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We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us: A Better World by Marcus Sakey

With his Brilliance series, suspense writer Marcus Sakey is doing for adult science fiction what Suzanne Collins did for YA science fiction in the Hunger Games books and George R.R. Martin did for epic fantasy with Game of Thrones: He’s making it accessible to people who aren’t fans of those genres.

A  Better World

A Better World, A Better Book

Actually, I’m hesitant even to tell you that the Brilliance series is science fiction because you may decide not to read it on that basis alone, so try not thinking of it as science fiction. Think of it as a series of suspense novels that will have spectacular special effects when they get made into movies. The words “science fiction” create certain expectations in people’s minds, like starships and latex-faced aliens, and you won’t find any of that in Sakey’s work.

What you will find, as I discussed in my review of the first book in the Brilliance series — appropriately entitled Brilliance — is lean, muscular, intelligent prose with interesting characters and deftly executed plot twists. For those of you tired of the all-too-often bloated prose of fantasy writers like George R.R. Martin and Stephen King (both of them excellent authors who just never got the message that less can sometimes be more), you’ll find Sakey’s tight plotting and no-words-wasted descriptions a refreshing change. And if you’ve read the first book in the Brilliance series, you’ll be thrilled to discover that, after a somewhat slow opening caused mostly by the addition of some new viewpoint characters, A Better World is not only as good a book as the first in the series but actually a better one. The second half of this book is one of the most gripping thrillers I’ve read in recent years and Sakey sets up the third book in the series — yes, this is going to be at least a trilogy — so perfectly that I’m already wishing he’d finish it already and put it on Amazon, because I really don’t want to wait as long for it as I’ve been waiting for new books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Fortunately, not only is Sakey a less verbose writer than Martin but a faster one.

In A Better World, the protagonist is once again government agent Nick Cooper, but he’s on leave from his job with the DAR, having developed serious doubts about their mission to keep watch on so-called brilliants, super-intelligent mutants of which Cooper is one. (If you’ve read the first book, you’ll know why Cooper is having doubts.) That doesn’t mean he’s sitting on his hands, though. He’s offered a job as a presidential adviser and he takes it, because he thinks brilliants deserve a voice in the White House. So, fortunately, does the president. Alas, this makes Cooper some powerful enemies, because not everybody who works in the West Wing is exactly who they seem to be, no matter how nice they all seemed during those seven years Martin Sheen spent as the PoTUS.

Cooper also returns to the city of Tesla, high in the Colorado Rockies, a town designed especially for brilliants to live in and therefore seen as a threat to normal humans by certain political advisers who want the president to take executive action of a particularly dangerous kind. As Sakey winds the plot tighter and tighter, the story heads into Tom Clancy political thriller territory, the kind where the fate of nations hangs in balance. Though several of Sakey’s characters are human beings that the reader feels deeply about, the climactic scenes of this novel involve a spectacular situation that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for you.

I don’t want to go into more details about the plot because you shouldn’t be reading this review. You should be reading the book. You can buy the e-book for $5 from Amazon.com and it’s worth three times that much. Then again, you might want to wait until the third novel is out so that you can binge-read them in sequence, but I don’t have that kind of patience. Once I’d read the first book, I knew I’d read the second one the day it came out — and I did. (It’s taken me a while to review it, though. Life keeps getting in the way.) If you’ve read the first book, you should read this one as soon as you possibly can. You won’t regret it.

 

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Fire and Reign: George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons

Book #15 for 2011: A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

In a recent interview that I either read or saw with George R.R. Martin, he said that he likes to add new viewpoint characters in each book of the Song of Ice and Fire series, allowing the story to spread out further and further into the world of his alternative middle ages, bringing new kingdoms, countries and continents into the world-encompassing war that began near the end of A Game of Thrones.

Great idea, George. Pity it doesn’t work.

If anything has weakened the last couple of books in the series, it’s that none of the new characters, the ones introduced since the first book, has been as interesting as the members of the Stark, Lannister and Targaryen families, and it’s still the initial set of eight viewpoint characters (at least those among them who have survived) and their immediate relatives that the reader cares most about. The increasing bloat of secondary characters nearly swamped the fourth book of the series, A Feast for Crows, and if the series recovers its footing in the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, it’s because Martin wisely concentrates the narrative on the three strongest viewpoint characters remaining from that initial eight: Tyrion Lannister, Daenaerys Targaryen and Jon Snow (though one of the most fascinating chapters in this book is about the most underused of the original set of characters: Bran Stark).

A Dance with Dragons is a very good book, and vastly better than its frequently tedious predecessor, A Feast for Crows. If I don’t rate it quite as high as my two favorite books in the series, A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords, it’s only because some of that secondary character bloat still persists and there are some scenes in the midsection of the book that sag and drag a bit. (You can tell when Martin’s inspiration is starting to wane, or maybe his appetite is starting to wax, because he spends page after page describing the foods his characters are eating. Lark’s tongues are a favorite. So are crusts of bread soaked in bacon grease.)

But surrounding these scenes are some wonderful set pieces and I don’t think it will surprise anybody that this is the book where he finally unleashes Daenaerys’s unruly adolescent dragons on the world. (It’s in the title, so if that’s a spoiler, it’s Martin’s fault.) And a thrilling, terrifying trio of reptiles they turn out to be. It’s also the book where winter is no longer merely coming but has clearly started to arrive. (The title of the next book, The Winds of Winter, implies that things will be getting colder still.) Two of the three main characters get cliffhangers at the end, though for some reason the cliffhangers seemed a bit more ambiguous this time around. One of them made me say “WTF?” more than it made me say “Wow!”, but it still made me want to read the next book to find out what the hell happened. And it’s difficult to say exactly what the final scene of the book portends, but it seems to signal some major changes in the story.

So is the book worth reading? Oh, yeah. Even if some scenes are slow, A Dance with Dragons is still a clear return to form after the occasional stumbles in the previous book and there are some wonderfully unexpected twists. As usual Martin goes on far too long, but I’m happy to forgive him for it. I do have to wonder exactly how the television series will handle the way Martin left so many of these characters out of the previous book, but the producers have already begun to film certain sequences out of order relative to the books and one supposes they’ll simply have to do some plot thread juggling when seasons four and five arrive.

But what are they going to do if Martin hasn’t written books six and seven in time for seasons six and seven? Your guess is as good as mine. But I definitely see a spin-off series for those dragons.

Wild and Wordy Westeros: A Song of Ice and Fire

Book #11 for 2011: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
Book #12 for 2011: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
Book #13 for 2011: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

Let’s see, according to my Nook, I have over the last three months read 3,477 pages of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (including the first book, A Game of Thrones, which I wrote about earlier). It is with great sincerity, then, that I say the following: Whew!

I’m not sure if that’s a whew! of admiration or a whew! of exhaustion, but it’s a whew! of something, that’s for sure. Martin is a terrific writer, one of my favorites, but he does like to go on and on and on and on and on and on and…next month he’ll be publishing another 1,000 pages or so for me to read, with still another two books left before the series is done. Assuming he doesn’t drop dead from carpal tunnel syndrome before he types the final words of the final book, that means I’ll probably eventually read somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 pages of Martin’s writing on this series alone.

A lot of you now know A Game of Thrones through the HBO series and a few of you have even read the book, but if you haven’t gotten beyond the first volume you may be wondering if the rest of the series is as good as the beginning. Well, no, it isn’t quite. But it comes awfully close. Martin’s writing can be trying at times. He likes to spend hundreds of pages setting up a situation, doling out exposition, even letting his myriad characters (and when you start counting the minor characters there’s a hell of a big myriad here) spend entire chapters in talky political wrangling or discussing the latest gossip about people who often have nothing whatsoever to do with the story, but once Martin has his plot wound up, he lets it explode and the result is thrilling in a way that popular fiction rarely is.

Consider A Storm of Swords, the third volume in the series. The first half is so full of characters being taken hostage, being rescued, and being carried to and fro about the novel’s vast countryside that I began to lose track of who was where, who was with whom and where they were supposed to be headed. My attention began to wander. But after I took a week off to read other things, I was blown away by the second half of the (1,068 page) book, where Martin unleashes one killer plot twist after another. By the time the book was over, he had completely changed the playing field and had me excited about plunging into yet another interminable volume of the series. For those plot twists alone I nominate A Storm of Swords as the second best book in the series, and would rank it ahead of A Game of Thrones if it had just been a little more tightly written.

Martin’s writing method is the same in all of the books of the series, or at least in the first three. As in A Game of Thrones, he assembles a group of viewpoint characters (Game of Thrones has eight) and assigns each a plot thread. Every chapter is named for the viewpoint character that will be followed in it, so you immediately know which plot thread you’re in, even if it’s been a couple of hundred pages since that character was last heard from. Sometimes I found I had to go back to the last chapter about that character (something that’s surprisingly easy to do on the Nook) to remember what the hell was happening in that plot thread, but because Martin usually ends his chapters on some important story development or character revelation, I generally found myself eager to learn what the next development would be in that thread.

The one book where this method begins to fail is the fourth, A Feast for Crows. Martin gets carried away with introducing new characters and situations, to the point where the book becomes painfully exposition heavy. Whole new portions of Westeros geography and politics are opened to the reader along with new viewpoint characters and plot threads and Martin expects us to spend an unconscionable number of pages boning up on the details. At times this became way too plodding and I only kept reading because I knew that there was going to be some kind of payoff. (There was: Martin throws in yet another knockout of a plot twist near the end and there are enough intriguing developments late in the book to make me curious where things are headed.) A worse problem with this book is that Martin realized it was getting too long and removed half the ongoing plot threads and put them in the next book, A Dance with Dragons, which reportedly will tell stories taking place simultaneously with those in this book. This means that several of the best characters in the series, including Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, are left out of the book entirely. And because Martin took so long to write these two volumes, that means that these characters have been missing for 11 years. No wonder Martin’s legions of fans are angry!

Fortunately, I only have to wait two weeks or so for the next volume. Not that I plan to read it immediately; I need a bit of a rest from Martin’s huge, beautifully conceived and frequently exasperating world. But I doubt that I’ll wait too long to read it. If I spend more than a couple of months before I rejoin Martin’s multitude of plot threads, I’ll have no hope whatsoever of remembering what’s going on. And though I read the 779 pages of A Game of Thrones for a second time to refresh my memory, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t bring myself to read all 3,477 pages of the first four volumes again!

Misty Zip-A-Tone-Colored Memories Light the Corners of my Mind

Here’s something I dug up and thought was amusing. It’s a scan of a portion of the letter column from Fantastic Four #32 (November 1964). I wish I could squeeze more in, but it would become unreadable and I’d probably be sued for going beyond fair use. I want to call your attention to two things in it. The first is that the author of the (only partially visible) letter at the top is George R.R. Martin. Yes, that’s the same George R.R. Martin who wrote A Game of Thrones, currently being serialized on HBO, which I wrote about in my last blog post. He would have been 15 or 16 when this appeared.

The author of the letter at the bottom is a certain Chris Lampton. Yes, that’s me. I was 14 when this appeared. There’s no great point here other than that both Martin and I were geeks in our youths and wrote letters to some of the same comic books. And I was very amused to find us both in the same one. (Amy found it pretty amusing too.)

And Not a Hobbit In Sight: A Game of Thrones

Book #7 for 2011: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

I first read this novel back in 1999 and was mesmerized by it. I’d forgotten much of it in the intervening years and I chose to reread it now because I wanted to freshen my memories of it in preparation for reading the remaining books in the series (those that have been published so far, at least, which will be four as of July) and because I didn’t want the parts of it that I didn’t remember spoiled for me by the HBO TV version. As it turned out, I didn’t remember very much about it at all. It also turned out that it was even better than I’d remembered.

I’ve been familiar with Martin’s work for many years — more about that in a moment — and knew that he was a good writer, but it wasn’t until I read A Game of Thrones that I realized just how good. It’s as perfect and gripping a piece of storytelling as I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, a type of novel that you don’t really find much of these days in which character and story are developed with leisurely yet never boring strokes and intertwined in such a way that each perfectly complements the other: The characters are illuminated by their actions within the story and the story is made compelling and exciting by the believability and depth of the characters. Martin’s writing style is neither literary nor pulpish, but tonally perfect for a story that’s simultaneously old fashioned and modern. His prose never grates yet it never calls attention to itself and he always knows precisely what details to draw out to make the novel’s millieu seem both vivid and lived in. Everything here seems real; much of what’s here seems thrilling.

Which makes it all the odder that the novel falls into the fantasy genre. Not that good fantasy shouldn’t seem real or thrilling — I don’t think a fantasy should even be referred to by the adjective “good” if it doesn’t seem perfectly real to you while you’re experiencing it — but the book-length fantasy genre had become so dominated by J.R.R. Tolkien clones over the last third of the 20th century that a certain artificiality had settled over it, not to mention a certain predictability. The inevitable presence of hobbit-like creatures and an heroic quest structure had become such a cliche that many people had begun to assume that any book labeled “fantasy” would be about those things. In the 21st century publishers have started relabeling fantasies with new genre names like “paranormal” and “urban fantasy” to try to recapture audiences repelled by the fear that any book from that section of the store is going to read like yet another rehash of The Lord of the Rings.

You’d be forgiven if you thought that’s what this book was going to be too, because the original packaging from the 90s (and even the new packaging that namechecks HBO on the cover) certainly gives that impression. But Martin isn’t playing the Tolkien game here. A Song of Ice and Fire (the overall name of the series of which this book is the first) is a family saga, not an heroic quest, and the fantasy elements are few and far between. In fact, if it weren’t for about five brief moments in this book, you might not notice it’s a fantasy at all.

For those of you not watching the HBO series version that’s running currently, I’ll summarize the story briefly, avoiding spoilers for those who ARE watching: It’s about several families, most notably the Starks, a noble family that rules over the northern portion of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a country that bears a striking resemblance to medieval England; the Targaryens, a deposed royal family now reduced to two members, a brother and a sister living in exile on an unnamed (?) southeastern continent resembling medieval Mongolia; and the Lannisters, a vaguely sinister noble family with a lock on the western portion of the Seven Kingdoms and a claim on the throne of the whole continent. The story contains a central mystery — the death of Jon Arryn, the Hand (read: Chief of Staff) of the King of the Seven Kingdoms, Robert Baratheon — that Eddard Stark needs to solve, a lot of royal intrigue, and a dozen or so fascinating characters, most of whom are given viewpoint chapters of their own throughout the book. The fact that the novel is set in something that resembles our world and our history without it actually being our world and our history is the major fantasy element — that, plus an occasional hint of undead creatures living in the far north, an oddly elongated cycle of seasons, a form of black magic that pops up later on, and something very, very major that Martin saves for the last page of the book. Otherwise, this is a book about people, not Hobbits.

If you enjoy vivid storytelling but avoid books like this because you think you don’t like fantasy, you’re making a mistake. At the very least, try the TV show, which is an excellent and faithful adaptation, though like any adaptation it can’t quite be the original. And as an aside for those who are watching, I’ll add that everything you’ve seen up until now — that is, in the first four episodes — is basically prologue. The plot should really kick into high gear in the fifth (this Sunday’s) or the sixth (next Sunday’s) episode. I, for one, can’t wait.

A NOTE ON GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: I first became aware of George R.R. Martin in the letter columns of comic books back in the 1960s. Seriously. He’s a year-and-a-half older than I am and his letters used to appear regularly in comic books like The Fantastic Four and Green Lantern (I’m guessing at the specific titles, though I bet I’m right) that I read regularly too. In the 1970s, when he was in his 20s, he began publishing science fiction. His early stories were a bit heavy on the post-adolescent angst, but even then were beautifully written. I met him a couple of times at science fiction conventions. I didn’t really know him, but we had mutual friends and they would occasionally keep me up on what he was doing. He was fat, geeky-looking and almost a stereotype of a science fiction/comic book fan; he just happened to be one with a hell of a lot of talent and brains. He worked in television for a while in the 80s, most notably on the show Beauty and the Beast, the one where Linda Hamilton and a furry Ron Perlman were involved in interspecies sexual tension. I can see the television influence in A Game of Thrones. It has that sense of leisurely character development and the episodic twists and turns of plot that I love in a good serial TV show. Which it now is, bringing things full circle.

And now I’m off to read the next book in the series.