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.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 3, “The Queen’s Justice”

This review contains SPOILERS for the third episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “The Queen’s Justice”, 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.

Probably the fastest-paced episode of Game of Thrones yet, “The Queen’s Justice” is an episode full of big moments that really emphasises the changes in David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s priorities as writers. Continuity and timelines have ceased to exist, in favour of getting to the meat of things. I think, in this regard, Benioff and Weiss have finally resolved the narrative problems that plagued Seasons 5 and 6: a lack of certainty over whether Game of Thrones should retain its usual slow dramatic pacing, or move on into a different type of storytelling entirely.

That being said, this ‘new era’ of Thrones is not entirely new. Indeed, the current season’s pacing can be likened to Season 1, albeit with a few more logical inconsistencies. But even then, its refreshing to have reached what seems to be a definite midpoint by the end of episode 3. Had these storylines been taking place last year, we’d be up to episode 5 or 6 by now.

“The Queen’s Justice” chooses to tell its stories in big, blocky chunks, a structure that has become characteristic of Benioff and Weiss’s writing. In the case of this episode, I think that was the right decision. Narratively, the whole thing holds together very well. However, the whole episode is underscored by a sort of staleness. You know that the writing could be better, but it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still one of the best shows on TV, but the writing of individual scenes can be atrocious and there are some truly dreadful lines – from this episode, Euron’s crass “Does she like it gentle or rough? A finger in the bum?” was particularly abrasive.

It may sound like I am being unecessarily harsh here. I enjoyed “The Queen’s Justice”, and objectively it was the strongest episode of the season, but it did feel a little sketchy in places. Every scene had something slightly off about it, be it the actors’ performances (a couple were shaky this week), the directing, or the writing itself. There was, however, one scene that was outstanding (so much so that I’ve italicised its sheer outstandingness), but I’ll come to that later.

S07E03 Dany and Varys.jpg

We’ll start with Dragonstone, which dominated the episode. I was pleasantly surprised that this instalment didn’t delay when it came to getting to the chewy bits. Tyrion and Jon have a reunion on the beach that serves as a ‘hype starter’ before the main course, somewhat mirroring Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon’s reunion in Season 1. Director Mark Mylod makes good use of the Gaztelugatxe staircase location, though Jon and Davos’s ground dive seemed a little over-comical, and can’t have done much for the reputation of the King of the North. They then go to the throne room, where Jon and Dany are finally in the same room, and…

…it’s a little underwhelming, actually. It’s a great set, and a scene of huge significance, but for some reason it never really clicks. Mylod doesn’t really use the space well, and the actors and camera are both completely static. An empty mood isn’t really what I wanted for the first meeting of the ‘golden trio’. Oddly enough, none of the three ‘main’ performers play the scene particularly well; instead, it is Liam Cunningham who is standout as professional hype man Davos Seaworth. Missandei lists all of Dany’s titles, to which he seriously replies, “This is Jon Snow”, dialogue which serves to highlight the differences between the two rulers. The dialogue is mostly quite good on the face of things, though there are little irksome moments that validate a claim that “the show isn’t what it used to be” – the ‘figure of speech’ joke doesn’t really work, and no one appears to have told Peter Dinklage that his lines don’t always need to be funny. Also, in places it feels like Dany is spinning the same “I am the queen” yarn for the ten thousandth time, which doesn’t come across well.

S07E03 Jon and Davos.jpg

However, the real kicker of the Dragonstone scenes is that Emilia Clarke and Kit Harrington have unexpectedly poor screen chemistry. Mark Mylod doesn’t help this by constantly framing their scenes in a bland shot-reverse-shot formula, which means that the two are hardly ever in the frame at the same time. The result is that it seems like Jon Snow – still wearing his Northern clothes, which doesn’t help – has been Photoshopped into Dragonstone, but isn’t really there. On the other hand, Harrington and Dinklage have great chemistry, and their scenes were a joy to watch, though Tyrion still suffers from a sort of “my lines are always funny” syndrome.

Moving over to King’s Landing: there’s a slightly cheesy sequence with Euron, but everything with Euron is slightly surreal and cheesy, and that’s what I like about him, honestly. I’m never quite sure whether his lines are intentionally atrocious, but Pilou Asbaek sells it. The scene with Cersei and Ellaria is one of the best of the episodes, with the underrated Indira Varma perfectly matched and contrasting Headey’s Cersei. It’s a dark, tense scene, ultimately poetic if not wholly unexpected, and I have to applaud Benioff and Weiss for not succumbing to Gregor-Clegane-based bloodlust. This is something that could come straight out of Martin’s novels, and I mean that as high praise. There are two more scenes in King’s Landing – the Jaime and Cersei sex scene, where Cersei ironically becomes the only person in the episode to willingly kneel, and then the Iron Bank scene, where Mark Gatiss smoothly tells Cersei that she needs to pay back her loans. Honestly, I wasn’t paying much attention beyond trying to think up nonsensical Gatiss-based puns: “oh, you’re in the Great Game now”, “you’ll sleep no more after this”, “she’s a real crimson horror”, and so forth.

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On to Winterfell. I think Sophie Turner is best in scenes like these, and Sansa seems to be back on a (mostly) stable character arc. Littlefinger, meanwhile, is a bit all over the place. D & D seem to have taken the description of him from the Honest Trailer – “the sneaky dude” – and have gone a bit too far with it. He’s also now “the monologue guy”, delivering a speech about Sansa fighting every battle in her mind, which sounds good in a trailer, but within the episode it seems to come out of nowhere. I think Littlefinger’s ‘great-game-based’ speech might be some sort of big thematic link across the episode, but I didn’t really pick it out here. Then he slithers off creepily back to his hole, leaving his motivations (or lack thereof) deliberately unclear. It’s all a bit weird.

Bran – not Arya – then turns up at Winterfell, which would have been a surprise if I hadn’t watched the credits sequence. Meera’s also there, looking in sore need of therapy and a spa day. Again, Turner seems to play this scene well, but someone seems to have told Isaac Hempstead-Wright that the best thing to do would be to stare distantly into space all the time. Which works fine for the three-eyed raven, but it’s a disservice to the years he spent as an actual human character called Bran Stark. Indeed, Bran doesn’t seem to really exist any more, only some weird kid with no conversational skills, which is saddening really, given how much development he’s gone through over the years. And frankly, I don’t see why Bran has been entirely consumed by mysticism. He’s still Bran, isn’t he? Isn’t he?

S07E03 Sansa and LF.jpgThere’s a brief interlude at the Citadel, which doesn’t really do much other than confirm the events of last week – a somewhat disappointing conclusion to Jorah’s greyscale arc – but I wonder if Sam might find something about the white walkers in all those papers. The episode’s concluding sequence takes us to Casterly Rock, where ‘everyone’s least favourite part of Team Dany’, the dull Grey Worm, manages a conquest of the Rock. I have several issues with the fact that the Lannisters seem to have left behind only a skeleton garrison, most notably for the implications on Lannister prestige and morale that the fall of the Rock will have. I saw the sewer conquest coming, but it was the right way to conclude this arc, and I found Tyrion’s voice-over to be an effective way of linking this isolated conquest back to the episode’s main narrative. Even so, the scene felt somewhat underwhelming, given how hyped I was about Casterly Rock, and the Unsullied charging in with their spears in narrow passages was quite irritating. As for Euron’s sudden arrival… well, I’ve given up trying to understand the passage of time in Game of Thrones.

We then cut to Highgarden, where Jaime, Randyll Tarly, Bronn, and Randyll’s goat-faced son (sorry, but he just looks like a massive twat) take the castle in an easy conquest. Mark Mylod is consistently very good at tracking shots, and the one that takes Jaime from the castle gates up to Olenna’s solar is one of my favourites.

S07E03 Grey Worm.jpgHowever, things really get going in the final scene of the episode. And I say this honestly: I think the final scene of “The Queen’s Justice” is probably the best dialogue scene since Robert and Cersei in “The Wolf and the Lion”, or possibly even better. Dame Diana Rigg proves one last time why she is an international treasure, with a single-scene performance that encapsulates Olenna Tyrell’s character in a neat, final summary. It’s exquisite to watch, and though Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays second fiddle, the man’s reactions are legendary. You can see the horror in his eyes when Olenna tells him the truth, as he realises that nearly every event since Joffrey’s death is the result of her machinations. Should he just run her through with his sword? Yes, perhaps he should, but that would only consolidate Olenna’s victory in a moment that is just that – her final, pyrrhic victory over Cersei Lannister. She has driven a wedge between the Lannister siblings at last, and I hope this finally marks the start of Jaime’s long-delayed redemption arc. This part of the episode feels like it was written by someone else entirely. “Tell Cersei I want her to know it was me.” That is one hell of a line, and the weight of the implications it carries… it is one final thorn in the lion’s paw, and this may be the one that kills it. This is the queen’s justice, indeed. And yes, Olenna Tyrell dies, but in doing so, she denies the old adage from Season 1.

Because Olenna Tyrell dies, but Olenna Tyrell wins.

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Notes and Side Bits:

The biggest weakness of this episode is that Benioff and Weiss fall into the mentality of telling rather than showing. One of the few things I hate about Thrones (and this is the book elitist in me speaking) is that it constantly assumes its viewers are stupid. Obviously, this is necessary for the casual audience who don’t remember events from “The Mountain and the Viper” and “Mother’s Mercy”, but it’s still bloody irritating. Callbacks should be a treat for the astute viewer, not some big red button blaring on and off, going “DO YOU REMEMBER THIS?” Also, D & D have an irritating inability to write inferred dialogue. Everything has to be said out loud; they don’t trust their audience to make any sort of intelligent assumptions based on what they’ve seen. This is a two-way street, you know – otherwise it’s not going to be long before we get lines like “I’m Arya Stark, your sister from Season 1.”

I loved the end credits theme, a new rendition of “The Rains of Castamere”. RoC always gets me in the mood.

Mylod was alright this episode, but I thought his work was stronger on “Stormborn”. The episode ends on a weird wide shot that is held for a couple of seconds too long to let the RoC motif play out. I think an Olenna close-up would have suited better, but choosing to show Jaime’s departure from the room means Mylod has to switch to the wide.

The best acting this episode comes courtesy of Dame Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell, of course. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) was also very good, and Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) had his finest performance in ages.

Review: “The Name of the Wind” / “The Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss

“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”

Image result for the name of the windHaving grown tired of fruitlessly re-reading of that fantasy series that hasn’t seen a new book in nearly 6 years, I decided it was long overdue to start on something else. Unfortunately, the series I chose was Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicles, the final piece of which, The Doors of Stone, appears to be hidden away in a thrice-locked chest of its own. Fortunately, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear are pretty damn solid books (quite literally; either of them would make an effective doorstop) and both deserve to be re-read at some point in the future.

SPOILERS follow for The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. I have not read The Slow Regard of Silent Things yet, and as such will not be commenting on it.


 

“The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss, 2007, 662 pages

“The Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss, 2011, 994 pages

On the most basic level, The Kingkiller Chronicle is the story of Kvothe, pronounced like “quothe”, a semi-mythical figure in the lore of the world of Temerant, the civilized, vaguely Western Europe-esque land where this story is set. However, we open with the narrator’s overview of Kote, who at first seems to be some random man who owns an inn in some random village, but… unsurprisingly… is in fact Kvothe, presumably seeking quiet retirement and/or refuge from those who mean to kill him. When Chronicler, a travelling… um, chronicler… turns up at the Waystone Inn after a bad encounter with a scrael (some sort of mechanical spider-demon thing) and one thing leads to another, and pretty soon Chronicler manages to convince Kvothe to tell him his life story. Kote’s assistant, Bast, has an interest in this too, as he wants to see his master return to the old ways of life rather than continuing his existence as some lonely, sad innkeeper.

The story is told mostly from Kvothe’s point-of-view, as his memoir, though it jumps back to Kote, Bast and Chronicler in the present for brief interludes. It seemed to me that these interludes were less frequent during the course of The Wise Man’s Fear than they were during The Name of the Wind, something which I was thankful for as they were almost exclusively my least favourite parts of the books. That being said, I do appreciate the way in which Rothfuss teases us with the answers to certain mysteries, and entices us with answers to mysteries we haven’t even encountered yet. One of these mysteries is Kote himself; we never see inside his head, as these sections adopt a third-person narrator instead.

Arguably the persona of Kote is a more interesting character than Kvothe for precisely that reason. While Kvothe is definitely more than sufficient as a fantasy protagonist, full of fascinating quirks, there is a bluntness to his character and a lack of Kote’s mystery – we know exactly what we are getting with Kvothe, and there is no doubt that he will survive to tell his tale, whereas Kote’s story is murkier – not only his past, but his future too. It will be interesting to see how The Doors of Stone bridges the gap between Kvothe and Kote, and how it explains things such as the fact that “there [is] no music” in the Waystone Inn.

Kvothe is a strange blend of epic hero and tragic hero. He has experienced great losses and the evil of the world at an early age, and his past is filled with sorrow and a childlike longing for the world to right itself again, yet he is also a brilliant academic, a magician and a musician, blessed with gifts of memory and deftness and a rash bravery that often manifests itself as arrogance. And for the most part, Kvothe is a likeable protagonist… up until around midway through The Wise Man’s Fear, where he completes several feats of legendary greatness in a very short period of time and becomes something of an epic figure in himself. And this is where I started to dislike Kvothe, as he had become less of a flawed hero, and more of an overpowered character who could do no wrong and whose actions bordered on overt wish-fulfilment. The second half of The Wise Man’s Fear is especially notable for this, and we did lose the sense of Kvothe as a plucky underdog, as he was throughout most of The Name of the Wind. But perhaps that is part of Kvothe’s complexity: he is a character we should like for his (mostly) valiant actions and heroic qualities, yet we as humans are inclined to dislike someone who is so fantastically… well, perfect. Is The Kingkiller Chronicles this a scathing commentary on human jealousy, then? I don’t think so. I think Patrick Rothfuss set out to write a story about a fantastical character in a fantastical world and possibly made his hero slightly too overpowered.

The Kingkiller Chronicle has no shortage of good secondary characters… unfortunately, they are just that: good. None of them are ‘on-screen’ for quite long enough for us to delve as deep into their personalities as we did into Kvothe’s. While Denna, Lorren, Devi, Simmon and the others definitely have some depth to them, there’s not quite enough to make us want to fully explore them. With the exception of Denna, Kvothe never quite develops a relationship with them that is meaningful enough to warrant proper contemplation of their characters. It’s odd, really. They’re all very good, but none of them are quite great.

The plot on a whole is… weirdly disappointing and anticlimactic, in places. The battle with the draccus at the end of The Name of the Wind is pretty good, but that’s all I can say for it, and it is barely satisfying as the novel’s conclusive battle. Rothfuss’s main failing in The Wise Man’s Fear was that the many interconnected plot arcs felt insufficient. We were just going on a journey with Kvothe, but the journey had no destination, and no culmination of events, only a weird, discordant anticlimax. That being said, Rothfuss is strong enough as a writer to entice us to keep reading where a lesser author might have failed.

Rothfuss’s prose is clean and functional, which is more than can be said for many fantasy writers, not overly ostentatious or intimidating, but still rife with imagery that is mysterious or unsettling or dreamlike when it needs to be. While he does not waste words, he does linger with certain plotlines considerably longer than is necessary. There is only so much time we can spend at the University and learning the ways of the Ademre without growing bored. Doubtless some of Rothfuss’s seemingly more random anecdotes will take on considerable importance in the sequel, but he needs to find a way to ground the narrative without taking us on unnecessary journeys through the Archives that almost exclusively conclude with fraying loose ends. This problem is most apparent in The Wise Man’s Fear, where many elements of Kvothe’s journey go on far too long to hold the reader’s interest. I am sure that this book would have been more enjoyable if it had been about 50 pages shorter, and the worldbuilding would not have suffered hugely from it.

The worldbuilding itself varies from very strong to decidedly average, depending on the aspect. It is easiest to start by saying that Rothfuss’s weakness is with the geography; sometimes it seems that the world is built to accommodate Kvothe’s story, and solely for that. It is rare that we get the sense of things happening in distant and faraway kingdoms unless they relate directly to the main story. Though with so much story to write, one could argue that Rothfuss did not have the time to include this.

Now on to the strengths of the worldbuilding:

Rothfuss’s presentation of various cultures – the Ademre, the Cealdish, the Edema Ruh – is very strong, and he finds ample time to explore their traditions and beliefs without being too expositional. The system of sympathy is one of the cleverest and most fascinating explorations of magic that I’ve ever seen in a fantasy, blending traditional “magic school” tropes and cold hard science and intellectualism. But the most exceptional part of The Kingkiller Chronicle’s worldbuilding is in its use of music. Rothfuss presents music and lyrics and its effect on characters in a way that is pretty much unrivalled in the fantasy genre. Music is the real magic in The Kingkiller Chronicle. This is when Rothfuss’s writing is at its strongest – prose that borders on poetry and flows like music, coupled with the first-person narrator’s critical evaluation of that music. Kvothe may see one thing in a set of lyrics; we as readers may see something very different, which only alerts us to how different Kvothe’s soul is to our own. After all, our protagonist is, at heart, a trouper and a performer (as he reminds us with almost irritating frequency throughout the novels). And despite the fact that he spends many terms at the University trying to decipher the mysteries of physics and medicine and sympathy, we know that Kvothe’s ultimate dream is to understand human emotion, and empathy, on all levels.

That, then, is possibly the purpose of Kvothe’s visit to the stony-faced Ademre; he wants to see how empathy is expressed in a culture where emotion takes on a depth and subtlety that the muscles of the face alone cannot express. It is also the reason for his pursuit of Denna; she is an enigma to him, not only because of the possibly unsolvable mystery of who she is and what she wants, but also because of the contrasting and strange emotions that Kvothe himself feels for her.

The Kingkiller Chronicle is a fantasy story driven by character rather than plot. It is a bold move, and one that mostly pays off, but it leaves us lacking when it comes to an overarching story. It seems likely that many of the secrets ahead – such as what lies within the Loeclos Box, who the king is that Kvothe must kill, and what lies behind the four-plate door – are less important than Kvothe’s own personal revelations on the road ahead. I am afraid to say that such an unconventional resolution may cause readers to view The Doors of Stone as a disappointment in terms of resolving the series’ loose plot threads, at least on the first reading. But I will reserve judgement until that time.

Rothfuss has set himself a task to rival Kvothe’s, that of understanding the complete spectrum of human emotion through the medium of a fantasy story. But such a task is impossible, and thus it seems that parts of The Kingkiller Chronicle are doomed to fail – like its sad, lonely protagonist, hiding away from music and people, alone with only the “patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.”