Thursday, April 12, 2012

Star Ratings on This Blog

A quick note about star ratings on this blog: they are entirely subjective, obviously, and not even necessarily internally consistent. However, the general guidelines are below.

Below one star: Trash.

One star: Filled with hatred.

Two stars: Indifferent.

Three stars: Good.

Four stars: Very good.

Five stars: Unicorns carrying gifts of Belgian chocolate and single-malt Scotch leapt out of a supernova when I read this.

Most importantly, when I give something a within-genre star rating and an overall star rating, no disrespect is meant to the genre in question. In fact, I may have higher genre standards in some cases. But I don't like comparing apples and oranges, and a solidly entertaining space opera probably shouldn't be judged on the same criteria as a solidly entertaining 19th century English mill-town drama.

A Dance with Dragons

My last post got me thinking about George R.R. Martin and his ever-extending series, A Song of Ice and Fire. It also got me thinking about how much (figuratively, for any lawyers who may be reading) I'd like to set Martin's beard on fire, and then club him over the head with one of those ten-pound ice bags you get at the grocery store. This would 1) be a public service, 2) be deeply and poetically satisfying, and 3) give me a chance to ask him, in his woozy state, if he uses his two middle initials out of a conscious desire to subliminally remind people of J.R.R. Tolkien or just out of sheer pretentiousness.

Alert readers may be sensing some hostility. Allow me to explain. (Also, anyone who has no interest in this series, you may as well tune out now. I'm about to preach, if not to the choir, then at least to a particular congregation.)

I acquired the first book of the series, A Game of Thrones, in a northern California Borders*; it was purchased for me by a dear friend, as we waited for my transportation home to arrive, after a night of rum-soaked antics that shall remain shrouded in the mists of time and bad judgment. That book was every bit as fun as promised by said hung over friend. So the first book, in short, was memorable.

The next three books in the series were also fun (big disclaimer on book four, though, see below), although I think I may already have mentioned, once or twice, how much I despise the overuse of multiple viewpoint characters as a cheap and clumsy way to get around an author's inability to properly use third-person omniscient POV. No? Well, I've mentioned it now. I'm certain I've complained about multiple viewpoint characters before, ahem, Robert Jordan.

Well, as far as viewpoint character abuse goes, A Dance with Dragons takes the flaming icebiscuit. Book four, A Feast for Crows, featured every single character that no readers in their right minds give a damn about. I'm not going to mention any of those characters, because I don't even remember their names I care so little. Every single interesting, entertaining, or important character was left for book five, which covers the same chronological ground as book four. Why, you might rationally ask, is this? Are the events of books four and five so stunningly exciting, so metaphysically complex, as to warrant the whopping 1743 pages devoted to them in the two books together? I'm asking the same thing. The simple answer is no.**

All the same, A Dance with Dragons. Long-awaited and overrated, it now sits upon my shelf as a mute, hardbound reminder of thirty-plus dollars Martin's probably using right now to light his cigars with*** or something. I was so excited about that book. Tyrion Lannister! Jon Snow! Arya Stark! Daenerys Targaryen! Other people with long and complicated names! Assassinations, mayhem, dragons, white walkers, and witticisms ahoy!

I got the book. I cracked it open, prepared to finally, finally be recompensed for the years I spent waiting for book four - waiting that culminated in throwing book four across the room, picking it up again, slogging through it annoyed at every turn, and then spending more years waiting for book five.

Gentle readers, I got about twenty pages into A Dance with Dragons. Then I started skipping ahead. I read a chapter here and there. I skipped some more. I looked particularly for Tyrion's chapters, and although I won't offer any spoilers, um . . . if you've read it, I need not comment. As far as I can tell, Martin gave every single one of his characters a full frontal lobotomy, because if he'd just changed their names, I'd have had no idea they were the same people. Not everyone's going to agree with me on that, but then, a lot of people watch American Idol, too.**** The book sucked. Sorry.

Then, moving on to Big Problem Two, beyond the plot and characterization issues that account, primarily, for how much the book - again - sucked. I try to keep the language to a minimum on this blog, mainly because my mom reads it. (Mom, look away in a moment if you must.) But in general, I don't object to profanity - in fact, anyone reading this who knows me is now laughing hysterically. Gritty, dark fantasy is great, and hey, I was raised with video games and action movies. The more sex and gratuitous violence, in general, the better, when it comes to this kind of entertainment. I laughed my way through Cannibal Holocaust.

With the proper disclaimers in place, A Dance with Dragons was needlessly vulgar. (Please picture me raising one pinky delicately in the air as I sip my tea.) No one has sex, goes to bed together, or - God forbid - makes love. They FUCK. Yeah, man, how gritty am I if all my characters fuck all the time? Whoa, subversive. I'm so turned on right now . . .

Oh, sorry, I think George R.R. Martin stole my keyboard for a sec. But really, when two characters, presented as madly in love, steal a few moments to show how much they care, and they lay down on satin cushions and say, "My darling, I adore you" or suchlike . . . and then they fuck!!!! Fuck hard! Seriously, it's absurd. It's so ridiculously overused - people fuck in this book almost as often as they shit in inappropriate places (like, in the book, while the readers/audience are present). Does Martin get an extra royalty check every time he uses a four-letter word? Or does he just watch too much German porn? Both? Because with all the shitting in this book, I'm wondering if Charmin sponsored the hardback edition. At least if I run out of Charmin anytime soon, I know I have some paper in reserve. One fucking star.

* Let's all take a moment of silence.

** Although I have considered one other possible answer to the conundrum of why Martin split the book into two.

*** I wish I could hope he's using it to hire a new editor.

**** Yes, I meant that to be just as condescending as it sounded.

Games of Command

Well, folks, it's what you've all been waiting for (knowingly or not): Space Opera Week! So all aboard the United Galactic Allied Confederation Coalition Conclave Empire starship I.R. Vwxyz*, as we head out to distant quadrants of space where the population of telepathic space-cats exceeds that of all other demographics combined.

In all ways, Linnea Sinclair's Games of Command is a worthy kick-off to Space Opera Week**. Every trope we've come to expect and love is present: two vaguely differentiated space-governments (in this case, one United Confederation and one Empire) who have, after long years of war, formed an uneasy Alliance against an ill-defined third group with lots of vowels in their name; telepaths; telepathic space-cats who aren't called cats, yet look and behave, except for the telepathy, precisely like cats; a kick-ass fleet officer heroine with a shady past; and things that explode. Anyone who's read David Weber's Honor Harrington series will no doubt feel themselves on familiar ground.

Games of Command has a couple of things going for it that Weber's series does not, however. First off, it's not a series. I know, I know, when you like a book, it's great when there are more of them. But I draw the line (usually) at three or four, and Weber - like Robert Jordan, or George R.R. Martin***, or so many other sci-fi/fantasy authors - just doesn't know when to stop. Once no one can remember which of your many books they're reading, because final battles really do tend to all blur together after a while, thanks, that's time. Games of Command is a stand-alone.

Next, the romance is better. That's to be expected, since I'm pretty sure purists would classify the HH books as military sci-fi and G of C as sci-fi/romance, but come on, Weber. Dude. The wife in a wheelchair giving her saintly blessing?**** That was where I not only got off the Harrington space-train, but flung myself headlong out of the airlock into melodrama-free hard vacuum.

So, sorry for that digression. The romance is better. I'm a sucker for the unrequited love story, either because it builds good narrative tension from the get-go, because I'm incredibly sick of love-at-first-sight in romances, or because miserable characters are more fun to read about than happy ones, take your pick. The secondary love story is unfortunately more of the, "Oh hai, we've known each other for five minutes, but we have a deep spiritual connection, obviously, so let's bang" variety, but I can forgive that for the strong primary plot.

That primary story follows Tasha Sebastian, the aforementioned kick-ass fleet captain heroine babe, and Admiral Kel-Paten, a biocybernetic badass who's programmed to be incapable of emotion (and yes, we all can predict how that works out - space-love conquers all computer programming; it's an immutable law). They were on opposite sides during the war; come the Alliance of the United Confederation and the Empire, they're together on the admiral's flagship when evil psi-aliens ally with some other evil guys to do evil stuff. Stuff blows up, telepathic space-cats do cute and useful stuff, and other stuff happens, and then there's some pretty good sex in there somewhere.

That's really all the synopsis needed. If you like relatively generic space opera that's written very competently and provides the requisite couple of hours of escapist entertainment, then this one is right up your space-alley. (That came out sounding a little more suggestive than I intended.) Three stars within the space opera genre.

* Please rearrange in whatever order pleases you, and season to taste with vowels and/or apostrophes.

** Which will realistically be more like three or four posts over the next month. I know myself.

*** Post coming soon.

**** Sorry for the spoilers, anyone who hasn't read the HH books and wants to, but honestly - if you start from the beginning, by the time you get to the point in the series I'm referencing you will remember neither what I'm talking about nor, I expect, anything else. You will be spending too much mental energy trying desperately to remember what happened in the last twelve books, so that you can pretend you still know or care what's happening in the one in your hand.