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In my search for more of the "magic" that is GRR Martin's prose in his acclaimed saga A Song of Ice and Fire, I have been reading some of his other works, discovering what an accomplished story-teller he can be even outside of the realms of Westeros.

DYING OF THE LIGHT is one of these amazing finds.  Published for the first time in 1977, it's a science fiction story set on the rogue planet Worlorn: hurtling through space in its aimless course, for the first time since its creation the planet crosses a region densely packed with suns, and gets a chance for warmth and life, however fleeting.

The 14 existing galactic civilizations declare a Festival on Worlorn, each of them building a city to showcase their culture and its accomplishments: when the story begins, the Festival is long over, the cities mostly abandoned, the planet headed once more into the cold blackness of space.  

From Worlorn Dirk t'Larien receives a whisperjewel – a psi-encoded memory storage from his former lover Gwen Delvano. It's a summons, based on an old promise made when they both had the jewels crafted for them: never reconciled with the end of the relationship, Dirk departs for the rogue planet full of hope and dreams.  Once there, though, Gwen welcomes him with puzzlement, looking distant and ill-at-ease, and soon Dirk discovers she's bound to another man, Jaan Vikary, a highborn from the aggressive and patriarchal society of High Kavalaan.  Now convinced that the summons was Gwen's way to forever cut the ties with Dirk, saying a final goodbye, t'Larien slowly learns that Kavalar culture requires a woman to be little more than a chattel, to be shared between her mate and his teyn, a sort of blood brother, a bond that stands as the foundation of all things Kavalar.

The "marriage" is not an easy one, complicated by Jaan's peculiar customs and his society's preoccupation with racial purity and mutations, therefore Dirk slowly comes to the conclusion that the whisperjewel represented a mute appeal from Gwen to save her from the unhappy liaison.  The situation becomes more problematic as we learn that other Kavalars on Worlorn practice a form of hunt whose prey are the creatures they deem inferior and non-human, which includes everyone else by their standards, so that Jaan's attempts at stopping the bloody sport and bringing his planet to a higher galactic standard further inflame the already volatile tempers.

Soon Dirk find himself enmeshed in a political and personal struggle, complicated by his feelings for Gwen and a slowly unfolding web of discoveries that create a fascinating cultural backdrop and change his world-view, leading to a breath-stopping open ending.

Even that early in his career GRR Martin could create spellbinding tapestries, dotted with beautiful characters that sport the many shades of gray I have come to expect from his writing.  Kavalar culture is fascinatingly explored in the juxtaposition between Jaan Vikary, the equivalent of a Renaissance man, and his teyn Garse Janacek, a man torn between duty to the old customs and his ties of loyalty and friendship to Jaan.  Strangely enough, despite the obvious shortcomings of their mind-set, I found them both more likeable than the "hero" Dirk t'Larien, whose stubbornness and sometimes childish pique offer an interesting contrast that reveals Gwen's unvoiced doubts and regrets.  Gwen herself is a wonderful creation: a woman still in search of herself, she seems to be wandering aimlessly through her life (much like the rogue planet where the action takes place), taking life and warmth from the suns she passes by. But in the end she surprises the readers with an unsuspected show of strength, as ultimately does Dirk, whose changes and inner growth take us to the very last pages of the book.

If you like George Martin's works, this one will not disappoint you: you will find many of the themes he further explored in the ASOIAF saga, together with spellbinding writing that often touches on the lyrical, and a fascinating story that will reserve many revelations.


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...Joe Abercrombie might be the author you are looking for.

After finishing  A Dance with Dragons, the last installment in Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga, I gave Abercrombie a try, on a friend's recommendation, and read his Best Served Cold.

Confession: with the exception of JRR Tolkien (who stands in a class by himself, IMHO) and George Martin, I don't read fantasy: too much of the genre is, in my view, stereotyped, predictable and ultimately boring.
When I started on ASOIAF, Martin's saga, some ten years ago, I came across a new way of writing fantasy: harsh, realistic, with little or no magic and characters that show many shades of gray. And until a few weeks ago I thought he was the only author using that kind of style.  But I happily discovered he's not.

Joe Abercrombie's prose is just as gritty, stark and shocking as George Martin's and my first exposure to his writing has turned me into an enthusiastic admirer.  My plan is to work my way through his other stand-alone book, The Heroes, and his The First Law trilogy: they should carry me over the long hiatus before the publication of Martin's The Winds of Winter – hopefully NOT another six years, please Mr. Martin!

In short, this is the premise of Best Served Cold (no spoilers – what I'm telling you is contained in the first chapter): Monzcarro Murcatto – Monza for short – is a successful mercenary leader working for Count Orso: she and her brother lead the band named Thousand Swords across the continent of Styria, conquering it bit by bit for Orso's undisputed rule.   Unfortunately, Monza's success goes hand in hand with personal prestige and Orso – himself a former mercenary leader – fears the possibility of being overthrown in the future, so he orders his men to kill Monza and her brother Brenna.
But against all odds, Monza survives, although broken in body and spirit, never free from the pain of her wounds and the loss of her brother, the only surviving member of her family. From that moment on, her only purpose will be to take her vengeance on Orso and the other six people responsible for the murderous assault.

To this end, she gathers a band of misfits who travel across Styria to pursue and kill, one by one, Monza's designated victims: the group, part Magnificent Seven, part Dirty Dozen, is as far as possible from any ideal of heroism and gives life to a gripping, amusing and at the same time terrifying tale that keeps you glued to the pages from start to finish - people like Caul Shivers,  the northern barbarian who traveled to Styria to become a better, less violent man, and finds himself drawn into a deeper vortex of blood and brutality, instead; or the master poisoner Morveer and his shifty apprentice Day, the autistic ex convict Friendly, endlessly and maniacally counting everything in sight, or the fascinating scoundrel, former General Cosca, a cheater and a drunkard.

What fascinated me, in these characters, is that none of them – not even the "heroine" Monza – is a likeable person, and yet I've come to care for them while I learned more about their personal history as the story unfolded, often presenting me with stunning revelations and unforeseeable twists and turns.  At the same time Abercrombie gives his readers an in-depth picture of war-ravaged Styria and of the customs and way of life of these people.

If you get bored with dragons and magicians, if you can't stand pure-hearted heroes that always do the right thing, this author is perfect for you.  Enjoy....

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After the long summer marathon in which I re-read the first four books of GRR Martin's saga, I finally tackled the long-awaited fifth book and finished it yesterday.

It's difficult to say how I feel about it: the long months of full immersion in the realms of Westeros left me a little unsettled, as if I just woke up from a convoluted dream and were still trying to regain a foothold in the normal flow of life.   There's a part of me that needs different "pastures" for the brain to explore, and another that's longing for more of that story.

It was a satisfying read, of course, the thousand-odd pages a welcome find after the six years long drought between this book and the previous one: several questions on the whereabouts of a few characters, totally absent in A Feast for Crows, were answered; new characters were added to the mix and older ones were presented in a different light, making me change my mind about them. GRR Martin often surprises us with these turnarounds, and it's one of the marks of how good a writer he is.

Yet it was not an "easy" read: the first half of the book suffered a little from the slowness many perceived in Book 4. These events ran in parallel with the story-arc of A Feast for Crows, so the feeling of having gone back and retraced one's steps must have been responsible for this sensation.
Once the story picked up again toward further developments, though, the pace did not greatly improve and the feel that some of the characters had lost momentum became too strong to ignore.

Daenerys is the one who suffers from this "illness" more than most: after having stormed through Slaver's Bay and taken over city after city, she stops at her last conquest, Meereen, and here she seems to get frozen in amber. Or rather, to be wading through molasses. Only toward the end of the book something changes - finally! - but we are left in the lurch thanks to a massive cliff-hanger. Thank you very much, Mr. Martin!

Something similar happens to other beloved characters, like Tyrion, or Jon: their last pages see them on the brink on something, with no clear indication of what will happen next. That is all right, of course: readers must be left hungering for more - it's a law of story-telling, and also a sound commercial tactic… But did we really need to suffer through pages and pages in which *nothing* happened at all to get to this point? I'm not too sure.

I've often read that sagas suffer from "sagging-middle syndrome", and ASOIAF seems no different: I hope that the next two books, which should see the conclusion of this huge story, will get back to the breath-taking, blood-racing pace of the first three instalments. It would be sad if this particular mountain were to give birth to a puny mouse, after all… 
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 As a long-standing fan of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vor Saga I greeted with joy the new (and to me totally unexpected) installment of this series, Cryoburn. The last one, Diplomatic Immunity, had been a little disappointing to say the truth, since it seemed to me that Bujold had somehow lost interest in her wonderful character and said all she wanted to say about him, but happily Cryoburn gave us back the 'old' Miles, and the hope that sometimes in the future we might enjoy more of his adventures.

So I've been able to re-acquaint myself with Miles Vorkosigan and his universe, and he seemed to be back in his prior form, although less impetuous (some might say 'crazy') and more mature. Which is understandable and correct, since the years have gone by and it would be wrong to expect him to stay the same as in the first books. What I liked most was that the old spark of craziness is still there, yet this time it's not acted out by Miles' usual recklessness, but rather observed through the eyes of others, like the faithful armsman Roic (nice character this one!) or the young boy who is Miles' counterpoint throughout this story.

My only complaint with Cryoburn, is that the book seems to end too abruptly, and that it does so on a poignant revelation. One that might have been expected, of course, but still saddened me to no end… And sorry, no spoilers from me!

If you don't know the works of LMB, and this enjoyable space-opera that goes under the title of Vor Saga, you will find here http://www.dendarii.com/biblio.html#timeline  the list of books in internal chronological order.

In short, and in the hope of introducing these much-beloved books to people who still don't know them, Miles Vorkosigan is born with serious physical impediments on a world that makes strength and military prowess the pillars of society. Despite these drawbacks, Miles manages, through sheer force of will and great intelligence, to emerge and carve a place for himself, all the while regaling us with fun, compelling and wonderful adventures.

What I love most about Ms. Bujold's writing is that it's flows along simple lines while at the same time it manages to convey deep meanings, and above all that it's… well, trans-generational: Miles' adventures can be quite satisfying both to young adults (to whom they can teach a great deal without ever being pedantic) and to older people as well. The style of writing is such that it can be enjoyed no matter your age or your preferences.

More important, Miles never looks like those stereotyped "boy geniuses" that we often encounter in books and tv, the ones that breeze through obstacles as if they weren't there, the ones, let's admit it, that we hate. Miles is fallible, he constantly doubts himself and he makes mistakes, sometimes fatal ones. His path is one of constant strife, against his shortcomings and against himself, and his victories are more often than not tainted by painful losses. This, I guess, is one of the reasons Bujold's readers learn to care so much about him, or the people around him. I found a sentence, over at GoodReads, that sums up quite effectively this character: he happens on people - usually unsuspecting ones - and he changes their lives forever, whether they want it or not. This is true both for the fictional persons in the stories and for the readers, and it's an incredible discovery.

As for myself, I think I will start a much-needed re-read of the whole saga. Care to join me?



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September 2013

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