Winter is coming, and so at last is the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s massive fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s been a gap of more than five years, a wait that has made many of his fans testy, but this Tuesday the wait is over and A Dance of Dragons hits the streets. It’s supposed to be a brick of a book, clocking in with eleven storylines, sixteen viewpoints, and over a thousand pages. To prepare yourself, hole up this weekend with the previous four books and prepare to immerse yourself in the world Martin has created. That’s certainly what I’m going to do. You want some reading for the weekend? Here’s the mother of all weekend reads.
Hard to say what it’s about, really. I could talk for hours, and only be done with half the plotlines. Suffice it to say that there’s a medieval throne in a country kind of like England; some people want the throne and others try to prevent them from getting it and they all go to war, while the common folk just keep their heads down and all the while a darker threat is looming in the north, which is the land of things that go bump in the night. Politics, murder, war, love, battle, rape, poison, backstabbing, scheming, treachery–these books have it all.
Hate fantasy? A Song of Ice and Fire is fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy. Martin lays on the magic with a light touch; he relies on character and plot to move the story along rather than The Force or any magic ring. If one of his characters is strung up from a tree (ahem, George, you left her there at the end of the Book 4 and you’d better resolve it quick because I don’t want to leave her hanging there another half-decade while you write Book 5) then she’ll have to get down with wits, strength, or good old-fashioned luck because no magical gizmo is going to show up and save her in deus ex machina fashion. There’s magic in these books but it’s unpredictable, chancy, dangerous, and rare–just like any other force of nature.
Hate fantasy and love historical fiction? No problem. Sly references to real history abound. There’s a war between two families called the Starks and the Lannisters–Yorks and Lancasters, anybody? There’s a deposed royal family living in exile across the water–the deposed Stuarts, anybody? There’s a womanizing drunk of a king and his beautiful but ambitious blond wife; check and check for Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. The continent is England-shaped, albeit much larger, and there’s even a massive ice wall running through the top just like Hadrian’s Wall dividing England and Scotland. There’s a loyal lord who loses a head much like Richard Duke of York, and another lord who turns traitor much like the lord who betrayed Richard II at the Battle of Bosworth. A Song of Ice and Fire is kind of like the Wars of the Roses, only with colder winters and a dragon or three.
If you’re daunted by the sheer size of the books, which admittedly are doorstoppers, start with the TV series. HBO gave the first book, Game of Thrones, the full treatment: vast budget, huge cast, gorgeous costumes, stunning sets, stirring music, and expert CGI. That’ll take you through the first book, and then you’ll be stuck like the rest of us, waiting for Season 2 to come out in ten months. At least next Tuesday the next book comes out.
It might tide me over.
The best of Eva Ibbotson’s superb collection of humorous romantic dramas, which makes it very good indeed. Unusually, its heroine is not a young girl striking out into life and love, but a woman in her thirties with much worldly experience of both already. Fashionable dressmaker Susanna chronicles a year of her life in pre-World War I Vienna; her hilarious observations of her clients, her neighbors, and her friends provide one laugh after another. Will the shy little piano prodigy across the square ever get a debut concert? Will the bluestocking bridesmaid ever step out from behind her domineering mother, or is she doomed to write boring dissertations on Beowulf forever? Why on earth did a sensual pork butcher agree to a celibate marriage with a young beauty? And just what is the so-called “Nasty Little Habit” which sends the mistress of the local bureaucrat running?
No one has any secrets from the dressmaker, but Susanna herself is full of secrets. Why does she invariably disappear for a day or two after an onion-chewing little corporal comes to deliver a message? Why does she violently refuse to be godmother to any of her best friend’s daughters? And how did a girl with a good education end up a dressmaker in the first place?
Eva Ibbotson’s minor characters offer her usual smorgasbord of delights – Susanna’s Hungarian assistant with an equal passion for haut couture and anarchist slogans is a particular delight. But Vienna itself takes center stage: Susanna’s narrative pays an elegant, elegiac tribute to a city and time shortly to be engulfed by war. A magical book.
If you like your historical fiction filled with blood, battles, and alpha males, then Bernard Cornwell is for you. His list of 40+ books covers stories as diverse as King Arthur, the American Civil War, the building of Stonehenge, and Napoleon’s attempts to push Wellington out of Spain, but his current series is called the Saxon Stories: five books to date about King Alfred’s struggle to save a little country called England from the Vikings, and Alfred’s chief warrior whose exploits on the battlefield ensure that Alfred will someday be called “the Great.”
It’s an unconventional partnership to say the least. King Alfred is humorless, tidy-minded, and a fervent believer in Christianity; the strapping hero Uhtred is noisy, aggressive, and a fervent believer in Thor. The two regard each other with exasperation, mystification, and sometimes downright loathing, but the King needs Uhtred if he is ever to push the Vikings out of England, and Uhtred keeps fighting for him although his own sympathies often lie with his Viking friends. Sword Song is the fourth installment in Uhtred’s adventures, and things are looking up for him. He’s no longer chained to an oar as he was through much of the previous book (don’t ask), and he’s settled down happily with a wife he adores and a never-ending supply of battles to fight. Trouble comes in the form of Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed, a teenage princess who has long been a pet of Uhtred’s. Now grown into an appealingly steely girl (the scene where she blackmails an oath of loyalty out of Uhtred is priceless), Aethelflaed is newly and unhappily married to an idiot who promptly manages to get her kidnapped by Vikings. Uhtred’s job, like any hero’s, is to rescue the princess. But what if the princess doesn’t want to be rescued?
Uhtred gets better and better: confident, aggressive, humorous, vital. Alfred is a pious little prat in comparison, and Aethelflaed despite her impossible name is a girl with a bent for adventure whom even Uhtred can’t push around. Start at the beginning of this marvelous Saxon Stories for the full adventure, and give yourself far more than a weekend’s worth of reading.
Nancy Mitford is a goddess to raving Anglophiles like me. Her joined novels The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate are not only semi-autobiographical and deeply moving, but one of the funniest examinations of British eccentricity ever written. The narrator of both books is Fanny, a quiet girl who observes the lives and loves of her more madcap cousins Linda and Polly. Linda’s story is covered in The Pursuit of Love when the vivacious Linda unwisely marries first a crashing bore of a conservative and then a crashing bore of a communist, and finally finds happiness with a sophisticated Casavnova of a Frenchman. Love In A Cold Climate follows Polly, a beautiful girl destined for a duke or a prince . . . until she elopes with her uncle by marriage.
These books will have you yearning for hedgerows, country houses, and fox hunters in pink coats
The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate are less about plot and more about the characters, who make themselves unforgettable every time they open their mouths. Tony the conservative, “a perfect mountain of pomposity.” Uncle Matthew the explosive country squire, training his bloodhounds by having them hunt his children across the countryside or even across Hyde Park in London, despite people staring. Lady Montdore the ineffable snob, observing “Hardly any of one’s friends in England had ever heard of India before we went there, you know.” Linda’s lover Fabrice, urban to his fingertips, a hero of the French resistance who finds time to keep his mistress updated on the latest fashion trends (“That suit has ready-made all over it; jackets are longer this year.”)
If “Gosford Park” and Oscar Wilde is your idea of humor; if you have ever yearned to grow up in an English country house with fox hunting and tweeds and Oxford dons coming for long weekends – then these are the books for you.
As promised, a review of Tuesday’s teaser.
THE ORACLE GLASS
Teenage Genevieve Pasquier might have grown up in Paris under the reign of Louis XIV, but she has no desire for the high society life at court which her beautiful sister and ambitious mother crave. Genevieve, cursed with a crippled foot and blessed with a brilliant mind, just wants to read books and discuss philosophy with her adored father. But her father’s death and her family’s greed tears Genevieve away from everything she knows, and into an entirely new life.
If the Sun King rules France, the Shadow Queen rules his court. The amused and amoral Madame Montvoisin has built a vast business network providing Louis XIV’s jaded courtiers with love spells, good luck charms, illicit abortions, Black Masses, and anything else illegal and occult that takes their fancy. Taking Genevieve under her wing as apprentice, La Voisin grooms an aristocratic girl with a talent for telling fortunes into Versailles’s most celebrated society fortune-teller: the Marquise de Morville, over one hundred years old and preserved in eternal youth. Genevieve’s unconventional career brings her wealth, vengeance, perhaps even love – but what will happen when La Voisin’s underground empire of Satanism and poison trading is dragged into the light of day?
“The Oracle Glass” is a rarity among historical fiction: erudite but not boring, passionate but not romance-oriented, deadly serious but also deadly funny, and maintaining a perfect balance between fictional characters and historical figures. It’s astounding to see what gullible fools the Sun King’s friends really were, and great fun to see the sharp little Genevieve fleecing them with such gusto. Her growth from bookish girl to vengeance-driven cynic to loving woman is real and touching, and she is surrounded by a host of marvelous side characters. Her patroness La Voisin is an enigma wrapped in a mystery; she might offer you tea and sympathy or she might poison you and bury your body in her garden, but you never fall asleep when she’s on the page. And minor subplots like the housemaid possessed by the world’s most snobbish demon are an absolute scream.
A fascinating look at the Sun King’s court and the infamous Affair of the Poisons which almost brought it down, and a rollicking good read too.