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.
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!