A Song of Ice and Fire: A Game of Thrones (Book 1) by George R.R. Martin

I had always thought to read the series but it seemed to me that if the author was never going to finish it, I wasn’t sure I wanted to start and get stuck waiting for something that would never come. (Fans have been waiting six years for book five to come out and it was finally announced that the publication date would be in July–book four took five years but in that instance he threw out a year’s worth of work when he decided the format he was using would not work for it so I forgive the time lapse.) But when HBO announced it would be creating a series based on the show, I decided I had to read the books–I knew I would be watching the show and thought it best to read the books too. (The book was written to be somewhat unfilmable, so I knew it would likely be complicated and a reading of the book would probably help clear things up.)

Now, with that preamble out of the way, I found myself greatly enjoying this series. It is not what you expect from a fantasy series. In fact, for the vast majority of it, it feels more like historical fiction than fantasy as there is virtually nothing fantastical about it. We only get a handful of magic details and scenes at all–direwolves are sort of otherworldly in that they don’t exist, there are myths regarding whitewalkers but other than the opening scene we don’t really see them, dragons are now extinct, and the only actual spells cast come near the very end of the book. And though the magical element is usually something I really look for in a fantasy series, I was surprised to find that it didn’t bother me that they were all but absent.

Martin has created a very in depth world filled with dozens of complex characters and history. One might even say too in depth since there are so many characters that at times it is difficult to keep them straight. Many of the deaths lack impact because I was to busy thinking “wait, who was he again?” We follow eight primary characters in first person–some of the members of the Stark family (Eddard, Catelyn, Jon, Sansa, Arya, and Bran), Tyrion Lannister, and Daenyerys Targaryn. Eddard Stark grew up best friends with Robert, the man who he helped make king of the Seven Kingdoms by deposing Aerys Targaryen, The Mad King. When King Robert comes to Winterfell, the Starks’ home, they are pulled into the already fraught political world of King’s Landing where the Lannisters plot for power and the last Hand of the King was mysteriously killed. While Eddard investigates why the Hand was killed, his children are left to navigate their new world–Bran, Rob, and Rickon must learn to rule Winterfell while Sansa and Arya must find their place in the capital and Jon, Eddard’s bastard, must fit into the Wall where he has gone to help protect the realm from more dangerous things up north. Meanwhile in the East, Daenerys Targaryen has been sold by her brother Viserys, the last male heir of the Targaryen family, to Khal Drogo, the leader of one of the barbarian-like Dothraki tribes.

For me, some characters’ stories are much stronger than others. Where Sansa is a believable teenager in some ways she seems much too stupid, materialistic, and whiny for a Stark of Winterfell and was hard to relate to. Arya, on the other hand, was interesting and exciting as she was determined to defy the world and expectations placed on her for being a daughter of a noble family. Bran seems largely unimportant beyond the things he sees in the very beginning (it might have been more interesting to see things from Robb’s perspective as he was forced to take up the mantel of Lord of Winterfell). Catelynn is an irritating character, but mostly because I don’t care for her personality (and particularly the cruel way she treats Jon). It also seems like she does not know Arya very well at all, whereas Eddard, despite being extremely busy, understands his youngest daughter fairly well (though he does not seem to understand Sansa much at all).

Most impressive about this series is how complicated it is while still managing to be clear and easy to follow. It could easily have gotten lost (in the same way as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series sometimes did when talking about random characters that we have not seen or heard from for hundreds of pages or even entire books. Martin balances the different parts of the story well so that we get as much as we need form each storyline without forgetting what is happening in the others.

Best of all, Martin manages to come up with twists and surprises that I never saw coming. You can’t ask for much more.

Best of all

The Kane Chronicles: Throne of Fire (Book 2) by Rick Riordan

This book illustrates, once again, why Rick Riordan is such a fantastic writer and was voted Author of the Year by the Children’s Book Council. Riordan has created a new series that is similar (and even in a few ways related) to the Percy Jackson series while being unique enough to stand on its own. While Percy Jackson follows the Greek (and now Roman) gods, The Kane Chronicles uses Egyptian gods, come back to life in the Twenty-First century.

Taking place some months after the events of The Red Pyramid, other kids with magical capabilities have answered Sadie and Carter Kane’s call for help. They now have about twenty trainees who are studying magic and the path to tapping into the ancient Egyptian gods. And if that wasn’t enough responsibility, they have five days to save the world before Apophis, God of Chaos, breaks free from his cage and plunges the world in the darkness.

The strengths of this series are mostly in the personal stories and relationships involved. Sadie and Carter have a complicated history of growing up apart and partially envying one another’s lives. Carter spent most of his time traveling with their father while Sadie was raised in England with their grandparents. Their relationship, complicated and argument-fraught, is believable and touching. It is easy to forget that the pair are so young (Sadie 13 and Carter 14), but their constant bickering and penchant for acting impulsively and rashly keeps us from forgetting that they have been given the weight of the world at such a young age, whether they want it or not.

I found Sadie and Carter’s relationship troubles a little less interesting. Sadie is torn between two older guys, Walt, one of her trainees who is sixteen, and Apophis, the five thousand year old god of the dead. Part of the problem is that I felt uninvested in Sadie and Walt’s relationship since it came out of nowhere, whereas we saw her feelings for Apophis develop over the course of book one. We didn’t see Walt and Sadie’s first meeting or any of their interactions. Our first introduction to their relationship is Sadie being jealous when he talks to another girl. Meanwhile Carter is obsessed with finding Zia, the girl he fell for who may or may not remember him. This relationship is more compelling but Carter’s behavior is frustrating–he literally puts his sister at risk, not to mention the world, just to search for her.

The combination of gods and real life is not as smoothly done in this series as in the Percy Jackson world (I would love a crossover series at some point!) but it is still intriguing. Knowing less about the Egyptian gods than the Greek ones, it takes a little more explaining and details for me to understand all the backstory. Where Percy has the mist to keep regular mortals from seeing magic, there is no such protection in the Kane Chronicles. The weapons and training are a bit clumsier–less physical and more spell-based–and seem to almost be luck-based. If they’re lucky enough to dig up the right potion or instrument in their bag they may be able to defend themselves but nothing ever seems quite good enough and more often than not they need a God to protect them. If you pitted the Kanes and their friends against Percy and his friends, it seems unlikely that the Kanes would win.

One of the other strengths for me is the humor. This is the first time I can remember actually laughing out loud while reading a book (not even Tina Fey’s book had me laugh like that). Rick Riordan does an excellent job with witty, sarcastic dialogue. (I find the sibling arguments less funny and more annoying but it is still believable and appropriate so I have no real complaint about it.)

The biggest problem I have about this series is its format, which is a recording that Sadie and Carter make after everything happens. The very nature of this format (much like when a story is written in journal/diary form and even the first person in general) is that there is absolutely no suspense. We know for a fact that nothing can happen to our protagonists because they have clearly lived to record the tale afterwords. Every time they’re in a life threatening situation, the danger and excitement is lessened by the knowledge that they have obviously succeeded or at the very least survived. If we had the story from only one siblings’ perspective it would be an entirely different story but it would allow for the possibility that one of them did not make it through. (This is just me though–I do not like that format as a general rule, much in the same way that I dislike voice overs in TV and movies.)

I love Riordan and can’t wait for his next book, Son of Neptune.

Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

It is always strange to love one series by an author and then pick up another without knowing what to expect. I loved The Hunger Games series so when I saw that she had written a previous book series I knew I had to get it. Being from the same author, the two series will naturally draw comparisons. Gregor is a middle grade series, where The Hunger Games was Young Adult, so I didn’t expect them to be the same, but there are so many differences between the two that it was a little jarring at first. Luckily, the story proved good enough to get passed any of these issues.

When Gregor follows his sister Boots into the grate in his laundry room, he falls into an Underground world filled with talking creatures. He soon learns that his father, who disappeared a couple years ago, also landed in this strange land but has been taken hostage by the vicious rats. If this wasn’t enough, Gregor learns that he may just be the warrior that the Underground people have been waiting for.

The greatest strength in this book is the complex layers of the people that Collins introduces. Luxa is a prime example of a character who starts out exceedingly unlikable but as we slowly peel away the layers of her personality we get to know and like her. Gregor is equally likable as he grows into his role as hero and learns some hard lessons from his experiences.

Like with The Hunger Games, Collins does not shy away from the tough moments like betrayal and death. We feel Gregor’s pain as strongly as we ever felt Katniss’s. But where the young adult series is full of sorrow and angst, the Underland Series is balanced with some light humor and comic relief to make for a less intense but no less enjoyable series.

Artemis Fowl 2: Arctic Incident by Eoin Colfer

Book two of this series is a little calmer than the first in that Artemis seems to have learned something of a lesson from his encounter with fairies. Sure, he still terrorizes people (mostly school therapists), but he doesn’t intend to kidnap anyone this time around. Last book he was desperate to get his mother back from her depressed, bedridden state. This book, he is desperate to find his father who went missing while trying to take his criminal company to more legitimate channels. Meanwhile, the fairy Holly is sent to investigate which human has been selling products to the goblins. Their prime suspect is Artemis, so she sets to capture him, setting them on a joint mission to save Artemis’s father and protect the fairy underground.

For the most part, I love what Holly and Artemis bring out in each other. They bring out each others’ gentler sides and they work particularly well as a team. At the same time, their relationship is strange because in any other story they would be a couple but because Holly is so much older that would just be creepy.

This book adds a new level of sophistication to the series. Where last season the most complicated aspect of the plot was the rules of the fairy world, this book had a complex plot, the goblin rebellion was a much bigger thing than could have been anticipated.

Where the first book was fun, this one was a major improvement in terms of character growth (though it does make Artemis mostly a good guy which takes away from the most unique element of this story: the fact that the main character is an arch-villain). It left me wanting more.

Last Apprentice: Clash of the Demons (Book 6) by Joseph Delaney

Poor Tom. Ever since he discovered that Alice is the Fiend’s daughter, he has been forced to keep away from her. Every time she attempts to contact him, he turns away or pretends he doesn’t see. If he doesn’t, the Spook will not train him any more. But when he gets a message from Alice that he cannot ignore, a new and terrifying journey begins.

Tom’s mother has returned and would like him, along with the Spook, Alice, and whatever witches she can scrounge up, to journey back to her homeland to confront Ordeen, a powerful new witch that is about to come through and wreak havoc on the world. The Spook doesn’t believe in teaming up with the dark and tells Tom that if he goes, his apprenticeship is over. How can Tom choose between his mother and his master? And what is the right thing to do?

Some big revelations and character moments are revealed in the book. Finally, after the long wait, we learn all there is to know about Tom’s Mam. And Tom himself is more than any of us have realized before. we see Tom grow as he is faced with hard truths and challenges.

This book was even more heart-wrenching and exciting than ever before. I don’t normally care for horror, but this book has enough heart and character to make me like it regardless.

For Tom, everything has changed and I can’t wait to see where Delaney plans to take this series next.

The Last Apprentice: Wrath of the Bloodeye by Joseph Delaney

Just in case you were getting a little bored of the Spook-Thomas-Alice relationship, Delaney has decided to change things up this book. Concerned for Tom, the spook decides to sent him to train with one of his former apprentices, Bill Arkwright. Bill tends to focus a lot of physical training and he lives in a very wet land where water witches dwell and are thus unaffected by water like the witches Tom is used to. What the spook does not tell Tom is that Bill is a mean drunk with some sad secrets. He has abused apprentices before and Old Gregory wouldn’t be sending him if the situation weren’t so desperate. Can Tom get through this tough new training? Especially when great danger lurks for Tom in these wetlands.

What I love about these books is how every book really is another step in the story. It isn’t a series where each book is a separate adventure linked basically only by its characters. Here, every book builds on the last, adding new lore and information to what we have already learned. It also has a tendency to make you question the line between good and evil, who you can trust, and what determines the type of person you will grow up to be.

Delaney finds new and creative ways to make his stories terrifying every time and never expect to come away from a book without learning at least one shocking secret. I am continually impressed by the quality of this series. In book 5, it has still not lost its draw.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

When I picked up this book, I was surprised to find that Scott Westerfeld was the author, because I have been meaning to read his series Uglies for a while now. But when I saw Leviathan, this book jumped the “Must Read” list. I am anything but sorry about this decision.

Leviathan is slightly difficult to categorize because it fits into a number of different genres: young adult, science fiction, historical fiction (is alternate universe history a genre?), to name a few. It tells the story of World War I, which begins with the murder of an Archduke and his wife. But in this version of the story, the war is between the Clankers (who are all about advanced technology) and the Darwinists (who are all about using evolution and DNA splicing to create animals to do what technology does). Prince Aleksander is the heir to the throne but must flee for his life after his parents’ murder because the current ruler of Austria does not want him to inherit. With the help of a few loyal men, he flees his home and goes on the run with only a Stormwalker (a machine that is basically an enormous robot with space for people inside) for protection. Meanwhile, Deryn Sharp (a Darwinist) has always loved flying, thanks to her father who used to take her up in hot air balloons when she was younger. Now she wants to become a pilot (certainly not the lady her mother would like her to be) so she pretends to be a boy and secretly enlists in the air force. Deryn and Aleksander’s paths cross and find that despite being from opposing countries they may have to work together to survive.

This book is one of the most imaginative and creative books I have read in a while. Westerfeld has created two very unique and very specific sides of the war–how the Clankers are piloted for example is a complicated fete of skill and instinct and the Darwinist airships are even more complicated in how they have been created to be self sustaining through interdependence of species–but added even more complex motivations and moral questions. Who do you trust in times of war? Do you keep your promise at the risk of other people? Is the genetic manipulation that the Darwinists do ethical (or just plain gross)?

Sometimes I wanted more description and explanation of how things worked or what they looked like. At times I had a hard time picturing the things being talked about (and the illustrations included were a bit too hazy to really help clarify things). Despite this lack, I really liked the book. Deryn is strong and funny, making her an easy character to root for. Aleksander takes a little bit more time to get used to because he starts out as something of a spoiled prince, but he slowly develops into a trustworthy, noble person who could grow up to be an excellent prince.

The sequel is well set up, with a few mysteries still left unanswered (like who exactly the mysterious and clever female doctor, Dr. Barlow is and why she has been picked up by Deryn’s ship) and there’s a blooming love story to come (how and when will Aleksander find out that Deryn is a girl and how will he react?

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

This is something of a departure from most of the books I have been reading lately, but I recently started watching all of Big Love and the entire idea of polygamist families is so bizarrely fascinating that I had to buy this book when I saw it.

Ebershoff has two stories going. The “A” story is about Jordan Scott who was kicked off the polygamist compound where he grew up because he was caught holding his half-sister’s hand. (Ironically enough, it was not for being gay, which is a much bigger insult.) He has put his life as a First Latter Day Saint behind him until he finds out that his mother has been arrested for the murder of his father. He returns home to try proving her innocence and finds himself sucked back into the politics and chaos that he had thought he was done with forever. The “B” story is the life of the Prophet (spiritual leader for the community) Brigham Young’s 19th wife (19 in the loosest definition of the word), Ann Eliza, and how she became an outspoken anti-polygamist in the 19th century.

For me, it felt like the two stories, though technically related (Jordan meets the person researching Ann Eliza’s life, this is the past of the place he grew up in, etc), feel disjointed. In fact, Ann Eliza’s story almost feels like an unnecessary, redundant story. Sure, her experiences are extremely different from Jordan’s but both serve the same purpose of giving an insight into life on the compound. I would have preferred sticking to Jordan’s story which is a bit more active and unique than reading about Ann Eliza’s which often felt drawn out and slow.

Jordan’s story is told in the first person and even though there were times when I would have like to get inside his head more (which is usually the opposite problem I have in a first person narrative), it felt like we really got to know him and were able to connect to his story. Ann Eliza’s story, on the other hand, was told through various documents, letters, books, articles, etc. It often felt too passive and reflective and I found it difficult to connect to most parts of her story and most of the people involved. (For example, we get a couple letters from her son where he goes off on tangents about dolphins and the weather and while I understand that this shows us what kind of person he was, it just felt like a waste of time).

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book because the “A” story was compelling and surprising. There were so many unexpected twists and turns and the truth is, we rarely get the polygamy perspective from the boy’s side. It is usually the women/wives whose stories are told (admittedly their stories are often more horrific). The “B” story was a distraction with a few interesting facts thrown in. I could have done without, but am content to read it for the sake of the rest. I’m not running out to buy another Ebershoff book any time soon, but I have no regrets about reading this one.