Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

Fragile Things is an odd book.

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders

I knew it was going to be an odd book the moment I picked it up. The point was whether it was going to be a good kind of odd or bad kind of odd.

It turned out to be a good kind of odd.

A little background. I had heard of Neil Gaiman, mostly in connection with George R. R. Martin. I was planning to read a book by him sometime, especially because he's one of the few fantasy authors whose books come in the book store here. Of course, my buying this book would have involved days of research, days of reading reviews, and days of deciding whether this was the best book to start with. However, what ended up happening was this: I saw the book, with its shiny white cover, lying on the bookshelf. It called to me. I picked it up, read the back. I was intrigued. I sat down to read to read the introduction.

I was hooked.

The book called to me, and I'm so glad I replied.

Fragile Things is a book about, well, Fragile Things. Like Neil Gaiman puts it in the book - "It seemed like a fine title for a book of short stories. There are so many fragile things, after. People break so easily, after all, and so do dreams and hearts."

But for a book that is about transitory things, Fragile Things is still a very hopeful book. As a book, Fragile Things seems to be celebrating the beauty of all the soap water bubbles in the world that are so beautiful and so easy to break. At its heart, Fragile Things is a book about hope, and fairy tales, and about writing that lives longer than the person who wrote it.

There are many strange stories and poems in this collection, from a story about a boy who makes friends with a ghost that is told by the months of the year, to a poem about what to do when you're in a fairytale, to a story about Susan, from C.S. Lewis' Narnia novels, the dismissal of which Gaiman (and I, incidentally) found very problematic and irritating. There are stories which don't make sense immediately. There are stories which leave you thinking. There are funny stories, sad stories, scary stories. There is some 'upsettling' stuff in this novel, as well as some extremely sad stuff.

Read this book if you're not afraid to try something a little different. Read this book if you can deal with (or relish) a little bit of oddness. Read this book with an open heart and mind. Read this book without thinking about any 'fantasy' that you may have read before, because this book is not going to be like any of that. Read the introduction of each story/poem right before reading the story or poem because it will really add to your appreciation of the poem or story. Read this book if you're in for something new.

Don't be put-off if you read many unfamiliar names in the introductions. I can assure you that I did not know about 90% of the authors mentioned in the introductions, and that did not stop me from enjoying the book at all, though now I'm tempted to read all the authors mentioned and hear all the songs mentioned. I'm sure that a knowledge of the mentioned literature adds richness to the book, but it is not a prerequisite to reading the book.

This book is great (and quick) way to know whether or not you like Gaiman's style of writing. My verdict? I definitely want to read more. Maybe American Gods.

Last words: Read this book only if you're fine with things being a little bit out of the ordinary. Don't judge too quickly. Read it with a sense of humor. And get ready for a few hours of pure fun.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

The Song of Ice and Fire series is one that has changed my life.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1) A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2) A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3) A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4)

In this review I will be considering the first four books of the series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows. As of this date, these are the only published novels in the series.

A little backstory on how I came across this book. At that point in my life I was quite young, though I was beginning to discover my love for fantasy. At this point in my life my favorite fantasy book series was the Sword of Truth series, by Terry Goodkind (my opinions on this book have changed vastly since, but that's a review for another day). Anyway, all I knew about the book can be summed up in a nutshell through this review, which was the most influential review I read, even though it was not the only one. At that time, however, I did not want to read books with gray characters, and characters who could die. I wanted a hero to root for. So, I dismissed the book, even though all reports agreed that Martin was a masterful writer.

Then, as it happened, I went to the 'fantasy' section of my local bookstore. And saw 'A Game of Thrones.' Now, note that I don't generally find quality fantasy books in the local bookshops here, and definitely not the ones I read about online. I usually have to specially order those from America. So, overjoyed at finding the book and not wanting to miss out on a chance to read it (after all, it might disappear anytime from the bookstore) I just bought it on an impulse.

It is said that it is seemingly simple moments that change your life. So, so true.

Remember how I mentioned above that a lot of people had said that George R.R. Martin is a masterful writer? Well, they were all completely right. I was hooked on from the first page of the prologue, which, unlike most prologues, puts you right in the middle of the action. Before I knew it, I was on a ranging mission at the end of the world. George R.R. Martin is amazing at the use of point-of-view. He can, in a span of a few pages, make you see things from the flawed world view of a character. His narrators are unreliable. They lie. They often see things the way they want to. They are wrong. They make mistakes. They have to face consequences.

They are, in short, completely human.

George R.R. Martin gives you a medieval world, full of warring families. At the start of the book, owing to the large number of characters from the Stark family who are narrators, you get the false impression that these are the heroes of the story, and that nothing bad can happen to them. Boy, are you wrong. George R.R. Martin puts you in the world of a million different characters, some nice, most horrible, and makes you walk a few hundred miles in their shoes, and leaves you supporting a hundred different characters on different sides of a brutal war. You are put right in the middle of the action, without a word of explanation, and forced to experience the world of these characters.

And that world is not at all like earth.

Martin builds a world that is both cruel and beautiful. Westeros has a rich, developed culture, full of legends and art and religions. It is not a place where I would want to live. It is not even a place I would want to visit. It is a hard place, full of hard people, and winters that can last ten years, and dead people coming walking in the night. But it is a real, breathing world, and through the pages of this book you can fall into it. Martin does not write about large faceless armies. Martin writes about people. People you have seen living, and people whom you would mourn to see dead.

This is not a book for those who are weak. It is full of violence, and cruelty, and about all the darkest facets of a medieval world. Martin will not talk about brutality done to faceless peasants, he will put you in the shoes of that peasant and let you watch his friends and family die. Characters you love will die. It will seem like its only the bad guys who are winning. You will start to lose your faith in human nature as you watch worse and worse things happening. You will start to feel some despair as good people become bad in order to survive the horror of what is happening.

To some it up best is a quote from the book - "In the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground."

But from the midst of this despair will come one more shining hero. You will be put into the perspective of another character and you will start to see him or her trying to do good, and you will rejoice. You will see some of the bad guys get what's coming to them. You will start to feel hopeful again. You will start rooting for some of the people again, hoping for a happy ending, hoping for some happiness to come to all your favorite characters.

That is, of course, until Martin kills another character.

Read the Song of Ice and Fire series if you like fantasy. Read it if you dont. Read it if you like conventional fantasy or brutal fantasy. Read it whether or not you have ever read anything like this before. Read it to expand your horizons, to find something new, and to get the experience of your life. Read it so you know just how good it can really get. Then re-read the book. Expect to find something new on your first (and third, and twenty-third, and seventy-fifth) re-read. Then read some crackpot (and some very interesting) theories on an online forum and then re-read the books again.

I guarantee that the Song of Ice and Fire series will change your perspective on your life.

Last words: No matter what kind of books you like, you have to pick up at least 'The Game of Thrones'. Because otherwise, you'll be forever depriving yourself of something both beautiful and touching.

Some great links: A Blog of Ice and Fire (a fan reading the books offers funny insights into each of the chapters...loads of fun to read while you're reading the books yourself); George R. R. Martin's 'Not A Blog' which tells you more about the author; Details on the HBO show based on this series.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Tigana made me want to write this blog.


This probably sounds like an odd statement. How can an ordinary book want to make you write pages and pages of blog posts that I will probably devote days, weeks, and months to?

In a nutshell, the answer is: Tigana is not an ordinary book. It is a book so beautiful that I couldn't help but want to share with someone else.

A little background. I'm a hard-core fantasy fan, but its hard to find books like Tigana in the bookstores in the small Indian city I live in. Therefore, I have to order each book from Amazon, at about double the price you'd get a similar book here, and wait till April, when my parents usually go to America and are able to pick up the books. Therefore, each one of the books I order is carefully picked. I read many reviews. I wait for recommendations from people I trust. I think a hundred times on whether I'd rather have a new book from an author I've never read before or the latest addition to Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos books. These are hard choices.

For Tigana, it wasn't so hard. I had a recommendation from Limyaael, whose posts I read as often as I possibly can, and whose book recommendations (on her live journal) generally fit in to my tastes. Besides, I'd already read (also on the recommendation of Limyaael) "The Lions of Al-Rassan" by Guy Gavriel Kay, and liked it, though not nearly as much as I eventually came to love Tigana. I read many reviews about Tigana, good and bad, but eventually went with my gut feeling and just decided to buy it.

I think my life would have so much poorer if I had not.

Why can be summed up in just one brilliant line of the book, "Tigana, let my memory of you be a blade in my soul."

The basic premise of the book? A peninsula divided into seven states. Two foreign conquerors who have captured six of these states - Brandin and Alberico. One Prince of Tigana who dared to kill Brandin's beloved son. One spell that removed the existence of an entire culture from the face of the earth, not even leaving the name of the place. And a group of people who will do anything to bring back their beloved country.

On the outset, this seems like a pretty simple story. You root for the people who are fighting against the evil sorcerers. They win. You celebrate.

To a certain extent, this is what happened with me. I loved Alessan, I liked Devin, and even though I wasn't too fond of Catriana she still struck me as a fairly respectable character. I could believe in their cause (especially thanks to the breath-taking prologue, which reveals exactly what the cause means to them and why) What happens, though, when you fall in love with the characters on the opposite side too? I didn't want to like Dianora, the woman who begins as someone who wants to kill Brandin but ends up falling in love with him. But it was impossible to help. Kay lifts this story from the regular cliche of woman-falling-in-love-with-person-she-is-supposed-to-kill and puts you right there with Dianora and Brandin and whether you like it or not, you eventually end up loving them, or at least sympathizing with them. Till the end of the book, I was hoping for an ending that was happy for all of them, and there was even a point when I thought that was possible.

But characterization, even though it is a major part of why I like this book, is not the only reason I would recommend it to someone. Another is undoubtedly the world-building. The Palm is a real and beautiful place, with a history and a future. People don't act and think in a vacuum. You can almost see the two moons, hear Alessan playing on the pipes and taste the blue wine. The descriptions used by Kay are masterful. You get the feeling that this world is alive, that it exists somewhere, and doesn't end once the pages of the book end. The description in this book makes me want to spend a vacation in Tigana, and see the towers and the buildings and the beauty. I'm not a visual reader. I don't, unlike most readers, generally see images in my head of the characters and locations. But I see Tigana.

The language is another part of this book that makes it worth recommending. The book is beautifully written, in a number of different points of view. For someone who enjoys something other than the regular black-and-white fantasy, this is a beautiful book to read, because it tells you things from the perspective of many characters. Even Alberico, who I definitely wouldn't sympathize with normally and whom I only cautiously liked in this book, was a wonderful read. Besides, sentences of this book will set themselves in your sub-conscious memory and come back on lazy days, and the time before you go to sleep, or when you are looking out of the window in a drive, and make your heart twist in a way that is both beautiful and tragic.

Many people will tell you that the ending leaves you wanting more. In my opinion, this is one of the best, best parts of this book. The ending with tantalize you and grip you. I don't know if any other author could have made this ending work. It still makes gives me butterflies in my stomach when I think of it. The ending alone is a really good reason to love this book. Tigana is a book to love, to savor slowly on lonely afternoons, to re-read, and to write reviews about. Tigana is truly a book to treasure.

Last words: Read Tigana. Re-read it. And let your memory of this book forever be a blade in your soul.

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