Saturday, June 11, 2011

Book Reviews-A Song of Ice and Fire, The Butcher, The Tomb

A Song of Ice and Fire
by George R.R. Martin
A Song of Ice and Fire is the fantastic fiction series written by the author George R.R. Martin (GRRM), in which the first book is A Game of Thrones. He intends to write seven books in the series. The books in order after A Game of Thrones are A Clash Of Kings, A Storm Of Swords, A Feast For Crows and to be released in about a month, A Dance With Dragons. I've read all of the released books.
It is virtually impossible to tell you what happens in the series without giving spoilers from the first book other than to note that in a world similar to our own circa 1300 a civil war breaks out over the correct royal succession on a continent suspiciously similar to Europe, named Westeros. While the various factions wage war and do their best to eliminate each other, chessmasters manipulate them from the shadows and a supernatural threat grows offstage. What makes this different than any number of other mindlessly bad historical fiction or fantasy series you ask?
It's because GRRM is one of the best living authors in the genre. He deconstructs the genre, turns it inside out and makes it his and his alone. And like any true master, his characters transcend the genre. His characters have depth. GRRM writes real people-with all of their warts, fears, hatreds and jealousies. He's on a par with Stephen King as far as this goes. Some characters are shown not to be either as evil or as good as earlier books might have you believe. And some characters do indeed always try to do the right thing no matter what it costs. Most of his major characters have incredible depth-whether it's a 16 yr old boy trying to figure out how to lead his people after his father's murder or a strong yet shockingly ugly and touchingly naive warrior woman struggling against the prejudices of her time or a violent brutal retainer who tries to kill his conscience with alcohol.

GRMM  has no qualms killing off major characters or having them get maimed or brutalized if that's what the story requires. The author does not hesitate to show war for what it is. It may start out with talks of honor and justice but it ends up with rape, massacre, torture, famine and other acts of cruelty. No one is exempt from this in GRRM's world. For example, during the war a group of young kids (including a disguised princess) is captured by a group of psychopathic soldiers searching for the princess and other "threats" to their lord's rule. One of the children has injuries and before the capture was being carried by his friends. When a soldier asks the boy if he can walk he peevishly explains that he can't walk and that they will have to carry him. The soldier replies "That so?" and calmly stabs the child through the throat, to the great amusement of his fellow soldiers. 
And things get worse from there. But when you look at what has gone on in our own world, whether it be the killing fields in Cambodia, the My Lai massacre, The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre,  the lawlessness in Somalia, the bombing of wedding parties in Afghanistan, rapes in Congo, mutilations and child soldiers in Sierra Leone, fanaticism in Pakistan, brutality in Serbia and so on, it's hard to say that GRRM is exaggerating too much.

GRRM depicts court life and political machinations perfectly. Minor plot points from earlier books turn out to be essential to someone's master plan for conquering Westeros. GRRM draws some strong and realistic female characters-some traditionally minded, others much less so. The aforementioned princess who's fleeing for her life has a list of people she wants dead. And though she's only ten years old, she has the will and skill to do something about it. The cost is also shown: violence makes people go dead inside.
GRRM does an excellent job of drawing the Oedipal resentments between the most powerful Lord in the land and his ugly, dwarfish son who constantly seeks his father's approval but can never get it. People have strong motivations for what they do. Martin's only misstep in my view is that his black characters are either non-existent or so poorly drawn as to come close to Magic Negro status. There is nothing in his work suggesting racial malevolence, as there is in the work of HP Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard, but his black characters are flat. That aside I enjoyed the series so far.
To Winterfell we pledge the faith of Greywater. Hearth and heart and harvest we yield up to you, my lord. Our swords and spears and arrows are yours to command. Grant Mercy to our weak, help to our helpless, and justice to all, and we shall never fail you. We swear it by earth and water, we swear it by bronze and iron, we swear it by ice and fire.

The Butcher
by Phillip Carlo
This is the story of Bonanno Crime Family member Tommy "Karate" Pitera. Pitera received his nickname because of his interest in Japanese martial arts and culture. He moved to Japan as a teenager and lived there for two years training in martial arts. Upon return to Brooklyn, the diminutive mobster joined the Bonannos, was formally inducted and became a feared Mafia killer. His skill at dismemberment and indifference to human life scared some very scary people.

This should have been a better book. It feels like it was rushed. The author makes a number of presentation mistakes. There are neither footnotes nor index. There is sloppy use of terms. 
But the worst flaw in my opinion is the author's use of omniscient third person narrative. Tommy Pitera did not grant Carlo interviews. Nor (to my knowledge) have his parents, wife, girlfriends, fellow karate students or other intimates spoken on record with Carlo.

Phillip Carlo can't know exactly what Pitera was thinking or why he did what he did. To speak definitively as if you know what's going on in someone else's head is irritating. Perhaps realizing that his ability to draw a picture of Pitera is somewhat limited, Carlo spends a great deal of time depicting the less than compelling DEA agents who would help take Pitera down.

Carlo's primary source is Frank Gangi. Gangi was a member of Pitera's crew and an alcoholic junkie involved in at least three murders committed with Pitera. Gangi claims to have seen the light after a drunk driving arrest after which he became an informer. Of course it is possible that Gangi and Pitera realized at the same time that Gangi was a weak link and Gangi ran to the police. Gangi is not a sympathetic figure.
This book strips away the fiction that there is any real difference between the Mafia and other so-called street thugs or gangsters. Pitera kills because he's ordered to do so but he also kills because he's annoyed or bored or simply wants what someone else has. His ONLY business seems to be drugs. He's surrounded by lowlifes, junkies and party girls. Other than killing a made man, Pitera doesn't seem to ask or need permission for any of his murders. Speaking of Pitera, another character tells his wife "He has no friends because he killed them all!". That pretty much sums up Tommy Pitera. This book was somewhat disappointing.

The Tomb
by F. Paul Wilson

Wilson originally wrote this book in 1984. His intent was to let the hero die at the end but audience demand was so strong that he relented and made this the first in a long series of Repairman Jack novels. Repairman Jack is a modern day fixit-man.I don't mean that he repairs appliances or attends to the needs of lonely housewives.
Rather he is an unlicensed detective and mercenary. He does not murder for hire but he will kill to survive. Jack's preference, both to maintain his privacy and for his own amusement, is to set his enemies against each other whenever possible. He has withdrawn from society as much as possible, has no social security number or bank account,  pays no taxes and shuns his family. He is, as he sees it a sovereign individual. (The author is something of a libertarian)

Jack lives in New York City where he helps people fix problems that they can't go to the police for. Maybe it's stopping someone from being blackmailed. Maybe it's convincing some punk kids that they need to stop picking on someone. Maybe it's finding someone who disappeared or investigating a spouse's strange behavior. Whatever it is Jack wants cash up front and will not stop until he's solved the problem. He can be cold and brusque but he has a soft spot for underdogs and especially for kids. Anyone harming kids gets to see Jack's more brutal side.
Jack is hired by an Indian political leader named Kusum to find a necklace that was stolen from the political leader's grandmother. She is dying and for some reason Kusum is desperate to give her this necklace back.
Against all odds Jack does retrieve the necklace for the old lady who leaves the country. Kusum however stays in the country for some undisclosed purpose. Kusum's sister Kolabati, asks to meet Jack personally to thank him for the service done to her grandmother. While separated from his girlfriend Gia, (who is disgusted to discover that he has killed before) Jack embarks on a relationship with Kolabati. But things start to get weird from there. Gia's relatives start to die in unexplained circumstances and Jack is forced to confront some supernatural elements.
This was a really fun book. It was sort of like a modern day Indiana Jones. I highly recommend it. Wilson has rewritten this to remove 80's technology and references and include modern tech, such as cell phones.
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