Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings is the second installment in 'A Song of Ice and Fire' by George R. R. Martin.  Like the first book, I listened to this one as an audiobook while working in the lab.  The reading by British actor Roy Dotrice is really top notch!

The book picks up where the last volume ended.  We are once again embroiled in the great wars that rage in the land of Westeros.  No fewer than four kings are struggling for control of the Seven Kingdoms:  Robb Stark (son of Eddard and King of the North), Joffrey Lannister (bastard son of Robert the Usurper), Stannis Baratheon (enthralled brother of Robert the Usurper) and Renly Baratheon (Stannis' younger brother).  As in the first novel, the point of view changes between figures surrounding the men vying for power.

The book concludes with a climactic battle at King's Landing for control of the Iron Throne.  I kept thinking that finally the devious Lannisters were going to get what was coming to them, but the 'wildfire' defenses put in place by Tyrion Lannister (and the forces marshaled by his father Tywin) are too much for Stannis Baratheon to overcome.  In the end, the Lannisters retain control of the throne, though Tyrion Lannister lies on the verge of death from a mortal wound suffered during the battle.

The other major plot point is the attempt by Theon Greyjoy to insert himself into the picture by capturing Winterfell, the bastion of the Stark family.  The main host of Starks left in the North (most of the Stark knights and bannermen are fighting in the South) converge on the castle to reclaim it and give Greyjoy his due justice.  At the last moment they are tricked by House Bolton and decimated.  These would-be saviors of Greyjoy betray him in the end and raze Winterfell to the ground.  I'm not really sure where this thread of plot will lead.

I find that Tyrion Lannister is a rather likeable character.  He seems to be the only one in the Lannister bunch that has any sort of moral compass.  Now that his father has shown up, I fear that the more overbearing members of his family are going to marginalize him.  I'm hoping that this sort of treatment will remove his blinders, and he will finally realize that he is fighting for the side of wrong.  Perhaps in the next book he will come over to join the Starks?  I'm probably asking too much.

I'm definitely enjoying the series.  As I said in my review of the first novel, it is definitely a fresh take on a rather tired fantasy genre.  I'm looking forward to immediately starting the third installment, A Storm of Swords.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

This 2007 novel caught my attention by winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best science fiction novel of the year (among several other awards it has garnished).  I've long been trying to read every Hugo award-winning novel--finishing this brings my percentage of total winners read to 70% (40 out of 57 total, not including the retro Hugos).  Winning both awards is high praise for TYPU, so I went into it with great anticipation.

The book did not disappoint.  The novel is really only science fiction by virtue of the fact that it is set in an alternate future (my dad would argue strongly that this alone does not fit his purists' definition of scifi...but I digress).  In Chabon's timeline, Israel is crushed shortly after its inception, leading to a mass emigration of Jews to the Alaska Territory in the United States.  Alaska has been opened up to Jewish immigration by an act of Congress on the recommendation of the Slattery Report of 1940, a "real-life" proposal by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. Thus, the city of Sitka has become home to a large Jewish community, making it a metropolis of many millions of people.

It is here where we encounter Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck homicide detective in the Sitka police department.  He is investigating a murder that happened in his place of residence, a fleabag motel too cheap to afford a neon sign.  His victim has been shot in the back of the head while studying a chess problem in a book by Seigbert Tarrasch.  How is that for a classic hard-boiled detective story opening?

The plot follows the various threads of Landsman's investigation that lead from an old chess club frequented by Landsman's father to a meeting with Sitka's most powerful crime boss.  Along the way, we meet a colorful cast of Sitka residents whose characterization is just fantastic.  I don't want to give any of the plot away, but it culminates with a very personal experience for Meyer Landsman.

The novel is extremely well written with an amazing realization of the alternate-Sitka world.  The whole novel just drips with atmosphere.  It is one of those uncommon books that makes you wonder how an author can create something so complete without having actually experienced it himself.  I highly recommend.