kingsguard sworn to protect Aerys Targaryen, he instead slew him due to that king’s insanity.  Jaime is not too wise when it comes to love, especially as he can’t seem to keep his hands off his own sister.  Cersei and Jaime’s father, Tywin, is no better; he’s cold, ruthless and despotic, whose only redeeming social value lies in his inordinate wealth and his gifts as a military strategist.

Yet all is not lost with the Lannisters, as the youngest son of Tywin Lannister, Tyrion, is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the whole Song of Ice and Fire cycle due to Tyrion’s physical limitations (he’s a dwarf) and how he gets past them.  Tyrion features a razor-sharp wit and an intellect to match, is partial to “cripples, bastards and other wild things” because of his personal situation, and loves the company of women but has to settle for whores instead as he knows he’s not exactly a prime physical specimen.  Tyrion is the one Lannister who can be trusted wholeheartedly to do what the Lannisters say they always do: pay his debts.

Next, there’s the exiled Targaryens, Viserys (called the “Beggar King,” a very embittered individual willing to do anything in order to claim the throne he knows should be his) and his much-younger sister Daenerys, called “Stormborn.”  Viserys has a plan to put himself on the throne of the Seven Kingdoms, a plan that requires him selling his thirteen-year-old sister — er, marrying off his sister — to Khal Drogo of the Dothraki, one of a race of horse lords (think: Mongols); Viserys is not a sympathetic character for obvious reasons.

And then there’s the Wall — a cold, inhospitable place in the far North that defends against Wildings (bands of freemen and women who refuse to accept anyone’s authority but their own) and changelings — magical creatures that most of the people of the Seven Kingdoms believe no longer exist.  Yet both the Wildlings and the changelings are on the march, with pitifully few men of the “Night’s Watch” left to resist (these men “take the Black” in order to guard the Wall and keep the rest of the Seven Kingdoms safe; some take this life because it’s the only honorable path left to them, while most go to the Wall as their choice is either immediate execution or the Wall).  Few are listening to the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Mormont, as to the immediate threat; Ned Stark is one of those few, partially because his own brother, Benjen, has kept Ned apprised for years about the Watch due to Benjen being a Ranger for them who keeps track of the Wildings and tries to keep track of the changelings.

The sheer scale of the Seven Kingdoms is why Ned’s struggle is so daunting.  Ned’s an honest man — honest to a fault — and he’ll do what he can to keep the peace, but things are extremely bad and getting worse and he knows it.  Ned finds out that Robert and his queen, Cersei, don’t like each other; worse yet, Robert doesn’t like the “ruling” part of Kingship, and sticks all that onto Ned’s broad shoulders.  Then, there’s the Heir to the Throne, Joffrey, a stuck-up adolescent mess that’s made worse by his mother encouraging his worst impulses; how will this child ever keep the peace once Robert is dead?  And as if all that wasn’t enough, there’s still the mystery of what happened to Jon Arryn, the previous Hand — was he murdered, and if so, why?  And will Ned himself be in danger once he, too, figures out what Jon Arryn knew?

The story is told in fits and starts, with various characters taking up the narrative (Daenerys gets a chapter, then Arya, then Ned, then Catelyn, not necessarily in that order) and it jumps around in time and place a great deal.  While this makes it tougher for the reader to stay on track and understand what’s going on, Martin somehow manages to make the narrative more cohesive out of this apparent chaos — not less — due to the diversity of viewpoints.  And it makes Ned Stark’s choices all the more difficult, because he is the only one in the kingdom who knows all the players well enough to perhaps keep the peace a little while longer if he plays all his cards right.

Because this is what the “game of thrones” means — it’s life or death, a “game” with very real consequences, as Cersei Lannister points out on page 488:

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.  There is no middle ground.”

So, what happens to Ned Stark and his wife, Catelyn?  What about his children, including bastard Jon Snow who ends up “taking the Black” and serving on the Wall?  What about those Lannisters — can they overcome their father long enough to do any good for anyone?  What will be the final disposition of Viserys?  And will poor Daenerys find any happiness with her Dothraki horse lord?  These questions will be answered, but in turn raise even more questions that will be featured in the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire series.** 

This is an absorbing, dramatic read that has enthralled millions of readers to the point that it’s now an HBO series (season two of GAME OF THRONES will take up where the second book, A CLASH OF KINGS, starts), and it’s blindingly obvious why.  There’s great, true-to-life characterization.  There’s bawdy humor and blind ambition.  There’s sex, and a lot of it.  There’s betrayal at every turn, and only a few honest men around to try to keep the peace — aside from Tyrion and Ned, the most sympathetic figure in the book has to be Varys the Eunuch, Master of Whisperers (the King’s Spy), who only wants the realm to be peaceful, prosperous, and whole and works toward that end regardless of whomever holds the throne — with all of this riveting the attention to the point it’s hard to put the book down.

This is a quasi-medieval feudalistic epic fantasy that is an enthralling read and deserves its A-plus rating and high standing among fantasy fans.  So go grab it now, then watch the HBO series when it returns in 2012; you’ll be glad you did.

— reviewed by Barb


** Note:  Three other Martin novels in this series will be reviewed in the days and weeks to come here at Shiny Book Review.  But in case you can’t wait, Wikipedia has something here to get you started, while there’s a great Web site called that’ll be glad to point you in whatever direction you wish to go.  Or if you wish a more encyclopedic knowledge, try the Tower of the Hand site instead.

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Countdown: The Liberators, Tom Kratman

Tom Kratman started his career almost a decade ago with a not-really-SF military/political novel from Baen, about which the less said the better. His latest, Countdown: The Liberators, is the same concept – a present-day thriller – that he pulls off just fine.

Plot-wise, the premise is nothing fancy: The son of a quasi-national warlord is kidnapped by a rival warlord, who hires retired US Army Colonel Wes Stauer to form an organization, mount a mission and get the kid back. Stauer assembles a combined-operations team that goes in and, well, conducts violence.

Don’t expect fancy espionage, deep character or a novel that Says Something; this is meat-and-potatoes military fiction. Nothing past the basics, but it handles those basics as well as anyone.

There’s a nice little device we see at the start of every scene: a countdown of days, hours, minutes until the action starts. Or since it’s happened; about a quarter of the book takes place after. Since most of the first three quarters is preparation, it’s a useful mechanic – a couple of action scenes do keep things interesting, but the book does tend to drag.

The signature countdown’s a nice reminder that something big is going to happen. Kratman is a professional soldier who knows his material inside out, and he handles the preparation scenes well – but they’re still preparation scenes, still setup for the action.

Once it does happen, the action is fast-moving and well-handled. Kratman just gets better and better at writing combat, and the extended multiple-team combat sequence comprising the book’s final quarter makes the setup very worth it.

Not everything in combat goes right; Kratman knows that. Unanticipated things happen; sometimes unanticipated stupid things happen. The combat is tense, exciting; sympathetic characters do get hurt or killed, people behave unexpectedly.

There’s not a whole lot of character development; Kratman is writing setup-for-action and then action, not Literature. If you’ve read much of his before, you know the types; retired Colonel Stauer is cut from the same pattern of the same cloth as retired Colonel Hennessy of his Legion del Cid books, and you’ve got to figure both men have a lot in common with retired Lt. Colonel Tom Kratman. There’s a bit of a character arc with Stauer’s girlfriend, a nurse, learning some military discipline; not a whole lot elsewhere. A flaw, not a glaring one; you’re reading a book like this for the action.

A more glaring flaw is that most of Kratman’s retired military types are much the same. Yes, that’s a function of reality, of how these types really are, but a more colorful cast would have been nice. Looks like room for that in the sequels, though. And there’s enough interesting types – a pair of gay South African tankers come to mind – to keep things from getting too drab.

This is definitely the first in a series; the book ends with Stauer keeping the organization he’s built, more books clearly on the way. With the setup done, they look to be better – not as though this one’s bad. Kratman’s very much in his element and it shows. A well-earned B+.

— reviewed by Leo

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