A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

Ser Waymar had been a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Eatch for less than half a year, but no one could say he had not prepared for his vocation. At least insofar as his wardrobe was concerned.

I’ve gone all in. The last of the books from my book day was A Game of Thrones. I felt I wanted to watch the TV series, and I generally try to read a book before I see it’s moving picture equivalent. Half way through reading this I went out and bought the rest of the series altogether, I knew I would read them all and, this is the geek in me, I actually wanted a set of books with the same covers.

I’ve come to creating a scale for Fantasy books, that sits with J.R.R. Tolkien and his epic fantasy at one end, and Joe Abercrombie, with his brilliantly funny bone crunching realism at the other. In terms of preference I have slid across the scale from Tolkien to sit firmly in camp Abercrombie, but A Game of Thrones has started to pull me back across. I say that because while Martin does include a generous dollop of wit in his fantasy, particularly where Tyrion Lannister is concerned, it sits more comfortably down the epic, serious fantasy of Tolkien, in fact, to me, it is Tolkien-eque fantasy evolved.

Since there are seven books in the series so far I will probably review them in terms of storyline, removing all the spoilers (well that’s the plan, there will probably be several drafts of these posts) and generally highlighting my favourite bits. I’m also planning to read all of them one after the other, without wandering off and reading something completely different in between..not sure that will happen.

And so to book one. Martin creates a luxurious world, unbelievably as rich in detail as it is wide in scope, from the liveries and standards of the myriad of families,to the vengeful prince in exile to the fawning, and  the scheming courtiers to the King, who seemingly, is in more danger from within that without. Into this steps Eddard Stark, a Good Man. The trouble with putting a Good Man in the middle of a bad situation is that he will try to Do Good, and that’s what Eddard Stark struggles in vain to do. While he struggles people are plotting against the King, and out somewhere across the sea, a young Prince and his sister are heirs to the deposed King from before, and can you guess what the Prince wants back? It almost seems strange to say that a book going on eight hundred pages is setting the scene, but that’s what a Game of Thrones does, and does brilliantly. While there are some opening moves it is only towards the end of the book you realise just how epic Martin is going with this, I’m eight hundred pages in and some of the key people in this are about fourteen years old, but they have a Destiny, it’s written all over them, I need to make myself comfortable.

There is an incredibly large cast of characters in this, some of who fail to make it to the end of book one and some who you get the sense will be standing at the end of book 734. King Robert is a classic picture of what every man expects being a King to be like, while Tyrion is one of the most intriguing, loyal to his family yet with an unexpected heart underneath the scheming exterior. Aside from the men, it is the women that seem to wield the real power, particularly Cercei, Catelyn and Daenerys. Catelyn in particular is one of the most interesting characters, loving wife and mother turned kidnapper who has a cold streak in her that is hard as steel. As mentioned above there are also children here, as you would expect with loving wives and virile Kings about, and they are wonderfully depicted by Martin, who almost perfectly captures the nuances in character in their interactions with adults and their siblings in everyday situations.

So, I’m hooked. A Game of Thrones is sumptuous, violent and complex but thoroughly enjoyable. Fantasy books have a way of hooking into me, where I have to stop if one of my favourite character dies, or there seems to be no way out of the situation the characters find themselves in. While there are what you could traditionally call ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters in Thrones, I’ve a suspicion that division will be an extremely blurry one by the end of the series. I’ve already voiced a few ideas of what I think might happen to my brother, who has read the books and seen the TV series, these were promptly rubbished and I was sent off to continue reading.  Which is exactly what I’m doing.

“And this is Bronn, a sellsword of no particular allegiance. He has already changed sides twice in the short time I’ve known him, you and he ought to get on famously, Father.”

By Night in Chile – Roberto Bolano

I was at peace. I am no longer at peace. There are a couple of points that have to be cleared up. So, propped up on one elbow, I will lift my noble, trembling head, and rummage through my memories to turn up the deeds that shall vindicate me and belie the slanderous rumours the wizened youth spread in a single storm-lit night to sully my name. Or so he intended.

Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix is not a likeable fellow, I tried, I tried all the way through the book to warm to him, I just couldn’t manage to do it, not even though he was a man of the cloth, not even though he was in his respectable old age.

I’m not sure exactly what it is that I didn’t like about Lacroix, As he recounts his life, trying to put to rest the wound opened by the wizened youth, who, buzzes around his recollection like a mosquito, you never see him but he’s always there, and he’s just as annoying. After joining the seminary and proclaiming his ambition to be a literary critic, Lacroix falls under the wing of Farewell, the most prominent critic in Chile at the time.
The anecdotes flow in clear detail, revealing a pretentiousness and arrogance that the wizened youth appears to have popped.
There is, as usual, a wave of literary references, the love of the mediocre poet, the kind most beloved of Bolano. And I have to say, it is to Bolano’s credit that he has crafted a character so well in Lacroix, that I read on past my dislike, past the buzzing in my head from the continued, flitting presence of the wizened youth, to enjoy the prose, that rolled on like a giant river, sometimes choppy, but mostly smooth and endless.

After his sojourn to Europe, Lacroix returns to Chile in time to see Allende elected. He buries himself in his reading, and the Presidents brief and bright reign is reduced to a page and half of events, puncturing the Greek Classics that Lacroix devours, until he revels in the peace following the coup d’etat and Allende’s suicide. After reading The Savage Detectives and Last Evenings on Earth, it was strange reading a book where a character is not in exile. While Lacroix still feels terror when his teaching assignment comes up, in the end he believes himself intellectual, and does manage to put that above politics, the last anecdote regarding Maria Canales, seems to offer him some salvation, although seemingly little hope. In fact, the novel, aside from the alternative view of what happened in Chile seems to lament the death of literature during the turbulent years, when it was pushed to the extremes, to the exiles, except for those few, such as Lacroix, who dreamed and dared a little to keep it alive.

While I can’t say I enjoyed By Night in Chile, it was fascinating to read and absorb, a prickly novel that is saved by Bolano’s smooth prose.

…and I also reread Demosthenes and Menander and Aristotle and Plato (whom one cannot read too often), and there were strikes and the colonel of a tank regiment tried to mount a coup, and a cameraman recorded his own death on film, and then Allende’s naval aide-de-camp was assassinated and there were riots, swearing, Chileans blaspheming, painting on walls, and then nearly half a million people marched in support of Allende, and then came the coup d’etat, the putsch, the military uprising, the bombing of La Moneda and when the bombing was finished the president committed suicide and that put an end to it all. I sat there in silence, a finger between the pages to mark my place, and I thought: Peace at last.

Last Evenings on Earth – Roberto Bolano

Once, he thinks, long ago, she must have been pretty, but now she is a jumble of flesh and twitchy sinews. B doesn’t dare ask who the ‘friend’ is. He nods, assures her he will go down immediately, but doesn’t move. The Countess doesn’t move either and for a moment they both stand there in silence, looking into each others eyes as if they had known each other (or loved and hated each other) in another life.

Slow, sad, mesmerising, Bolano captivates in this collection of shorts, narrated as it is by his cast of vagabond and exiled writers and failed or mediocre poets.  Almost all of them are a long way from home, meeting with other exiles, begrudgingly accepting them in their new surroundings, as they recount stories from their past, almost all of them surreal and shot through with all the melancholy of dusk. The characters search others out or push them away, or seemingly collide with different people almost by accident, yet the collision leaves an imprint on their memory and their life, which they recount on the page. Some are full tales, others are but a snapshot or something that happened, someone they meet as they wander aimlessly from one day to the next, all the while 1973 in Chile looms in the background, remembered, a shadow that follows the narrators throughout their lives.

The tales are simply told, little embellished and packed full of characters that range from listless to enigmatic. Enrique Martin and The Grub are two great examples of this, while Anne Moore’s life is a recollection of what seems an extraordinary life, but which Bolano crafts as such that it could be completely normal. And that is the magic of this collection, while reading at times the stories seem too fantastical, too out of the ordinary to be believable, they are suffused with inertia and melancholy, with such plain yet gripping narration, that afterwards you leave believing everything that happened.

Arturo Belano (Bolano’s fictiional alter ego) makes an appearance, and it was only after the second reading that I thought about connecting the dots, the number of stories about B, was it the same B, was it Belano narrating them all? If so you will struggle to find a more eventful and literary life anywhere in or out of fiction.
A literary adventure builds beautifully before a clever, thought provoking ending. Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva and Days of 1978 are perhaps the darkest,  while Sensini tells of an unexpected friendship and it’s aftermath. There is a sense of foreboding, or impending disaster that courses through the entire collection, which never quite happens, or at least as far as we read. The last story, Dance Card is somewhat different, a fragmented tribute to Neruda that borders on the crazy.

It was, however, Last Evenings on Earth that captured me last time, that stayed with me long after I finished the collection, despite being so completely different from reality as to be in another dimension, I seemed to see elements of me and my own father in this, but I couldn’t tell you why. We are nothing like the son and father in the book, we would never take such a holiday, yet despite the almost otherworldlyness (that is clearly not a real word I’m afraid) of the story, it resonated with me. Reading it again, there is a great deal out of the story that I had forgotten, but I still couldn’t tell you what it is about it that gripped me, and that for me, explains the magic of this collection.

I remember we ended up railing against the Chilean left, and at one point I proposed a toast to the ‘wandering warriors of Chile’, a substantial subset of the ‘wandering warriors of Latin America’, a legion of orphans, who, as the name suggests, wander the face of the earth offering their services to the highest bidder, who is almost always the lowest as well.