Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Fantasy (page 1 of 2)

Book Review: Lancelot

I follow a lot of authors on Twitter. This is because authors tend to be interesting people with interesting things to say, and because I like to hear about writing from people who do it for a living, but it also has the benefit of allowing me to hear about new books. A few months ago, I saw a tweet from the historical fiction author Giles Kristian, seeking bloggers who write about books and offering to send a copy of his new book Lancelot. I had already heard good things about the book and it sounded like something I would enjoy, so I responded, and shortly thereafter I received a package from the UK with a signed trade paperback copy of the book!

I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge that this is a really cool book cover that fits the tone of the book perfectly.

So, with all that said, let’s talk about the book! I really enjoyed it. It is a historical fiction retelling of the Arthurian legend, with Lancelot as the main character. It’s set in the years after the downfall of the Roman empire, when Britons are fighting against invading Saxons. For fans of Arthurian stories, don’t expect this book to follow exactly the stories you might be familiar with. In my opinion, this is a good thing: when retelling such a familiar story, it can be tempting to follow the well-worn ruts laid down by previous authors, and end up sounding the same and not really adding much. Kristian manages to avoid this. Lancelot stands on its own, primarily because it focuses on the character of Lancelot, fleshing him out in a way that I haven’t seen before. He’s still the Lancelot that we know and love: obsessed with Guinevere, practically unstoppable in battle, with a “complicated” relationship with Arthur. But that is now supported by a tragic backstory and a fierce (and flawed) personality that fits with the legendary character but humanizes him.

The story doesn’t follow the legends exactly, but as someone who is pretty familiar with them, it was really fun to see how this retelling portrayed different famous characters and events. There’s a special thrill when you realize that the horse warrior in the shining scale armor that is being introduced is Arthur, or the wiry old druid with tattoos and a cloak of raven feathers is Merlin.  Many other familiar knights of the round table and other characters make appearances throughout the book, and it was great to see this version of them.

This novel walks right on the borderline between low-magic fantasy and historical fiction, which is an area that I wish more authors would explore, and one that I often gravitate toward in my own fiction writing. There are hints of magic at times, and of course the source material is mythology rather than history. But at the same time, the details of the setting are historical. The lingering influence of the Romans is felt in their ruins, and in some cases in the lineage of certain characters. The details of the battles feel authentic (I’m no historian, so I can’t say for sure) even if the battles themselves are invented. Likewise the smaller everyday details that can really make or break historical fiction. Sometimes a little detail will jump out and ruin the suspension of disbelief (I am thinking of one Roman historical fiction book where they repeatedly mention fields of corn, a crop from the Americas), but there was none of that here for me.

If I have one “complaint”, it is that I never really got a feel for the bigger picture. There are a lot of names of kings and kingdoms bandied about, but I never really felt like I understood the geography of where they were or what their relationships were the way I do for something like Game of Thrones. Part of this is because of the unfamiliar names (Karrek Loos yn Koos, Caer Gwinntguic, Cynwidion, etc.), and part is simply because this is really a much more focused story of one man so the bigger picture doesn’t actually matter as much. (I should note: there is a perfectly fine map in the front of the book, but I was lazy and didn’t refer to it much.)

I’ll finish by noting that this book reminded me very strongly of Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Tales” series. Even though Cornwell’s books are set centuries later, the basics of medieval warfare didn’t change very much in that time, and both stories feature a headstrong but extremely skilled warrior fighting for a king who is trying to unite Britain against an invading force.  Both stories  depict a bloody, gritty, world of shield walls and gruesome wounds and personal rivalries. Kristian acknowledges the influence of Cornwell’s writing in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, in particular Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles series, which is its own take on the Arthurian legends. I haven’t read those Cornwell books so I can’t compare directly, but the influence is undeniable. It’s been a few years since I read anything by Cornwall, but in my opinion Kristian’s prose is better: a bit more imagery and flowery language than I remember from Cornwell, but not so much that it is over the top.

Bottom line, I really enjoyed this book, and I really appreciate the author being kind enough to send me a copy! For anyone who is a fan of bloody and gritty fantasy or historical fiction from authors like Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin, Conn Iggulden, or Bernard Cornwell, I definitely recommend giving Lancelot a try.

Patriotism, Genre Fiction, and Criticizing What You Love

In both genre fiction and politics, our culture is struggling with the idea that you can criticize something that you love.

When someone points out that many video games are disturbingly sexist, or that Lord of the Rings is kind of racist, or that the Avatar movie perpetuates the “white savior” trope, are they no longer a fan of genre fiction?

When someone points out that the United States is the only country out of the 25 wealthiest nations that lacks universal health care, or that black people are disproportionately incarcerated and killed by police, or that our wars in the Middle East are responsible for the rise of ISIS, are they no longer a patriot?

In both cases, I say that thoughtful criticism is a deeper, more meaningful expression of love than blind enthusiastic support.

Let’s take Game of Thrones as an example. I love Game of Thrones. The books are among my favorite books of all time. They’re vast and deep, with well-developed characters with unique narrative voices; exciting, twisty, satisfyingly complex plots; epic, vivid worldbuilding; and they signal a profound shift in the fantasy genre, subverting the tropes of the genre established by Lord of the Rings and beginning the modern era of more “grimdark” fantasy. Likewise, the show is excellent: visually stunning, well-acted, and it brings the books that I love to life in a way that allows many more people to experience them. Not only that, but the show has been a revolution in terms of getting excellent genre fiction onto television, demonstrating to TV channels that compelling, adult-oriented stories can be told through genre fiction, and that audiences will eat it up.

But I will readily admit that both the books and the show have major problems too. The show is famous for its gratuitous nudity, and there have been several notorious examples of changes to the original book where main female characters are raped or threatened with rape. There is also a problematic “white savior” vibe to much of Danaerys’ story line. I would argue that the books are somewhat better, but there’s still a whole lot of rape and threats of rape, which is often defended with the old “historical accuracy” argument, because apparently dragons are plausible but a medieval society that isn’t quite so horrifically misogynistic is not.

There are those who see comments like those in the last paragraph and reflexively condemn them. How dare some “social justice warrior” criticize the genre they love? Why can’t people just enjoy things without picking them apart and over-analyzing everything? Why do these SJWs have to ruin everything by insisting on political correctness? They’re clearly not real fans. They clearly hate the genre.

For those who have been paying attention, this conflict came to a head in the video game community with the “gamergate” fiasco a few years ago. Women who dared to point out that video games are full of a disgusting amount of misogyny were harassed by an army of angry, mostly white, mostly male gamers who felt that their favorite hobby and its fundamental culture were being unfairly bashed. The conflict rapidly escalated to doxing (the release of private personal information), lost jobs, lost homes, and death threats.

Later, in the speculative fiction community, a similar conflict arose when the “Sad Puppies“, a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, readers stuffed the ballot for the Hugo Award. They were supposedly fighting back against their perception  that science fiction and fantasy were being ruined by SJWs trying to force everything to be politically correct and shoehorning women, people of color, and LGBT people into fiction, rather than trying to tell good old fashioned apolitical stories. (It apparently did not occur to them that it is possible to tell great speculative fiction about people who are not white straight men, or that all fiction carries with it political baggage.)

And then, of course, there is the 2016 election, where a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, voters were apparently so appalled that we had a black president, and that a woman dared to run as his successor on a platform of inclusiveness and tolerance, that they instead voted for an unqualified narcissistic idiot. Trump’s campaign and its “Make America Great Again” slogan catered directly to the perception that criticizing our country is unpatriotic, and that somehow making things better for people who aren’t straight white men undermines what makes our country great.

But here’s the thing that the gamer-gators, sad puppies, and Trump voters don’t understand: unlike them, we don’t criticize from a place of hatred, but of love.

Sci-fi and Fantasy are supposed to push the limits of imagination, so why is it so hard to imagine that young women and people of color could be the heroes in great adventures? Video games allow the player to escape the real world and experience being powerful and “the chosen one”, so shouldn’t players be allowed to leave behind racism and misogyny when they enter the game world? And the United States is supposed to be a country where all people have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, so shouldn’t we strive to uphold that ideal? Shouldn’t we point out where our great country does not live up to its promise for all of its citizens and then work together to form a “more perfect union”?

When you’re raising a child, you don’t praise them when they are behaving badly. You set high expectations and then help them to live up to those expectations. Why is it so hard to apply the same logic to the other things we love?

Whether it’s genre fiction, video games, or the United States of America itself, what we want is for the things that we love to live up to their true potential. To me, this is a much deeper, more meaningful way to show your devotion to something than blindly singing its praises and ignoring its flaws.

 

Double Book Review: A Song for Arbonne and Hounded

Phew, it’s been a busy month (ok, still busy. This post is brought to you by insomnia!). But I did manage to finish two novels: one I had been working on for a while, and one that was just a quick read.

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A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay is the one I was working on for a while. I started listening to the audiobook over the summer, but then someone else at the library put a hold on it so I couldn’t renew it for a while. I’ve had mixed success with Kay’s books in the past. Most of his more recent books are “alternate world historical fantasy”: they are minimal or non-magic settings modeled after actual historical settings, but in a made-up world which give a little more leeway than true historical fiction. This is actually the sort of style I have gravitated to in some of my own writing, and Kay is one of the only authors who writes in this style regularly. However, Kay’s earlier books (The Fioinavar Tapestry series) are more traditional fantasy worlds borrowing heavily from Narnia and Middle Earth. I really did not like his first book like this, The Summer Tree.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect from A Song for Arbonne. It turned out to be a sort of middle ground. It is set in a fantasy analog of medieval Europe, specifically drawing on Provence. It has some magic, but not a lot. The kingdom of Arbonne is the main setting, and it’s an interesting take on traditional High Fantasy. There are tournaments and sword fighting and everything, but Arbonne is a matriarchal kingdom that highly values music, and troubadors and singers and the like are held in very high esteem. The story focuses on Blaise, a knight from the hyper-masculine and militaristic neighboring kingdom of Gorhaut, who has left his home and is serving as a sword for hire. Unlike a lot of fantasy, A Song for Arbonne is much more focused on courtly intrigue than violence, though it has its fair share. Much of the book involves barbed exchanges between various nobility vying for power rather than open combat.

A Song for Arbonne is a slow burn: it takes patience as Kay builds up the intricate and complicated relationships between the various characters and nations, but I really enjoyed it. It’s sort of like a less gritty Game of Thrones, somehow finding the sweet spot and managing to depict a lovely and idyllic medieval kingdom while still having lots of interesting intrigue and enough danger to make for a good story. It also has the notable distinction of being a stand-alone fantasy novel, which is almost unheard of.

Also, I would highly recommend the audiobook. The narrator is excellent, and given that Arbonne is so centered on musicians and troubadors, there are lots of songs in the book. The reader for the audiobook is also a really fantastic singer, and I found myself looking forward to the little bits of song scattered throughout to book just to hear him sing. The wuality of the narrator can make a big difference with audiobooks, and Song for Arbonne has a good one.

hounded

The other novel that I recently finished was Hounded by Kevin Hearne. I picked this up because I follow the author on Twitter and he seems like a funny and cool guy, and because it’s an urban fantasy set in Phoenix, which is kind of a neat change. Unfortunately, I did not like it very much: it’s just not my kind of book.

The premise is that Atticus O’Sullivan is a 2100 year-old druid who has settled down in Tempe to avoid his nemesis Aengus Og, one of the pantheon of celtic gods. But, as we learn from a succession of sexy goddesses, the bad guys (Aengus Og, some disposable mythological henchmen, and a coven of gorgeous witches) have finally found Atticus and he is forced to confront them with the help of his friends, the local werewolf pack, a vampire, and the sexy barmaid from the local Irish pub (who also happens to be possessed by a powerful witch from India).

In case you couldn’t tell, it’s a pretty silly book. Which is fine, humorous novels can be good, but my problem with Hounded is that it’s also incredibly shallow. There’s nothing there under the surface. The writing feels padded and vacuous: an interesting turn of phrase is never used when the most obvious one could be used instead. The worldbuilding is nonexistent, just a mashup of mythologies. It’s also a blatant male wish fulfillment fantasy (what guy wouldn’t want to be a sexy immortal spell-wielding druid who has a talking dog and gets to sleep and/or flirt with a succession of beautiful and sometimes dangerous women and goddesses while handily dispatching your enemies with a magic sword that can cut through anything?) and not much else. A 2100 year-old druid who has witnessed all that history could be a fascinating character. What sort of wisdom would living that long bring? He’s traveled the world, witnessed the rise and fall of empires and cultures, fought in countless wars. He has also outlived every mortal friend he has known. And yet, there’s no depth to his character: he mostly just makes wisecracks and sleeps with goddesses. I’m not saying he’s not allowed to have a sense of humor, but I guess I would have also liked a little more pathos/gravitas with someone who has lived so long and seen so much.

The other problem is that there are basically no stakes. Atticus already has magic that makes him immortal in terms of dying of natural causes, and early on in the book he makes a deal with the celtic goddess of death so that he won’t die even if mortally wounded. So who cares if monsters attack him? He can’t be killed, and he can heal himself almost immediately as long as he can draw energy from the earth. His sword can cut through anything, and he has a variety of spells they he can cast, along with a bunch of very powerful friends. With almost zero risk and almost unlimited power, action scenes become pretty boring.

And finally (some spoilers below), there is a scene about halfway through the novel that involved a police officer, possessed by Aengus Og, shooting Atticus and in turn being gunned down by his fellow officers for shooting an unarmed (white) man. The author could not have forseen how poorly this scene would hold up over time, but given the countless police shootings of unarmed black men in the news lately, reading about how these cops immediately shot one of their own because he shot a civilian (so unthinkable!) was… awkward. (This also reminds me: the book is full of scenes of blatant magic use in the presence of normal people, and they invariably don’t care at all. At one point Atticus decapitates one of Aengus Og’s henchmen in the front lawn of a friendly old Irish lady, and she is briefly horrified until he explains that the bad guy was British, at which point she basically shrugs and says “ok, good job then”.)

Anyway, plenty of people seem to like Hounded and the other books in this series, but it was decidedly not for me. It was like the book equivalent of a brainless summer blockbuster. Entertaining, but mostly an exercise in wish fulfillment with lots of exciting action but no substance. Like cotton candy, it tastes good, but you quickly realize there’s nothing actually there.

Double Book Review: Among Others & Rocannon’s World

This week I had the good fortune to finish two books that I enjoyed in rapid succession, so I figure I might as well review them that way too! First up, Among Others by Jo Walton:

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Among Others is a sort of coming-of-age story, told in the form of diary entries by a 15 year old Welsh girl named Mori. It starts shortly after a car accident which killed her twin sister and left her crippled, as she is shipped off to live with her estranged father and rich aunts, who in turn send her to a girl’s boarding school, which she hates. Mori is obsessed with reading sci-fi and fantasy, and regularly interacts with fairies and does magic to protect herself from her mother, who is an evil witch. At least, that’s what Mori thinks. Interestingly, it is never entirely clear how real the magic and the fairies in this book are, and this is something that Mori is aware of and grapples with, making for an interesting take on magical realism.

Among Others won the top awards in sci-fi and fantasy, the Hugo and the Nebula, and it’s no wonder. This book is precision targeted to hit awkward smart kids who never quite fit in and found solace in SF right in the feels, and those kids grow up and vote for the Nebula and Hugo awards. Mori is a voracious reader, and the novel is a laundry list of classic SF novels. Part of the fun of the book is reading along as Mori discovers, and reacts to, all these famous authors and books.

At the same time, the book is really about finding your place in the world when you are different, which means finding others who are different in the same way. It’s a quiet, thoughtful, and melancholy story, but it also has plenty of moments of charm and humor. The tone of the book reminded me of Station Eleven or The Namesake, both of which I also enjoyed thoroughly.

My only complaint about Among Others is that it ends somewhat abruptly, but I really enjoyed reading it and I would recommend it, especially to fans of classic SF. And speaking of classic SF, apparently SF legend Ursula K. LeGuin, whose books Mori loves, also enjoyed Among Others, and she happens to be the author of the second book I’m reviewing in this post!

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Rocannon’s World is LeGuin’s first novel, and was published in 1966. It is a bit more pulpy and less serious than some of the later books that made LeGuin famous, like Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, but even in this first novel her writing is beautiful. The story follows a man named Rocannon, who is an ethnologist from a futuristic society who is exploring a planet populated by several races of human-like people at a medieval technology level. Rocannon’s ship and crewmates are killed by a mysterious and technologically advanced enemy, and most of the book is a quest across the strange world to get to the enemy base and use their technology to call for help.

Even though it is nominally a science fiction novel, the bulk of the book is essentially fantasy. In place of Tolkien’s elves and dwarves and men, the planet in Rocannon’s World has the elf-like Fiia, the dwarf-like Gdemiar, and the human-like Liuar. As Rocannon travels across the world with his group of companions, his high-tech gear (in particular, an invisible impermeable skin-like force field) leads him to be revered as a sort of God, with legends springing up about his exploits almost as soon as they occur. After all, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

One of my favorite things in the novel was the archaic way that most of the various races on the planet speak, with lots of honorifics and nicknames and flowery language. For example, at one point when a new character is greeting Rocannon and his friend Mogien (a nobleman of the Liuar people), instead of saying “Hello Mogien and Rocannon” they say: “Hail Mogien, Halla’s heir, sun-haired, sword bearer! Hail, Hallan-guest, star-lord, wanderer!” This sort of style reminded me strongly of the epithets used in Homer: “grey-eyed Athena”, “rosy-fingered dawn”, “Trojans, breakers of horses”. It’s a wonderful way to convey that these are people who live in a culture where history is passed down orally, and these sorts of epithets serve a real purpose as memory triggers and in fitting speech to a specific rhythm. In the hands of a less capable author it could have been horrible and over-the-top, but LeGuin not only gets away with it, but made it one of the things I liked most.

I’ve read many books by LeGuin before, but reading Among Others made me want to dig back into some of the classics that I have never read. I am very glad that I did. I knew that I liked LeGuin’s writing, but Rocannon’s world has jogged my memory and refreshed that knowledge. I’m looking forward to reading some of her other early works!

Book Recommendations

There are few things I enjoy more than recommending books to people, so you can imagine how happy I was to find that there are two subreddits that are dedicated to book recommendations. It’s awesome to have a place on the internet where people are constantly asking for advice on what to read!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been recommending up a storm, and I thought it would be interesting to collect a list of my most-recommended books and post them here. This is different from my list of favorite books, I should note. There are a few very common requests that appear over and over on the book recommendation subreddits, so those tend to guide my recommendations. Here are some of the most common requests, along with my general recommendations.

“I am new to reading for fun” or “I used to love reading but I haven’t read anything recently. What should I read?”

Of course when responding to this one, it depends what the person is interested in. But I generally try to aim for easy-reading page-turners that are the beginning of a series:

  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – Good, modern take on military sci-fi with a sense of humor but also some poignant scenes. This book starts a series.
  • Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden – Historical fiction about the early life of Temujin (aka Genghis Khan). Does a great job of conveying the rugged life on the steppes. Starts a series.
  • The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell – Very readable historical fiction book about a Northumbrian boy who is captured by Danes (vikings) and raised as one of them, but who eventually joins forces with Alfred the Great. Interesting look at the early middle ages, when a castle was a hall on top of a hill surrounded by a palisade, rather than a towering stone fortress. Starts a series.

“I just read The Martian. What should I read next?”

  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – This is an epic realistic sci-fi novel about the first 100 colonists on Mars as they try to found a new civilization and terraform Mars to become more like Earth. It was written in the 90s, but holds up pretty well. Where The Martian was a very small-scale story, this one is huge in scope, spanning many years with tons of characters.
  • Contact by Carl Sagan – Writen by an actual astronomer, about deciphering a signal received from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Full of good science but also lots of philosophical discussions.

“I just finished Ready Player One. What should I read next?”

  • I often recommend Old Man’s War for this as well. Even though the books are not that similar, the tone of the writing is.
  • Other books that I haven’t read, but which I have heard would go well with Ready Player One are Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

“I’m looking for a new fantasy series to get hooked on (often after finishing A Song of Ice and Fire or Name of the Wind).”

  • The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Classics, but it’s surprising how many people haven’t read them. These are must-reads for any fan of fantasy, if only because so much of fantasy is either imitating or subverting the tropes introduced by Tolkien.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin – Another classic, and the start of a series. I especially recommend this to people who say they enjoyed Harry Potter because LeGuin basically invented the idea of a wizard school in this book.
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb – This is the first in several trilogies set in the same world. Fitz, the protagonist, is in my opinion one of the best characters in all of Fantasy. Occasionally infuriating too, but still a great character, and it’s interesting to see him mature through the books. Also, some of the books about Fitz get pretty dark and gritty, even though they were written before “grimdark” became its own subgenre.
  • The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie – The standard by which all other grimdark is judged. Great characters who are also terrible people, in an interesting fantasy world that has fun subverting some fantasy tropes. I recommend this book and its sequels especially for people who liked Game of Thrones and who want something dark and gritty.
  • Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – For fantasy readers who want well-polished prose that takes familiar well-worn tropes and makes them excellent just by the quality of the writing. This book and its sequel are good for fans of Harry Potter who want something similar but a bit more mature.
  • Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin – Everyone has heard of this book and its sequels by now, but many have still not read them. If the person seems to have read other huge series but not this one, I highly recommend it. At this point Martin’s influence on the fantasy genre rivals Tolkien’s.
  • Shogun by James Clavell – This is historical fiction rather than fantasy, but it has a lot of what makes Game of Thrones great (tons of characters, tons of politics and intrigue, epic scope, etc.), so I often recommend it to Game of Thrones fans. It’s about an Englishman who is shipwrecked in Japan in 1600 and gets involved in court politics and falls in love with a Japanese woman. Surprisingly, it is based pretty closely on actual events.
  • I also often recommend Cornwell and Iggulden’s historical fiction to fantasy fans.

For fantasy fans who are looking for something a bit different:

  • Perdido Street Station or The Scar by China Mieville – Extremely creative and bizarre stories about a steampunk-ish fantasy-ish world. Strong horror influences. I haven’t read anything else like these. I personally enjoyed The Scar more than Perdido Street. Mieville also loves to use lots of fancy vocabulary in his writing: this annoys some people, but I like it. And if you’re studying for the SAT, I bet these books would be better than a bunch of boring flash cards.

“I’m looking for some good post-apocalyptic books.”

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – One of the best books I’ve read this year, and the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve read in a long time (ever?). It doesn’t do anything particularly new with the familiar tropes of the genre, but the writing is great, with well-drawn characters. Manages to be more literary than most books in the genre without coming off as pretentious.
  • Wool by Hugh Howey – This one is a page-turner. I especially recommend this to fans of the Fallout series of video games, because it deals with underground refuges from the toxic post-apocalyptic wasteland on the surface that are awfully similar to the Vaults in Fallout.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Bleak and depressing, but great, spare writing. And after all, shouldn’t the apocalypse be a bit of a downer?
  • The Stand by Stephen King – A classic of the genre. I loved the first ~2/3 of The Stand and thought the ending was just ok, but still. It’s a must-read.
  • The Postman by David Brin – Obviously an inspiration for The Stand and for the early Wasteland and Fallout video games. Much like The Stand, the first 2/3rds are better than the ending, but still a classic of the genre.
  • Earth Abides – Another classic. This one explores how civilization would change, what knowledge would be kept and what would fade with time, after a disease-style apocalypse. One of the first books of its kind, but quite good, if dated.
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – Another classic. This one was among the first to consider an apocalypse populated by monsters rather than just radiation or disease. Here the monsters are like vampires, but this led to the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. And for its age, it is still quite readable.
  • On the Beach by Nevil Schute – This one is different than most in the genre, but is well worth reading. Possibly the saddest of them all. It’s about several families in Australia after a nuclear war has been waged in the northern hemisphere as they wait for the deadly cloud of fallout to get to them.
  • The World Without Us by Alan Wiseman – This one is non-fiction! But I put it in the post-apocalypse list because it’s about what would happen if humans just up and disappeared one day. It’s a really fascinating book, especially for fans of the post-apocalyptic genre.

“I’ve read lots of YA series (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Eragon, etc.). What should I read next?” or “What are some good books for a middle school kid?”

A lot of this depends on age. Some adults have only read YA but want something more mature, so for them I refer to the fantasy list. For actual kids in high school or middle school, I recommend:

  • The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman – Great YA series with a sort of steampunk-ish world and interesting magic. There are armored bears and witches but also some pretty interesting exploration of physics, philosophy, and theology.
  • Redwall and sequels by Brian Jacques – These books are lots of fun. Woodland creatures in the middle ages with swords and bows and stuff! Also some of the most gratuitous descriptions of feasts I’ve ever read. Probably best for a middle-school aged audience though I read them well into high school.
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Duane – Lame title, but I loved this book in early middle school. It’s about two kids who learn how to become wizards and travel to a parallel version of New York, complete with predatory cars and other cool stuff.
  • The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – I loved these books in early high school, though now I can’t really remember much about them except that they are awesome. Both have great female protagonists.

“I’m looking for non-fiction that will change the way I see the world.” or “What are some must-read non-fiction books?”

  • Books by Carl Sagan including Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, and Demon Haunted World – Sagan was a brilliant science writer, and all modern popular science writers are basically rehashing things he wrote better. These books will teach you about the history of science, the future of space exploration, and how to think critically about the world around you.
  • 1491 and 1493 by Charles C. Mann – These books deal with what the Americas were like before Columbus, and how the world changed due to globalization after Columbus. These changed my view of history: real history is way more interesting than what you learn in school!

“Halloween is coming up. What are some good creepy/horror stories?”

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – Not the sort of story that is likely to give you nightmares or keep you up at night but some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read. Bradbury’s writing style is practically like poetry, and this book is all about autumn and death and a creepy carnival, so it fits with the season. All of Bradbury’s books are great, and this is not actually my favorite (That would be Martian Chronicles, of course) but this is the one I’m recommending most lately.

Book Review: Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

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Of all the epic fantasy series I’ve read, Robin Hobb’s Farseer books are among my favorite, and that’s primarily because of the great job that Hobb does getting the reader inside the main character, FitzChivalry’s head (for better or worse). The previous books follow him from being a young boy struggling to survive court intrigue, to a trained assassin working for the king, to a battle-weary man seeking solitude after a life of trauma and loss. I was surprised to hear that Hobb was coming out with a new Fitz trilogy since his story was pretty clearly finished, but at the same time I was excited to spend some more time with Fitz and the other characters from past books.

Warning: It’s hard to discuss this book without spoiling anything. I’ll keep the spoilers mild but you have been warned.

Fool’s Assassin starts with Fitz in late middle age, enjoying a peaceful retirement with his wife Molly. The book moves slowly, but the writing was good enough to keep me turning the page as the reader is brought up to speed on some of Fitz’s past exploits and his current situation. Although they both had thought she was too old, Molly announces that she is pregnant. After a long section where Fitz believes Molly has become demented rather than pregnant (my first reminder of the downside of being inside Fitz’s head: he is all too often oblivious to major plot points when it is convenient for him to be so) she eventually does give birth to a tiny but healthy daughter, Bee. Everyone assumes Bee won’t live long because she is so small, but other than her small size she turns out to be healthy, capable, and smart. She’s just shy and a bit odd. When Molly dies suddenly, Fitz is left to raise Bee himself.

About halfway through the book, the point of view chapters start to alternate between Bee and Fitz, and much as I have enjoyed the previous Fitz books, I found myself dreading Fitz’s chapters and looking forward to Bee’s. Fitz has the habit of throwing himself long, elaborate pity parties in his head, and the reader gets to come along for the ride. There is some nice writing in here about dealing with loss of a spouse (Hobb writes poignant and bittersweet very well), and the challenges of parenting, but Fitz still tends to be a downer.  And as this book progresses, his tendency to be wrong about everything just to add conflict to the plot got to be really annoying. Bee on the other hand is everyone’s favorite point of view character type: smarter than she seems, constantly underestimated by everyone around her, clever but flawed enough to be interesting, with hints of extraordinary abilities that even she does not fully understand. (Actually now that I think about it, she reminds me a lot of Bean in the Ender’s Game books.)

The book continues on, with other new (and often highly annoying) characters introduced to add conflict, but unfortunately the plot does almost nothing, and that ends up being my biggest criticism. This is not a finished book, this is the first act of a book that has been split into three pieces so it can be released as a trilogy. There’s a lot of filler here and not much plot, and what plot there is has some pretty significant holes in it that I won’t go into to avoid major spoilers. The writing was still good enough that I found myself staying up late turning pages, but in the end all this book gives is the inciting event for the real story. I’ll be reading the sequels, but if I had known how unsatisfying this one would be I would have waited for all three books to be out first.

 

Game Review: Dragon Age Inquisition

I got an Xbox One for Christmas, and the first game that I played on it was Dragon Age: Inquisition. The game has been winning all sorts of awards, and so I figured I might as well have my first Xbox One gaming experience be as epic as possible. So did it live up to the hype?

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The environments in this game are gorgeous.

Yes! Mostly. Inquisition blends the character-driven games that Bioware is now famous for (see: Mass Effect and the earlier Dragon Age games) with a much more open world (no doubt because of the great success of Skyrim). In some ways this was great: Inquisition allows you to explore many huge environments and get lost on side quests to your heart’s content, and unlike Skyrim there is much more variety in the different areas. You can explore desert wastelands, lush forests, rain-drenched rocky coasts, along with the more traditional “mountainous temperate European-like” landscapes like in Skyrim. And of course, these all look gorgeous on the Xbox One. The game generally looks great. My main complaint about the graphics are the characters. It seems as though the game designers got so excited about the ability to have specular reflections rendered in real time, that they made everything shiny, including people. The result: everyone looks like they are wet, and wearing extremely shiny lip gloss. Also, anything that is actually supposed to be shiny ends up looking like it is covered in sequins, especially if it’s in the background and slightly out of focus. But, after playing for a while I stopped noticing these graphical quirks, and for the most part the game looks awesome.

The downside of having all of these huge and beautiful environments to explore is that it tends to dilute the actual storyline of the game. By far the best thing about previous Bioware games were the character arcs of the various interesting party members that can join you in your adventures. There are some good character arcs in Inquisition too, but they sometimes felt less coherent and meaningful than in previous games. I should note, however, that as usual Bioware does a nice job with the diversity of its characters. There are strong women and people of color, and a variety of sexual orientations. In fact, one of my favorite subplots had no climactic battle or world-changing choices. Instead, you help your gay team-mate confront his disapproving father. These sorts of character-driven moments are often much better and more memorable than yet another battle with a dragon or a wizard. It helps that the writing and voice acting in Inquisition are among the best I’ve seen in a video game.

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These characters are the best part of the game.

Unfortunately, despite the interesting cast of characters, I found the main plot of the game to be pretty weak. This is likely because it was stretched so thin as I spent my time wandering around the open world doing other things and then occasionally checking back in to the plot once I ran out of other things to do. By the time I decided to finish the game, my character and team members were strong enough that the final battle was laughably easy, and because it had been many many hours since I last checked in with the plot, I didn’t really care that much about it. It didn’t help that the main bad guy is a very cliche and one-dimensional villain. The ending was so anti-climactic that I was sure there was going to be some shocking twist, but nope. That was that. For such a huge game, the ending felt small and unimportant.

All that said, as I think back to the major events in the game’s main story and subplots, I realize that they are full of some great scenes. There’s a very fun sequence where you have to infiltrate a royal ball and stop (or aid) an assassination attempt. You get to defend a town from an advancing army, explore ancient ruins in search of long-forgotten power, disrupt an illegal mining operation, stop an evil mage from distorting time to save his son, and of course you get to fight some dragons (hunting down all the dragons is much more exciting and challenging than the actual final boss battle).

Basically, my review boils down to this: Dragon Age: Inquisition is a great game, but it is trying to do too many things. If I were to play it again, I would resist my completionist urges and focus entirely on the main story and the sub-plots for my party members. I think doing that would make them much more enjoyable by essentially cutting out the filler and focusing on the good stuff. The alternative way to play is to basically ignore the stories and just run around doing whatever you want like in Skyrim. Learn to craft armor and weapons, find treasure in every nook and cranny, do every fetch quest for every villager in need of help.  This will let you see more of the game, but will rob the plot of its immediacy.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Bioware does next. The fad seems to be to make games have ever-more open worlds, but I really hope Bioware decides to buck that trend and turn all the effort that they put into making Inquisition so open, and instead direct that at crafting a great story with meaningful choices and interesting characters. Too much freedom makes it impossible to tell a good story, and for me the story is what makes Bioware games great.

Book Review: The Mirror Empire

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I really wanted to like this one. I first encountered Kameron Hurley’s writing in her truly excellent piece “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle, and Slaves Narrative“, which won a Hugo award last year. When I heard that she had a new epic fantasy series coming out, I was excited to read some fantasy that dares to break out of the mold of western European clones and Tolkien imitators. On this count, Mirror Empire does not disappoint.

Mirror Empire is set in a world populated by mostly matriarchal societies, where most soldiers and religious leaders are women, and men are prized for their beauty and/or dancing skill. Marriage is not limited to one man and one woman, but can involve many adults of various genders. In one of the societies, there are three pronouns, in another society, there are five.

Gender roles aren’t the only place where Mirror Empire deviates significantly from your typical Tolkien imitators. Much of the world is an inhospitable forest, populated by carnivorous plants. Fortresses and temples are living structures, grown and sculpted by magic users (we’ll get back to the magic in a moment). The Dhai culture which lives in the forests are pacifists: they aren’t even allowed to touch another person without asking permission first, and they eat only plants, except when a loved one dies, in which case that person’s organs are cooked and served in a ceremonial feast.

In this world, instead of horses, people ride giant dogs or giant bears, except calling the creatures “dogs” or “bears” is a somewhat misleading shorthand. When they are described in detail it becomes clear that they are something more bizarre altogether. Instead of using pigeons or ravens to carry messages, “sparrows” are used, but again the common English word does not convey how bizarre the “sparrows” in Mirror Empire are.

The magic in Mirror Empire is based on the orbits of several moons. As a certain moon rises higher in the sky, those people who can channel that moon’s power are capable of doing magic. One of the moons gives control over air. Another, control over plants. The story is set during a time when the moon Oma is ascendant. The other moons rise and fall on decade-long timescales, but Oma rises only every few centuries. Oma gives all sorts of strange powers, mostly driven by the power of blood, but it also has the strange side effect that it opens portals to parallel dimensions and that’s where things get interesting.

As Oma rises, it is revealed that strangers in a parallel world, very similar to the main world where the story is set, are invading. For each person in the main world, their clone exists in the mirror world. To cross from one world to the other, your clone in that other world must be dead. A couple of key things are different in the parallel world. First, the Dhai are not pacifists, they are a deadly and powerful empire. And second, the parallel world is doomed. So the warlike Dhai in that world would very much like to come take over the main world of the story. To do that, they have to start killing people, so more can cross over. Plot ensues.

It’s a fascinating world, and an interesting premise. Unfortunately, the storytelling doesn’t live up to the ambitious worldbuilding. From the beginning, I struggled to keep the many characters straight. There are numerous point of view characters, and a multitude of additional minor characters. Even when I did know who the characters in a given scene were, I rarely understood their motivations. At one point a character dramatically kills herself but I still have no idea why. Later, another character holds an innocent little girl hostage, and then kills her and shows zero remorse. Not understanding character goals is a death-blow to just about any fiction, and particularly when they point of view character is of the anti-hero type. Unless you are really really deep inside their head and have a deep understanding of what they are doing and why the anti-hero will just come across as a confusing jerk.

I should make it clear that I don’t mind books with large casts of characters who have complex motivations. Among my favorite books of all time are Shogun and the Game of Thrones series, both of which have lots of characters and complicated political intrigue and conflicting motives. Why did I have an easier time following Game of Thrones than Mirror Empire? Part of it is that Game of Thrones has it easy. It’s set in a familiar western European fantasy setting. The names are all very similar to typical English names. I think author skill also plays a big role here. George R.R. Martin uses a lot of different tricks to help readers keep track of who’s who. His books are full of sigils and heraldry and titles nicknames for a very good reason: they are shorthand for the characters. You may not remember who Gregor Clegane and Oberyn Martell are, but when you introduce them as “The Mountain that Rides” with the three Clegane dogs on a field of yellow, and “The Viper” with the Sun and Spear of House Martell of Dorne, all of a sudden the reader has a lot more to go on. Likewise, Martin uses heraldry to immediately make the motives and allegiance of even anonymous soldiers more clear. If the point of view character is a Stark and they run into a bunch of soldiers with Lannister lions on their uniforms, you know there is going to be trouble. Mirror Empire lacked a lot of these clues, and combined with the less familiar world, I think that played a big role in my confusion.

I hoped at the beginning of Mirror Empire that things would get more clear as I read on, but although some things are explained, I spent much of the book confused. It was like missing the first few weeks of math class and then trying to catch up. Even as I caught up, the story built on previous details and events that I only partially understood, so that comprehension was always just out of reach. By the end I was reading, not because I was invested in the events of the story, but because I wanted to be done.

So, bottom line, I’m conflicted about Mirror Empire. There is so much about it that I love. It’s not a Tolkien knock-off! It is set in a bizarre and interesting world. It plays lots of fun games with gender roles. Carnivorous forests! Evil invaders with an actual motive beyond just “spreading darkness”. I want to see more of this level of creativity in fantasy! I just wish that, in this case, the execution matched the ambition. It’s pretty clear from the ending that there will be more books in this series. Hurley is a relatively new author, so I am hopeful that with more experience, her future books won’t suffer from the problems that made Mirror Empire fall short of its very lofty goals.

 

 

 

Recap & Review: Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 8 “The Mountain and the Viper”

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I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks, but now that I’m back home, one of the first orders of business is getting caught up on Game of Thrones! Episode 8 was certainly worth the wait: this was one of the best episodes of the season, in my opinion.

It starts off in Mole’s Town, where the wildling, including Ygritte, show up and slaughter everyone they find. We see that Ygritte is just as brutal as the rest of the wildlings… almost. She spares Gilly and her son when she finds them cowering in a back room.

At the wall, Sam is freaking out about sending Gilly to Mole’s Twon, and Jon and the others try to cheer him up, but they’re in a grim situation and they know it. Although, when they ask how 100 men of the night’s watch are supposed to stop 100,000 wildlings, I had to think to myself “Well, the 700 foot tall wall of ice is a good start.”

Over in Meereen, the interesting subplot between Gray Worm and Missandei moves forward. Missandei notices Gray Worm (somewhat creepily) watching her bathe in the river, and later he comes to apologize for her and they have a surprisingly tender scene where he says, basically, that being castrated was not all bad because it led to him getting to meet her. Which is about as close to “romantic” as this show gets. In a show with very few respectful relationships between men and women, this subplot is a nice change. I’m not sure what it says that all it took was for the man to be a eunuch for a subplot like this to happen though…

Jumping over to the North, Ramsay sends Reek/Theon to go treat with the ironborn who hold the fortress of Moat Cailin. The commander sneers at the prospect of surrender, but one of his subordinates kills him and says that if their lives are spared, he’s willing to surrender. This… doesn’t exactly work out well for him: in the next scene we see his flayed corpse. Ramsay never had any intention of letting the ironborn go, he just needed a way to get into the castle. With his success at taking Moat Cailin, Ramsay is officially named a Bolton rather than a Snow. I thought it was a nice bit of writing that Roose’s asks Ramsay what his name is in much the same way that Ramsay asks Theon/Reek what his name is. With Ramsay now an official Bolton, and Moat Cailin claimed by the Boltons, they now have control over the whole north, and the episode wraps up this subplot by showing the Bolton army marching toward Winterfell.

Back in Meereen, Barristan gets a scroll containing a royal pardon from Robert Baratheon for Jorah Mormont. I guess the mail service between Westeros and Essos is a bit slow… In any case, the pardon reveals that Jorah had been spying on Danaerys, and she is none to happy about it. She kicks Jorah out of her city. I could have sworn that this betrayal already happened much earlier, but maybe I’m confusing my book memories with my show memories. It seems odd to me that it took so long for the message to arrive. Haven’t we seen the small council meeting in King’s Landing with relatively up-to-date information about what Danaerys is up to? Or maybe I’m confusing the book and the show again.

Over in the Eyrie the nobility of the Vale are paying Petyr a visit, investigating the rather suspicious death of Lysa Arryn. Petyr claims it was suicide, and then the nobles summon Sansa in to testify. The details of Lysa’s murder were changed for the show so I was interested to see how the aftermath would play out. In the book, there’s a minstrel who can be framed for the murder, but in the show, it’s just Petyr and Sansa. In a turn that surprised me, Sansa admits to being a Stark, and then tells the nobles of the Vale a well-crafted mix of truth and lies to convince them that Lysa did indeed kill herself. At the end of her testimony, Sansa shares a look with Littlefinger that I took to mean “there, I said just what you wanted me to say,” but it turns out that in the show, the whole testimony was Sansa’s idea.

I’m not sure I buy this. Littlefinger isn’t the sort of person who orchestrates such a detailed plan and then fails to plan for the inevitable interrogation that follows. But even though it’s not in character for him not to be in control of the situation, Sansa’s transformation in this episode was great. Seeing her acting confident instead of helpless was quite a change, though she needs to talk to her tailor about the outfit she was wearing in her last scene as she descends the stairs looking like an evil queen. Maybe tone down the evil a bit, Sansa. If you’re going to try to manipulate people the way Littlefinger does, it would help not to look like Maleficent.

Outside the gates to the Eyrie, the Hound and Arya arrive and ask to speak to Lysa. When the guard tells them that she recently died, the Hound is crestfallen – he had been hoping to sell Arya to her aunt. Arya bursts into uncontrollable laughter. It’s tempting to say that this is more evidence that she’s becoming unstable, but really: at this point, what else can she do but laugh at how ridiculously unfortunate her life has been recently? Of course her last living relative (that she knows of) is dead too. Figures.

Finally, the episode gets to King’s Landing, where Jaime and Tyrion are chatting in Tyrion’s cell. Tyrion ends up giving a long monologue about their mentally handicapped cousin, who would spend all day smashing beetles, and how Tyrion became obsessed with figuring out why. It might seem like an odd story for Tyrion to tell his brother during what may well be their last conversation, but the point is, I think, that the world that they live in is full of morons smashing things just because they can, and Tyrion has tried and tried in vain to figure out why, particularly because he is one of the small creatures likely to be smashed.

They wrap up their conversation, and then we move to the arena where Oberyn and Gregor, the Viper of Dorne and the Mountain that Rides are to fight. Even knowing what would happen, this was a very well-done fight scene, and had my heart pounding. Stupid Oberyn couldn’t just be satisfied with killing the Mountain, he had to make a performance out of it. It’s terrible to see such a great character (quite possibly better in the show than in the books) meet his end, but really? Don’t mess around with The Mountain.

That said, just as I complained before about the gruesome “sword through the mouth” death scene earlier in the season, this “crushed skull” death mostly indicates to me that this show underestimates how strong skulls are. I’m sure a strong enough guy could kill someone by gouging out his eyes, but I am skeptical that even the Mountain could actually crush a skull with his bare hands like they showed. Anyway, it was gross, and the Viper died first, so Tyrion is out of luck.

And that does it for this episode! Compared to previous episodes of the season, there was not a lot to criticize in this one. It was Game of Thrones at its best, and I’m looking forward to the last two episodes of the season!

 

Recap/Review: Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 7 – “Mockingbird”

Another very good episode of Game of Thrones this week. Some changes from the books, some direct quotes, but all good stuff. Book and show spoilers ahead! Also, I’ve given up on doing the recaps in chronological order… lately there is so much packed into an episode that remembering it all is hard enough. Remembering it in order? Nope.

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The episode started off with Tyrion and Jamie arguing about Tyrion’s awesome speech from last episode. Jamie can’t believe Tyrion threw away his only chance at living because he fell in love with a whore. And then I yelled at the TV: “But you’re in love with your twin sister. And you raped her next to your dead son’s body!” And then Tyrion said something pretty similar, pointing out that Jaime can get away with anything up to and including losing his hand and incest, but Tyrion can never catch a break because he’s always guilty in his family’s eyes. The scene ends with Jaime revealing that he can’t fight with his left hand, so he won’t be Tyrion’s champion.

The episode came back to Tyrion’s cell a couple of times as he tried to find other champions to fight for him. The second scene in his cell is between him and Bronn. This was a deviation from how it went in the books, but it was a really well done scene. It was hard to watch Bronn say no, but at the same time it made perfect sense. I particularly liked when Bronn asked Tyrion “When was the last time you risked your life for me?” Ouch.

But for me the final scene in Tyrion’s cell, with Oberyn, was my favorite of the episode. Partially because much of it was a direct quote from the books, revealing just how deep Cersei’s hatred for Tyrion goes, but mostly because Pedro Pascal and Peter Dinklage acted the heck out of the scene. The show has made Oberyn such a badass, and Pascal has played the role perfectly. I’m really looking forward to the big showdown with the mountain next week.

Speaking of which: The Mountain apparently practices his fighting on prisoners? This short scene sure got the point across that he’s brutal, but also, I have to think it wouldn’t be very good practice. I think this is the third actor the show has had playing the mountain, but at least this one is not just tall but also huge. Once he’s suited up in full armor, he’s going to look enormous, which is perfect.

The other Clegane brother had a painful episode this week. After Arya and the Hound come across a farmer with a mortal wound, we get to see Arya being nihilistic about death and then the Hound mercy-kills the guy, teaching Arya where to stab to hit the heart and make it a quick death. And then the Hound gets jumped and bitten by Biter, who he promptly dispatches. They have a longer conversation with Rorge: just long enough so Arya can learn his name, add him to her hit-list, and then cross of his name with a well-placed Needle to the heart.

I’m not sure why Rorge and Biter died here, because in the books don’t they have to cross paths with Brienne? I guess Brienne’s mauling at the hands teeth of Biter won’t be happening. This scene served the purpose of giving the Hound a nasty infected wound, which I believe is consistent with the books.

Later on in the episode, the Hound is trying to stitch the wound shut, and freaks out when Arya tries to burn away the infected flesh with a flaming brand. This allowed the show to give the backstory of the Hound’s scarred face, which he told to Sansa long ago in the books, further establishing that his brother is a monster. I wondered why they downplayed the relationship between the Hound and Sansa and left out this moment back in earlier seasons, but I can understand why they might have wanted to save the details of his scars for this episode.

The other odd couple, Brienne and Pod are stopping at an inn to eat something that Pod has not set on fire, and the find familiar baker who loves to go on and on about the nuances of making a proper steak and kidney pie. Hot Pie! When Brienne tells Hot Pie that they are looking for a Stark girl he clams up, but then approaches them as they are getting ready to leave, saying that he knew Arya stark, and giving them some adorable direwolf bread to give to her if they find her. So, Birenne and Pod decide that their best bet is to head toward the Vale, and the Stark girls’ last living relative, Lysa.

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In the Vale, Sansa is reminiscing about Winterfell and showing some serious snow-castle-making prowess when Robin shows up. He gets really excited about the prospect of adding a moon door to Winterfell, apparently not making the mental leap that a moon door requires a castle to be perched on a cliff. When he knocks over a tower Sansa gets upset and nobody gets upset with the Lord of the Vale, so he goes Godzilla on her castle. So she slaps him. No seizures for show-Robin apparently, but he runs off crying and Sansa immediately realizes that she probably can’t get away with slapping Robin no matter how much he deserves it.

Littlefinger shows up and reveals that his real reason for killing Joffrey was his deep love for Catelyn. Nope, no other motives, just True Love. I definitely believe you, Littlefinger. And then Littlefinger goes into full creep mode, saying in one breath that Sansa could have been his daughter with Catelyn, and then kissing her because she reminds him of Catelyn. And of course, Lysa sees.

She confronts Sansa in the throne room and totally flips out, threatening to toss Sansa out the moon door. We are reminded again that Lysa has committed murder because of her love for Littlefinger. I still don’t understand why we learned about her murder of Jon Arryn a few episodes ago instead of this week, but anyway. Petyr comes in just in time and talks Lysa into letting Sansa go. Then he tells Lysa that he has only ever loved one person… her sister. And out the moon door she goes. Apparently in the books his last words to her are “Only Cat,” and this has the more die-hard book-reading fans upset about the line change. I was not that attached to the specific line, but it does highlight the show’s annoying tendency to change things that don’t need to be changed.

Considering that the defense the show gave for slipping Lysa’s big confession into a bit of throwaway dialogue with Petyr was that viewers are smart enough to catch little details and figure things out, it seems silly to change the line from “Only Cat” to “Your sister” so that viewers aren’t confused. Either claim that you think viewers are smart enough to follow along, or be honest about dumbing down some details to make the show easier to follow. Don’t do one and then claim to be doing the other.

Up at the wall, we just get a quick scene to show that, yes, Jon Snow made it back to Castle Black, and no, Thorne and Slynt et al. still don’t like him, or his wolf. Jon urges them to seal off the gate of the wall with ice and rocks, saying that a giant could definitely break through the 4-inch steel bars that currently brace the door. Thorne scoffs at this, virtually guaranteeing that he will later be killed by a giant busting through those doors.

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Across the sea in warmer climes, Daario sneaks into Dany’s room and complains that he isn’t allowed to kill anyone fun anymore and that if she’s not interested in him then he needs a mission. She orders him to take off his clothes. We check back in the next morning as Daario is leaving and Jorah (also known as Lord Friendzone on twitter) is not particularly happy to see that Dany has decided to put Daario’s talents to good use. He also urges temperance when she blithely says that she has sent Daario and his men off to massacre the slave masters in Yunkai.

Jorah reminds Dany (and viewers) that he was once a slaver and is only alive because of Ned Stark’s mercy. I liked how this set up a contrast between Dany and Ned, and also showed once again how interconnected the characters on the show are, even when they are on separate continents. Ned was the sort of good ruler that Dany wishes to be, and this is a Stark reminder (I didn’t even mean to make that pun until I had already written it) that she is veering over to the dark side and acting more like the bad rulers she wishes to depose than the good ruler she wants to be. She decides to let Hizdar zo Loraq accompany Daario and give the slave masters an ultimatum instead of just summarily executing them.

And finally, we checked back in with Melisandre at Dragonstone, where she is enjoying a half-filled bathtub and revealing to Stannis’ wife that she lies a lot to convert people to the faith. This scene seemed to exist primarily to fit some female nudity into the episode (can’t briefly show a naked man in the show without balancing it out with lingering shots of a naked woman), and also to inform the viewers that Melisandre has some nefarious plans involving Shireen, presumably related to her royal blood. Speaking of which, what ever happened to Gendry, who seemed to be taking the place of Edric Storm? Now Shireen is being the royal blood instead of Edric? Also, apparently Stannis and friends are getting ready to set out on a voyage. Do we know what this is about? Has the show told us that he plans to sail north, or why?

I guess we’ll find out soon enough. That’s a wrap for this week. Next week… is memorial day, so no new episode. And then we get to see the duel between the Mountain and the Viper that everyone has been waiting for!

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