Tag Archives: high fantasy

Review: The Hobbit

I cannot even count the number of people who have recommended this book to me over the years, or even the exact number of years I’ve been putting it off. But here is The Hobbit, my 77th book of 2017 (my goal was 73, so that was a happy realization), and my first foray into Tolkien’s oeuvre.

About the book: Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit. thehobbitHe lives a happy hobbit life in his hobbit-hole home under a pleasant hill. Hobbits are not usually adventurous, but when Bilbo finds himself hosting thirteen dwarfs and a wizard for tea one day, he learns of an adventure just beginning and finds himself swept along in it. The adventure is a quest– the dwarfs want to travel back to their old homeland, overthrow the dragon that has taken residence there, and thus reclaim their palace and treasure. They are each to be rewarded for their trouble with gold and silver and precious gemstones when the treasure is recovered. That is, if they can survive the harsh landscape and dangerous magical creatures they encounter along the way.

“…and they all felt that the adventure was far more dangerous than they had thought, while all the time, even if they passed all the perils of the road, the dragon was waiting at the end.”

Here we have an adventure story, arguably the quintessential adventure story, although Treasure Island could also make a good case for that title. As with many adventure tales, this book is largely episodic in nature, meaning a lot of small plots are strung together consecutively in one long linked chain. Knowing the gist of the quest from the beginning of the story helps combat the chaos of the journey, as does the narrator’s foreshadowing in places where the story seems prone to wandering (episodic tales are generally full of chaos and wanderings, and lack the typical rise and fall of tension that begins with a single problem, is faced with obstacles, finds its climax in some sort of confrontation and then resolves, whether for better or worse. In episodic tales, the tension rises and falls repeatedly through multiple climactic moments and resolutions). The Hobbit uses a mix of both main plot types by laying the episodic adventure over a traditional plot arc with gradually mounting tension.

“Now is the time for our esteemed Mr. Baggins, who has proved himself a good companion on our long road, and a hobbit full of courage and resource far exceeding his size, and if I may say so possessed of good luck far exceeding the usual allowance– now is the time for him to perform the service for which he was included in our Company; now it the time for him to earn his Reward.”

The best aspect of The Hobbit, as I saw it, was the narration itself. The tale is told from some third-person perspective that knows future and past, can see various characters’ thoughts and motivations, addresses the reader directly, and acts as a general all-knowing guide to Middle-earth. There is a time in the book when Bilbo Baggins is said to be writing a memoir, and I find myself attracted to the idea that Baggins himself is the narrator of this tale, relying on accumulated knowledge of magical creatures and the parts of the story that must have been told to him in order to present himself as a nearly omniscient narrator.

“I may be a burglar– or so they say: personally I never really felt like one– but I am an honest one, I hope, more or less.”

I was also fascinated by Gandolf. He seems to be a fallible creature, and yet he’s always in the right place at the right time, or in the wrong place at the right time so that things work out in a certain favorable way that they wouldn’t have been able to if he were present. He speaks of prophecy to Baggins, and though not much is discussed about it, I like to believe that he was so sure of Biblo’s skill and luck and general agreeableness due to some unmentioned prophecy. There is no other explanation given for his insistence on Bilbo Baggins accompanying the dwarfs on their journey, and for his surety that the hobbit is just the “burglar” they need. I would’ve loved to learn more about him, and I hope he makes a reapparance in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (I really don’t know anything about it, please don’t spoil me).

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

The songs woven throughout the story are also highly entertaining, especially when the reader tries to put a tune to them while reading. 🙂

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I really haven’t been in the mood for episodic stories lately, but there was just enough of a traditional plot arc to get me through this one. The quest is mapped out early, so I had no difficulty reading through all the small mishaps along the way to the Lonely Mountain, knowing that there would a battle for the treasure at the end of the tale that would give the journey purpose. I highly enjoyed Tolkien’s narrative style, and am definitely planning to continue with The Fellowship of the Ring, though I think I’ll wait until I’ve finished the Song of Ice and Fire series first to keep my fantasy details straight. I found a lot of little details in The Hobbit that reminded me of details from Martin’s series, and I wasn’t surprised– I would be more surprised if you could point me to a fantasy writer who wasn’t in some way inspired by Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Chronicles of Narnia is a phenomenal adventure saga for readers young and old alike who area after fantastic journeys and magical creatures. The Magician King, by C. S. Lewis, is the first Narnia book (in chronological order, which I recommend), and it’s both easily readable and utterly engrossing.
  2. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust would be a great choice of fantasy for adult readers who are looking for something short and sweet and very reminiscent of The Hobbit. This one follows a boy who travels beyond the village of Wall to retrieve a fallen star for the girl he thinks he loves, and finds a whole world of adventure.
  3. I you’re not afraid of a long book, pick up George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. I know the size of the novels in his Song of Ice and Fire series are intimidating, but they are worth the time. There are some similar elements of world-building between Martin and Tolkien, although A Game of Thrones is much more political and character-driven.
  4. For more adventure stories without all the fantasy elements, try Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the story of a teenage boy setting off with pirates in search of hidden gold. There’s no magic in this one, but if you like the constant misadventures of The Hobbit and don’t mind learning some nautical terms, you’ll enjoy this one just as much.

Coming up Next: I’ve just picked up Cassandra Clare’s City of Heavenly Fire, the final book in the Mortal Instruments series. It’s immensely long and I won’t be finishing it by the end of the month (which is only a few hours away), but I’m eager to see how it all ends for Clace and Simon and the Lightwoods et al, so I’m predicting that it won’t take me long to finish this one.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: A Clash of Kings

I can’t believe it’s finally happening. Four years after starting George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series, I’m finally continuing. I’ve read A Game of Thrones twice now, but this was my first time through book two, A Clash of Kings. No spoilers ahead.

“If half an onion is black with rot, it is a rotten onion. A man is good, or he is evil.”

About the Book: There’s a new king onaclashofkings the Iron Throne, but he’s a cruel boy. There’s also a new King in the North, a usurping king coming up from the South, one coming in from the sea, one with no real claim at all beyond a grudge at his last smothered attempt of rebellion, and one who is not a king at all, but a queen, a khaleesi, a young girl in the East fighting to win back her birthright with what little (but growing) power remains to her. With six claimants to parts or all of the Seven Kingdoms, treasons and turncoats abound. No one can be trusted, and yet no one can win the war without trusting outside help. While the major players in the Seven Kingdoms are watching their backs for enemies disguised as friends, no one’s watching the mounting trouble on the Wall. The Night’s Watch has ventured out to face the king-beyond-the-Wall, but a rebellious wildling army breaking through the Wall’s defenses isn’t their only concern– the old magics are coming back, waking from a long slumber to threaten the realm anew. And the worst of it is that no one below the wall believes in the danger; they’re so busy deciding who will rule the realm that they aren’t defending the realm against the wildling invadors– and worse.

“Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”

“It is all a game to them still, a tourney writ large, and all they see is the chance for glory and honor and spoils. They are boys drunk on songs and story, and like all boys, they think themselves immortal.”

In A Clash of Kings, we see familiar characters back again (the ones who survived), as well as a closer look at a few we only glimpsed in A Game of Thrones, but we also have some all-new characters, too. There are two new regular POVs, in addition to a new prologue character. But the biggest surprise, I think, comes from the fact that you can root for entirely different characters to win than you did in book one. I’m still not sure who I want to see win the iron throne, but my opinions have definitely changed. For the first time in the series I could name characters that I really hate, but I’ve also grown fond of others that I didn’t expect to become so important. That is my favorite aspect of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series– the perspectives are shown with equal import, so each character feels human and the reader can choose his/her own side in the battle for the throne.

“So long as there was magic, anything could happen. Ghosts could walk, trees could talk, and broken boys could grow up to be knights.”

The magic is done well in this book. There’s so little of it, and so few characters take it seriously, that when it does crop up it’s acceptable to feel doubtful at first, and then easy to embrace it. There’s one major instance of… magic? sorcery? something out of the ordinary in a seemingly ordinary scene, and when I read that scene I was shocked, and certain that there must be some other explanation. But in the end it folded neatly into the story and I loved the possibility of something so fantastic in A Clash of Kings— it was just as entertaining as the wights of book one.

“There are no shadows in the dark. Shadows are the servants of light, the children of fire. The brightest flame casts the darkest shadows.”

It’s also growing increasingly hard to know what to believe. Each of the chapters is narrated through a close third-person perspective, which gives us the thoughts, actions, and emotions of one character at a time, but it also allows for bias. In this book so much more than the first of the series, the reader starts to see conflicting details– two characters hold different beliefs about certain events or people. Someone says one thing, another says something entirely else. Sometimes it’s easily explained by the fact that news is slow to reach certain characters or locations, but other times the reader is left to wonder which version is truth, if any. We see characters lying to each other, also. I think it’s going to be more important, going forward, to be wary of trusting any of the characters too fully. The narration is not completely omniscient, which leaves room for deception. The fact that we start to see discrepancies in this book feels like a hint that the characters are fallible. Sometimes they’re wrong. They make assumptions, in the more innocent cases, but sometimes they’re scheming. Everyone’s up to something, and the narrator is not entirely reliable either. How much of it is “true”?

“There are no true knights, no more than there are gods. If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can. Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.”

For a series in which Houses are so significant, I also want to note that it’s hard to pick a whole house that I want to see win. It’s not unusual to hate the Lannisters and love the Starks, but there are Lannisters that don’t seem completely evil in this book, and Starks that I wouldn’t want to see on the throne. It’s interesting that the Lannisters are so commonly loathed, but there are so few POV chapters from within that house that we have to see them through secondary eyes, through already-skewed perspectives. On the other hand, almost every Stark from that House gets POV chapters, though most of them are children who don’t really know what they’re doing. It’s just as important to pay attention to the medium as the message, so I’ve been taking note of the distribution of chapters as well as the plot, though I think I need to read a bit farther before I can draw any conclusions from the combination of them.

“I will hurt you for this. I don’t know how yet, but give me time. A day will come when you think yourself safe and happy, and suddenly your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you’ll know the debt is paid.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I love this series, but I didn’t fly through this second book with quite the same level of excitement I had for book one. The focus is largely on the politics in King’s Landing, but that was my least favorite part of this volume. I need to read onward ASAP, but first, a break. I know these books just keep getting longer, which is great, but I’m on new-information-overload and I need to let A Clash of Kings settle for a bit. I’ve got three episodes left to watch of Game of Thrones season 2, and then I’m putting the series down until September.

“Perhaps we are doomed if we press on… but I know for a certainty we are doomed if we turn back.”

Further recommendations:

  1. Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling (first book in an NA fantasy trilogy) is another great choice for fantasy readers who like a lot of politics, a little magic, and an intricate plot. In this one, an unsuspecting young woman ascends to the throne, only to realize that there are powerful others who will do anything to take it from her.
  2. If you’re looking for even more magic and unpredictability, try Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (first book in an adult fantasy trilogy). This one’s very Narnia-esque, with shocking plot twists and all-too-human characters who see the world on a grander scale.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Jodi Lynn Anderson’s new YA historical/science fiction novel, Midnight at the Electric. I’ve just started, so I don’t know much about it other than it follows three time lines, one of which takes place in the Dust Bowl. I’m expecting a quick, easy read that’s also going to impress me.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Stardust

After reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology earlier this year (and remembering how much I loved Coraline as a child), I decided I had to check out more of his books. I’ve had a few picked out, and decided to dive into Stardust this month, an adult fantasy stand-alone novel that’s short and sweet and full of adventure. It seemed like a good lead-in to The Hobbit, which I will be reading later this month.

stardustAbout the book: Dunstan Thorn sets a unique life on its adventurous course when he accepts his Heart’s Desire as rent payment from a strange and powerful man. Just shy of eighteen years later, Dunstan’s half-faerie son, Tristran, sets out past the village of Wall into the land of Faerie. He thinks he’s going to retrieve a fallen star that will win him the hand of the most beautiful girl in the village, but in Faerie nothing goes quite as planned. He meets several interesting characters along the way, some who want to help him and some that mean to thwart his plans. There’s also the matter of the fallen star possessing the form of a young lady, one who hates Tristran for his intent to trade her so he can be married. But the difficulty of Tristran’s own journey is the least of his problems– there are other creatures seeking the star, characters who will cut down anyone in their path. But even if Tristran succeeds, will the most beautiful girl in town consent to marry a shop-boy destined to be a sheep farmer in the little village of Wall?

” ‘I had thought,’ he confessed, ‘that a fallen star would probably look like a diamond or a rock. I certainly wasn’t expecting a lady.’ ‘So, having found a lady, could you not have come to her aid, or left her alone? Why drag her into your foolishness?’ ‘Love,’ he explained. She looked at him with eyes the blue of the sky. ‘I hope you choke on it,’ she said flatly.’ “

This is one of those episodic tales which, I think, require a lot more work from the author to keep the reader’s attention than traditional plot arcs. The reader must stay interested in many different “episodes” throughout the book, rather than one continuous arc, which means it’s all in the details, rather than the plot. This happens often with adventure stories, in my experience. In this case, there is the matter of the fallen star quest to tie Stardust all together, but Tristran’s search for the falling star is only one event among many. Gaiman juggles multiple characters, multiple plot lines, and many “episodes” in this one short volume.

For that reason, world-building forms the bulk of this short novel. There’s plenty going on, but it’s veiled in description of unusual place details and characters with uncommon mannerisms. The most interesting introduction for me was the addition to the story of seven brothers in the middle of killing one another in various deceitful ways, but all of the character introductions and new places are similarly packed with unusual background or sensory details to keep the reader engaged. The village of Wall and the world of Faerie seem almost tangible. Thus, the world-building is the strength of Gaiman’s Stardust.

The weakness, by contrast, is the romance. Tristran is willing to spend so much of his time and energy on this crazy quest for the girl he thinks he loves, but the reader sees from the beginning that his “love” for the beautiful Wall girl is a youthful infatuation no deeper than a preoccupation with the color of her eyes. In Faerie, he discovers that he wants something quite different for his life than manning a sheep farm with the beautiful village girl. But even when romance starts to play a role in the story for the second time, there are none of the casual little details to indicate affection; the love is necessary to the plot, and is described rather flatly, only going so far as to make its point. Books without romance can be great. Books with romance that isn’t the center of the story can also be done fantastically. But in a book like this, when romance plays such a key role in Tristran’s adventures, there need to be enough details for the love to feel as real as the world, and in that regard, Stardust fails.

But let’s talk about Tristran next.

“He was a gangling creature of potential, a barrel of dynamite waiting for someone or something to light his fuse; but no one did, so on weekends and in the evenings he helped his father on the farm, and during the day he worked for Mr. Brown, at Monday and Brown’s, as a clerk.”

Tristran is an elusive character, not especially wise or idiotic, not especially anything, really. He does take action of his own, but he is also shunted along in his journey by the actions of others. He takes things as they come, with little show of emotion. If not for his willingness to adventure, he would seem a particularly bland character. But he is willing to take chances and partake in quests and anything else required of him, and that makes him an excellent guide through a novel like this in which the reader never knows what to expect next. With such a fluid story line, the main character can’t be too rigid in his ways or the adventure won’t be possible. On his own, Tristran would be nothing more than a boring sheep farmer, but he is not on his own. He is part of Wall, and part of the Faerie realm. He is oath-bound to a fallen star. He’s capable and versatile, and ready to change the world.

Stardust feels a bit like a writer’s exercise, a foray into uncharted territory. It’s the sort of story I imagine would emerge from a writer’s hands when he/she sat down at the keyboard and decided to follow the letters wherever his/her fingers took the story, through worlds real and imagined. It could have been expanded four or five times into a thick fantasy novel if things hadn’t worked out so quickly and easily for Tristran on his quest. Personally, I would’ve followed those murderous brothers through several hundred more pages even if their story veered far beyond the point where it overlaps with Tristran’s. Instead, Stardust is a sample of fantasy– a snapshot, a tiny glimpse into the realm of the extraordinary. This one’s definitely an adult tale, so if you’re looking for an easy start into adult fantasy, Stardust would be a great way to get a feel for that genre without investing much time.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed the journey, but I was also glad to put it behind me at the end. I’ll still be reading more Neil Gaiman books, whether this year or next I don’t know, but I’m in awe of Gaiman’s range. The three books I’ve read under his name have been so vastly different that I have no idea what to expect from further books, but I’m definitely curious enough to find out.

Further recommendations:

  1. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders is an adult magical realism novel that feels similarly episodic, and follows a scientist boy and a magical girl from childhood to adulthood, through crises of varying magnitude.
  2. The Magician’s Boy, the first book in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, is a more apt choice for readers young and old who want another easy entrance to the fantasy genre. If you’re looking for fantasy that’s fun but not strictly adult, try Narnia; I started reading these books when I was seven, and am still enjoying them now that I’m in my twenties with an English degree. Narnia is a land where anything can happen, and all seven books are quick and engaging reads.

Coming up Next: I’m currently reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, a classic murder mystery (from the legendary queen of murder mysteries). This one’s about a long train ride in which a passenger is killed… meaning anyone on the train could have done it, and anyone on the train could be the next victim.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Game of Thrones

I’ve embarked on a fantastical journey. This is not the first time I’ve read the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, nor, I hope, will it be the last, because there are many things to love about it. But it’s been four years since my first trek through A Game of Thrones, and since I intend to continue onward this time, I figured I was due to revisit book one.

About the book: The Hand of the King gameofthronesis dead. Some might say he was murdered. Either way, Winterfell’s Lord Eddard Stark sets things in motion when he accepts the position offered by his friend, the king. While he’s away at King’s Landing, the rest of his family must step up to leadership roles on behalf of the north and Winterfell, but other houses in the Seven Kingdoms want to use the Stark family’s new vulnerability to gain more power for themselves. Some wish to be the Hand of the King–and some, with secrets and schemes laid years ago, want to be king (or queen). The slippery and ambitious Lannisters, loathed by many, seem to have the closest claim to the throne if only they can get the king out of the way. But while allegiances shift and families grapple for the throne, there’s new trouble beyond the Wall–the white walkers are closer than ever before, killing men and raising wights from the dead. If ever there was a time the Seven Kingdoms needed to band together, the growing threat past the Wall is proof that this is it. And yet all the major houses of the Seven Kingdoms are too busy at war over the Iron Throne…

“Every noble house had its words. Family mottoes, touchstones, prayers of sorts, they boasted of honor and glory, promised loyalty and truth, swore faith and courage. All but the Starks. Winter is coming, said the Stark words.”

A Game of Thrones is the first in a seven book series (five published so far, with no news on which decade the sixth book might eventually appear in). It’s high fantasy, but there’s not a lot of magic. There are old stories of the magic that used to be in the lands, but very few characters brush anywhere close to it in this first novel. There are hints of the supernatural. Some might argue there’s a bit of romance. But first and foremost, this is a political series, an exploration of characters and their alliances and the powers they wield or lose.

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

About the writing: you don’t read A Game of Thrones for the writing. You just don’t. George R. R. Martin’s writing style is competent. It’s wise in its choice of detail and in the seamless flow of present action and backstory. It includes some great lines. But the narration is primarily matter-of-fact, concerned with the inclusion of every necessary detail in its proper place rather than beauty of metaphor. There are some clunky sentences, moments when the pronoun doesn’t refer to the last name mentioned and other little issues that are not indecipherable but do cause occasional confusion. But it’s okay, because you don’t read A Game of Thrones for its pretty sentences.

You read it for the characters.

“Never forget who you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”

The best part of A Game of Thrones is that it’s not a tale full of “good guys” vs. “bad guys.” Who even are the good guys? There’s not even a main character. Everyone in A Game of Thrones is (arguably) as important as everyone else, be they man, woman, or child. Readers can choose a different favorite for the throne every hundred pages. Even just on my second time through the same first novel, I have different favorites than I did the first time, though my most-hated characters haven’t changed. In this first novel, the reader follows nine POVs, all in the third person. The chapters are titled only with their lead character’s name. But it’s all connected. The major players appear in each other’s chapters, or their relatives do, or their friends, or their secrets. Martin is a master of plucking individual story lines out of the whole, making each of them distinct and compelling without losing sight of the bigger picture and its interconnectedness.

“I swear to you, I was never so alive as when I was winning this throne, or so dead as now that I’ve won it.”

This was an interesting book to reread. There’s a bit of mystery, some questions that are answered within this first volume and some left for future novels. That made it fascinating to read back through, with some idea of what was coming ahead but gaps still left to motivate reading on. There’s so much detail packed into this one shortest novel of the series that I felt the reread was completely worthwhile, even though I did recall the big reveals that took place. I was able to look more closely at the little hidden truths that are folded into the writing, but I don’t know enough yet to see through everyone’s secrets.

“The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true. Look with your eyes. Hear with your ears. Taste with your mouth. Smell with your nose. Feel with your skin. Then comes the thinking, afterward, and in that way knowing the truth.”

I don’t want to talk too much more about plot, but I will say it’s intense. You need to have a strong stomach to read through some of the details in this book. There’s rape. Murder. Battle scenes. Direwolves. Humans reanimated after death. Harsh punishments and cruelty. Incest. Betrayal. A child pushed off a tower. And you never know who’s going to live or die. I learned my first time through this book not to get too attached to any one character, because Martin likes to build sympathy for them just to lead them to their deaths. If this was a spoiler review, I’d talk about some of my theories, but it’s not, so I’ll just say (for anyone who’s read this already or watched the first season) that Tyrion is my favorite Lannister, Arya is my favorite Stark, and Daenerys is currently my favorite character. I thought Jon’s chapters were most fun to read, and Catelyn’s the least. But no matter who you favor, A Game of Thrones is utterly captivating and 100% worth the time it takes to read an 800-page book.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Same as last time. I still find politics a little exhausting to read about so extensively, so I’m aiming to take about a week’s break before starting the next book. But I will watch season one of the TV series in that time. My plan is to read the five books published so far, and then watch the corresponding episodes for each book as I complete them. I suppose when I reach the end of the fifth book I’ll carry on with the episodes and just read the remaining two novels when they’re eventually published. (Please, George R. R. Martin, publish those last two books.) Waiting for the series to be finished is one of the reasons it has taken me so long to dedicate myself to reading it.

Further recommendations:

  1. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is not really the same as Martin’s books at all, but I think there’ll be some overlap between the two fan bases. Outlander is a sci-fi/romance/historical fiction/fantasy mishmash about a time-traveling woman who falls through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and stands up in the same circle two hundred years in the past. And it has a phenomenal TV series that’s about to get really good in September, so now’s the time to read it.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare, the final book in the Infernal Devices trilogy. Because as fun as it is to start a new series with 1000+ page books, it’s also a relief to finish what I’ve already started. Clockwork Princess is a Shadowhunter novel set in Victorian London, featuring an evil mastermind with an army of mechanical monsters and a tragic love triangle.

Are you a series reader? Which one’s your favorite?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: You can now read my complete review of the next book in this series, A Clash of Kings!