Sunday, May 26, 2019


Going through extreme Game of Thrones withdrawal? Looking for a new series to staunch your post-partum misery?

How about a dip — better yet, a dive — into the robust and complex fantasy books of Robin Hobb?

I read the first book in Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy way back in 2013. I loved the craftsmanship with which she created her fantasy world of seafaring Trader families and their sentient "liveships," her intricate plotting, and her richly developed characters. Her world is less brutal, but no less epic than those of George R. R. Martin, her colleague in the fantasy trade.

These formidable books are long, however, and while the stories were unresolved at the end of the first book, I could never commit the time required to start in on the next book.

But even though I've read (and written!) many other books in the intervening years, Hobb's characters and their stories have really stuck with me. Especially my favorite character from the first book,  Ship Of Magic, the liveship Paragon.

Long beached and abandoned on the shores of the commercial center of Bingtown, he provided shelter and occasional wry companionship for the few human characters bold enough to befriend him. He'd been forsaken by his Trader family and nicknamed "Pariah" after he inexplicably turned rogue on one voyage and was responsible for the death of his crew.

A supporting, almost a peripheral character in the first book, Paragon is central to the plot of Mad Ship, the second installment, which I finally picked up earlier this year. The title, of course, refers to him.

Matriarch Ronica Vestrit and her Trader family face ruin when the family liveship, Vivacia (through the incompetent stewardship of her greedy, tyrannical son-in-law), falls into the hands of the notorious pirate, Kennit, who begins to bond with the impressionable young ship in alarming ways.

The Vestrit clan launches a desperate rescue mission aboard the Paragon, with seafaring heroine Althea Vestrit as second mate to the captain, Brashen Trell, disgraced and disowned son of another prominent Trader family, and a disreputable crew of Bingtown wharf rats.

Althea (to whom Vivacia had been promised until her brother-in-law took over), Brashen, and, of course, Paragon, all have something to prove.

At a book event in 2014: Adventurers in the fantasy trade
Most intriguing in this installment is how the origin of the liveships is gradually and masterfully revealed, where their consciousness comes from, and what effect this revelation will have on the various plot threads — and especially on Paragon, becoming more attuned than anyone else to the potent collective memory of the liveships, so long submerged.

I'm not rooting for the pirate in this one — surprise! Kennit seemed too much like the standard, comic-opera pirate villain in the first book, although his actions are now integral to the larger plot. But all the various story arcs are interesting. (Even spoiled, insufferable Malta Vestrit, a character I cheerfully loathed in the first book, may prove to be redeemable.)

I'm so glad I finally made the time to catch up with this installment. The plots are still unresolved, but yes, I have the third book, Ship Of Destiny on order as we speak!

(Did I mention there are dragons? But we don't find out about them until Book 2, so keep reading!)

Monday, May 13, 2019


Okay, here's the thing about Game of Thrones: George R. R. Martin has not even finished writing the sixth and last book of the series yet.

Everything that's happened on the TV adaptation for the last season and a half has been cobbled together by the showrunners and their scriptwriters.

Granted, Martin is their chief consultant and guru on the show. We assume he is shaping the narrative to some degree as the show thunders toward its grand finale next week, giving his team the general idea of where the story is headed.

But how closely does it have to hew to the book Martin is actually writing?

Think about it: If Martin is like most writers with a publication date looming, he's still tinkering with plot details and narrative choices. He may think he knows where he's going, but still deciding the best way to get there.

Martin's ouvre has taken on a life of its own.
Then along comes the TV adaptation, wending its way through Martin's first five A Song of Ice and Fire novels, which becomes a freakin' global phenomenon and earns Martin an audience of untold gazillions — every single one of whom develops very particular ideas about how their favorite character or storyline should go.

What's an author to do?

You know what they say about pleasing all of the people all of the time. So, for the sake of sanity, most authors try to write for the only audience that matters — themselves. (Or a least their inner editors.)

But with an audience as massive as Martin's now is, ready to scrutinize every semi-colon, he's got to be feeling the pressure. Meanwhile, the TV series gallops along at it's own breakneck pace.

But it could work to Martin's advantage. He now has a worldwide supply of beta-readers (okay, beta-watchers) eager to point their thumbs up or down over each new revelation that flickers across their screens. Social media explodes like dragon fire the minute after each new episode is aired.

George R. R. Martin: who's writing this thing anyway?
So Martin is in a unique position to gauge how his narrative choices are playing out before he actually commits them to a published book.

Not that he will necessarily adapt his novel-in-progress according to what plays on social media — nor should he.  Anyone who cheerfully kills off his nominal hero at the end of the first book in a six-book series doesn't exactly fall into the crowd-pleaser category.

But with public outcry (not to say outrage) reaching fever pitch at each new plot twist revealed on the show, he now he faces the kind of integrity test that has so often challenged his characters over the last eight seasons.

Will he do the right thing, according to his own perverse instincts? Or will he strive — for once — to give the people what they demand?

Stay tuned . . .

Sunday, May 12, 2019


Fantasy author's formative years, obsessions, explored in Tolkien

When movies are made about real people — especially creative artists — it's always interesting to see what aspect of a life the filmmakers choose to spotlight. Will the focus be on a singular event in the subject's life to build a story around? Or will the movie try to suggest in dramatic terms what inspired the subject's work?

In the atmospheric Tolkien, a movie about the celebrated fantasy author who gave us The Hobbit, and The Lord Of the Rings, these two approaches are the same thing. The movie begins in the horrific trenches of The Somme, in France, during World War I, a setting to which it keeps returning throughout the film.

The devastation of warfare was certainly the most singular event in J. R. R. Tolkien's life as a young man, but it also inspired him to create the epic battle between good and evil that occupies the Rings trilogy.

Directed by Dome Karukoski, from a script by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, Tolkien tries hard to elide the author's experiences as a schoolboy, an Oxford student, and a soldier into the larger themes of quests, courage and fellowship that would dominate his later work. The filmmakers are largely successful at this; their workmanlike approach doesn't always create a lot of deep resonance, but it's a satisfying look at the gestation of the creative process.

J. R. R. Tolkien's dust jacket design for The Hobbit, 1937
This is not a portrait of the artist writing in a fever of inspiration. Instead, Tolkien (played as an adult by Nichols Hoult) is depicted as a man of very methodical, intersecting obsessions, writing stories, and developing complex language systems for his own amusement. He also sketches almost constantly: fantasy landscapes, menacing figures emerging out of the shadows, dragons. (Tolkien himself provided watercolor paintings for the dust jackets and endpapers of many early editions of his work.)

The director's thoughtful approach may drag a little in the midsection, but his themes line up with Tolkien's stated purpose to explore "the journeys we take to prove ourselves."
(Read more)