Review: Red Rising (Series), by Pierce Brown

It’s been a while since I last read a YA novel, and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series (Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star) has reminded me exactly what I like and dislike about the genre. Obviously (and at the risk of sounding very pretentious), the trilogy is no great intellectual test, much as it harbours occasional illusions of being such. But in terms of being something that, to use the unfortunate cliché, is “a real page-turner”, you can’t get much better than this. And so, to offer a quick response, Red Rising is something I would read again, but only in the near-impossible event that I had nothing better to read.

The front cover offers up an interesting quotation: “Ender, Katniss, and now Darrow”, the latter referring to Darrow of Lykos, the protagonist of Brown’s series. Unfortunately, I have to dispute this. Much like the book he’s contained within, Darrow is a lot of fun to read about, but he comes across as weirdly flat. And even then, Ender and Katniss seem like strange company to place him. Loath as I am to say it, Orson Scott Card managed a nigh-impossible feat in Ender Wiggin, creating a strange, oddly punchable not-really-hero in a place where a hero was needed. And Katniss, as generic as she might be on the surface, has a certain tragic brilliance to her character. Darrow, on the other hand, is a “full-blooded American hero” with the occasional twinges of conscience that don’t feel as much a part of his character as they are just things Brown decided he should probably put in to give his series a bit of emotional nuance. Which is odd, considering that his story is one that perfectly suits a battle of tragic moral conscience. Unfortunately, Darrow the Gold is a bit more lively than Darrow the Red, so the latter tends to get drowned out.

Luckily, he’s saved by a life-raft of half a dozen fantastic secondary characters. One of my favourite things about Red Rising, is that though Darrow is central to the action, the Reaper is no Mockingjay. He has something that vaguely resembles Katniss’s press and make-up team, but unlike in The Hunger Games, a lot of the supporting cast stand up by themselves. Brown could have written this story from the viewpoint of Mustang, or Cassius, or even Sevro, and it would have been nearly as interesting – though, of course, Darrow’s Red subplot would be cast aside in favour of other storylines. There’s definitely room for a side novella here and there.

Darrow’s problems as a character are somewhat symptomatic of the novel’s problems as a whole. Brown is, on the whole, quite heavy-handed, both in terms of style and the impact of what he writes. The sentences are sharp and weighty, and this style translates itself well in the action scenes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work so well in the sequences where he tries to convince himself that Red Rising has a serious intellectual purpose. These sections are few and far between, and sometimes they work, but they’re usually communicated in such a ham-fisted way that they aren’t fit for anything except being plastered on a T-shirt. Or maybe Brown does know this, and he’s mocking us. Roque, the archetypal warrior-poet, speaking entirely in classical allusions, seems to be a caricature of a ‘high society’ stereotype. (Not that this diminishes Roque, though; he’s one of the best characters in the series.) Indeed, Gold as a whole is a strange, hyper-conservative faction which insists on stealing from the ‘glorious past’ – which they themselves destroyed – to build a new Roman Empire in space.

Of the three novels, Red Rising is probably the weakest, largely due to an early-middle section where nothing very much seems to be happening. But at the same time, its first five chapters are very strong. “On Mars there is not much gravity. So you have to pull the feet to break the neck. They let the loved ones do it.” And I’m sold. Just like that. A side note: this shows how effective Brown’s punchy writing can be. But if you had to read this for a whole novel, you’d get irritated quickly. Bloodydamn quickly. Another weakness in the first novel is the disconnect between the opening, with the Reds, and the latter part with the Golds, but this division remains manageable – though it is a bit more problematic in Morning Star, where Darrow seems to forget his birth family altogether.

Golden Son was a very different experience. My gut reaction is that I enjoyed this one most, probably for the way it brought all our main characters together on one side of the war, expanded on the Golds – who, despite their prejudices, are by far the most complex of the colors – and for the brilliant ending that isn’t at all what you’d expect from YA. However, in retrospect, it’s a bit thin on the ground in terms of having any actual themes. At least it wasn’t Catching Fire, though.

Morning Star is the strongest of the three novels in terms of a character arc for Darrow; I liked how the whole Mustang and Eo situation resolved itself with a decision that had consequences for the entirety of the war, instead of just being a fairly unexciting internal battle. But again, parts of Morning Star showcase the very weakest parts of Brown’s writing. I’m going to have to indulge in a bit of hypocrisy here, because I’ve done this in my own writing, but there’s a particularly irritating stylistic quirk of his where he withholds information from the reader, recurrent from Golden Son, where, during a fight with Cassius au Bellona, Darrow suddenly reveals that he’s been taught in secret by the Society’s very own Mr. Miyagi, and is now an international assassin. Surprise! There are a few other things like this that get on my nerves.

Once again, I think this is a review that sounds far more critical than it actually is. I did enjoy Red Rising, or whatever this series is called, and found it to be something of a comfort read – probably a strange sentiment, considering the amount of blood and murder in this series, but a comfort read doesn’t necessarily need to be all happy-go-lucky, just something that can be read without having your brain ache too much.

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Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer

I’m still not entirely sure how I came across Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and I’m even less sure why I decided it was something I might want to read. Nonetheless, it was certainly insightful, even if I have to agree with an oft-shared view that the novel’s sentimentality is overdone to the extreme that I felt Foer was trying to drag an emotion out of me, rather than let it naturally occur.

Myself, I’m too young to properly remember 9/11, per se, so the conversation I have with myself about this event is doubtless very different to that of older reviewers. However, I’ve grown up in a world that has been moulded by its fallout in every possible way: from the seemingly endless conflict in countries that seem so far away, to the suspicion in which we view foreign culture both on the street and in media, to the sheer weight which politicians across the world attach to it in accordance with their rhetoric.

Foer’s novel is set in this context, in New York in 2003, two years after “the worst day”, as nine-year-old Oskar Schell refers to it throughout. The impact of 9/11 is never lost on Oskar, and through his eyes we see the sheer unfairness of the attacks. Oskar’s relationship with his father, Thomas Schell, is seen only in glimpses, but these parts bring out the best of Foer’s writing. But at the same time, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about the impact and effect of the loss, and not the moment of the loss itself. The narrative flashes back to 9/11 and the subsequent days, but doesn’t linger with it. And so I struggle to call Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a true 9/11 novel (not that I’ve read in this genre), as it’s about Oskar, not the circumstances he faces.

What the setting does offer, though, is a clear comparison between the internal and external circumstances that surround Oskar’s character. Oskar, a budding explorer, scientist, and sporadic French-language afficionado, is naturally curious: he’s the child who tugs on your hand and asks why? Why? Why? But the genius of this novel is that there is no why, and we know this from the start. I had no illusions that Oskar’s search for one of New York’s 162 million locks would end in some sort of miraculous realisation on the part of his character that resolves his crisis. Yet by showing us the world through the eyes of a nine-year old narrator without that foresight, we do get the sense that maybe, just maybe, there could be something at the end of the road. There won’t be, but there could be. But by plying that line of childish wonder and by taking advantage of our cynicism at the same time, Foer tugs at the heart.

The only thing is, he tugs too hard. I always got the sense that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close wanted to make me cry, and that’s probably the reason why it never made me do that. It’s definitely an affecting novel, but its attempts at emotionality, particularly in the secondary stories, feel a bit tired. By the time I’d untangled the threads of Oskar’s grandmother and grandfather’s narratives, I just didn’t feel the ‘right’ emotions. It doesn’t help that Foer’s use of form and language during these sections is incredibly unnatural. The author is a lecturer on Creative Writing at New York University, and much of his work speaks in testament to that, only not in a good way: instead of coming across as natural, it’s more of a matter of:

  Look at me, I can write a silent protagonist.

            Look at me, I can write in a weird excessively paragraphed style.

            Look at me, I can write about Nothings and Somethings and Nouns.

I think the main reason the ‘secondary’ parts of the novel failed is because his protagonists here aren’t as interesting as Oskar. I’ve heard critiques that Oskar Schell is just Jonathan Safran Foer in a nine-year-old’s body. There’s definitely some validity to this claim – Oskar is far more eccentric than the most eccentric kids, and the complete lack of adult supervision in his life is staggering and at times off-putting – but at the same time, I think it was meant to be like this. All art is self-reflection. What’s the point of writing for other people if you can’t write for yourself at the same time?

So, yes, the unrealities are excusable. Because when you think about, the world of New York in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn’t real, and it isn’t supposed to be. It’s a sort of Van Gogh dreamworld fantasy, and as such, Oskar, eccentric, eclectic, is the perfect person to turn up here. Stream-of-consciousness is one of my favourite styles of writing, and while Foer is relatively obedient to the narrative compared to some other writers, a ‘tethered’ Oskar wouldn’t be at all interesting. ‘Interesting’ is quite a generic word to describe the character, and with adjectives failing me, I’ll say “I love him in the book. If I met him in real life I’d probably want to smack him.”

The other characters in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – the near-endless stream of people named Black, in particular – also smack of this eccentricity, even the ‘most normal’ of them. But it seems likely to me that this is because we saw them through Oskar’s eyes, and not because they are infinitely interesting in themselves.

Regardless of the problems that puncture the story just enough to make it distractingly imperfect, the ending of the book is one of the best endings I’ve ever read. As I’ve mentioned earlier, we’re expected to know that Oskar’s quest will be ultimately unsuccessful in the way that he wants it to be. And, in what is definitely an interesting literary choice, the narrative climax of the story – the digging up of Thomas Schell’s grave – is skipped over in favour of propelling us on to the denouement.

Except in this ending, Oskar doesn’t find closure. Rather, he finds the opposite, that the world is open before him, and there’s no meaning to it, at all.

But we should have known that from the beginning. From the open-ended title – does it refer to the birds outside Mr. Black’s apartment? Or to the beating of a child’s heart? Or to the relationship between the three main protagonists? Or to a United Airlines flight with hijackers on board? What about a teakettle? – to the mystery we know is impossible to solve adequately, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is always a novel about unanswerable questions. With 9/11, there is no why – we can explain the planes and the smoke and the things that come after, but we can never explain the people or the way that fate dances this way and that. Whatever order Oskar Schell once knew in his life is gone. To quote the title of Seamus Heaney’s poem on the similar subject, “Anything Can Happen” in life, and in a way, that is what makes it beautiful.

This novel isn’t world-changing in a literary sense. I might even go so far as to say it fails in trying to make its literary point, which means that, in places, it comes across as extremely pretentious. But the emotionality of it makes up for its failings, once it steers clear of the initial manipulation. There are creative choices in this novel that I think only Foer can understand, and for me, the final pages were one of these. And then those last lines of text, those final reflections of a boy who always had to know why, but eventually realised that knowing why was impossible, were genuinely heartwrenching.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 7, “The Dragon and the Wolf”

“The Dragon and the Wolf” isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t quite make up for the narrative failings of the previous two episodes, but it’s spectacular in terms of the acting, directing, and cinematography, and a massive 81 minute runtime means that there’s more space for everything to play out instead of being rushed. The scenes in King’s Landing felt like a return to GoT of old, and the confrontation between Tyrion and Cersei may be my favourite scene of the season.

It’s a very well-paced episode, but its greatest strength lies in the way it weaves its character arcs. Arguably, there’s as much character development in “The Dragon and the Wolf” than there was in the previous six episodes of the season. Tyrion, Jaime, Cersei, Daenerys and Jon all have a mini-arc of their own in this episode, and you can make the same argument for Theon, Arya and Sansa.

My issues with “The Dragon and the Wolf” are mostly limited to minor quibbles (Jon’s name is Aegon? Seriously?) and the fact that it doesn’t do quite enough to resolve some of the season’s earlier storytelling issues. Yes, Sansa and Arya were revealed to be on the same side, but that doesn’t excuse her weird behaviour in “Beyond the Wall”. Also, the lack of #CLEGANEBOWL was concerning, but #BoatSex mostly made up for it.

King’s Landing would be the logical place to start this review. I was a little concerned to see that the first dialogue of the episode was some of the usual ‘witty banter’ that Benioff and Weiss are known for, but the conversation quickly took a turn away from cocks and eunuchs to something more prescient. I don’t know how Grey Worm got to King’s Landing, or who controls Casterly Rock, or how Euron sailed back round Westeros (again), but I’ll let these problems slide, for now.

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The first 12 minutes of the episode concern the buildup to the parley in the Dragonpit, and it was good to see the reunion between Podrick, Bronn and Tyrion – something I was pleasantly surprised by, as I’d completely forgot it was happening. Brienne and the Hound also bonded over their not-quite-parental ‘love’ of Arya Stark. The location used for the Dragonpit and the scenes surrounding it is beautiful, and the long takes are fantastic. More on the cinematography later.

Things get going once our main characters reach the Dragonpit. Dany comes soaring on her dragon, in a scene that, frankly, is a little shoddy, but would have been impossible for the VFX team to make believable. Everyone shares some tense looks. We get teased for Cleganebowl, though ultimately the brawl that was promised never takes place. But that’s okay, because this is a talky episode, and a massive fight in the middle would have been a bit distracting. On that note, I can see why they got Jeremy Podeswa to helm this one, because the man is a master at long, complicated dialogue scenes. Between his excellent blocking and direction and the damn-near-flawless performances of all the actors (both the five principals and the supporting cast), the whole Dragonpit scene is one of the show’s most memorable, and it doesn’t rely on fancy VFX. And to give credit where credit is due, Benioff and Weiss wrote some truly outstanding material for this scene.

However, the best scene of the episode is the one which comes after, where Tyrion ominously walks back into the Red Keep and sits down for an audience with Cersei. Lena Headey’s Emmy is long-overdue, but if there’s ever been a scene that is Emmy gold, I think this is it. Headey and Dinklage have some of the best screen chemistry in the entire show, playing off each other’s subtle cues perfectly. Headey’s Cersei is like an onion; peel away the layers and you will reveal a vulnerable soul, but beneath that vulnerability is iron, and beneath that are yet more layers. It’s a strange world where a woman’s reluctance to kill her brother – one of the show’s most beloved characters – is heartbreaking. And as for Dinklage, his performance opposite Headey reminded me of why I loved his character so much in Seasons 1-4. This is also one of Dinklage’s very best episodes, matching up to “Baelor” and “Blackwater” – the former of which he won an Emmy for. It was one hell of a performance. And once again, this scene was impeccably directed and shot.

Cersei comes out and proclaims that she’s going to fight alongside the Northmen. Of course, this is a lie – like her pregnancy, I suspect – and I think Tyrion knows it. Nonetheless, Jon and Dany accept that this is the best that they’re going to get, and head off to Dragonstone together. The rest of the King’s Landing arc is the build-up to Jaime finally saying what we’ve been waiting for him to say since Season 5: inspired by Brienne and Tyrion, he tells Cersei that if she wants to take back the Seven Kingdoms, she can bloody well do it alone. There’s a moment where Ser Gregor threatens Jaime – to which I had a genuine “holy shit” reaction – but then, in a brilliant scene that parallels the Cersei-Tyrion encounter from earlier – she shows mercy once again, and displays some weakness under that cold veneer. She heads off after him, but stops himself. She must be a queen.

Over on Dragonstone, there’s a council meeting where Jorah attempts to subtly cockblock Jon, but the real point of these scenes are the conclusion to Theon’s fantastic arc in this episode. While I felt the “I have no balls” trick was a little cheesy and over-the-top, it does a wonderful job in keeping to the ironborn idea that “what is dead may never die”.  Theon gets back up, beats the shit out of ratface, and then falls down in the sand. This shot, designed by DP Gregory Middleton, with Theon in the foreground and the bluffs of Dragonstone behind him, is absolutely perfect.

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Up at Winterfell, Littlefinger gets schooled. Sophie Turner’s performance as Sansa was so genuine that I believed that Sansa had fallen for his shtick, and that this was ‘bad writing by those untalented hacks D & D’. So I was pleasantly surprised when the scene was turned on its head, and Sansa, in a brilliantly written scene, turns Littlefinger’s words on him and has him comprehensively torn to pieces. Then there’s Aidan Gillen’s reaction; he goes from mild confusion to desperation to a complete broken man in a scene that demonstrates the full extent of the actor’s ability. Farewell, Littlefinger. I won’t miss you… but at the same time, like all good villains, I think I will.

On the whole, I still don’t think this justifies the Winterfell storyline this year, which has been damnably poor in places. Though at the same time, I don’t think Benioff and Weiss could have conceivably written anything else. Winterfell is “on hold” this season, and for the plot to last until the finale, Littlefinger has to make some dumb decisions and Bran has to not bother talking to his sisters.

The scene ends with Sansa’s “the pack survives” line from the trailer. I was pleased to see the reprisal of the battlements shot from “The Winds of Winter”. Indeed, I would not be surprised if this shot closes out the series, with the surviving Starks standing solemnly together on the wallwalk as we cut to black one last time.

Sam turns up at Winterfell unexpectedly late in the episode, and immediately shares his findings with Bran, in a scene that felt a bit ‘off’ for reasons I can’t really describe. Bran then does some shady stuff with the fire and transports himself to Rhaegar and Lyanna’s wedding. I found it strange that Bran didn’t already know about this; considering that he’s done so much ‘research’ into Jon’s lineage, his findings didn’t really amount to anything. After so many years, we finally see Rhaegar… and he’s a bit disappointing, looking a bit like a discount Viserys. Personally I think would have been better to tease us with the joining of hands, but not to show Rhaegar’s face, but it’s not a huge problem, I suppose. This scene is intercut with Jon and Dany having tastefully directed sex on a boat… #BoatSex it wasn’t everything it had been cracked up to be, but then again, what more do you want? Also, Jon Snow’s name is Aegon, apparently. I still think Aemon would have been a much better name for him, but it’s not like everyone’s going to be calling him Aegon next season, is it?

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The episode ends with the Wall coming down. The Night King soars in on Viserion and burns the whole thing to rubble, allowing the army of the dead to swarm through the gap while an ice dragon soars overhead. It was what I’d been expecting since the start of the season, but seeing the great icy monolith – one of the few remaining constants in Westeros – come crashing down truly emphasized the power of the foe that the Seven Kingdoms will be facing in the wars ahead.

“The Dragon and the Wolf” is the episode that has rescued Season 7. It’s not a quiet episode, but it is reflective and thoughtful, and the reunions we saw here will not be easily forgotten. More than that, from a visual and cinematographical standpoint, this is possibly the most beautiful episode in the entire show. Whatever missteps Podeswa and Middleton made in previous seasons are always and completely forgiven. I’d be surprised to see this director back for Season 8, but with this sort of legacy, does it really matter?

It would be remiss not to recognise Michelle Clapton and Ramin Djawadi for their roles in this episode. Having everyone all in black has been unsettling, but it has paid off, and Djawadi’s score – particularly “Truth” and “Army of the Dead” – has been exemplary.

As for Benioff and Weiss… well, they’ve made some mis-steps with this season, notably in “Beyond the Wall”, but if you want proof that they can write, look no further than this episode. Oh, I’ll nitpick them to death, but I respect these ‘talentless hacks’ really.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 6, “Beyond the Wall”

“Beyond the Wall”, the latest in David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s list of inspid, blandly-titled Game of Thrones episodes, is arguably the episode that encapsulates the best and the worst of Season 7. I imagine this will be a divisive episode among the majority of the fandom; it’s certainly an episode where you can make an equally competent argument for it being among the show’s best or among its worst.

Unfortunately, I fall into the latter category of reviewers. “Beyond the Wall” is very similar to “Battle of the Bastards” in the regard that it sacrifices logic for action, but unlike BotB, its strengths are less impressive, and its failures are more pronounced. With BotB, I enjoyed the ride all the way through, and its logical inconsistencies only occurred to me on subsequent rewatches and on reading through forums. “Beyond the Wall”, however, is the first episode where the sheer graceless stupidity of the plot has negatively affected my first viewing experience.

My issue with “Beyond the Wall” is that it is downright insulting to anyone who puts a bit of thought into what they’ve just seen. Benioff and Weiss’s writing is downright dumb, and of a far lower quality than what I’ve come to expect from them, and they aren’t helped by Alan Taylor’s directing, which felt like an extended montage of ‘cool stuff’ instead of a cohesive narrative. I won’t deny that the big moments, like Viserion’s death and resurrection, were very well done, and will be game-changing, but as a whole, the episode left a sour taste in my mouth that I haven’t experienced since “No One”.

I’ll start with the Arya and Sansa scenes, as these will be the easiest to review… but at the same time, they managed to be the most awful. The lack of cohesive storytelling left me baffled, and I did wonder whether the scenes had been edited into the wrong order. They make no sense. This aspect of the episode was a colossal mess, saved only by Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams who both try their best, but ultimately fail to overcome a God-awful script, and ultimately give performances which are quite average compared to their usual high standards – especially Williams, who seems deathly flat.

The Winterfell plotline in Season 7 is genuinely worse than Dorne in Season 5. Dorne was merely bad, but Winterfell is on a whole other level, as beyond the reunions of the three Starks, it seems that any character who goes to Winterfell actually regresses – most notably Arya, but also Sansa and Brienne, who both seem to be running in circles that go nowhere. In their quest for ‘cool moments’, Benioff and Weiss have chosen to alter their characters at random to create a contrived, ‘exciting’ plot. Arya seems to have forgotten her “master assassin” training to become “a hypocritical and completely irrational bitch”. Sansa fares slightly better, but again the issue is simple: the Winterfell plotline is a slower-paced story that might have worked in the context of Seasons 1-6, but is completely out of place here, requiring its characters to just sit down and do nothing while everyone else in Westeros zooms around at 10,000 miles per hour. It also requires Bran – the all-seeing eye of the Seven Kingdoms – to do nothing at all.

I do have one outlandish theory – that Arya killed Littlefinger at some point between “Eastwatch” and this episode, and is now playing a game with Sansa, seeing how suggestible she is to southern whims. However, with what happened last year in “No One”, I don’t have high hopes for this, and I’m expecting the contrived drama to be solved in an equally stupid way.

(Also, the budget must be gone, because there are apparently no people in Winterfell save for Arya, Sansa, Brienne and Littlefinger.)

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Meanwhile on Dragonstone, Peter Dinklage put on a firm performance, but again it falls into Benioff and Weiss’s mentality of telling instead of showing, forcing us through exposition that only serves to fill up space in the episode and other than that, just seems like an empty void. Then Dany receives the raven from Eastwatch and flies off to the land of magic and mystery.

North of the Wall, we open with some good conversational scenes. I particularly enjoyed Jon and Jorah’s conversation about the Old Bear and Longclaw. It was one of those scenes where the conclusion was entirely predictable, but it was fun to watch anyway. And even though I don’t love Jorah as a character, I can appreciate that Iain Glen is a fantastic actor. And the shared insults between Tormund and the Hound was the funniest conversation of this season; I might think Brienne is doomed to end up with Jaime, but I can’t fault the Giantsbane for trying.

Some time later, Gendry manages to run all the way back to Eastwatch (at the outside, that’s surely 10 miles or more, making at least 2 hours running time in heavy snow). He then has Davos send a raven Concorde airplane to Daenerys, requiring the bird to fly for about 1200 miles (24-30 hours), and then fly a dragon back (12 hours), while Jon and his crew of Dumb Cunts stay on their island for the better part of two days. I wouldn’t be surprised if they cooked and ate Thoros’s corpse during this time, because given the stupidity of this plan in the first place, Jon probably didn’t bother to take any provisions north with them.

D & D seem to have forgotten that they have a boy who can send messages instantly over at Winterfell, which would be a much more plausible explanation. Bran could inform Daenerys of the circumstances north of the Wall – and Melisandre, if she’d stuck around, would also have worked. That way, we wouldn’t have to see Dany until late in the episode, which would have made her arrival a genuine surprise.

Either way, they’re fine until the Hound throws a rock at the wights, which is apparently the signal for the mass attack, as the Night King didn’t realise that the ice was weak until it was demonstrably such. Anyhow, a moment later, the entire wight army surges across the ice, and then there’s a battle of epic and preposterous proportions, where Jon and his band of 5 named characters and 3 redshirts, fight off the army of 10,000 dead men. No prizes for guessing who died. Even so, it’s faintly ridiculous that they manage to hold on for as long as they do. There are some nice ‘hero shot’ moments, and the choreography of the sequence is outstanding, but the whole thing is slightly unbelievable, and there are no stakes and there is no horror whatsoever.

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Props to Jonathan Freeman for the cinematography throughout this episode, and to Alan Taylor for the directing, though I don’t think this was his finest hour on Thrones; the battle sequences in the latter half were entirely without suspense, even though that was mostly due to D & D’s unwillingness to create any tension by, you know, actually killing people other than Wildling #4. I expected us to lose Beric as well as Thoros, and Jorah, and possibly even Gendry. Back in a time when Game of Thrones had consequences, we almost certainly would have. Instead, Thoros dies, and… oh, that’s it.

Oops, I forgot about Viserion. This was the most unexpected twist of the episode, and it was possibly the finest triumph of visual effects ever seen on Game of Thrones; the dragon plumetting into the icy waters, blood and fire exploding out. And I can’t deny that I was in the edge of my seat as I watched Dany and her band of misfits fly away, abandoning Jon… but then I realised that the only reason they had to abandon Jon was because he’d entered a stupid battle rage, holding off the wights for no reason other than a shot of him staring dramatically at the Night King, and so he could drown, then be revealed as ‘not dead’, then get surrounded by wights, then get saved by Uncle Benjen, then have Benjen sacrifice himself even though there was enough room for both of them on that horse.

I’ve heard people asking why the Night King didn’t just kill Drogon instead of Viserion. I’m going to assume that he thought Viserion was a more immediate threat to his army – though this is a bit flimsy, given that he threw an ice spear at Drogon almost immediately after. I’m assuming the Night King set up this trap deliberately so he could get hold of a dragon, in which case he must have been chuffed to find out that people as stupid as Jon Snow exist.

After Jon’s miraculous and ‘unexpected’ escape, he and Dany find themselves on a boat. There is genuine chemistry between Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke, and the romance is one of Thrones’s more believable ones. Emilia Clarke’s acting was superb this episode, something I doubted I’d ever say, covering the full range between vulnerability and empowerment and reflective sadness. Her realisation that the white walkers exist, and her reflection to Jon, is one of her finest moments as an actress. At the same time, lines like “thank you, Dany”, and the ensuing nonsense, prove that the kudos should go to Harrington and Clarke, not Benioff and Weiss.

Overall, what should have been one of Game of Thrones’s finest episodes turned out to be one of its most disappointing because of the atrocious writing, proving, once and for all, that lots of explosions are no substitute for a compelling story.

P.S. Kudos to Michele Clapton and the costumes department. Dany’s winter dress/gown/thing is my favourite costume of this season.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 5, “Eastwatch”

This review contains SPOILERS for the fifth episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “Eastwatch”, and for all episodes preceding it, and for the A Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George R.R. Martin, up to and including sample chapters from The Winds of Winter.

Every so often in Game of Thrones, there’s an episode which is bound to slip under the radar, usually due to the fact that it follows a bombastic extravaganza such as “The Spoils of War”. Hence it is the highest praise that this week’s episode, the somewhat insipidly titled “Eastwatch”, is probably Thrones’s best ‘quiet episode’ since Season 3’s “Kissed by Fire”. Indeed, in terms of the sheer magnitude of the episode, it probably de-thrones “Kissed by Fire”, being an episode full of massive revelations and some of the most realistic dialogue the show has seen this season. It proves that, aside from an occasional over-reliance on humour, hell, this Dave Hill guy can write.

“Eastwatch” is a significant improvement on Hill’s three previous contributions to the show: Season 5’s “Sons of the Harpy”, where he only wrote three-quarters of a script, Season 6’s “Home”, a solid if occasionally baffling episode, and the creation of an irritating child known as Olly. Yes, it does feature some Hill-esque leaps of logic, but these can be attributed to Benioff & Weiss’s story arc more than anything else. In some regards, “Eastwatch” is an extended teaser to next week’s hotly anticipated “Episode 66” (love the title), but it stands up really well on its own, with a focus on ‘getting the gang together’, heist-style, for Jon Snow’s Stupidest Plan Ever™.

I expected Jaime and Bronn to end up being captured by Daenerys, so I was both surprised and somewhat baffled when they suddenly turned up coughing and spluttering on a riverbank and managed to stagger back to King’s Landing. Nonetheless, I think the alternative storyline would have been somewhat predictable – and hey, I’m not complaining about Jaime’s survival. It has become clear to Jaime that Cersei cannot win the war ahead, which he’s definitely correct about, but she refuses to listen, with Lena Headey channeling a strange, irrational version of Tywin Lannister. As always, Jaime and Cersei’s scenes are a delight to watch, but the real treat this week was that Jaime had – wait for it – actual character development.

At the battlefield, Dany burns Randyll Tarly and his son Dickon alive. I have to apologise for my initial disdain for Dickon – yes, his head is too small for his massive shoulders, but that doesn’t change the fact that: a) Tom Hopper played the role really well, and b) he went out like a champ. A stupid champ, perhaps, but a weirdly endearing one. And I never thought I’d say this, but I was sad to see Randyll Tarly go, come the end. This was also Matt Shakman’s finest moment of the episode; those two burning pyres in front of the kneeling Lannister men is something I fully expect to come up on the Beautiful Death poster.

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Over on Dragonstone, Jon touches Drogon – not as thrilling as it might have been, since it was an obvious consequence – but still an interesting scene nonetheless because of the implications about his parentage (more on that later). Also, Jorah turns up. The scene was shot a bit strangely if you ask me – making Dany and Jorah seem like long-lost lovers rather than old friends, though Ser Friendzone lived up to his name when Dany hugged him. I’m finally starting to like Jorah, which, coupled with what seemed like a very fatalistic reunion with Dany, makes me think he’s almost certainly going to die in the next episode. And to be honest, that might be the right choice. Once he’s had a heart-to-heart with Jon about Lord Commander Mormont, I think Ser Jorah’s arc will have reached its natural conclusion.

Meanwhile, Tyrion and Varys have a heart-to-heart in the throne room. It’s a really good scene for both Peter Dinklage and Conleth Hill, with some pithy dialogue, but in the end, it fails because of a mentality of ‘telling instead of showing’. One of the areas where the Thrones writers frequently fail is in that they think their audiences are dumb; in their world, understatement is a dying art. We could have gained so much more from having the meaning of this scene injected into the performances of Dinklage and Hill than having it spelled out. But Varys got screentime, so that’s a good thing.

The best section of the episode for me was the portion taking place in King’s Landing, with the Davos/Tyrion buddy team. I was surprised that Davos seems so jovial about the man who killed his son, but that really speaks in testament to the strength of his character and the depth of his belief about the living dead. But the Davos and Tyrion buddy cop drama is fantastic. Both of them then head off to their separate meetings with Gendry and Jaime respectively. It’s always pleasing when the writers up the pace, because I didn’t think we were going to see the Jaime-Tyrion reunion until the next episode, at the very least, but in the end, it was pretty anti-climactic. Based on this, I’m almost certain that Jaime and Tyrion are going to meet again by the end of the season, probably in the finale, for an extended period of time. Meanwhile, Davos heads down to a forge to meet Gendry, because where else is he going to be. Having seen Joe Dempsie’s name in the credits, I wasn’t surprised by his appearance. I’ve always liked Gendry, even if I’m not his biggest fan, and my feelings of hype only increased when he picked up the warhammer. The warhammer! We’re in for some good times ahead, I think (providing he doesn’t die in Episode 6).

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The King’s Landing section ends with a very Dave Hill scene; some gold cloaks come to confront Davos, who turns them away with bribes and fermented crab. Now, obviously, this is meant to make a point about the corruption and greed that pervades King’s Landing… nah, actually, it isn’t. It was a fun scene, but nothing to write home about. And I was glad to see that Gendry didn’t bother going along with Davos’s ruse about him being some bloke called ‘Clovis’ (gods, what a stupid name) when they got back to Dragonstone. It allows to see the Ned/Robert dynamic as it must have been, bastard and bastard. Davos, meanwhile, drops the best line of the episode – “nobody mind me; all I’ve ever done is live to a ripe old age.” I swear, if they kill off Davos, someone at HBO is getting beheaded.

Also, by the way, Cersei’s pregnant. I’m not sure I believe that, because it seems a little late in the game to be introducing a baby to the mix. Also, that would go against Maggy the Frog’s prophecy (though if the baby is born, that could be intriguing in itself because it means Maggy’s prophecy was utter bullshit, which opens up some very interesting possibilities). And if this child is born to Cersei and Jaime… poor kid. You saw what happened to the last three.

(On this note, I think a baby is only possible if GoT implements in a time-skip of a year between Seasons 7 and 8. This might sound far-fetched, but I can see it happening – the war of men and the Others reaches a stalemate, and we end up with this.)

Winterfell was the least interesting part of this week’s episode, feeling somewhat detached from the main plot. Littlefinger’s plotting something, most likely some plan to put Sansa on the throne instead of Jon, and it seems that he intended for Arya to find the letter he left in his bed. We also get a really creepy shot of him leering from behind a pillar. Other than that, though, it’s most uneventful in the castle, though Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner have really great screen chemistry. Which isn’t that surprising when you think about, though I imagine that Sansa/Arya scenes will make up 90% of this season’s blooper reel.

In Oldtown, Gilly drops the FUCKING BOMBSHELL TO END ALL BOMBSHELLS, and Sam just brushes it off, ranting about Maester Somebody and his 17,000 shits. He decides to leave Oldtown in the end, since the war in the North is more important. I imagine we’ll see him at Winterfell by the end of the season, possibly via Horn Hill and the Wall. While Sam’s venture south has been one of my favourite storylines, and I’ve loved the Citadel setting, it’ll be good to see him back with some familiar faces… unless, that is, he runs into Euron while sailing north past Casterly Rock.

Anyway, with regard to the Motherfucking Bombshell™, it turns out that “Prince Ragger” had his marriage annulled and then married another woman, presumably Lyanna Stark. In which case, R+L=J is true, and Jon is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Of course, Bran probably knows all of this already, and we’re just waiting for the opportune moment for the reveal, which will likely be in the finale.

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Meanwhile, Jon and his allies sail to Eastwatch (the title sequence does a crazy rightwards pan from the Wall, which left me goggle-eyed), where the Fellowship of the Ring the Magnificent Seven is formed – oh, and some background extras. They set out to pursue the Stupidest Plan Ever™; at a guess, attempting to capture a wight is not going to go down well, at all. My guess is that Jorah won’t make it back, and that Beric, Thoros and Tormund will also die. Sandor’s still got a story left (Cleganebowl) so he can’t die, Jon is… well, Jon, and Gendry only just came back. Game of Thrones would surely never kill off a character in the episode immediately after they came back for the first time in three seasons…

Ahem. Osha would like to have a word with me.

So yeah, that’s about it. “Eastwatch” is a really solid episode with some great diplomacy, some high quality dialogue, and the promise of next week to live up to. Since Alan Taylor is directing this – his only episode of the season, I should add, and therefore one that seems likely to be pretty GOAT. I’m expecting big things. IMDb 10/10 rating. And for once, I think we’ll get them. This one looks to be Hardhome 2.0, even if the trailer isn’t giving anything away. And since it’s 71 minutes long, I’m looking forward to big developments in the other Seven Kingdoms, not just North of the Wall.

P.S. HBO, bring this Matt Shakman bloke back next year. Turns out he’s pretty good.

P.P.S. We don’t know the next episode title yet, but it’d better be “Wight Night”, or “Hardhome 2: Electric Boogaloo”, or for a more realistic guess, “The Night King”.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 4, “The Spoils of War”

This review contains SPOILERS for the fourth episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “The Spoils of War”, and for all episodes preceding it, and for the A Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George R.R. Martin, up to and including sample chapters from The Winds of Winter.

At just 50 minutes long – leaving me thinking, wait, is it over? – “The Spoils of War” is the shortest episode of Game of Thrones to date. Nonetheless, this episode perfectly demonstrates that quality is far better than quantity – a maxim this season seems to be taking to heart. It’s an incredibly tight piece of writing far superior to anything else this season, but though the dialogue scenes of “The Spoils of War” make up its skeleton, its heart comes from the action sequence which bookends the episode, an explosion of high fantasy action and violence that should make even the most cynical Thrones-viewers stare agape at their screens. Every time I hear the phrase “YASSSSS QUEEN” I get a slight urge to scratch out my eyes, but for once that sentiment rings true with this episode.

The ending sequence of “The Spoils of War” is the love-child of “Battle of the Bastards” and “Hardhome”; in shooting the final sequence, director Matt Shakman and DP Robert McLachlan have definitely taken cues from last year’s bloody extravaganza directed by Miguel Sapochnik, with cinematography by Fabian Wagner. That being said, Shakman and McLachlan have definitely brought some personality of their own to the early segments of the episode.

In the case of these battle episodes, you have to be careful not to judge the entire episode on the merits of a single sequence. In the case of “Battle of the Bastards”, the complete lack of story continuity means that I cannot in good faith rank the episode any higher than tenth in my list of favourites. But even without the final ambush scene, “The Spoils of War” is a fantastic episode. The scenes at Winterfell and Dragonstone justify that, with all the actors displaying excellent chemistry across the board. I feel like I should immediately address my comment from last week about Emilia Clarke and Kit Harrington’s chemistry. Last week they seemed awkward and stilted, as though performing against each other’s doubles and then having the pieces stitched together in post. But in this week’s cave scenes, under low lighting, careful blocking, and with a script that inferred romantic tension instead of blaring out the obvious, they were fantastic together, and I’m now thinking “The Queen’s Justice” was the exception rather than the rule.

S07E04 Dany Album Cover.jpgThe Dragonstone scenes were excellent all round. I particularly enjoyed the callback to Season 5 in the exchange between Jon and Davos – “How many men do we have to fight [the Night King]? 10,000? Less?”; “Fewer”; “What?” – which proves that Benioff and Weiss can be more subtle in their nods to the fandom than they have been previously. My only criticsm of these scenes is that the Jon/Theon scene felt a little too small in the grand scheme of things, though for the sake of pacing, I think D & D made the right choice in cutting it.

(And I’ve contradicted myself already. Great.)

Meanwhile in Winterfell, Arya comes home. Her arrival, and the subsequent challenge by the guards, is a lovely callback to a scene from Season 1 when she arrives back in King’s Landing and is similarly sent away. I liked that Benioff and Weiss made the circumstances of her arrival different to how they had been with the Jon-Sansa and Sansa-Bran reunions. I wouldn’t have complained about the usual courtyard embrace, but I think the idea of giving Arya one last trial at the end was a beautiful way both of concluding her six-season-long arc, and of illustrating the changes all the Starks have faced along the way.

Though the Stark reunion was touching, and I certainly felt something in my cold stone heart, the most emotional sequence for me this week was the parting of Bran and Meera. It’s good that D & D explained the change in Bran – “I am the three-eyed raven now” – though I still think this should have been illustrated early, perhaps instead of one of the filler scenes from “Stormborn”. Nonetheless, this is an unjust, harrowing, and horrifically inappropriate ending for Meera, one of the show’s must underappreciated and heroic characters. But this is GoT, and even moreso than in the books, heroes do not get what they deserve. There will be no Bran/Meera romance, no expressions of love or even friendship, only this moment to remember her… and the chance at living away from the horrors of the Long Night with her family, which, I suppose, is reward enough in this world.

But because someone has to say it, I will. Thank you, Meera Reed – though ‘thank you’ is not enough. You deserved better. And thank you, Ellie Kendrick. You acted your heart out of this, and didn’t get nearly enough appreciation either. I hope to see you back in Season 8, and maybe with Howland Reed at your side.

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Brienne got a scene this week, and Podrick had his first lines of the season, which is good. While it’s a shame that Brienne hasn’t really had much to do this year, it’s good to see Gwendoline Christie putting in a performance somewhat more in line from the Brienne we know from the books, instead of the murderous killing machine from Season 5. Her sequence with Arya was also one of the best small-scale fights the show has ever done; I particularly liked Shakman’s choice of set – one where it allowed Sansa to overlook things but gave a sense of confinedness to Arya and Brienne’s fight at the same time – and his use of POV camera angles. And damn, those are some acrobatics.

But the meat of the episode is the Field of Fire, where Jaime and Bronn facedown against Dany and her dragons. Without doubt, these 15 minutes of battle are some of the most heart-poundingly beautiful and fantastically tense we’ve ever seen in Thrones.

A lot of the battles in Thrones come down to their iconic moments, and “The Spoils of War” has these in abundance. The episode is shot to make you remember these instances: the charge of the Dothraki and their yodelling war cry, the moment Drogon descends from the clouds and Ramin Djawadi’s excellent score amps it up, the shots Bronn takes at the dragon from Qyburn’s ballista, coupled with the excellent sound design of… um… burning men. The VFX department deserves all due credit for making Drogon look more realistic than ever (so that’s where the budget went) – indeed, to paraphrase Joe Bauer himself, “the best thing you can say about VFX is that you didn’t notice it”. But the thing which elevates “The Spoils of War” above “Battle of the Bastards” is its emotional through-line. Much as BotB followed Jon, we’re now encouraged to follow Jaime, Bronn, and lastly Tyrion through the battle. It’s an interesting choice to shoot Dany from a wide-shot, limited perspective, as it gives her that cold aloofness that I think we need to show her that she is not just the mother of dragons, but also that dragons are a merciless and potentially apocalyptic weapon of mass destruction. “The Spoils of War” gets this across possibly for the first time.

There were moments when I was rooting for Bronn, only to remember that without Drogon we don’t get any of these sequences, only to remember that Bronn is cool, and so on. And in the final sequence, where Jaime was charging down Dany, I admit that I was firmly in the Jaime camp at that moment… yet from a narrative perspective, we would feel so cheated if Benioff and Weiss killed off Dany here. So Dany has to live. But Jaime also has to live. But—

In the end, I think Bronn should have died. I think both he and Jaime will miraculously make it to next week, but in that case, I feel like this is ‘jumping the shark’ a little too much. Nonetheless, I can’t deny that Bronn’s epic sideways dive was among the most exciting moments of Thrones, possibly ever, next to scenes like Dany’s arrival on the battlefield… the Bronn tracking shot… the ballista scene… wait, these were all in the same episode.

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In the end, the only thing that remains to be judged is whether “The Spoils of War” is the best battle of all time. I think I’m going to have to go with “No”, since the sheer feelings of dread conjured up by Hardhome weren’t overtopped, but it’s a damned good battle, and the story and emotional moments make much more sense that “Battle of the Bastards”. However, it’s an incredible feat for 15 minutes, and when you put the rest of the episode next to it, “The Spoils of War” definitely stands up as the finest episode of the season so far, and one of the top 5 episodes of all time.

Review: “The Blade Itself”, by Joe Abercrombie

SPOILERS AHEAD for Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, the first book in his The First Law trilogy.

I can’t claim that I enjoyed The Blade Itself, mostly finding to be a slightly amateurish slog through a fantasy world that felt a bit textureless and generic, and I doubt I’ll continue with Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, at least not for some time. That being said, The Blade Itself has merits in its ‘gritty’ exploration of the fantasy genre.

‘Gritty fantasy’ is almost something of a cliché in itself, nowadays. Every fantasy claims to full of grit and mud and blood. With Abercrombie, this is actually true; his protagonists are all subversions of fantasy tropes adapted for the ‘real, grown-up world’. And better than that, none of his characters feel like they’ve had a ‘grit injection’, where the author stands off-page and shouts “Look, isn’t this gritty!” Abercrombie’s characters feel naturally roguish and immoral.

Unfortunately, besides their lack of morality, they’re not really that interesting, either. Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta is the standout; I thought it was interesting how Abercrombie never made some slightly soppy speech about Glokta’s disability being his strength, as many writers would have. No, Glotka is bitter as bile, and unintentionally hilarious in places. You don’t feel pity for Glokta, because I never got the idea that he was ‘a good man who lost his way’; instead, he was flawed to begin with. He is an excellent fantasy protagonist, with an acerbic inner monologue that admittedly verges on over-use.

Logen Ninefingers, ‘infamous barbarian’, also has a lot of potential, and is perhaps the best example of a protagonist who embodies ‘true grit’. And Logen’s input in the story is needed: he’s a solid, honest presence who doesn’t kowtow to bullshit, and probably the most worldly-wise of the characters. Logen has a definite sense of place – when we see things through his eyes, the world seems the most real. However, the weakness with Logen is that his story essentially descends into nothing after he meets Bayaz, First of the Magi. Yes, the incongruous nature of an uncivilized man in a civilized story creates the book’s best moments of humour, but it does nothing for his character arc. Or maybe it does. Since I haven’t read the final two books in the trilogy, I don’t know if this is the ‘bedrock’ of Logen’s arc, or something like that.

Finally we come to Jezal dan Luthar. From very early on, I hated Jezal, not just because of his abrasive arrogance, but also because he seems something like a caricature. I can see that Abercrombie’s intention was to create a Rand al’Thor/Kvothe/Jon Snow type of character, of the young man on a noble quest, but to make him completely vile. Jezal has all of Kvothe’s arrogance but none of his charm, and I never really got the illusion that I was reading some sort of warped hero. I wanted Jezal to win, but ultimately that was only because he seemed like the lesser of two evils. But Jezal is so vapid and shallow that I didn’t really care if he won or lost, because it wasn’t going to matter. Then again, I think that was the point. Which is either stupid or fantastic. I don’t know.

Anyway, for his protagonists, Abercrombie scores 2.5 out of 3. Which is pretty good, I guess. Glokta is awesome, and Logen and Jezal have a lot of potential.

However, I think the characters are the strongest part of The Blade Itself… which leaves the rest of it. Abercrombie is his worldbuilding. He unusually chooses not to put a map at the front of his book, another small way of subverting the genre. In itself that isn’t too much of an issue, but you never really get to reorient yourself within the world. Basically, it feels like medieval Europe with a big city and a big tower called the House of the Maker. There were other places too, somewhere with an emperor and ‘fucking pinks’, and the vaguely defined area known as ‘the North’, but these were just words to me.

The issues don’t stop there, I’m afraid. Abercrombie’s main characters range from good to excellent, but there were no secondary characters that popped out to me. Once again, they all seem like caricatures, particularly the ‘righteous’ Major West and his sister, Ardee. Oh, good god, Ardee. Yes, this is a medieval fantasy in a male-dominated world, but Abercrombie’s female fundamentally fail as ‘characters’; instead, they are ‘things’. We see a greatly idealized version of Ardee through Jezal’s eyes, of course, but even when we see her ‘in the flesh’ from Major West’s POV, she appears to be ‘a strong opinionated female’ instead of an actual character. Ardee is like every fantasy cliché rolled into one, yet somehow she manages to amount to nothing at all. And aside from Ferro “X-23” Maljinn and a couple of vapid Jezal-types who don’t even get proper dialogue, she’s the only female character in the book. It’s a very poor showing from Abercrombie.

Now, I could be wrong about all these things. Maybe a different story unravels itself in the next two books and reveals my ignorance. But I don’t want to read the next two books, and that’s because of the fact that The Blade Itself gives me no reasons to read on. It’s an extended prologue where nothing happens. It’s entirely character-based, not a bad thing in itself, but uneccesarily dangerous for the first book in a trilogy. I want things to be happening that draw me in to learn about the characters, but Abercrombie instead runs with an incredibly low-stakes plot that culminates in a big nothing. We see the House of the Maker and the Bloody-Nine and there’s a whole lot of promising stuff up ahead, and then the book just… ends. And while I appreciate the necessity of this build-up, there’s far too much of it for far too little payoff. Yes, I agree that Abercrombie’s fight scenes are fantastic, and his characters have some great moments (particularly with the dry humour), but you have to wade through so much to get there.

You might find a jewel in the end, but you still have to walk across an arid desert to find it.