Category Archives: Fiction

A Feast for Crows

feast-for-the-crows-4The fourth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series is aptly titled, given the staggering end of the third book. The entire series is left picking up the pieces, and while this causes the beginning of A Feast for Crows to move somewhat slowly in the beginning, the story reassembles and takes flight in exciting new directions.

This volume spends much of its time in King’s Landing, though we get to dart off to faraway lands with some new characters, along with some old ones going by new names. It was odd to see the Stark girls’ names changed to their aliases in the chapter titles, but that move helped to reinforce their drastic developments in response to the fall of their house. Both of them are far away, Sansa where we left her in the Eyrie and Arya on a new path in Braavos, which I wanted more of and hope to see in the fifth book. It’s nice to see Sam stand a little taller once his seasickness subsides. Brienne, on the other hand, you just feel sorry for as she has one near miss after another on her road to find Sansa, and if you haven’t learned the rewards of honor and duty in these lands yet, you’ll feel the full brunt of it watching her slog west.

After the fight between the Dornish prince and the Mountain at the end of the third book, I was excited to finally see Dorne, and I thought it would play a bigger role since it is the opening setting of the fourth book, but I still don’t have a feel for the place beyond its hot sands and wind. The Ironborn on the other hand we get to know quite well, and I can’t wait to see what they find when they sail east. Before that decision, we witness the choosing of a new leader, and while Victarion seems like the toughest man for the job, and that’s saying something with these drowned men, Balon’s other brother, Euron has his Crow’s Eye unflinchingly set on the driftwood crown.

The book is very heavy on Cersei, who is quite unpleasant and grows even more so as her mistrust and scheming worsens after the death of her father. I don’t really enjoy hating her, especially since Tyrion isn’t around to give her a hard time. Jaime is back home, but his interactions with her grow more strained as she spirals down, and for the most part, a chapter with Jaime is a chapter with Cersei, or at least thoughts about Cersei. The most intriguing aspect of Cersei’s new machinations is her determination to bring an end to little Queen Margery, though we don’t see much of her. I have a feeling this part of the story will seem very familiar once it airs on HBO since the actress playing Margery succumbed to similar plots and accusations of incest while playing Anne Boleyn on The Tudors. That history is likely where Martin is pulling from, which is fine, but I have to wonder what the casting director was thinking.

A Feast for Crows was enjoyable, but it does feel like a bit of a set up for greater things to come. The absence of the missing characters is greatly felt, but for some, like Tyrion, it is nice to wonder what’s become of them for a while. At no point did I feel like I was forcing my way through a holdover, but I am looking forward to the fifth book, which is the other half to this story.

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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

What a fun and bloody concept for a book! I haven’t read many of the literary smashups that have come directly in response to Seth Grahme-Smith’s first novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I couldn’t pass this second attempt of his up. And I have to say, I was much more enticed by the movie poster than the book’s cover.

Overall, the book is a fun ride through Lincoln’s life with this new focus on his secret passion of killing every vampire in America. I wasn’t quite sure about the introduction at first, especially the conceit that the author himself had been approached with writing the book by a vampire who was an associate of Lincoln’s, that the author had lost everything in pursuit of completing the manuscript, but this allows for the approach of including entries from Lincoln’s own secret vampire hunting diaries, which does add to the overall not-so-serious tone of this piece. These overused gimmicks are done with the understanding of how ridiculous this tale is, so it only adds to the faked authenticity of the smashup. The silly pictures help too. I couldn’t keep from laughing at some of the doctored photographs.

But even though the book is fun, I was impressed by the amount of research undertaken. This is a deeply complex venture into silliness, the best reason to expend such energy in the first place. Once the story of Lincoln begins, it is very easy to hold your disbelief at bay as he battles to solve America’s great problem of vampires and their hand in slavery.

My only complaint is that I never quite believed Lincoln was one of the most accomplished vampire hunters. The type of vampire in the book is crafted extremely well, as is their involvement in his personal tragedies, which spurs him to hunt them to begin with. But even after training with a vampire sympathetic to his cause, Lincoln is never a true match for any vampire he encounters, even the weakest ones. I like that these creatures are more like the old tales, in which they can’t be killed without being caught off guard, but I can’t figure out why Lincoln tries to engage them in open combat at night every time he hunts them. It seems like some Van Helsing-style raids during the day would have been a better approach.

Other than that, the book plays out well and is definitely worth a read. I haven’t had a chance to see the movie yet, but I’m hoping that if it’s just as fun, it might also present the fights in a more favorable way without losing any human element of the story, which oddly enough, is the true strength of this novel. I know when I finished the book, I wanted to research the civil war, read a biography on Lincoln, and watch Ken Burns’ documentary. That, I think, is a crucial element to fiction like this and the reason that Seth Grahame-Smith will continue to be at the head of the genre. As silly as the smashup may be, it can pay great homage to the totally serious and inspire us to revisit important aspects of ourselves, both as individuals and as a country.

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The Night Circus

 

The cover of The Night Circus sold me immediately, as do many cleverly designed covers, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to read another book about a circus. Most of them seem to focus on the nineteenth or early twentieth century, so the period theme had me doubly wary. But I kept looking back at the pinstriped circus held aloft by a tattooed paper arm, and I decided to give the book a chance. Still, I worried that the black and white design and the emphasis on night meant that this could be a circus of glittery vampires and codependant teenagers, but the flourishes around the title and the shockingly pink tent flags had me thinking that the book might be girly in a cool way. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern turned out to be none of those things. This novel is as carefully constructed as its origami cover and is every bit as delicate.

The Night Circus is a magical story in several senses. The very publishing of it is one of the fairy tales so many aspiring writers dream of. This is Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, it has received critical acclaim, and it has been optioned for a movie. Morgenstern’s success is deserved on all counts. The story is visually striking, and the intricacies of overlapping plots provides a sense of depth not found in other recent circus tales. And oddly enough, the book telegraphs all of its moves through a series of excerpts from a regular column written by one of the characters, Friederick Thiessen.

“The whole of Le Cirque de Reves is formed by a series of circles. Perhaps it is a tribute to the origin of the word ‘circus,’ deriving from the Greek kirkos meaning circle, or ring. . . . Rather than a single tent with rings enclosed within, this circus contains clusters of tents like pyramids, some large and others quite small. They are set within circular paths, set within a circular fence. Looping and continuous.”

The interweaving character arcs serve up plenty of surprising developments, but the workings and stylings of magic are what drive the story. The two main characters are trained magicians bound to each other in a contest to the death, and the interactions between them begin to play a role in the shape and structure of the circus itself.

As if that weren’t enough, both of them are raised by sadistic men who have been competing with each other for a very long time. Celia, the girl illusionist doesn’t receive an education from a kind, Dumbledore-type mentor or even attend school. Her education involves outright violence from her father. He breaks her hands and slashes her skin open just so she can learn to use her mental powers to put herself back together again.

And while the boy doesn’t suffer abuse of that sort, he is subjected to manipulation and neglect that rivals the girl’s physical punishment. Among the infrequent visits and moments of actual instruction, the boy’s mentor gets to provide a number of cryptic remarks similar to the following: “‘Names are not of nearly as much import as people like to suppose,’ the man in the grey suit says. . . . ‘If you find yourself in need of a name at any point, you may choose one for yourself.’” The boy chooses Marco, and like his name, his magic is one of his own making, of glyphs, runes, and charms.

The psychological backgrounds would make any romance between Celia and Marco explosive, but the magics shared between them make their story into something far more volatile. The surrounding characters and the circus itself are pulled along, but as the novel develops it’s nice to see that their relationship (or fight to the death) is yet another part of a larger tale.

My only hesitation with the book is that the chapters seem a little short at times. They are carefully crafted vignettes, but I found myself wanting more at several points when the focus shifts. But I imagine that others might find this arrangement very pleasing. The Night Circus is written very well, and any lover of magic should by a ticket for admission. As the book says, the gates open at dusk.

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