‘Watership Down’

Stories involving talking animals are considered juvenile by many, but I love reading them. That’s probably because I love animals and I find them absolutely adorable to read about. I grew up on Champak and Panchtantra and Narnia, among others. Though I never really lost interest in those stories, I began to read other stuff later, primarily to widen by range.

Then arrived Watership Down. This charming little book came highly recommovie_poster_watership_downmended by George RR Martin, that undisputed king of fantasy. I’ve never been disappointed with his recommendations that are available on his site and blog, so I almost immediately started reading.

Watership Down is a tale of a bunch of rabbits who search for a new place to live after a clairvoyant (!) rabbit warns of a disaster about to strike their warren. The novel has a lot of action, but it must be kept in mind that ‘action’ is normalcy in the lives of wild
rabbits. They face dangers everyday in the form of foxes, dogs, and, of course, humans, and . Dangerous is synonymous to routine for them.

The book is not only well-written, the characters are drawn up so beautifully that at times you forget you’re reading about beings who can’t speak. There are some adorable ‘rabbitspeak’ words that just warm the heart. A small rabbit is called Hlao-roo by fellow rabbits where ‘Roo’ means small and ‘Hlao’ is his name in rabbitspeak. Similarly ‘hrair’ means a lot, or more than three as rabbits cannot count beyond three.

Without spoiling the story, Watership Down has heroes and villains, but it is thankfully not as straightforward black and white as Narnia. It revolves around themes like friendship, sacrifice, and kindness, and is engaging almost throughout. A fine read.

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Boy’s Life

I’ve discovered a great new writer these last few weeks: Robert McCammon. After sailing through a book of short stories (some of them really good), I quickly hopped on to one of his best reviewed novels: Boy’s Life. I wasn’t disappointed.

Boy’s Life is a beautiful book. Thinking it to be a horror novel, I was slightly little disappointed at first. But I soon got over that, and began to savour the finely drawn characters, a well-realised small-town world filled with magic, fantasy, and legend, sharp prose.

A very personal story of a 12 year old named Cory Mackenson, probably modeled on the author himself who grew up in the same state (Alabama), Boy’s Life stuns you with its fine details. It is almost like vicariously experiencing Cory Mackenson’s life day by day.

A lesser author would have bored one with death with verbosity. But MacCammon takes great care to make the world as believable as possible with few words, and at times I forgot I was reading a novel and not actually stalking a 60’s kid.

And it is no ordinary kid’s tale. Cory lives in Zephyr, a town where things happen. Where monsters-deities inhabit the murky waters and legendary creatures can be seen frolicking in forests. Fantasy coexists with the hard reality in Zephyr. Where people are friendly and nice and no crimes more serious than theft happen.

Until Cory and his milkman father witness a car with a dead man tied to steering wheel disappears inside a river. But not before Cory’s father has had a good look of the man’s face. He is horrified at the brutality inflicted to a fellow human being, and in good little Zephyr of all places.

The collective illusion shatters. People are stunned. It becomes the talk of the town. Who killed that man? Nobody knows. The sheriff can’t figure out anything either and has no stomach to actually delve beneath several hundred feet of murky water to find out. This incident changes something inside Cory too. And he becomes particularly involved after picking up a potential clue.

It is hard to categorise Boy’s Life in a genre. It has ghosts, but the tone is lighter than a typical horror novel. It has magic, but it is scarce and of an elusive sort. It has legendary creatures, but they might not be real. It begins with a brutal murder, but that murder takes a backseat for most of the novel.

The only category I see Boy’s Life comfortably settling in, at least for me, is “Must Read Books.”

 

Book Review: “Magic Marks the Spot”

I read this fantastic little book a long while ago, but got around to review it only now due to my increasingly frenzied schedule. I had to review it, as I’d loved it so much that I wanted to push it to as many people as I can.

The moment I came across this book in Goodreads, I wanted nothing more than to read it in one go. I find little girls who defy social convention and lady-like standards quite fascinating. And this book has a girl protagonist who wants to be a pirate!

Although, it is primarily children’s literature, it is by no means limited to that niche. The prose is uncomplicated but beautiful. And it has enough humour to tickle anyone.

Our heroine is Hilary Westfield. She’s a little daughter of a noble in a fictional land who dreams of becoming a pirate. Irony is that her father is admiral of the Royal Navy and detests pirates. Since, Magic Marks The Spot is juvenile fiction, “pirate” here means noble savages who love to go on adventures and explore unknown lands.MagicMarksSpot_hc_c

Hilary’s High Society parents are, understandably, horrified by Hilary’s decision. They in turn horrify Hilary by sending her to Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies.

Hilary, however, does not want to be a delicate lady. She aspires to be a pirate, after all. And pirates ain’t delicate, mind ye. So she plans an escape from the school with the help of her new friend, Claire.

She comes across a “freelance” pirate and leaves for her first voyage. Not only she has to go all piratical on the ship, she’s also given the responsibility of deciphering a map which apparently leads to the largest treasure in the world. Will she be up to it?

This is quite a light-hearted book. So whilst there are many battles and scuffles in the novel, there is scarcely any violence. And every fight ends without any bloody injury, or indeed, any particular injury, to anyone.

Hilary might be the heroine of the story, but for me, the real star is her pet gargoyle. Not only the gargoyle can talk, he also has a sense of humour. And he also shares Hilary’s enthusiasm for ships, voyages and piracy. Initially installed in her room above the door, Hilary takes him with her to the Finishing School for his company.

The best thing I liked about the book was its incessantly frivolous tone. Even when the gargoyle isn’t in the picture, the book rarely, if ever, gets serious. The book actually reminded me of Barry Hughart’s brilliant Bridge of Birds – a book similarly flippant but noticeably more adult-oriented. Read it too, if you haven’t already.

All in all, this is must read for pretty much anyone. No matter how young – or old – you are, take my word, you’re going to love this book.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: “Hollow City”

Photos are probably the only reason I still buy real books as opposed to Kindle books. Photos are harder to see in the small Kindle display, which is monochrome anyway. It is perfect for reading, mind you, as I have repeatedly said – the text quality is simply sublime. But if the book you plan to read has a lot of maps, pictures or illustrations, and if they really matter (either to you, or the plot), it’s generally recommended to buy the good-old paper-book.

I read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children later last year. I tried its sample on Kindle first, and since I liked it, I decided to buy the hardcover version. It was quite expensive, but worth the price, I thought. It had a lot of high quality vintage pictures which added to the sinister atmosphere created by the first few chapters of the book.

Whilst I liked the book, more or less, I also felt cheated. My experience with the sample had promised a superbly atmospheric and scary story, aided by hauntingly vintage photographs. Granted, the latter was true, the former was something which disappointed me deeply. Atmosphere had nothing to do with the rest of the book, as it turned out to be a fantasy-horror novel involving a bunch of children with magical abilities braving the monsters and miraculously escaping unscathed every time.

As hackneyed as it gets.

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It was, admittedly, a little unfair to the author, as the main reason I was disillusioned with the book was that I had expected something else, altogether. Indeed, I believe I would have enjoyed the book more if not for those sky-high and totally different expectations. As it was, the novel redeemed itself a bit in the last fifty pages or so.

The story was, as I said, interesting. At least, initially. A boy, Jacob, discovers that the stories his grandfather told him about his childhood, which he thought were merely a product of his grandsire’s prolific imagination, might have some truth in them, after all. His grandfather talked of a girl levitating, an invisible boy, a girl who could conjure fire with her bare hands, and so on in the stories. These children, his grandfather claimed, had been his friends.

When Jacob witnesses the death of his grandfather by an indescribably horrific creature, he goes on to find about the truth behind the event and his grandfather’s mysterious childhood. He finds the clues in the old, monochrome photographs his grandfather had gifted him.

He reaches the island where his grandfather had spent his childhood. After much difficulty, he manages to find the so called “school” where his grandfather lived with similarly aged peculiars (as the children with sundry magical powers were called) in his childhood. The house, not unexpectedly, turns out to be a tumbledown ruin.

And it was from there, the horror quotient came crashing down and it became another Harry Potter-esque novel. Jacob meets the peculiar friends of his grandfather. He had, of course, assumed them to be either long-dead and wandering as ghosts or old like his grandfather had been before his death. Turned out, they had stopped aging as kids in a “loop”, where time had stopped for them. I’m sure I’d have liked it more if those children were ghosts.

When I started the second book, I knew exactly what would I get, so I liked it much better than the first one. The writing and pacing is much improved in Hollow City. So is characterisation – no longer the peculiars are so annoying and whiny. They finally resemble real-life people.

In some ways, though, the second book remains as bad as the first one. Ransom Riggs’s attempts at humour are still lame and stilted. Also, his writing has so many clichés that it makes Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time looks like a fresh concept.

But still, it’s a decent, easy read. Pick it up when you’re bored and have nothing better to do. Just don’t assume it’s going to be once in a lifetime experience.

Rating: 3/5

Book Review: “The Way of Shadows”

The Way of Shadows was advocated to me by a friend when I asked about a fairly short (a trilogy, for instance) but good fantasy series. Since he knew I preferred darker stuff, he recommended me The Night Angel trilogy. And boy, you will be hard-pressed to find a darker fantasy series–that is, judging by the first book. Indeed, I never felt so disturbed, even traumatised, by anything fictional since Red Wedding like that particular incident in the book. And if I remember correctly, no child was sadistically tortured in the Red Wedding…

Of course, it goes without saying that if you are more a traditional Tolkienesque fantasy fan, don’t go anywhere near it. But if you have read and liked the so-called “gritty and realistic” fantasy (George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie and the like), which is more widespread these days, you should get along fine. Though, a few incidents in The Way of Shadows still make you grateful that the book and all the stuff that happens in the story is indeed fictional.

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The premise is simple. The central character, Azoth, is an orphan child who, along with other children of his “guild”, steals money to give it to the Rat, the Guild Fist, or the head of their guild. Azoth’s life is tough–Rat isn’t exactly an ideal boss and beats up any child who fails to bring the daily requisite amount. Also, Azoth has other plans for his future. He hates to live a perpetually fearful life. He hates the way Rat beats and bullies him and his friends. He wants to be a ‘wetboy‘–an equivalent of the Claw assassins–and give Rat the taste of his own medicine. The wetboys are a highly skilled band of killers, who, aside from being adroit with knives, have the Talent–a natural ability to do magic.

To achieve his goal to be a wetboy, Azoth starts to pursue Durzo Blint, who is said to be the best in the business. The matter is made complicated by the fact that Durzo doesn’t accept apprentices. And either Azoth has to give up his dream or he might have to do something vile to impress Durzo. Will he be up to it? I will love it if you find that out for yourself.

The Way of Shadows is without a shadow (pun not intended) of doubt a great buy for everyone who likes aforementioned “gritty and realistic” fantasy genre. It is incredibly dark and ruthless, the characters are multi-dimensional and complex, and humour comes in the darkest of shades.

Rating: 4.5/5

 

Book Review: “The Way of Kings” and “Words of Radiance”

If fantasy writers were vehicles, Brandon Sanderson would have been a steamroller. He writes great stories involving convoluted plots and intricately contrived magic-systemsand he writes unbelievably quickly. Ever since he has started writing, he’s been inexorably churning out book after book like a machine – without compromising on the quality, mind you.

As good a writer Sanderson is, I have a love-hate relationship with his books. I utterly liked how he finished the floundering Wheel of Time series. The magic of Wheel of Time had fizzled out since the first 4-5 books, and the tragic death of Robert Jordan was another big setback. It was Sanderson, who with the help of Jordan’s wife got the series back on track and ended it fairly well.

I also liked Mistborn series. But there was a problem – dialogue in Mistborn felt too artificial. Too stilted. It wasn’t natural, like it should be. Most of the conversations, particularly the friendly ones, in the series were a little jarring and incongruous. They felt out of place. They betrayed the fact that they were contrived. Because of this, I never did feel any involvement or true escapism in the world of Mistborn.

With The Stormlight Archive, though, Brandon Sanderson has ironed out this chink in his otherwise perfect armour. And then some.

Stormlight Archive is definitely going to be huge. To give you an idea: the first book was 1008 pages long, and the second book about 1088 pages long in terms of paperback pages. Through The Stormlight Archive, Sanderson seems to be taking on Steven Eriskon head-on. Whether he manages to match the vertigo-inducing complexity and superb storytelling of Malazan Book of the Fallen is another matter.

The books in The Stormlight Archive are designed prettily with tonnes of beautiful pictures and maps. It would be expensive, but I recommend buying hardcovers of these books. Not only these books are well-written and enjoyable, they will also embellish your bookshelf.

I finished the second book – Words of Radiance – last week and was left craving for the third book. Yes, this series is that good. So far, at least. I will concisely review both of the books for your convenience:

The Way of Kings: When you start to read a 1000-odd page book, it is natural to be a little apprehensive. But with books like The Way of Kings, your misgiving does not last long. This book introduces you to the elaborate world of Roshar, which is sporadically assaulted with powerful magical storms called “Highstorms”. The magic system is complex – not as complex as allomancy in Mistborn – but is nicely and simply (perhaps too simply for my taste) explained. It takes little time to plunge into the world, and the action to start.

The people in Roshar are divided by the colour of their eyes. The people whose eyes are dark (dark brown, black) are considered socially inferior than the people whose eyes are of a lighter colour (blue, hazel). The lighteyes are also the ruling class or, simply, nobility. And darkeyes, the peasantry.

The are many “primary” characters in the book, but the main focus is on Kaladin – a young darkeyes warrior. Kaladin is a resigned man, who carries an intense hatred toward ligheyes, for various reasons. This hatred propels his life; he wants to avenge the death of his younger brother. But after being put into slavery, even that hatred becomes an apathetic indifference.

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It’s only after reaching the Shattered Plains (which is the battlefield of the conflict between humans and a humanoid race called Parshendi) does Kaladin acquire a reason to live. He is put in with the bridgemen–who are considered to be at the lowest tier in the army and whose task is the most arduous and without any sort of reward. Kaladin makes his life goal to protect his fellow bridge men. There are frequent glimpses of Kaladin’s past which make the character well-rounded and fleshed out. Those reminisces also explain Kaladin’s current predicament and the choices he makes through the course of the novel.

The Way of Kings is a long, but fast-paced and action-packed fantasy book. It is highly recommended to every fantasy fan looking for a new fantasy series with a detailed, well-built world.

Rating: 4.5/5

Words of Radiance: In comparison, Words of Radiance reads even faster than The Way of Kings. In this book, all the previous characters in the first book converge on the Shattered Plains, the battlefield of the conflict between the humans and the parshendi. As the first book was centered on Kaladin, the focus now shifts on Shallan. She is the daughter of a deceased minor noble (read lighteyes). Her character comes down as even more complex than Kaladin, in my opinion.

Like the brief glimpses we saw of Kaladin’s yesteryears in the first book, it is now Shallan’s turn. Her childhood had been like hell because of her scurrilous father and tough upbringing. If I tell you anything more, it will spoil your fun. This is a great book, and yes, better than the first one. The pace is faster, plotting is tighter and characterisation is even more improved. 

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As far as the number of words goes, the book is longer than the first one. But it doesn’t feel like so. More focused and eventful storytelling ensures that you won’t ever be bored with the book. Bottomline: if you read and liked the first book, just pick this one up. This book is better in almost every way.

Rating: 5/5

Conversation: Sherlock Holmes and Tyrion Lannister

This is a fabricated conversation between two of my favourite fictional characters: Sherlock Holmes and Tyrion Lannister. Whilst the former is the best (or, at least the most popular) detective in the history of literature, the latter is a pocket dynamite–perhaps the most intriguing character in fantasy fiction.

I supposed concise intros of both are needed.

Sherlock Holmes: A classic character in every sense of the word. An ingenious sleuth who still appeals to contemporary readers after more than a century, and which makes whodunit-solvers of modern literature look tame and clichéd. A mastermind at what he does, and totally dumb at everything else. As he explains:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. … It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent..

Holmes is also one of the few literary characters who have been adapted into countless TV shows, stage-shows and movies.

Tyrion Lannister: Good things come in small packages, as the saying goes. And no one epitomises the adage like Tyrion Lannister. A dwarf since birth, and thus unable to fight with heavy weapons like swords, he survives the vicious world of Westeros (A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones) solely on his wit, which is as sharp as a Valyrian steel sword. And he loves reading, because:

a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.

Context: Magician Kevhorn peered in his magic globe. Amid the swirling white light, he saw Sherlock Holmes sitting lethargically before the fireplace in his apartment at 221B Baker Street, London, Britain of Victorian Era. He muttered an incantation, and slowly the light changed its hue to red. Kevhorn saw Westeros of 299AL, and, after a while, found Tyrion Lannister in King’s Landing. The dwarf was lying in his chambers in King’s Landing, befuddled, drowning his regrets and sorrows in wine.

Kevhorn muttered another incantation, this one a little longer. It had an immediate effect. Tyrion Lannister vanished from his chambers and found himself standing upright in front of a closed door, his sobriety completely restored.

Conversation:

There was a knock on the door. Holmes turned, strode up, a slight smile on his face, expecting Watson at the door.

“My dear Wats…”, Holmes began. But there was no one. He frowned and was about to turn back when he heard a voice.

Where in the seven hells am I?”

He looked down, and saw a queer little man clad in a most peculiar medieval style clothes, fidgeting in the doorway. He wore a burgundy doublet, a leather skirt, black pants and a chain with interlocking hands entwined around his little neck. He looked bewildered. And angry too.

“Pray, tell me who are you?”, Holmes asked. “I can’t deny that I like your costume!”, he added.

Instead of replying, the dwarf directed a barrage of questions. “Who am I? Who are you? How did I come here? Are you a damned wizard? Did you summon me? Which place is this?”

Holmes thought for a while. The dwarf did have an outlandish look about him. There was something really strange going on.

“Hmm! You mean you don’t belong in London?”, he asked concernedly. “At least tell me your name!”

“I am Tyrion, son of Tywin, of House Lannister. And what is this London?” Tyrion literally spat the last word, as though doing it could transform him back to King’s Landing.

Why, London is where you stand, my dear!”

“Oh, fuck me”, the dwarf swore. “How far is King’s Landing? Or Westeros?”

“I suppose these are, er, places? Hmm? Well, I have no idea! But come inside, have tea and then we’ll talk!”

“Are you fucking joking? Give me one good reason why should I trust you! You don’t look reliable to me”, Tyrion said suspiciously.

Holmes did not like Tyrion’s habit of emphasising the most offensive words. He decided Tyrion was dangerous.

“My dear Tyrion, son of Tywin, blah blah, I haven’t harmed you, have I? I only want to have a bit of discourse over your, uh, predicament. Come, come! Have tea! Make yourself comfortable!”

Tyrion grudgingly went inside and looked around inquisitively.

“Nice place, this. But almost everything is alien to me.”

Holmes did not reply. He was creeping stealthily towards his walking stick on the leftward of the door. He picked it up. Tyrion turned–

“Apologies. I never asked your name–ah!”

Holmes hit his walking-stick  right on the forehead of Tyrion. The dwarf toppled. Holmes watched the unconscious little man. For all his tantrums, the dwarf hadn’t actually harmed him.

Holmes waited. After around 15 minutes, the bell rang. Holmes advanced warily, walking stick tightly gripped in one hand, half-expecting another weirdo from some alternate-reality. He opened the door and relaxed. It was only Watson.

“My dear Waston! You have no inkling how glad I am to see you! I understand you have had cold lately? Ha ha! You know, I have this most curious specimen…”

Five Most Annoying Characters in Fantasy Fiction

Charactersation in fantasy has undergone a major transformation of late (since last two decades) with the introduction of so-called “gritty and realistic” novels. Before that, fantasy had little to offer in terms of character depth. Most of fantasy (including Tolkien) was plot-driven, and now it has become character-driven, which, I believe, is a swell thing. As I think characters are the keystone of a novel and if they are well-drawn, well-developed… well, that’s enough to satisfy the reader in me. Rest of the stuff like writing quality, plot-line matters too, of course, but comes lower in hierarchy.

But once is a while, you come across a character which seems to be dropped in the story just to annoy the crap out of you. The moment you encounter it, you want it annihilated. But sadly, “realistic fantasy” (a bit of an oxymoron in itself, come to think of it) does not work that way. Sometimes, good characters perish too soon and evil ones endure (as is the case with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire in particular).

So. Here is my list of the Five Most Annoying Characters in Fantasy Fiction:

(1) Joffrey Baratheon (A Song of Ice and Fire): The very definition of the word “nuisance”. And not a minor nuisance, no, an ultra-gigantic kind of nuisance. An unavoidable nuisance. This little shit has ruined so many lives, killed so many innocent people that it’s hard to keep track. Sometimes I hate him with so great a passion that I forget he is a fictional character. He started a great war single-handedly by killing an important noble, whom he could easily ransom, the war which in turn killed another million people.

In comparison, another character–Ramsay Bolton–is probably even more vicious and cruel than Joffrey. But he is hardly annoying, he is simply… eerie. It is quite safe to give Joffrey the esteemed award of the Most Annoying Character in Fantasy Fiction.

(2) Prince Regal (The Farseer Trilogy): Regal is actually very similar to Joffrey–both are princes, both are contemptuous of people lesser than them (that means pretty much everyone, as they see it) and both are extremely, extremely unlikable. However, Regal has one thing is his favour which makes him a little bit less annoying than Joffrey: his actions don’t affect the world as much. While Joffrey become a king pretty early (a cruel, stupid king) in A Song of Ice and Fire saga, Regal is left craving for it (I won’t tell you if he does become a king or not, in case you plan to read the series). By the way, if you haven’t read this fantastic series, I suggest you do it now. Regal aside, it is pretty enjoyable.

(3) Rand al’Thor (The Wheel of Time): Whilst the previous two characters were meant to be unlikable, Rand was just poorly conceived and badly written. He is, in my opinion, one of the worst and most tiresome protagonists in fantasy. Always whining, always crying and being a weakling even though he is supposedly the most powerful man in the world. Reading the parts in the series when he is around (being the major character, he’s around far fucking too much for my liking) makes me yawn widely enough to accommodate a tomcat in my mouth.

(4) Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle): A close second in the race to the most annoying protagonist in fantasy. An epitome of bad characterisation. Not that Christopher Paolini did anything remotely approaching good (or original) in the book. Or any book.

(5) Hermione Granger (Harry Potter): Okay, I realise I’m grossly outnumbered here. Most (if not all) Harry Potter fans would find her well-written and likable. I do not. I find her incredibly annoying. That, and she is frighteningly reminiscent of Sheldon Cooper from that ghastly “comedy” The Big Bang Theory.

Look, even if you know everything about everything (like, if you really do), you still don’t have any right to be arrogant or bossy. Too much pride becomes wearisome very quickly, at least for me. I was surprised that Harry and Ron didn’t strangle her whenever she had one of those pedantic fits–there were so many in the series…

Anyway, these are the five characters in fantasy fiction I found most annoying. How about you? Which character in fantasy you dislike most?

On E-books and paper-books

Recent bump in popularity of e-readers and particularly Kindle has given rise to a debate, or rather left an old argument newly ablaze–e-books or paper-books?

I’m using Kindle since a decent amount of time now–enough, I think, to make a judgement as to whether an e-reader is worth it or not and whether the e-ink technology itself is preferable to paper or not. Truth is, the question is wrong: E-books or paper-books? I emphatically say I need both. Why, you might ask? Read on.

Kindle did much to create an unquenchable desire to read in me, but I’ve always been an eager reader. I owe this habit to primarily J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I read this little (relatively) fantasy book when I couldn’t read properly. My dad gave a prettily illustrated paperback to me as a gift. I was instantly hooked, though I had a real hard time with its complex sentence structures (it was my first proper novel, you understand), words which simply had no meaning (“confusticate” and “bebother” come to mind; I was much vexed to find out that even dictionary wouldn’t explain the meaning of some words) and long-winded prose. Mainly, I admit, I liked the pictures. I couldn’t comprehend the minor, subtle plot-points, of course, but I got the essence–that a furry-toed and curly-haired little man goes to an adventure with his uninvited guests. If I say that I loved it, it would be an understatement of epic proportions. I lived it, I breathed it, I daydreamed it. “Adventure” became my favourite word in the language and I genuinely wished I could take part in adventures myself in real life and fight cunning, fire-breathing dragons.

My adoration for the book was so much that I started keeping it beside my pillow every night. I liked the very feel of it. By that time I’d read it several times and the book had acquired what I would call the “overused” look. The cover page featuring Bilbo Baggins (the titular character) was tattered and smudged almost beyond recognition, pages had yellowed and even its binding had begun to come apart. Still, I cherished it. You know why? Because many of my sweetest childhood memories were associated with it. I found it hard to relinquish it and forget my childhood.

So… Are you beginning to see the point? My biggest problem with eBooks is also their greatest advantage—they are not physical, they don’t actually exist, thus you don’t get fond with them like you do with good-old paper-books. But it also makes carrying your favourite books with you a piece of cake. After all, it’s just one device.

Every book (the paper ones) in my personal library is different, every book has its own unique appearance–a personality, as it were. And I love every book for what it is, like you love your siblings or lover for all their inherent flaws.

Let me make it more clear: a classic you read in your childhood might be so moth-eaten as to be almost unreadable, while a new book you purchased a week before would be all flashy and glossy. These two books are totally different in terms of appearance and likely their content is quite dissimilar too. But you care for both of them—first book, because it is like that childhood friend you played with, grew up with, and you can’t just let go of something precious like that; second book, because it is an exciting read and it’s nice to have a new friend.

This familiar bond is what I’m primarily missing whilst reading on Kindle. In Kindle, a book is a just an entry in the list of books—nothing else to tell them apart. No personality here. In May last year, I wrote a piece in which I listed the advantages and disadvantages of Kindle (and pretty much every other e-ink based reader) over good ol’ paper-books.

I think e-ink and paper can and should co-exist. I use both eBooks and paper-books extensively. When in home, I prefer paper-books almost always. There the question of portability does not arise, as I can sit and leaf about whole day in my “library room”. Whilst travelling, though, Kindle becomes invaluable. It is diminutive, wonderfully light and well-built. I can squeeze it in my laptop bag and read any book I like among hundreds of pre-downloaded eBooks on the device.

Hmm. But there is a matter of environment and all that—paper books are, obviously, less environment-friendly than ebooks. But if paper-books and, indeed, paper itself disappears altogether in future, as many people have predicted, I’m going to mourn its death. I’ve even got a lament ready in case it happens in my lifetime.

Book Review: “Dangerous Women”

Dangerous Women is an anthology of 21 short stories from genres like science fiction, fantasy, historical, horror, and so on. The collection is edited and piled up by the duo of George R.R. Martin and Gardener Dozois.

It aims to shatter an omnipresent stereotype in fiction. As we all know, the most female characters in literature are depicted as blushing women who are too weak to fight and need men to defend themselves against monsters.

Here, women are capable of fending off the monsters. Here, women are the monsters.

I was waiting for it quite enthusiastically since the moment I heard about it in Martin’s blog post. Primarily because of the promised short story authored by Martin himself and set in Westeros (for the most part). Our first taste of A Song of Ice and Fire since A Dance with Dragons! It already seems like ages since you read that book, doesn’t it?

But when it became available, hesitation began to dominate my thoughts. I mean, why should I buy a book of short stories just because I could read one of them (as it turned out, The Princess and the Queen was a full-length novella)? Especially something this expensive? You see, it costs $19.50. To give you an idea how steep that is, you can buy the whole A Song of Ice and Fire series for about $6 on the Kindle Store. Oddly enough, the Kindle edition of Dangerous Women costs even more than the hardcover: $21.16 (Rs. 1299.59).

Then, a friend – whose opinion I value and who had read the book even before me (imagine my outrage!) – told me that most of the stories in the book are fun, and she went on to utter other positive things about the book. Probably. Of course, I wasn’t listening anymore. I was rushing off to my laptop to order the book. Well, duh.

I rarely buy hardcover books. In addition to being more expensive, they are of little use to me. As a frequent traveller, I do most of my reading on Kindle while travelling or late at night when normal people sleep. Kindle’s portability and petite profile does come handy.

However, I am fond of hardcovers. They last longer. They look great. They feel great. And I like that solid sensation you get when a hardback book is lying on your lap, while you leisurely leaf around the pages with your right hand, sitting languidly on a high-backed chair with a cup of coffee in your left hand.

Uh oh. I admit, I went a bit too far in my fantasy. Apologies.

So… I ordered the book, received it, unravelled the package, saw the contents page and immediately skipped to the last story. Why, you ask? Read on.

“The Princess and the Queen” by George R.R. Martin

All right, the first story I read in the anthology was The Princess and the Queen (obviously). The story (or should we say novella) is actually located at the end of the book. A friend of mine was bemused to see me starting the book from the end. Well, I told him, I am not the most predictable of sorts anyway.

The Princess and the Queen recounts a terrible war (aren’t they all?) called Dance of the Dragons, which occurred 200 years ago before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire.

It is easily the longest story in the book and the most satisfying. It is narrated differently from Ice and Fire novels. We are told the story from a historian’s point-of-view (third-person, if you will). Hence, it reads like a history chapter, but one which is full of court-intrigue, conspiracies, betrayals and to top it all… dragon-battles.

Yes! You read that right! You finally see full-fledged confrontations of those gigantic reptiles in Westeros. Westeros of the era when dragons were paramount in determining the fate of every battle. Dragons are aplenty in the novella, and even the dragon of one of Aegon the Conqueror’s sisters makes an appearance. More than an appearance, really.

And blimey, aren’t those enfilades spectacular. Indeed, the titanic battles in The Princess and the Queen rival with that of scintillating sorcerous engagements I have come to love in Malazan Book of the Fallen books by Steven Erikson in terms of scale.

I can now safely say that Martin handles dragons very well. Let us hope to see similar epic stuff when Dany finally brings her dragons to Westeros. She will, won’t she?

As I said earlier, the story of novella is set 200 years ago before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire – so don’t expect Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister to suddenly pop-in. But Martin has done the characterisation bit in quite an adroit manner without being unnecessarily verbose. So, you won’t be complaining. Much. And once again, he makes it real hard to choose sides, as both sides in the war have their own justifications for their bad, very bad, terrible and downright evil acts.

Conflict arise when princess Rhaenyra is denied her rightful Iron Throne by her stepmother Queen Alicent, who places the crown on her eldest son’s head instead. As per her argument, a woman has no right to the throne, though she is aware that Rhaenyra had been declared the heir to the throne by Alicent’s husband and Rhaenyra’s father – Viserys I Targaryen – before his death.

And the war ensues. The war, called Dance of the Dragons for the apparent reason, is very much like War of the Five Kings. Except for the fact that it has dragons, of course.

All in all, The Princess and the Queen is a terrific read irrespective of whether you have or haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire. Irrespective even of your opinion of Martin’s magnum opus. Despite being set in the same universe, The Princess and the Queen is a very different story yet has all the goodness you would expect in a story penned by Martin’s pudgy hands. A truly absorbing experience which makes the entire anthology worth your money on its own. Well, almost.

“Some Desperado” by Joe Abercrombie

Ah, Joe, so meet again. You know, I love your books but, here, I expected something… more. Some Desperado by Joe Abercrombie is a short (read too short) story which takes place before the events of his latest book – Red Country. If you are familiar with the tome, you will perhaps remember that Shy South – the protagonist – had a bit of crime history and some experience of outlawry; it was alluded to quite a couple of times in the novel. But we were never explicitly told what exactly had happened.

Well, in Some Desperado, Joe tries to tell you just that. It is written well, no doubt. But the narration is tedious. Hardly anything happens throughout the story. Most of the plot consists of Shy reminiscing her miserable life, the current predicament, how she ended up where she has, and how to extricate herself from this mess. And so on.

She is being chased by three scoundrels. After arriving at an abandoned ramshackle town on a horse which is a shove away from death, she finally stops and decides to make a stand at the town and awaits her foes for the final battle.

The fight sequences which happen afterwards are fairly enjoyable. Not enough to be a saving grace, though. I personally think that if you haven’t read Abercrombie’s other books, you would like it more. I’m, I think, a little too accustomed to Abercrombie’s amazingly fast-paced storytelling.

“Nora’s Song” by Cecelia Holland

My favourite story in the collection after The Princess and the Queen. A heartbreakingly charming tale, Nora’s Song is set in the England as you know from the history books. The lords and ladies and all, you know. Our protagonist, Eleanor (nicknamed Nora), is the youngest daughter of the royal couple – the king and queen of England. Nora is reminiscent of Arya Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire – same badass nihilistic attitude, indignation at the fact that she can’t be a knight and disregard for personal hygiene.

The story is narrated from Nora’s eyes. Because of that, we don’t understand much of the important stuff, as it is too subtle for a child’s mind to discern. Some intrigues seem to take place between the king and the queen – the pair seem to despise each other for some unknown reason. That reason is never explained, though. But probably, that is exactly what Cecelia intended.

Nora feels helpless because of the restraints put on her by her parents. She wants to break free. Most of all, she wants to know what is happening between her parents.

A very sad and beautiful story. I have solemnly vowed to myself that I will look up Cecelia Holland’s books very soon. If Nora’s Song is any indication, she is surely the kind of author I am going to love.

Okay… Dangerous Women is a huge collection and I can’t review all of the stories here. But I can frankly say this: even though the stories are from disparate genres, and have little in common, almost all of them are worth your time and money. GRRM fans will buy this anyway to get their hands on an another fantastic addition to A Song of Ice and Fire saga.

Rating: 4.5/5