Sunday, June 24, 2012

George R. R. Martin -- “A Clash of Kings”

*SPOILER ALERT* If you haven’t read the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire read no further! Instead scroll to the bottom of this page for a fairly-amusing picture.

This book should have been called “Waiting for a Clash.” A great deal of the book  is spent with one character or another brooding and planning an attack on another, either with a grand military or with wits alone. It is at once compelling and excruciatingly slow depending on the chapter. Each major character finds themselves in a precarious position where they can trust no one and where they must desperately seek allies to survive. The navigation is slow and tense. While the reader desperately wants to know whether the Lannister’s will retain power and if Robb Stark will be able to become the King in the North, Martin instead focuses much of the action on the squabbles of other houses. The book’s purpose seems to be to align everything for an all-out clash, but the wait is difficult.
Interestingly, Catelyn Tully and Tyrion Lannister find themselves on parallel journeys. Each is forced to play peacemaker and alliance forger for their families. Both go from one nest of vipers to the next. Catelyn must attempt to keep both the cold Stannis Baratheon and the arrogant Renly Baratheon from turning on her family or each other. Tyrion must try to retain order in a King’s Landing, contending not only with a starving and violent peasantry and opposing armies but the psychotic boy-king Joffrey and his vicious mother Cersei. Dowager queen Cersei Lannister is by far the least likable character of the first book and she does not increase her popularity in “A Clash of Kings.” Instead she grows increasingly cruel and psychotic, as paranoia and hunger for power consume any sense of reason she may have had left.
The breakout character of the book is by far Theon Greyjoy. While Theon was previously a blip on the map, he explodes in this book. After ten years as a ward in Winterfell, Theon returns home to take his place as heir to the throne of the Iron Islands, a cluster of nearly-inhospitable rocks. When his father and sister greet him with derision Theon determines to prove himself and the results are unimaginable. I sincerely hope Martin spends more time on the Iron Islands. I was fascinated by the local deity: “The Drowned God.” This is a god that was drowned in the unforgiving oceans surrounding the Iron Islands by a wicked storm god. This only strengthens the islanders’ belief as “what is dead may never die.”
If you enjoyed “A Game of Thrones” you will certainly be compelled to read “A Clash of Kings.” It serves its place in the series’ narrative, but do not expect a stand-alone story. This is for readers of “A Song of Ice and Fire” only. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Haruki Murakami - 1Q84

Many friends have given me rave reviews of Murakami’s works over the years, both friends who are literature addicts (like myself) and others who barely pick up one book a year. Needless to say, I had to try out his reality-bending worlds for myself.
                1Q84 bounces back between Aomame (whose name means “green pea pod” in Japanese) and Tengo. Though both are lonely 30 year-old Japanese professionals the overlap between them initially seems to end there. Tengo is a cram school math teacher. He is hired on to ghost edit a fantastical story entitled Air Chrysalis written by a beautiful, but strange, 17 year-old girl. Aomame is a personal trainer who moonlights as an assassin, killing of perpetrators of domestic abuse.
                Their connection becomes clear as both characters, for their own reasons, investigate a mysterious religious cult. As the book progresses Tengo and Aomame get closer to the truth and to finding each other. They also begin to suspect they are living in a world no their own; a world where there are two moons and supernatural beings known as “Little People” may be wreaking havoc. Aomame entitles this world “1Q84” instead of the calendar year of “1984.”
                By combining realism with fantastical elements Murakami creates a universe where reality is hard to discern and impossible things lie just beneath the surface. The stable, clear lives of Aomame and Tengo are suddenly swept away despite their best efforts to stay completely in control.
                Murakami has an eerie, wondrous style unlike any other. I am reminded of a pristine winter landscape with a skittish deer at the center. It is beautiful, captivating, yet tense and fragile. Despite wildly varying parts everything seems natural. In 1Q84 Murakami’s style is impeccable and wrapped around a plot as riveting as it is bizarre (and it is quite bizarre).