Monthly Archives: February 2015

Review: “A Game Of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin

Title: A Game Of Thrones
Author: George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song Of Ice And Fire, Volume I
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Bantam, 2011

I know, I know. How am I just getting around to this? As usual, I can only point at my groaning TBR shelf and jabber incoherently. I had actually never heard of it until the television show started and I was confronted with the promo image of Sean Bean sitting wearily on a throne made of swords. That got my attention, for obvious reasons. I’ve yet to see the show, given my well-documented position on watching adaptations before reading their original sources, but I’m told its incredible. With stars like Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage, I don’t doubt it…. Martin is of the opinion that anytime a character is placed in danger, you should fear for their safety. Characters die. Minor ones, and major ones. Frequently. Anyway, I’ll do my best to be spoiler-free here. This is one of those series where that matters….

A Song Of Ice And Fire takes us to Westeros, a fantasy realm where the seasons wax and wane unreliably, somehow tied to the ebb and flow of magic within the world. In this land, summer can last a decade…and winter can last a lifetime. The series is written in third-person, with each chapter being from the perspective of one of an enormous cast of characters. Eddard “Ned” Stark is lord of Winterfell and the northern half of Westeros, a sparsely-peopled expanse where it is not uncommon to see a light snow even on a summer morning. He and the king, Robert Baratheon, were raised together, closer than brothers, and together deposed the Mad King Aerys Targaryen fifteen years ago before placing Robert on the throne. Now Ned is summoned south to court to serve as Robert’s right hand. It’s a position he has no desire for, but doesn’t trust anyone else to guard his friend’s back and get to the bottom of some troubling questions. Ned was one of my favorite characters in the book, largely because he was the only truly honorable man in the entire book, though that may change as his children grow older. Oldest son Robb (age fourteen) doesn’t actually get his own POV chapters, but is nevertheless an important character as he tries to fill his father’s absent shoes. Ned’s younger son Bran served as one of the more surprising characters, becoming far more interesting than I had expected a lad of seven to be, but I can’t say why without spoilers. Additionally, Ned’s daughters serve as frequent narrators, both the naive eleven-year-old Sansa and her nine-year-old tomboy sister Arya. I liked Arya a lot, but Sansa’s ill-fated naivete had me ready to throw the book across the room in frustration at times. Future books should see less of that, sadly for her. Ned’s wife Catelyn Stark also serves as a narrator for large portions of the story, initially holding down the fort in Winterfell before setting off on her own journey for reasons that are redacted here. Ned’s illegitimate son Jon Snow* (age fourteen, same as Robb) travels north to the Wall and joins the Night Watch, keeping a lonely vigil against the supposedly-legendary threat of the Others, despite the fact that they’ve not been seen for thousands of years. One of my favorite characters of all was the dwarf Tyrion Lannister  despite the fact that he stands opposed to most of my other favorites for most of the book. The twisted, ugly youngest son of lord Tywin Lannister, Tyrion is under no delusions about his situation in life. His sister, the queen Cersei, hates him. His father blames him for his mother’s death in childbirth. Only Jaime, Cersei’s twin, treats him with any measure of decency. Unable to compete in the field of physical combat due to his stature and deformities, Tyrion has developed his mind as his best weapon, and unleashes it on all he encounters. His are all the best lines, and it is incredibly obvious who Martin’s favorite character is. Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen, thirteen-year-old daughter of the deposed king, will have her own tangentially-related adventures as her brother marries her off to a nomadic horse-lord in an attempt to secure an army with which to reclaim Westeros. Despite the lack of overlap in this branch, Danaerys is set to become another favorite. Her adventures are not yet having any effect on Westeros as a whole, aside from some tension at court as news reaches them, but that will certainly change as the series nears its end….

Wow. What can I say about this? Martin’s prose is incredible, and I fully intend to further explore his bibliography both within and without this series. I love the use of multiple viewpoints, and the unreliable nature of these narrators adds an interesting factor to the narrative. Characters can be mistaken, and there are several scenes that are positively heartbreaking because we the reader know something the character doesn’t yet…and finding out could literally kill them. Plus, the information we’re given is all filtered through their perceptions–while there is little doubt that Aerys Targaryen was a lunatic, there are a couple tantalizing hints that his son Rhaegar was not nearly as vile a man as Robert and Ned believe him to be, and that the “kidnapping” of Ned’s sister that sparked the rebellion wasn’t quite as non-consensual as they believe. Occasionally you want to grab a character and shake them, force them to pay attention to vital information that is being disregarded because they have no idea of its significance, but of course that is impossible. Martin’s characters are also masterfully realized. Every single one that we spend significant time with is a fully-rounded, complex human being, and you sympathize with them. I even felt sorry for Cersei, albeit briefly, and the Hound keeps showing a core of deep humanity and compassion beneath his ruthlessness. If he didn’t work for the snotty little turd Joffrey I could probably come to like him…. The worldbuilding here is stellar, and I absolutely love the sense of history you get from the narrative. Positively Tolkienesque, and that’s a definite compliment. While this is fantasy, it’s not your typical romp. You can usually be assured that the protagonist will not only survive but triumph; not here. “In life, the monsters win.” Most fantasy is defined by the many different species, especially elves and dwarfs, but the only dwarf here is Tyrion, a dwarf in the historical sense–I’m not sure what the politically correct term is these days, I’m pretty sure “midget” is now considered derogatory, but I could be wrong. No elves either, the Children Of The Forrest are said to be long extinct. Of course, so were the Others, the White Walkers, and that turned out to be wishful thinking. Maybe the Children and the Giants still exist north of the Wall, but they don’t make much of an appearance here. There are elements of so-called “High Fantasy,” but the book is primarily a historical fantasy. Magic only slowly seeps in, starting off as largely dismissed by our protagonists and inexorably revealing itself to be alive and well. Dragons. Clairvoyance. Frozen wights that can resurrect the dead and turn them on their friends. As summer ends and magic grows powerful once again, one thing is clear: Winter is coming.

CONTENT:R-rated language, present but not gratuitous. Strong violence, often disturbing, and occasionally directed at animals. There’s a fair amount of sexual content, though its not rendered in unnecessary detail. This does, however, extend to some socially reprehensible acts such as incest and underage sex, along with quite a bit of discussion of prostitution and illegitimate children. There’s some magic, as noted, but I would class it as more fantasy-based than occultic, at least thus far.

*There’s a theory regarding Jon Snow’s true parentage that is widely regarded as the only good explanation for a number of inconsistencies that come up over time, but I’ll not be that guy and spoil the experience. Google it if you need to.

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Review: “X-Men: Magneto–Testament” by Greg Pak & Carmine Di Giandomenico

Title: Magneto–Testament
Writer: Greg Pak
Artist: Carmine Di Giandomenico
Series: X-Men
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Knights, 2009

“On Kristallnacht, my father wanted to fight. But then the Nazis might have killed my whole family. In the ghetto, I could have gutted a Nazi murderer. But then they would have killed a hundred Jews in retaliation. Two months ago, I could have pushed the Hauptscharfuhrer into the fire pit. But then they would have killed the rest of my work crew.

“So to save everyone, I did nothing. And guess what? They killed them all anyway….” (Max, issue #5)

Whoah. I mean….whoah. Magneto has always been one of the most interesting characters in the Marvel Universe, a nominal villain who seems to fight for the side of the angels almost as frequently as he opposes them. There are all kinds of Marvel villains who are irredeemable psychopaths (Carnage, Mr. Sinister, Apocalypse, the Purple Man, the list is endless), but Magneto is a different breed entirely, the most dangerous kind of villain possible: Magneto believes he is doing the right thing. His methods may be occasionally merciless, but Magneto is  a man who has lived through genocide once before and sworn to never again let that happen to his people. He could not save the countless Jews who went to the gas chambers under the guns of their Nazi overlords, but he’ll be damned if he sees the same thing happen to his new brothers, mutantkind. Given the human response to fear that which is different, and destroy what we fear, Magneto has come to the harsh conclusion that the only way to safeguard his people is to install a new world order ruled by mutants. To that end, he has at times served both as hero and villain. He’s a conflicted character, forged by tragedy. And now, with Magneto: Testament, we’re given the definitive story of his beginnings, from 1935 Nuremberg to the horrors of Auschwitz….and all with an eye to absolute historical accuracy.

In 1935, Max Eisenhardt was a simple German schoolboy. Top of his class, excellent athlete, he’s even managed to catch the eye of a pretty girl. Unfortunately, Max just happened to be Jewish, and Magda just happens to be Romany. Neither ethnicity is going to be able to weather the storm ahead, when the Nazi regime unleashes their Final Solution and institutes the most comprehensive and systematic genocide program the world has ever seen. From the Nuremberg Laws to Kristallnacht, Berlin to the Warsaw Ghettos and on to death camp of Auschwitz, young Max Eisenhardt serves to give us a new lens into this horrific period of human history….and a new insight into one of the most fascinating comic characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

This should go without saying, but this is not a happy book. An important book, one that punches you right in the gut and takes an unflinching (yet respectful) look at the deepest darkness of the human heart, but not one for young children. That said, this book could provide a very compelling supplement to a high school study of the Holocaust–it’s painstakingly accurate, annotated every step of the way with endnotes containing citations for facts and elements that are incorporated into the story, and even contains a teachers guide with suggested activities. I fully intend to add it to my own personal collection at some point when I have the funds. The book is compelling, well-written, and brilliantly haunting, yet at the same time treats the real, historical people who suffered in this most horrific of periods with the utmost respect. For example, the Nazi practice of tattooing the prisoners with their identification number. Showing that number on Max’s arm would be unremarkable, aside from clearing up some of the more geeky arguments about Marvel canon since there have been several different numbers used in different stories over the years. Yet the writer refrained. “We made the decision not to show Max’s actual number in this tattooing scene. The more I read the testimonies of actual survivors, the more uncomfortable I became with the notion of giving our fictional hero a number that a real human being once bore.” (Greg Pak’s endnotes to issue #4) The creators here don’t shy away from the horror of the Holocaust, even dealing with it more in-depth than some other sources due to Max’s status as one of the Sonderkommando prisoners who had to process the bodies from the gas chamber to the crematorium, but neither do they play it for shock value. Every effort is made to preserve the humanity and dignity of the real humans who suffered and died all those years ago. I respect that.

CONTENT: Minor language. No real sexual content, though there is some low-detail nudity as prisoners are stripped for the gas chambers and Max’s uncle (implied to be a bit of a hedonist) is paraded through the streets with a sign that says “I have shamed a German woman.” The violence here is occasionally bloody, but usually restrained in its visual representation. That doesn’t make it any less disturbing as characters are murdered, groups of prisoners gassed, and their bodies piled up or incinerated. Like I said, though I recommend this book wholeheartedly, this is not for young children.

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Review: “Locke & Key Vol. I–Welcome To Lovecraft” by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

Title: Welcome To Lovecraft
Writer: Joe Hill
Artist: Gabriel Rodriguez
Series: Locke & Key (Volume I, Issues #1-6)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: IDW, 2008

I think I might be a fan of Joe Hill. You may recall a month ago I read and reviewed Horns, and now I’ve read Mr. Hill’s first foray into the world of comics: Welcome To Lovecraft, the first volume in a new series. Put simply: I’m hooked. I’ve always been fascinated by tales of ancient houses with hidden secrets, all the way back to one of the first Boxcar Children books I read when I was but a wee lad, and Locke & Key has enough secrets to keep Mr. Hill busy for quite a while. I very much look forward to seeing where this goes….

They say that when it rains, it pours. It’s certainly been pouring on the Lockes recently, but things may be looking up. Their father was murdered by a couple of psychotic former students, but now they have a whole new life on the other side of the country. They and their mother have moved in with their uncle at Lovecraft Manor, nicknamed the Keyhouse, a massive estate on an island in Massachusetts with more secrets than the CIA. Tyler, Kinsey and Bode are all dealing with their grief in different ways. Tyler is considering suicide, weighed down by the guilt of multiple fights and a particular conversation with the would-be murderer. His sister Kinsey is just trying to stay under the radar while she comes to terms with what happened. Little brother Bode has poured all his energy into exploring their new home, including its magical elements. Their mother has turned to drink to drown the grief. The last thing they need is more trouble, but that may not be in the cards when word comes that the murderer has escaped custody and is leaving a trail of bodies across the country….

Like I said, I’m hooked. I appreciate when a writer trusts his audience enough to put the pieces together themselves, and there are more than enough disjointed pieces here to keep you guessing. Is it initially confusing? Yes, a bit. But the mysteries are introduced gradually, and most of them should make sense by the end of the volume. There are, of course, others that remain unresolved for the moment as seeds for future stories, but that’s to be expected. In truth, there are two stories being explored here. There’s the modern story of the Locke children, and the older story you have to piece together from clues concerning the childhood of their parents. The art is perhaps not my favorite style, but I have to say that it works really well for this particular title. I honestly can’t wait to pick up the next title from the library….

CONTENT: Some sexual innuendo, nothing too explicit and no nudity. R-rated language. Strong, gory violence. I don’t know if I would classify the magic here as occult, but some might. Basically, there are a bunch of keys that fit the different doors of the mansion and that allow magical travel or transformations. One lets you go anywhere. Another lets you change sexes. Still another turns you into a ghost, lets you travel outside your body for a while. There are others, but those are the ones we’ve seen so far…..

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Review: “Saint Odd” by Dean Koontz

Title: Saint Odd
Author: Dean Koontz
Series: Odd Thomas #7
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Bantam, 2015

It all ends here. The three (or twelve, depending on how you look at it) year journey of everyone’s favorite fry cook now draws to a close. It should be no secret by now that I’m a huge fan of Koontz and his most popular character, and this final entry in the Odd Thomas saga was no exception even if a few elements left me underwhelmed. That said, it’s obviously not the best place to start the series.

If you measure a man by the enemies he makes, Odd Thomas counts among the giants. Several months ago his path crossed that of a malevolent cult of Satanists, this time ones that were actually tapped into some nasty supernatural powers. With the help of some new-found friends he thwarted their plans that day, but in doing so has painted a bulls-eye on his back. He is now their number one target…and it’s no secret who he is and where he comes from. If someone wanted to hurt our heroic fry cook, hitting Pico Mundo is a no-brainer. So, warned by a dream that is clearly more than the result of too much pizza, Odd is drawn back to his home town for one final confrontation. This time, what the cultists have planned will make the events at the mall years ago look like child’s play….

Like I said, I liked this one. I was a little underwhelmed by the eventual revelation of just exactly what was up with Annamaria, but I suppose that was only natural since Koontz has been teasing us with it since 2008. Given the eventual revelation, I think maybe he made it just a little too interesting for his own good–after that buildup, the answer was surprisingly uninteresting. The book could also have used a main focal villain as opposed to the faceless cult, and the series celebrity ghost cameos were also sadly lacking here. Other than that, I was more than happy with the book. Odd’s trademark humor was in evidence, as was the heart and soul that we have come to expect from the series. As a conclusion to the series, it was fairly satisfying if perhaps a little abrupt–you get the idea from previous books that there’s some grand service he’s going to have to perform for Annamaria before their adventure ends, but I guess that was me (and everyone else) reading too much into it. Maybe now Koontz will finally finish the Moonlight Bay trilogy?

CONTENT: PG-13 grade profanity, pretty standard from Koontz since his return to the faith. Strong violence, occasionally disturbing. No explicit sexual content, but there are some references to the subjects of rape and child molestation. As far as occult content goes, this is pretty comparable to the earlier books in the series. Odd sees the lingering spirits of the deceased, both benevolent and malevolent. The cultists serve a reputably-nasty demon, though the entity itself stays “off-screen.” I had no objections, but to each his own.

THE ODD THOMAS SERIES, BY DEAN KOONTZ
Prequel: You Are Destined To Be Together Forever
Book I: Odd Thomas
Book II: Forever Odd
Book III: Brother Odd
Book IV: Odd Hours
Interlude: Odd Interlude
Book V: Odd Apocalypse
Book VI: Deeply Odd
Book VII: Saint Odd
Manga Prequel Series
Odd Passenger (Non-Canon Webseries)

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