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


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.


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.


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.

Game of Thrones - Episode 4.07 - Mockingbird - Promotional Photos (2)

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!

Recap & Review: Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 6 “The Laws of Gods and Men”

After a few slower set-up/filler episodes, this one was a breath of fresh air. Yes, it contained scenes that were completely made up for the show, but they never felt as pointless or far from the main plot as the strange Craster’s keep arc did. Warning spoilers for the episode and for future plot points ahead!


The episode starts off with the dramatic introduction of a new location: Braavos, complete with its giant titan (a bit larger than I had always pictured it, but that’s something I’m willing to forgive in a world with 700 foot tall walls of ice). In a completely new but very good scene (with a nice cameo by the actor who plays Mycroft on Sherlock), we get to see Stannis beg the iron bank for money on the grounds that his bloodline makes him deserve it. They aren’t particularly interested in his bloodline and dismiss him, but luckily Davos has a thing or five to say about how Stannis pays people back. While Stannis pouts in the corner, Davos earns him the money by impressing the bankers with Stannis’ character rather than his royal blood. This argument apparently works, because next thing we know Davos is interrupting Sallador Saan’s bathtime comedy hour at the brothel with a large sum of gold and an order to be ready to sail at dawn.

Back in Westeros, Asha Yara and her Iron-Born seal team six decide that sailing at night is better for their purposes. We get a rousing voiceover style speech as she leads her men into the Dreadfort to rescue Theon. They scale the walls and find their way to the kennels where Reek is being kept. He’s completely terrified, convinced that this is just another cruel trick that Ramsay Snow Bolton is playing on him, and he refuses to go. This gives Ramsay himself enough time to leave his human-hunting lady friend in the bedroom and come charging into battle half-dressed. I guess he’s a pretty good fighter because he manages to kill quite a few ironborn while only sustaining minor scratches. All TV-watching instincts say that we’re about to see a cool fight scene between Ramsay and Yara, but instead he just opens up the kennels, and next thing we know, Yara and her men are fleeing in their boats, and Yara is saying that Theon is dead.

This ending to the scene was pretty abrupt, and it bothered me a bit that a group of warriors who just battled their way through a castle full of armed and armored men, run away when a few dogs are released. I mean, being mauled by dogs is pretty scary, but the dogs aren’t wearing armor. I guess Ramsay and his men could have easily dispatched the ironborn while they were grappling with the dogs? But this still seemed a bit weak to me. In this episode I think this action scene was the weakest, but overall it was still fine, and it helped that it was early on in the episode.

There’s a brief follow-up with Reek and Ramsay later in the episode, where Reek is rewarded with a hot bath from his psychopathic host. Mostly this scene involved a lot of cringing on the part of the audience about whether even HBO would be willing to show a castrated man naked below the waist, and the answer was no. But this scene also set up Reek’s next big task: in a truly cruel twist, he now has to go and “pretend” to be Theon Greyjoy to help Ramsay take back Moat Cailin from the Ironborn.

Over in Meereen, Dany’s dragons are roasting goats and she is feeling smug when she pays the poor goatherds thrice the cost of their lost livestock. I seem to recall in the book that it’s the skeleton of a young boy rather than a goat that the poor goatherd deposits in Dany’s throne room… but maybe we’re working our way up to that. Dany is considerably less pleased with herself when the guy whose name I can never remember shows up and reveals that his father was one of the men that Dany crucified, and that he had argued against the crucifixion of the slave children. So even though he was one of the Masters, he was innocent of that particular crime that Dany claimed to be punishing him for.  Of course we knew something like this would be coming after seeing Dany confidently ignore Selmy’s advice to have mercy, but this scene was very well done. Turns out “doing what queens do: Rule” is a lot harder than it sounds and Dany is shaken after her encounter. And she has more than two hundred more to get through. Dany, if I may suggest something? Delegate some authority. Ok, maybe not to Daario, maybe not even to Jorah (he does have that unfortunate history of selling slaves and spying on you), but Barristan Selmy seems like a solid choice.

So that was the first half of the episode. The second half was Tyrion’s trial. The show did a great job with this. It felt a bit rushed, but on the other hand it might be better than erring on the side of too long and boring. All of the witnesses dredging up every witty remark that Tyrion ever made was great, mostly because it took all those moments that show viewers cheered for Tyrion’s willingness to speak truth to power and basically said: “See? This is what you get when you tell the truth in this show.” You get, in Jamie’s words, “a farce” of a trial. The brief scene between Jaime and Tywin was, I think, something new that wasn’t in the books, but it was well done. It was great to see the shock on Jamie’s face as Tywin called his bluff without batting an eye. It’s a shame that Tywin won’t be around much longer on the show, because Charles Dance is nailing the character.

They dealt with Shae’s shocking return to King’s Landing and her betrayal of Tyrion very well. This was something that the show did differently than the books, but they laid the groundwork for it very nicely and it paid off. I also enjoyed the tendency for the camera to find its way to Margery, who struggled through the whole trial knowing for a fact that Lady Olenna did the deed and that Tyrion is innocent.

But most of all, I enjoyed Peter Dinklage’s performance as Tyion. Let’s just say it, he knocked this one out of the park. There’s another Emmy in his future, I think, and it is largely thanks to the performance in this episode, which was more powerful than anything he’s had before on this show. I was a little worried at first because he was playing the whole trial so passively, with fewer outbursts and witty retorts than I remembered from the books. But this only served to highlight his complete loss of composure when Shae betrayed him. The eloquent, hate-filled, speech he gives is completely convincing as the culmination of a lifetime of torment for the way he was born, and the shocking twist of demanding a trial by combat manages to be shocking even though we’ve already seen Tyrion resort to this before. This time it’s less about saving his own life, which at this point he has basically given up on, and far more about doing anything at all to derail his father’s grand plans. Tywin thrives on being in complete control and knowing how things play out, so Tyrion’s decision to essentially turn his conviction into a game of chance is desperate but perfect.

It’s clear that we’re moving from the middle “moving the pieces around on the board” episodes into the series of major events that makes the third book my favorite in the series. I’ve been pretty down on the previous episodes even though I actually enjoyed them pretty well, but I definitely liked this episode better. And based on the preview for next week, we’ve got a lot more major plot events coming up in our near future!



Recap & Review: Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 4 “Oathkeeper”



People seemed to like my recap/review last week, so here we go again!

We start the episode off with Gray Worm getting language lessons from Missandei, and a brief glimpse at their lives before they became slaves. Or, in the case of Gray Worm, the extent of his psychological damage. One of the nice things about the show is that it can do scenes like this and flesh out non-point-of-view characters. This scene segued into the taking of Meereen, with Gray Worm and some Unsullied sneaking into the city with weapons and arming the slaves. We get just a glimpse of the slaves trapping one of their masters in an alley and rushing him with a large number of knives. One weird part of this alley ambush scene was that there were words written on the wall… in English. Right on the heels of Gray Worm’s language lesson, and his speech to the slaves that so strongly reminded us that the people of Essos mostly don’t speak English, it was weird for the slaves’ threat to their masters to then be in English. If the show didn’t feel like inventing a written language, then why not just skip the red writing altogether?

I noticed that this week they did show a few slaves who seemed to be causcasian, and there was also mention of previous slave revolts, so that helps a bit to address some of my complaints about the tendency for these scenes in the show to be simply “white people show up and save brown people”. Still, I’m glad we’re transitioning to the next stage of Dany’s story where she has to come to grips with ruling all of her new subjects. We got the tiniest hint of this upcoming struggle when Barristan tried to advise Dany to be merciful to the captured slave masters, who are now her subjects. Of course, she had no interest in mercy for slavers, and she had 163 of them crucified just like the child slaves that the masters had placed along the road to Meereen.

From Meereen, we go to Jaime and Bronn practicing their swordsmanship again. After slapping Jaime down with his own golden hand, Bronn  manages to make Jaime feel bad about not visiting Tyrion in jail yet. This scene also serves as a nice reminder of Tyrion’s previous trial at the Eyrie, reminding viewers of those events before we return to the Eyrie next episode.

Cut to Jaime in Tyrion’s cell, failing to make Tyrion feel better by saying that his imprisonment by Robb Stark was way worse. They discuss the hopelessness of Tyrion’s situation, with particular emphasis on the fact that Cersei wants Tyrion dead by any means necessary. Jaime wants to help Tyrion, but when Tyrion suggests helping him escape, Jaime says that it’s impossible, especially since he’s the head of the kingsguard and Tyrion is on trial for regicide. They also discuss whether Sansa might be the killer, and that Cersei has put a price on her head.

Speaking of Sansa, she’s still on a boat with Littlefinger. She asks where they are going, and Littlefinger tells her they are going to the Eyrie for him to marry Lysa. She also asks him if he killed Joffrey, which leads to the first in what will be many examples of Littlefinger being a creepy dude while also teaching Sansa his crash course in being a power-hungry manipulative backstabber, who is also smart enough to avoid physical danger. It is my strong suspicion that these lessons of theirs are going to be very important for the future of Sansa’s story.

Anyway, Sansa is shocked to learn that her necklace played a role in the assassination. Littlefinger explains that his loyalties have shifted from the Lannisters to some new friends who wanted Joffrey dead (at this point the camera shifts to show Margery and Olenna walking in the garden, while Littlefinger’s voice continues), and that he enabled the assasination to “make a new friendship grow strong.” This was a nice nod to particularly obsessive book readers who may know that “Growing Strong” are the Tyrell house words.

Margery and Olenna chat in the garden about their next steps, and much to my surprise, Lady Olenna admits to Margery that she is the one who poisoned Joffrey. I was sure they would at least to wait for this reveal until the episode focusing on Tyrion’s trial, but apparently not! This way was rather anticlimactic, but then, find out out that Olenna did it is not really the exciting part is it? The exciting part is watching to see how Tyrion gets free when everyone is convinced he’s the culprit, including most of his own family members.

His siblings have a tense encounter where Cersei questions Jaime about why the Starks released him, and then questions his loyalty given that he swore to return the Stark girls to their mother. She is outraged when he refuses to hunt down Sansa and return with her head. Cersei is also annoyed that only one kingsguard is posted at Tommen’s door, and orders Jaime to place more men there. This scene begins with Jaime greeting Cersei formally as “queen regent”, and ends with her dismissing him just as formally.

What’s really weird about this scene is that it completely ignores what happened last episode. I said last week that I hoped the show had a really good reason for changing a consensual sex scene in the books to a rape scene in the show, but it appears that the show is going to proceed as if nothing happened. Yes, Jaime and Cersei are more and more at odds, but their unraveling relationship was already clear without tossing a random rape scene in. What’s most concerning is how this episode clearly thinks Jamie is a good guy and Cersei is evil/crazy. This whole confrontation, it’s clear that the viewer is supposed to be siding with Jaime. After all, Cersei is angry at him for doing whatever was necessary to get back to her, she orders him to hunt down and kill an innocent girl, and she tells him how to do his job protecting the king. And yeah, it would be easy to side with Jamie in this scene, except for the part where he raped her last episode. For all her many failings, Cersei is not a weak character, but we’re suppose to think she is going to do nothing about being raped other than chide her rapist brother for not posting enough guards on Tommen’s room? I’m just failing to see why this major change was made if they don’t plan to follow through with it.

But, moving on. We get to see Jamie being a sympathetic and nice guy to Brienne (please just ignore the voice in your head that keeps reminding you that he’s a rapist who throws children out of windows). He gives her his Valyrian steel sword and a sweet suit of armor and asks her to track down and protect Sansa. In a change from the books, he asks her to name the sword instead of naming it himself. The name is the same: “Oathkeeper”, but coming from her it’s a not-so-subtle jab at him rather than the ironic self-deprecation that we see in the books. Also: Pod is going with Brienne! I liked this change. In the books, it takes him a while to catch up with her, but this way we get another wonderful odd couple to travel around with.

Back in the castle, we see Margery follow Olenna’s advice and pay her future husband a late-night visit. This scene was wonderfully awkward, but was great at showing Margey’s skill at manipulating Lannister boys, and at knowing right where to draw the line, kissing the boy on the forehead before leaving. Also, can I just say how great it is that Ser Pounce is now in the show? It’s actually a smart and concise way of differentiating Tommen from Joffrey. Joffrey killed things with his crossbow, Tommen raised a kitten and named it Ser Pounce, and that basically tells you what you need to know about the brothers.

And finally let’s talk about what happened at the Wall and beyond. Jon is training new recruits and who should appear but Locke, on his mission from the Boltons to kill Jon. Not that Jon knows it yet, since Locke is posing as a newbie who just happens to know how to fight. Jon is sent back inside to clean chamber pots by Allister Thorne, who is then advised by Janos Slynt that maybe that foray beyond the wall might be a good way to get rid of Jon Snow. They meet with Jon later in the mess hall, where Allister is messily eating some chicken. Messily eating seems to be shorthand for “this person is loathsome”, see also: Lord Denethor, Steward of Gondor. John gets permission, but is only allowed to take volunteers, a neat way for Thorne and Slynt to see who Jon’s friends are.

Cut to Craster’s keep itself, where we are very quickly reminded that the mutineers are bad guys. The show lays it on really thick here. Not only is what’s-his-face drinking out of Lord Mormont’s skull, but he is encouraging his men to rape Craster’s wives “until they’re dead”. To fulfill the show’s nudity quota for the episode, we get a brief glimpse of several of the wives without clothes on, being taken by some of the mutineers. There’s even an out-of-focus rape going on in the background of the shot while what’s-his-name rambles drunkenly about growing up on the streets. It’s almost as if this show doesn’t really get that rape is a horrible thing. They’re using it here as an excuse for nudity, because why else would these women be nude or partially clothed? They live in a shack in the arctic. So is the young male demographic supposed to find it sexy to see these women partially clothed…while being raped? There’s all sorts of things wrong with that. Are the showrunners going to argue that showing these rapes was necessary to establish that these are bad guys? Because I’m pretty sure drinking from a human skull establishes that pretty well!

Anyway, one of the wives comes forward with a newborn, who is set out in to cold as a sacrifice. Nearby, Bran et al hear the baby crying and Bran wargs into his wolf to go investigate, only for the wolf to first find that Ghost has been locked up, and then get captured himself. Bran et al. rush into the camp and are promptly captured, and the mutineers do some Hodor-baiting (I was really hoping Bran would warg into Hodor and kick some butt, but alas). They also discover that Bran is Bran, and are pleased to have such a valuable captive. Also: Jojen has a seizure.

I’m really wondering what HBO plans to do with this storyline, which is entirely new. I can’t see how Jon and Bran can meet and still have things go as they’re supposed to, but I don’t see how they wouldn’t meet either. One thing’s for sure, it is really exciting to watch the show and not know what is going to happen. Is this what it’s like for non-readers the whole time? No wonder this show is so popular!

And speaking of things that are totally made up and not in the books. How about them white walkers? We get to see one pick up the sacrificial baby, and carry it to some sort of icy stonehenge, where the king of the white walkers (?) comes out and turns the baby into a walker?! That was certainly… interesting!

One thing’s for sure, the show is getting much more confident in deviating from the books, and in this case, it might even be getting into territory that is in future books. It’s exciting to be seeing things as a new viewer sees them, but also a bit scary for people like me who hoped that the books would remain well ahead of the show so that we can experience events in the “official” novel setting before seeing them on the screen. I suspect this is just a taste of things to come…

Recap & Review: Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 3 “Breaker of Chains”

I realized last week that, as someone who does reviews and is a big fan of Game of Thrones, I should really be posting reviews of each week’s episode. So, Here we go, starting with the third episode of this season: “Breaker of Chains.”  Warning: here be spoilers! 


So. Last week Joffrey kicked the bucket and this week we begin to see the aftermath. I was expecting the showrunners to make it clear that the murder was coming and who was in on it, to build suspense by giving the audience information that the characters don’t have, a la Hitchcock’s famous example of the bomb under the table. But I like what they did instead even better. Leaving it ambiguous, with so many suspects, makes the suspense last a lot longer, and gives viewers who haven’t read the books the fun of guessing whodunnit.

This week’s episode starts with Tyrion being arrested, and Sansa’s escape, which was done well. I liked the touch with the necklace, giving non-book readers another hint as to its significance. Gems, and even glass, don’t normally shatter that easily.  Also, let it be noted that Littlefinger as always is a creeper. I’m still not a fan of the weird growly voice they gave him in the show, but it’s way too late to change that.

Next, we see Joffrey’s wake, where he is looking mighty creepy with those eye-stones. I enjoyed Tywin’s lecture to Tommen (non-book-readers: remember Tommen? He’s suddenly important!), particularly because it was also a lecture to Cersei, basically saying: “You messed up with Joffrey, I’ll take over from here with Tommen. PS: Tommen, has your mother explained where babies come from?”)

I liked that part of the scene. I even liked when Cersei demands that Jamie kill Tyrion, because it shows (a) how messed up and paranoid she is, and (b) how conflicted Jamie is. But then for some reason he rapes her, which is… rather different than the (mostly) consensual crypt-sex in the books, and casts Jamie in a very different light. He’s already an incestuous dude who pushed children out of windows, so I get that he is still a terrible person, but we were in the process of coming to sympathize with him against our better judgement. This is something that Martin does really well in the books, taking bad guys and making you sympathize, and taking good guys and making them unlikable. But I have to say, showing Jamie raping his sister in a church next to the body of his dead son makes it pretty hard to redeem his character. The audience is not going to sympathize much with him now, are they? It will be interesting to see what the show intends to do with this. I hope they did it for a very good reason.

Aside from the plot ramifications for the show, I can’t see how this was a good move for HBO considering the abundant criticism of the books and the show for their misogynistic tendencies and heavy use of rape. Deliberately changing the story to add in the rape of one of the more prominent female characters shows a disturbing level of ignorance about the ongoing discussions of sexism and rape culture in modern media and particularly in sci-fi and fantasy. (This article from A.V. Club deals more eloquently and in greater detail with the show’s tendency to turn sex scenes from the books into rape scenes in the show, and its implications)

Speaking of HBO’s misogyny issue: later in the episode we got some more gratuitous nudity in the brothel as Tywin walks in on Oberyn in the midst of an orgy. At least there was some minor male nudity to even things out this time, but still. I’ve said it many times: almost every episode HBO deploys some gratuitous nudity and/or violence just because they can, not necessarily because they should. Otherwise though, the conversation between Oberyn and Tywin at the brothel was an interesting confrontation that we don’t get to see in the books, which is something that I appreciate about the show.

The episode also returns to everyone’s favorite odd couple: Arya and The Hound. They somehow manage to serve as comic relief even as they do terrible things. This week the comedy comes from Arya claiming the Hound is her dad and then reacting with silent astonishment as he decides to work for a fair wage for the poor farmer the encounter. The terrible part comes pretty quickly though: the Hound knocks the farmer out and steals his silver. Again: a character who started out as a bad guy, became more sympathetic, but now seems to be headed back toward baddie territory by revising his personal code to permit robbery.

We also check in with Sam and Gilly at the wall in a wonderfully awkward few scenes as he tries to protect her from his fellow men of the Night’s Watch, many of whom are “rapers”, but can’t bring himself to say that he is interested in her. Unfortunately for Gilly, Sam’s version of protecting her involves shipping her off to Mole’s town rather than, you know, actually being willing to confront any of his brothers in person if they try to do anything inappropriate.

Jon’s story line at the wall looks like it is going to be doing some ad-libbing, with a possible foray beyond the wall to get rid of the rebellious Crows who murdered the lord commander and took over Craster’s keep. This doesn’t happen in the books that I recall, and I suspect it is just to give Jon something to do until the battle at the wall happens. But I guess we’ll see how this plays out.

Next stop: Stannis and Davos at Dragonstone, where Stannis is happy to hear that Joffrey is dead (thanks to Melisandre’s leech-magic, he believes), but less than happy that he is lacking an army or any money. Davos goes from Stannis to Shireen for his reading lesson, and we get a fun scene between this adorable odd couple (the show seems to really enjoy these odd-couple pairings, and I can’t complain, they work). I like’s Davos’ quip that the difference between a smuggler and a pirate is that if you’re a smuggler and everyone knows your name, you’re not very good at your job.

Shireen’s book-of-the-week inspires Davos to get the money needed for Stannis to hire an army by borrowing from the Iron Bank of Braavos. I’m pretty sure the Lannisters have also been borrowing from the iron bank, and I’m sure nothing terrible will befall whoever fails to repay the bank when the time comes.

Back in King’s Landing, Tyrion is locked up, and has a sad scene with Podrick, where he essentially orders Pod to testify against him, figuring that it’s best not to take the boy down with him in the ongoing fiasco. The scene, much like the one in the book, helps to reinforce just how hopeless Tyrion’s situation is. Basically the only person he can turn to is Jamie. In the show, even Shae is gone, but somehow I suspect she will make a shocking appearance at the trial, which, by the way, is going to be an awesome episode.

The episode wraps up with Dany doing her thing at Meereen. The duel between the Meereenese champion and new-Daario was fun, but as a book reader I couldn’t help but miss Strong Belwas. Oh well. Dany gives a nice speech and then launches barrels of broken shackles into the city, presumably inciting a slave rebellion.

The whole Dany-frees-the-slaves story line has a rather uncomfortable “white people save brown people” thing going. Notice that all of the most important characters in Dany’s storyline are white? And how the slaves are not even a single race of darker-skinned people, but are just generally brown? It’s as if the show decided that people with brown skin are interchangeable, but they had better not include any white people among the slaves, to make it clear that they are different from the White Heroes. This is another issue that has been with Game of Thrones since the first season and has been discussed in great detail elsewhere so I’ll just say: Yep, the show is still doing this, and yep, it’s still uncomfortable. On a related note, if you’d like to get a better understanding of the controversy over race in Game of Thrones and other fictional (and historical!) depictions of medieval worlds, I very highly recommend checking out the Medieval People of Color tumblr. It’s worth reading if for no other reason than that it demolishes the argument that a lack of people of color in medieval Europe-like settings is “historically accurate”.

And that wraps up this weeks episode. This was definitely a set-up episode for events later in the season, but I find myself often enjoying these types of episodes of the show quite a bit.  This season has been consistently good so far, which is fitting since there’s so much exciting stuff that happens in the latter half of the third book, but it’s nice to see. I’m really looking forward to some of the events later in this season, and HBO has made it quite clear that they will be sprinkled throughout the season rather than having a big episode 9 shocker like previous years. This, plus the show’s gradual departure from the strict timeline of the books, makes it fun to watch even as a book reader who technically knows what will happen, because I don’t know what will happen when anymore!


8-Question Book Meme!


I came across this meme over on SF Signal, and it reminded me of the olden days of Live Journal, when it seemed like all anyone did was post answers to sets of themed questions. For nostalgia’s sake, and because I’ve been too busy to do much reading, writing, or blogging lately, here are my answers:

  • The first science fiction, fantasy or horror book I ever read was:
  • The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I read that I’d put in my “Top 20″ list is:
    • I guess I would say Wool by Hugh Howey is the last book that has really wowed me enough to earn five stars on Goodreads, and I’m pretty stingy with my 5-star ratings. You can read my full review here.
  • The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I couldn’t finish was:
    • I don’t often give up on books partway through. I guess the last time I did was for Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson. I’ve heard great things about the Malazan series, but I put this one down after just a few chapters because it wasn’t working for me. Of course, my impatience with this book might be because I tried it during the primary operations period for the Curiosity Mars rover, when I was living in an apartment in Pasadena, working bizarre hours on the rover team, and my leisure hours were very precious. Maybe I’ll give this another try someday when I am more rested and less stressed out…
  • A science fiction, fantasy or horror author whose work I cannot get enough of is:
    • I’m not so fervently loyal to any one author that I don’t get tired of them eventually. Sure, I am waiting eagerly for the next book in certain series, but no author is perfect and variety is good. For example, I love George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, but before A Dance with Dragons came out, I re-read the whole series and I was definitely ready for something else afterward. The same thing happened when reading a massive collection of Ray Bradbury’s stories. I love his writing style, but after such a large dose of it I was ready for something different. So basically, I don’t have a good answer for this question.
  • A science fiction, fantasy or horror author I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read yet is:
    • Peter S. Beagle is the first that comes to mind. In particular, several authors who I respect greatly have recommended The Last Unicorn, but I have not gotten around to reading it yet. Also, I am ashamed to say that I have never read anything by Kurt Vonnegut!
  • A science fiction, fantasy or horror book I would recommend to someone who hasn’t read sf/f/h is:
    • I suspect most people have actually read something that is sf/f/h, or at least watched movies in these genres. But for someone who really has no idea what to read, I would have to say The Fellowship of the Ring for fantasy, just because it is so fundamental to the genre. Some people say that books like Game of Thrones are a better “gateway” because they are not so prominently fantastical, but I would argue that in many ways Game of Thrones is a response to Lord of the Rings, so it is much better if you are already familiar with the genre. Also, I guess I favor going “all in”: If someone wants to try fantasy, I prefer to recommend something that is clearly fantasy (while still being excellent).
    • For science fiction, I would recommend Fahrenheit 451. It’s a wonderful book with beautiful writing, and clearly has a speculative element to it, but also shows how sci-fi can be used to say something about current issues and society.
    • I don’t read much horror, but I really enjoyed George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream, so I guess I would recommend that. Stephen King’s The Stand was also great, but I think I consider post-apocalyptic a genre of its own that overlaps with horror and science fiction.
  • A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that’s terribly underrated is:
    • I had to think about this for a while, but I will go with City by Clifford Simak. For some reason, while Asimov and Bradbury and Clark are still well-known names from golden age sci-fi, Simak is not. I really enjoyed City, and the stories have a quiet poignancy that stands out from some of the more gee-whiz technology-oriented older sci-fi.
  • A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that’s terribly overrated is:

Book Reviews: Before They Are Hanged and Warrior’s Apprentice

I’ve been consuming a lot of fiction recently, but have fallen behind on my reviews. So, let’s get caught back up with some two-for-one reviews, shall we?

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie


This is the second book in the “First Law” series, and I thought it was a bit better than the first book. The first book ended after introducing a bunch of interesting characters but leaving them on the cusp of doing more interesting things. In book two, we see them set off on their respective quests: Colonel West and Dogman and his crew are in the North fighting against Bethod’s invasion, Logan, Luthar, and Ferro are off on a quest led by the mage Bayaz, and Glotka is stuck defending a besieged city in the south. Having multiple POV characters in the same place worked well, allowing them to play off of each other, and I found myself looking forward to the chapters dealing with those characters, and inwardly groaning a bit when I ran into a Glotka chapter. Don’t get me wrong, Abercrombie does an admirable job of making a crippled torturer a viable main character, but Glotka’s chapters always seemed more static, while the other characters are off having adventures and also growing and changing in response to those adventures and each other.

There is again lots of blood and gore, which is to be expected, especially with a main character who is a torturer. There are also some instances where traditional fantasy tropes are subverted, but I think overall despite its reputation as being a dark and gritty contrast to traditional fantasy, this series really celebrates the fantasy genre. Especially with the two plot lines following parties of adventurers, I was reminded strongly of Dungeons and Dragons (in the best possible way).

Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold


This one is also the second book in a series, but I’m afraid I didn’t like it nearly as much as Before They Are Hanged. I really want to like the Vorkosigan saga, which I have heard is such a great space opera series, but so far the first two books (Shards of Honor and The Worrior’s Apprentice) have both failed to impress me. They’re both very readable, but I would say they’re mediocre at best.

I complained in my review of Shard of Honor that the main character was too passive and that things just seemed to happen to her. I think The Warrior’s Apprentice suffers from the opposite problem. The main character is Miles Vorkosigan, a 17 year old son of a noble family who is brilliant but is born with a birth defect which makes him wash out of military training. So he ends up travelling to his mother’s home planet, where he buys a ship to help a guy he doesn’t know, then accepts a deserter as his servant to save him from being reported. To pay for the debt taken on in purchasing the ship, Miles smuggles weapons to a distant planet that is in the throes of civil war. When they arrive at the planet, they are stopped by merceneries, and somehow Miles manages to fight back, capture the merceneries, and within a week has them convinced he is a mercenery and that they now work for him. From there things escalate until Miles is in control of a fleet of ships, a mining colony, hundreds of people, and is negotiating with high ranking military and political officials.

It’s all very exciting and very readable, and Miles is certainly not a passive character, but my problem with the whole book is that I did not buy into the premise: Miles is a stunted 17 year old rich kid. Just because he is clever and wealthy and a good liar, I am supposed to believe that literally every adult he comes into contact with is going to blindly follow him? Even when it makes no sense to do so (for example, the captured merceneries who almost immediately begin working for him against their former employers)?

I found myself contrasting this novel with Ender’s game. In Ender’s game, the main character is also a physically unassuming, very smart boy. But Ender’s Game succeeds where The Warrior’s Apprentice fails in that Ender’s leadership makes sense: it ramps up slower, his genius is much more evident, he doesn’t rely on money, status, or an inexplicably cooperative bodyguard to help him, the people he is leading are for the most part other kids like himself, and his motives are much more clear. On the face of it the premise for Ender’s Game is just as preposterous as The Warrior’s Apprentice (most sci- fi sounds silly when distilled down to a one-line summary) but the execution is just so drastically better that it works while The Warrior’s Apprentice really failed to get me to suspend my disbelief.

I might try another book in the Vorkosigan saga someday. I know that Bujold can write good fiction because The Curse of Chalion was quite good. But I will be taking a break from this series for a while. Two underwhelming books in a row doesn’t make me want to rush to read the rest.




The Physics of Getting Hit By An Arrow

The Wonderful Story of Britain: The Bowmen of Britain

So, while I was reading “Genghis: Birth of an Empire” I noticed that there are quite a few instances when the book describes a man being knocked down by an arrow. As someone who reads and watches a lot of fantasy and historical fiction, this was far from the first time I’ve seen such a thing, but as a physics person I wondered whether an arrow would really hit someone with enough force to knock them down.

Now, I’m not disputing that getting hit by an arrow might cause someone to lose their balance and fall off of a horse, or off of a castle wall or the like. The question here is how hard the arrow actually would hit. For anyone who remembers their high school physics, that means we’re talking about a momentum problem. We need to figure out how much momentum a typical arrow would have, and figure out what that amount of momentum would do when transferred to a human. Specifically, this type of problem is an “inelastic collision”, where two bodies collide and then stick together. If the arrow somehow bounced off the person, that would be an elastic collision, but we won’t worry about that.

We are going to assume that our hapless victim is standing still and the problem starts with an arrow speeding toward them. To find the arrow’s momentum, we need to know its mass and velocity.  For an estimate of the arrow’s mass I will go with 65 g based on this source. The velocity depends on the draw weight of the bow that fired the arrow, but generally I am seeing arrow velocities of around 200 feet per second (61 m/s) for longbows.  Momentum is just mass x velocity, so the momentum of a 65 g arrow going 61 m/s is 3.965 kg*m/s.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t mean very much to me, so let’s figure out how fast some more familiar objects would have to be going to have the same momentum, starting with a baseball. A standard baseball has a mass of ~145 g. So a baseball with the same momentum as our speeding arrow would be going 27.3 m/s, or 61 miles per hour. We can do the same calculation with a soccer ball, which has a typical mass of 450 g. A soccer ball with the same momentum as our speeding arrow would have to be going 8.8 m/s, or ~20 miles per hour.

A 60 mile per hour baseball or a 20 mile per hour soccer ball don’t really have enough oomph to knock a person over unless they’re already off balance. So, a typical arrow would not knock a man down, or stop him in midair, or the like. He might fall down because he suddenly has an arrow sticking in him, but it’s the damage done by the arrow, not its momentum that would make him fall.



2013 in Review: Books I Read


It’s the end of the year, and you know what that means: lists! I read a total of 13 books this year, and I thought I’d do a quick run-down here. I’ve fallen behind on my reviews, so this will also serve as a good way to get caught up. Without further ado, here are the books I read in 2013, roughly in order of when I finished them:

  • 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created – Charles C. Mann (Nonfiction – History)

This book is the successor to 1491, which I listened to on the drive to and from Pasadena during MSL primary operations and really enjoyed. 1493 looks at the ramifications of globalization begun by Columbus arriving in the new world and continuing over the next few centuries. I really enjoyed this book too, though it got to be a bit long winded. The most interesting part to me was the discussion of how Spanish control over the extremely productive silver mines in South America had ripple effects all the way around the world, changing the course of history in Japan and China as well as triggering wars in Europe. These two books, 1491 and 1493 have rekindled my interest in history, and are full of interesting historical anecdotes. I liked the books well enough that I went out and bought paper copies to have as references, and as inspiration for future fiction writing.

  • The Winds of War – Herman Wouk (Fiction – History)

Speaking of history, this year I started reading more historical fiction as well. Winds of War is a massive book following the members of a family as they are strewn around the world in the early years of World War 2. Wouk strategically positions his characters in interesting places so the reader gets multiple perspectives on the war. I probably learned more about World War 2 here than I did in school.  Although some of the characters’ travels are improbable and at times it gets a bit soap-operatic, I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to reading its successor.

  • Wildwood – Colin Meloy (Fiction – YA Fantasy)

We picked up this book mostly because it is written by the lead singer of the Decemberists, which is one of our favorite bands. It’s a simple young adult fantasy tale set in a realm of talking animals whose factions are at war in the woods outside Portland, OR. I liked it well enough, but it didn’t really grip me in a must-turn-the-page sort of way. It is well-edited and structured, following the principle of Chekov’s Gun well and wrapping up neatly. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a younger audience, though some of the animals actually die in the war, so it’s not for very young kids.

  • The Last Days of the Incas – Kim MacQuarrie (Nonfiction – History)

This book was great. I read it before and during a trip to Peru, and it does a great job of making the history of the conquest of the Incas come alive (though actually having visited the key locations also helps!). MacQuarrie scours the historical records, but then takes enough liberties and indulges in enough scene-setting and description that the book reads more like a novel than nonfiction. Although I had the general idea for a novel based on the Incas in mind for years before reading this, this book introduced me to the historical figure of Felipillo, the young Inca boy who served as translator between the Spanish and the Incas. He became the inspiration for one of the main characters in my novel. I highly recommend this book for a readable and fascinating account of the conquest of the Incas.

  • Wool – Hugh Howey (Fiction – Sci-fi/post-apocalypse)

This book was probably the best surprise read of the year. I picked it up  on a whim after reading some glowing reviews, not really knowing what to expect, and got completely swept away. I wrote a long review of it here on the blog, so I won’t rehash all of that here. Suffice it to say, I really enjoyed this book, and rank it among my favorites of the year.

  • Shogun – James Clavell (Fiction – History)

This was my only re-read of the year, but I really enjoyed it the second time around as well. I also wrote a more detailed review on the blog, so take a look. This book is another example of how fiction can do so much more than classroom lectures to make history come alive. I highly recommend this book to anyone with a passing interest in feudal Japan or any fans of fantasy like the Game of Thrones series with large casts and lots of political intrigue.

  • The Summer Tree – Guy Gavriel Kay (Fiction – Fantasy)

I wish I had more good things to say about this one. I read Kay’s book “Under Heaven” a few years ago and enjoyed it pretty well, especially as an example of historical fantasy set it a fictional world that closely mimics our own, so I thought I would try his earlier, more “pure-fantasy” work. Kay was involved in editing Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion”, so when I saw reviews of “The Summer Tree” saying that it borrowed a lot from Tolkien, I figured I would still give it a chance. The story in the Summer Tree is sort of like The Lion, The With, and The Wardrobe with college kids, mashed up with Lord of the Rings, but it fails to live up to either. At its best, this book has some passages of really lovely prose, but more often it feels very much like an imitation of better books. I can’t recommend this one. If you want a good take on “college kids in a magical setting” check out Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. If you want epic fantasy, either read Tolkien himself, or go with more modern classics like Game of Thrones .

  • The Last Kingdom – Bernard Cornwell (Fiction – History)

After enjoying Winds of War and re-reading Shogun, I was in the mood for more historical fiction, and Bernard Cornwell’s name kept coming up, so I tried this one. The story is set in the mid 9th century and follows Uhtred, the son of a Northumbrian lord who is adopted by Danes (vikings) after they invade and kill his father. There is lots of gruesome and gritty action, interesting characters, and conflicted loyalties as Uhtred grows up and comes to sympathize with the people who killed his family. This book is the perfect gateway book for fans of fantasy who want to get into historical fiction. It reads very much like epic fantasy, except it’s based on real historical events. It’s also refreshing to read something set in the depths of the middle ages rather than toward the end. In this book great castles are houses on mounds of dirt with wooden walls, and a shirt of chainmail is the best armor available. No knights in shining armor and towering fairytale castles here. One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book is learning what places used to be called. London = Lundene, Nottingham = Snotingaham, York = Jorvick. Anyway, I really enjoyed this one, and am planning on starting the second book in the series soon.

  • The Well of Ascension – Brandon Sanderson (Fiction – Fantasy)

This is the second book in the Mistborn series, the first of which I read a year or so ago and enjoyed. It took me quite a while to get into this one. One of the problems I run into with the Mistborn books is that the magic system, although interesting, is pretty complicated, so action sequences have to be extremely detailed for the reader to be able to follow what’s going on. Especially at the beginning of this book, when Sanderson is trying to get new readers up to speed, the action sequences can lose their urgency and interest as they devolve into tutorials on the magic system. By the end of this book, I was finally drawn in by the several slowly building arcs and enjoyed what appeared to be the climax. Unfortunately, the book keeps going to set up a major cliffhanger for the following book. I follow the Writing Excuses podcast, which is hosted by Sanderson, and he has actually mentioned this ending and discussed a bit why it had to be done, but it still was an ending that left me dissatisfied. I’ll probably read the next book in the series eventually, but this one only worked for me some of the time.

  • Shift – Hugh Howey (Fiction – Sci-fi/post-apocalypse)

This is the prequel to Wool, and so I came in with high hopes. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, Shift is a fine novel, but it didn’t have the addictive qualities of Wool. Whereas I could not put Wool down, Shift I read over a period of months, picking it up now and then but not really getting sucked in. It was very interesting to see how the world introduced in Wool came to be, but I think because I read this one spread over so much time, I lost track of some of the threads and didn’t enjoy it as much as i would have if i had read it faster. All in all, I would still recommend this, but don’t expect the same compulsive readability as Wool.

  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon (Fiction – alternate history)

While I was in Pasadena for MSL operations in Fall of 2012, I listened to Chabon’s “Manhood for Amateurs”, a collection of memoir-essays, and really enjoyed them, so I had been wanting to try his fiction for a while. The premise behind this book is weird: what if instead of creating Israel after World War 2, a temporary nation for the Jews was instead created in Alaska? The story itself follows a down-on-his luck detective trying to solve a murder that he has been instructed not to pursue. The prose in this book is awesome, and it’s worth reading just for some of the wonderful descriptions that Chabon uses. You can see why he won a Pulitzer. On the other hand, the plot is not as strong. It feels like Chabon wrote a lot of scenes with weird and interesting characters in this weird and interesting setting, and then toward the end of the book had to scramble to wrap them up into a plot somehow. Still, this one is worth reading just for the prose and the unusual setting. But be prepared to learn a lot of yiddish terms. I found out only after finishing the book that there is a glossary in the back (I was reading as an e-book, so it was not obvious), and there are times it would have been useful…

  • The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie (Fiction – Fantasy)

I had been meaning to read Abercrombie’s books for quite a while. They have been heralded as the peak of “grimdark” fantasy, where the pure good vs evil conflict of stories like Lord of the Rings is replaced with morally gray characters in a nasty, gritty world. Heck, Absercrombie’s twitter handle is @lordgrimdark. The Blade Itself definitely fits this description: all three main characters are anti-heroes in one way or another. You’ve got a former swordsman turned torturer after having his own body ruined in a torture chamber, a veteran barbarian warrior who is trying to be a good person but can’t escape the massacres he committed in his past, and a rich obnoxious self-centered nobleman who is so classist and annoying that he verges on self-parody. In fact, I think this novel succeeds because it knows (and expects the reader to know) exactly what tropes it is trying to subvert and which ones it is shamelessly embracing almost to the point of absurdity. There is a dark humor that runs through the book that saves it from its own grittiness and makes characters that would otherwise be nearly impossible to root for much more likeable. My main complaint is that this book was clearly written with sequels in mind, and ends up feeling like a long introduction to the real story that will be told in future books. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels, but the ending of this one was a bit unsatisfying.

  • The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction

I started this in 2012, put it down, and then picked it back up again at the end of 2013. I was hoping that, as a collection of the “best of the best”, this would be nothing but great short stories. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Some of the stories in here are great, and had as much or more impact as many novels. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang was a particular stand-out that was really excellent. But many of the stories in this collection are not very good. Or at least, they didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if I would recommend this or not. It’s a nice cross section showing the state of science fiction, but about two thirds of the stories are mediocre if not actively bad. I’m glad I read it because the good stories make it worthwhile, but I almost didn’t finish it because of the many stories that just didn’t connect with me.


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