Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Game of Thrones (Page 1 of 2)

Review: Game of Thrones Season 8

It’s over! Winter has come, and we know who ended up on the throne, who ended up dead, and how the White Walkers were defeated.

It is strange to be done. Although George R.R. Martin says that there are surprises in store in the final two books compared to the show, the main plot points are bound to be the same. I first read Game of Thrones something like 12 years ago, so I have been swept up in the story for about a third of my life. I named my dog Renly after the Game of Thrones character. I re-read the whole series, aloud, with Erin ahead of the release of A Dance With Dragons.

I remember being in New York city the weekend of the premiere of the show. There were Iron Thrones in a few places throughout the city, and there was almost no line to sit in them and get your picture taken. Most people didn’t know what this show, with the posters of Sean Bean looking sad, was about. I remember watching that first episode in our hotel room, through a very highly suspect, likely malware-ridden site. It was a magical experience, seeing the story that you love come to life on the screen, and what’s more, with such fidelity to the source material.

It is disappointing that Martin was not able to finish the book series before the show. Although quite faithful to the books at the start, as the show went on, it had the luxury of pruning plot lines and streamlining the story for TV, while Martin labors away with the books, juggling an ever-increasing number of plotlines. At times this was a great benefit for the show, and it had moments of brilliance, but as the show got farther and farther from the source material, those moments become more widely spaced. Without the strong foundation of the books, the show lurched from plot point to plot point, and the different writers and directors in different combinations led to an uneven experience. Sometimes, when the writing and directing all lined up, the show was astonishingly good. Other times, for all of its big-budget glamor, the show seemed shallow and lazy, with gratuitous gore and sex as if to say “look what we can do because we’re HBO,” and with characters betraying their backstories or just acting stupidly in order to bring events to a key plot event.

This was never more evident than in the last season. The first couple of episodes were quite good. I especially enjoyed the second episode, which is focused on all of the characters we know and love waiting together in Winterfell for the army of the Night King to descend upon them. It had lots of beautiful, human, character-driven moments. It reminded us of the tangled web of relationships that have been built up over the previous seasons. But after that episode, the rest of the season had the feeling of a homework assignment where the student has a cheat sheet with the correct answers but runs out of time and just scrawls those answers in the blanks without showing their work. Probably because that is almost exactly what happened: the showrunners knew what had to happen because Martin provided them with an outline, but they didn’t have the writing chops to pull it off. Bringing a story this massive and complex in for a graceful landing is more difficult than most people realize. Still, I can’t help but feel like there are some pretty obvious flaws in the final season. Unforced mistakes that, especially with an extra year’s hiatus to work on the final season, were really disappointing. Such a great story deserved better than what we got.

I know a lot of people are upset about the actual end results: who ended up dead, who ended up alive, and who ended up on the throne. I was actually ok with most of it. Let’s consider each of the main characters:

Jaime – It’s such a George R.R. Martin move to take a literal knight in shining armor, make him a king-killing, child-murdering, twincestuous villain, then make you spend enough time in his head to start to root for him, and then once you think he has become the good knight you wish he was, have his old vices win out in the end. The problem, as we will repeatedly see with other characters, is that the show didn’t spend enough time on the character development leading to his final acts. It spent multiple seasons building up his redemption arc, and then Sansa mentions that Cersei might be in danger from the giant armies and dragons headed her way (shocking!), and suddenly he is on the fastest horse south. We needed to see his struggles with his inner demons. We needed to witness his facade crumble in the face of a threat to that which, in spite of his best intentions, he loved most dearly. The show handled it too abruptly, so what should have been a more poignant and tragic end was not fully earned.

Cersei – I was disappointed with Cersei’s ending, but not because she died in Jaime’s arms. Her arc was a sort of mirror image of his: while he appeared to find redemption and then turned his back on it to be with Cersei, Cersei appeared to become even more evil and insane than she started, and convinced herself that she no longer loved him, only to find comfort in his arms at the end. Unfortunately, leading up to her end, she basically just stood around. What happened to the cunning, ruthless Cersei we loved to hate? Part of the problem here may be her bizarre affair with Euron Greyjoy. He was such an outlandish character that his story line sucked up a lot of the oxygen that should have been devoted to Cersei.

Tyrion – Overall I thought Tyrion’s ending was fine. My main complaint was that I had trouble remembering why he was supposedly so devoted to Danaerys that it took a literal holocaust for him to see that maybe that loyalty was misplaced. Him ending up as hand of the king to a Stark has a certain poetic justice to it, and he has the smarts and experience with the conniving politics of King’s Landing to make a very good foil for an overly noble and idealistic Stark king.

Danaerys – Of all the characters, I think Dany’s end was the one that needed to be handled with the most care, and in turn was the one most poorly served by the final season’s rushed pace and weak writing. I think in the right hands, with enough insight into what is going on in her mind, and enough time for her character to develop, her ending is going to be powerful and convincing and tragic. In other words, I am really looking forward to reading the book’s handling of her ending, and I am really disappointed that I had to see the clumsy way the show handled it first. The show skipped the hard work of character development and had her sulk in her room for a few days, and then flip out and nuke a city full of innocents. Tyrion’s speeches to Jon in the final episode tried to make up for the lack of justification leading up to her breakdown, but they were too little too late. There are hints of real insight into how evil acts are done by people who think they are the “good guys” but the poor character development this season prevented Dany’s ending from being what it could have been.

Bran – One of the major themes of Game of Thrones is that those who are most hungry for power are those least suited to rule. Also, a failure to recognize how events in the past echo forward to influence the present and future. (It’s almost as if fantasy can have meaningful lessons that apply to real life!) So, a kind man with near-omniscient knowledge of events past, present, and future, with no real desire to rule, and no children makes sense as an ideal king. I’m on board with Bran as king. What is less clear and I think was pretty clumsy is why the nobility of Westeros were suddenly willing to hold a vote for who would be king. (I did love Sam’s attempt at inventing democracy being summarily shot down by the nobles.) As an aside, can we mention the way that the show conveniently skipped the part where Grey Worm found out what happened to Danaerys and somehow did not summarily execute Jon and Tyrion, and furthermore allowed Tyrion to make grand speeches leading to a vote for the new leader? And how the Dothraki seemingly disappeared? That was sure something.

Sansa – My prediction for a long time was that Sansa would end up on the Iron Throne. Her arc, especially in the books, was all about going from an innocent pretty pretty princess to learning to survive and then thrive in the ugly, brutal, real world of court intrigue. She learned from Tyrion, the Hound, Cersei, and most of all Littlefinger. She was clearly being groomed by Martin for leadership. I had assumed that Jon and Dany (Ice and Fire) would die in the climactic battle against the White Walkers and Sansa would be left to rule over the ruins of a Westeros that barely survived. All in all I was not too far off: at least Sansa ended up on a throne, if not The Throne. Her decision not to join up with the other kingdoms under Bran’s rule is a little odd, but not too much of a stretch.

Arya – She killed the Night King! That was pretty great, even though most of the rest of that episode was too dark to see anything. Unfortunately after that, anything else was going to be kind of anticlimactic. I am absolutely on board with her realizing that there is no place for her in Westeros and setting out to do something else, but again, I wish there had been any build-up at all to her decision to become an explorer. You may have heard of Chekov’s Gun. The saying goes: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” To me Arya’s ending is the exact opposite. She is firing a rifle that we didn’t know existed. Where is it mentioned that she has an interest in exploring the world? Where does that desire come from? Why have we not heard of it before literally the last minute? Again, I am totally onboard with Arya, intrepid explorer. I would watch that spinoff show. But as with so much in this final season, the show didn’t do the work to get there. It skipped over the necessary character development, so it all seemed to come out of the blue.

Jon – Once it became clear that Danaerys was going full “Mad Queen” it was obvious that Jon was going to have to kill her. I also think his insistence that he did not want the throne was in keeping with his character. He was always a reluctant leader and ruler. And, although it was not shown, it is also in keeping with his character that even though Drogon showed up, torched the evidence and flew away with Dany’s body, Jon would go and admit to killing her and end up in jail. In the end, he was the most Ned Stark like of them all. I thought him being sent back to the wall was rather anticlimactic, but his arc was a hard one to wrap up. He doesn’t really fit anywhere else but it feels wrong to have him exiled for doing the right thing. Poor Jon deserved to retire to someplace warm, but of course he would never sit still for that. The final shots of the show seemed to imply that maybe the North was thawing and he would found a new kingdom up beyond the wall, which I guess works for me.

So, overall I am satisfied with the main plot points, but I am disappointed in how poor a job the show did with getting to them. Time after time, it didn’t devote enough time to develop the characters such that their endings felt fully earned. I’m sad that I didn’t get to find out the ending by reading the books, where Martin can spend as much time as he wants doing that hard writing work and making each twist and turn feel as powerful as it should be. But that also means that I am hopeful that Martin will finally finish the last two books and that we will eventually get to read the ending as it is supposed to be.

I am also hopeful for what will come after Game of Thrones. The show became a cultural phenomenon and made the entire world realize the kinds of powerful stories that can be told through speculative fiction. Sci-fi and fantasy are thoroughly mainstream now and Game of Thrones played an important role in making that happen. There are already many amazing shows following in Game of Thrones’ footsteps, and I can’t wait to see more.

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.


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: The Mirror Empire


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 – Episodes 9 and 10

Well, that does it for another season of Game of Thrones!  This post will be covering the final two episodes of the season, because I fell behind while on vacation. Here be spoilers!

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Episode 9 is pretty easy to recap because it was one big battle at the Wall. I don’t have a lot to say about the particular events of this episode, because despite a lot of action, the plot wasn’t moved forward very much. Sam and Gilly are reunited and Sam finds he has more guts than he used to. He even gives some advice to Pyp before the battle.

The main thing to mention about the battle is the apparent complete lack of tactics on either side. The wildlings supposedly have 100,000 men, but they all attack at the gate and they only send a small number at a time. Seems to me, if you have than many soldiers, you would attack along a long stretch of the wall. Or for that matter, avoid Castle Black entirely, and just climb over the wall in one of the unguarded sections. On the other side, the Night’s Watch sure did waste a lot of arrows shooting at guys who were no threat to the wall. Wouldn’t you want to wait and let the dudes climb up a ways (and let some of them fall on their own), and then just shoot at the ones who get close?

Speaking of which, the battle inside castle black was good old fashioned hacking and slashing, but ever since watching this video about how poorly on-screen battles are portrayed, and in particular the part at the end about how everyone nicely pairs off into separate duels, I have to chuckle.

Anyway, Grenn and Pyp are killed by a giant bursting through the gate, and Ygritte is killed by a boy with a bow (who nonetheless is apparently so strong that his arrow goes clear through her torso). This makes Jon sad, and he goes on a suicidal mission to assasinate Mance Rayder.

And that’s the end of Episode 9! I was surprised they didn’t finish this episode with Stannis’ surprise arrival, particularly because they had so many other plot points to cover in the final episode of the season. Well, Stannis shows up first thing in Episode 10, after a very good scene between Jon and Mance. I really liked the short exchange between Mance and Stannis, where Stannis orders him to kneel and Mance says, almost sadly, that wildlings don’t kneel. The expression on his face basically says: “I might get killed for this, but kneeling is just not gonna happen. What’s a man to do?”

Even farther north of the wall, Bran and company finally arrive at the great weirwood tree, only to be attacked by skeletons. This scene came across as a bit hokey, I think because the baddies were literally skeletons rather than frozen zombies. Skeletons just look more fake, I think. Also, apparently the children of the forest can cast fireballs? Also also: Jojen gets killed?! I take it this means he doesn’t have any more important role to play in the books and, having delivered Bran to the Three Eyed Raven, he is superfluous and therefore must die. Inside the tree, Bran meets up with the man who is the three-eyed raven, who tells Bran that he will never walk again, “but you will fly.” Cryptic! Book readers know some of what is coming on this storyline, but not all that much. The show is burning through Bran’s plot very quickly, and is well into the 5th book at this point.

Over in Meereen, Dany is having more and more trouble. First, she speaks with a man who wants to return to slavery, where he can at least do what he’s good at (teaching the master’s kids) rather than living in the homeless shelters that Dany has set up. She bristles at the idea that he would want to go back to slavery, but can’t do anything but grant the man permission to work for his former master. (Seems like this would be a good time for her to get some trusted lawyers together and write up regulations on what constitutes a fair contract so that, as Barristan warns, people don’t return to slavery in all but name.) Next up, a man comes into the throne room weeping, and reveals the charred bones of his three year old daughter. Drogon has apparently moved beyond just killing goats. This leads to Dany luring the remaining two dragons into the catacombs and sadly chaining them up. The irony of Danerys, the great breaker of chains, having to shackle her dragons is strong here, and the scene was well done.

In King’s Landing, we see Cersei, Pycelle, and Quyburn examining the barely-living Mountain, who is suffering from the wounds and poison that Oberyn gave him before being crushed like a melon. It was nice to see this set up, with Cersei basically shifting the power from Pycelle to Quyburn, and Quyburn’s ominous response when she asks if the treatment to save the Mountain’s life will weaken him. “Oh no,” he says, implying that it will have quite the opposite effect…

Cersei then goes and has a chat with father dearest, and when he refuses to allow her to get out of marrying Loras Tyrell, she drops the truth bomb on him: all the rumors about her relationship with Jamie are true. Leaving a stunned Tywin, she goes to Jamie and tells him, basically, that she’s tired of keeping their relationship a secret. Of course, their scene here is tainted by the rape scene earlier in the season, which apparently the show didn’t think was rapey at all, which explains why all the scenes afterward don’t seem to acknowledge it ever happening.

Later on, Tyrion is surprised to get a visit from Jamie, who sets him free with Varys’ help. Jamie leads Tyrion to the escape, and leaves him there, but Tyrion has some things to do before leaving. He climbs up to his father’s chambers, only to find Shae in the bed. In a painful scene without any dialogue, they fight, and Tyrion chokes her to death with her golden necklace (which I’m sure was a chain of linked hands like in the book, but it wasn’t obvious in the show).

Tyrion then grabs the crossbow on the wall (apparently Tywin shares Joffrey’s fondness for the aesthetics of crossbows) and goes to find Tywin on the toilet. Tywin tries to talk his way out of the situation, but says the word “whore” one too many times for Tyrion’s liking and gets a quarrel to the gut, followed by another to the heart. Happy father’s day Tywin! I expected this to be my favorite scene in the finale, because it’s such a great scene in the books, but it seemed a bit rushed.


Instead, my favorite scene was with Arya and the Hound. They run into Brienne and Pod, something that definitely doesn’t happen in the books, but makes a lot of sense. The brief conversation ebtween Brienne and Arya was wonderful, as they both are pleased to find another woman who prefers swordplay to ball gowns. But one the Hound forces Brienne to admit that she was sent by a Lannister, that brief glimmer of a friendship is over. In an excellent exchange, Brienne and the Hound argue over who is better suited to take care of Arya, and then have an epic duel which ends with Brienne biting the Hound’s ear off and toppling him off a cliff. But Arya doesn’t want to go with her, and hides.

Once Brienne is gone, Arya speaks to the Hound, who begs her to kill him, but she just stares at him. Finally, instead of killing him, she takes his money and leaves him to his fate. In the final scene of the episode, Arya finds her way to a peaceful prot town and tries to buy passage on a ship north to the Wall. There is no ship headed that way, but there is one headed to Braavos. She remembers the iron coin that Jaqen gave her, and when she presents it to the captain he immediately grants her a capin aboard his ship. The episode ends with Arya turning away from Westeros to look ahead across the ocean at her new life.

This was a jam-packed episode, and was longer than most. It was great, but I wish they had taken some more time with some of the plot lines by cutting down on the battle in episode 9. A lot of people were surprised that Lady Stoneheart didn’t make an appearance, but I was pretty sure she wouldn’t. There was no groundwork laid for her at all this season, so it would have been difficult to remind viewers of who Berric Dondarrion was, and about his eerie re-animation ability, and then have the big reveal all in one episode. Plus, when I heard the episode was titled “The Children” it was pretty clear that the supernatural quota would be filled by the Children of the Forest. The big question now, of course, is: if not this season, then will there be a Lady Stoneheart at all? In the books, she hasn’t done much since the reveal, so maybe the show is waiting for there to be more plot to work with. Or maybe she’s not that important overall, and will just not be a part of the show.

Given where some of the story arcs ended this season, well into book 5, I’m getting worried about the show going past the books next season and beyond. I really don’t think I want to watch the end of this series before I read it, but if it really is the case that the show will be over before the books, it will be almost impossible to stay spoiler free until the books are done. I was expecting the show to take it slower on some of the plot arcs this season for this reason, but it seems to be barreling forward. I guess we’ll see how things stand next year.


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.

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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!

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…

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