A Feast for Crows (George R.R. Martin 2005)

AFeastForCrows

At last I have gotten around to doing this review, which I’ll admit I wasn’t looking forward to. A Feast for Crows received some  controversy after its release due to a number of design choices. Most notably it follows the cast surrounding King’s Landing and around the Seven Kingdoms, with the rest of the characters appearing in Dance of Dragons, which focuses on characters in the North and across the sea. It follows mostly the events around King’s Landing, where Joffrey’s younger brother Tommen now rules under the advice of his mother Cersei Lannister, who is beginning to see enemies wherever she goes after the death of Joffrey. Meanwhile Brienne of Tarth is in search of Sansa Stark who, unbeknownst to all, is actually under the protection of Petyr Baelish by posing as his daughter Alayne. Elsewhere Arya Stark reaches the House of Black and White, where she is trained by the Faceless Men to become assassin, and Samwell Tarly ventures south to become a minister, where he is accompanied by wildling girl Gilly and the ageing Master Aemon.

I’ll admit I thought this book to be weaker than the others, primarily because it focuses on a lot of people whom I would consider to be side characters, such as Brienne of Tarth. Jaime Lannister is probably the most interesting character in the whole book but he does very little in the book except deal with the aftermath of the last one, the exception being for one bit at the end where he chooses not to come to Cersei’s aid. The only series mainstays in the book, Sansa and Arya both have rather boring stories which don’t really go anywhere. I’ll admit Arya’s story was slightly more interesting but by the end of the book there’s still no clear direction as to where the story is going, which bugged me a bit.

Yet the story did one good thing, it introduced Cersei Lannister as a point of view character something which I had desired to see for the past three books. Her plotline was a bit bland in places but I liked to see her gradual mental decline as her paranoia gradually causes her to create her own downfall in the form of the Faith Militant. It was satisfying to see the ordinary in plain Faith Militant, whom she put into power in the first place, turn on her and put her on trial for adultery charges. As mentioned before, her pleas for help fall on deaf ears after Jaime finally decides that she isn’t worth saving.  Ultimately it isn’t a dramatic battle, but her own deeds which do the job. The biggest miracle is that throughout all this you can’t help but feel sorry for her, finally understanding her motives in a way similar to Jaime Lannister in the previous book.

Ironically enough though the most interesting part of the book was Brienne of Tarth’s storyline, despite the fact that I feel she is a bit bland and boring as a character, being a heroic person in a world where everyone else is trying to backstab each other. This is because of a certain character encountered during her point of view segments, the new leader of the Brotherhood without Banners, Lady Stoneheart. Stoneheart, it turns out, is a resurrected Catelyn Stark who is hell bent on revenge on the Lannisters and is not happy that Brienne has allied herself with Jaime Lannister. The clever part is that it isn’t one hundred percent clear if it is Catelyn Stark as we know her since she does a lot of things which aren’t in character, such as the fact that she is willing to sentence Brienne to death. Since Brienne was someone whom she previously looked upon with respect this made me question if it was really her, and if so, did the resurrection perhaps have some side effects on her personality?

I felt like A Feast for Crows, was lacking something as I read it. If anything it felt like more of an extended epilogue for A Storm of Swords more than anything else, with a handful of interesting moments thrown in from time to time. It didn’t really seem to have a plot of its own, and with the conflict petering out the unifying plotlines connecting most of the characters seem to be weaker in this book than in any other. It also lacked any big conflicts, which was a slight disappointment for me. Overall this probably the weakest instalment so far in the A Song of the Ice and Fire series. It’s still decent and shows promise in a lot of places, but at the same time it feels slightly flawed.

SCORE: 3.5/5

IN A WORD: UNINTERESTING

All Tomorrow’s Parties (William Gibson 1999)

All Tomorrow's Parties.jpg

Finally we’re at the third book of William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy. I’ll admit straight out that I didn’t enjoy this book that much, though I am debating whether or not it is still better than Virtual Light. The book features many characters before. Chevette Washington is back, and so is Berry Rydell, with the latter reclaiming his title as protagonist. Colin Laney is still in the story but his point of view segments are limited and he is now as supporting character. The main plot revolves around Berry Rydell when Laney develops an obsession with a man named Cody Harwood, a media baron, and is convinced that Harwood is at the centre of a huge historical shift which may lead to the end of the world as they know it. He hires Rydell as a courier in order to stop Harwood, sending him to San Francisco, where he believes the next “nodal point” will converge.

I’ll admit that a few of the characters feel thrown in. Chevette’s subplot with the abusive boyfriend is boring and as a character she hasn’t really changed. Berry Rydell is sadly the same character as he was in the first book, boring and generic. Laney is interesting, perhaps more so than in previous books and as a result I lament the fact that he is no longer the book’s protagonist. Rei Toi was a welcome return, though it came as a bit of a strange surprise since in my eyes her story arc ended in the previous book. As a result her appearance felt a bit strange and out of place.

In terms of the point of view there are a number of entertaining segments. Laney’s point of view segments have notably evolved, perhaps to show his decline in daily functioning. His sections are written in third person present tense, contrasting with the past tense present in the rest of the novel. It was a bit strange to read and the switch in tenses bothered me a little bit, though I’ll admit I liked it better than the present tense in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and the instances where it is present are better written. This style is reused in a number of other characters’ point of views such as Konrad, the tao obsessed assassin hired by Harwood and Silencio, a mute savant boy who is obsessed with watches. Both have very interesting point of views primarily because they are such strange characters.

The biggest problem with the book is the abundance of point of view characters and the various subplots that come with them. A few of the characters probably didn’t need point of view segments. I also had a lot of difficulty understanding the main plot, which may be because there wasn’t a lot of time devoted to it. Even after spending the second book following Laney I still didn’t understand quite how his “nodal points” work beyond it being magical drugs stuff. I also didn’t really understand Harwood or his role as an antagonist that well, particularly because he hardly appears anywhere in the novel, and I didn’t understand why he was a threat or what exactly the threat was which Laney was seeing.

As a whole I feel like the book is trying to do too much in too little time. It focuses so much on hammering in its themes through different point of view characters and subplots that by the end I was just as confused as I was when I started. I’ll admit that it felt like a cyberpunk story so it has that as an advantage over Virtual Light, instead it suffers from the fact that it makes no damn sense. It spends more time trying to bring the trilogy together in a nice neat circle that somewhere down the line it forgot that it had to make sense. Probably a weak ending to a trilogy which left me with mixed feelings overall.

SCORE: 3/5

IN A WORD: CONFUSING

 

The Inkeeper’s Song (Peter S. Beagle 1993)

Inkeeper's Song

Peter S. Beagle, better known as the author of The Last Unicorn, is a relatively famous face in the world of fantasy. Yet I had never read any of his books until I picked up a copy of The Inkeeper’s Song and as of writing it is still the only book of his that I’ve read. The book follows a number of characters. There is Tikat, who is searching for his lover whom he whose resurrection from the dead he witnessed first hand. Then there are the three women whom he must pursue, whom all have secrets of their own. Their stories are linked through a distant inn, and the innkeeper Karsh, plus stable boy Rosseth, have to deal with the consequences. All their destinies are tied to an old dying wizard and the man who brought him to this state, a man who is said to be the heir to powerful magic.

The novel is surprisingly complex, and that is part of its problem since it seems to follow a large number of characters for a novel of its length. My edition of the book is not particularly long and it certainly doesn’t feel long as I’m reading it, yet it is clear that the book has an awful lot of point of view characters. As a result of this some of the characters seem underdeveloped since nearly every major character gets a point of view segment at some point in the novel. There are some, like some of the three women and the innkeeper Karsh who could have their segments cut entirely. I did however enjoy the stream of consciousness narratives of the fox, though at the same time I felt like the fox was an irrelevant character who didn’t need a point of view segment.

It also has a negative effect on characterisation. I felt like Tikat was treated like a side character for most of the novel, even though I  believed him to be the protagonist. Once the three girls came onto the scene their plot line seemed to take prominence, making me question what Beagle wanted the story to be about. I also felt like the use of first person was confusing since the narrative was constantly switching between characters. Although the name of the characters were above each of their respective characters, I still found myself confused at times if I didn’t pay strong attention to who was speaking at the start of the chapter. I often found myself confusing the three ladies in these instances, and at times I would also confused Tikat and the stable boy Rosseth. In these cases it is because the characters are generic enough that it is sometimes easy to confuse them with one another.

There are a few parts of the book which I’m not keen on. There is a  foursome, which seems to be thrown in for the sake of it. While I do like sex scenes in books, I prefer it if they have some kind of bearing on the plot. The foursome did not, and the plot could easily have functioned without it. The characters as a whole also feel rather bland thanks to the point of view switching, which does not help the sex scene since it is hard to empathise with a character’s needs and desire when you’re switching between around ten of them.

Regarding the book as a whole, the plot itself isn’t that bad but the technical aspects of the book leave a lot to be desired. Not only does Beagle use too many point of view characters, and possibly too many named characters in the narrative to begin with, but the first person narrative makes the switches very confusing.  I was confused by what the main plot was, since I thought at first that the story was about Tikat finding his lost love, but that seemed to go to the sidelines until near the end. The Inkeeper’s Song, suffers from a crisis of identity and it doesn’t know what story it wants to be, which is why I didn’t like it end the end. I can’t say whether this is typical of Peter S. Beagle since I have yet to read any of his other works but I’ll admit this book didn’t leave me with the best first impression.

SCORE: 3/5

IN A WORD: DULL

Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson 1992)

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Neal Stephenson is a very polarising author in my view. His novels often cover a lot of serious academic disciplines, with some seriously complex stuff hidden within the plot. Snow Crash on the face of it revolves around a guy named Hiro Protagonist and teenage girl Y.T.as they deal they adventure around in a virtual reality version of the internet known as the Metaverse, which is beset by a drug known as Snow Crash. Snow Crash seems like a computer virus but at the same time it is not, with its effects bleeding into reality. However Snow Crash is more than just a story, it is a work examining a number of topics at an academic level including linguistics, religion, computer science, politics, philosophy and cryptography. More importantly it is a vision of the internet’s future as Neal Stephenson saw it, and the explores the evolution of technology.

In terms of narrative Snow Crash is written in an unusual third person present tense style, a rarely used point of view in fiction. It gives the work a sense of immediacy but at times it feels clumsy and not properly executed, with times where it shifts to past tense where it isn’t necessary. I feel that the novel might have been stronger if it had been written in the past tense instead. I am also not fond of the long dumps of information present throughout the narrative, which while sometimes necessary for the plot, I feel like it is a lazy narrative technique and a lot of the time it interrupts the plot. Since present tense point of view, in my experience, benefits a more immediate narrative the info dumps seemed more jarring than usual. The book has a unique feel and the narrative is unlike anything I have read, but I am unsure as to whether or not this is a good thing.

The characters are interesting although I have a few gripes. Hiro is generally a rather witty and capable protagonist but at the same time I feel like he is a bit too overpowered. I feel like his status as a capable swordsman both in and out of the Metaverse is a bit strange, particularly outside since it leaves Hiro without any real physical flaws. Y.T. is similarly witty but I can’t help but feel that she is a bit lacking in terms of personality, being little more than an unusually mature teenage girl. My biggest gripe with her however relates to some of her actions during the climax, where she seduces one of the villains, Raven, who is over twice her age. To make matters worse she is only fifteen, not even at the age of consent in some countries.  While Raven is knocked out before intercourse this is entirely by accident meaning Y.T. seduced him of her own free will and had ever intention of having intercourse with him. This irked me a lot needless to say. This might have something to do with the fact that I didn’t like Y.T. that much to begin with, but there was something about the incident which made me dislike her.

Raven, is one of the primary antagonists of the novel. He is probably one of my favourite characters in the novel, even towards the end. Bearing in mind that he was perfectly willing to sleep with a fifteen year old girl this is quite an achievement on Stephenson’s part. This because he defines crazy badass both in and out the Metaverse, which is a trait that I very much admire in a villain. He is not the main villain, but this is a good thing since he probably would have been weaker as the central villain of the piece. The real big bad is L. Bob Riffe a leader of a new religion movement. I didn’t like him as much since his motives were more bland and generic, being of the take over the world variety. However he functions, which is all you can ask for and since Raven does a lot of the leg work his character doesn’t have a huge effect on the plot.

Snow Crash is a strange novel. It has interesting characters and plot, but it can at times get muddled amidst the tonnes of academic subjects beyond the level of the average reader and the way it affects the pace of the novel. I find myself divided on what to think of it, similar to my opinions on Neal Stephenson’s work as a whole. However I must acknowledge it as a unique and revolutionary work in the cybperpunk genre and one which brought the genre into the modern day, which is something I must commend it for. It’s too flawed to be a masterpiece, but it is a great novel which I enjoyed reading.

SCORE: 3.5/5

IN A WORD: STRANGE

Another short story

I mentioned this on my twitter but I’ll mention it here too. Got another short story published in  in Voxx Magazine. This time it’s slightly longer. It is on page twelve of the magazine, which can be found here: http://www.voxxonline.com/voxx-58/

The story was quite interesting to write since I expected a bit of worldbuilding would have to go into the story, which isn’t always great for a story of such a short length. However I was surprised at how I kept it to a minimum. My villain the Phantom didn’t need a huge amount of background to function, you only needed to know he was a supervillain whose powers are putting the mob out of business. I also wrote this as a bit of a trial since I have been toying with the idea of a modern day superhero story for a while. My plan is to eventually write a novel around the idea, though I have a great deal of other things on my to-do list before I tackle the project.

Comic Review: Watchmen (Alan Moore 1986)

watchmen-cover.jpgI have been meaning to write another graphic novel for a while now. As a result I have decided to write another favourite of mine, Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Winner of the Hugo Award and listed as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels, Watchmen is arguably one of the most famous graphic novels of all time. It follows an ensemble cast of characters in an alternate version of the eighties where costumed heroes have been around since the eighties. After one of their own, The Comedian, is killed in cold blood the only active hero, Rorschach, becomes convinced that there is a plot afoot to kill costumed heroes, leading him to warn his former friends. As he continues his investigations events make him more and more convinced of his theory.

The plot is infinitely more complex than that, spiralling through a huge number of subplots that eventually add up to an epic climax. A lot of the subplots were interesting, particularly that of Rorschach’s origins. After his capture by the police a psychiatrist tries to examine why he is the way he is, leading Rorschach to discuss his origins including the incident which inspired him to abandon his civillian identity and become Rorschach full time. Not only is the flashback sequence great but it also gives the reader huge insight into Rorschach’s character and thought process. It also leads to the psychiatrist going through a mid life crisis of sorts, which is used to examine the book’s themes tackle the social apathy that plagues the world of the novel. This was a very interesting subplot to read, since ultimately it leaves the reader with a dark but ultimately positive message since the psychiatrist ultimately rejects Rorschach’s world view.

However there were a few lackluster subplots which seemed to get in the way. The most notable of these are Hollis Mason’s death, which serves no purpose but to give Nite Owl some grief shortly before the climax. Afterwards it isn’t mentioned again and the killers have no bearing on the overall plot. However the worst is the one that leads into the climax, namely the one involving artist who designed the creature used to trick the world during the final segments of the novel. The biggest issue is how in the background this is for something which becomes important later. Aside from a few fictional articles printed between the individual chapters and a bit of background dialogue in one scene, he isn’t foreshadowed until a few scenes later on.

Thus the subplot creates a weakness in the main plot since upon first reading the alien seems to come out of nowhere. Even on rereading it seemed very random and I still didn’t quite understand why people would believe an alien had attacked them since the notion would still seem quite outlandish. I would have preferred it if instead the perceived threat was more grounded. This is something the 2009 film did better, with the attack instead being made to look as though it was the work of Dr Manhattan. To me the alien ruined the realism of the novel a bit, since everything else seems grounded and logical, even Dr Manhattan is a grounded part of the setting due to the realistic way people treat a being of his level.

In terms of characters, almost all of them were strong and felt like real people. I have already gone into the reasons for Rorschach, though I should also give special mention to his journal which narrates over parts of the story. From the very start the journal gives you insight into Rorschach’s character and immediately suggests that he is slightly insane and might be an unreliable narrator as a result. Nite Owl’s struggle with his deep rooted desire to return to heroics is also easy to emphasise with. The Comedian somehow remains sympathetic even as you learn of all the horrible stuff he’s done through flashbacks. Dr Manhattan however is very interesting due to his alien nature. The extended flashback examining his origins is probably one of my favourite scenes in the entire novel, in part because of the narration within captions throughout the scene. In terms of function these captions serve a similar purpose to Rorschach’s journal, giving insight into Manhattan’s character. The only weak character is Silk Spectre, whose subplots don’t seem to interest me as much as the others but even then she functions reasonably well enough throughout the story.

Overall Watchmen is a very good novel and has every bit the quality you would expect from an Alan Moore graphic novel. Its flaws, if any, are that it tries to cram in too many subplots and at times forgets about them. It looks like a Superhero comic but it’s more than that. It’s a deconstruction of the superhero. It’s a commentary on life and politics. It’s a lot of things. For what it’s worth, Watchmen deserves the praise it has received over the years and to this day I still find myself going back to it and discovering new things which I never noticed before. For those who have yet to read it, do so. As a writer I have analysed this graphic novel many times, and will continue to do so for many times to come. Watchmen is timeless and there is no doubt that this book will always be a mainstay in my comic collection.

SCORE: 4.5/5

IN A WORD: BREATHTAKING

Idoru (William Gibson 1996)

Idoru

Idoru is the second book of William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, the first book of which I found somewhat disappointing. Despite my misgivings I am not one to let a series go unfinished so I pressed onwards with the second book.  Idoru follows an entirely new set of characters, with the primary protagonists being Colin Laney, who has a natural talent for sifting through vast amounts of data to find “nodal points” of relevance, and fourteen year old Chia Pet McKenzie, fan of rock group Lo/Rez. The story revolves around Rez, a rock star and member of the previously mentioned Lo/Rez, who wishes to marry an AI named Rei Toi who is the titular Idoru. Laney is brought in by head of security Keith Blackwell, who believes somebody is manipulating Rez somehow. Meanwhile Chia finds herself in possession of a contrabrand item after a woman named Maryalice dupes her into smuggling it through customs, getting her into trouble with a number of interested parties.

The first thing I noticed was how they had essentially reused the same plot as Chevette from Virtual Light for Chia in this novel. Like Chevette she ends up with a strange device which a lot of bad people want and finds herself on the run. She is however a lot more interesting than Chevette, with a lot more personality. Laney is also interesting, especially because of his ability to sift through information. He also links back to a lot of the characters from the previous novel, such as Shinya Yamazaki and Berry Rydell, neither of whom have point of view segments. This is a good thing, especially so with Yamazaki, whose subplot in the first novel was so boring and irrelevant.

However this novel does have its share of problems. This time it is the way the two main plots, Laney and Chia’s storylines, intersect. For most of the novel the connection between the two plots wasn’t clear and I wasn’t certain which one was the most important to the story. To the novel’s credit the two plots do eventually intersect as the novel reaches its climax, although there were some elements which left a lot to be desired. A lot of the twists felt like they came out of the blue. After they came to pass they left me scratching my head since at no point during the rest of the novel was any of this really foreshadowed effectively. Usually with a good twist you can think back to a previous part of a novel and look at it in a different light, a eureka moment where everything prior to then makes sense. That isn’t something I got with this novel.

I must admit though the Rei Toi plotline was very interesting, depsite the fact that I had a bit of trouble following it towards the end. Rei Toi was an interesting enigma and throughout then novel I wondered if she was in fact sentient, and whether or not Rez was actually in a relationship with her or if he was living out some delusional fantasy. Towards the end it became clearer that Rei Toi was sentient and I found myself routing for them. I liked the ambiguity in the ending, which left it open to interpretation as to whether or not they were finally able to achieve their happily ever after.

Overall I felt like the book was still a bit average, but I considered it an improvement from Virtual Light. This in part because of Rei Toi, who made the story feel like it was true Cyberpunk. Meanwhile with Virtual Light,  I felt like it was just a thriller with cyberpunk window dressing. Here the cyberpunk elements are a lot stronger, examining the themes prevalent in the genre in a more direct and obvious fashion. The book is still a far cry from a masterpiece, but it’s better than its predecessor and it makes me glad that I decided to pick of the Bridge trilogy after all.

SCORE: 3.5/5

IN  A WORD: AVERAGE

Forest Mage (Robin Hobb 2006)

Forest Mage

The second book of Robin Hobb’s Soldier’s Son Trilogy, Forest Mage continues on where Shaman’s Crossing left off. Nevare Burvelle has made a startling recovery from the Speck plague which ravaged the Academy at the end of the previous novel, too good of a recovery in fact. He has gained weight at a considerable rate, quickly becoming obese. When he returns home to his brother’s wedding his father accuses him of gluttony and won’t listen to reason, causing him no end of grief. To make matters worse he still has dreams about Tree Woman, the speck woman who he seemingly killed in the previous novel and his magic begins to increase its grip upon him. After the Speck plague reaches his home, he moves to the remote outpost of Gettys, where the magic begins to increase his grip on him even more.

In terms of pacing the book moved at a similar pace to Shaman’s Crossing, taking a while before the plot truly kicks off. To me this is when Nevare flees to Gettys, which introduces a number of new characters which have a strong impact on the rest of the book’s development. While it was interesting exploring the consequences of the magic’s effect on his body, I felt like it went on a little bit too long. Even after reaching Gettys the action seemed to slow down to the same relaxing pace, with a lot of the conflict in Gettys taking a long time to finally pay off.

However the conflict is still an improvement compared to that of the previous book. I felt like there was more of a real world element to the conflict, with Nevare actually meeting a number of Specks and Speck aligned people. The most notable of these are Olikea, who becomes lover to his speck self, and Buel Hitch, a Gernian also taken in my Speck magic in a similar fashion to Nevare. There is also a lot more conflict with the people at the outpost. While the novel still moves at the pace of a slug, the conflict is at the very least a step up and I found myself gripped by it more so than the previous book.

The new characters in this novel are interesting. In addition to Hitch and Olikea there is also a woman named Amzil, a young widow who Nevare befriends on the road to Gettys and later reappears. She is an interesting example of a potential love interest, and I say potential since Nevare actively decides not to romance her for the entirety of the novel. Regardless she is interesting since she is not only a widow but also has children. Since she is such an unusual character to have as a love interest I found myself genuinely intrigued by her presence, especially with the presence of seductive Specks, Tree Woman and Olikea being Nevare’s primary lust interests for most of the novel. Olikea however is a rather weak character and to me she only serves as a means of showing Nevare the Speck’s world and provide exposition relating to magic.

Hitch is much more interesting, since towards the end he is revealed to actually be an antagonist. However he is unique in that he is a very reluctant one due to the fact that he is essentially a slave to the magic same as Nevare. Despite this he makes for a very effective antagonist, setting up most of the conflict leading up to the climax. The best part being that his plan actually works, leaving Nevare framed for murder. After later events come to pass, Nevare is believed to be guilty by all save for his friend Spink, cousin Epiny and Amzil. The fact that Hitch pulled this off despite his reluctance to do so made him all the more interesting as a character in my opinion.

The climax of the book was also very interesting. Carsina, Nevare’s former love interest who rejected him earlier in the novel over his weight, catches the plague and the two reconcile after she briefly wakes up from the grave, only to die again. This was a very interesting way of redeeming the character but what I really liked is how this kicks off the final part of the climax since Nevare gets accused of necrophilia after finding Carsina’s corpse in his bed, earning him the ire of Carsina’s new husband. This cumulates in a trial but Nevare escapes and in a clever use of magic he manages to erase everyone’s memories and convince them he died in the attempt. Since this is the first instance where you start to see just how powerful the magic can be I enjoyed the climax a lot and it felt like a satisfying pay off to everything that came before it.

As a whole the book still has its flaws, but it was a much more enjoyable than what came previously. Although I have yet to read the third book I can’t help but get the impression that the trilogy has found its feet. This book did redeem the Soldier’s Son trilogy but it is still far from being a masterpiece. However I did like the more direct antagonist of Hitch, as opposed to the more distant Tree Woman. My only complaint is that it still progresses at a rather slow pace. However this allows for a lot of character drama so this is not necessarily a bad thing. Overall, I actually quite liked reading this book and I’m starting to get a better picture of Robin Hobb’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I’m actually quite excited for the third book and I’m hoping it too will prove an interesting read.

SCORE 3.5/5

IN A WORD: IMPROVED

 

Fall of Giants (Ken Follett 2010)

Fall of Giants.jpgIt’s been nearly two months since I started reading this book and I’m proud to say I’m at the stage where I can finally review it. Fall of Giants is the first book in Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy, a series of novels covering the history of the twenty first century. The book starts in 1911 and covers the entirety of World War 1 before finally ending in the 1920’s over a decade after it started. Like the novels set in medieval England, both of which I have previously reviewed, this is a generational epic although it is not quite on the same scale. The scale is a bit shorter than the medieval era novels and I will debate on whether this worked to the novel’s benefit soon enough. First though, the story.

In terms of writing the pacing has somewhat improved but not by much. Through most of the novel the events are nicely spaced out and follow a neat timeline. Yet, like other Follett novels before it, it fits in a lot of events towards the end and suddenly covers time faster than he rest of the novel. The problem is not as prevalent in his medieval novels but it is still there. While I did appreciate the shorter timeline, as I read the novel the pacing seemed to have the same problems regardless. The end of the novel was still the same drawn out anticlimactic affair as before.

Like the rest of Follet’s historical novels this is a character based work. The historical events are mostly a framework for the drama surrounding the lives of the characters within the novel. The work mostly follows the lives of two families, the Williams and the Fitzherberts. The Williams are poor while the Fitzherberts are rich and members of the two families drive a lot of the plot. However there are a few accessory characters who are just as important such as Walter von Ulrich, a spy at the German Embassy in London, Gus Dewar, aide to President Woodrow Wilson and Russian brothers Grigori and Lev Peshkov. Through these characters the novels cover a lot of distance, travelling across the world from England to Germany, Russia and America and everywhere in between.

Ethel Williams’ plot kicks off after she ends up in a romance with Edward “Fitz” Fitzherbert, who licenses the land on which the coal mine, where her family work, is built. However it goes sour after the affair produces a child and Ethel is left to fend for herself as a single mother. This ties in with the storyline of Maud Fitzherbert, Fitz’s more liberal sister. Part of Maud’s story arc revolves around her attempts to help Women gain more rights, partly because of hardships Ethel and people like her face during the story. However this is not all Maud does. Another important part of her character arc is her romance and eventual secret marriage to Walter von Ulrich. The primary factor complicating the romance is the fact that Maud is of higher social status than Walter, bringing the element of class conflict into the plot again and reinforcing it as one of the book’s major themes. This forbidden romance was one of the more interesting plots in then novel.

Another interesting storyline was that of Grigori Peshkov, who is left to care for Lev’s pregnant girlfriend after helping him flee Russia. He isn’t too interesting as a character with a rather generic character arc of caring for his new family. However he is the main conduit through which we experience the Russian revolution, which was the event I was most looking forward to reading. Following the events as they progressed was interesting, especially the way the rest of the world reacted to it in the aftermath. I wish that Grigori could have been more developed as a character though.

Character depth, like the other Follett historical novels, is a problem that has cropped up once again. Grigori is not the only character who I felt had a rather generic character arc. Ethel Williams’ character arc dwindles towards the end of the novel after she settles down with another man. Her brother Billy Williams is worse. He does nothing of real interest in the novel except sign up to fight in the war and react to the hellish experiences he has on the battlefield. His romance with Ethel’s roommate is sidelined, and a lot of his plotlines in general are overshadowed by the likes of Walter von Ulrich and Maud Fitzherbert. His story arc gains traction towards the end but by then it is too late and I found it hard to care. Grigori’s brother is constantly sidelined throughout the novel as well, but I don’t like him for other reasons primarily because he is such a huge prick and manages to get away with everything he does in the end.

However the worst offender is Gus Dewar, who is not only boring but literally does nothing throughout the entire novel except interact with a few of the other point of view characters and act as a conduit from which to experience the American side of the story. Out of all the characters he is the one who didn’t seem to have any real purpose in the story. He personifies the problem with Ken Follet’s point of view characters. They exist to show a certain aspect of a place’s history and have boring generic personalities which barely carry the plot forward. Yet, Gus Dewar is exceptional in that I didn’t care about his story arc from the word go and nothing in the story really stood to change that attitude.

I was a bit disappointed to learn that the novel lacked a central antagonist in vein of Follett’s medieval novels. While I have previously criticised such characters I find them preferable to no antagonist. This was one of my major troubles when it came to getting behind the plot since there wasn’t anything unifying the characters’ plotlines except for the war. Fitz is an antagonist of sorts to certain characters but his point of view segments establish him as a sympathetic character, making him more of an anti-hero of sorts if anything. Whatever the case he certainly wasn’t the villain. While I do appreciate works without an antagonist I felt that this book was so disconnected that I can’t help but feel that maybe it did need one.

Overall I felt like the work had a lot to improve on. The World War 1 era is not a great era of interest for me, aside from a handful of topics such as Russia. Nor is it something I am particularly well read on. Hence the novel had to appeal to me with its characters in order to be of interest. Yet, like the rest Follett’s historical novels the characters leave a lot to be desired in terms of personality. As a whole there were only a handful of point of view characters who I actually found interesting and at times I wondered if there were too many to give any one story arc the focus it deserved. This book had its good parts, but in my mind it ended up feeling like just another Follett novel.

SCORE: 3/5

IN A WORD: DULL

A Storm of Swords (George R.R. Martin 2000)

Storm of Swords

The largest instalment in the A Song of Ice and Fire series so far , A Storm of Swords, was so big that the paperback edition was split into two parts. The book continues on where its predecessors left off. Westeros is still a mess, with the civil war still in swing. Robb Stark’s campaign is affected by a series of bad decisions by both Catelyn and Robb Stark. Meanwhile at King’s Landing, King Joffrey sets aside his engagement with Sansa Stark in favour of Margaery Tyrell, making Sansa’s position more precarious then ever after she is betrothed to Tyrion Lannister again. At the wall Jon Snow has to infiltrate the wildlings and learn their secrets, learning more about the Others in the process. Daenerys Targaryen meanwhile slowly starts to build up her army.

Again there is more to it than that but that is the bare bones. Like the previous book before it, this book expands on a lot of the plot points introduced in the other books. James Lannister is free but escorted by Brienne of Tarth back to King’s Landing. He is also one of the book’s new point of view characters. He is interesting primarily because this is the first time you see him from a sympathetic perspective. Yes, George R.R. Martin can make you feel sorry for a guy who commits incest and isn’t afraid to kill children. The best part is seeing his perspective on the death of the “Mad King”  Aerys Targaryen, which paints a picture of how necessary it was for him to kill the King, and makes his harsh reputation as the Kingslayer seem undeserved.

Jon Snow’s story arc improves a lot over the course of the novel. While it initially starts off slow, I did like the romance blooming between him and the wildling Ygritte and when his true loyalties come about and they break up I found myself heartbroken. Then there is a huge battle at the wall between Jon and the Wildlings which nicely caps off the wildling saga. The final battle marks the moment where Jon and the Night’s Watch stop being independant of Westeros’ politics after Stannis Baratheon arrives to drive off the wildling army. He was the only one of Westeros’ kings to answer the call for aid and their debt to him is sure to come back to bite them.

Daenerys Targaryen has pretty much the same story arc as the last books, only she makes a bit more headway in building up her army. I admit I liked the way she took control of the Unsullied and then had them turn on their former masters in one the best examples of loophole abuse I’ve seen in a long time. After that the plot dwindles down. She discovers Barristan Selmy amongst her own, while Jorah Mormont is outed as a traitor and is exiled and she effectively switches advisers. She then decides to rule in Meereen, setting up what I could already tell was going to be a long and drawn out story arc.

There are a few good twists which make the book worth reading, as well as a lot of major character deaths which set the tone for the rest of the series. The first is the death of King Joffrey. His death is not only satisfying, but also shakes up the events at King’s Landing, providing a shake up in the story arcs for both Sansa Stark and Tyrion Lannister. For Sansa this allows her to be taken away by Littlefinger,  who turns out to have had a part in Joffrey’s death. Littlefinger is revealed to have orchestrated the entire war in one of the most brilliant plot twists, and one which sets him up as one of the most dangerous players on Westeros’ stage. However it is Tyrion’s character arc which interested me more. After Joffrey’s death, Tyrion is accused of his murder. His interactions and relationships with his family are explored, in particular his antagonism towards his father. This cumulates in a dramatic breakdown during his trial which is one of the best angry rants I’ve ever read and one that points out the absurdity of everything that has transpired to that point. Then when it is all over, Jaime, who is back in King’s Landing, frees Tyrion from his cell. Tyrion kills Tywin while he is in his privy, further shaking up events at King’s Landing and further cementing his status as one of the most badass characters in the series.

Fanboying about Tyrion aside there is also the Red Wedding to consider. Robb Stark attends the wedding of his uncle Edmure Tully to Roslin Frey, one of Walder Frey’s daughters. There the Frey’s and the Boltons, the latter revealed to have turned traitor from Robb Stark’s cause, slaughter the entire wedding reception. The event ends in the death of both Robb and Catelyn Stark, killing off two major characters. The event leaves me with mixed impressions. I liked the fact that both Robb and Catelyn were killed off, particularly the former, since it reinforces a lot of the books’ themes but it seemed a bit unremarkable that they would die there and then. Neither Walder Frey or Roose Bolton seemed like a strong enough antagonist at that point to be considered “worthy” of killing two major characters like that. Reservations aside though, it fit the purpose of shaking up the plot and set up the Bolton’s as major players in the books to come so it wasn’t all bad.

Overall A Storm of Swords is another brilliant instalment in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. All the character arcs seem to come to a head and a lot of them have one or two major shakes up which are sure to change the way they will progress in the books to come. A few characters like Bran and Arya Stark still don’t seem to do a whole lot, but have a few intersections with the book’s major storylines to make their roles not completely pointless. This is probably my favourite book in the series so far, and certainly one of the most dramatic. It’s the events of this book which make me rave about how good this series is, and it is the reason I would recommend it to so many fantasy fans.

SCORE: 4.5/5

IN A WORD: TWISTY