Book: A Feast for Crows

Alternate title: when bad expectations turn a book into better than you’d think

The book: A Feast for Crows, by George R.R. Martin

The edition: Harper Voyager paperback, 852 pages, with Appendix

The story: fourth installment of the Song of Ice and Fire series, not really possible to summarize without spoiling the rest of the series.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I had heard that this was the worst in the series so far, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it better written and more interesting than the previous ones. Maybe the fact that one character’s storyline (Daenerys’) is completely dropped helped, as I find her to be extremely boring. All in all it was still a book to suffer through, and I’m in no hurry to get the next one, but it was better than I expected.

What I liked: I have to admit some admiration at how Martin can manage so many characters and storylines: up to book 3 I was convinced he made up the story by and by, not really knowing where it would lead, and I still can’t point out what was different here, but something clicked and I can trust the author knows where he’s leading us. I also believe he found a better balance with the dress descriptions, which didn’t feel as gratuitous and annoying as in the previous volumes.

What I didn’t like: I still can’t stand the way Martin always goes for the most controversial possible choice, always. I still hate the way he tricks me into reading more, by way of shocking twists and continuous cliffhangers. I still find all the politics endlessly boring. I still don’t like the series as a whole and everything it represents.

Counts as: Antonym Challenge (Bonus book); Chunkster Challenge (750+); Semi-Charmed Challenge (a book about which you’ve heard bad things)

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Book: The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend

The book: The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, by David Gemmell

The edition: Orbit mass market paperback, 346 pages

The story: in previous Gemmell books, Druss was the Deathwalker, the Legend, the sung hero of past renown. This is the story of how he became that hero: powerfully strong from a young age, he only finds peace with his wife Rowena, and when she is stolen by slavers, he’ll do anything it takes to save her and bring her back. Druss’ search for Rowena goes through brawls, long voyages, magic interventions and unending wars, in an adventure that continuously grows.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: whoever wrote the cover blurbs for Gemmell didn’t know what they were doing: none of the covers ever sparked the least interest in me, and some even scared me off. But because husband likes them [ETA: the books, I mean, not the covers or the cover blurbs as such] (and because I was looking for a book with “first” in the title for two challenges, and we had this one at home) I finally gave it a try. And wasn’t it a pleasant discovery!
A fantasy world where chivalry is still a moral principle to follow is refreshing after the kind of fantasy I have been reading lately (cough, cough… ASOIAF… cough), and I liked that the Drenai world is not so different from our own, you don’t need to understand a completely new society. In this setting acts a whole cast of characters of all kinds, and the only one I had issues with is Druss himself, because we never really get to see what moves him and what makes him the way he is — but the rest of the cast, from the loving wife to the mad grandfather to the ironic friend to the knight in shining armor, they all had me hooked to their stories.
On the other hand, I have to say that this book feels a bit rough, as if it was rushed through somehow and it had more potential that what was actually developed. The narrative is somewhat episodic, and because of that, a page was added (I suppose by the editor, not the author), summarizing what happened in between — and I have very strong issues with that, because it even spelled the characters’ names wrong! But that is the only negative thing I can really say about it, and I am now curious to follow with Gemmell’s more famous (and hopefully better-developed) works.

What I liked: traditional high fantasy that delivers exactly what it promises, and interesting and well developed characters.

What I didn’t like: the lack of reference maps.

Language and writing: kudos to a style that gives a feeling of high prose without ever using obscure words (not even one WWW find for me here!)

Read this if: if you liked the Shannara books

Counts as: Antonym challenge, Semi-charmed summer challenge

Neverwhere Group Read – week three/the end

Carl @ Stainless Steel Droppings is hosting a group read for Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. This week there are no questions and Carl left it up to us what to share and what to underline. Which I appreciate… except that this week I lack the time and concentration for analysis, so you’ll get my scattered thoughts instead. Let me also say here that I am sorry for participating so little, and I hope to go back to participating blogs in the upcoming weeks, as soon as I get the time! (As usual, beware: spoilers ahead)

About the book as a whole: I’m still in love with it as much as the first time. I really hope Carl will share with us what makes him write “So is it really that spectacular of a novel?  The objective answer is “no”.” Because to me, it is spectacular, very much so each time I read it.

About Richard: many of you mentioned last week that the Ordeal was a kind of turning point for Richard. He obviously thought the same:

Richard felt oddly proud. He had proved himself in the ordeal. He was One of Them. He would Go, and he would Bring Back Food. He puffed out his chest.

But the others don’t seem to think so. And I didn’t see any turning point. More like, a gradual growth of the character. Until this:

Metaphors failed him, then. He had gone beyond the world of metaphor and simile, into the place of things that are, and it was changing him.

Now, isn’t this interesting? London Below as “the place of things that are“?

About the ending: I am very sorry to say that, after our discussion about mental illness, this time I had to read the ending differently. You know how the homeless woman has no idea about London Below? This time, for me, Gary is right, and Richard has had a nervous breakdown and has been hallucinating. And I have to say it’s a sad way of reading this book. I liked the magic better.

About references: this one is a reference to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, right? Or is this a common joke?

“Talking of the Marquis, I wonder where he is. He’s a bit late, isn’t he, Mister Vandemar?”
“Very late indeed, Mister Croup. As late as he possibly could be.”

Questions for fellow group readers:

  1. In his dream, Richard confronted the Beast alone; in the Labyrinth, he only participates in the “dance”, following Hunter’s indications. And he’s still completely out of his depth. Do you think he had some traits that made him into the Warrior? (Maybe that collection of trolls was a hint?)
  2. Why is the key given back to the Black Friars? And why was it Door that had to use it? If it was the “key to all reality”, why did it need an opener?
  3. What do you think of the processional of all the London Below characters saying goodbye to Richard?

Sorry, that’s all that I could come up with, today.

Edition note: I am reading the author’s preferred text, as published by Headline Review, paperback, 372 pages plus exclusive material.

Neverwhere Group Read – week two (with Wondrous Words!)

Carl @ Stainless Steel Droppings is hosting a group read for Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Below are my answers to this week’s questions. Please beware, there may be spoilers. (I’m getting better… Maybe next week, the last, I will be able to post on schedule!)

1.  Chapter 6 begins with Richard chanting the mantra, “I want to go home”. How do you feel about Richard and his reactions at this point to the unexpected adventure he finds himself on?

“Well,” said Richard, “I still don’t believe that there are flocks of angels wandering about down here.”
“There aren’t,” said the Marquis. “Just one.”
“Maybe,” Richard said, persisting, “we’re thinking of different things. The angels I have in mind are all wings, haloes, trumpets, peace-on-earth-goodwill-unto-men.”
“That’s right,” said Door. “You got it. Angels.”

I’m a bit disappointed in Richard, because he tries so hard to make sense of what he is going through, he tries so hard to categorize everything so that it fits his normal, London Above experience. In this week’s post, Carl points out that this reaction is way more realistic than the usual one where the characters embrace their new, out-of-this-world experience, whatever that is. I have to agree that Carl is right, but as a reader, it still bugs me.

2. The Marquis de Carabas was even more mysterious and cagey during the first part of this week’s reading. What were your reactions to him/thoughts about him as you followed his activities?

“Now me,” said Mr Vandemar. “What number am I thinking of?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What number am I thinking of?” repeated Mr Vandemar. “It’s between one and a lot,” he added, helpfully.
“Seven,” said the Marquis. Mr Vandemar nodded, impressed.

Actually, I don’t know. He seems to know so much about so many things, he seems to have some kind of power/status of his own, and most of all he seems to be after his own plans. I’d like to know more about him, he has so many facets, and I would definitely like to read a novel with him as central character. Oh, wait — that’s what I’d have to look for at the Floating Market…

3. How did you feel about the Ordeal of the Key?

“I think I will have that cup of tea now, if you don’t mind.”

This was probably the most disappointing part of the book for me. First, we have a three-part ordeal in perfect fairy-tale style, but they go through part 1 & 2 without even realizing it and without the least difficulty (I mean, I guessed the riddle before Door did, and without stopping in my reading, and I’m no good with riddles usually!). And then, Richard’s part of the ordeal, it seemed not creative at all to me, something seen again and again. Sorry.

4. This section of the book is filled with moments. Small, sometimes quite significant, moments that pass within a few pages but stick with you. What are one or two of these that you haven’t discussed yet that stood out to you, or that you particularly enjoyed.

“And you worked for her, Hunter?”
“I worked for all the Seven Sisters.”
“I thought they hadn’t spoken to each other for, oh, at least thirty years.”

There is a tagline in The Neverending Story that goes like this: “But that is another story and shall be told another time.” More than the moments, in this reading I am noticing these very small details that hint at a completely different story branching out from this one. The quote above is just an example of what I mean, but the book is full of them. And to me, a book that hides in itself a million other stories like that, is a perfect book, no matter what.

5. Any other things/ideas that you want to talk about from this section of the book?

Its eyes were clear and wide. Its robes were not white, as Richard had initially thought: they seemed to have been woven from light.

I can’t believe I had missed this reference before. Talk about foreshadowing!

“For I am Saruman, the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”
I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.
[…]
“I liked white better,’ I said.
“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
“In which case it is no longer white.”

Edition note: I am reading the author’s preferred text, as published by Headline Review, paperback, 372 pages plus exclusive material.

*****

I also found a new word for this week in Neverwhere, despite the fact that it’s definitely not my first read.

… at Jessica’s mews flat in fashionable Kensington…

When I saw the word “mews” I actually thought of this:

I know that would be “meow”, but I first thought of an alternate spelling or something. Except that it didn’t fit the context. Photo credits: MowT on Flickr.

Instead, it’s this:

Photo credits: synaethesia on Flickr (Oh, I love that it sounds like one of my favorite characters from this book!)

And here’s the definition:

mews: n. Brit. 1 a row of houses or flats converted from stables, or built to appear so 2 a group of stables round a yard or along an alley.

(All definitions are taken from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary © 2008 via WordReference.com unless otherwise stated.)

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) and interesting (to us, again) words we encountered in our readings. See this week round-up at BermudaOnion’s blog!

Neverwhere Group Read – week one

(It’s just the beginning and I’m already late for the party. The post had to be up on Monday. Oh my. Oh well. I hope it doesn’t matter too much, and I’ll try and do better next week.)

Carl @ Stainless Steel Droppings is hosting a group read for Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere — and I couldn’t resist. Neverwhere was my first Gaiman and I am still loving it as much as the first time. And Carl is providing us with insightful questions, so I’m looking forward to the discussion (I haven’t read this week’s discussion yet nor anyone’s posts. I wanted to put my ideas on screen before I read others’). So here are my answers.

1.  What do you think of our two villains thus far, Messrs. Croup and Vandemar?
I’m always a bit confused when it comes to Croup and Vandemar. Richard threw me off track. I mean, you know how he reacts when he first sees him and thinks “a fox and a wolf”? Well, I’m Italian, and to me a fox always goes together with a cat. Not a wolf, a cat. And I’m afraid that this detracts a lot from the effect Gaiman had intended — the two can never be as menacing to me as they are intended to be.
Also, my edition includes “An Altogether Different Prologue”, I don’t know if any of you read it? It was written by Gaiman to present Croup and Vandemar — and it is set four hundred years earlier. Now I may be wrong, but I don’t recollect this time-travel thing being functional to the novel itself… I’m curious now.

2.  Thus far we’ve had a small taste of London Below and of the people who inhabit it.  What do you think of this world, this space that lies within or somewhat overlaps the space the “real world” occupies?
In the introduction, Gaiman wrote that he wanted

to talk about the dispossessed, using the mirror of fantasy, which can sometimes show us things we have seen so many times that we never see them at all, for the very first time.

And I think he did a great job of it, because it’s not an easy subject to develop, not even through fantasy, but London Below works as a kind of lens through which to see more. There are two scenes that I loved especially about the invisibility of people falling through the cracks, one is the morning when Richard discovers he’s invisible, and the other is Richard and Anaesthesia on the bench, with the couple between them not noticing them and “gradually becoming more horizontal”. There is a sweet touch in using fantasy.

3.  What ideas or themes are you seeing in these first 5 chapters of Neverwhere?  Are there any that you are particularly drawn to?
During this read, the thing I’ve been noticing most is how similar this book is to other Gaiman books I read, especially Anansi Boys and American Gods. Basically you always have a character that is completely deprived of backbone and lets life throw him here and there as it pleases (I also imagine all three of them with very Gaiman-y hair), and then something happens and the character discovers a completely new life. (This train of thoughts just led me to compare this Richard/Fat Charlie/Shadow character with Duffy from The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers — not that he was blank, but… are they like that so that something bigger can happen?) Now, is this really a change? Is Richard going to find a backbone, or is he just moving on from being ordered about by Jessica to being ordered about by Door? Who is Richard, really? Why is he so blank? Is this novel about identity? (I guess not.) Also, Door looks for “safe” when she opens the door and stumbles into Richard’s life. How is Richard “safe”?

4.  We’ve met a number of secondary characters in the novel, who has grabbed your attention and why?
They are all so quirky that it’s hard to choose. I feel sad for Anaesthesia. Old Bailey is sweet. De Carabas is hiding too much. You know what? I’d love to understand all the hidden references. Anyone know of a character map or something?

5.  As you consider the Floating Market, what kind of things does your imagination conjure up? What would you hope to find, or what would you be looking for, at the Market?
I guess most readers would answer some kind of book — forgotten books, unwritten books. But the stall that always caught my attention is the one selling dreams:

“Lovely fresh dreams. First-class nightmares. We got ’em. Get yer lovely nightmares here.”

I’d love to be able to find my forgotten dreams, you know, the kind that leaves you waking up with a strong emotion (very happy, or very sad, or feeling very fortunate) but you don’t remember the dream at all…

6.  If you haven’t already answered it in the questions above, what are your overall impressions of the book to this point?
This question I skip, because it’s not my first read and because I’ve already mentioned the ways it is affecting me differently this time.

Ok, now I’m over to see the rest of the discussion. To read what other participants answered, please head over to Carl’s main post Neverwhere Discussion, Part 1.

Edition note: I am reading the author’s preferred text, as published by Headline Review, paperback, 372 pages plus exclusive material.