Literal Daze #5

That’s right, I’m back with edition number 5 of my semi-regular feature Literal Daze, where I review stuff I’ve read, listened to, or watched lately. Today, we have not one, but two audiobooks to check out, so let’s get to it.

 

A Dance With Dragons (George R. R. Martin)

 

I’m a huge fan of the series, ASoIaF (“A Song of Ice and Fire”, for the uninitiated). I started reading them back in I think 2006 or so, and rushed through the first three books, which was something like 3000 pages total, in less than a week. Yeah, these are big books, and yes, they’re that good. I literally couldn’t put them down. Then I got a hold of the fourth book, finished it, and kind of went “Whaaaaat?” It just wasn’t as good. For as long as it was, it felt like very little happened overall, and the grand sense of epic settings, political intrigue, and amazing characters that had defined the series so far seemed lost. Maybe this was because of his decision to split up this one into two different but concurrent books, the fourth focusing on specific characters in the South of Westeros and the Iron Islands, and the fifth planned to focus on everyone else in the North of Westeros and the Continent of Essos. It turns out, it felt like he left out all the awesome characters in book four.

But, in a way this was good, right? That means book five, A Dance With Dragons, should be nothing but distilled awesome, right? Yeah, not so much.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t bad. In many ways, it’s actually quite good, and it is objectively much better than book four. It was excellent to finally see what become of some of favorite characters like Daenerys the Dragon Queen, Tyrion the Dwarf, Theon the Turncloak, Davos the Onion Knight, and Jon Snow the Bastard of Winterfell. Overall, their character arcs did a decent job of progressing the story and bringing back the sense of urgency that had entirely gone missing in A Feast for Crows, and most of them were genuinely enjoyable. Tyrion’s journey after his deeds in King’s Landing to try and reach Daenerys and finally see the fabled dragons she possessed was particularly enjoyable, and as always his chapters were usually the most fun simply because he’s such an awesome character. Theon’s story, though I wouldn’t call it “fun”, was also really interesting. It was fascinating, after his betrayal in book three, to see him get his just desserts (and much, much worse), but then grow as a character once again until I found myself cheering him on. After what he did, I wouldn’t have thought that possible, but like Jaime Lannister throughout the first four books, GRR Martin seems to have a way of taking the worst of his characters and shaping them into his most beloved.

All that said, the lingering issues that plagued book four did not entirely go away. For as long as the book is, in many ways it still feels like not a lot happened. Going back over it in my head, I know that’s not true. Quite a lot happened, actually. I think the problem, though, is that it could have been told in maybe half as many words. It feels like, as Martin’s series becomes more and more popular, he is becoming less restricted in his editing process. There are tangents everywhere in this book that, while sort of interesting, in no way contribute to the story. Whole chapters could have been chopped out and not have affected the story one bit. This makes the book feel like more of a chore to slog through than the adventure it felt like during the first three. Book three I think was actually longer than this one, but it also felt like twice as much happened. I’m not opposed to a long book, but not when the story suffers as a result.

The bottom line is that this book could have done with some tighter editing and a little self-control on the author’s part. It was a good book, but couldn’t live up to its own legacy, the standard set by A Storm of Swords. Still, if nothing else, it feels like maybe after the train wreck that was A Feast for Crows, we’re at least back on track.

Now that we have the review of the book itself out of the way, let’s talk about the Audiobook experience. First off, have you ever listened to a 1500 page book over audio? It’s long, nearly 50 hours in fact, which is probably the longest audiobook I’ve ever listened to. It was a good way to experience this kind of book though, because the material is just so dense. Where I may skim through sections and not really retain everything when reading normally, audiobooks force me to slow down and listen to every word, savoring each rich detail, at a pre-rendered pace. I definitely retained more of the book in this format than with previous books.

On the downside though, I wasn’t crazy about the narrator, Roy Dotrice. I know I know, some people love the guy, but it just never clicked with me. After hearing the incredible voice talents of Peter Kenny in reading “Surface Detail”, maybe I’ve just been spoiled, but this just didn’t seem to measure up. Dotrice’s regular narration itself was very nice – his deep voice and slightly gruffy British accent fits the world perfectly. The issue comes in with his interpretation of the different character’s dialogue. Where Kenny’s voices ranged from various tones and timbres, accents galore, and subtle inflections that made the characters come alive, Dotrice’s voices essentially consist of “Old Man”, “Old Woman”, and “Roy Dotrice”. Daenerys, a young teenage girl, should not sound exactly the same as “Old Crone #4”. I know that in a story with this many characters some overlap is inevitable, but I can’t help but feel that someone like Kenny would have at least attempted a few more variations.

Still, it was a good experience overall, even if it was a long one. I just hope I don’t have to do it again until The Winds of Winter is released in about 20 years.

 

The Strain (Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan)

 

Considering how popular the zombie and vampire sub-genres are right now, it’s almost impossible to come up with something fresh and unique. The Strain doesn’t succeed entirely in doing that, but it makes a darn good attempt.

The Strain is about a CDC Doctor named Efrain Goodweather who is called into an emergency one night when a plane lands in New York, then inexplicably shuts down on the tarmac. Why do they call in disease control expert? Because everyone on the plane is dead, despite the fact that all were in perfect health moments before landing. Believing it to be some kind of outbreak, Eff and his team are brought in to investigate. They eventually discover that the bodies are undergoing a metamorphosis, then reanimating with an unnatural thirst for blood. An old professor and holocaust survivor who has dealt with the issue before in Europe comes into the mix to help out, and off they go.

So yes, the book is about vampires. Thankfully though, these aren’t your run of the mill, sharp-fanged, sleep-in-a-coffin type of vampires (well okay, one actually might be, but I’ll gloss over that), and they especially aren’t the angst-ridden, teenage glittery vampires that are all the rage these days. No, they’re almost more like Zombies than Vampires. After reanimating, they wake up with one single-minded purpose, which is to feed. All other higher order functions, at least at first, are secondary to that instinct. When they do feed, they also transfer the agent that forced their transformation onto the victim, and that person then also becomes a vampire. See? Just like zombies.

The authors manage to make them frightening and disturbing in their pursuit of this goal, and they do so while attempting to explain the biological makeup of these new creatures and how they function (certainly a function of Del Toro’s involvement). At several points they are likened by Eff to a “virus incarnate”, which is actually fairly accurate (and also explains the title of the novel). They feed and spread, that’s it.

Hogan and Del Toro do a fantastic job in building up the tension as the book progresses, slowly unfolding the mystery of where these things came from and what’s actually behind the outbreak. As the book goes on, things take a surprising turn from science to the supernatural which I didn’t see coming. I also appreciate the amount of depth written into all characters in the story, whether they ended up heroes battling the forces of evil with Eff or as vamp-food. The impression is that every person is important, that they have hopes and dreams and faults, and none of them deserve such a gruesome fate no matter how small their role in the overall story may be. That attention to detail definitely drew me in and held onto me, even through the rough parts.

Yes, there were some rough spots. My biggest complain is the way that the heroes, as soon as they decide to fight back against the forces of darkness, suddenly become master vampire slayers. Yes, they have some help from an experience hunter, but the change is dramatic to say the least. You have this guy Eff who was a doctor before, and suddenly he expertly wields a silver sword like some kind of crusader. It seems that in this world, it just needs to be accepted that anyone can use hand weapons with perfect skill, despite zero experience with these weapons beforehand. It’s just one of those things that breaks the suspension of disbelief, which is a shame in a story like this that works so hard to build that suspension up in the first place. The other big issue I had is that the story seems to lose a lot of steam toward the end of the book, which is ironic considering that it’s also probably the most action packed. By about 3/4 of the way through, all questions surrounding the mystery of this outbreak have been answered, and all we’re left with is a good old-fashioned vampire hunt. It’s entertaining to an extent, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. The whole thing becomes very predictable.

Still, a solid entry for the genre. Since this is only book one of a trilogy, I can give it some leeway in that there’s hopefully lots more story to tell. Hopefully I’m only seeing the tip of the iceberg here. I only hope that the next book takes things in a direction that I won’t see coming.

The audiobook itself was… eh, it was alright. When I saw it was being read by Ron Perlman, I was beyond excited. His voice is like butter, after all. Yet, only a few minutes in, my disappointment was palpable. Perlman makes absolutely zero effort to create distinct voices and differentiate the various characters in the book. Other than the old Holocaust survivor, which Perlman voices with a barely passable accent, every single other character sounds exactly the same. If not for the fact that his voice is so awesome, this thing would have been a total loss. You get the feeling that if Perlman would put in even a modicum of effort, he would be an amazing voice actor on top of already just being an amazing actor.

 

Next Time:

I’ve said this before, but look for The Wise Man’s Fear, the anticipated sequel to The Name of the Wind, coming down the pipe soon.  Eventually we’ll also be checking out The Pillars of the Earth, another ludicrously long audiobook.  Until then!

Literal Daze #4

After a long, long wait, the fourth installment of Literal Daze is here! This is an ongoing segment where I generally review two books, one in written form and the other in audiobook form. I might occasionally throw a movie in as well for fun. Let’s get started!

 

Book:

American Gods (Neil Gaiman)

What if the various Gods throughout the history of mankind were physically manifested through humanity’s sheer willingness to believe in and sacrifice to them? What would they look like, and how would they behave? And what would happen to them when they were eventually forgotten and left behind?

This is the idea behind Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel and modern fable, American Gods. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this book. I liked it and didn’t like it at the same time. It’s central concept, the idea of America being this strange melting pot of the various Gods man has created over the course of human history and brought with them when they came to this country, is an interesting one. As time marches on and the old Gods are forgotten, they are replaced by new ones, Gods who are probably more familiar to you than you know – The Internet, Television, Media, etc.  I liked its approach to this idea for the most part (Though I was bothered by one glaring omission.  Hypothetically, if this were the way things actually worked, if the “Gods” flourish through our adoration and worship, wouldn’t the most powerful American God be, you know, Jesus? I understand that Christianity wasn’t really the focus of this story, but 70-something percent of Americans claim to be Christian, so the fact that it was basically glossed over seemed strange to me).

Still, a concept can only take you so far, even when well executed. Despite being well written and featuring subtle yet fascinating characters, the heart of any story is the plot. This one does just a bit too much meandering and side-tracking for my tastes. I found myself caring more about the secondary mystery plot that isn’t even introduced until halfway through the book than about the main story, which ends in highly anticlimactic fashion.

So yeah, this one wasn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t terrible either. If nothing else, it’ll probably get me reading more Neil Gaiman.

 

Audiobook:

Angelology (Danielle Trussoni)

Here’s my review of Angelology:

This book sucked.*

The end.

 

 

 

 

*It should be noted, however, that the narrator for the audiobook was quite good. Probably the only good thing about this book. If I’d had to actually read it in print I probably would have gouged my eyes out.

 

 

BONUS Audiobook!

Surface Detail (Iain M. Banks)

I admit, I’ve never read a single novel in Banks’ “The Culture” series. Frankly, I didn’t know the books existed until sometime last year. Considering what a huge fan I am of Science Fiction, this is probably a crime against the genre, but there it is. In my defense, I have heard of a couple of the books in this series, such as Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward and simply didn’t realize what they were, so at least that’s something.

Anyway, yeah, back to Surface Detail. The good thing about the Culture series, in this case at least, is that it isn’t really a series at all. Notice that little tag on the cover picture that says that it is “A Culture Novel” instead of “A Culture Series”? There’s a reason for that. The universe that these books take place in spans millennia, and so books can actually take place hundreds of years apart. Other than the titular civilization of the Culture, a hyper-advance, sort-of anarchic conglomeration of different species and artificial intelligences, there is no real common thread between any of them. Each stands alone as its own story, and other than some background on the Culture itself (much of which is filled in in each book), no knowledge of previous books is required. So hopping straight into Book 9 as my first foray into the series wasn’t as jarring as you’d think it might be.

In Surface Detail, there are a couple of different story threads that kind of dance around each other. The first, more personal story, is about a young alien woman who is born as an lifelong indentured servant on her home world to an extremely wealthy yet sadistic businessman. Even before birth, she is marked on a genetic level with intricate and amazing tattoos all over her body, the incredible patterns of which help define the novel’s title. The book begins with her attempted escape and subsequent murder by her owner. However, where the Culture is concerned, not even death is always permanent. When she seemingly resurrects many light years away on a Culture ship, she eventually teams up with a slightly insane but powerful warship named “Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints”. Yeah, if that’s not the best name for a starship ever, I don’t know what is. Eventually her story brings her back to face the man who so wronged her, and she must deal with the implications of what she has become.

That story is set against a larger backdrop of war – in this case, a simulated war which isn’t actually real. Not yet anyway. As many civilizations become more advanced, they learn how to manipulate virtual worlds, creating artificial reality constructs that seem as real as the real world. So what happens when some of them take this a step too far Several worlds eventually decide that letting God take care of the afterlife isn’t good enough, and take it upon themselves to create their own virtual heavens and hells. When someone dies, the government downloads their mental state as a digital copy and decides which of these afterlives to place them in. You can imagine how a system like this might be abused and wielded for nefarious purposes.

The war, then, is between the worlds who condone the virtual hells and those who want them destroyed (the Culture falls in this latter camp by the way, though they vow not to become directly involved). Ironically, the war itself is fought in a virtual construct to prevent deaths in the real world. This story line is followed by a soldier who lives and dies a hundred times, fights in every scenario imaginable, and who’s shoulders the war eventually comes to sit upon. In parallel, another human woman who is a representative of the Culture investigates some strange happenings surrounding the war, and why it may be close to breaking through into real bloodshed.

Finally, there’s one more storyline that follows a pair of alien quadrupeds who hack into their own world’s virtual hell. It seems that some on their world don’t believe these virtual afterlives don’t actually exist, and so these fellow activists decide that the best way to blow the lid off is to get solid proof. The only problem is, their escape plan goes badly awry, and in the end only one of them manage to escape. After this their story splits into the man doing his best to expose the virtual hell to his countrymen, while the woman suffers through seemingly endless lifetimes of pain and torture still trapped inside.

If all of this sounds like a pretty complicated affair, you’re right, it is. Each story on its own is pretty good. However, even though Banks tried to tie them all together, it never really feels like any one of these stories has much bearing on another. If I have a complaint, that would probably be it. Though each character’s story comes to a natural end with varying levels of satisfaction, the novel as a whole still feels incomplete somehow.

Despite this, it’s a great book. If you like grand, epic science fiction, it’s hard to get much better than this. I’ve read that there actually may be some modest connections to another book in the series here, which is apparently something Banks doesn’t generally do, so I know I’ll have to go back and start catching up. If the rest of them are anything like this one, great things are in store.

Oh, and as for the Audiobook? Fantastic. I’ll just say right now, the narrator of this one, Peter Kenny, is without a doubt the best audiobook narrators I’ve ever heard. His normal accent and voice is just perfect for reading, soft and gentle yet engaging, and his ability to create new voices, accents, and tones for every new character that pops up is simply remarkable. Narrators like him are the reason I listen to Audiobooks in the first place. Bravo.

 

Next Time:

Get ready, because the fifth installment of the epic “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, A Dance With Dragons, is coming up! At nearly fifty hours, this was the longest audiobook I’ve ever listened to by far, so we’ll see whether or not that worked in its favor or against it. See you back here then.