The Hunger Games – Catching Fire (A Movie Review)

Β (Beta) Fantastic movie within the genre

catchingfireAlright, I’m off and traveling, so I thought I’d do a quickie review of The Hunger Games – Catching Fire.  In essence, I can sum it up by saying I loved it and that the movie version of the book kept all the parts I liked, and dumped the bits that I felt didn’t work.

In particular, it treated the viewers with a bit more respect than the novel treated the readers.  It dropped clues at important places, but unlike the book, didn’t hit you over the head with them. In fact, I almost feared the plot bits were too subtle, but my wife (who hasn’t read the books) picked up on them with no trouble… but only after the reveal at the end.

hunger-games-2-catching-fire (3)Now, I should say, I did like the book (see my review), but thought it was by far the weakest of the three novels in the series.  In contrast, the movie version was a significant improvement on the first film (which I loved). Indeed, I almost thought it was an alpha, but… not quite.

ICatching-Fire-capitol-portrait_Haymitch-610x903n addition to a brilliantly adapted script and excellent directing, one cannot help admire the acting that was demonstrated in this movie.  Everyone… I mean everyone – even the bit players – did a wonderful job bringing their characters to life.

So… in short?  I loved it.  It is one of the few movies that is better than the original, and one of the even fewer movies that improves the book.  Considering it was a good book….

jennaI can’t wait to see Mocking Jay. It was my favorite of the novels and done right, might even improve on a fantastic book.  Fingers crossed!

Posted in Chronicle, Coming of Age tale, Conspiracy, Cycle, Dystopian, Near Future fic, Political Drama, Ripping Yarn, Romance, Saga, Science Fiction, Serial, Series, Spy Thriller, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Thriller, Trilogy, Uncategorized, World, YA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Storm of Swords: Book Three of A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), George R. R, Martin (HarpurCollins, 2000){Random House Audio, Narrator: Roy Doltrice)

(Game of Thrones, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Politics, post-modern)

978000224586920140315-21968-120jkyhGrade: Γ — (Gamma) A good or even fantastic book within the genre, possibly worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that is likely to be unappealing to individuals who are not fans of a given genre. This is the highest grade that many very good books that are part of a series can receive, since series require an investment in reading that normally only appeals to fans of that genre. 

In brief:

A Storm of Swords is the second volume in George R.R. Martins’ Song of Ice and Fire series (also known as Game of Throne Series), which continues the epic saga of political intrigue that turns the Fantasy genre on it’s head by adding bitter realism to heroic tales. This dark and yet ‘can’t put it down,’ book added hugely to the saga, building my engagement in the series.  It is my favorite volume to date, however, its cliff-hanger end and the six years it took until the next volume also created the greatest problem with the series as a whole.

Game-Of-Thrones-HiRes-MapwesterosSetting:

Set in a High Fantasy world with a magic system that does not include D&D style spell casters (i.e. wizards who throw fireballs) or Tolkienesque non-humans (i.e. no elves, dwarves, orcs or other demi-human creatures), but does include dragons, the undead and hints of more fae-like creatures.  The story follows the political complexities between the multiple power factions that exist in a medievalesque kingdom that very vaguely resembles the geography of the UK (in that it is divided into three sections: The South, the North and Scotland… er… sorry: Beyond the Wall).  The personal and nasty actions of some characters set in motion a series of events that result in a very violent civil war and an epic story.

Wing as I do about George R. R. Martin from time to time, his internal world logic is superb.

Wing as I do about George R. R. Martin from time to time, his internal world logic is superb.

Also of great importance are the seasons of the world, for while every year has four seasons, there are also great seasons that last for years at a time, suggesting the planet has an irregular elliptical orbit.  In this, the first book of the series, there has been an unusually long Great Summer, and no Great Winter… but as the Stark family motto decrees, it is clear that Winter is Coming.

In Depth:

a-storm-of-swords-blood-and-gold-book-3-part-2-of-a-song-of-ice-and-fire-400x400-imad9agyth2mhbunI have a real love-hate relationship with Storm of Swords, one that is shared by many of Martin’s readers.  For me, it is not the dark and bitter nature of the story, nor the loss of so many hard earned victories. That is the nature of a war and Martin’s ability to portray them engagingly and his bravery in introducing such things to fantasy is what helps set him apart as an author. Neither is it his brutal method of killing off characters that one comes to like; while many readers grew to dislike him because of that, for me that is again one of the great strengths of this novel.[1] No, it is here that the serial nature of the tale begins to really take its toll on me.[2] Even so, what Martin manages to unfold in this volume makes for a brilliant tale.

2142795-book_3_a_storm_of_swordsAs with the previous installment, Martin continues to add depth to his world and particularly to the characters within it. One learns to sympathize with some of the most reprehensible characters of the first volume (like Jaime) and really begin to become annoyed and even dislike some of the most sympathetic characters of the previous volumes (like Caitlyn and to one degree or another, even Jon Snow).[3]  Added to that is the development of point of view characters who give additional insights to more central characters and to the world.

Standing out from these is Brienne of Tarth, whose perspective helps add depth to Jaime while simultaneously creating a break from the stereotype of women in Fantasy literature.  Brienne is a warrior knight who, unlike most women warriors in fantasy, is not attractive.  She is large and strong, and really quite plain of features.  She is far from eloquent and in a sense is a bit of a brute, but she is also noble and kind without being (at all) soft.  As we get to know her, we see she is feminine in her own way, yet unlike most ‘maverick’ style women warriors in the Fantasy genre, she is hard and tough with little sense of humor; in short she is about as uncharismatic as any character I’ve run across. Yet even so, she is in one sense as much of a romantic as Sansa, and one cannot help but love her – which doesn’t bode well for her long term prospects in Martin’s world.

I f you like Game of Thrones.... you may enjoy the political intrigue, character driven plots, shades of grey, action and high adventure of Strings on a Shadow Puppet... available at Amazon.com

I f you like Game of Thrones you may enjoy the political intrigue, character driven plots, shades of grey, action and high adventure of the science fiction espionage thriller Strings on a Shadow Puppet… available at Amazon.com

As for the plot, as with any series, it grows harder and harder to discuss it in any detail without giving spoilers but in essence it is a War story – not a Military Fiction tale – but a story about war in all its horrors.  We see the personal and family lives[4] of the politically strong interfere and potentially derail the greater political and moral goals, we see the lives of those without power trampled by the war, and we see the really important issues (like the undead and Others from Scotland… errrr….Beyond the Wall) ignored as the comparatively unimportant War of the Five Kings drags on.

Theme-wise, character-wise, plot-wise, A Storm of Swords is a masterpiece.  Indeed, the very mixed reaction that it inspires in readers demonstrates this.  Yet, here also we see Martin setting the trap that his next two volumes fall into.  He has painted a picture so vivid and complex that he has had (and continues to have) a difficult time completing it.  As stated in my reviews of A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, the next two volumes are less a dragon of a tale as they drag on as tales.

AStormOfSwordsHopefully, in The Winds of Winter he will begin to cull his story and A Dream of Spring he will end it, but one can never tell.  To that end, while I highly recommend this book to anyone who has read the others in the series, I would also suggest holding off buying the series until it is actually all in publication.

Notes about the Audio Edition:

There comes a point in reviewing a series of audiobooks where it almost becomes pointless to keep writing reviews of them – particularly when they remain at the remarkably high level of the Random House Audio versions of A Song of Ice and Fire. This is even more the case when you have a veteran actor like Roy Dotrice continuing to excel in his narration. Indeed, his plumby, highly educated English accent remains the perfect choice for the reading of this book, and his regional accents are pretty much spot on (well… totally spot on to my ear).  While some of his choices for voices don’t quite match that I imagined for characters when I read the books, they are still solid choices that he delivers with such skill that in some cases they have replaced my own interpretations quite nicely.  In short, a brilliant read for a brilliant listen and I highly recommend it.

A Game of Thrones Series 3, the Television Series:

game-of-thrones-jon-snow-danyGrade: Α – (Alpha) Great book, must read regardless of what Genres you enjoy.  Makes you think of things beyond the scope of the book

In this season of the brilliant television adaptation of Martin’s books, we begin to see additional areas of divergence from the novels.  For the most part, they are minor, but even when they are written large (like the entire Gendry plotline that appears in this series), they make sense and add to the story telling rather than detract from it.  Indeed, they tend to tighten the narrative which, if you’ve been reading my reviews, is not a bad thing.

joffrey_bearAdditionally, the acting really continues to shine.  Rose Leselie continues to bring Ygrette to life in a manner that far exceeds what Martin tried to do in the books, but matches what I feel he was trying to do.  Similarly Oona Chaplin portrays Robb’s wife Talisa Maegyr in the TV series and together with the writers creates a far more engaging character than Robb’s wife in the books – Jeyne Westerling.  To that end, Richard Madden’s portrayal of Robb gives depth to a character who is never a Point of View character in the books.  Indeed, he comes across as far more sympathetic to me, though that could be simply because we see his point of view.  Indeed, every actor in the series shines in some way or another…

Game-of-Thrones-S3-PicThere are, of course, story changes in the TV version, and this continues to increase, but they don’t actually seem to change the plot nor detract from the tale. Indeed, many of these are done to keep the cast of characters under a bit better control, and here they succeed.  I must admit that in the books even I get confused sometimes when we get introduced to yet another new character or one who has been mentioned but never seen.  Particularly as that there tends to be half-a-decade or more between publication dates.

To that end, I feel the TV version continue to shine – making a brilliant adaptation of Martin’s books… what ever will happen when they catch up?


[1] Though, I will admit, there are times where I have wondered if he just kills off characters because he wants to get a rise out of the readers.  Some people think that is the case, but personally I think it has been part of his plan from the start, and part of a commentary on High Fantasy literature.  Let’s face it, as much as we love the heroic nature of Aragorn and other classic heroes of Fantasy, in the real world of medieval politics they probably wouldn’t have lasted all that long. In A Song of Ice and Fire it is the cunning that succeed, not necessarily those whose hearts are pure…

[2] This novel left many of the storylines hanging at its conclusion. Up to the date of this book, there was a reasonable gap between the different release dates: 1996, 1998 and this volume in 2000.  While waiting three years between publications of a serialized story was painful, it was okay.  After this book, however, it took until 2005 for the next installment to come out, and to be honest, I felt that one was a bit disappointing… which you can read all about on my review of Feast For Crows.

[3] Disagree with me?  Well, “You know nothing Jon Snow.”

[4] Indeed, there is a theme throughout this volume about the importance of family, family loyalties and individual needs played out within a family context. Some characters put the needs of the family before their own, others seem to follow selfish paths using family as an excuse for their own ends, while still others put the welfare of everything else in jeopardy in the name of their families.  Who is selfish and who is selfless and how the role of family plays in that is very heavy and deftly addressed in this book.

Posted in Chronicle, Cycle, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Political Drama, Post Modern, Ripping Yarn, Saga, Serial, Series, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Thriller, Uncategorized, Unique or Imaginative World, World | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Clean, Alex Hughes (ROC, 2012)

(Science Fiction, Mystery)

cleanGrade: Γ — (Gamma) A good or even fantastic book within the genre, possibly worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that is likely to be unappealing to individuals who are not fans of a given genre. This is the highest grade that many very good books that are part of a series can receive, since series require an investment in reading that normally only appeals to fans of that genre. 

In brief:

Clean is a near future science fiction mystery thriller about a psychic detective working with the police to find ruthless killer with mental powers of his own. Set in a world where a powerful psionic guild controls most people with psychic powers, we are quickly drawn into a web of suspicions, where suspicions of conspiracies lurk in the shadows… and deadly killer is on the streets.

Setting:

Near future, gritty America (mostly Atlanta), where people with psionics are licensed by the powerful Guild, living as a minority among the public and viewed with considerable suspicion.  A Tech War has occurred in the remembered past that stripped a great number of resources from the public, and kept technological development somewhat limited out of fears (both legitimate and superstitious in nature).

Hughes_authorphoto_verysmall-199x300In Depth:

Set in the near-future, Clean by Alex Hughes is a gritty detective tale that takes place in world where psionics live more-or-less openly among us, but are strictly monitored by the Guild.  The story centers on a once great telepath with whose drug addiction has ruined his life.  Once a promising young genius inside the Guild, our hero was cast out and now serves as a consultant and interrogator for the Atlanta Police as he struggles and stumbles on his road to recovery.  This road becomes even more rocky when he is brought in on an investigation that has all the ear marks of a Guild conspiracy.

This is the first of a series of compelling stand-alone novels that manage to give a full sense of completion at the conclusion of each volume.  There are no cliff-hanger or unanswered questions here, though Hughes has created a world and set of characters that have plenty of possibilities for great future stories. Indeed, the setting has potential for all sorts of interesting twists centered on a deep examination of life in a world with logical and limited psychic powers.  Telepaths, telekentics, teleporters, clairvoyants, precognitives and other psionics are explored against a backdrop of murder mysteries – is it any wonder I loved this book?

Yet Clean is not just a single gimmick novel.  The story does not rely on psychic powers to make it work.  There is an interesting murder mystery at the heart of this tale that introduces us to the history of the protagonist, the world in which the Mindscape Investigation series takes place, and serves as a fully legitimate mystery in its own right. Told from the first person POV, we know everything our hero knows and so we are left to guess what is happening right along side our protagonists.  Never once did I notice Hughes hiding any information from us (which follows of this blog know is one of the surest ways to tick me off). Oh don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of Red Herrings, but while the telepathic nature of the story could have allowed Hughes to hide things from the audience, she instead relies on good old fashioned story telling to let the mystery unwind as we discover clues along side our hero.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat is more, not only Clean build a fascinating world, introduce us to flawed but sympathetic characters and tell a good mystery, it also showcases some very fine writing as well.  I cannot go into it without possibly providing spoilers, but suffice it to say that Hughes manages to use language and story telling to her advantage, managing to pull off some rather sophisticated story elements – particularly related to character development – without drawing attention to what she is doing.

Indeed, some aspects of this book made me initially want to give this an Alpha or Beta rating, but good sense won out.  This is a mixed genre novel that is deep its use of associated writing archetypes.  If you don’t like mysteries, this is a mystery first and foremost.  If you don’t like science fiction – this story revolves around a world in which psionic powers exist (though they are limited and have a clearly thought out and consistent logic structure).  Even so, both genres sit easily side-by-side in this novel, and if you don’t mind either one, I suspect you will like this book.  If you like one, I suspect the way they are blended together will let you enjoy it very much.

If you like both of them, as I do, this is a must read.  I look forward to picking up the next installment.

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A Clash of Kings: Book Two of A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), George R. R, Martin (HarpurCollins, 1999){Random House Audio, Narrator: Roy Doltrice)

(Game of Thrones, Fantasy, High Fantasy)

a-clash-of-kingsGrade: Β — (Beta) Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre.

In brief:

A Clash of Kings is the second volume in George R.R. Martins’ Song of Ice and Fire series (better known as Game of Throne Series), which continues the epic saga of political intrigue introduced in the first volume.  Picking up after the devastating events of the first novel, it carries the story forward, continuing to build both a fascinating world and characters that we come to care about.  This is a ‘can’t put it down’ book that has changed the face of the Fantasy genre, but as a series it has issues with being told in a serial manner with extended periods between dates of publication.

Game-Of-Thrones-HiRes-MapwesterosSetting:

Set in a High Fantasy world with a magic system that does not include D&D style spell casters (i.e. wizards who throw fireballs) or Tolkienesque non-humans (i.e. no elves, dwarves, orcs or other demi-human creatures), but does include dragons, the undead and hints of more fae-like creatures.  The story follows the political complexities between the multiple power factions that exist in a medievalesque kingdom that very vaguely resembles the geography of the UK (in that it is divided into three sections: The South, the North and Scotland… er… sorry: Beyond the Wall).  The personal and nasty actions of some characters set in motion a series of events that result in a very violent civil war and an epic story.

Wing as I do about George R. R. Martin from time to time, his internal world logic is superb.

Wing as I do about George R. R. Martin from time to time, his internal world logic is superb.

Also of great importance are the seasons of the world, for while every year has four seasons, there are also great seasons that last for years at a time, suggesting the planet has an irregular elliptical orbit.  In this, the first book of the series, there has been an unusually long Great Summer, and no Great Winter… but as the Stark family motto decrees, it is clear that Winter is Coming.

images9W9BXAK8In Depth:

As the second installment in the Song of Ice and Fire series,[1] A Clash of Kings really does build the world, politics, story and characters introduced by Martin in Game of Thrones. Indeed, it is in this volume that we see Martin’s uncanny ability to write truly deep characters and setting come to fruition. Individuals we hated in the first book develop depth and sympathy, while poor choices by previously admired characters begin to drive us mad.

What is more, it becomes clear in this novel that Martin has done something truly new in the Fantasy genre: he has created a situation where anyone can die at any time, and made it clear that the good and noble characters might very well not triumph. To this end, he has broken the archetypes of fantasy, creating a realistic setting where characters do not just win because they are heroic and where it really is uncertain who will triumph.  In part, he has done this through creating very realistic characters whose motivations are deep and complex.  Even “villains” such as Jamie Lannister (who is sleeping with his sister, defenestrates a little boy and murdered the king he was sworn to protect) begin to become truly sympathetic.  He does this in part by giving them complex motivations, but also by constantly shifting perspective in the books so that it is difficult to determine who the “Main Character” is.[2]

images6M9F1IP7This creates a very welcome change in the genre, even if it does tend to make for a very, very long story.  Indeed, though in my first read of this novel back in 1999 I was completely enraptured with the book, when I compare this time through to the recent television series I cannot help but note how HBO told the same story in ten hours (as compared to the 708 pages of tiny font that is the paperback I own).

That having been said, while listening to the audiobook, I still found myself totally enthralled by each narrative line the book follows.  Indeed, it amazed me the vast number of very subtle bits of foreshadowing of events in later books that Martin managed to put in this volume – especially considering it was written over ten years before the more recent volumes.

exclusive-game-of-thrones-season-2-extras-video-129669-a-1362562687-470-75As for the storyline (and with no spoilers) A Clash of Kings opens with the fracturing of the Kingdom of Westeros after the events of the first novel.   Jofforoy sits on the Iron Throne in King’s Landing, but both of his uncles, Stannis and Renly, have put forth competing claims to the Kingship.  Meanwhile, Ned’s eldest son, Robb Stark is declared King of the North, which effectively means he has seceded from the rest of the Kingdom.  What is more, he has not only declared independence, but is marching towards the South.  Thus, at the start of the book there are no less than four factions in Westeros, all claiming Kingship in one form of another.

images03E2XBSKMeanwhile, on the Eastern Continent, Daenerys Targaryen  has emerged from the fires with three baby dragons; creatures that when full grown could wipe out armies on their own, but as babies are valuable liabilities that others will want to steal.  She and the rag-tag remnants of her nomadic followers are lost in a horrible wasteland, with no food, shelter or water.  Together they must make their way across the deserts to a location from which she might hope to succor the needs of her people while building an army to retake her stolen birthright: the Iron Throne of Westeros (in case four would-be Kings weren’t complex enough).

imagesPS77TPFYMeanwhile, on the Wall, Jon Snow (Robb’s illegitimate bother) still serves with the Black Watch. There, it is clear that the Scottish… err… sorry, Wyldings… who live Beyond the Wall, are massing for an attack.  What is more, it becomes very clear in this volume that the Others are returning. The Others are a deep magic snow people, not quite human, who raise zombie armies and threaten to destroy all living things.  Though they have not been heard of for centuries, it seems that as WINTER APPROACHES, they are rising once again.[3]

a_clash_of_kings_cover_by_teews666-d4vrngaWithin this complex web of narratives we also see beautiful characters develop that make their poor choices seem natural, if no less infuriating. We see Catelyn Stark try to advise her son on how to rule while desperately attempting to save her daughters from captivity.  We see Tyrion Lannister attempting to advise his insane and immature nephew, as Joffory ignores him and makes impulsive and destructive choices.  Beyond that, we see how the war is effecting the population as a whole through the eyes of the tremendously well written Arya Stark and her crippled brother Bran.

Yet, at the same time, I have now become aware of how seeds of problems in this narrative became issues for Martin’s writing later in the series.  There are interesting, very interesting, sidelines that get followed but which really lead to more or less pointless complications later on.  There are large portions of the text that tell you what one character is doing during a given period, but don’t add to the story at all.

got-game-of-thrones-31255993-1280-720Even so, re-reading the series at this stage has reminded me of why I enjoyed it so much – and why the last two volumes irritated me to such end.

End result?  This is a great series, but suffers from the extremely slow release between volumes and some tediously long side stories later in the books. To that end, you may wish to wait until the series is finished (which Martin promises will happen), or just watch the TV series, which is an excellent adaptation and does in 10 or so episodes what Martin takes big-fat-giant volumes of books to accomplish.

Notes about the Audio Edition:

tumblr_m1s5m4cOGr1qbi3zpo1_500Random House Audio does a brilliant job of producing this Audio-book, and Roy Dotrice does a wonderful job of narrating it. Indeed, his plumby, highly educated English accent is the perfect choice for the reading of this book, and his regional accents are pretty much spot on (well… totally spot on to my ear).

What is more, his gravelly, mature voice in particular plays well to the post-modern nature of the book, for it is a very calm, traditional voice akin to those one might hope for in a reading of Tolkien or traditional versions of the Arthurian legends.  To that end, where the books veer suddenly from the more formulaic natures of fantasy, Dotrice’s adds to the literary surprise without being taken out of the story.  In short, a brilliant read for a brilliant listen.

game-of-thronesA Game of Thrones Series 2, the Television Series:

Grade: Α – (Alpha) Great book, must read regardless of what Genres you enjoy.  Makes you think of things beyond the scope of the book

ygrettxxx1Yes, indeed, I am once more giving the TV series an Alpha grade while giving the book on which it is based a Beta.  Go and read my grading system.  An Alpha, a Beta, a Gamma and a Delta Prime are all basically the same grade, but note the degree to which a consumer (be it reader, listener or watcher) would enjoy the series based on whether or not they like the genre.

not-janeHaving said that, there were several things I preferred in the series starting with their ability to summarize the same material in a much shorter format.  Additionally, I really liked the way in which Rose Leselie played Ygrette, giving her much more life and fever than I felt Martin reflected in the book. I also liked the changes they made in the TV series to the interactions between Robb Stark and his love interest.  Perhaps the biggest change, however, that I truly feel added to the whole story was earlier addition of Tywyn Lannister to the narrative as an actual character and his interactions with Arya.  There were never in the books at this stage, but in the series build up both Arya and Tywin beautifully as characters.


[1] The series is often called The Game of Thrones after the first book, and indeed the popular television series based on the books has taken the title of the first novel as it’s name.  This is always a problem for authors, because what serves as a title for a first book may not be the best title for the series.  In this case, it certainly works, but there are some very serious hints about the final outcome of the series (not a spoiler… I don’t know how the series will turn out) and the events that predate the books (and indeed Jon Snow’s true identity) included in the title Song of Ice and Fire.

[2] In fact, I don’t think there is one. I think the plot is the main character, and everyone else is just caught in its’ tide (OK, I know… that was cheesy… but its true.  This truly is postmodern in that there is no single character whose tale this is).

[3] Really, I do wonder if in the next volume to be published, if he will somehow make the Others sympathetic.

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Mockingjay (The Final Book of Hunger Games (Book 3), Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Press, 2010 {Scholastic Audio, Narrator: Carolyn McCormick}

(Science Fiction, Dystopian Future, Audiobook, YA)

MockingjayGrade: Β — Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre.  Also, to avoid bias, the highest grade I’ll give a book by someone I know and like.

In brief:

Mocking Jay is the final installment in the Hunger Games trilogy, and serves as a brilliant conclusion to this series. It improves greatly on the second novel, playing on the dark nature of both the dystopia of Panem while exploring the darker side of revolutionary movements.  Indeed, rather than take the easy, overdone and romantic “Freedom Fighters to the rescue approach,” Collins portrays a realistic and complex political network that goes to show that when properly written, a genre book can be as solid a contribution to literature as any other.

Setting:

Ok, the book notes Panem is across North America, but this image seems to be missing Mexico... which most Americans seem to forget is indeed part of North America. Ah well, it least it shows a bit of Canada, even if it is just a nuclear wasteland...

Ok, the book notes Panem is across North America, but this image seems to be missing Mexico… which most Americans seem to forget is indeed part of North America. Ah well, it least it shows a bit of Canada, even if it is just a nuclear wasteland…

Panem (e.g. Bread): A post-apocalyptic dystopian future North America that has been divided into thirteen districts (one of which has apparently been destroyed) dominated by a totalitarian centralized government run from a city located somewhere high in the Rockies.  Food is extremely scarce, though this may well be only a tool used by the government to control the populace.  Each district has a monolithic economy (coal production, food production, etc.) again presumably enforced in order to control the populace. Yearly gladiatorial games are held using two teenage ‘tributes’ from each district that fight in a wilderness arena to the death.  At this point in the story, general discontent and oppression have built up to a boiling point and conflict, if not outright revolution, is underway.

In Depth:

mockingjay-posterThere seem to be two camps when it comes to the Hunger Games series: those who love Catching Fire and are disappointed with Mockingjay, and those who found Catching Fire a bit lackluster and love Mockingjay.  I am definitely of the latter camp.

As I pointed out in my review of the second installment (http://wp.me/pWa2h-zL)  in the series, I found Catching Fire had some admirable bits, but that it took a good story and crammed it into a slightly formulaic response to the first novel’s success.  What was more, I felt that Katniss seemed a bit simpleminded in that book, obtusely unaware of the signs of conspiracy and rebellion around her. While Catching Fire did provide us with a much fuller view of the world of Panem, and more fully developed the personal relationships created in the first book (Oh, yes and not just the romantic ones – those with everyone around her… very well done), it also forced Katniss back into an arena in a manner that seemed a bit contrived.  Not that she ended back in the arena, but that nobody informed her of what other plots and conspiracies were going on around her.  Given the nature of what she was up against, it seems a little unrealistic.

In Mockingjay, however, we see a really solid return to form.  The increased complexity of conspiracies and questionable loyalties all fit seamlessly into the plot.  Though it drew a very dark reality for Katniss to live in, that is the nature of revolutions and Collins did not shy from it.

Mockingjay_on_firePicking up from where the previous novel left off, we return to Katniss as she finds herself in the rebel stronghold recovering from the events of the last book (well, technically the last two books).  As she recovers, she becomes fully involved in the growing rebellion, not as a rebel leader (the way that so many authors would have played it), but as a Rebel figurehead – a poster girl for the war against the Capitol.  This is what I loved about the book more than anything else.

A teenage girl who rose to prominence due to her ability to stay alive in an arena and unwillingness to give in to the capital would not become a leader in a Revolutionary movement.[1]  She wouldn’t even become the leader of an elite squad of fighters that somehow also ends up involved in making key political and/or military decisions (the way some stories would have it). What she could become, however, is a poster girl for the cause and that would put her both in filmable front line action AND in the middle of political debates – though not always as the most informed person in the room.

julianne-moore-to-play-president-alma-coin-in-mockingjayIndeed, one element I loved about this book is that it’s not just the story of a struggle against a totalitarian state,[2] but the story of the struggle within the rebel forces. Here, Collins shows a very realistic representation of revolution – each faction within the rebel forces have their own agenda.  There are Thirteen districts after all, and each has its own relationship with the Capital.  Some rebel, some don’t, some want one thing after the war, some want things totally differently.  This is brilliantly complex and realistic.

After all, in the real world rebel and resistance groups are not made up of one set of people with one set of goals.  Look at Egypt over the past few years and Syria today.  There are factions, each with their own agenda; groups that may be allied against a common enemy today, but may well point guns at each other tomorrow.  Heck, you can even see this sort of thing in the American Revolution of 1776.[3]

mockingjay-featured-EW-2014-previewMockingjay throws Katniss right into the heart of the complex politics of a revolution, and does so without pulling punches – because she become part of a war of propaganda.  This works brilliantly within the story because it allow Collins to use the kind of Gladiatorial combat that is the center of much of the first two novels in a real-war scenario. Why would anyone use a bow and arrow in a gun fight?  Because it would play well on TV to the audiences who were inspired to revolution when they saw her use those weapons in the Arena.[4]

Yet, this whole propaganda scenario also gives us a reason to have Katniss meet with the leaders of the rebellion and become aware of their own machinations.  It gives her a certain power, of course, and creates reasons for her to wonder if the rebels are, in fact, any better than President Snow. It allows her to question the motives behind the secret powers that are backing the revolution: are they just out to exploit the Districts in a different way? If so, what role is she playing in that horror, and worse, what role are her friends and “lovers” playing?

mockingjay_poster_by_kim_beurre_lait-d6xnq0xThis is why I loved this book.  Katniss sees and faces the real cost of revolution throughout the tale, and it ain’t pretty.  What is more, she sees the potential that the world she is fighting for may not end up to be any better than the one she is fighting against.

To this end, there are no clear good guys and bad guys.  This is a book of shades of grey worthy of any novel aimed at any reader, and this is why some people dislike it (or at least, don’t like it as much).  There are no easy answers or whole-hearted victories in the book. It is a dark book with costs for every victory.  It does not turn a teenaged girl into a super-hero Savior, but keeps in the kind of a role that she would more realistically see.

Coveresque MockingjayIndeed, this is one of the key areas of complaint that is often aimed at the book.  It ends realistically – not romantically.  If you’re looking for Katniss to face the dread villain in a face to face fight at the end and lead a happy suburban life afterwards – put down the Hunger Games and go read Harry Potter.[5] Having said that, I can see why some people are disappointed with the narrative turns at the end, but for me, they balanced story telling with reality in a very nice manner.

Like the first book (and less so the second), this novel did not condescend to its readers because they are YA.  That makes it brilliant for anyone regardless of their age or gender.

Carolyn_McCormickHungerGamesNotes about the Audio Edition:

As with the previous volume, this book was well narrated by Carolyn McCormick for Scholastic Audio.  While her voice remains a bit mature in its nature for a first person narrated by a teenager, Carolyn McCormick does am excellent job and in this book, the voice of a woman fit better than the last.


[1] No I’m Spartacus!  Of course history’s favorite Gladiator didn’t lead a rebellion of everyday men and women, he led a rebellion of Gladiators and other slaves – one that was not so much planned as just kind of happened.

[2] Key start of the Theme to Star Wars….

[3] Ever hear of Pennamite–Yankee War?  It may be a footnote to history that most people who live in the Susquehanna Valley never heard of, but at the time was a major factor in Colonial to early American politics.

[4] Admittedly, this ends up not being quite believable when Katniss comes across some military defenses that are based on Arena like settings – but one can over look that sort of thing.  Indeed, Collins subtly suggests that the Arena has been so central to the mindset of the powerful for so long that they can’t help but think in that way… but ask me an a few automated machine guns in those positions would have worked a lot better.

[5] Love that series too!  But it is a fantasy not a Sci-Fi and so follows a different formula.

Posted in audio book, Chronicle, Coming of Age tale, Cycle, Dystopian, Identity, Political Drama, Post Colonial, Post Modern, Ripping Yarn, Saga, Science Fiction, Serial, Series, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Thriller, Trilogy, Uncategorized, World | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Flag in Exile, David Weber (Baen Books, 1995 {Brilliance Audio, Narrator: Allysson Johnson)

(Science Fiction, Military Science Fiction, Space Opera)

0743435753 Grade: Δ — (Delta) A solid read, but only buy it if you like the genre.

In brief:

Flag in Exile is David Weber’s fifth book in his long lived Honor Harrington series and focuses on the ramifications of her actions at the end of the last book.  It simultaneously builds more of the political and social background of the ‘Honorverse.’  While there are significant personal and political events that occur in this story, this novel also manages to return to the realm of space combat that is the heart and soul of this series.  To that end, it is an enjoyable read to anyone who likes the Honor Harrington series, but would likely prove unsatisfying to anyone who was not already a fan of Weber’s principal universe.

manticoreSpaceSetting:

A Far Future interstellar space, where Faster-Than-Light travel is possible through hyperspace and wormholes.  Earth exists, but is little more than historic footnote, with the main storylines occurring on independent interstellar states primarily populated by the descendents of human colonists.  The prime backdrop is clearly (and unabashedly) based on a futurized version of the Napoleonic era Naval combat.

In Depth:

77738I am somewhat mixed in my feelings about this book.  In one sense it builds quite nicely on to the end of the previous novel, showing both the personal and political impacts of the events in that book.  To that end, it is quite rewarding.

In another sense, however, it adds even more skills and talents to Honor’s tab that continue her along the path of a person who is just-too-good-to-be-true.  She is not just a polymath, skilled at many things, she is an expert at everything she turns her hand to.  Where she does have weaknesses they never really make much of a difference[1] or are, in fact, strengths that are thinly veiled as weaknesses.  Furthermore, by this time in the series, I already had my doubts about her ability to ever fail – or even just not succeed – at whatever she puts her hand to.

Honor_Harrington_Flag_in_exile_by_GenkkisHaving said that, in this volume Honor has suffered loss prior to this book, and faces new challenges that are worthy of her status.  To that end, the story definitely kept my attention and made for an enjoyable read.

The book opens with her facing the professional and political ramifications of her choices in the last book while also addressing, or attempting to address, the emotional and psychological outcomes. She is depressed and been removed from active duty from her beloved Manticorean Navy.  What makes it worse is that at long last the Star Kingdom has returned to hostilities with the Peeps (People’s Republic of Haven) and a full bore space war has begun.

Facing exile at the precise moment her people need her most, Honor turns to her responsibilities in the allied nation of Grayson.  Taking up her post as the first woman ‘steadholder’[2] that this religious and sexist nation has had, she faces a wide range of political and social battles.  Additionally, she is quickly made the number two person of the Grayson Navy, bumping her from the rank of Captain to that of Admiral (albeit in a foreign but allied navy).

Art_IEHThis leads to a good deal of political maneuvering, and even more discussions, debate and involvement in the nature of Fleet logistics and deployment.  For any fan of Military history, this makes for interesting reading (and puts it full form into the school of Tales of Tactics rather than Soldier’s Story), but others may not be so readily engaged.  Fortunately, this political and logistical wrangling is nicely balanced with both personal and naval combat and the end of the book.

So in the end, I enjoyed the book a good deal, but really cannot imagine anyone who did not already like the Honorverse getting any enjoyment out of it.  Though it was by no means the best book in the series to date, it was a solid contribution that built up the world and the personal history of Honor Harrington, while setting the readers up for what promises to be better books to come.

Notes about the Audio Edition:

The Brilliance Audio production of Field of Dishonor was extremely well done, with Allysson Johnson again proving herself as the perfect narrator for this series.

Johnson continues to have a way of reading Honor’s high pitched voice as being commanding, though her accents are a bit strained at time if they are supposed to represent real world ones.  Even so, I could over look that as that it is supposed to be taking place in the future and could well just be read as being representative of future dialects.  Besides, she uses them consistently (thus a Sphynxian accent always sounds the same, Grayson accents always sound Graysonian).


[1] For example: she is famously “not very good at math.”  This is a failing that one might expect to see having some significant impact on a person who is involved navigational exercises. However, at this stage in her career, five books in, we have yet to see this play at all into any plot line.  It’s a bit like having Superman inhabit a world without kryptonite.

[2] Nobel by any other name.

Posted in audio book, Cycle, Far Future, gender, Military Science Fiction, Political Drama, Ripping Yarn, Science Fiction, Series, Space Opera | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Strings on a Shadow Puppet, reviews, interviews and trailer views

I don’t normally do two self-promotional articles back to back, but it has been a very busy month here at the Archaeologists’ Guide, and I thought it important to share the hard work of those who have found an interest in my work.

The first is this amazing book trailer by Александър Томов,

It really is humbling to have some of my favorite authors and reviewers provide me with such amazing quotes… and yes, they really did all read the thing.

Y.I. Washington’s Lessons in Sci Fi

Along similar lines, I did two interviews this month.  The first was with sci-fi author and poet, Yolanda Washington, who questioned me regarding my views on the future of humanity in her great series on Social Sciences and Science Fiction.  

For those of you who don’t know, Yolanda is an up and coming Sci-Fi author who one should really keep an eye on in the upcoming years.  Her interview was focussed on my views of human development in the future, and touched briefly upon the topic of The Traitor’s Gambit, which carries on the story of the Ripper’s Raiders ARAG crew we first met in Strings on a Shadow Puppet.  It was a lot of fun and she had some very penetrating questions on both topics.

Future War Stories Reviews Strings on a Shadow Puppet and Interviews the Author (me).  

[watchmen+rorschach+grayscale+masks+monochrome+white+background+1280x1024+wallpaper_wallpaperbeautiful_38.jpg]

Hey… this is the picture he uses for himself? Who am I to argue?

Of course, those of you who have been around a while know that one of my favorite Military Science Fiction sites is Future War Stories, a blog that expertly explores and explains the world of Military Science Fiction.  So, when I sent a copy of Strings on a Shadow Puppet to the editor to review, I was more than a little nervous.  After all, this guy has some of the best explorations of weaponry, units and general future war-stuff around.

So when editor and author William Bregnard not only gave me a positive review (with valid critiques), but also asked me to interview, I was more than a little excited.  Here is the link, but I will also include a quick snippet of his impression of the book.

Should You Read Strings on a Shadow Puppet?
YES! In his first venture into military science fiction, author T.L Evans expertly forges a brilliant tale of espionage, loyalty, political struggle, and military service, within a galactic setting a far future laced with incredible technology. Prepare yourself for an engrossing read in The Strings of a Shadow Puppet. This book is more than worth the $2.99 asking price on Amazon.com, and is one of the rare examples of sci-fi espionage that is really about the game of espionage with all of the risks and rewards involved.

So, many thanks to Alexsander, Yolanda and William for making the end of 2013 and the start of 2014 such an exciting and positive time!

Posted in Chronicle, Conspiracy Novel, Cyberpunk, Cycle, Dystopian, Espionage, Far Future, gender, Hard SciFi, Identity, Military Science Fiction, Mystery, New Space Opera, Opinion Piece, Original Fiction, Part of A Series but can be Read without reading previous volumes, Political Drama, Post Colonial, Post Modern, Ripping Yarn, Saga, Science Fiction, Series, Space Opera, Spy Thriller, Stand Alone Novel, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Thoughtful Espionage Tale, Thriller, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment