Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Mark Lawrence has been one of the biggest names in Fantasy for a while, so it was well past time I got round to reading him. I’ve come close a couple of times, even buying his books for other people with the intention to borrow them when they had finished with them (what? You don’t do that?), but for various reasons they didn’t work out until I picked up my own copy of Red Sister. I’m not a prolific reader, but there’s no doubt that this book shot to to the top of my ToBeRead pile because of this man’s inexplicable generosity in support of indie fantasy writers through the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) competition that he founded.

Not having read his stuff before, I had few expectations, though those who follow Fantasy will know that Mark is strongly linked to the Grimdark subgenre. As the name suggests, this is associated with adult themes, dark or flawed characters and a depressing/realistic/cynical (depending on your point of view) world view. So before I started reading, I was interested to find out how dark things would get. And…I was a little surprised.

 

Characters

Lawrence is known for his single character led writing and Red Sister is no exception. Front and centre we have Nona, a young (9?) girl raised in poverty and ignorance but claimed by the Sweet Mercy Convent due to the potential of the powers she exhibits. The story of a child with magic powers is hardly a new one in Fantasy and it’s easy for the reader to settle in to a familiar journey. Nona herself is great company, Lawrence mostly succeeds in looking at the world with a child’s eyes and this child is brave and admirable as perhaps only children can be. I find it hard to imagine a reader who wouldn’t warm to her. And this was one reason for surprise – this is surely a departure from Lawrence’s Grimdark roots, making it a more mainstream title. I’m not sure that Nona displays a serious character flaw, does anything reprehensible or is faced with a decision where she doesn’t automatically take the heroic path. Maybe this is because she is a child, maybe it’s because she’s a girl. Maybe these tough choices come in the later books. But for now, she is simply likeable. Nona doesn’t like herself, this is true. The nature of her powers means that she considers herself a monster, in fact. But the reader doesn’t.

The supporting cast is largely made up of the students and teachers at Sweet Mercy Convent. She makes friends here but also has enemies, mostly outside the safety of the Convent. It’s mostly a female cast, which makes the story interesting and distinctive at times. But for me, it didn’t always make it distinctive enough. Two words loomed large while reading this. Harry Potter. It was hard not to compare. ‘Abbess Glass is Dumbledore’, ‘Sister Apple is Snape’ my brain kept telling me. And this is totally unfair, because the characters were well drawn and not copies by any means. But there it is nonetheless. If you want a Grimdark Harry Potter, of course, then you’re in heaven right now.

 

Worldbuilding

The world of Abeth has some interesting sci-fi elements. Four races arrived here, by spaceship. Each race had certain powers – one giants (strength), two magic, one speed (this race is called hunska). These powers have largely died out amongst humans, but some people have retained them in smaller or greater measure – and, in effect, this makes such characters magical. Nona, we soon realise, has hunska powers. Some people may even have more than one of these 4 powers, making them extra special. All this is fine, and for those who like an explanation for magic in fantasy, this one is satisfying and has its own logic and rules. It means that the Convent can offer different classes to suit these different abilities.

Abeth is also distinctive because it exists in a solar system where the sun is dying. Huge walls of ice have enclosed most of the planet. All that is left is a thin corridor in the middle, where the ‘Focus’ moon passes and heats the terrain enough to keep the ice at bay. It’s an interesting idea and by the end of the book starts to drive the plot, presumably taking an even bigger role in the sequels. On the other hand, despite this crisis the parts of Abeth we see are surprisingly ordered. The kind of dystopian chaos one would assume a dying sun would engender happened a long time ago, turning the technological clock backwards, but humans have managed to come through fairly civilised. There is an Empire with currency, a prison system and all the other trappings of civilisation. There are convents and academic institutions and a universal church. It’s a familiar fantasy world despite the unique setting.

 

Plot

[Reviewer’s Disclaimer: I have spent many years as a teacher and this may have affected the following section of this review]

Red Sister is a Coming of Age story set in a school/convent. When I realised this my reaction was ‘meh’. And this is purely personal. But these stories are so dominant in literature right now, plus they are not really my thing anyway, that I struggle to get excited by them. Children’s/teen books, whether fantasy or otherwise, are dominated by the school setting. And in Fantasy, it’s not just Harry Potter. Most books that I have read recently and reviewed here follow this format. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss has a magic school at is heart. Blood Song by Anthony Ryan has a military type school. I understand the appeal and these books are incredibly popular. But I hanker after something different.

Otherwise, the plot chugs along well and there is a neat climax of themes at the end while leaving room for Book Two. Lawrence knows what he is doing and is in full control of the story from beginning to end.

 

Overall, this is a great book with no weaknesses that looks set to develop into a great series. The sequel, Grey Sister, has now hit the stores. I will be reading on, there’s no doubt about that. Now, how do I get my hands on that copy of Prince of Thorns that I bought myse…-cough- that I bought someone as a gift?

 

Board Games Review: Part Two (Small World, Talisman, Adventure Time Card Wars, Ticket to Ride)

Small World

Well, this is a personal favourite of mine. It’s a conquest/strategy style board game, so therefore not to everyone’s liking. But the people who chose to play really enjoyed it. Since there were four of us we played with a larger board, but there is a smaller board for 2/3 players.

One reason everyone liked it was the comical setting. Each player chooses a race to start with, with a randomised skill set. So, for example, I began with Commando Elves, whereas my daughter had Seafaring Ratmen. You play with this race for a few turns, before choosing to go into Decline, and selecting a new race. Put simply, the more you conquer, the more points you score.

Another reason is the short time frame. The game we played had 8 turns, so it didn’t drag at all.

Despite this, there is definitely some strategy for those who enjoy that. When to Decline, which Race to select, who to attack, all effect outcomes. Some of us got through 3 races in one game. I stuck with the Elves all game because I was enjoying them a little too much. My daughter won with only 2 races deployed. In addition, because new races can change the dynamic, it’s not clear who the winner is until the end.

Small World obviously has its fans, because there are a number of expansion sets now. I can see why.

Pros: A short strategy game; combinations of races and skills, with random order, plus multiple boards, means that every game is different; comical races make it fun to play for non-strategists

Cons: Playing with armies rather than individual characters is not fun for everyone; it’s still a strategy/conquest game, making it too complicated for some

 

Talisman

This is an old favourite in our family, enjoyed by all generations. It’s quite free-form, allowing fantasy-style characters to roam about a detailed board having adventures. We had a Troll, Dwarf, Elf, Ghoul and Assassin. Events, objects and followers allow characters to increase their strength and craft. Once strong enough, they can attempt to win the game by ascending to the Crown of Command. They must own a talisman to do so.

There’s no doubt that it can be long, with a laggy middle, as some characters who have not been so lucky wander aimlessly around in the vain hope of improving their position compared to stronger characters, who are free to beat them up and steal their objects.  This can be quite upsetting if other players around the board are ruthless in their play. Only one character can win, by killing all the others. Another aspect that I find frustrating is rolling dice for movement. But there’s no doubt that funny moments abound, as you watch your nearest and dearest get beaten up by hobgoblins, get drunk in a tavern, or turned into toads.

We have played this many, many times over the years, which is a testament to its enduring appeal. Expansion sets and a computer game do too.

Pros: Huge range of characters, adventure cards, strategies, allow for replay-ability and allow players to express their personality; easy to pick up the rules (roll a dice, do what the square tells you to)

Cons: Lengthy; can be less fun for unsuccessful characters, though they can always fill the time by complaining about their bad luck

 

Adventure Time: Card Wars

I am assured by my son that this is a game actually played by Finn and Jake in the cartoon series Adventure Time. It is a two player strategy game that reminded me of playing Swords and Wizardry or Stratego with my Dad, though it has a different dynamic to those games. We used the Finn and Jake decks, but there are other decks you can buy for the other main characters that feature in the series.

Each player has four landscape locations to deploy their creatures on, meaning that fights occur across four ‘lanes’. Shuffle your deck of cards, and send in your bizarre Adventure Time creatures to fight for you. Your deck also contains buildings and spells. You have 2 actions on your turn, which you will usually use by deploying a card or drawing new ones into your hand.

The rules take a bit of time to figure out and are not written that well. It’s not a game for very young kids. Indeed, I think there is quite a lot of strategy to it if you want to take it seriously.

We just enjoyed fighting with our creatures. In the end, I took 25 points of damage, making me The Dweeb and my son The Cool Guy. It took a while for the game to end, and younger players might be better off with a lower victory score to aim at, or they may lose interest.

I enjoyed this game and it makes a nice change from video games when you are after a bit of 2 player game time.

Pros: Nicely balanced 2 player game; crazy Adventure Time creatures; infinitely repayable, especially with other packs

Cons: 2 player only; harder to learn and longer to play than you might expect

 

Ticket to Ride

Another new one for us, but everyone really enjoyed this, and it’s perhaps the most accessible of the bunch.

We played the original US version of the game. Each player builds train routes between cities, scoring points each time they do. Routes are built by collecting the right cards, e.g. 3 black car cards, or 5 red etc. In addition, each player receives destination tickets. These contain pre-mapped routes, and if you successfully link these cities, you are awarded bonus points. Finally, there are bonus points available for the longest route.

This was easy to play, but the strategy really kicked in about the half way stage as the board filled up and routes became unavailable, forcing detours. Some players started to add extra destination tickets: this can lead to a huge reward in bonus points – but if you fail to complete a route by the end of the game, these points are deducted from your score.

This is nice and quick to play, especially individual turns – you either draw cards or place a route, so the pace is good.

Pros: Quick to play, easy to learn; simple, elegant rules, but allows for strategic choices

Cons: Placing railway tracks on a map may not get everyone’s pulse racing

 

Board Games Reviews: Part One (Dungeon Saga, Betrayal at House on the Hill, The Goonies)

 

Board Games Review: Part One (Dungeon Saga, Betrayal at House on the Hill, The Goonies Adventure Card Game)

There’s nothing I like more over the Xmas holidays than sitting around a table with my family and a board game. I was lucky enough to play quite a few this time round, including a number that were new to me. I thought that a review would make a good first post of the year, while my memory is fresh.

 

Dungeon Saga

This was a new one, though comes from a tradition of D&D inspired board games. In particular, this was bought as an alternative to Heroquest, a classic fantasy board game once owned by my family back in the mists of time, but now lost. I’m not going to go there, suffice to say old copies of Heroquest are currently changing hands for well over £100.

Dungeon Saga requires a Dungeon Master to be in charge of the campaign, and to control the bad guys. The other players control the 4 heroes: standard fantasy characters of a dwarf, barbarian, elf & wizard. Therefore doesn’t work so well with any more than 5 players, though I believe there are expansion sets which might address that. Unlike Heroquest, rather than one board, there are pieces which can be placed together in many ways to create different shaped maps.

We played the 2 introductory games, which involved learning the rules, and took at least 3 hours. The DM didn’t have to do much setting up. All the heroes did was walk along a corridor and smite a few puny skeletons! Even for seasoned players, it’s a game that requires a lot of learning, and we felt that it didn’t really get going as a game, but has a lot of potential once the more involved campaigns are introduced. Of course, it also allows for a keen player to make up their own campaigns. My son liked that idea, but was put off by the complexity.

We will definitely be playing this one again and look forward to a longer campaign.

Pros: Co-op play for heroes; DM gets to control lots of bad guys and can win by crippling a hero; tactical combat; a linked campaign with a quest book full of campaigns; easy to design own campaigns

Cons: complex rules; lengthy, with the potential for lots of fiddly decisions about movement/range/line-of-sight which will put off the more casual gamer

 

Betrayal at House on the Hill

This was another new game bought for my son, who loves Horror. We turned the lights out, and put on some scary music for this one.

Everyone selects a character (max 6), with differing attributes: might, speed, sanity and knowledge. They begin to explore the House by picking up tiles and placing them down, either on the basement, ground or top floor. In this way, each game has a different shaped house. Once the players do a certain amount of exploring, the ‘haunting’ phase of the game begins. Depending on what exactly has happened, the players are faced with a challenge that must be defeated, such as a monster out to kill them. It seems that one of the players will often become the enemy at this point, and try to kill the other players.

There seem to be a large number of hauntings that can happen, keeping the game fresh. In our game, one of the players became invisible and began hunting down and killing the other players, who had to work together to stop them. Unfortunately, our youngest member became the bad guy and struggled a bit with the responsibility, so bear in mind the 12+ age guidance.

This game was a hit with everyone, and is likely to get played quite a lot.

Pros: easy to pick up the rules; each game has a different twist, adding to replayability; medium setting in terms of difficulty and length, making it a good choice for family play

Cons: Limited strategy and decision making for seasoned gamers; at the same time too complex for younger kids; ‘evil’ player is determined randomly, which might not be appropriate for some groups

 

The Goonies Adventure Card Game

The Goonies is a film loved by all, so what about the card game based on the film?

This is a co-op game, where each player takes the role of a Goonie from the film, who has certain skills to offer, and work together to find the treasures, before the Fratellis get them! For some reason, the game is only for 1-4 players, though we managed to adjust this to 5 players and enjoyed a good game.

There’s no board, but various cards are played on a table. It’s a complicated business, and has a 14+ age guidance, which is a bit strange for a game based on this film. In fact, my kids are both younger than this and enjoy the game, contributing well to collective decisions. But you need to think about the group who is playing, and make sure that no-one dominates.

Each turn, you are given 4 actions, such as searching for the treasures and mapping a path. You have to be very careful about what you choose to do. If not, you will lose. This game is not easy.

We enjoyed this one, though I’m not sure it was a favourite, and if it wasn’t about The Goonies it might be less popular.

Pros: Relatively short, so a good choice when time is limited or as a warm-up game; a fully co-op game, which promotes teamwork and can make a nice change from trying to kill each other

Cons: Challenging, which perhaps doesn’t suit a Goonies audience; individual contributions are limited which can be unsatisfying

 

Board Games Review: Part Two (Small World, Talisman, Adventure Time Card Wars, Ticket to Ride)

 

 

 

Malice by John Gwynne

Malice, the first book in the completed fantasy series The Faithful and the Fallen, is a title that has been on my radar for a while, and I have finally got round to giving it a read. I found it a really interesting experience. The covers for the series are quite similar to mine, with a weapon taking centre stage on each book. Once I got reading, I found that the similarities didn’t end there.

 

Characters

One of the obvious similarities is that there are a lot of characters and a lot of viewpoints. Gwynne doesn’t shy away from this, crediting the reader with the intelligence to follow multiple storylines. While these storylines do overlap, the characters are located in different kingdoms, with their own challenges and problems. Gwynne gives a chapter to each character, following the approach of GRR Martin, and personally I found it all perfectly easy to follow, but I am well used to and generally enjoy this approach.

Corban is a fairly typical fantasy character: a boy growing into a man, living in the capital of the King of Ardan, being taught how to fight by a mentor or two, with a crew of family and friends around him. It is pretty clear early on that he is destined to become a heroic figure. His sister, Cywen, gets her own chapters, but she is largely a support character in this book. Veradis, located in a separate kingdom, Tenebral – the home of the ‘high king’, is a newly trained warrior who is assigned to serve the Prince of Tenebral, Nathair. A third young fighter, Krelis, is located in a third kingdom, Isiltir, at the court of his uncle. Orphaned and isolated, he has an uncertain future.

There are a host of other characters. Like the main characters, a huge proportion of them are men: kings, soldiers, bandits, champions, hunters and the like, many of whom are more than handy with a blade. A lot of attention is given to military aspects. This probably means the series isn’t for everyone. I enjoyed it, though even I struggled at times to differentiate between all the characters, perhaps because some of them were a bit samey.

 

Worldbuilding

Malice is set in the Banished Lands, occupied generations ago by humans who arrived by sea. The humans have formed several kingdoms, who can form alliances and rivalries with one another. One of the kingdoms, Tenebral, has a high king, whose authority over the others is vague. Between kingdoms are lawless forests inhabited by bandits. When the humans first arrived, they had to defeat several giant clans for control over the Banished Lands. The remnants of these clans still exist, seemingly pushed into forests and mountains by the more populous humans.

As a setting its more familiar than unique. But the impressive part of the worldbuilding is the many kingdoms that feature in this book. Each has its own internal and external politics. A lot of thought has gone into this, and it helps the reader to feel like the events are taking place in a real world.

There is magic in the Banished Lands, wielded by humans, giants and other creatures. But it is mysterious and in Malice the reader is kept at arms length from it: none of the main characters are wizards. I tend to prefer this approach, since it avoids the dangers of laboriously outlining a whole new magic system for a character to learn (yawn).

 

Plot

This is a traditional epic fantasy series in many ways. Driving the plot is a good vs evil storyline. Although we are not given too much information, we learn that in the past there have been two Gods (one good, one evil). A prophecy reveals that a Godswar is coming and two figures will emerge as champions of each God: a hero and an anti-hero. Malice reveals who these two individuals will be. It does feel a little corny at times, and the revelation of the hero and anti-hero is so heavily signposted the reader is not really given the fun of guessing. Of course, there may be a twist in the later books here, but it didn’t feel like there was going to be when I read this one.

Again, it is not dwelt on too heavily, but part of this Godswar may well be the location of nine (? or similar) magic items/weapons cast by the Gods. The search for these items may well form the plot for much of the three remaining books of the series. Again, I couldn’t help here but see the connection to my own series, where the heroes have to find 7 weapons to combat the threat to Dalriya. Yes, the search for magic objects can potentially feel old hat. But it injects purpose, conflict and direction into a plot, which in epic fantasy, with sprawling worlds and huge casts, might otherwise get lost.

The plot of Malice did a great job of introducing the rest of the series, with enough going on to start pulling characters in different directions and as a reader I was interested to see where it would go next.

 

 

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to fantasy fans, who have the added bonus of knowing that this is a completed series they can read to a conclusion. I will certainly be continuing with it. It’s traditional fantasy done well.

 

What Remains of Heroes by David Benem

The quality of self-published, or indie, books is getting better and better. Not just the stories themselves, but the editing, covers and all the other professional aspects of the business. So much so that the best of the bunch are, in every important respect, the equals of their traditionally published cousins. Here I review one of the leading indie fantasy books from the last few years.

 

CHARACTERS

I would class this as character driven fantasy, in the sense that you feel that the author started with the characters and allows them to take centre stage. We follow the point of view of at least half a dozen as the story develops and all of them have well defined personalities. Lannick de Veers is a broken ex-soldier with a dark past. Zandrachus Bale is another unlikely hero, living a safe life amongst his books in the Abbey until forced to go out into the world. Karnag is an assassin with no moral code. True to the theme of the series, none of the characters are traditionally heroic, and are often reluctant. This adds some complexity to their characters, but at times can be overdone, especially since the reader has the impression they are going to do the right thing in the end anyway. I enjoyed the range of characters, though it does mean the plot moves slowly at times, since most characters have their own separate storyline. Indeed, the three mentioned above still haven’t crossed paths by the end of the book. This would suggest that the series still has a long way to go.

 

WORLDBUILDING

We are in fairly familiar territory here. The kingdom of Rune is under threat from evil forces from the past. There is a solid historical backdrop to the story, with the Sentinels, demi-god style characters, who have defended Rune in times past, banished by the High King some generations ago. And they need to come back. It is a modern, Abercrombie-esque setting, with humans taking centre stage and no mention of elves, dwarves etc. Some considerable thought has gone into the politics, with a High-King gone mad (we never meet him); a Queen in peril; evil figures at court; and a mention of thanes, who sound like regional noblemen, who may well come into the story. I appreciated this attempt to flesh out and make a believable world. In the end it felt secondary to the main storylines, since the principal characters are political outsiders (unlike Game of Thrones, for example), but there are hints that this angle may be developed in later books. Finally, there is magic in this land, often quite dark and scary. Benem avoids incorporating a new magical system with detailed rules into the story, which I appreciated. On the other hand, I didn’t detect what the limits or costs of magic use are.

 

PLOT

The king is mad, war with the kingdom’s neighbour is brewing, and behind it all a dark, hidden sect, who worship an evil God, are pulling the strings. The Sanctum, a group of book reading old men generally held in contempt as ‘spookers’, must begin a search for the long forgotten Sentinels. Some of these Sentinels and/or their followers are revealed in the book, and they are not always what the reader is expecting. As indicated above, this is an ambitious start to a series, with multiple plot lines started, and a story that slowly reveals itself to the reader. There is a lot more to come and it doesn’t surprise me to see that it has taken Benem over two years to come up with the sequel. This is thoughtful, meaty fantasy, and worth waiting for!

 

I would encourage people to pick up a copy of this book and to look out for The Wrath of Heroes, which, according to the author’s website, is due out soon.

 

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Here I review another true fantasy epic, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I have just finished reading the last of the series (#7) The Dark Tower, published in 2004. The first book in the series, The Gunslinger, was released in 1982. So, while it took him a fair while, at least King was able to finish the series *cough, cough, George Martin*. A film adaptation has been in the works for several years, and is being released this year.

Characters

The central character of the series is the Gunslinger himself, Roland of Gilead. Roland Deschain is a descendant of Arthur Eld, or King Arthur, and King’s Gunslingers are in part inspired by the knights of Arthurian legend. His old world destroyed, Roland is on an epic quest, to find the Dark Tower. He is the last of the gunslingers, and his quest seems to have been going on for countless years. Roland’s character is also inspired by ‘The Man With No Name’, the Clint Eastwood character from the Dollars film trilogy. He is, at first, equally enigmatic, but his backstory is filled in as the series progresses. There are a whole host of other characters in this series, but most important are the Ka-tet, the group he recruits to help him on his quest. They are trained to be gunslingers. Jake Chambers, Eddie Dean and Odetta Holmes are each recruited from a different era of ‘real world’ New York (70s, 80s and 60s respectively) by Roland. This ‘world-jumping’ is an important device in the story. King does character extremely well, and the American characters add humanity to the single-minded obsessiveness of Roland.

Worldbuilding

What you don’t get here, is the meticulously detailed, medieval-inspired secondary world, that is the staple of fantasy literature. This is not Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones. King lets his imagination run riot, and the series jumps from America, to Roland’s Mid-World, to alternate or parallel worlds, with rapidity. What’s more this isn’t a pure fantasy story, either. There are elements of post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi, Horror, Western, Metaphysical etc. Time and space are in flux in this series, which serves as a useful get out of jail card for King, allowing for a vagueness of location which fits in with the spiritual nature of Roland’s quest. And let’s not forget that King is first and foremost a Horror writer: his stories are supernatural and don’t attempt to obey scientific rules or create a ‘realistic’ world.

Plot

The world has turned, or gone bad in some way. We know that Roland must save it by finding the Dark Tower. But beyond that, much of the story is shrouded in mystery to begin with. As a series, we follow the adventures of Roland and his new Ka-tet on their quest. A range of supernatural enemies await them on the way, from vampires/’low men’, a deranged monorail train to the Crimson King himself. But each book has a very different story to tell. No doubt this is partly because they were written so far apart in time. Wizard and Glass (#4), for example, is effectively a flashback to an episode in Roland’s past. Each book, therefore, has a unique feel to it and readers can react very differently to that. Some may feel that as a series it doesn’t hang together as well as others, and that the quality is patchy. Others appreciate the variety that King has introduced. True fans of King even get to see links to many of his other well known stories in the series.

Style

Stephen King writes mighty fine, do ya ken. Well over 1 million words ooze effortlessly by, with much of the series written at the height of his powers. Roland’s language is ‘High Speech’, and by the end of the series I found I had adopted some of these phrases as my own.

Conclusion

This series is a classic of epic fantasy, a unique tale and a great achievement. Yes, there are problems and weaknesses along the way, though that is to be expected in a piece of work this size. Few of the single volumes of this story are, in my opinion, masterpieces, and I would give most of them 4/5. But taken as a whole body of work, The Dark Tower series undoubtedly deserves a 5/5.

 

A Game of Thrones by GRR Martin

It’s been 20 years since A Game of Thrones hit the bookshelves. It’s had a transformative effect on the world of Fantasy, partly down to the huge success of the HBO Series. But when I first read it, in the late 1990s, it was just another fantasy novel. Few people knew then what it would become.

 

Characters

It’s fair to say that Martin has no better in terms of character creation. That said, the first novel of A Song of Ice and Fire is, to some extent, a different experience to the later books in the series, never mind the TV version. The series is known for many things: its huge scope, including the number of characters; the author’s willingness to kill off many of his characters, at regular intervals, with no sentimentality; the ‘grey’ nature of his characters, with a lack of simple good/evil characterisation; then of course the sex and violence, which is more apparent in the TV series than the original books.

These characteristics had not fully appeared in the first novel, however. Yes, there is already a big cast of characters, but the POV is pretty focused on the Stark family, the only notable exceptions being Tyrion and Daenerys. This makes A Game of Thrones a more tightly written affair than some of its successors, and allows the reader to engage with the storyline. The death toll is not so high. And while the grey areas are already there, from my perspective as a reader, I was soon rooting for the Starks, who were effectively the ‘good guys’. Around them was created a fascinating support cast, but they were the protagonists.

It has been interesting to see how the series has developed. The role of the Stark family has remained important, but it has undoubtedly been watered down. Other characters have barged their way into the story, taking it in new directions, some of which, I think, were not in the author’s original plan.

Worldbuilding

Martin took the classic, medieval-inspired fantasy world, and made it bigger, more densely populated, and more real than anyone had done before. That he was able to provide this scale and still deliver a killer story is perhaps his greatest achievement.

Most of the action takes place in Westeros, a kingdom recently united after a vicious civil war. The cracks in this unity are already beginning to show, however. Meanwhile, the Daenerys storyline reveals that there are many more realms beyond Westeros. Sometimes, there are so many other lands, with so little connection to the events in Westeros, that the scale of the world can seem too big.

At this point, the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is barely fantastical at all. There are no pointy eared elves, or fairies flying about, or wizards with long grey beards. The only dwarf is…well… a real dwarf, not a member of a fantastical race. It’s easy to forget how many of the staples of fantasy fiction were culled by Martin. In so doing, he modernised the genre and opened it to a new group of fans. That’s not to say that wizards, elves and dwarves have had their day—far from it. But it he did, in effect, introduce a new sub-genre, that tends to be called grimdark.

Of course, Martin didn’t do away with magic, not at all. He didn’t do away with an evil menace either, for surely that is the white walkers who live beyond the Wall. But he revelled in flawed characters, making difficult decisions in a cruel world they had no control over, a world not unlike our own.

Plot

Hmm. Where to start? There are so many plot lines. A central one is the political struggle for the Iron Throne. Then there is the supernatural threat to Westeros itself. But in some respects, the series resembles a soap opera, with multiple characters and storylines all interwoven into one whole. Of course, a harsher critic might suggest that Martin has failed to interweave said storylines and somewhat lost control of the project. It has become so complex, that Martin’s original vision of a trilogy is long gone and the series has yet to be completed, some twenty years after the release of the first book. Maybe it never will in the author’s lifetime. This is both a tribute to the scale of the project and a flaw and source of frustration to fans.

Conclusion

A Game of Thrones is a seminal, must-read novel for fantasy fans. I remember reading it all those years ago. I wouldn’t call the book an inspiration: I was in my mid-twenties when I read it. I had already picked up the fantasy bug from earlier novelists and was toying with my own ideas for a fantasy story. But it set a benchmark. It made me rethink my ideas. Not necessarily to create something the same, or as large: trying to do that could send a mere mortal mad. Just to make my own story better. All fantasy writers are now operating in a post A Game of Thrones world. The genre is no longer the same. How many books can you say that about?

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Tigana is a classic, stand alone fantasy novel by one of the greats of fantasy fiction. It is named after a province in the mythical Peninsula of the Palm.

 

Characters

Kay uses multiple points of view in this story, meaning that we look through the eyes of a number of characters. This allows us to follow events across the Palm, from a number of perspectives. I tend to enjoy this approach to fantasy writing and the author handles it well. Most of the characters we follow are exiles, of one kind or another, from Tigana: Devin, young and green; Catriana, equally young but more mature; Dianora, whose story is largely separate from the other characters; Baerd, her brother, full of anger and purpose. Interestingly, their leader, Prince Alessan, is never used as the POV by Kay, leaving him more mysterious and remote, which I think was a good decision. We are even treated to the POV of one of the main adversaries, Alberico of Barbadior, which Kay seems to enjoy writing. The characters are well drawn, with clear motives and backstory. They are also complex: the heroes make morally dubious decisions to get what they want, and the villains can be sympathetic, too. I found I cared about the characters. Having said that, when the book was finished, I didn’t find myself missing them, which can happen with my favourite books.

Worldbuilding

The story is set in the Palm, which is geographically an upside down Italy. Like medieval Italy, it is divided into different, disunited provinces. At the beginning of the story it has been invaded by two different foreign powers, Ygrath and Barbadior, who have divided the Palm between them. The world feels real, with a history, culture and religion of its own. Each province has its own unique characteristics, which inform much of the plot. All this world-building is done with a light touch, so that it never intrudes too much on the story.

There is magic in the Palm, but no great magicians. This explains how the antagonists, Brandin of Ygrath and Alberico of Barbadior, were able to conquer it in the first place. It also helps the reader to root for those struggling for independence, since they are underdogs for this very reason.

Style

Tigana is an effortless read and Kay writes with a sense of poetry, like the earlier fantasy writers. It is, therefore, different to the more modern trend of gritty writing which can make it feel more dated than it is in some ways (it was published in 1990). This sense of poetry and magic pervades this novel, reminding me of classic Arthurian literature. It means that the world is perhaps not always logical or realistic—that’s OK, though—it’s a fantasy novel.

Plot

The story is centred on the fate of Tigana, one of the provinces of the Palm. It has been cursed by Brandin of Ygrath, as punishment for its resistance to his invasion. We focus, therefore, on the efforts of the heroes, mostly exiles from Tigana, to save their homeland. The themes of duty, of belonging to a place or people, are therefore very strong. None of the heroes are ‘super’ heroes, with extraordinary magic or martial skills to help them. Indeed, many of them are most proficient at making music. Neither do they have an army to help them. This fact is both a strength and a weakness of the book. It means that we root for them, as underdogs. However, in order for them to achieve their goals, we have to swallow a fair amount of dubious plotting. The route to victory, apparently, involves years of wandering around carrying out complicated/pointless acts of rebellion, or, conversely, huge acts of self-sacrifice. There is no conventional rebellion or civil war here; neither is there ever an outright attempt at assassination of the two wizards by the heroes. This is despite the fact that other attempts at assassination make it seem eminently achievable. This lack of realism in the plot was the one thing that made me harrumph while reading. Having said that, this is pretty standard fare in the fantasy genre.

Conclusion

This is a really good book, still loved by many, that has stood the test of time. It doesn’t have the complexity of some fantasy epics, but we are so used now to fantasy stories as trilogies, if not longer, that this is a somewhat unfair criticism. In Tigana, Kay achieves in a single novel what many authors fail to do in a series. If we are to judge it against other single, stand alone fantasy novels, then it is up there as one of the best ever written.

 

Rogue One

As a long time Star Wars fan I was upset that one of 2016’s last victims was the legendary Carrie Fisher. She was such an engaging and honest personality whose contribution to the Star Wars story shouldn’t be underestimated. There was some consolation in the release of another Star Wars film though. Rogue One kept the roster of old characters to a minimum, giving a new generation of stars a chance. I’m sure the ever generous Fisher approved.

Chronologically, the film is set just before the first Star Wars film, A New Hope. The Rebel Alliance learns of the building of the Death Star – a powerful weapon central to the Star Wars movies. This places it in familiar enough territory for even the most conservative-minded fans to accept.

Character wise, however, we have a brand new group. Much of the first part of the film is introduced in setting up the new characters, especially lead character Jyn Erso, played well by Felicity Jones. It’s fair to say it takes a while to get going and is a bit over-complicated at first. I was a bit nervous that my 10 and 9 year olds wouldn’t follow it. They were fine in the end and enjoyed it, though I wouldn’t recommend for younger age groups. It would appear that in the final edit they cut out much of Jyn’s adult backstory, which may have been quite interesting: instead we get the rather predictable tragic opening sequences, which have been done to death by Star Wars, let alone the wider genre. A strong supporting cast is added as the film goes along. Personally, however, I didn’t find these characters quite as engaging as in the original movies or the more recent outing, The Force Awakens. There certainly wasn’t a totally unique character added, although K-2SO, a sarcastic ex-imperial droid with a wiped memory, came the closest.

The plot centres on an attempt to locate a weakness in the Death Star which could be exploited by the Rebel Alliance. Once it gets going, the film moves along at a good pace and has a great climax – the last half an hour or so is the best. It is certainly dark in places, but then this is nothing new. The familiar Star Wars world is recreated effectively, with enough new additions to keep us interested. Quite a number of older characters do return for brief cameos – this is generally well managed and not intrusive. One method I was less keen on was computer generated characters rather than the use of actors – this was too techie for me and ‘broke the spell’ somewhat.

All in all this was a good addition to the Star Wars canon and recommended viewing if you’ve somehow avoided it. If you are allergic to Star Wars, there is nothing here to cure you of your terrible affliction. The film does point the way to future projects. One-off stories such as this are already in the pipeline. Eventually, I hope, film-makers will be able to go off in new directions within the Star Wars universe and this film helped people to see that they can enjoy a Star Wars movie without the Skywalkers and other familiar faces in it. Not that I or many like me will ever forget that first time they fell in love with Star Wars – and the role that a certain princess from Alderaan played in that.

On Writing and On Teaching

I did two weeks full time supply cover before the Xmas holidays. All writing projects had to be put on hold. It is very hard to do a full day’s teaching, plus the work you take home, and then have the creative energy to do anything else.

It reminded me of a reference to this by Stephen King in his book On Writing. If you haven’t come across it, this book is a great read on the writing process by one of the modern masters of fiction. There’s a lot of autobiography in there as well. King was an English teacher for two years before he hit the big time with his first bestseller, Carrie. He already had a family by this time as well. In this passage he captures the sense of self-doubt you can get in this situation. It’s certainly something I can relate to:

 

‘The bigger deal was that, for the first time, writing was hard. The problem was the teaching…by most Friday afternoons I felt as if I’d spent the week with jumper cables clamped to my brain. If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then. I could see myself thirty years on, wearing the same shabby tweed coats with patches on the elbows, potbelly rolling over my Gap khakis from too much beer…And of course I’d lie to myself, telling myself there was still time, it wasn’t too late, there were novelists who didn’t get started until they were fifty, hell, even sixty.’

 

In the end, King got his book deal and never looked back. He went on to write The Shining, The Stand, It, The Green Mile, Misery, The Dark Tower series…and more and more. If you want to know how he did it, On Writing is a good place to look.