Archive for August, 2011

To start I must disclose that this blog entry contains spoilers for all five of George R.R. Martin's currently published A Song of Ice and Fire books. I am also obliged to preface it by the full and frank admission that I am a spoiler junkie. Anywhere I can hunt them down, I will. For those of you who do not know, a slip up by Amazon meant that a handful of copies of A Dance with Dragons (hereafter ADwD) were shipped a week or so early to customers in Germany. The internet being what it is, full and explicit spoilers were therefore readily available well before publication, and I drank them all up like a parched woman who has not had a taste of A Song of Ice and Fire for six long years.

Now, I also know that George R.R. Martin detests spoilers and pleaded with those fans who got early copies not to spoil the book for the rest, and for the rest of us to wait until we had the book (or freshly fed Kindle in my case) in our own two hot, sweaty, little hands. Did this stop my hunting down spoilers? I confess not. Sorry, George.  Did it add a tinge of guilt to my fulfilling my spoiler addiction? Well, yes.

The BBC recently posted an interesting article on spoilers.  The writer of the article expressed the opinion that spoilers do not necessarily ruin the experience; that in many cases the journey is often as fulfulling as the ending.  From my own experience with spoilers and ADwD, I believe that to be the case here.  ADwD, and A Song of Ice and Fire in general, tends to be more character driven than plot driven.  A spoiler stating, say, that in chapter 22 character X does Y to character Z doesn't have as much impact when much of the beauty of A Song of Ice and Fire is learning about the inner thought processes of the characters; what impulses led them to take that action compared to how they might have reacted two books ago.  This insight into the characters is, in my opinion, GRRM's true gift as a writer.  The cast of point of view characters in A Song of Ice and Fire ranges from a pre-teen apprentice assassin to a world-weary embittered former knight of the KIng's Guard.  Each of them is written realistically and consistently within their own frame of reference.

This is not to say that there weren't times during my spoiler hunt that I didn't experience horror and dismay, most notably at the news of Jon Snow's fate.  As more and more spoilers were revealed, I also experienced growing sadness that the plot didn't seem to be moving along, and in the case of Dany's storyline even seemed to take a huge leap backwards.

Two ways in which I believe being spoiled enhanced my enjoyment of the book were to highlight the poignancy of Jon's arc and also to free me to focus on character rather than plot development.  Knowing what awaits Jon at the end of ADwD really throws his attempts to do his best for the Night's Watch under his command and to view the bigger picture into sharp relief.  Knowing that there will be no zombie apocolypse in the next chapter allowed me to simply enjoy spending time with the characters.

So, while it is no longer possible for me to read ADwD with virgin, unspoilered eyes, at this point I find it difficult to imagine that having remained spoiler-free would have added much to my enjoyment of the book.

What I liked:

Spending time with old friends: Not having had A Song of Ice and Fire book for six years, it was a real pleasure to catch up with characters like Tyrion and Jon.  In many aspects, reading ADwD felt like an evening or two spent with close friends I hadn't seen for a while, catching up with all their gossip.   In the same way, I sympathised with their struggles and cheered for their triumphs.

Tyrion: Tyrion was not his usual witty self for much of the book, but that is entirely consistent with what George had put him through.   It was very interesting to see him without the metaphorical armour and weapon of his wit, and to see the usually very self-aware dwarf deny even to himself just how much he cares for Penny.  (Side note to George.  If you ever dare to kill off Penny, I will be most annoyed.)

Like any good friend, though, it's easy to forgive Tyrion his snit, and cheer for him when he finally starts to act more like his old self.  Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt that I can now put the excellent Peter Dinklage's face and voice to Tyrion.  I  can't wait to see where Tyrion goes next.    

Jon Snow:  Jon's arc in ADwD is fantastic.  I really love how the character has grown – he may not be a Stark in name, but he's truly a Stark in character.  This is particularly highlighed again by the recent HBO adapation.  For much of the TV series, Jon was in his whiny "why did I have to be a bastard, why do I never get to play the lord?" phase,  so it's truly wonderful to see how he's stepped up to that role and is one of the few characters to try to look at the bigger picture and beyond his own self interest.  This of course makes his ultimate fate at the end of this book so much more poignant.  

What is a name? This is one of the major themes of ADwD and is played out through several characters' arcs.  First we have Jon's continued rejection of Stannis' offer to legitimise him as Lord Jon Stark in favour of keeping his oath to the Night's Watch.  For him it represents honour and  doing what is right.  In Arya's case, it's about retaining her identity and goodness as a Stark and not losing herself completely as a Faceless Man assassin.  She still hasn't reclaimed her name, but I'm hopeful that her growing contact with her direwolf Nymeria will see her right.  The theme is most overtly expressed in Theon's story arc.  His chapters are first headed by the title 'Reek' the name given to him by his captor Ramsey Bolton who denied him his true name as part of the psychological torture used on him.  As he slowly begins to reclaim his name and identity as Theon and work towards a sorely needed redemption the chapters begin to be marked with his true name, Theon.

What I didn't like:

No zombie apocolypse: Sorry, George, but you've been promising us a white walker zombie apocolypse since the Prologue of book one.  Isn't it about time to fire that Chekov's gun?

Dany's storyline: having just come off a Dany high from the fantastic HBO Game of Thrones series finale, it was very disappointing to see that she spent much of the book treading the same old ground she has been treading for it seems like the last three books.  Clearly, George has had to have her tread water, so to speak, while other characters catch up in their storylines, but it got old, very fast.  The book ended with her in practically the same position – off to seek out a Dothraki khal – as she was in three books ago.  The saddest part of all is that I can't actually see that she has learned very much at all from three books messing around in Meereen.  

The Targaryen-ex-machina: Yes, OK, I understand having a hidden Targaryen heir surface had to occur as part of Dany's House of the Undying prophecy, but was it really necessary?  Maybe it will have a major impact on Dany's future storyline, but at this point these words are wind to me.

Spirit Gate is the first in Kate Elliott's Crossroads trilogy.  I have to admit I struggled to finish reading this one.  To give the book its due, I read it just after George R R Martin's A Dance With Dragons and any book would have suffered in comparison.  (That reminds me; I probably should do a review of ADwD, too)

As the first book in a trilogy, I had expected a lot of introductory backstory.  However, I felt this book suffered from too much setup not enough payoff.  For the first 80%* the main protagonists seem to be wandering around aimlessly.  The last 20% of the book where all the storylines converge was fun, exciting and could have been kicked off earlier in the book. 

All in all, though, I will likely read the next book in the trilogy to find out what happens to the characters.

What I liked:

The worldbuilding: The world created by Ms Elliott is extremely rich and detailed.  We are introduced to multiple cultures with varied religions, customs and mores and they all feel unique, real and believable.  Some interesting premises, the Guardians for example, are introduced, and I look forward to reading more about them in later books.

Interesting themes: Some interesting themes are explored in this book, such as the value of communication and importance taking a wider view of the situation.  To quote Jack from Lost "live together, or die alone."

Intriguing characters: Some of the characters are very interesting and well-written and I look forward to spending more time with them.  Reeve Joss in particular comes across as being very human, with strengths and weaknesses.

What I didn't like:

The disappearing protagonist: One of the first characters we meet in the book is Reeve Marit, and she is introduced in a way as to make us believe she will be one of the protagonists of the novel.  She seems fun, dynamic and interesting to know, and a couple of chapters into the book, she is killed.  Although we meet her again at the end, this did make me feel a little cheated.

One-dimensional characters: Some, not all, of the characters we meet feel very one-dimensional even though we're in their viewpoints.  Villains  have no redeeming qualities and the good guys have no flaws.  

The Pacing: For too much of the book the protagonists are wandering around aimlessly.  I believe the book would have benefitted from their having had a more clearly defined goal much earlier in the book and then have them work towards that at the climax of the book.
Currently reading: The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Currently watching: Battlestar Galactica: Season 3

*NB I read on a Kindle, so go by percentages or locations rather than page numbers.

During a recent girls’ night out with some friends, the topic of discussion turned to the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series.  Not having watched it when it was first broadcast, I decided it might be worth a look.

I downloaded the initial mini series from iTunes and was immediately hooked.  I watched the entire miniseries over two evenings and straight away begged my friend to lend me the rest.  As of now, I have watched seasons one and two and am about to start on season three.  I read an article today in The Telegraph how watching television for long periods of time shortens your life expectancy.  In all honesty I can say I’d be happy to give up a year or two of my life to watch such quality programming as Battlestar Galactica, HBO’s Game of Thrones and Lost. 

Anyway, I digress.  Battlestar Galactica.  Well-written, well-acted and well produced, it makes for compelling viewing.  I’ve already lost sleep by staying up too late to watch it.

What I liked:

Thought-provoking premise: BSG is a sci-fi show.  The show’s premise is that humanity is struggling to survive after a devastating attack by man made machines gone bad.  However, the writers use this premise to explore some pretty basic human themes such as guilt, forbidden love, the appeal of power, trust, betrayal and spirituality.

The series poses some very interesting moral questions – for example, to what extent can human rights and freedoms be preserved while the survival of the species is at risk?  What makes us human?

Well-written and acted characters: Each of the characters is portrayed as being three-dimensional with his or her own flaws or strengths.  The exception to this for the Cylons (robots) who have not spent time living amongst humanity.  In general, they all act consistently, based on their own experiences and wishes.

Gripping storylines: As I have mentioned, I have already lost sleep staying up to watch this series.  This show is definitely a case where I had to watch "just one more episode."  As it stands at the moment (end of season two) the showrunners have brought in a major gamechanger – the Cylons have located the survivors’ fledgling colony and attacked.  I look forward to seeing where they go from here.

WhatI didn’t like:

Occasional deus ex machinae: There were a few storylines introduced that I felt came from nowhere.  An example of this would be the introduction of the Pegasus. I don’t remember it’s being indicated that there may be other survivors.  I could also mention the President’s terminal cancer’s being miraculously cured by Boomer’s unborn baby’s blood.  OK…  whatever

Lee is the Rory of Battlestar Galactica: In almost every episode it seems that Lee, like the character Rory in Doctor Who, is fake killed.  It no longer creates any dramatic tension after the first few times.

Relationship between President Roslin and Admiral Adama: Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying the relationship between them, and I suspect it will make an interesting dynamic going forward.  My gripe is that it seemed to come from nowhere.  Maybe I’m mistaken, but it seemed to me that one episode they had their hackles raised in a political turf war, the next they were holding hands.

In conclusion, this is first-class television and I suggest you take a look see if you haven’t already.

Currently reading: Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott, The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Currently watching: Battlestar Galactica: Season 3


Pottermore – Slightly Bemused

Posted: August 16, 2011 in Miscellaneous

So, this entry continues on my recent theme of Pottermore, JK Rowling’s latest website offering.

Having worked many years on web projects myself, I’m rather bemused at how this project has been handled.  Honestly, when the early entry beta was announced did the Pottermore team not realise that several hundred million Harry Potter fans would be screaming at the gates, clamouring for IMMEDIATE access?  That means access now; not in October, not next week, now.

Sometimes it seems as if the Pottermore team hasn’t quite realised that these beta testers are fans, not professional IT people.  Fans don’t care about balancing server loads, ensuring a good cross section of users across all languages or across regions.  They just want to access the new content from the brilliant mind of JK Rowling, to be chosen by a wand and to be Sorted into their Hogwarts House.

The very low numbers (approximately 10,000 of the one million beta users) who have actually got to access the site since the beta started on the 31st of July appears to have left many people at worst angry and frustrated, at best apathetic about the new site.  In a fan’s perfect world, access would have been granted as soon as the Seven Books, Seven Days, Seven Chances challenge was over.  Several days passed with no access granted and no news from the Pottermore team.  Fans were eagerly refreshing their email inboxes to check for the arrival of the all-important email advising that their account had been activated for access.  No emails were received, and no news from the Pottermore team was forthcoming.

Worse – the login link from the homepage disappeared.  With rising frustration amongst fans, the Pottermore team was forced to send a holding email confirming early access and advising users that their accounts would be activated at some point between the middle of August and the end of September.  The end of September… the Pottermore site is opening to the general public in October… 

So yesterday, the first few users were let in.  The Pottermore team didn’t make it clear what criteria they used to select these fortunate few.  There seemed to be a mixture across all days of the challenge, so users who got in on day one answering the most difficult question ("how many owls in the Eylopes shop banner?  Multiply by 49") were rightfully livid to realise they were still waiting while people who got in on day 7 with the easiest question "("How many Deathly Hallows are there?  Multiply by 7") were already in and enjoying the content.

In all fairness, it’s difficult to see how the project could have been managed differently.  It’s a unique project in terms of web development, with a very passionate and unique user base.  It’s unlikely fans would have been happy with anything less than immediate access no matter how much the Pottermore team tried to manage their expections.

As for me, I’m just hoping I can get in more than 24 hours before 400 million fans descend on the site in October.

Kindle in the Cloud

Posted: August 10, 2011 in e-Reader Reviews
Tags: , ,

So, today Amazon announced the Kindle web based cloud reader.  Currently, it’s available for the Safari and Chrome browsers and the iPad.  It is interesting to note that this is not yet available for the Microsoft browser Internet Explorer.  This allows users to read and download their Kindle content directly from Amazon’s website without going through an app. 

Clearly, this is a hitback at Apple who last month forced Amazon to remove the link to the Kindle store from within the Kindle apps available on iOS and Mac.  By developing their own web based app and bypassing the Apple Store apps, Amazon is effectively giving Apple notice that they will not be bullied. 

Personally, I say you go, Amazon!  Now, I am a huge fan of both Apple and Amazon, but I really did not appreciate Apple’s tactics here, especially coming as it did after the e-book price fixing debacle several months ago.  Apple and Amazon both have an intensely loyal customer base, and with good reason. I am very happy to see Amazon defending its territory in this manner.

I am, and will remain, a loyal Amazon Kindle customer and look forward to see what innovations they come up with.  Now, if they will only let us manage our book Collections via this new Kindle in the Cloud I will be a happy bunny.

Dear Pottermore team

First of all thank you for coming up with this innovative experience.  Harry Potter fans around the world had fun with the Seven Days, Seven, Books, Seven Chances to win early access.

However…  Please remember that these are FANS who have won a COMPETITION for early access, not professional beta testers.  While it is clear in the Help information that not everyone will be granted access to the site at the same time, I believe you really need to manage fans’ expectations.  While most of us can understand that not everyone can get in at the same time, telling us we "may have to wait a few weeks for our welcome email" is not very helpful.  It’s only "a few weeks" until the site officially opens to everyone. 

Rumours are floating on the internet ranging from "the emails are being sent now" to "you may not get your access until the day before everyone else."  Please clarify.  While anticipation can heighten excitement, nobody, not even the most passionate Harry fan, can maintain enthusiasm for an unspecific period of time.  All that will happen is that their interest in and excitement about the site will die off.  Please provide an update on how and when you plan to let people in.  

Thank you.



Posted: August 5, 2011 in Miscellaneous

I decided it was time I started blogging about my passion for fantasy literature and shared my views on some of the books I’ve been reading, movies I’ve seen and TV shows I’ve watched.

Along with many Harry Potter fans, I’d been intrigued by J.K. Rowling’s announcement of the Pottermore website.  Promoted as an "online Harry Potter experience," few details were released.  Clearly though, it is a vehicle for Rowling to market the Harry Potter ebooks.  JKR shrewdly retained the ebook rights for herself.  Hey, I’m a Kindle and ebook lover, so that’s all good with me.  If, in addition I get to be Sorted into a Hogwarts House (am I the only person who’d be content to be Sorted into Hufflepuff?) and choose my wand, I’m sold.  

Additionally, it appears JKR will be contributing a significant amount of new Harry Potter content via Pottermore.  She’s talked for some time about publishing a Harry Potter encyclopaedia.  It would appear that she has chosen to publish this online rather than in the traditional format.  More Potter content?  Bring it on, I say.  

Anyway…. Pottermore is due to go live in October, but "a select few" – one million Harry fans – will be granted beta access. Seven books, seven days, seven chances.  In order to win one of these coveted beta places, Potterites must answer a question on the Pottermore website, leading to another website (yes Sony and Warner Bros, we know you’re sponsoring Pottermore…) where they can then catch the Magical Quill.  This will then allow them to register for the beta site.  For those unaware, in Rowling’s world the Magical Quill records the birth of each magical child in a large book.  

The challenge all sounds fairly easy doesn’t it?  The snag?  The clue only appears for a short period each day. You snooze, you lose.  Fortunately on Wednesday I was able to be on the site at the time the clue was posted – honestly, boss, I was working, really, truly – and i am now registered as a beta user of the Pottermore site.  Look me up under ShadowGold157 if you ever get access.  To be honest, I have the impression that anyone who REALLY wanted to be in the beta program would have succeeded, especially if they followed the Pottermore Insider and/or watched Twitter for the #Pottermore hashtag.  (OK, yes, I freely admit it; I’m a geek.)

As I write this, the last clue is on the Pottermore website and those registered for the beta program can expect an owl (OK, email) to be heading their way in the coming weeks informing them their access to Pottermore is now granted.  Pottermore has made it clear that not everyone will be granted access straightaway and if you wished to view Pottermore in a language other than English your beta registration does not guarantee you access before October.  My own theory is, that there are seven days in the Magical Quill challenge, and approximately seven weeks between now and general release of Pottermore.  I suspect it will be a case of those who found the quill on day one will have access in the next few days, those from day two in a week or so.  Based on that, I am not anticipating that I will gain access before early September. 

One burning question occurs to me as I await my access.  Can Pottermore, even backed as it is by JKR’s billions, handle ebook sales as efficiently as Amazon?  Pottermore is the only place to buy official Harry Potter ebooks.  One of the reasons I chose a Kindle over say a Kobo was the confidence I have in the Amazon brand.  I know that should my ebook file become corrupt I can easily redownload it from Amazon.  Likewise if I have any problems I know I can call Kindle Customer Service and the issue will be resolved in a timely, professional, no-fuss manner.  I am slightly anxious about trusting my custom to Pottermore.  Only time will tell.  

For those of you who have also got beta access, I look forward to seeing you on Pottermore, and I will certainly be blogging my experiences.

Currently reading: Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott
Currently watching: Battlestar Galactica: Season 1