The Next Frontier of Space Opera: Announcing the New Anthology Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers

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The 2017 anthology Infinite Stars, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, provides an interesting twist on the format—it collects stories from some of the biggest names in military sci-fi and space opera, who contribute tales set within the larger universes of their preexisting series: a new Dune story from Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, a new RCN story by David Drake, an Ender story from Orson Scott Card.

This fall, Schmidt and Titan Books are doing it again in Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers, which features 27 stories—15 of them original to this book— set in some of your favorite sci-fi settings, from Becky Chambers’ Hugo-nominated Wayfarers  universe, to Tanya Huff’s Confederation, to Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet, to the Liaden Universe of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.

Below, see the cover art for the book, designed by Julia Lloyd, and check out the full list of contributors. Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers is available for preorder now, and arrives in stores on November 5.

The follow-up to the critically acclaimed Infinite Stars anthology, Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers continues to present today’s finest science fiction authors writing new stories set in their most famous worlds. With a new introduction and a short story by David Weber, the authors include Becky Chambers (Wayfarers), Curtis C. Chen (Kangaroo), Orson Scott Card (Ender), Susan R. Matthews, Larry Niven and Steven Barnes (Dream Park), Tanya Huff (Confederation), Jack Campbell (Lost Fleet) and many more. All new stories are exclusive to this volume for 18 months. The unparalleled collection also offers masterpieces by famous writing legends including Arthur C. Clarke, E.E. “Doc” Smith, C.L. Moore, and Robert Heinlein.

A complete list of contributors follows. Names marked with an asterisk have contributed new stories exclusive to this anthology.

*David Weber
*Jack Campbell
*Becky Chambers
Robert Heinlein
George R.R. Martin
*Susan R. Matthews
*Orson Scott Card
E.E. “Doc” Smith
*Tanya Huff
*Curtis C. Chen
Seanan McGuire
*Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
*Larry Niven and Steven Barnes
James Blish
Gardner Dozois
*David Farland
*Mike Shepherd
C.L. Moore
Neal Asher
*Weston Ochse
*Brenda Cooper
Alan Dean Foster
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
*Kevin J. Anderson
David Weber
Arthur C. Clarke
*C.J. Cherryh

Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers arrives in stores on November 5.

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How 6 Beloved SFF Authors Persevered Though Career Hardship to Become Bestsellers

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Some writers burst out of the gate with a brilliant debut novel that earns all the attention, awards, and (hopefully) sales—think Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind) or N.K. Jemisin (whose The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms earned her a Nebula nomination out of the gate). But some now very famous and successful authors didn’t have that experience—and not because their debuts aren’t worthy of acclaim. Sometimes, fate just doesn’t align to give them the start they deserve.

Happily, in books there’s always a chance the next chapter will be more exciting than the last—and that certainly has proven true for these six authors, all of whom put a rocky start (or mid-career rough patch) behind them and went on to create some of our favorite works.

The Near Witch, by Victoria Schwab
If you cast your mind back to the heady days of 2011, you’d be forgiven for not remembering it as the year Victoria Schwab published her debut novel, The Near Witch. Though it garnered good reviews and found a faithful following among those who read it, the book simply failed to get much traction—and, as Schwab detailed in a recent interview with B&N, her next two books didn’t meet her publisher’s sales expectations either (never mind that the publisher didn’t seem to know how to promote her work to the right audience). The young author was faced with a decision: would she give up on her lifelong dream, or recommit herself to her art? Thankfully for all who now adore her books—and there are legions of us—she chose the latter course, but changed what she was doing in one big way: she decided to write solely for herself, to create the messy, complex, and darkly beautiful books of her heart. Within short order, the results were Vicious and A Darker Shade of Magic; within a few years, sequel novels in both those series had landed on the bestseller lists and Schwab attracted the attention of Hollywood (and we’d put good money that one of her books will make it to the screen sooner rather than later). All in all: quite the career recovery.

The Armageddon Rag, by George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin has been writing since the 1960s and made his first professional fiction sale in 1971. Nowadays, he’s one of those authors who has become a celebrity—nearly as famous as the books he writes, which is saying something considering he’s the fountainhead of Game of Thrones, maybe the most successful TV show ever. He’s an accomplished writer of short stories, novels, and screenplays, and a respected editor… but that wasn’t always so. In 1983, he published his third solo novel, following the well-received space opera Dying of the Light and the fantastically atmospheric vampire tale Fevre DreamThe Armageddon Rag was an ambitious work, combining fantasy subtext with a murder mystery structure and plenty of ruminating on rock music and 1960s counter-culture. It was… not well-received, to say the least. Martin himself has described it in interviews as “a total commercial disaster” that “almost destroyed” his career. He shifted his focus from novels to comics and screenwriting, meeting with equal success and frustration in Hollywood, but he didn’t publish another novel for 13 years. The good news? That novel was A Game of Thrones, written both because reading Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy had shown Martin how much life remained in epic fantasy, and because, after years of working on failed TV pilots, he was ready to be in control of his own destiny once again. And there’s no need to feel too bad for The Armageddon Rag either: the novel has experienced something of a critical reassessment these days, and is now back in print and benefitting from the attention now granted to books with “George R.R. Martin” on the cover.

Duran Duran: The Book, by Neil Gaiman
No conversation about early career missteps is complete without bringing up the eternally fascinating fact that one of Neil Gaiman’s first professional credits is for a biography of the band Duran Duran. Gaiman was hired to write it when he was in his early 20s, and freely admits he took the path of least resistance to do so, limiting his research to press clippings from the BBC. He also admits he chose Duran Duran from a list of potential bands to feature because they had the shortest discography, meaning the book would be less work. The finished product was actually a success, of sorts—it sold well enough, but the publisher went out of business entirely shortly after publication. For years, Gaiman treated the book like a dark secret and made sure it stayed out of print. Well, it’s still out of print, there not being big demand for a surface-level pop bio of Duran Duran in 2019, but Gaiman has found his sense of humor about it by now. Probably the fact that his subsequent career involved writing a now-legendary comic series and penning novels that have been adapted for the screen one after another helped him find that perspective.

The Wind from Nowhere, by J.G. Ballard
If you’re under the impression that The Drowned World was J.G. Ballard’s first novel, you’re forgiven, for the man himself often said exactly that. Published when Ballard was 31, the author later described The Wind from Nowhere—a story about a steady westward wind that gains force until humanity is driven underground—as “hackwork” and chose to pretend it had never been published at all. He released The Drowned World the next year, launching a very successful career and establishing himself as one of the great British sci-fi writers of the 20th century—but if you can track down a copy of his actual first novel, you’ll understand how unlikely that once seemed.

The Haunted Storm, by Philip Pullman
Today we know Philip Pullman as the author of the His Dark Materials series, among many other lauded works. But Pullman’s first novel, The Haunted Storm, is aggressively out of print and likely to stay that way. What’s interesting about this one is the fact that the novel was relatively well-received, and even shared that year’s Young Writers Award, an honor bestowed upon it by the New English Library. No, it’s Pullman who is sufficiently embarrassed by the novel, published when he was 25 years old; he calls it a “not very good book” and has worked to ensure that no one can read it unless they’re willing to pay a huge premium to buy one of the rare copies still floating around on the secondary market. We’ll have to take him at his word that it’s not worth reading; the evidence put forth by his other books certainly would suggest otherwise.

Survivor, by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler published Survivor as part of her Patternist series in 1978—it was the third novel in the saga, and Butler was already well on her way to being acknowledged as one of the best minds in SFF. But Butler herself considered the novel to be a failure, and not only completely disowned it but made certain it went out of print by the 1980s. Her explanation for why she took that course of action is fascinating; she says that growing up she was disgusted by the stock sci-fi premise of humans discovering alien life that more or less stand in as lesser “beings of color.” After publishing Survivor, she felt that this was exactly the story she herself had told—so she buried it. It’s safe to say Butler’s career wasn’t too badly affected by either the quality of this novel or her decision to quash it—her next book, Kindred, became her bestselling, and is now widely considered a classic.

What other inspiring career “second chapters” come to mind?

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6 Books Featuring Killer Blade Fights

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Today we are joined by guest author Anna Kashina—whose latest book, Shadowblade, is out now from Angry Robot—as she discusses the skillful presentation of sword fighting in fantasy novels. 

My favorite genre—as a writer and as a reader—is historical adventure fantasy. I tend to pick medieval multicultural settings, with the level of technology preceding the invention of the firearms. As a writer, this gives me one very important tool: blades.

Top-level blademasters are recurring characters in my books, and central to my most recent novel, Shadowblade. For me this means doing lots of research about blade fighting techniques so that I can then pick the best weapons for all my characters, and populate the book with the coolest blade fights I can come up with.

Blade fighting is not just about weapons. There’s so much more that goes into being versatile and skilled with blades. One has to have superb reflexes, to be street-smart and stealthy, and to be a very quick thinker, among many other things. In my mind, this is also an irresistible set of qualities for a strong character.

I rarely go into all the technical details when describing blade fights. After all, it’s all about characters; the fights are only one tool that show off their interactions and their special qualities. Accordingly, my approach to describing blade fights usually goes one of two ways: the first is using the point of view of an expert who doesn’t see the need to focus on every move, but instead notes only a few that are especially well done. The second is from an amateur’s perspective, offering unbiased reactions without any technical knowledge, and thus relating directly to those readers who aren’t proficient with weapons themselves. (There is also a third way I’ve seen employed effectively, one that determinedly avoids describing any fights at all, only the results, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination.)

In Shadowblade, a young girl, Naia, in training to become a top-level blademaster, accepts a very high profile, near-suicidal assignment for the Empire. Writing this book, I had an opportunity to employ both of my favorite points of view to describe blade fights. Naia starts out an amateur and can only admire the skill of some of the top warriors in her Order. Later on, as a ranked professional, she shifts into the expert mode. Being able to use both approaches in application to the same characterwas very gratifying.

I feel very special when I find a book that resonates with my own way of thinking about blade fights in fiction—but I find they are rare indeed. Here is a very short list of books that I think handle the subject well.

The Way of Shadows, by Brent Weeks
Highly skilled fights are the absolute centerpiece of this book, the story of a young street boy who escapes his gang and trains to become one of the most skilled assassins in the world. He goes through deadly challenges and humiliation, dangers and betrayal, and comes through it all as one of the best of the best. When you read this book, you believe that this is how this kind of training actually works; without glorifying the assassins’ profession, it carefully conveys the skill required to become a master. It’s not for the faint hearted, and on the gory side compared to the books I usually read, but the fights are worth it.

Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas
The main character, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien, starts off as a prisoner in the king’s salt mines. She is summoned by the Crown Prince to become his champion and face some of the worst in their kingdom to win the contest for her freedom. This book is a pure joy to read, and a great example of the very effective “expert” point of view: Celaena has finished her training and achieved her highly notorious reputation long before the start of the book. Every bit of her experience and skill shows—not just in the fights, but in every one of her interactions; she can keep people on their toes with just a glance. I highly recommend this book and the entire series it’s a part of.

Magic of Blood and Sea, by Cassandra Rose Clarke
Assassins are creatures of shadows and blood magic. Dying by an assassin’s hand is the ultimate way to die, because no one could possibly expect you to escape them. With this introduction, we meet Naji, an attractive, mysterious, and complex blood magician, who moves through the shadows to unseeingly approach his victims. A curse binds him to a young pirate girl, and they are forced to travel together until they can find a way to break the spell. All we see of Naji’s blade work are the occasional glints of his steel—he moves too fast for the eye to follow. With all that, the way his fights are described is just so compelling that it is impossible to stop reading. This is a great example that when the details are left to the imagination, the resulting scene can be even more powerful.

Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett
I am aware that this choice is surprising; I greatly admire Terry Pratchett’s work, but Night Watch, while being one of my favorites of his books, is not really about assassins or blade fights. Yet, I think of it as featuring one of the best ways to describe fights: through not showing them at all. One passing character in this book is Lord Vetinari—the criminal who will later become the most effective ruler of Ankh Morpork. In Night Watch he is a young assassin who trails the main character—later to be Captain Vimes—and provides him with unseen help out of the toughest situations. Through glimpses of Vetinari, we learn some scarce secrets of the trade, such as that assassins’ favorite color is not black, but dark blue, because that is the color that blends the best with the darkness. We see Vetinari mostly as a silent shadow glimpsed over the rooftops, disappearing too fast for the eye to trace; no one has ever seen Vetinari with a weapon in hand, a seemingly reassuring thought that instead seems ominous and alarming. Other Terry Pratchett Discworld books occasionally show assassins as well, but this one stands out as the most memorable.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Here I mention an entire series rather than just one book, because to me it is really just one continuous, very long novel. (Incidentally, I am one of the nearly extinct dinosaurs who never watched a single episode of the Games of Thrones TV series, so everything I say here relies directly from the books.) There are many sword fights in A Game of Thrones, most of them gory and realistic. Real, non-choreographed sword fights are rarely as long and spectacular as they appear in movies. They usually end very quickly, and with lethal disfiguring injuries. There are many of those in this series, but only one swordsman stands out for me because of his pure skill: Jaime Lannister. (Curiously enough, he becomes truly interesting as a character only after he loses his hand, and hence his superb sword skill.) To me, the power comes in the way he thinks of the sword fights, especially when he misses being able to do it the way he used to. It made me think of lightness, and fluidity, and technique, and the fun behind it for someone like him. It’s testament to the author’s superb ability for character development that Jaime, who starts off as a despicable villain, can turn around and become the most likable characters, despite my full awareness that he cannot possibly end up well (no spoilers). His sword skill is an integral part of him, even after he loses the ability.

Anna Kashina writes historical adventure fantasy, featuring exotic settings, martial arts, assassins, and elements of romance. Her Majat Code series, published by Angry Robot Books, UK, received two Prism Awards in 2015. She is a Russian by origin, and a scientist in her day job, and she freely draws on these backgrounds in her writing. Shadowblade is available now.

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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

Awards!

—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?

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Tyrion, Daenerys, and… Harry? 9 Weirdly Normal Character Names in Fantasy Novels

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Building a cohesive epic fantasy universe is tricky stuff, and perhaps nothing is trickier than coming up with character names that are suitably exotic without crossing over into the ridiculous. And while we certainly trust authors—who undoubtedly have reams of historical and linguistic documentation to justify their naming schemes—sometimes the result is a book in which a warrior named Uther Ubertonia is fighting an evil black dragon side by side with… someone named Frank Roberts. For contemporary and portal fantasy novels, this is entirely understandable, but sometimes the juxtaposition of capital-F Fantasy Names with ones that might as easily belong to your next-door neighbor can be unintentionally amusing.

John Smith in Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde
Jasper Fforde has so much fun with the names in his Thursday Next novels that even the few common names that pop up are less incongruous than purposefully jarring. In the second book of a series where lampshading the bizarre names is already a regular joke, the gloriously named Thursday—who is surrounded by characters with names like Archeron Hades, Yorrick Kane, and Victor Analogy—meets a man named… John Smith. She notes that she finds it an “unusual name.”

Harry Strickland in A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Martin has legitimately put more thought into his character names than many writers put into entire novels. He follows a fairly logical system for choosing names, and largely sticks to names that will be more familiar and easier to pronounce for native English-speaking readers. Many of the names used in Westeros, for example, are taken from European sources and run through a creative spelling algorithm; the resultant names are fairly close to ones popular in the U.K. and U.S., but different enough to appear exotic. Still, we also have main characters named Tyrion, Cersei, and Daenerys alongside one named Jon. The most egregious example of this in the whole series is Ser Harry Strickland, whose name doesn’t really seem to fit the character of a mercenary general. You wouldn’t be surprised if your accountant was named Harry Strickland—which perhaps makes this one genius, because in a way, that’s essentially the duty Harry performs as head of the sellswords in the Golden Company.

Eric in Eric, by Terry Pratchett
Pratchett’s Discworld books offer brilliant deconstructions of fantasy tropes and are definitely intended to be hilarious, so it’s little wonder the fantasy names themselves are kind of funny—Rincewind, for example, is just an inherently amusing moniker. But it really pops when Rincewind himself is summoned by a demonologist named… Eric, who demands that the incompetent wizard grant him three pretty huge wishes (ruling the world, meeting the most beautiful woman ever, immortality—you know, standard wish stuff). Eventually Eric even gets his own self-titled book; immortality indeed.

Tom, Bert, and Bill in The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Look, no one—no one—put more work into their worldbuilding than Tolkien. The stories behind even the names you know by heart are often deeper than you might think—for example, “Frodo Baggins” is not the hobbit’s actual name, but a translation of his name into common speech (a.k.a. Westron). And Tolkien didn’t just invent cool-sounding names, he invented entire cultures to go with them, history and language and more; the names he chooses definitely mean something. But there are also characters named Tom, and Bert, and William—you might know them better as the three trolls who turn to stone in The Hobbit. Of course, there is also everyone’s favorite nature-lover, Tom Bombadill. (Do you suppose anyone ever called him Tommy?)

Everyone in The Sword of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
Goodkind’s epic series is set in a culturally-mixed world, so having a variety of names isn’t surprising in a worldbuilding sense, but it can be a bit disorienting to read about characters named George and Michael adventuring alongside one Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander. What makes it even more noticeable is the way names aren’t tied in any apparent way to geography or culture—no matter where you are in the fictional world, you are just as likely to meet a George as a Demmin or a Kadar.

Kevin Landwaster in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson
On the one hand, this is a portal fantasy, so it’s totally excusable when people named Tom and Linden show up in a world where everyone else is named Saltheart Foamfollower. On the other hand, one of the legendary figures of the Land’s history is named Kevin, and he’s a real “we need to talk about Kevin” kind of Kevin, as he spoke the Ritual of Desecration in a despairing gambit to defeat the series’ Big bad, Lord Foul. Come to think of it, we also need to talk about Lord Foul, don’t we? I mean, a raver—an immortal force of evil with the super-cool name Samadhi Sheol—serves someone named Lord Foul? Though to be fair, Foul has alternate names, but none of them are much cooler, unless “Fangthane” does it for you. Which it should not.

Paul Atreides in Dune, by Frank Herbert
If you squint, there seems to be a rhyme and a reason to Herbert’s naming schemes, which features a lot of Arabic influence as well as celestial names. But mixed in with some of these clearly historically drawn or fanciful and fantastical names are a lot of common Eurocentric ones: Paul, Miles, Duncan. There’s some attempt at explaining this (the corruption of names over time, etc.), but the fact is, you’re still going to come across paragraphs in which someone named Paul is chatting with someone named Stilgar Ben Fifrawi.

Luke Skywalker in Star Wars
For the most part, the Star Wars universe does a great job of giving characters fun names that evoke their personalities and are pretty cool without crossing into parody (Elan Sleezebaggano aside). Han Solo? Great name! Lando Calrissian? Greater name. Darth Vader? Badass name. Darth Sidious? Badderass name. And then there’s… Luke. Sure, Skywalker’s a great name. A bit grandiose, but still cool (though it has nothing on the original “Starkiller”). Luke, on the other hand? Not exactly a name that evokes thoughts of a prophesied savior of the galaxy, is it?

Dennis Cranmer in The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski
The Witcher series is crammed with names whose pronunciation you can but guess at, starting with the main character, Geralt of Rivia, and running through a long list that includes solid gold fantasy gems like Nadir, Velerad, Calanthe, and Segelin. And then there’s the dwarf Dennis Cranmer. To paraphrase When Harry Met Sally, a Dennis cannot be a fierce dwarf. If you need a root canal, Dennis is your man, but axe-fightin’ and evil-defeatin’ are not Dennis’ strong suit.

What’s your favorite not-all-that-fantastical fantasy name?

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All the Books You Need to Read to Discover the Real Story of Game of Thrones

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Pop culture phenomenons like HBO’s Game of Thrones don’t come around all that often, and once they’ve wrapped up, it can be painful to say goodbye. The ending of this particular saga is bittersweet for a number of reasons, and not only because the fan reaction to the eighth and final season has been, shall we say, mixed at best. There’s also the fact that many of those currently in mourning over the fates of their favorite characters actually first encountered the world of Westeros in a completely different medium—A Game of Thrones, the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s voluminous fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire, upon which the show is based, released in 1996. Thus, with two books still to be published, these fans feel like the story isn’t really over yet, even as the adaptation has spoiled the ending.

But I, ever the book-loving optimist, have decided to cope with the loss in a different way: rather than shedding tears over the ending, I’m going back to the beginning: by re-experiencing the whole thing—or as much of it as I can right now—on the page, reacquainting myself the the characters the TV series never found time for and anticipating an ending I’ll find more personally satisfying, even if it’s the same in its broad strokes. Whether you are a seasoned book reader or a fan of the show missing spending time with your favorite devious dwarf, these are all the books you need to read to discover the real story of Game of Thrones.

A Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons), by George R.R. Martin
It probably goes without saying, but if you have yet to read the books that inspired the series—George R.R. Martin’s still-unfolding epic A Song of Ice and Fire—you’ve only glimpsed a part of the story. Though the first four seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones are more or less direct adaptations of the source material, even with 10 episodes to work with they streamline subplots, change character motivations, and eliminate huge swaths of plot in the interest of telling a more palatable story for weekly episodic consumption. However, by the time the fifth season—ostensibly based on book five, A Dance with Dragons—rolled around, it was clear the show was going to end before the books, and ever since, it has been anyone’s guess as to how closely the to narratives will align. Certainly the show seems to stand atop the foundation laid by the novels already published, but it includes so many missing or differently shaped bricks, it’s hard to say if the finished structures will look much alike. Moreover, much of the deleted material is fascinating stuff—rich in worldbuilding, dense political maneuvering, one shocking (and much-missed) character resurrection—so you’re missing out if you assume the television version is the “only the good parts” version of the story. Of course, the real issue is no less relevant for you as a reader than it was for the show’s writers a few seasons back: There’s still no telling when Martin will finally finish his version of this immense epic. Here’s hoping the furor over the adaptation’s decisive final season will light a fire under the author. But even if it doesn’t, I’d argue there is immense value in experiencing even this truncated version of the story.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, by George R.R. Martin and Gary Gianni (illustrator)
So you’ve binged the entire television series and reread those five fat novels. What next? This collection of three novellas set 100 years before the start of the series, originally published across disparate anthologies, is exactly what you’re looking for. In following the adventures of knight-for-hire Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire (and unlikely future king) Aegon V “Egg” Targaryen traipsing through the Westeros countryside, Martin provides a glimpse at a (slightly) happier time in the history of the war-torn nation, while doling out key revelations that remind us, yes, winter is coming for this world. The hardcover edition collects all three stories for the first time, along with over 160 illustrations. George R.R. Martin has promised more with these characters too—at least three and as many as six additional novellas are planned—but, as ever with this saga, you’re better off savoring what’s already out there than playing wait-and-see.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin, Elio Garcia, and Linda Antonsson
On screen and on the page, Martin’s fictional world is darkly beautiful, intricate, and deep. In this lavish compendium, largely written by Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson, the webmasters of the popular (nay, essential) fan site Westeros.org, the author cranks up the backstory to 11, providing the most comprehensive (and illustrated) view yet of the wider history of the Seven Kingdoms and the landsacross the Narrow Sea. This battle-filled, rivalry-stuffed, usurper-heavy hardcover looks great on your coffee table, but it is more than mere backstory for the obsessive fan: The tragedies of the past tend to repeat themselves, and the events outlined here echo throughout A Song of Ice and Fire. Moreover, this book is also said to include clues as to the stories that will play out in the spinoff(s) HBO is currently developing to continue the franchise onscreen.

Fire & Blood: A Targaryen History, by George R.R. Martin, illustrated by 
If the sort of glancing, arc-of-history backstory featured in The World of Ice & Fire sounds too surface level for you, Martin’s most recent Westeros book will be exactly your goblet of wine. It is the first of a planned duology of in-universe histories laying out the tortured story of the Targaryen dynasty that produced one Daenerys Targaryen, First of Her Name, Mother of Dragons, Etc. Etc. The book began life as but one section of the aforementioned world history, penned solely by Martin, but it grew a bit in the telling, as they say, to the magnitude of several hundred thousand words (the finished volume stretches to 736 pages, including ample illustrations by Doug Wheatley). Like The World of Ice & Fire, Fire & Blood purports to be a book of history pulled straight out of the world of the novels; as such, it is written in the voice of various maesters of Westeros and includes intentional ambiguity over the absolute veracity of the events depicted. If you can get over the fact that it isn’t the sixth book of the series proper, it’s great fun. Unfortunately, it has also given us another book to wait for: the second volume probably won’t arrive until sometime after the publication of the seventh book, A Dream of Spring.

The Lands of Ice & Fire, by George R.R. Martin
With a story that spans the Seven Kingdoms and multiple other continents besides, A Song of Ice and Fire truly puts the “epic” in “epic fantasy,” and there is no better way to illustrate that than with a really cool map or twenty. This collection of lavishly illustrated maps goes way beyond the famous 3-D cartography of the opening sequence of the HBO adaptation, and will help readers (and viewers) orient themselves in this wide invented world. From tundra to desert, the lands of Westeros (and beyond) are vast, and The Lands of Ice & Fire is your passport to it all.

How are you celebrating (or lamenting) the end of Game of Thrones?

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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

Awards!

—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!

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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.

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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

Awards!

—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!

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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.

Awards!

—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?

The post The Game of Thrones Awards, Season 8, Episode 3: Not Today. appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

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