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SPOILER DISCLAIMER: Contains some heavy spoilers from A Game of Thrones, and some very minor ones from A Clash of Kings.

The second book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a lot more darker than the first book. The prologue sets the tone for the rest of the book by portraying an old maester (their task is to help their lord in running the castle and offer sage advice), who can barely walk and already has his replacement following him around and helping with various tasks. In the end his fate is rather sorry. Like the prologue the whole book seems beset with failures, death and most importantly war. Each of the characters the book follows is in trouble most of the time and doesn’t seem to make slow, if any, progress towards their goals.

Perhaps the slowest is Daenerys, who at the end of A Game of Thrones, even though suffering an extremely large setback, still won a great victory. Now reality seems to set in. Then again she isn’t the biggest focus of the book, which is the fight for the kingdom between Stannis and Renly Baratheon, Joffrey of the Lannisters (a family known for its money and low sense morality) and Robb Stark, the King in the North. Four kings in all, each wanting the throne for himself. Naturally then the book concentrates on war and political battles. Tyrion Lannister, a.k.a the Imp, a dwarf, is perhaps the most interesting of the characters to follow as he is set in the maelstrom of the book, King’s Landing, a capital of sorts. In A Game of Thrones he was left with the job of being the King’s Hand for his nephew, King Joffrey. Tyrion’s battle for power from his position is very interesting to follow. The chapters with Jon Snow also caught my imagination, following him and the Night’s Watch on an excursion beyond the Wall.

The Stark daughters Arya and Sansa, the other a fugitive and the other a captive to the Lannisters, still make me wonder why they are a focus in the story, but I hope the books to come will make that clear. They are definitely growing into something, the brave girls, but just what remains to be seen. Entirely new narrating characters are Theon Greyjoy, who goes to meet his father after 10 years of being a political captive to the Starks and a smuggler, also known as the Onion Knight, now in the service of Stannis. They seem to be added mostly to portray the war from different points of view and as characters remain rather distant.

As I said earlier I found the mood of the book to be a lot more downcast than A Game of Thrones. Nearly all of the characters find their way barricaded by problems, setbacks and a sense of disillusionment, a case in point is Sansa Stark who has come to realize just how evil his betrothed King Joffrey is. In the first book she still believed all the tales of gallant knights she had heard, but now, with a lot of help from the King’s Hound, comes to realize that tales are merely tales and in reality knights aren’t all that noble, at least those of with Lannister blood in their veins, or Lannister gold in their pockets. The book is still a very enjoyable read, but the general darkness of the themes and story really started growing on me. Martin could have put some happier moments in to the book to make it easier on the reader. Perhaps in the next book, whose name (A Storm of Swords) doesn’t really evoke a lot of hope to say the least.

As a sidenote, A Game of Thrones the television series seems to be progressing well. Martin has been blogging about the casting for some time now and the choices are looking good. Watching the Wire side by side with Martin’s books has me thinking even more strongly that HBO and A Song of Ice and Fire are a perfect pairing. Lucky I found out about the book before the series came out.  Watch out for some heavy spoilers on the blog as well, at least if you haven’t read the first three books. I know a bit too much about the third book already, thanks to some careless writing by Martin.

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For some reason I haven’t been watching that many series or movies and am instead going through a reading spree. Going to Finncon is the major cause for this I suspect. At the moment I’m waiting for A Clash of Kings to arrive from Play.com and whitling away the time with Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.

The Dark Tower is a very entertaining piece of fantasy. The plot is very simple and can be summed up in one sentence: A man named Roland is trying to get to the Dark Tower. Of course that isn’t interesting in itself but what’s most important to me is that the story also hilarious. Stephen King has such a dark humor and imagination that at times I can’t help but laugh aloud, which doesn’t happen a lot, since I’m really a very boring person at heart. The first part, The Gunslinger, wasn’t very funny, but the second part brings in Eddie and Susannah as companions for Roland on the road to the Tower. I really don’t want to spoil anything once again, but you really should read the Dark Tower if you have any interest in fantasy. If you also like Stephen King, then why aren’t you reading this already.

The biggest problem I have with the series is the character of Roland. While he’s interesting in many ways, he doesn’t talk very much and doesn’t question why he’s searching for the Dark Tower in the first place. Also I would never call him funny in any way. Perhaps this is the reason why he has companions with him. Eddie is exactly the type of person needed to make the dialogue more interesting and also funnier. He seems to be talking almost constantly and is always cracking a joke. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which King has named as a big influence, did very similarly with Blondie and Tuco. Tuco does most of the talking and generates most of the laughs in the movie, of which there are surprisingly many. Perhaps the lack of funny side-characters was the biggest lack in the Gunslinger, which was a very serious novel.

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Now that I’ve read A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, I can say that he more than fulfilled my high expectations, mostly formed after hearing a friend praise his books and of course seeing the author himself at Finncon. (picture is the Finnish book cover, because its a lot cooler in my opinion)

Perhaps what I most enjoy about A Game of Thrones is the unpredictability. Unlike most authors in the field of fantasy I’ve read Martin isn’t afraid to kill his characters or at least make them suffer greatly. This makes reading very exciting since you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next chapter. Usually in a book of fantasy you know that the main characters won’t die which takes a great amount of excitement away, for me at least. While reading A Game of Thrones I was holding my breath at the key moments in the book and gasping when something went horribly wrong. For me the book was quite an emotional exercise. Martin himself has said that this is exactly what he wants: the readers living the novel. When there’s a feast in the book he wants you to smell and taste the food, the same goes for sex scenes, of which there were a few. At this Martin succeeds superbly, I haven’t been this enthralled and held by a book since Harry Potter. Of course A Song of Ice and Fire is meant for a more mature audience and that makes reading him even more enjoyable.

Unlike Harry’s rather idealized fantasy world (if you erase Voldemort it seems to me that Potter’s world is quite without any problems, as the epilogue in the last of the Potter-books proves). In A Game of Thrones all of the main characters seem to walking on a knife’s edge most of the time. The main characters also have their own personal problems. One of them, Jon, is a bastard which isn’t a good thing in the Seven Kingdoms, a medieval-type kingdom with warring noble houses and another a dward, which is even worse of course. Certainly the book has its heroes but as in real life, nobody’s perfect. The good guys in the book are rather interesting but the catalogue of villains is rather more interesting. I won’t spoil anything so you can find out for yourselves. The characters and plot are wonderful and Martin certainly learned from his time in the television industry how to write cliffhangers, I can’t wait to read the second part. Luckily I found Martin so late so he’s written quite a few books into the series already.

Black and white, good and evil are such cliches in fantasy literature that they’ve become boring. Instead of telling an epic story about the battle between the aforementioned, A Game Of Thrones is a battle between selfish people working for an agenda of their own, be it revenge or love. The book does have a purely evil force, but it doesn’t play a very big role, at least this early in the series. If you enjoy fantasy and want to escape that happy and enjoyable life of yours, reading George R.R. Martin’s A Game Of Thrones is a fine way to do that.

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Stalls

I spent the weekend at Finncon the largest fantasy and sci-fi related convention in Finland. I went to a lot of interesting panels, writer interviews and even danced some para-para (a japanese dance). During the weekend I lost a lot of money, mostly on books and the con t-shirt. What I most liked though were the quests of honor at the con: Alastair Reynolds, George R.R. Martin and Adam Roberts. Each one was a very interesting speaker and Adam Roberts even managed to be funny, even though he was invited for being an academic, if I’m correct.  I thought I’d write shortly about these three and why you should read their books. All three were just names to me before the con, but managed to get me interested through their appearances.

Adam Robert's speech windows commercial totally unintentional

First Adam Roberts. He works at the University of London and does academic stuff there writing sci-fi on the side or whatever one might call his books. Probably not how he would describe his job but he did mention that being an academic isn’t a very hard job, or is atleast relaxed. It was occasionally hard to know when Roberts wasn’t making a joke since he was tongue in cheek most of the time. Perhaps because his books don’t sell that well he doesn’t have to worry about keeping his sales up. He mentioned himself that the reason for that is that he writes such depressing books. I quess putting the climax of his novel in the middle, making the rest of the novel a huge anti-climax doesn’t help either(I think this is in his newest book: Yellow Blue Tibia). Its rather hard to recommend the man’s books since I haven’t read any of them but he would likely answer even a critical email about his book gladly(he seemed nice and wondered himself why his books turn out so depressing). If you have the chance to see Adam Roberts live somewhere I wholeheartedly recommend doing so, he’s rather funny and charismatic as well( married and has kids though, just in case a woman might somehow read my blog, shudder).

Naruto

I quess Alastair Reynolds should go next. I only saw him at one panel, which didn’t last all that long what with the microphones being dead for the first 15 minutes. I did manage to catch his kaffeeklatch though and eagerly listened as he answered questions from people who had actually read his books. He was interesting to listen to as well. I gathered that he writes rather a lot of space-opera. There was a short story of his on the convention leaflet and I enjoyed that one very much. In the story a technician aboard a space ship has to wear his deceased friend’s space suit. Scientific stuff blended with interesting characters and thought provoking as well. Judging from the short story I’ll be checking his work out as well.

George R.R. Martin being the oldest of the three goes last, but not least. I’d heard of his series A Song of Ice and Fire before but hadn’t read a single one of his novels before going to the con. I bought the first part of the series: A Game of Thrones after hearing him talk at a number of places around Kaapelitehdas (where the con took place). I’m at page 149 now and took a break from reading to write this piece. One of the best scenes so far just took place. I’ve been reading with a lot of excitement since you really have an idea what’s going to happen next and Martin writes in a very holding fashion, its a page-turner alright. R.R. Martin was one of the most interesting talkers at Finncon as well. Especially hearing about his background as a writer for television was an eye-opener. A Song of Ice and Fire is for a television series by HBO, so that’s something to look forward as well. Think I’ll finish the books first though. I believe I’ll post something on Game of Thrones once I finish it. I know I haven’t been updating very regularly but this is merely because my weekends have been rather full and there’s been short vacations and stuff.

No doubt being a sharp reader who notices things you’re wondering about the Naruto above (not Alastair Reynolds cosplaying) and these pretty ladies from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess are doing related to this post. Well, animecon was going on at the same time so Kaapelitehdas was pretty much taken over by creatures from all kinds of anime series. The girls below and especially the one cosplaying Midna deserve a mention though. Midna looked even better live and a lot of time must’ve went into making that suit.

That's what I call cosplay

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Robin Hobb is best known for the Far Seer-trilogy, which I read over and over again as a teenager(not the reason for the fame I assure you). Returning at a bit more adult age to another of his books is rather interesting. The trilogy in question this time is his Soldier’s Son trilogy, more precisely the second in the series: Forest Mage.

Robin Hobb uses first person narration and only one person as the teller of the story. In the far seer trilogy the story is told from the point of view of Fitz, an assassin. He plays a central role in what happens in the story which is both the story of Fitz and the Six Duchies he lives in. In the Soldier’s Son trilogy the story is told through the eyes of Nevare Burvelle, a second son. In the world of Gernia the order in which nobles’ sons are born determines what they become. Nevare is the second son which makes him the soldier. The elder brother is trained to take over his father’s estate, while the third becomes a priest. The daughters get an arranged marriage to whoever benefits the family most.

In the first part of the series Nevare was sent to the capital of Gernia, Old Thares, to study at the King’s cavalla(cavalry) academy. At the end of the book a magical plague struck the academy. Nevare was one of the few survivors. In the second part, Forest Mage, he tries to continue his life as a soldier’s son but finds out that he has been cursed by the plague and keeps growing fatter, resulting in him being kicked out of the academy. Nevare is shunned by his family and eventually has to leave his home.

What I most like about Robin Hobb is the narrative point of view. Seeing things from a very narrow point of view makes the plot a lot more interesting. Especially when it comes to a fantasy setting. The action taking place in the movie is a lot more in your face I think. Not to mention that Robin Hobb is great at creating beliavable characters with their own weaknesses. There aren’t any heroes in her books. More like anti-heroes. Nevare is an outcast in this second part. His fattening curse makes everyone detest him by default. To understand what drives him means understanding his background of being a soldier’s son and having a plan for his life all layed out for him, but having that taken away from him because some sort of a deity wants something different of him.

The world of The Soldier’s Son’s is one of fantasy. Gernia is a medieval country with gunpowder. The Gernian’s have been expanding east, starting with conquering the plainspeople to the east. The plainspeople have a magic of their own which can be broken with iron as the Gernian’s came to notice. At the time of Forest Mage the king of Gernia is constructing a road to the sea to the east. Between the sea and the road is the forest of the Specks’, a people very attuned to nature. Their society is an interesting one. Women seem to be the one’s in power except for the immense male Great Ones, who become vessels of magic but also extremly fat. Nevare of course is turning into one of them. In the first part of the book Nevare got his life back after bargaining for it with a Speck mage. In exchange the magic wants him to stop the Gernians expanding east. This “magic” is referred to often in the book. It seems to be some sort of a deity or essence. I hope the last book in the series will explain this more closely.

Otherness and disappointment seem to me two of the themes present in all of Hobb’s books I’ve read. Her main characters are always making a mess of their lives somehow. Fitz from the Far Seer trilogy is a great example of this. The first two books in the series end up with Fitz getting severely poisoned and then getting beaten to death. Nevare’s suffering is of a more spiritual nature. For being fat he receives a lot of resentment. Perhaps this is in part why I liked Hobb so much as a teenager. I’d say his books are mostly for that age group even if there are a lot of elements for an adult to like as well. The best time to be reading his book’s would be as a teenager though. So get younger!

Also a close part of Hobb’s stories is how the mundane has a rather large role. One entire chapter in Forest Mage was devoted to Nevare helping a mother and her three children in a poor little shanty town. He fixed their house and laid traps to catch rabbits and made all sorts of little chores to make their life easier. Cooking also gets talked about a lot and eating also. Nevare becoming fatter also somehow makes him appreciate food a lot more. The sensations he receives from eating are described in detail. Telling about the mundane and day-to-day happenings might sound boring but Hobb manages to make it very interesting, the mundane in a fantasy world isn’t really that boring anyway is it? Of course there’s genuine and exciting adventure going on as well. If you aren’t too elitist with your literature and fantasy The Far Seer trilogy and Forest Mage are certainly worth checking out.

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