The Stiehl Assassin Review

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog
Terry Brooks’s Shannara series is legendary.

In the ’70s, a young Brooks built upon the foundation laid by J.R.R. Tolkien, Katherine Kurtz, and Michael Moorcock and revitalized epic fantasy with the release of The Sword of Shannara—reintroducing the genre to a mass audience and finding immense commercial success. Where writers like Moorcock and Stephen R. Donaldson deconstructed and subverted Tolkien’s pastiche, Brooks leaned hard into the idea of young heroes, journeys of self discovery, and good versus evil, and over the past forty years, Shannara has become a most ubiquitous epic fantasy. Since 2000, Brooks has published a Shannara novel every year (with the exception of 2009), providing fans with one of the most reliable and consistent reading experiences in the genre.

The Shannara series is split into nearly a dozen smaller standalone novels and multivolume series, each telling a self-contained narrative within a larger multi-generational epic about the clash between magic and science. Since the events of The Sword of Shannara, the series has covered nearly 3,000 years worth of history, and readers have had the unique pleasure of watching the Four Lands transform from a pastoral, faux-medieval fantasyland into a sprawling, multinational continent with airships dotting the skies, soldiers who wield gun-like energy weapons, and science-driven progress moving humanity closer and closer to the pre-Great War era. Few authors have tackled the social, political, and scientific evolution of a fantasy world as thoroughly as Brooks.

A few years ago, Brooks announced that he was working toward the end of Shannara—chronologically anyway. He’ll still write Shannara novels, but they’ll take place during the unexplored periods of the series’ vast timeline, rather than moving things forward into the future. From hints in the early books to more explicit development in later novels, Shannara has always been about the inevitable confrontation between science and magic. The Fall of Shannara promises an end, once and for all revealing whether the Four Lands will repeat their forebears’s mistakes, or move past them toward something greater.

The Black Elfstone, the first of four volumes in the Shannara finale, is a rip-roaring adventure that perfectly melds Brooks’s older, more epic style with his modern themes and blazing pace. It introduces a new threat to the Four Lands: the invading Skaar army, whose mysterious magic appeared insurmountable, led by a mysterious, powerful woman named Ajin d’Amphere. Opposite the Skaar, struggling to find a balance between the invading army and the notoriously magic-intolerant Federation, is Drisker Arc, a reluctant Druid (a Brooks staple), a young woman born with wishsong magic (another Brooks staple), and a brave warrior with a magic sword (another Brooks staple) whose sole purpose is to protect the Druid order from its enemies. The Skaar Invasion is a worthy follow-up, expanding on the scope and epic promises of the first volume in satisfying and unexpected ways.

Now arrives The Stiehl Assassin, the third and penultimate volume in the series’ timeline. Like its predecessors, it feels suitably broad and epic—the Four Lands and beyond seem larger than ever before. The implications of the clash between the Four Lands’s defenders, the invading Skaar, and an unexpected adversary dredged up from the series’ past feel more consequential than anything Brooks has written since The Heritage of Shannara in the early ’90s.

Drisker Arc has returned Paranor to the Four Lands. His adversary, a clever Druid named Clizia Porse, seeks an alliance with the Skaar while plotting Drisker’s downfall, with the infamous Stiehl—a dagger with the magical ability to cut through any object and kill any living thing—clutched in her bloody fist. Tarsha Kaynin seeks redemption and healing for her brother Tavo. Meanwhile, Darcon Leah and Ajin d’Amphere continue their dance on opposite sides of the world-changing conflict.

Reading above, its easy to see all of Brooks favorite building blocks and character archetypes are present in The Stiehl Assassin. The familiarity won’t surprise longtime readers, but Brooks deserves credit for being unafraid to fill archetypal roles with unlikely characters. Here, the titular assassin is an old woman, while the leader of the invading army is a young woman, her force divided between male and female soldiers. Brooks has always done a good job of filling his background characters with people of both genders—though he has yet to reach beyond the gender binary—and Drisker’s most powerful antagonist is an ambitious woman with magic beyond reckoning.

As a whole, The Fall of Shannara is about an invasion by a foreign enemy, and it feels like a missed opportunity that Brooks didn’t choose to introduce a more interesting and diverse culture to the Four Lands. The Skaar are a white, Eurocentric nation not much different from the Federation they’re fighting. They even come from a continent called Eurodia. Shannara has always featured various races, but its Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, and Gnomes have often felt like little more than humans with makeup when it comes to their behavior, culture, and socio-political makeup. The Skaar could have been an opportunity to introduce something entirely new—perhaps drawing inspiration from one of humanity’s many under-utilized cultures.

The Stiehl Assassin might be the penultimate Shannara volume—with all the expected portentous plot developments and promises of what’s to come—but it also does an excellent job of exploring the series’s long history, bringing familiar, well-loved elements to the foreground in interesting ways. Brooks has been ever-keen on exploring the Four Lands’s mythology and history, often rearranging pieces in different ways to see how they play off each other, but rarely so effectively as here. It’s a reward for longtime readers, and a carrot for new readers, who are invited to delve into the older volumes to discover the origins of the historic talismans, characters, and events that ripple throughout the entire series.

The Stiehl Assassin is one of Brooks’s more overtly political novels. As the Skaar look for a new home in the Four Lands, Brooks continues to directly tackle issues like climate change and the way societies often meet those fleeing their deadly homelands with walls and armies instead of open arms and aid. More subtly, he skewers corruption in government, colonization, and how even those in positions of authority are undermined by the nations they serve.

By the end of The Stiehl Assassin, the stage is set for a conclusion larger and more epic than anything readers have seen from Brooks in over two decades. It’s a return to his former style—a large story of conflict affecting the entirety of the Four Lands. Brooks filled the first two volumes of The Fall of Shannara with several seemingly unrelated plot threads, and it’s immensely satisfying to see them collide in The Stiehl Assassin, establishing sky high stakes for the novel that will bring an end to the decades-long Shannara series.

The Stiehl Assassin is available now in a signed edition from Barnes & Noble. 

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15 Epic Fantasies That Stick the Landing

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

For some reason, everyone is talking today about how important it is to nail the ending of an epic fantasy series. We can’t quite figure out why, but it sure is a fascinating topic. Epic fantasy faces challenges other genres don’t; while there are plenty of long and complex stories in literature, only epic fantasies have to explain magic systems, invent cultures wholesale, and keep track of a huge list of characters—often across three or seven or 14 books.

But, hey, if it was easy to write an epic fantasy—and especially to end one in satisfying fashion—we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Certainly there are plenty of books and series that end on a satisfying note—like the 15 listed here. We’re not claiming these are the only epic fantasies that end well—but they’re some of our favorite examples.

The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin stands with the most important working SFF writers for many reasons, not the least of which because her work displays a perfect combination of ambition and ability. Her books blends sci-fi and epic fantasy concepts with gritty and realistically-portrayed character relationships in a way that is thoroughly modern, while her technical flourishes—playing with point-of-view and second person narration—are deployed so confidently, readers don’t even realize just how hard they are to pull off. All three books in the Broken Earth trilogy won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and the finale, The Stone Sky, stands as one of the most satisfying endings in fantasy history. After slowly and skillfully revealing the secrets of her world—a possible far-future Earth in which all of humanity survives on a single continent that is wracked by periodic apocalyptic events known as the Seasons and the sky is marked by the floating remnants of a past civilizationin the form of mysterious Obelisks—Jemisin hits the gas early in the third book, racing from earned reveal to earned character resolution in a rush of ecstatic storytelling. Best of all, she holds back one final satisfying secret until the very last, demonstrating an incredible level of control over her story.

The House War series, by Michelle West
The House War series is an outgrowth of West’s Sun Sword series focusing on the character of Jewel Markess A’Terafin, and threads between that series and this one proliferate. You can read this series as a standalone, or allow yourself to be seduced into reading the rest of the books—there are no wrong answers here. Because this series tells the life story of a character who plays a big role in the other series—a character who can see the future, no less—West faced a special challenge: the resolution had to make sense in the larger context of both series, but she was also constrained by events described in the other books. The final book of the series (which was split into two when it metastasized in the writing) manages to pull everything together more or less perfectly.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, by Tad Williams
Legend has it that this foundational trilogy by Tad Williams—which recently begat a sequel series that in no way diminishes the achievements of this 30-year-old epic—is what convinced George R.R. Martin to flee a television writing career in Hollywood and begin writing what would become A Song of Ice and Fire. And though Williams’ books are certainly well-loved, it’s a bit of a shame that they’ve been mostly eclipsed by the efforts they inspired. Certainly Martin wasn’t the first writer to riff on the tropes Tolkein codified and Terry Brooks made mainstream. Truthfully, Williams wasn’t either, but he’s at least as good as GRRM at crafting a secondary world, and certainly more efficient at wrapping up a series. On the surface, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn sounds like a paint-by-numbers secondary world fantasy: there’s an ancient evil threatening the medieval-flavored land of Osten Ard, a boy with a mysterious past, a scrappy princess, an evil prince, a dying king, and more magic swords, dragons, elves, and dwarfs thank you can shake a wand at (even if they’re referred to by different names.) It never eschews these tropes—though at the time they were less codified. Instead, Williams’ trilogy feels like a surgically-precise dissection of the genre, from first page to last. It reads differently today, no doubt, but it more than holds up.

Mordant’s Need, by Stephen R. Donaldson
Donaldson’s other series get most of the attention, but let’s face it, the various Chronicles of Thomas Covenant don’t ever seem to actually end, do they? This duology, on the other hand, is tightly plotted and moves towards its conclusion with beautiful precision. It’s a surprising ending, but in no way a cheat. Set in a world where mirrors are the key to magic, with a protagonist who spends much of the story painfully passive, it’s a character-driven story in which each major player has an arc and an evolution that sees them stepping into the roles necessary for the climax to play out in a satisfying fashion. Donaldson plays a great trick on readers who are used to rooting for a “chosen one” character, setting up several possible heroes of destiny while the real story slowly unfolds in the background. The result is an ending that clicks into place with a satisfaction akin to finding a puzzle piece you didn’t even know you were missing.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen, by Steven Erickson
Born out of plans for an expansive role-playing game, Steven Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is the epic fantasy reader’s epic fantasy, and often suggested (on Reddit, at least) as the best and most ambitious fantasy saga of all time. It’s a dense, challenging, and unforgiving series, dropping you headfirst into a frantic battle that is just one small skirmish in a vast conflict that stretches backward and forward in time and across a massive world filled with all varieties of magic, monsters, and living gods. It starts big and just gets bigger from there. The final book in the main series, The Crippled God, has its work cut out for it, yet somehow manages to tie off every single dangling thread readers might be wondering about—plus a few they might be surprised to discover were important in the first place. The final third of the book is just a series of one incredible battle after another, an ebb and flow of tension and release that carries you all the way to a note-perfect finale.

The Riddle-Master, by Patricia A. McKillip
It’s hard enough to finish a fantasy series. It’s just as hard to pull off a truly surprising twist. It’s nearly impossible to pull off said twist in the final book of the series without making everything that comes before seem like either a cheat or in need of serious retconning. But McKillip does it, and so skillfully that you can reread whole series and appreciate it more for the pleasure of discovering the clues she littered throughout, and the structure she subtly built up to sell the twist. Set in a fantasy universe where the rulers of respective nations have a mystical connection to their realm, which ostensibly exists under the dominion of a mysterious High One, this series doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.

The Scavenger Trilogy, by K.J. Parker
Parker’s complicated fantasy, set in an empire stressed by external raiders and internal conspiracies, requires your full attention—not least because by the second book, the twists start coming fast and furious. At the outset, the main character, Poldarn, wakes up on a battlefield with no memory. Given the name of a god by a woman he meets, Poldarn begins to suspect whoever he is, he’s not a very good person—and that he might be famous, or at least infamous, extremely important, and possibly destined to bring on the end of the world. The final book, Memory, piles on the revelations skillfully while managing to leave just a hint of mystery behind, ensuring the world remains fascinating through multiple rereads. Parker’s name has become synonymous with unreliable narrators, and this series certainly fits the bill there, but the payoff never feels like a cheat.

The Dagger and the Coin, by Daniel Abraham
Daniel Abraham actually has two series that would fit perfectly on this list, but this blog has already covered the other one—The Long Price Quartet—at some length, so we’re going with this almost as impressive followup. If Long Price was Abraham’s attempt to craft an atypical epic fantasy, The Dagger and the Coin is his attempt to perfect the more traditional form. All the tropes are here, from plucky orphans who rise to positions of power, to gods that mettle in mortal affairs, to ruling despots who strike fear into the hearts of their suspects. But even when he’s using all the usual toys, Abraham refuses to play by the rules. His chosen one hero is a girl who exercises her might by manipulating coin rather than wielding a blade. His evil ruler is a booksmart, physically unimposing geek who is seduced by power and falls prey to his own ego and insecurities. His dark gods may or may not be real, and his dragons are long gone from the world, which is still shaped by their influence. In the fifth book, The Spider’s War, the saga reaches a truly magnificent conclusion; if anything, the satisfying scope of the action is overmatched by the emotional catharsis you’ll receive from following his damaged, headstrong, all-too-human characters to their fitting ends.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold
You don’t need multiple books to make an epic, and a great ending is a great ending, so we’re going to call out the finale of The Curse of Chalion, a novel that can be enjoyed as a standalone adventure, or in tandem with the loosely connected sequel set in the same world (Paladin of Souls, which is itself a great standalone adventure with a wonderful ending). Both the story and universe of The Curse of Chalion are fully fleshed out, however, and you don’t need to read the second volume to be satisfied (though you’ll undoubtedly want to anyway). Based loosely on our world’s history, Bujold’s second foray into epic fantasy tells the tale of Caz, a knight of Chalion, who returns home from a disastrous war campaign burdened by betrayal and longing only for peace and rest—but instead finds himself drawn into the mystery of the curse that has doomed the royal family. Filled with vivid characters and the sort of inversions and subversions of fantasy tropes that fans of A Song of Ice and Fire will appreciate, The Curse of Chalion does it all—and in less than 500 pages.

The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
This one makes the list for two reasons. Not only does the fourteenth volume of The Wheel of Time, A Memory of Light, bring the saga of “Dragon Reborn” Rand al’Thor and his companions’ fight against the Dark One—the force of ultimate evil in the universe—to a suitably epic and emotional end, it does so even though it was written after the death of the series’ original author. When he was chosen to work through the notes and outlines left behind by Robert Jordan after his untimely passing, Brandon Sanderson faced a seemingly impossible task. Jordan himself had struggled to bring his ever-expanding epic in for a landing; how could any other author even attempt such a thing? Yet impossibly, Sanderson did, managing to tie off plot threads scattered across a dozen earlier books and provide mostly satisfying conclusions to an army’s worth of character arcs while also attempting to mirror the style of another author. And sure, it took him three 1,000-page books instead of the one he (and Jordan) had originally planned, but considering the stakes—would The Wheel of Time become an epic for the ages or a cautionary tale about the dangers of outsized authorial ambition?—it’s hard to imagine a better ending.

The Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson also deserves credit for his ability to end his own stories well. Certainly he is one of the most influential modern writers of epic fantasy, and for two basic reasons: one, he’s a master of craft, most notably in his detailed worldbuilding and his development of rigorous magic systems (the system in this series, Allomancy, involves the manipulation of ingested metals that give users superhuman abilities; it’s part of a larger meta-system Sanderson has been slowly revealing for years across multiple vaguely related series). Two, he’s so good at pulling off plot twists, it’s almost spooky. Mistborn deploys a lot of classic fantasy tropes in new ways, including the age-old idea of the ancient prophecy that will determine the fate of the world—and the way he reveals the full ramifications of that prophecy in the final book of the trilogy is nothing short of genius. Everything you thought was wrong, but in gloriously right ways, and as the mysteries that have plagued the characters over the course of three increasingly fat volumes fall into place, you realize the story is even bigger than you thought.

The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
In epic fantasy, it doesn’t get much better than when a book delivers really good dragons. Sure, elves are cool, as are magic rings, and mighty warriors, and kings of destiny, but… dragons are the best. Robin Hobb is a good friend of George R.R. Martin, and at least as skilled at deploying dragons effectively. What’s great about the ending of the Farseer trilogy (which, satisfying as it is, isn’t really the ending—the trilogy is followed by many more books in related and sequel series)—aside from, you know, the presence of an army of dragons that arrives via most unusual means—is the rich emotion beneath the spectacle, as the main characters each gets a moment to shine. The protagonist, FitzChivalry Farseer, is far from a perfect hero and endures more failure than most fictional characters would be able to withstand, a fact that makes his final triumph all the sweeter. This story of assassins doesn’t end with gratuitous violence or a sudden heel turn, opting instead for an intelligent and compassionate application of magic.

The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, by Brian Staveley
This recent, under-the-radar series is modern epic fantasy at its best. It’s a tale of political intrigue, war, rebellion, gods, monks, fighters, and family, with a thoroughly constructed world and fully realized characters. It’s a coming of age tale that follows the three children of a recently assassinated emperor: Kaden, the heir who’s gone to study with monks; Valyn, who has joined the Kettral, an elite military force that trains with and flies around on huge hawks; and Adare, the emperor’s only daughter, who fights to keep her father’s empire from crumbling from within as the Minister of Finance. But it’s also not just about the hardships these three face; it’s also about a greater war that’s been waged for centuries, a war all three of them are thrust into as the unwitting pawns of an ancient race of immortal beings. It’s incredibly difficult to create a world as expansive as this one, and harder still to neatly tie off so many disparate narrative threads. Staveley does a fantastic job of it.

Kushiel’s Legacy, by Jacqueline Carey
Carey is another author who has returned multiple times to the same fantasy setting, producing a trilogy of trilogies that explore different points on the timeline. When is comes to her Kushiel series, which began with 2001’s Kushiel’s Dart, you needn’t read all nine volumes to be truly satisfied. The ending she reaches with book three closes out the story of protagonist Phèdre nó Delaunay de Montrève—a courtesan in service to a god who inhabits a complex world inspired by Renaissance France—in a manner approaching perfection. In her youth, Phèdre, a girl with an “ill-luck name,” sold into indentured servitude in the Night Court, high-end pleasure houses catering to specialized sexual proclivities. However, she has a greater destiny as an anguissette, a chosen of a god, who is given the power (and the task) to experience pain as pleasure. This status vaults her into a position of political import, and it soon becomes apparent that the still waters of her supposedly peaceful nation conceal plots, desires, and ambitions, and a vast conspiracy with the potential to bring the whole of society down. Phèdre sets off down a road that crosses a dozen countries and a dozen years, endures multiple periods of slavery and torture, and participates on a full-scale war in her quest to keep her country together. Delivered in Carey’s poetic prose, it’s a story as much about sex and intrigue as one woman’s coming of age.

Blackdog, by K. Johansen
The notion of deities and demons having a corporeal existence in a fantasy world isn’t a new one, but Johansen’s novel takes a different approach: while most of the gods and goddesses in this world remain in “spirit” form unless invoked or interacted with by mortals, one goddess chooses to inhabit the body of a human girl from birth to death, repeating the process again and again. She begins each cycle as a fragile youth, and as the book begins, a duplicitous wizard arrives with an army at his back and plans to capture and enslave her, throwing the world into chaos. Richly observed, excitingly plotted, and crammed with world-building detail, Blackdog is a fantastic, satisfying, and entirely self-contained adventure.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
And yes, last but certainly not least is the mother of all modern epics. Look, The Lord of the Rings winds up on 95 percent of literary listicles for a reason. Aside from being one of the foundational works in the genre, it’s also timeless, even as writers that followed it have riffed on or subverted (hello, GRRM) the tropes Tolkien established here—and much of that has to do with the pitch-perfect ending. At the close, all the kings and warriors and wizards of Middle Earth are no match for Sauron and his evil minions, but a pair of desperately tired halflings and an ancient, ruined creature whose universe has narrowed to a single object somehow defeat him—by failing. Not only are all the characters true to themselves to the end, but all of the plot threads converge elegantly, reaching a suitably epic climax and following it up with a lengthy denouement (the scouring of the shire; the sad partings) that ensures the larger themes hit home.

Ardi Alspach contributed to this post.

What’s your favorite ending in epic fantasy?

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The Game of Thrones Awards, Season 8, Episode 6: End of Watch

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Greetings, and welcome! My name is Ben, and you have stumbled upon the ONLY Game of Thrones recap on the entire internet. Week to week I will be breaking down each episode of season  8, giving out highly prestigious awards, and wrapping everything up with a haiku.

Season 8, Episode 6: “The Iron Throne”

As I read the last few sentences of Stephen King’s epic seven-book Dark Tower series, I found myself feeling rather dejected. After thousands of pages, dozens of well crafted characters, and some of the most interesting lore I’d ever come across, I could only think… is that all there is? A series I’d been following for decades was over, leaving me with only a litany of complaints about everything from characterization to the pacing.

At the time, I think I lacked a bit of perspective on just how incredibly difficult it is to wrap up a story so sprawling. I don’t want to give Benioff and Weiss (and George R.R. Martin, if some of these same shortcomings aren’t corrected on the page) a pass for some of narrative choices made these last two seasons, but ending Game of Thrones was always going to be a problem. The show has always been at its best when it puts its characters into a room and lets them explore their experiences. When you are writing a story that involves dragons and battle, the endgame is naturally going to involve more fire and swords than dialogue. I always suspected that this show was destined to let a lot of us down in the end. The decision to condense these last two seasons from twenty episodes into thirteen certainly now strikes me as not only the wrong one, but a sign of a fundamental misunderstanding of the story being told.

Still, as the credits rolled for the final time last night, I felt incredibly grateful to have experienced this show from week to week and year to year. My problems with seasons 7 and 8 make the Red Wedding no less visceral, the battle of Blackwater Bay no less exhilarating, Ayra’s and Sansa’s journeys no less moving. The rushed ending doesn’t negate the incredible journey I’ve followed down the King’s Road these last eight seasons.

That buildup might give you the idea I’m going to eviscerate this episode, and I am. Well, half of it anyway.

The first 40 minutes slowed the pace enough to let the story breathe in the wake of episode 5’s apocalyptic firestorm at King’s Landing. Tyrion’s walk through the corpse-strewn rubble was quiet, reflective, and heartbreaking. His reaction to finding his brother beneath the Red Keep is likely the clip that will earn Peter Dinklage another Emmy.

After Tyrion is imprisoned, his conversation with Jon provides another particularly strong part of the episode, even if it did act as something of a narrative bandaid. It’s almost as if the writers were unsure if the audience bought Dany’s heel turn; making Tyrion walk us through the warning signs was a bit on-the-nose, but necessary to get Jon where he needed to be for the episode and series to reach its inevitable endpoint; there was no way Daenerys wasn’t dying after the last episode’s massacre, but Jon’s turn had to make something approaching sense, and I think it did. As I said earlier, scenes like these where two characters can just exist in a room are the backbone of this show.

And so Jon meets Dany at the foot of the Iron Throne with murder on his mind. If some of the dialogue doesn’t quite track—Jon begs for Tyrion to be spared; had Dany agreed, would he have still killed her? What would that prove?—the execution no pun intended) of Daenerys’ death was fairly satisfying. It’s hard for the moment to land with the weight that the writers undoubtedly wanted it to, considering how rushed was both Jon and Dany’s romance and her eventual heel turn, but as a scene, it worked. Especially Drogon then went full Simba with the Queen’s corpse and then flew away with her to mourn (but not before slagging the Iron Throne (guess dragons are into heavy symbolism). 

The look on Dany’s face as she realizes Jon has betrayed her one last time is so painful because, despite her pivot to Mad Queen status, this is a character we’ve cheered on for a long time, and one who truly was acting out of a misguided desire to fix a broken world by any means necessary. It wasn’t the ending I wanted, but it was the one the show (and undoubtedly the novels, should they ever be published) demanded. If I have substantial problems with the journey, the destination seems right, somehow. 

But then…

In the aftermath of Daenerys’ death we jump ahead in time a few weeks, conveniently skipping over a few impossible scenes—we’re supposed to believe that Grey Worm didn’t immediately kill Jon and Tyrion in the wake of Dany’s death, and was content to just wait around for all of the (dwindling) lords and ladies of Westeros to show up for planning session? Weirdly, Tyrion starts the meeting as a prisoner, but a few minutes into it, he has basically single-handedly chosen the new king of Westeros. You’d think people would eventually stop listening to the guy.

And how about that choice of king? I will give Thrones some credit there: I definitely did not see Bran coming. Twist aside, it struck me as an underwhelming (and baffling) choice—not the least because, despite what Tyrion says, his story wasn’t all that great, and the show gave us no reason to believe that anyone else in Westeros would trust that he is actually the magical repository of human history he claims to be. He didn’t even use any of his powers to prove the point! The rate at which the crisis of succession is resolved feels like a slap in the face to viewers who may recall that we’ve spent eight seasons on the fight for the throne. Suddenly a bunch of characters we haven’t seen in several seasons (or ever) hold a quick vote, and no one much disagrees—we’ll get to Sansa in a second—and that’s it? Cersei would not be amused.

King Bran talks Grey Worm into letting Tyrion not only live but serve as Hand of the King? OK, sure. At least it make senses that Jon’s fate would be a little more complicated; it was still hard to accept Grey Worm letting his queen’s killer live, but if Jaime Lannister got to survive killing a king, I suppose Jon can kill the same king’s heir.

With my major problems with the finale outlined above, I’ll also try to end on a high note; upon all of a day’s worth of reflection, I was left feeling satisfied about where things ended up for many of the characters.

The way Jon’s arc wrapped up makes sense. He can’t go back to being a Stark, and he’s no Targaryen; having him end up detached from the other main characters (and likely living out his days beyond the wall) was a wise choice. He became the Queenslayer, a label that will follow him until the end of his days. Best to go where he can try to forget the past.

Speaking of slayers, perhaps the best resolution of the episode was Brienne’s choice to finish Jaime’s entry in the book of the Kingsguard, updating it to reflect the gray areas that lived in his character. Much like Jon’s, Jaime’s choice to end the Mad King’s life was much more complicated than history will remember it to be and that the history books will reflect. That being said, he still doesn’t deserve your tears Brienne!

Sansa being named Queen in the North feels right—she has in many ways become the strongest and wisest of them all—as does Arya’s decision to sail off the edge of the map. The former has spent years growing into the leader her people need, while the latter came to realize that she needed to learn how to be a person again. I know a lot of people wanted Arya to kill Cersei or Daenerys, but in retrospect, it seems like that was never where her arc was headed. That she took The Hound’s advice to not let herself be consumed by rage provided an ultimately more satisfying end; I didn’t want for her to have to live with the weight of having ended yet more lives, as much as her potential victims may have deserved to meet with the God of Death.  

Perhaps best of all is the fact that I can now imagine where this world goes from here; a good ending must also hold the future within it. I can foresee the arguments that will consume this strange new small council, which somehow includes Bronn of all people. I can imagine Sansa’s long and careful rule in the North. I can even see the coming of the next rebellion against the Throne. While in theory Bran should be able to avoid making some of the past (and future) mistakes, simply by the nature of his powers, we know that Westeros is not that simple, and pat as it is in some ways, the ending doesn’t really seem to suggest otherwise.

In closing, I would urge those of you who are upset about aspects of this final season to remember the good times, and why we cared so much about these characters in the first place. There’s probably nothing the writers could’ve done to satisfy everyone, but in the end, they did what not even George R.R. Martin seems able to do: they brought this dragon in for a landing.

And now, my watch has ended.

A few random thoughts:

—When Jon Snow said that “the war is over” I really wanted the ghost of Ygritte to appear and spout her catchphrase one last time.

—I like the idea that the new small council feels less need for a Master of Whisperers and a Master of War, even if Tyrion did say those positions will be filled some day; consider it a necessary reminder that peace never lasts.

—Tormund was one of the season MVPs, and I’m a little bummed he didn’t get a line of dialogue in that final, artful montage.

—The visuals that accompanied Dany’s speech to her troops felt a little too Star Wars to me, but I still enjoyed the spectacle of the moment.

—Edmure being told to sit down during the king’s moot in the dragon pit provided a welcome bit of levity in an otherwise unavoidably expository scene. As he started to speak I wondered if perhaps he did have some profound bit of wisdom to share. Nope. This man is, was, and always will be a doofus. Also, if I wasn’t already sold on her, this moment sealed it: Sansa is my queen.

—Bronn finally getting a castle from the Lannisters came off as more a joke than anything. I think his arc was one of several casualties of the shortened season, but then, the writers always liked him a bit more than was justified by the narrative.

—Samwell almost inventing democracy, only to be laughed down, was the worst joke the show has ever attempted. 

Quotable Quotes

“You master of grammar now, too?” —Sir Bronn of the Blackwater

“Now Varys’ ashes can tell my ashes…see, I told you” —Tyrion, pondering his potential execution

“Why do you think I came all this way?” —Bran with the mic drop on becoming King


—The first (and last) “Self Indulgent Camera Wink of the Year” award goes to Samwell for bringing out an actual copy of a book called “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Just because it worked for Bilbo…

—The highly coveted “Best Boy of the Episode” award goes to Ghost, who by all accounts is a VERY GOOD BOY YES HE IS. Jon finally petting his direwolf felt like a direct response to all of the criticism the show faced over the marked lack of Ghost over the past few seasons. (Runner-up: Drogon.)

—The last “We Miss You and Wish You Weren’t Murdered in Horrifying Fashion” award goes to Ned Stark. His execution was the catalyst for almost everything that happened on this show. It was hard not to think about Ned as we watched snow covering King’s Landing, as his constant warning finally came to pass. Winter indeed has come, but maybe it won’t be as bad as he made it sound.

And Now, a Haiku by Tyrion

Arrested again
Seriously how many times
Has this happened to me?

What did you think of the finale? Are you hoping for a different ending on the page?

The post The Game of Thrones Awards, Season 8, Episode 6: End of Watch appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

The Game of Thrones Awards, Season 8, Episode 5: Queen of the Ashes

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Greetings, and welcome! My name is Ben, and you have stumbled upon the ONLY Game of Thrones recap on the entire internet. Week to week I will be breaking down each episode of season  8, giving out highly prestigious awards, and wrapping everything up with a haiku.

Season 8, Episode 5: “The Bells”

A few minutes into “The Bells” I remarked aloud, “Huh, Dany sure looks like she’s about to kill a bunch of people.”

Well, let me correct my phrasing. What I meant to say was, “Dany sure looks like she is going to kill all the people”.

Welcome to Barnes and Noble’s coverage of the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones!

I have been beating a dead horse (there are definitely a few of those around during this episode) about the show’s weird pacing over the last few seasons, and that point was comically exaggerated by Lord Varys’ demise-by-montage at the start of the episode.

This was arguably the most careful and intelligent character on the roster, a man who has served a handful of subpar kings and managed to bite his tongue and wait for the right moment to act to help serve the realm, and he’s front and center on the beach telling Daenerys’ most committed ally that they should maybe try a coup? And a few minutes later, he’s being executed? Of course Jon Snow wasn’t going to turn him in, because… honor or something? But the damage was already done. Still, while the plotting was not particularly strong, the moments Tyrion shared with the Spider before his dragon-y death were compelling.

In many ways, the opening served as a microcosm of the season so far: there have been a lot of fantastic small moments, though perhaps compromised by a larger disregard of the characters and stories that got us to this point in the first place.

In terms of sheer spectacle and drama, there is still a lot to like about this episode. From a visual standpoint, Drogon decimating King’s Landing is the kind of spectacle that Game of Thrones was made for. I’m not sure if the writers intentionally were leading us to believe that the bells triggered Daenerys’ descent into madness, but I think it would be a clever choice if that was the idea—those same bells rang when her family was being destroyed in King’s Landing, and the attack against them didn’t stop either.

For many, the Mother of Dragons’ heel turn feels rather sudden, but I would argue that those people haven’t been paying attention. Her lack of patience and penchant for violence has been hinted at for several seasons now. If you think back to the time we spent with her in Essos: how many times was she coached to try diplomacy over fire despite her immediate impulses? And I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that the journey across the sea—being met with resistance and mistrust be her allies; watching those she trusts most die or betray her; seeing her dragons die; almost getting killed by zombies— has taken a massive toll on her mental health. She had been conditioned to think for her whole life that when she returned to Westeros everyone would lay out the proverbial red carpet, and the reality has been quite a bit different.

The show seemed to suggest that hearing the bells ringing signaling the city’s surrender drove Dany over the edge and led her to burn it to the ground, but her arc is much more satisfying if you ignore all the “mad queen” nonsense and just consider it a strategic decision. Dany chose fear. We may not think it was the right decision, or a good one, but she chose the hell out of it.

And while watching innocent people be slaughtered isn’t my favorite past time, that Grey Worm and company chose to follow Dany’s lead and sack the city made sense to me, and was a good example of proper storytelling. The Unsullied are trained to follow their leader and little else, and did anyone forget about some of the Dothraki’s more… questionable impulses? These aren’t necessarily good people, these are people who were briefly allied to a part of a good cause because of circumstances. That cause has shifted, and so have they.

I feel less conflicted about one aspect of this episode, and if you’ve read any of my past recaps, you should already know what it is: we experienced @$&%$ #CleganeBowl, folks!

The Hound versus The Mountain delivered almost everything I wanted from that much-anticipated battle. The fact that Cersei’s hold on Gregor wore off (peace out, Qyburn) when confronted with the chance to murder his younger brother provided a thrilling start the festivities. Also, nice to see your face again, big bud! And by “nice” I mean… gross—Cersei’s Hand was a master as getting Ser Gregor up and moving, but he still looked as dead as he almost was.

The matchup was booked like a pro wrestling bout, with the hero getting in some shots early, being dominated by his opponent in the middle stages of the fight, and then tackling the villainand sending him into the burning rubble below. Hmmm, actually, I don’t think I’ve seen a lot of wrestling matches end like that. Regardless, that’s a hell of a way to end a sibling rivalry. In a season where some character arcs have failed to offer satisfaction, this was the exception—I can’t imagine a better end for the Hound.

But before all that happened, Sandor’s scene with Arya was another standout moment of the episode, as he convinced her to value her life over her mission. Cersei has been on Arya’s list longer than any other character, but as he points out, being consumed by revenge isn’t a pretty sight. As strong willed as Arya has been in the past, I struggle a bit with the idea that she’d come this far only to abandon the assassination attempt, but he did make a pretty convincing case that the queen was going to wind up dead either way.

And speaking of Cersei’s demise, I have a feeling her final moments will stand with the more controversial parts of the episode. I will start by saying that the plot gymnastics the writers have had to pull off to—both convince us that Tyrion would commit treason against his chosen queen in order to save Cersei of all people and to get Jaime to Cersei’s side for this final showdown—have been a bit tiresome. Why have Jamie abandon his sister in the lead-up to war just because said war is now happening (even if he did get to make a pit-stop to kill Euron Greyjoy on the way, thank the gods)? I know what they were trying to do—illustrate Jamie’s one true loyalty is to his twin—but it felt entirely too rushed and, frankly, unconvincing. Nevertheless, I suppose it fits that the Lannister twins got to leave the world the same way they came into it—together. Cersei wasn’t a good person, or even close to it, but while most would say she doesn’t deserve sympathy, Game of Thrones has always been a better show when it allows us to feel sympathy for the worst villains just the same.

I’m curious what next week’s episode is going to look like. Is Daenerys gonna be like, “Remember when I said I didn’t want to rule the ashes? Whoops, LOL!” How many people are left in Westeros to be ruled, anyway? Like 48? Will Lady Stoneheart make a last-second appearance just to spite you all for giving up on her?

Return next week for my coverage of the series finale! Because no one else on the internet will be talking about it.

A few random thoughts:

—Is this the episode with the highest body count of named characters? Varys, Jamie, Cersei, The Hound, The Mountain, Qyburn, and Euron (yaaaay!): is that everyone?

—While I don’t mind the way that Cersei died, did anyone else think it was a bit weird that she and Qyburn had no plan in place for this attack?

—Real talk: why has Tyrion been just the worst strategist in the world for the last few seasons? Releasing Jaime in the hopes that he’d be able to talk Cersei into surrendering was so stupid on so many levels, I could filled the entire preceding blog post with that rant.

—Arya riding off on a white horse at the end gave me some weird “Bruce Willis already dead” vibes, but I think the show might finally be done killing Starks. We’ll see.

—Tyrion trying to talk to the Unsullied in Valyrian, only to be reminded that they speak the common tongue, reminded me of some of my unfortunate attempts to order food while overseas.

—Was Euron’s “I killed Jaime Lannister” moment the worst thing ever, or only the second-worst thing ever? These are the only acceptable choices.

—Do dragons run out of fire at some point or…?

Quotable Quotes

“It was me” —Tyrion letting Varys know who sealed his fate

“Nothing else matters, only us” —Jaime with a nice callback to earlier seasons, just before he died


—The “Most Valuable Murderer of the Week” award goes to Drogon. Really put out some good numbers.

—The “Most Ridiculous Fan Theory of the Week” goes to the baby dragons idea that circled the internet all week. We aren’t adding any more characters from now on, people. We are only killing them off by the thousands!

—For the second-to-last time we dust off the coveted, “We Miss You and Wish You Weren’t Murdered in Horrifying Fashion” award, and hand it to… Viserys Targaryen? Yes, Dany’s older brother may have been a jerk and a weasel, but even his transition into power would have likely been smoother than Dany’s.

And Now, a Haiku by Bran Stark

I too hate spoilers
Did not want to break the news
That the queen is nuts

What did you think of the penultimate episode? Let us know in the comments!

The post The Game of Thrones Awards, Season 8, Episode 5: Queen of the Ashes appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

Tad Williams Empire of Grass Is a Melancholy Fantasy Epic

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Detail of Michael Whelan’s cover painting for Empire of Grass

When Tad Williams first announced plans for a new trilogy returning to Osten Ard—the setting of his landmark Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy—after over two decades away, I was nearly euphoric with excitement. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is one of modern fantasy’s finest epics, and its influence has rippled through the genre since its release in the late ’80s—chiefly, legend holds it was what convinced George R.R. Martin to sit down and write A Game of Thrones, thus launching a major resurgence of fantasy in mainstream culture.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn has maintained a truly impressive legacy, and the release of its sequel trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard, has given fans and newcomers alike an opportunity to discover (or reacquaint themselves with) the beauty of Williams’ world. The Witchwood Crown, the first volume of The Last King of Osten Ard, was greeted no small amount of excitement by readers. But I admit I also felt some trepidation. How many times—especially in our recent, revival-obsessed pop culture—have fans been burned by creators returning to a beloved setting or series and failing to recapture what made the original so amazing? Williams is a master writer and storyteller, but 25 years is a long time to spend away from the texture, tone, and feel of a beloved series.Needless to say, I shouldn’t have doubted Williams.

The Witchwood Crown was just as sprawling and thematically interesting as its predecessor—not just another adventure in a familiar world, but a new experience enriched by what came before, building upon Williams’ work in a way that elevated the classic trilogy to new heights.

In my review of The Witchwood Crown for Barnes & Noble I said:

Williams’ prose, characterization, and worldbuilding are top-notch, as always… the return to Osten Ard is so seamless, it is difficult to believe that 30 years have passed since the story began. Like Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, The Last King of Osten Ard is shaping up to be an exploration of what happens to people—on a personal, societal, and political level—in the aftermath of war. Williams’ injects [the novel] with the same aged and thoughtful writing that gave the original trilogy its trademark air of melancholy, creating a lovely sense of reverberation for those of us who’ve grown up—and grown old—in this world.

When opening Empire of Grass, I was visited by familiar emotions. The Witchwood Crown was so satisfying. Could Empire of Grass continue to impress, or would it begin to retread familiar ground?

Happily for readers, the result is much the same the second time around: Empire of Grass not only meets expectations, but surpasses them in almost all ways. Few authors manage to write a series with as much depth and relevance as Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn once in a career. Williams is two-thirds of the way through doing it twice. [Editor’s note: Fans of Williams’ Otherland, feel free to pipe up in the comments.]

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was about the build-up to war, and how that affects people on a personal and societal level. The Last King of Osten Ard is set during the supposedly peaceful years after the war’s end, and via Williams’ trademark ability to weave dozens of themes into a dazzling, multi-layered tapestry, it reveals how a power vacuum and the difficultly of enacting change is anything but sure and safe.

In The Witchwood Crown, we begin to see the unravelling of Simon and Miriamele’s peaceful rule. Though they are benevolent leaders, the lands under their control are not at peace, but chafing at the possibility of greater freedom and independence. Little progress seems to have occurred in the decades since the climax of the original trilogy, and some might wonder at the monarch’s complacency. The Last King of Osten Ard is a portentous title, and Empire of Grass further reveals how Simon and Miriamele’s rule over Osten Ard is perhaps not the start of a new dynasty, but the end of an old story—a transition to a brave new world. Events set up in The Witchwood Crown begin to take more recognizable shape here, and the threat to Osten Ard appears just as dire as it was at the height of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

I’ve long associated Williams’ Osten Ard stories with a feeling of melancholy; something about the slow atrophy of the Sithi and the Norns, and humanity’s fight against time, strikes me as profoundly sad. So often, epic fantasy focuses on the press toward something brighter—the resurgence of a golden past, when things were better and technology or magic were in ascendency. Osten Ard is different. Since the arrival of men and their iron weapons, Williams’ world has been in slow decline. It’s impossible to read Empire of Grass and not notice the way Simon and Miriamele’s peace, so hard-won, is giving way to renewed chaos.

Like our willingness to turn a blind eye toward climate change, rumors of Queen Utuk’ku’s return to Osten Ard, and the impending invasion of human lands by her army of Norns, are met with apathy, scorn, and doubt by many who would prefer to turn their energies and attentions to personal conflicts. In that way lies only defeat—not a return to a glorious past, but a continuation of the death and destruction that has plagued the land since the first meeting between the Gardenborn and the iron-bearing humans from the west. Empire of Grass is an examination of colonialism’s long, bloody reach, and of how even the greatest empires eventually eat themselves.

It’s remarkable that Williams can add so much volume to a world already as rich and deeply explored as this one—layers upon layers of worldbuilding enriches the reader experience immeasurably, while also seeding questions about the truth of the previous trilogy’s “happy ending.”

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is in fact often criticized for its ending, which sees Simon take the throne as Miriamele’s wife. For a trilogy with such thematic complexity, the prototypical fairy-tale fade-out seems a little too easy. But by the mid-point of Empire of Grass, Williams has done a wonderful job reexamining Miriamele and Simon’s strengths and weaknesses as monarchs, illustrating the way their inherent goodness both strengthens and weakens the realm. (Even as an older man, Simon’s low-class upbringing has a direct effect on his rule, for good or ill. The novel explores the complex marital challenges the couple faces—from the death of their son and daughter-in-law, to being forced to separate in an effort to save their realm.

Over the course of these new books, my opinion of the previous trilogy’s ending has favorably evolved. It’s clear now that ending was only a pause, concluding one set of challenges for Miriamele and Simon—those most recognizable to trope-y epic fantasy heroes and heroines. Now, they face a new and unprecedented set of challenges. It’s incredibly refreshing to see these characters that we got to know as children grow up into adults with problems ranging from marital boredom to royal responsibility. Williams earns this complexity, capturing the nuance and depth of a long-term marriages.

While characterization and theme have always been my favorite elements of these novels, they are wrapped up in some of the genre’s best worldbuilding, politicking, action, and plotting—qualities on fine display throughout Empire of Grass. Where The Witchwood Crown was a bit of a slow burn, the stakes raise immeasurably in the trilogy’s second volume, with the characters in peril, both personally and at large. The last book ended with its major players blown to separate corners of Osten Ard, pursuing various quests that appear unconnected, but start to tie together in surprising ways throughout Empire of Grass.

The growing threat of the Norns in the north provides a grand, sweeping threat, enough to excite any ardent epic fantasy fan. Meanwhile at the Hayholt, seat of Osten Ard’s monarchy, the king’s trusted advisor hides a murderous secret; Tiamak the scholar delves into troubling rumors about an ancient dark magic; and Miriamele leaves the castle’s safety on a journey south that brings with it many secrets and dark memories. Like his grandfather a lifetime ago, Prince Morgan is lost in the dark Aldheorte forest, cast out by the mysterious Sithi, his companion and trusted friend Eolair captured by bandits.

To use a cliche, this is a book fit to be used as a door stop, but every page is packed with conflict and the deepest lore this side of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. It is, of course, a middle volume, which means it falls prey to a predictable set of criticisms (it doesn’t quite have a beginning or an end, and finishing it will leave you desperate for the concluding volume), but it does not suffer for an exciting, consequential story.

Unlike The Witchwood Crown, what Empire of Grass is not is a suitable starting point for new readers. Its picks up in the immediate aftermath of the previous book, and while Williams’ does a good job of reminding readers of those events—beginning with a long and detailed synopsis of The Witchwood Crown, a trend I would like to see continue in all big, fat fantasy series—it’s all too much . Even if a fresh-eyed reader could keep up with the plot, they’d be missing out on way too much important context.

At this point, Williams’ readers likely know exactly what to expect from Empire of Grass, and the book delivers on all points. It’s a sprawling, melancholic epic exploring themes of post-war colonialism, aging, regret, and responsibility. Continuing the story of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was no small feat for Williams, but the fact that this new trilogy stands toe-to-toe with the original is remarkable. Empire of Grass is sure to be one of the year’s best books, and additional proof that Tad Williams stands with the best fantasists of his generation.

Empire of Grass is available now.

The post Tad Williams Empire of Grass Is a Melancholy Fantasy Epic appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

The Game of Thrones Awards, Season 8, Episode 4: The Mad Queens

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Greetings, and welcome! My name is Ben, and you have stumbled upon the ONLY Game of Thrones recap on the entire internet. Week to week I will be breaking down each episode of season  8, giving out highly prestigious awards, and wrapping everything up with a haiku.

Season 8, Episode 4: “The Last of the Starks”

Plenty of episodes of Game of Thrones don’t do much to move the plot forward, and for a bit over half its 80-minute runtime, “The Last of the Starks” felt like one of them.

But all that changed with one (gigantic) crossbow, which sent Rhaegal crashing to the bottom of the sea.

It seems odd to say, but I do miss those uneventful episodes. It took entire seasons to build to the Battle of Blackwater Bay and the Battle of the Bastards. Yet just one episode removed from what was by all measures the most important battle in the show’s (or Westeros’) history, we are already moving toward another massive confrontation—though this time all the parties involved are at least alive (except for The Mountain, probably).

Much like it was in season 7, the speed at which we are moving is a tad disorienting. Unlike that season, the story has been compelling enough to make me forget about that for the most part.

The episode begins with the mourning of the dead—Jorah, Theon, Lyanna, and thousands of others. Even from the opening shot, you can tell the recent victory has not given Daenerys with any satisfaction. Defeating the dead was necessary, but it meant very little to her personally. As she kisses the body of her longtime protector and advisor farewell, there appears to be a quiet rage building inside of her.

Her rage is only amplified at the subsequent feast “celebrating” the victory in muted fashion, as Tormund and company boisterously discuss Jon’s achievements (who would climb on the back of a dragon but a king indeed), and Jon’s subsequent refusal to keep his lineage from Arya and Sansa. The pair separated soon after—Jon to march south with the remainder of their armies; Dany off on an ill-fated plan to blockade King’s Landing rather than burn it to the ground at the cost of thousands of innocent lives—and it seems likely we’ve seen the last of their scenes together as a potential romantic pairing.

But before Jon leaves, he does indeed meet with the surviving Starks in the Godswood, and lets slip that he isn’t exactly one of them. Or presumably he lets Bran do it. Either way, we are curiously robbed of seeing Sansa and Arya’s reaction to this bombshell (perhaps they had already read up on the fan theories). Regardless, it takes Sansa exactly one scene transition to break her word to Jon about not sharing his secret; she blabs it to Tyrion, who tells Varys, which is as good as sending ravens to all points of the compass. The revelation kicks off a spirited debate between Tyrion (who remains loyal to Dany, either out of fear or stubbornness, or plain misguided trust) and Varys (who claims fealty to the common folk above any one ruler) over who should sit the iron throne. I thought we’d been over this?

No sooner do Daenerys and the blockade ships (carrying Grey Worm, Missandei, Tyrion, and Varys) reach the city than they were ambushed by Euron’s Iron Fleet, Daenerys’ payment for apparently forgetting not one but two of the primary weapons in Cersei’s arsenal (the Iron Fleet; the scorpion crossbows) costs her one of her two remaining children, a handful of her ships, and the counsel of one of her closest advisors in Missandei, who is somehow captured. In three minutes, the playing field is leveled considerably. Assuming Rhaegal is actually dead—it looked pretty definitive but we’re also lated treated to a suspiciously portentous line of dialogue from Euron assuring Cersei he saw the dragon sink beneath the waves, and as this is the same dude who apparently can’t tell how disgusting Cersei obviously finds him, his judgement is perhaps not to be trusted.

The subsequent “negotiations” between the Dragon Queen and the Queen of Westeros—conducted across an open field, with Cersei’s retinue perched atop high and heavily fortified castle walls—doesn’t go much better. After an ineffectual chat with Qyburn (a lovely reminder of just how creepy and matter of fact Cersei’s Hand is) Tyrion tires of his disturbing pragmatism and appeals directly to his older sister. Tyrion begs her to give up the throne and avoid sacrificing another of her children to her quest for power, and Cersei responds by ordering the Mountain to cut off Missandi’s head. Behind Tyrion, Daenerys looks pretty mad, in all connotations of the word. She has been talked out of burning King’s Landing to the ground several times, but after watching a second dragon die and witnessing Missandei ‘s execution, it seems that there might not be anyone left who can convince her to act otherwise.

This show (and it’s source material) has always excelled at inhabiting gray areas, and that’s certainly where we’re going to stay for the rest of the season. Is Varys properly looking out for the realm by attempting to conspire against the queen he spent so long supporting, or is he just a fickle man who will never be happy with any ruler? Is Daenerys truly losing her mind like her father, or is she correct that it will take a horrible act to truly “break the wheel” bring peace to Westeros? (If Varys is as smart as we are to believe he is, he should surely know by now that the man he’d prop up in place of the Dragon Queen has a track record of horrible strategic thinking, as well as ignoring good advice, no?)

Heavy plot lifting aside, before things got crazy in the latter half of the episode, there were actually a few moments of of levity, drunken debauchery, romance, and heartbreak in Winterfell.

The internet has been collectively pining for Jaime and Brienne’s hookup for years, and it was just as awkward as I always imagined it would be. His whole “is it hot in here?” routine was not as smooth as you’d expect from the guy who… has PTSD and is obsessed with his sister, actually, it was probably on point. And while the Kingslayer then choosing to ride off to King’s Landing to save (?) Cersei was obviously tragic for Brienne, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for her—TORMUND WOULD HAVE CHERISHED YOU FOREVER, GIRL!

The many layers of Jaime’s character often make for some good TV. They also make for some frustrating TV.

Speaking of heartbreak, it was an up and down episode for Gendry, who on one hand became Lord of Storm’s End, and on the other, unsuccessfully proposed to Arya. Even as he was dropping to one knee t I wanted to pat him on the shoulder and just say, “Oh, buddy.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Bronn returns to give us one of the funniest scenes in recent memory. His conversation with the Lannister brothers is quick, witty, and it does away with my looming sense of dread over the fates of Jaime and Tyrion—I can stop waiting from one of Bronn’s arrows to come flying in from offscreen. At least for a while, anyway—Bronn made no concrete promises, even after Jamie offered him lordship over High Garden. Anything that makes me slightly less stressed out while I watch this show is a good thing. Just the same, it seemed like too quick way for the show to take a piece off the board, so to speak, giving the writers one less character to worry about.

A few random thoughts:

—Can Tormund get hammered in every episode? Please?

—We’re told Yara has reclaimed the Iron Islands and pledged for Dany in one sentence, never to be mentioned again. Classic Yara.

—I was bummed that we didn’t get any insight into where Bran went when he “left” the battle last week. Also, Bran is still a big weirdo. “I don’t want anymore.” Whatever you say, Bran.

—Arya and the Hound are a great combo and I’m glad we will get to see more of them going forward, but Sansa’s scene with him was better—he reflected that he couldn’ve saved her from a lot of pain, and she claimed that pain as her own, and said it made her strong. Hard to argue with her at this point.

—#Cleganebowl #GetHype

Quotable Quotes

“I don’t know how to be Lord of anything, I can barely use a fork.” —Gendry, you adorable bastard

“Maybe Cersei will win and kill us all. That would solve our problems.” —Tyrion, looking on the bright side


—The “We Miss You and Wish You Weren’t Murdered in Horrifying Fashion” award is back this week, and it goes to the recently deceased Jorah Mormont. I am getting reports that he was unable to accept the award because… well, he’s dead.

—The “Weak Sauce of the Week” award goes to Sansa Stark, who managed to keep the biggest secret in all of the Seven Kingdoms for all of seven minutes.

—The first “I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying” award goes to the moment Ghost whimpered as Jon left without saying goodbye. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Jon Snow is the worst.

And Now, a Haiku by Samwell Tarly

Hey guys, I had sex
Yep, definitely had sex
Everyone hear that?

What kind of guttural noise did you make when Rhaegal got shot? Let us know in the comments!

The post The Game of Thrones Awards, Season 8, Episode 4: The Mad Queens appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

The Game of Thrones Awards, Season 8, Episode 3: Not Today.

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Greetings, and welcome! My name is Ben, and you have stumbled upon the ONLY Game of Thrones recap on the entire internet. Week to week I will be breaking down each episode of season 8, giving out highly prestigious awards, and wrapping everything up with a haiku.

Season 8, Episode 3: “The Long Night”

Before I say anything about the battle of Winterfell, I must first thank Nicole for her spectacular job covering last week’s episode. But alas, her watch has ended, and you’re stuck with me again.

I have some friends that haven’t viewed a single episode of Game of Thrones (shocking, I know) and they generally fall into one of two camps—people who refuse no matter how many times they are told they need to watch it (the stubborn holdouts), and those who plan to binge the entire thing when it’s over.

While the first group likely can’t be helped, I take more issue with the latter philosophy. The beauty of this show is the anticipation it creates from from week to week and season to season, the (insane) fan theories, and the almost Super Bowl quality of the major episodes—like this one. Complaints about specific plot turns aside (and I certainly have a few), what else on TV can captivate so many of us this?

Before I start getting misty-eyed, let’s dive in!

The first ten minutes of “The Long Night” are wonderful theater, playing off the end of last week’s standout episode. Even before we even see the army of the dead, my stress levels were off the charts, and the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife (or some dragonglass). The battle really kicked off with Melisandre showing up on horseback to set all of the Dothraki’s arakhs alight, a truly hopeful visual to start the last stand of the living against the dead. A much less hopeful visual shortly followed as all of those fires were put out from a distance by the White Walkers and their army. But, to be fair, if left to their own devices the Dothraki would still be raping and pillaging in Essos right? (Is this recap getting too dark too early?)

I have complaints about this battle, but the visuals (what we could see of them) are not one of them. When the dead first rushed the Unsullied and crashed over them like waves upon rocks, it was very clear very quickly what the living were up against. The threat triggered Daenerys to use her dragons too early. You know you are making a rash decision when Jon freakin’ Snow is the voice of reason.

It was nice to spend some time in the crypts before they got super creepy (to be fair they were already a little creepy), as Sansa tells some of the characters who have made a living being clever for the last eight years (Tyrion and Varys in particular) that they are useless in the face of such a threat. They might not like it, but she’s right. The time for schemes and plots is temporarily on hold.

As the battle waged on, and as impressive as it was in terms of sheer scale, I was struck by how many times the writers stuck to a particular theme: characters like Sam, Jon Snow, Grey Worm, Jaime, and Brienne teetered on the edge of death for extended periods of time. Are we really to believe that they were cornered by Wights for 30 minutes of screen time and were yet victorious, against all odds? All of them? I’ll have whatever they’re having.

While the battle untimately did not feel as high stakes as I thought it would, there were some losses. Let’s pour out a little Dornish wine for:

—Beric Dondarrion: He died as he lived, dying a lot.

—Lyanna Mormont: It’s hard to imagine a more heroic death than being in the clutches of an undead giant, about to be eaten, and then stabbing it through the eye with a sword. Life is unpredictable, but I would care to wager that my death will look a little different.

—Dolorous Edd: I’m too despondent to even talk about this one. Perhaps my editor will fill in something here, perhaps not. [Editor’s note: Nah.] We’re all going to die anyway so what does it matter? Oh, Edd.

—Jorah Mormont: Perhaps in death he can finally escape the friendzone. That seems like a meme that the kids will be doing, yes? But seriously, Jorah’s death puts a a spotlight on how truly talented this cast is—he hasn’t been given much of import to do for several seasons but remained riveting nonetheless. Jorah and Dany were a team since the first episode of the first season. This one stings.

—Theon Greyjoy: Theon’s character arc over the last few seasons didn’t do much o convince me that he deserved redemption, but something about his brief interaction with Bran followed by his charge directly at the Night King that made me go, “Okay, that worked.” So many of the atrocities visited upon the Starks were indirectly caused by his seizing of Winterfell many moons ago; that he sacrificed himself to save its last living male heir made sense.

—Melisandre: We’ll get to the Red Woman later, but it’s worth noting that her death looked exactly like me leaving work on a Monday.

Other thoughts: Jon and Dany’s storyline proved frustrating, in that it was rarely clear what they were doing, or even supposed to be doing. I get that the sudden, convenient, unexplained snow storm made their jobs difficult, but they why did they spend most of the battle circling and doing nothing? Why did they briefly engage the Night King on his ice dragon, then completely fallback? Why did Dany land for long enough to be unhorsed undragoned? For all I giggled at Jon trying and repeatedly failing to sneak past Viserion, their scenes made me seriously question whether either is ultimately fit to rule.

On a more positive note, Sana and Tyrion shared a very nice moment in the crypts. It wouldn’t really make sense for the show to turn either of these characters into action heroes, and I much more appreciated seeing the quiet, tearful connection between them at what seemed very likely to be the end of everything. (This was slightly before it became totally obvious that most of the characters who appeared to be on the chopping block weren’t going anywhere.)

Arya’s time in the castle hiding from the wights provided one of the episode’s standout moments. While she is a highly trained killer, she was, for a moment, transformed by her fear into a much younger version of herself. Yet she also understood that sneaking was a lot more effective than trying to fight her way out, which made for some marvelously tense television. Yes, having a character behave smartly on Game of Thrones does pay off. Her escape seemed important at the time, but I didn’t know exactly how important it would be. Luckily she soon after ran into Melisandre, who helpfully underlined it for us by repeating the prophecy she delivered to her way back in season three. It seemed like the writers tipped their hands too much with that line about Anya shutting many blue eyes forever, but to judge by the reactions on Twitter, many were still surprised.

Shameless segue: The Night King has been built up as quite the baddie over the last few seasons, and his reaction to having dragonfire pour over him for what felt like two minutes straight was definitely in line with that. I’m pretty sure he smirked. (Do White Walkers smirk?)

Anyway, having the dead part like the Red Sea as he and his lieutenants approached Brandon Stark  in the godswood ended up giving him his last badass moment. Suddenly, Arya Stark came out of nowhere to deliver the fatal blow to who we thought was the endgame villain of the entire series. It was not a bad moment, but I’m not sure if this makes sense given the theme Jon has been hitting us over the head with for at least three seasons—in short, that everyone should lay off the political maneuvering and face the real zombie threat. I guess not so much anymore; it really will all come down to playing the game of thrones. Cersei is a great villain, buthow can she compare to a guy who could waggle his eyebrows and make thousands of corpses move in unison?

All that said, and just for the record: I’m really glad that Jon Snow was not key to the final resolution in this part of the war. The show has continued to lionize him (er…) despite one questionable leadership choice after another, but this episode finally didn’t reward his general uselessness. (Cue the post-episode quarterbacking from the showrunners, who will probably tell us, “Arya could have never accomplished this without the limited screen time that she had with Jon in the first season.”)

Quotable Quotes

“It’s the most heroic thing we can do now” —Sansa Stark, about staying below in the crypts. Her transformation into one of the best (and smartest) characters on the show has been fun to watch.

“There’s no need to execute me, Sir Davos. I’ll be dead before the dawn.” —Melisandre, who was true to her word and fulfilled her destiny.

-”Theon, you’re a good man. Thank you.” —Bran Stark, who didn’t need his crazy sight to tell that Theon’s story had come to an end.


—The highly coveted “Nightmare Fuel of the Week” award goes to all of the wights who stood just on the edge of the fire, patiently waiting for their pals to smother the flames with their bodies so the siege could continue. I don’t know how they are going to split this award, but good job everyone!

—This week’s “We Miss You and Wish You Weren’t Murdered in Horrifying Fashion” award goes to Stannis Baratheon, who really grew on me towards the end. He popped to mind shortly after Melisandre achieved her purpose and collapsed. She really believed in him, and it seems she just couldn’t quite get over being that wrong.

—The first ever “Holy Crap You’re Still Alive?” award is shared by Tormund Giantsbane and Brienne. After their big moments in the previous episode, it seemed likely that one of them (or both) would not make it out alive from this battle. (Honorable mention: Grey Worm.)

And Now, a Haiku by the Bran Stark

I had a good run
Raised some dead, rode a dragon
Best of luck, Cersei

Did the Battle of Winterfell live up to your expectations?

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Game of Thrones Is Pop Culture’s Most Powerful Climate Narrative

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

In A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, we’re introduced to the house words of the Stark family: “Winter is Coming.” (You might have heard them, or seen them on a billboard, or a t-shirt, or a hat.) As the series has continued, on the page and on screen, the phrase has been repeated enough to become a mantra and a meme, but it took a while before its deeper meaning to come to the fore.

Particularly in the ramp up to the final episodes of the television adaptation, in which the humans have been forced to give up their petty power struggles (for a little while, anyway) to deal with the reality of a massive undead army marching toward them from the north, it seems as though the true message of the whole epic storyline—and what the Stark house words mean for the series’ eventual end—has been hidden in plain sight all along. Among his many impressive feats in creating the world of Westeros, GRRM has been crafting one of the most powerful climate change narratives in modern pop culture.

Spoilers for the first five books and seven seasons of Game of Thrones follow!

It’s easy to think of fantasy as traditionalist. For generations of readers, J.R.R. Tolkien almost singlehandedly shaped our ideas of what fantasy is and does. His reverence for the past has become a hallmark of the genre, even as many fantasy writers of the past and present have crafted great books by subverting the tropes and themes he established. Along with that idealization of the past comes a love of the natural world. Tolkien harkened back to a world before industrialization—particularly before the advent of the tanks and mechanized weapons that so horrified him at the Somme in 1916. Though he teases them, the simple pleasures of the peaceful, rustic Hobbits are lionized in contrast to the blasted landscapes of Sauron and company. Trees are given personalities and a heroic role to play, while the One Ring itself is a product of fire and forge.

Glorifying an imaginary past isn’t always a good thing, as looking forward is at least as important, and of course technology isn’t inherently bad. But a strong interest in environmental themes is threaded throughout some of the most popular and beloved fantasy books of the last 80 years (Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern and Terry Brooks’ Shannara series among them). In Tolkien’s time, pollution, deforestation, and the dehumanizing aspects of technology were the primary threats for writers concerned with the natural world. As our reasons to be concerned about the environment have only grown—and the costs of ignoring environmental threats have only grown more dire—fantasy has followed suit, none more so than the most popular works of one George R.R. Martin.

Talk of the ending of A Song of Ice and Fire tends to focus on that other familiar phrase from the series: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” The question we’ve been conditioned to ask is one of political concern—who will sit the Iron Throne and rule Westeros in the end?

We all have our favorite contenders, though few of the characters is entirely flawless in vision, power, or morality—even Daenerys Targaryen, the kick-ass mother of dragons and breaker of chains, is entirely too willing to deliver her vision of peace and justice to her would-be subjects on pain of fiery death (Martin’s Fire & Blood prequel invites us to imagine a virtual world of fire run by the Targaryen dynasties). Daenerys may have a more developed sense of freedom, but like most of the game’s contenders, power is her first goal. Jon Snow is noble, but broody and indecisive; Arya is s too focused on revenge; Tyrion is wildly self-centered. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which any concluding victory isn’t pyrrhic: bloody, morally questionable (at least), and leaving such scars in the land and people that Westeros will take generations to recover.

And that’s all without reckoning with the zombie ice people. As the series has grown more complex—and the real world alongside it—the “least bad autocrat of the Seven Kingdoms” contest seems less interesting then it once did. After all, what matters the power struggles of mortals when an immortal threat looms? If I had to guess, I’d say GRRM was always ahead of us there; certainly from the beginning, he’s been interested in subverting the expectations of fantasy stories about good kings and bad kings. (The only leader who was able to consistently combine strong leadership with noble motives was Ned Stark, and we know where that got him; his positive qualities made him into the biggest threat to the far less scrupulous.)

From before the start of the very first book, the Starks have prized vigilance and moderation above all else. Though they’re the most powerful and wealthy family of the north, and were once kings and queens in their own right, they don’t live in the kind of ostentatious comfort favored by, say, the Lannisters. Winterfell is an impressive, forbidding castle keep, but it feels far more functional than luxurious. I’m sure that the local peasants look to the place with awe and perhaps envy, but GRRM establishes a clear contrast between the practical Starks and the ostentatious Lannisters, and between the Starks and Robert Baratheon, the well-intentioned but hopelessly gluttonous king.

The Starks aren’t perfect, but they’re content to live within their means and to share the fickle gifts of the north fairly with their vassals. It’s why we like them. Unfortunately, the loyalty they inspire makes them targets for the families who rule by fear, or through displays of wealth. Their motto can be read a number of ways, but foremost it serves as a reminder that tough times are always on the way. It’s a metaphorical call for vigilance and preparation against hardship, but it’s also a reminder that a literal change in climate is on the horizon. Meanwhile, the brothers of the Night’s Watch are helpless to do much more than, yes, watch as their wall crumbles and their castles go unguarded as winter, and worse, approaches.

Over the course of the series, the pleas from the Watch grow louder and more desperate as they come to realize that the real nature of the threat from the north isn’t the wildling people that they’ve always feared but the White Walkers and their armies of the undead—a nearly unstoppable inhuman force capable of radically upsetting the way of life of every single person in Westeros. While the continent’s true experts on all things over-the-wall make the well-reasoned case that yes, there is a civilization-ending threat on the way (we’ve seen the evidence!), most of the populace is too distracted to be bothered (forgivable for most of them, who are too busy being killed in power skirmishes due to the whims of power-hungry nobles). As the powerful are caught up in their ceaseless battles-to-the-death over an incredibly uncomfortable throne, the put-upon peasants are just trying not to die. It’s much easier to dismiss the larger threat—because dealing with it means facing its true existential weight, and grappling with the unprecedented compromises and sacrifices that will result. (What do the Night’s Watch know anyway? Looking at things with their fancy… eyes.)

Though the threat sat in the background for much of the series, the books and the show have revealed themselves to be less about who gets a throne and more about the looming environmental threat embodied by the White Walkers, those living avatars of a changing climate. In the TV series at least, there is indisputable evidence that ignoring the problem certainly won’t make it go away; it will only grow larger, once corpse at a time, until suddenly you’ve got an undead ice dragon breathing blue fire down your neck. And true as even to human nature, it’s also obvious that the power players are more than happy to march together into battle one day, while preparing to seize power in the aftermath, should they live to see it.

The planned title for perpetually forthcoming final book in the series is A Dream of Spring, the phrasing suggesting that we may or may not get there. In the end, I suspect Martin sees the ultimate ownership of the throne as far less consequential than the ability of the people of Westeros to unite against the coming climate apocalypse before it’s too late. Such an outcome might represent something like a happy ending to a series not known for them.

There could still be hope for the Seven Kingdoms, and for us, but only if everyone starts paying attention to the real threat.

The series finale of Game of Thrones airs May 19. A release date for book six, The Winds of Winter, is still forthcoming.

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The Game of Thrones Awards, Season 8, Episode 2: If Winterfell Is a-Rocking …

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Greetings, and welcome! My name is Nicole, filling in for Ben this week with the ONLY Game of Thrones recap on the entire internet. Week to week he breaks down each episode of season 8, giving out highly prestigious awards, and wrapping everything up with a haiku.

Season 8, Episode 2: “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”

In this almost interminable build-up to the battle with the army of the dead, things are getting weird.

With every character except Cersei’s ghastly cadre of advisors in Winterfell, the reunions have been spectacularly awkward. Take, for example, poor Jamie Lannister, greeted once again by everyone he has ever wronged in the realm. (In a pseudo-bonding moment with Sansa, Daenerys spends the first scene of the episode upbraiding him for murdering her murderous father.)

But the other thing about all these characters locked up, waiting to die, in a castle in the middle of nowhere is that, well, waiting is getting everyone hot and bothered. Old flames, new flames, flame-haired Wildling rogues—doesn’t matter. This episode is chocked full of furtive glances, gallows flirting, and desperation bonking.

Missandei and Grey Worm talk of a future literally anywhere but the North. While Jamie watches, Tormund tries to woo Brienne by telling her a story that ends with him suckling from a giant’s teat. (Because reasons.) When Theon shows up at the door, Sansa throws herself into his arms in a surprise fit of joy. And then there is Arya and Gendry, who spend the whole episode doing something that seems like a bizarre version of flirting, which finally culminates in a slightly jarring (but entirely consensual!!) sex scene.

Elsewhere, Tyrion laments that his days of patronizing brothels are behind him. (Pour one out for Littlefinger.)

It makes sense that tensions (and hormones) are running high. Early in the episode, Tormund, Dolorous Edd, and Beric Dondarrion—fresh off finding that grotesque modern-art installation (“Screeching Child of the Undead Encircled with Human Limbs”)—turn up with an estimated timeline for the Night King’s assault. And that timeline is tomorrow.

This reality of impending doom provokes different reactions for different characters.

Those not looking for nookie opt for reconciliation. Prodded by Jorah, Dany not only forgives Tyrion for making a series of stupid mistakes, she also tries to extend the Northern equivalent of an olive branch to Sansa. In a stilted but hopeful conversation, she and Sansa seem to make progress. But the lady of Winterfell ends that swiftly by addressing the elephant (no, not the one you’re looking for, Cersei!) in the room: what will you do with the now fiercely independent North when you’re queen?

Likewise, Jamie has an awkward conversation with the entity formerly known as Bran in the godswood. When he apologizes for permanently disabling the boy, he is greeted by the customary riddles.

The center of the episode is anchored not by riddles but two curious group scenes with way different dynamics.

The first is a meeting of the war council, which apparently includes every single named character left in the show. Up for debate is Jon’s suggested strategy of cutting the head off the snake: kill the Night King and, thus, kill his subjects. How will it work? Why would he expose himself in battle? Leave that to Bran, once again lurking in the literal shadows, who pipes up to say that Night King will come for him, just as he has all Three-Eyed Ravens, the embodiment of all memory.

In a touching moment of his redemption arc, Theon volunteers his iron-born forces as protection for Bran the bait.

The other group scene involves a roaring fire, barrels of wine, and the following characters: Jamie, Tyrion, Brienne, Podrick, Davos, and Tormund. 10/10 would watch again for the triumphant display from two unlikely feminist allies: Tormund Giantsbane and Jamie Lannister. After Brienne explains to Tormund that ladies can’t be knights, he utters words that would make many a knee weak: “F@&$ tradition … I’m no king, but if I were, I’d knight you ten times over.”

Too bad he’s outdone by Jamie who, as a knight of the realm, bestows the honor on Brienne right then and there. This is a love triangle I wholeheartedly endorse, and not only because of the look of pure joy on Tormund’s face as he claps for Ser Brienne.

Meanwhile, Lyanna and Jorah Mormont exchange unpleasantries outside as the young firebrand refuses to take shelter in the crypts during the battle. I mention this only because I hope Lyanna wins this, the whole dang Game of Thrones.

You may have noticed two characters I have said little about: Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. Or should I say, Aegon and Daenerys Targaryen. They’re kept apart for most of the episode, until the moment Dany finds her man in the crypts, peering at Lyanna Stark’s grave. Apparently having now fully absorbed last week’s bombshell, he springs the news of his heritage on his lover—and aunt. She does not take it well, justifiably questioning his sources (his best friend and his “brother”). But her reaction is cut short by the sounds of raised alarms.

The Night King is here, and he waits for no Targaryen.

And now, a few random thoughts:

— Beric Dondarrion doesn’t have a whole lot to do now that his hipster healer Thoros is gone, but he did come up with my new favorite euphemism for dying: “They’re fighting for the Night King now.”
—Everyone in this show is slowly morphing into Cersei. Jamie’s stolen her hairstyle and Sansa’s outfits are getting progressively more armor-like.
—Arya’s unanswered question—can dragon fire kill the White Walkers?—seems like an important one.

Quotable Quotes

“The things we do for love.” — Bran, with the sickest burn of all

”So. We’re going to die. At Winterfell.” — Tyrion, saying what’s on the mind of every non-Stark character currently trapped here

“Men do stupid things for women. They’re easily manipulated.” — PREACH IT SISTER SANSA

“The big woman still here?” — Tormund Giantsbane, lothario at large, upon arrival at Winterfell

“I stole a considerable number of books from the Citadel library” — Samwell Tarly, in reeling off his masculine credentials to his Night’s Watch brethren

“I’m not spending my final hours with you two miserable old sh!$s” — Arya has the last word in a conversation with a pair of men who both made her List at different points: Beric Dondarrion and The Hound


— The “We Miss You and Wish You Weren’t Murdered in a Horrifying Fashion!” award goes to a character whose sunny demeanor I don’t particularly miss but whose absence was deeply felt: Tywin Lannister. Tyrion wishes his dear ol’ dad were still here to see his two adult sons preparing to die in defense of Winterfell. The look on his face would be almost as good as the one he had when you killed him on the toilet, Tyrion.

— The “Ridiculously Cinematic Shot of the Week” award goes to none other than Podrick Payne, whose strangely beautiful singing voice guides us through a montage of our favorite characters preparing for battle. Genuinely, I was verklempt when staring at all of these characters I love—and even those I tolerate—knowing that many of them will not make it through the next episode. Good job, Pod.

—Two new contenders take this week’s “Potential Spinoff Alert” award. I long for the future Grey Worm promises Missandei in which they leave this land of pale, frigid, bigoted people and make a new life somewhere warm and more racially diverse. Stay alive, you two.

And now, a haiku from Ghost the direwolf
Hello, it’s me, Ghost
I was in hiding, dummies
I could die any time

Who is on your Death List for the battle with the army of the dead?

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The Game of Thrones Awards, Season 8, Episode 1: In Which Jon Snow Finally Knows Something

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Greetings, and welcome! My name is Ben, and you have stumbled upon the ONLY Game of Thrones recap on the entire internet. Week to week I will be breaking down each episode of season 8, giving out highly prestigious awards, and wrapping everything up with a haiku.

Season 8, Episode 1: “Winterfell”

I’ve noticed a bit of a pattern with Game of Thrones’ premieres over the years, which is to say that, unfortunately, not a lot tends to happen in them.

As a fan, I can’t say it’s ever really bothered me that much, as after a long absence—it has been more than 18 months since the last episode aired—just seeing the characters again is usually enough for me. In the past, the first episodes have generally functioned as a way to remind viewers what’s going on in the 68 ongoing storylines. But as the number of storylines has shrunk dramatically by this point (or to put it another way, so many characters have been murdered) and we’re racing toward the climax, there is less justification for an episode to just hang out, sans a sense of urgency.

The writers seemed to understand this, as the first episode of season eight has a bit more going on than your average GoT premiere. That being said, it’s also filled with a lot of scenes that do little more than set the stage for the wars to come.

After a cleverly revamped title sequence (owing to both the, er, revised state of the Wall and the converging storylines, we spend a lot of time touring the interiors of Winterfell and King’s Landing), we begin with a nod to the pilot episode, the last time such a huge group of characters rode into Winterfell to discuss current affairs in the Seven Kingdoms (the little boy racing to get a glimpse of the soldiers—a la young Arya—was perhaps a bit on the nose, if nicely played). Of course the death of Jon Arryn (then) can’t compete with THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT (now). There have been several major signs over the last few seasons that we are arriving at the end game, perhaps none as jarring as seeing dragons soaring over Winterfell.

As you can imagine, not everyone is getting along. Sansa (and many of the North lords) are surprised at how quickly Jon has allied himself with Daenerys (it doesn’t help that Jon is soon seen soaring over the castle on the back of one of her dragons; that sound you heard was years’ worth of fan theories suddenly crystalizing into fact).

Personally, I’m torn: on one hand, it’s pretty easy to jump to the conclusion that he was thinking with his heart more than his head. On the other, I don’t know how many times I can handle watching really intelligent characters fail to grasp that you can’t defeat the army of the dead without some buddies, preferably the fire-breathing kind. We’ve been over this.

Speaking of the Dragon Queen, her presence in this season is going to be very interesting. We have spent years watching her liberate slaves and triumph over injustice, but while Jon Snow seems willing to sacrifice his title for the good of the realm, she still seems hung up on who is kneeling and who is not, and on who likes her and who doesn’t. During the opening moments of the episode she can barely contain how much she enjoys that her dragons are scaring the crap out of the common folk. I’m glad that this tension is in play; another painfully altruistic main character (sorry Jon) might make things a bit boring.

Arya and Sansa are leery of Dany, and suspect Jon is not focused on protecting their family. I can only imagine how much that paranoia will increase when they find out that Jon is not actually part of their family.

The biggest takeaway from the Winterfell plotline is that Jon Snow finally knows something. Sam’s revelation that Jon is not a bastard, but actually Aegon Targaryan, son of Rhaegar Targaryan and Lyanna Stark, and the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, is definitely going to cause a bit of tension. It’s unclear yet what he will do with this information, but we certainly haven’t heard the last of it. The fact that Sam got to drop the bombshell only moments after finding out Daenerys burned his family alive only intensified the moment.

Speaking of family tension, Tyrion is apparently the only one in Westeros who still thinks Cersei is going to keep her word and ride north with her armies. Sansa properly blasts him for it: “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.” It’s an unfortunate reminder of just how irrelevant Tyrion has become to the major plotlines of the last few seasons.

Speaking of Cersei, things in King’s Landing have gotten a bit weird. I wouldn’t call what her and Euron have going on a romance, exactly, but it’s… something. Faster than you’d think it would take for ships to sail across an ocean and back, the Golden Company has arrived, 20,000 strong. Well, maybe 19,998 strong—Euron had to kill a few for cheating at dice on the boat ride over.

While King’s Landing used to be such a hub of activity and intrigue, it feels very empty now. I imagine Qyburn has a lot of down time to poke and prod dead people. Exciting stuff. One of the characters still there is Bronn, who has now seemingly been hired to kill both Jaime and Tyrion. This is going to end in heartbreak, one way or another.

As the episode ends, Jaime arrives in Winterfell and locks eyes with Bran, who seems to have been lurking in the background of every shot (is Jamie the “old friend” Bran was waiting to meet?). They no doubt have a lot to discuss. Perhaps Jaime can start with explaining the things he did for love.

Quotable Quotes

“I was told the Golden Company had Elephants.” —Cersei. I WAS TOLD THE SAME THING! DAMN YOU HBO! 

“You’ve completely ruined horses for me” —Jon Snow, after taking his first dragon ride

“You should consider yourself lucky, at least your balls won’t freeze off” —Tyrion, welcoming Varys to the North


—The “Cringeworthy Makeout Session of the Week” award goes to Jon and Dany’s heavy smooching after they finished their impromptu dragon ride. Apparently whoever wrote the dialogue for that scene learned everything they know about romance from Attack of the Clones. (The dragons didn’t seem to happy about it either.)

—The prestigious “Nightmare Fuel of the Week” award goes to the penultimate scene, in which a child nailed to a wall in the center of a bunch of human limbs arranged in a creepy spiral, comes back to life to screech terrifying and is then set on fire. Even typing that out is a bit horrific. It was nice to see Ol’ Tormund “Blue Eyes” Giantsbane again though.

—Jon Snow is a two-time winner of the coveted “Aww Shucks Reunion of the Week” award for his reunions with Arya and Bran. It’s weird to think that these characters haven’t been in the same place since very early in season 1.

And now, a haiku by Yara Greyjoy

Nice to be rescued
But this really does feel rushed
Like all my plotlines

What did you think of the premiere? 

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