Dying of the Light Book Review

George R.R. Martin is well-known today as the mega-successful author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels. With the appearance of these stories on the small screen as Game of Thrones, Martin has become a household name, not just as one of the foremost fantasy authors of America, but as one of its preeminent authors, period.

Before he became the architect of Westeros, Martin was the editor of the Wild Cards series. If you have been reading fantasy and science fiction long enough, you would have seen these popular anthologies on the shelves of your local bookstore for many years prior to the arrival of A Game of Thrones in 1996. Before that, Martin was the author of other works, one of which was Dying of the Light in 1977, recently reprinted in a new edition by Bantam Books.

Dying of the Light is a far shorter work than we have become used to with the Ice and Fire novel series. But it shows the same seriousmindedness and attention to detail that we have come to expect in Martin’s later work. Indeed, comprehensive worldbuilding is Martin’s forte, and he creates a rich and deep far future background in which to place his troubled characters.

The story begins with the arrival of a “whisperjewel” in Dirk t’Larien’s possession, sent by Gwen Delvano, his former lover. He inteprets the jewel as a cry for help, a call for rescue, and sets off to find Gwen. Gwen, unfortunately, is trapped in a relationship with a stern but noble man, Jaan Vikary, who is not quite her husband, and she is not quite his wife. The resulting love triangle (actually something of a love quadrangle, as Jaan Vikary has a male hunting and fighting companion, Janacek, whom he places above all others people) is a complete mess, and bodes no happy ending for anyone involved.

Martin shows adroitness in developing “alien” cultures without the need for non-human aliens. The cultural stance of Jaan Vikary of High Kavalaan, with its immensely strong bonds between males, but relatively weak ones between men and women, is markedly and almost unbridgeably different from that of Dirk and Gwen, who hail from a culture nearer to our own. High Kavalaan is well-developed as an alien culture, with a seemingly plausible reason given for its development as a world where men form closer relationships with one another than with women.

The setting of Dying of the Light is the fading planet Worlorn, awash in melancholy and regret. It is a world colonized by the peoples of several other planets for the short time that it drifts through space in the vicinity of a grouping of life-giving stars. That fifty-year era is now coming to an end, and Worlorn is now nearly empty of inhabitants, much like a grand old building just before its demolition.

Dying of the Light is a love story, a planetary romance, an adventure, and an examination of how cultural preconceptions make it difficult, if not impossible, for people of radically different cultures to comprehend each other. It is worth a read.


Marc DeSantis

Battle of Blackwater

Yes, it was a spectacular episode.  Game of Thrones spent an entire hour on the crucial Battle of Blackwater, in which the soldiers of Stannis Baratheon are repulsed by those loyal to Joffrey Lannister.

Tyrion, my favorite character, proves himself to be the real leader of men in King’s Landing.   Read Scott Meslow’s take on the episode in The Atlantic here.

Game of Thrones – Garden of Bones

On the Legitimacy of Kings

Robb Stark continues to prove his mettle by defeating the Lannisters (again) in battle.  His sister Sansa Stark, engaged to be married to King Joffrey, but as much or more of a hostage in his court, is whipped on account of her brother’s success.  She is rescued from further harm, however, by Tyrion, a man who claims to have no honor but is proving to be the most honorable of all, perhaps in spite of himself.  He asks her quietly is she wishes to put an end to the engagement.  When she demures, and says with consummate tact, that Joffrey is her lord, Tyrion recognizes a kindred diplomat in Sansa.

Littlefinger’s visit to Renly Baratheon’s court is filled with ambivalence.  He offers to open the gates of King’s Landing to Renly.  He also returns Ned Stark’s remains to Catelyn Stark, and says that they – Littlefinger and Catelyn –  can at last be together.  But this is an unrequited love.  Catelyn does not want Littlefinger, and he has allowed himself to fall in love with a woman far above his station.  I am not certain if I can feel any sympathy for Littlefinger.  He betrayed Ned, which was a terrible thing, and he was perhaps motivated to do so by his desire for Catelyn, whom he has loved for so long, without hope.

Catelyn tries to make peace between Stannis Baratheon and Renly, without success.  Stannis by all rights – for what those are worth in Westeros – is the legitimate king, and one would expect that the eldest brother of the prior king would simply accede to the throne without much fuss.  However, at least some do still believe that Joffrey is Robert’s own son, and thus the true king of the realm.  Also, this raises the question of why so many follow Renly instead of Stannis.  Renly is more outgoing, and Stannis is humorless and dour.  Perhaps though it is also a question of legitimacy.  It should be borne in mind that the Baratheon “dynasty” is less than a generation old at the time of the death of Robert Baratheon.  Robert himself deposed the old Targaryen king, and you can make your own decision as to whether he is thereby legitimate.

I admire Martin for creating a political situation in which there are plausible reasons for men to support any one of the contenders vying for the throne, or at least a throne, since Robb Stark at this juncture simply wishes to be King in the North,

Speaking of Targaryens, Dany finally gets to be in a scene with some real dialogue, and not simply be thirsty.  Her Dothraki have arrived at the gates of Qarth, at the edge of the Red Waste, and her entrance is denied by the city’s rulers, the Thirteen.  Their spokesman wishes to see her dragons, but Dany is reluctant to allow them a view.  I am not sure why she would not show them. Could it be that they are so small that they would not impress?  Or does she hear that the Qartheen would try and steal them?

She is at last granted entry when Xaro speaks on her behalf.  The gates open to reveal a vista of a wondrous city within, akin to Babylon in its days of greatness.  But what are Xaro’s motives?

Arya and Gendry are in deep trouble.  The prisoners of the almost comically cruel Lannister soldiers are being tortured by the application of a rat, shoved in a bucket applied to the prisoners chest, which is then heated by fire.  Gendry is saved from this horrible death by the arrival of Lord Tywin Lannister, who puts a stop to this sordid affair.  Lord Tywin, he is the real deal.  One wonders whether the situation in Westeros would be different if he could be everywhere.  He is by no means a good guy.  He is simply a more effective man than the brutes he has working for him.  There was no real point to the torture and murder of the prisoners before Gendry.  The Lannister men were just bored.


Game of Thrones: What is Dead May Never Die

What is Dead May Never Die – Season 2, Episode Three

Game of Thrones’ second season continues to build.  The more that I watch it (and entertain the heretical notion that the HBO series is more fun than the novels) the more apparent it becomes that GoT is really a political opera more than it is a fantasy series.  Oh sure, it has all the trappings of traditional fantasy – the swords, the strange names, murky, make-believe, ancient history – but it is in actuality an alternate-world War of the Roses with the complexity cranked to eleven.

Tyrion Lannister naturally gets the best parts.  He craftily tells three different men, the brothel owner Littlefinger, the eunuch Varys, and Maester P:ycelle, that he plans to wed Cersei’s daughter Myrcella to three different aristocrats, telling each that Cersei must not know.  When Cersei angrily confronts Tyrion afterwards, he realizes that the leak is Maester Pycelle, who claims to be an informant for the Lannisters, which of course seems plausible.

Brienne of Tarth at last makes her appearance.  She defeats Ser Loras in tournament combat and is made a member of King Renly Baratheon’s Kingsguard.  Brienne is one of the most engaging of all of the characters of Martin’s otherwise unappealing cast.  She is tall, gawky, and unlovely, but she is true, honorable,  and utterly loyal to her hero, Renly.  She is one of the few characters that displays real loyalty to anyone.  In some sense she is, in her almost complete outsiderness, a stand-in for us, the readers, in her struggle to comprehend and fit into the hostile world around her.

Brienne also seems to one of the few who might measure up in the difficult times ahead.  Catelyn Stark arrives in Renly’s domain, but warns that his men are “knights of summer and winter is coming.”  For many in Westeros, the War of the Five Kings is still a sport.  It will not be for long.

Theon Greyjoy is still being disrespected by his Ironborn father, Balon, who maliciously plans to give just one raiding ship to Theon while his sister Asha is to receive thirty.  Theon wisely points out that the could get more from an alliance with Robb Stark, the King of the North, instead of raiding his lands.  The Ironborn seem unconvincing to me.  They are meant to be Norman/Vikings, living on the edge of Westeros and not fully integrated into their culture.  However, their insistence, as exemplified by Balon, in taking things by force, the “iron price,” while interesting from a sociological standpoint, does not hold up when compared to real history.  The Vikings took what they could get and never insisted on doing things the hard way.


Game of Thrones – The Night Lands

So Sunday evening has turned out to be television festival night.  Between Game of Thrones and Mad Men, this is the best small screen twosome right now.  Game of Thrones keeps getting better.   Martin’s novels are long and complex, but they pay off hugely in the end.  Last Sunday’s episode, The Night Lands, was a tour de force of the genre.  A lot happened, and the table is still be set, so to speak, for events later in the season.

A handful of things should be noted.  Gendry knows that Ary is really Arya.  King Joffrey’s men are also looking for him, and this puts them both in danger.  But it is a good thing to be part of the Night’s Watch.  They don’t take guff from anyone.

Tyrion – has there ever been a cooler character? – has laid off Janos Slynt from command of the Kingsguard.  He betrayed the previous Hand of the King and Tyrion doesn’t trust him not to do the same to him.  But could Tyrion also be displaying some moral qualms about a man who murdered an infant?  Tyrion is a good guy in spite of himself, a darker version of Han Solo, perhaps more appropriate for the modern age.  We have also discovered that Cersei was unaware of Joffrey’s order to murder the bastards of the last king, Robert.

In the Iron Islands, Theon Greyjoy, after nine years as a hostage with the Starks in Winterfell, receives a cold welcome from his father, Balon.  The Ironborn are a different kind of people from the ordinary Westerosi.  They are from elsewhere, their historical analogue being Vikings in medieval England, and their code is strict  and alien.   They are very old-fashioned, and scorn anything that they have not taken by force.  That is the iron price of things.  The salt price is what is obtained with money.  That is not valued.

Elsewhere, Stannis Baratheon, to  my mind, the one  man with the best claim to the throne, is busily recruiting ships to take on his rivals.  Danaerys is still stuck in the midst of the Red Waste, and poor Rakharo has come back with his head stuffed in his own saddlebag.  The Dothraki are dying of thirst.  Dany does not know what to do.  She has not had much to do lately.  Given the explosive nature of the first season finale – Dany emerged from her husband’s funeral pyre with three dragons in tow – her activities so far have been anti-climactic.   That won’t last forever.


Don and Harry go to White Castle

This week’s episode of Mad Men highlighted certain qualities of the show, now in its fifth season, that exemplify why this is a hit.   Four Emmys are no accident.  But while watching, I could not help thinking that there is a bit of a mystery to Mad Men‘s overwhelming critical success.  All of the cool clothes and unabashed drinking aside, what is it about Mad Men that really impresses?

I have a hard time figuring out why I care about the doings of a group of people who are otherwise unappealing in an objective sense.  Nothing is ever at stake in the show.  Who cares if the agency loses an account?  Do we really expect Don’s latest marriage to Megan to last?  Of course not.

But perhaps that is what sets Mad Men a cut (or two or three) above the rest.  I have ended up caring about Don and his new wife, and I want to know how Betty will handle her benign lump on her thyroid.  I remember the dark days of the eighties, when television truly was a wasteland of idiocy.  That is not true now.   The writing is that good.

And kudos to Matthew Weiner for putting Don and Harry Crane together at a Rolling Stones concert trying in vain to get the band to sing some ridiculous jingle for Heinz.  “Heinz is on My Side” will stick with me for a long time.  Their talk afterwards in the car, with Harry (my least favorite character) gobbling up White Castle burgers is a classic.


Power is Power

Game of Thrones Electric Season Opener

Power is power,” hisses the icy blonde Queen Cersei to the impudent Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in Season Two’s premiere episode.  In other words, “Don’t get any ideas about using your ‘hint’ of incest against me or I’ll cut your throat!”  Things are about to get even tougher on Cersei than the wagging tongue of a smart-mouthed courtier.  Her son, King Joffrey, is unstable and cruel, and does not show much filial piety to her.  He is also the product of incest between Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister, who is a prisoner of House Stark.  The whole of the North has risen against Joffrey since he beheaded the honorable Eddard Stark, whose son Robb has taken on the title of ‘King of the North.’

Stannis Baratheon, rightful heir to the throne now that Joffrey’s paternity has been made an issue, has raised his own army to support his claim.  In his train is the ominous Melisandre, a priestess of R’hllor who brings her new religion to the shores of Westeros.  She is also a rare thing thus far in Game of Thrones – a person who wields ‘real’ magic.

North of the Wall, Jon Snow and his brothers in the Night’s Watch patrol to discover what is going on.  Mance Rayder, they learn,  is raising an army of wildings to bring against them.

Across the sea, Danaerys Targaryen now has her dragons, but her Dothraki people have no water, and she needs to find a way across the Red Waste, a hostile desert of little appeal.

The War of the Five Kings has started, and everyone is playing for keeps.  All of the dead King Robert’s bastards are coldly put to death by the Lannisters, even an infant, except for one blacksmith boy who escapes with Arya Stark in a cart at the end of the episode.

There is a reason why many think that Game of Thrones is the best show on television.  From its incredible sets to the density of its dialogue, it is far superior to almost any other.   The hour-long episode flew by.   George R. R. Martin has been called the American Tolkien, but this misses the mark.  Game of Thrones is something of a cross between the War of the Roses and The Godfather.   Political intrigue is the true heart of the series, not magic or the other usual tropes of fantasy.  Game of Thrones could just as well be a historical production on a par with The Tudors or The Borgias but for the presence of very limited elements of the fantastic.  I find that I am enjoying the television series more than the novels on which they are based.


Mad Men Premiere Rocks, Men Still Jerks

Mad Men‘s fifth season premiere, A Little Kiss, lived up to its hype.  There is a reason why this show has won four primetime Emmys.  Every season is like a novel, with each episode a densely written chapter.   The show has been gone for a long time.  We are reintroduced to (almost) all of the characters.  Don Draper (Jon Hamm)  is still married to Megan (Jessica Pare), who throws him a surprise fortieth birthday party.  Don being Don, he can’t accept the party with the graciousness expected by Megan, who proceeds to make him very uncomfortable with a burlesque song and dance routine sung in French.  Really!

Roger (John Slattery) is in fine form, and distributes cash to all and sundry during the episode.  What gives?  Has Roger become so mercenary?   And why is he honing in on all of Pete Campbell’s (Vincent Kartheiser) client meetings?

Joan (Holloway) Harris (Christina Hendricks) is exhausted by her newborn, who also just happens to be Roger’s baby.  It’s a looong story.  Elizabeth Moss is her usual sparkling self as copywriter/working girl/young woman trying to make it in a man’s world Peggy Olson.

Mad Men‘s writers are merely setting the table with the premiere.  It will be a while before we see any conclusions to the storylines now being developed.  But Mad Men, more perhaps than any other show on television today, rewards close and faithful viewing.  Stick with it.  It is already well on its way to a fifth Emmy.