Thursday, April 28, 2011

George R.R. Martin's A STORM OF SWORDS

First George R.R. Martin built and knocked down a towering edifice, then he let us sit back and watch everyone scramble through the rubble, and now in this third book of A Song of Ice and Fire he's got us watching the corpses rot, an epic fantastic literary version of all of those fascinating and disorienting fast-forward films of decay that pepper the films of Peter Greenaway, especially A Zed & Two Noughts. We have scavengers fighting over scraps, we have carpet beetles devouring flesh, we have smaller animals and bands of animals conducting tiny guerilla wars over who gets to fill the niches left behind by the big beasts that lay bloating and stinking in the diminishing sun -- diminishing because winter is coming, and on this world, winter lasts years.

A Storm of Swords is, in other words, rather a dark book, even for a series in which, as fans always chant approvingly, "no character is safe." And that's fine. I like dark.

But I'm starting to lose patience with this series just a bit.

As mostly a non-fantasy reader, I've really enjoyed examining the imaginary cultures Martin has created here, and the politics, and the personalities -- and there are some new facets to this to be enjoyed in this third book, including a whole new locale with its own set of folkways and circumstances* and artistic inspirations -- way more than the magical/mythological bits. I like the feel of reading historical fiction about a time and a place of which I had never heard before, and I've enjoyed the wars and conflicts and petty squabbling a very great deal.


I emphasized "petty squabbling" up there for a reason, and that's because it's a term that has crept into the discourse of these books more and more as the big story progresses. It comes up to contrast all of these things I've liked against the much bigger and more important coming conflict which is something I'm pretty sure I'm not going to like so much.

Because apparently at bottom these books seem destined to wind up having been all about yet another epic struggle to save the world itself, Big Good versus Big Evil and you'd better choose sides soon, buddy. And it's fantasy, which means monsters and magic (both of which I'm okay with overall) and... gods. Which really, I'm not.

This may sound strange coming from a self-confessed fan of ecclesiastical history and of heresies and heretics, but really it's not that I'm a fan of that stuff so much as an addict. I cannot tear myself away from stories of the ridiculous and inhumane lengths to which people will go to spread belief in their own imaginary big daddies and stamp out other people's imaginary big daddies. Our history is so full of torture and murder and mass murder and imprisonment and ostracism and persecution over differing ideas about stuff we made up that it's sickening and I still don't understand why this is so and I feel the need to, because until we do, until we all do, it's obviously not going to stop. And it needs to stop.

But so I read that stuff out of need, not because I like it or think it's interesting in and of itself. We're getting into the old territory for which my personal synecdoche is the dog and the finger: talk to your dog and point to something and the dog is most likely to look at your finger and not at whatever you're pointing at. I'm interested in what this stuff says about us and in keeping alive the hope that it can someday change, not in the stuff for its own sake.

Which is why I get really, really exasperated when all of a sudden a perfectly interesting story about people being people in a slightly different, more colorful and strange version of our own world suddenly gets splattered by great messy plops of theology and jihadism about gods and crusades that are even more made-up than the historical ones in that this is stuff Martin invented expressly for these books. This including not one but two competing monotheisms (which are the worst and most totalitarian without exception, in our world and in most made-up ones) and two vaguely polytheistic ones. And of course both of the monotheisms have bossy, hectoring spokesmen who run around lecturing everybody else about how they'd better give up whatever they were doing and believing in, and convert and join the real crusade. Your life is meaningless if it's not serving my imaginary big daddy, and even then you're still just a tool in his hands. Even if you're a king.**

I really, really hate that, and hate how it winds up deforming the story, and how it presages that every book beyond this one is going to have more of that crap until it's subsumed everything I've liked about these books and ultimately there is nothing else left.

I really hope I'm wrong about this.

At least so far, A Storm of Swords is still recognizable as the Song of Ice and Fire I've thus far been enjoying. Most of the characters are ignoring the religious fanatics, mostly because they've got more immediate problems like surviving and getting home (if they still have one) or creating a new home (if they don't). And they're still developing and deepening and experiencing all that powerful tension and jeopardy that has made this series something I've come to admire so. There are genuine shocks and turns and surprises and deaths, and Martin has very skillfully continued to add and develop new characters to keep this from becoming an epic-scaled version of Ten Little Indians, all the while feeling as perfectly free to mow down the brand new ones we're just getting to know as he does to kill or maim the folks we've lived with through three big fat books. So I'm sticking with it despite my misgivings and despite the cliff edge that I now see in the offing and despite one other pet peeve I'm developing about the series, which is some of the language.

Martin has been orders of magnitude better than a lot of the fantasy also-rans that annoyed me into just giving up the genre in disgust late last century in terms of using faux (or even carefully researched and excruciatingly historically accurate) archaisms and half-baked ideas of courtly speech, but he still has some tics that bug the hell out of me. Whenever something has happened a lot of times or a reasonably large number is wanted it's "half a hundred" which is just silly. Did anyone say that ever? Really? Even more laughable is the oath/expletive pretty much everyone in the series uses "half a hundred" times, "gods be good." I'm sure it's meant as a kind of prayer/expression of hope like our own "god willing and the creek don't rise" but whenever I see it, I stumble and giggle and read it as weirdly parental. "You gods be good now, no wild parties, and don't take any sacrifices from strangers!" Additionally, the noun compounds that keep occurring whenever a member of the nobility (which is almost everybody, at least among the major characters in these books) is under discussion: "your lord father" "his lady wife" and the ridiculous euphemisms -- a girl who has experienced menarche has "flowered" and now has "moon blood" every month, for instance, make my eyes roll harder than anything has since I at last finished Moby-Dick.

So yes, my enthusiasm for the series is flagging, and maybe if I weren't reading all four of them in a row (for yes, I have started on the next book, A Feast for Crows) at least the silly language problem might be diminished. That wouldn't address the god problem, though.

Man, I really hope I'm wrong about where all this seems to be headed. Nothing irritates me more than a shaggy god story.

*I'd warrant that George R.R. Martin is either a fan himself of the anthropological works of the fascinating Marvin "Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches" Harris, or knows someone who is, for Martin's imaginary regions within his imaginary world seem deeply informed by the kind of thinking for which Harris is famous: the material circumstances, the resources available to a people, are the biggest shapers of a people's culture. Thus the folkways and mores of people living on barren, rocky islands are very different from those who live on the tundra or surrounded by an abundance of quality temperate farmland. This could just be a by-product of Martin's basing them loosely on cultures in the real world, but sometimes it seems to me that the care he's taken here bespeaks a more deliberate effort to understand and explain why his characters are the way they are.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

George R.R. Martin's A CLASH OF KINGS

A Clash of Kings, the second book in George R.R. Martin's (insert your own favorite synonym for big here) series, A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the most restless books I have ever read.

Where the prior book, A Game of Thrones built an amazing edifice and then knocked it over with every siege engine imaginable, A Clash of Kings watches the frantic scurryings of the people who were trying to live in that edifice. And scurry they do. Whereas the prior book took place primarily in just a few locales, this one takes us all over the map and darned near off it altogether.

Something to which I hold is the idea that no story that's a story worth caring about or sticking with depends solely on surprise for keeping our interest -- hence the warning in the description text for this here blog, 'ware spoilers, especially since they're pretty much impossible to avoid in this day and age anyway. I do still have some dear friends who cover their ears, squint their eyes and dance side to side singing "la-la-la" at the merest hint of spoilers, and the degree to which I try to humor them is perhaps a mark of the esteem in which I hold them despite finding this stance very silly (they doubtless find some of my foibles just as silly and are maybe much too polite to mention them)(or I'm too dense to see that they have).*

A Clash of Kings is already pretty well spoiled; one of my nearest and dearest spent days refreshing his memory on the story so far with giant, detailed internet synopses of each book, for example, and it's pretty well impossible to hang out on social media, especially now, without stumbling into a lovingly detailed, fannish discussion of these things (at least in my social media circles; your mileage may vary, but chances are if you're reading this you're in one of them, at least peripherally, no?). So, given the stance I outlined above, you're probably expecting this post to be all kinds of spoiler-ific.

But it won't be.

It is not, though, I assure you, because A Clash of Kings or its predecessor depend on surprises to pass for quality entertainment; on the contrary. As I mentioned in my Game of Thrones post, these books are deeply and wonderfully character-driven and have, as my good friend Jason Ramboz pointed out in the comments on that post, the feel of extremely well done historical fiction, as if a man** took up Jean Plaidy's or Dorothy Dunnet's pens and drew dragons with them.

And while this means they're more than strong enough, these books, to take whatever slings and arrows of outrageous spoilage get shot at them, it seems to me a great pity to let any more be fired their way, because then one other truly extraordinary element of Martin's art is diminished thereby. And I'm not talking about the plot, at least not directly.

The first thing anyone says to me on learning that I'm reading these books for the first time (well, the first thing after some expression of jealousy that I'm having an experience he or she can never have again, that of reading them for the first time) is that "no character is safe!" And that is exactly the case. The initial blow that took down the edifice in the first book had a lot of collateral damage, and its immediate aftermath took out more -- and we're not talking minor characters here. Martin put us on notice fairly swiftly (well, at least given the scale of this story -- seven novels in all are projected, of which we currently have only four) that, just like in real life, no one's fate is certain, no matter how well-beloved or thoroughly reviled he or she is. Just like nobody gets to stay in one place for very long unless he or she is a hostage, nobody gets a free pass to live to see the next chapter.

Combine this with a brilliant stroke that Martin chose to make of having so many viewpoint characters (two new ones are added for A Clash of Kings and they are both just as superb as the ones with which his readers are already warmly familiar) and of choosing, for each stage in the story and the action, just the right character from whose vantage a narrative should be described -- and it's not always the person who is most directly involved -- and the ultimate effect is something that is truly rare in modern storytelling, a genuine sense of jeopardy for all of the big important siege-and-battle scenes and many of the subtly deadly drawing room scenes as well. That glass of wine could be poisoned; the next arrow may hit our man in the eye; a whole freaking army can switch sides and raze a castle we thought was safe and boring. And we care.

A final note, just to highlight my own most gleeful enjoyment of the series so far. Late in A Clash of Kings there comes a naval battle that is quite simply one of the most thrilling extended scenes I've ever read, not just because of the sense of genuine suspense and jeopardy I outlined above, but because the tactics employed are at once fiendishly clever, devastatingly effective, highly unusual and restrospectively obvious as hell -- but only retrospectively. The tactics laid out for this battle begin to manifest fairly early in the story and serve as an irresistible narrative hook (on a line that is admittedly festooned with hooks) that drags even the reader who is maybe getting a bit tired of all of the dynastic manouvering going on deep into the story, wondering, a la Tom Waits, what's he building in there? I had suspicions that proved mostly right, but it was still fun to speculate even as I read on and on and on and on...

And now on to A Storm of Swords

*Oddly enough, my most spoiler-allergic friends have already read all of these books, I believe. And they've held to their creed, I must give them that; it wasn't from them I got the big bad hints I refer to above.

**Yes, George R.R. Martin is a man, and these books, while not the "boy literature" a certain fluff-headed New York Times "critic" who shall remain nameless (though whom I still suspect of being a catspaw for the launch of the HBO series -- there is no such thing as bad publicity, and there is no such thing as news of a cheap insult to get the internet in a lather and get lots of eyeballs on the forum in which the insult was delivered AND the cultural product that was criticized. Just ask the dickwolves at Penny Arcade), have a very masculine feel to them even as they depict strong female characters, for while much lip service is paid to the Strong Mother/Plucky Tomboy/Brave Girl archetypes, and certainly to the Evil Queen, not a lot of the actual sucky experience of being a woman is front and center. Sure, the EQ bitches about how much it sucked that her brother got to play with swords and she got to learn to be nice, and many, many, many faceless peasant women get raped, but the horrible inner negativity, the self-doubt, the basic sense of inadequacy that even the strongest woman in the real world deals with on a daily basis is absent here. The closest we get is when one of the Strong Mothers watches a Plucky Tomboy in action and thinks how horrible it must be to be an ugly female. But THAT'S OKAY. I like that Martin did create so many feminine paragons for us to enjoy and admire, and as characters he drew them, as I've said, extraordinarily well. But he's still writing them from the outside, as he can't help but do. A man wrote this book. Go man!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

100 Books 24 - George R. R. Martin's GAME OF THRONES

I believe I have already said once or twice on this blog that I lost my taste for fantasy literature a long time ago, disgusted at the vast array of poor Tolkien pastiche and second rate romanticism I found once I was done with the good stuff, which consisted of, well, Tolkein and Michael Moorcock and... yeah, them.

So how the hell has it come to pass that I find myself George R. R. Martin's bitch and not the other way around as the meme mocks?*

It does have a bit to do with the television show that's just premiered on HBO, but not because I have watched it. No, it was the foamy-mouthed, hypersonic, jumping-up-and-down-so-rapidly-the-body-becomes-a-blur excitement that suddenly erupted from all around my circle of friends. People whose taste I had come to respect absolutely were as out of their minds with excitement as little kids at an amusement park that these books were getting a TV series. People whom I have nagged (mostly successfully) to give Tim Powers or Neal Stephenson or Alastair Reynolds or Gene Wolfe a try were nagging me in return to read these, hinting that truly they were of the same level of quality as the works of these beloved favorites of mine.

So, grudgingly and not really expecting much but struggling to keep an open mind, I delved again into Game of Thrones, which I had bought for my Kindle a year or two ago after a similar wave of urging from my friends, but had just not been able to get into. I would start the prologue -- a party riding "destriers" instead of horses (but they weren't like Gene Wolfe's destriers which were big crazy mutant horses but really, just war horses), wearing boiled leather and on some mission and spouting dynastic gibberish -- and my eyes would just slide off the e-page, my mind wandering to thoughts of some other books I have on my Kindle (my Kindle is loaded with awesome; I'm addicted to those giant bundles of public domain authors' complete works that Amazon hawks for free or so close to free as makes no difference: Balzac, Zola, Conrad, Conan Doyle, Burroughs, Dickens etc.) and before long Game of Thrones was no longer on the first page of my home screen, bumped down and down and down by other books I was reading or peeking at. Anyone who says Kindles have not fundamentally altered the reading experience is a fool.

But this time I got past my prejudices -- which, as I've said, are great; David Eddings and Terry Brooks and Stephen Brust have a lot to answer for -- and past the prologue and found that, while there were indeed dragons in this fictional world (and there still are giant dragon skulls in one hall), this was not typical "dragons and dum-dums" as my mom likes to call the genre.

Why this is so is subtle, which is why it's magnificent. As I was discussing with my nearest and dearest yesterday, Martin is kind of the anti-Tolkien in the best possible way. Where Tolkien (and to a degree his legion of imitators) was always way more interested in the mythology and philology of Middle Earth than in the narratives he set there or, I would argue, the characters, Martin has more or less just tweaked our own historical world here and there and focused on telling an intricate and involving story from the points of view of at least nine characters (so far). While he doesn't go balls-out and pull a Ted Sturgeon (Godbody is not only told from the points of view of seven or eight characters, but each point of view chapter advances the same story and is written in first person so masterfully that, as no less an admirer than Robert A. Heinlein pointed out, you could open the book to any page at random, read a sentence or two, and know immediately which character was speaking), he does bring us right into the thoughts, emotions and experiences of these characters, making even probable villains into figures with which we can at least partially identify. And none of them are paragons, either of good or evil; they are all complete and flawed human beings; even incidental characters feel believable and developed as they are evoked and disappear sometimes in just a few pages.

Martin has done this so well, in fact, that in the closing chapters' battle scenes, told, again, from multiple points of view (and in gloriously gory detail), the reader finds herself cheering, in effect, for both sides -- without feeling deranged (which, about derangement see below). Who else could do that? Certainly not Tolkein. Sturgeon, yes. Alastair Reynolds. Tim Powers probably could if he wanted to. Stephenson. Hmm!

That's pretty damned remarkable in any genre. But it's not the only reason I like Game of Thrones and am pretty sure I will like the three extant sequels (which I have already bought, because I am George R.R. Martin's bitch).

Game of Thrones, even as it concerns itself with mighty dynastic struggles over what amounts to an imperial throne, also subtly mocks those very pretensions. Wise men advise young nobles that the common people really don't care who the hell the king is because they have more important things to worry about, like surviving. Adherence to strict codes of chivalry is pretty much never rewarded, but neither is naked self-interest. Nobility and royalty are presented as the matters of luck and chance that they have always been -- and not to be taken for granted. In addition, I've found some of these nobles quite funny, perhaps in ways Martin did not intend.**

Nor are there tales of bogus elevation of the type I complained of in my last review to be had in these pages. We are not following a plucky young hero's rise from obscurity to greatness by virtue of his superior virtue, nor are we watching an unjustly disinherited one fight his way to justice and his rightful place. There is very little actual justice in this world.

But there are lots of interesting little touches -- and big ones -- for long-dead dragons aside, this world is still very much not our own collective history under other names (although famously Game of Thrones is largely inspired by the Wars of the Roses). Here, winter and summer are seasons of extreme and wildly varying duration; as Game of Thrones opens it has been summer for some seven years and everyone with half a brain is starting to brace him- or herself for a winter just as long and bad.*** The northernmost part of the civilized world is guarded by a Wall 700 feet high and built entirely out of ice -- and what this wall is keeping out is still pretty hazy as I finish this first novel. Something called Others that seem to be a hybrid of zombie and zombie master, and possibly other bad stuff as well. And there are the weirwood trees, which fascinate me utterly; remnants of a prior civilization I cannot help as imagining as exceptionally wise and cultured hobbits, the "Children of the Forest", these are white trees into which faces with red eyes (the trees' sap is red, as are the leaves) are carved and which occur only in sacred groves. There are hints these trees are sentient. I am intrigued and hope to learn more about them very soon.

And soon it will be, for as I said, I've now got all four extant books, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4), and I've pre-ordered A Dance with Dragons, supposedly out in July though I'm not holding my breath. And I'm probably going to read them all in one great gulp, even though in doing so I'll be breaking a rule I set for myself at the beginning of this challenge: that my 100 books would also be from 100 different authors. I still want to stick to this so that means, yup, I won't be counting these sequels towards my 100 books. I still think I'll make my goal, never fear.

A final note: if I still haven't convinced you that I'm impressed as hell with Game of Thrones, I stayed up so very much past my bedtime last night finishing it that I basically haven't been to bed. I haven't done that since I was a teenager. Reading Tolkien. With a flashlight under the covers, so I wouldn't get caught. 'Nuff said.

And no, I haven't watched the show yet, nor am I going to until I'm done reading.

*Said meme, for those of you too lazy to click, cometh from Neil Gaiman, who received an email from someone asking the provocative question of: doesn't George R.R. Martin owe it to me/us to hurry the hell up and get the next sequel out already? Martin being notorious for taking his time in publishing said sequels. To which Gaiman, speaking I'm sure for fan-mobbed authors everywhere, answered an emphatic no and started an uproar of hilarity that has even spawned quite a spiffy song by my good friend and fellow Functional Nerd, John Anealio. Go give it a listen - he offers it and the rest of the album on a "pay what you want" basis. Oh, internets, how I love you!

**Seriously, what a load of popinjays these guys are! We're talking some fancy, fancy armor here, kids, bright and colorful, sculpted to resemble animal heads and elemental symbols, be-feathered and color-coordinated -- and I'm not just talking tournament armor here. Fops in metal suits, these guys. It's weirdly endearing.

***I must confess this deranges me just a bit. I'm not enough of a mathematician/physicist to address it properly and am too lazy to make a real attempt, but how these extreme seasons actually work in orbital/planetary terms bugs the hell out of me. I had, of course, a similar problem with Inverted World but felt confident that Christopher Priest would answer my questions by novel's end there because figuring out exactly why that world was that way was the whole point of that novel. Here, I'm not so sure. It's a medieval world and likely no one has the science to figure out this world's orbit around its sun, or axial tilt. It's even possible that Martin is not at all interested in this and it's a freaking flat world with a dome of a sky across which the sun and moon chase each other or something. It's a horrible distraction and I fully accept that it's my problem and not Martin's but it's really kind of the only thing that spoils the book for me. Just, you know, not enough to make me stop reading, obviously.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Kate of Mind Podcast Returns -- Sort Of


Just for the hell of it, and because I promised a new twitter follower that I would, I recorded a reading of my latest ShortStoryAThon entry, "Proper Attire Required." Click HERE to go have a listen.

Libsyn has made some changes since I last uploaded anything there, so I may have screwed something up, but I'm pretty sure that if you are a subscriber to the old podcast in iTunes you should get this automatically. Do let me know if that isn't working.

Also, if you'd like to hear more ShortStoryAThon silliness, the whole group recorded one of our commissions and it's available HERE. Tube Tops and Tire Irons. You know you wanna.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

100 Books 23 - Steve Niles' CAL MCDONALD DETECTIVE TALES

CAL MCDONALD DETECTIVE TALES: The Y Incision AND Nocturnal Invasions
By Steve Niles
Illustrations & Cover by Kelley Jones Bloody Pulp Books
I have to applaud that this slim little volume even exists. I love that author Steve Niles -- whose name even you non-comics fans should at least dimly recognize when I remind you that it was a comics series of his that became the rather awesome horror film 30 Days of Night, in which vampires menace a small town above the Arctic Circle where the sun won't shine for, yes, 30 days. But that's hardly been Niles' only trick.

For it is he who brought the world Cal McDonald, a pill-popping private eye so hard-boiled that were he an actual egg, his yolk would probably be a dwarf star, a detective who investigates cases that involve way more monsters and mad scientists than gun molls and gangsters. His best friend is a ghoul, to give you some idea. He's appeared in comics, novels, supposed to show up in a film or two someday, and now here he is in some special edition chapbooks Niles put together with illustrator supreme, Kelley Jones (whose work on the original run of Neil Gaiman's Sandman still makes my jaw drop more than a decade later).

Neither "The Y-Shaped Incision" nor "Nocturnal Invasions" are new stories, having appeared in anthologies, but they more than deserve the lavish treatment they got here. Full-page black and white Kelley Jones illustrations, deliberately left a bit rough with the original sketchy pencil lines showing through the lusciously deep inks, are scattered throughout, and the book comes sealed in a mock evidence bag on which someone has even written the ship date in sharpie. And you get it all for just five bucks Amurrican. 'Nuff said.

In this adventure, he is dealing with a seriously macabre mortician, Henry Thicke, who, Cal tells us early on "even creeps out the ghouls" and "reeks of freak." Thicke has had some bodies disappear entirely from his basement -- and then some only partly disappear. What did this and why? What could be creepier than Henry Thicke himself? How much appalling fun can a reader have in so few pages?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

The second story, "Nocturnal Invasions," is less innovative, written originally for an "erotic horror" anthology (SO not my bag), but still a good romp as a variation on the classic "what the hell did I do last night" lost-weekend theme. With vampires, both real and wannabe. And one could even choose to regard its ending as a happy one.

Subject matter aside, illustration aside, these two stories are simply a (slightly sicko) pleasure to read. Niles' years writing for comics have given him a crisp and terse prose style that is perfect for this supernatural/noir hybrid genre he's working in here, and a talent for visual description that puts the reader right next to the ick even when Jones isn't drawing her a picture. The narrative voice he's developed for McDonald is exactly right for the character -- candid, vulgar, tough and colorful. Very, very colorful: "His upper and lower intestines were splashed on the cement like vomited Udon noodles." Yeah, like that. Which means Niles' writing is also not for the squeamish, or at least not for those who let their squeamishness get in the way of enjoying a bloody good story, which these most certainly are.

Huzzah, Steve Niles. Huzzah, Kelley Jones. Huzzah, Bloody Pulp Books.

Friday, April 15, 2011

100 Books 22 - Mike Shevdon's SIXTY ONE NAILS

Are you one of those strange souls who secretly has wished that Neal Stephenson would try his hand at urban fantasy? Then brother, have I got the book for you.

Mike Shevdon's Sixty One Nails is steeped in the history and geography of London and its environs in much the same way Stephenson's staggeringly awesome Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World) is; reference is even made in Sixty One Nails to the Trial of the Pyx, a ritual test of Britain's coinage that Stephenson made into a major plot point.

But Sixty One Nails is very much its own fantastic, slightly creepy animal.

I have a problem with fantasy, "urban" or otherwise ("urban" fantasy being fantasy that is set, more or less, in our actual modern world: mages tend to be goth poster boys in black leather trench coats, trolls live in sewers, fairies dance in city parks, witches fly blissfully unimpeded over dense freeway traffic, etc.) and it's largely socio-political. I dislike the genre's reactionary fixation on the glamor of feudalism. It's a rare fantasy tale, whether epic sword-and-sorcery or urban spell-and-cell-phone, that does not in some sense involve kings and queens, lords and ladies, anointed heroes; the "ordinary" characters in these are generally either just figurants filling out the background of scenes and washing master's feet or are the early-instar forms of our hero who either rises from his humble origins to take his place among the elite or was secretly a member of the elite in the first place.

Either way, it's almost always a focus on who someone's parents were that determines how much they matter.

I can understand the romance of this, of course. It's nice to dream of being special and privileged even if one isn't inclined to wish for power over others (or if one doesn't want to admit to having those wishes) -- for of course no one ever fantasizes about being the guy shoveling horse dung out of the royal stables in Rohan or Melnibone. It's escapism par excellance, even if we don't also add in the factors of magic and monsters -- oh, to not only be a prince but also be able to lock doors or light lanterns without getting up from the couch (that we can do that now with remote controls, even The Clapper, is not so romantic, though far cooler in my opinion).

But it's fundamentally undemocratic, and I have not been able to get over that since I first realized it when I got annoyed and threw a copy of some tiresome David Eddings or Terry Brooks tome against the wall as a teenager.

So overall, it takes a damned interesting book to make me willing to tolerate those trappings. And yeah, Sixty One Nails did the job, but just barely.

We're not quite to the point of dealing with actual kings and queens and aristocrats here in Shevdon's world, at least not directly, which helps, but it's borderline. We do come very close to my triggers, for Sixty One Nails concerns an ordinary man with a job and an ex-wife and a daughter and a suburban flat, who suddenly manifests one day as a descendent of the Feyre (basically, fairies), and is just as suddenly embroiled in the kind of tiresome immortal/magical court politics that make all of those White Wolf role-playing games something I would chew off a limb to get out of playing. It's a problem no fantasy author has ever solved well, how to create a race of nearly omnipotent beings and then hamstring them so they can't just take over the world. Here as is so often the case, the hamstringing is done by an intricate and arbitrary set of hierarchies, feudal relationships and rituals that, at bottom, rely as much on analogy as anything, just like the magic does.

What saved the book for me were two things: the characters and the basic idea out of which Sixty One Nails seems to have grown.

Our Arthur Dent-ish protagonist, Niall, quickly renamed Rabbit by the Fey woman who saves his life from a magical assault disguised as a heart attack, is extraordinarily likeable and grounded. Plunged into a weird new world with only this Fey woman's say so that anything is true, he reacts like any of us would: he's worried about his family, and he has trouble adjusting, even when he discovers that he has cool powers he could never have imagined. He is descended partly from the Feyre, who have cross-bred with humans from time to time to restore the hybrid vigor they seem to have lost.

Blackbird, too, is a half-breed, as she reveals soon after she rescues him from his invisible attackers, the Untainted* -- who, she soon realizes, are not just after him as another walking insult to their bloodlines, but because he shall play a pivotal role in renewing a ritual that keeps them from being able to run rampant through the mundane world sucking things dry and turning things to dust and generally just being all-powerful bastards.

And this ritual is where Shevdon is so very, very clever, and is the reason I kept reading despite all of these elements that I really don't like.

The 61 nails in Sixty One Nails are part of a real ceremony conducted annually in London since at least Queen Elizabeth I's reign. It's a fascinating and rather bizarre tradition called quit rents, in which the Queen's Remembrancer receives six horseshoes and 61 nails from the City of London in lieu of a more common rental fee on two pieces of land, The Moors in Shropshire and The Forge in London's Tweezer's Alley. Also in payment, two knives, one dull and one sharp, are presented and tested on a twig of hazel. It's all very solemn and weird and nobody seems to know the story or the reasoning behind it.

So Mike Shevdon, that clever lad, made one up. And yes, it glorifies human royalty and provides another bogus justification for some people being born to be better and more important than others, but it also provides an unusual peg to hang the fantasy quest narrative, and for me, that made all the difference -- that and one other thing.

Mike Shevdon seems a very enjoyably humble writer. The narrative voice he created for Niall/Rabbit is unpretentious, natural, and never gets in the way of the crazy story he's telling. There is no showing off, no pseudo-poetic gobbledygook, no flowery descriptions. Shevdon's prose is elegant and simple and winds up being invisible. We notice the story, not the writer. And that's a rare and pretty fantastic thing.

*The Untainted rings false as a name for the essentially evil beings of the Seventh Court, who do things like spread deadly supernatural mildew called Darkspore, until the reader realizes, about halfway through the book in my case, that the name was not bestowed on them, but one they gave themselves. From their perspective, they are indeed "untainted" because they alone have never cross-bred with humans and refuse ever to do so. Humans are the taint. Oh.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Another "Dino-Faux" Comic

OK, it's hard to photograph a whiteboard, especially when you're in a hurry. Lots to do tonight. But since it's probably hard to read even if you click on the image to Dino-size it, a quick transcript:

1. T-Rex: WOW! I think I'm almost done with this bad boy...

2. T-Rex: Two and a half years and I'm ALMOST DONE!

3. T-Rex: I must stomp for joy now. Dromiceomimus: I was beginning to wonder if that "bad boy" would be done before the comet came. You know. Extinction...

4. Utahraptor: But don't rush it. It'll totally show that you rushed it.

5. T-Rex: I'm not.. Utahraptor: Assuming you give a crap about Quality.

6. T-Rex: Utahraptor! You dick! You're like a DINO-DEMOTIVATION POSTER. But really, I'm almost done!


It's going to be a while before I can disclose what this project is. Truly it has been two and a half years in the making, and probably much more time will pass before the public gets to see it. But I'm approaching a major milestone and I'm chasing it down for all I'm worth. Damn, it feels good! Thanks always to the creator of Dinosaur Comics, Ryan Q. North, for making this unique outlet here possible. Go show him some love.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cool Flicks: Ian McKellen's RICHARD III

I suppose to be absolutely correct I should refer to this as Richard Loncraine's Richard III but it seems so very much McKellen's baby -- it's perhaps the mark of a true actor to manifest a desire to pretend to be Richard III or Shylock or MacBeth at some point, no? -- that I can't help but call it such. McKellen shares screenplay credit with Loncraine and, of course, William Shakespeare, and he is also an executive producer. And he has much of which to be proud in this big, noisy adaptation of one of Shakespeare's nastier plays.

I do not say noisy idly. From the roars of the MGM Lion -- rumbling and dog-startling over my Harman Kardon Soundsticks III -- to the swinging soundtrack music, full of deep, heavy bass plunks and fruity vocals, to the climactic Battle of Bosworth Fields (about which more anon) (also highly dog-startling) this is a film to match aurally the bombastic dreams of a would-be tyrant. Zounds!

Directors love to do up Shakespeare's plays in alternate settings, don't they? They're occasionally happy to let the actors wear pseudo-Elizabethan garb but more often they want other costumes, other eras (sometimes, as in projects like 10 Things I Hate About You, even other dialogue). For this Richard III Loncraine and McKellen have imagined a sort of alternate Edwardian England for this tale of the last Plantagenet (Edwardian as in Edward VII, in the early 20th century; not as in Edward IV, Richard III's brother, who reigned in the mid 15th. I found the superimposition of the Yorkist's reign over that of the first Windsor an odd one, but as it gave an excuse for lots of lovely cars and Art Deco sets and costumes I let it go). Thus the opening scenes, in which Richard murders Edward of Lancaster and his father, King Henry VI can feature an opulent Art Deco study and library being destroyed by a great big tank smashing through its outer wall, from which Richard emerges with a machine gun, blowing Edward to bits and then firing out the movie's title letter-by-letter. One thinks of Pulp Fiction. Richard III was a Bad Motherfucker.

All in all, I was amazed at how well this really quite brutal story translated to these ravishingly elegant settings. I suppose the casting here helped quite a lot: Dame Maggie Smith as the Duchess of York, Richard's mother; Jim Broadbent as the Duke of Buckingham; Jim Carter as Lord Hastings; Nigel Hawthorne as the Duke of Clarence... and some amusing casting choices as well, like Tim McInnery, whom I first came to know as the silly Lord Percy in Blackadder (the first series of which took this self-same play as its springboard into hilarity), as Catesby and Robert Downey Jr. as Lord Rivers and Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth, chosen perhaps for the talent for histrionics she displayed so well in American Beauty, much-needed to play a woman who not only loses her husband but also her two sons, the latter to a fabled murder plot in the Tower of London, in the course of the play. I give Bening points for not even trying to fake an English accent.

What really sells it all, of course, is McKellen himself, from his very first lines, morphed for this film into a light after-dinner speech at his brother's posh coronation ball. He gets up before a gorgeous Unidyne microphone to observe "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York" to light applause and polite, inappropriately timed laughter from a crowd that really isn't listening, eager to get on with its gaiety; the latter part of this famous speech he does not impose on that audience, but shares with us as he leaves the stage and retreats to his private apartments, there to confront himself in the mirror and reveal "I am determined to prove a villain." It's all right there in that opening speech, as Richard III should be, whether in doublet and hose or white tie and tails.

This film teems with brilliant re-imaginings like that; later in the play, after Richard has himself been crowned, he gloats over a black and white newsreel of the event as he tries to tempt Buckingham to murder the Princes in the Tower -- and plans to do away with his no-longer-useful wife, Anne (Kirsten Scott-Thomas, who does Anne as a numbed drug-addict, shooting up hourly just to be able to tolerate her life with Richard). The backdrop of Richard's finest moment playing out in grainy black and white even as he plans his foulest deeds yet works deliciously well.

Then there's the Battle of Bosworth Fields. Oh my, they sure gave us a lot of battle. Henry Tudor (played here by Dominic "The Wire" West with his native accent but an entirely wooden demeanor) has barely made appearance in the film (and he's not much more present in the play) and suddenly he shows up, come from France with a full modern army complete with bombers and tanks. I found this a stretch; a pretender to a throne in the late middle ages might plausibly raise a good number of knights and peasants to fight in his cause, and these all supplied their own horses, weapons and armor, but that one might somehow be able to raise planes and pilots and tanks and tank drivers strained my credulity to its utmost. I realize it was probably the only way to be consistent with the rest of the society invented for the film, but it didn't quite work for me -- though of course I loved this film's version of Richard's death as he plunged backwards, grinning manically at the camera, into a fireball below, almost exactly prefiguring Gollum's in the last Lord of the Rings film (in which, of course, McKellen played Gandalf, to much acclaim).

So once again, I must tip my hat to Juan and Lee at Movies You May Have Missed for bringing my attention to this splendid film I would, indeed, have missed -- for I tend to prefer my Shakespeare films more traditionally rendered, with my favorite example being Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. I think I can hear Lee's teeth grinding from here...

Monday, April 4, 2011

My Dinosaur Comics White Board Is Here!

Click to Dino-Size!

My friends on Twitter already know of my great enthusiasm for Dinosaur Comics, that wondrous webcomic whereat Ryan Q. North makes his daily commentary on modern life as viewed through the perspectives of a dysfunctional and self-centered Tyrannosaurus Rex (who is addicted to stomping on houses and cars, Godzilla-style), a Dromiceiomimus who is sort of T-Rex's ex, and T's comedic foil Utahraptor, who exists mostly to deflate T's giant ego bubbles.

And yes, it uses the exact same artwork every day -- yet still manages to be fresh and hilarious. Take a look through the archives and you'll see what I mean. Watch out for in-jokes that have been known to appear upon my own personal chest in the form of tee-shirtery.

Today the Mud Room of Squee brought me more Dinosaur Comics goodness in the form of a white board with the standard art permanently affixed. I can now leave notes to myself like which very logical place I put the peanut butter away in or let the two hemispheres of my brain duke it out in battles royal whenever I want, just like Ryan does!

Above is my first one, mocking my enthusiasm for Dark Shadows and also making a lame joke about hipsters and the difference between bird-hipped and lizard-hipped dinosaurs which I'm sure Ryan could do better (and maybe has done) but then again, maybe not.