Tuesday, June 21, 2011

One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming

One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming, 2011

The brunette braced her hands on her thighs. "My name's Mary McNabb, but everyone calls me Tally." She looked at Stillman. "Sorta like you, I guess. I was formerly a specialist, formerly in the United States Army."

"Where did you serve, Tally?"

"Camp Anaconda."

That got some whistles from the rest. "Mortaritaville," Fergusson said.

"Yeah, well." McNabb ran her hands through her short hair.

Stillman snapped his fingers. "Mary McNabb. Fractured left ankle. A car dropped on you?"

McNabb laughed. "I was helping my husband fix it up for resale. I'm impressed you remember."

Sarah put up her hands again. "Wait." She looked around the circle. "Do you all know each other?"

They looked at each other. They looked at her. "Yes," they all said.

"It's a very small town." Clare Fergusson's voice was dry.
---(page 6)

Julia Spencer-Fleming has gotten enormously good at the formula of her novels. I'm not saying they're formulaic (because they really aren't), but that she has, over the course of the last few books in the series, found a perfect balance between mystery, romance, thriller and drama.

One Was a Soldier, the latest in her continuing Millers Kill saga, is another rock-solid novel, darker and more intricate than I Shall Not Want, heavy on character interaction and light on action. As always the pacing is pretty much flawless, the dialogue is sharp and the characters continually display fresh layers.

After a year and a half in Iraq flying helicopters, Clare returns to Russ and Millers Kill pretending not to be suffering from harrowing flashbacks and an increasing dependence on sleeping pills. Clare joins a local veterans support group, hoping to heal herself before her post-traumatic stress disorder interferes with her relationship with Russ, but finds herself set against the man she loves when one of the group dies under mysterious circumstances. Russ rules the death a suicide, while Clare is convinced that it was murder, and only a small part of a dangerous conspiracy.

The mystery plot is not the main event here; it's more of an interesting sidebar to accompany the larger story of the returning veterans and their struggles to reintegrate into the world of Millers Kill. Spencer-Fleming introduces a few new characters and fleshes out some existing ones, too, like Eric McCrea and Trip Stillman. Like most of Spencer-Fleming's writing choices, it's a smart move to give some of the supporting characters some room to shine. She clearly knows that readers would get bored if it all they got was Russ/Clare interaction.

The Russ/Clare interaction is pretty darn good, though. By now, Spencer-Fleming knows exactly how to portray their relationship, which goes through some interesting permutations in this volume. Clare in particular goes down a compelling, and surprisingly dark, path. It's a testament to Spencer-Fleming's control of her characters and narrative that she can make unorthodox choices seem logical and in-character.

The series' other major character pairing, Hadley/Kevin, doesn't get quite as much attention as it did in I Shall Not Want (the veterans group story takes up too much space), but there's enough development to be satisfying. Kevin Flynn continues to be Spencer-Fleming's ace in the hole, and many of the book's best moments, both comic and romantic, come from his naivete and kind nature.

As always, Spencer-Fleming experiments with a slightly different style (she's also used flashbacks, real-time and in media res). Here, the narrative is jumbled and somewhat nonlinear, as well as wider in scope than some of the previous books, involving more characters than the core cast and a larger plot.

Spencer-Fleming is very good at keeping her mystery plots both varied and plausible, and Soldier has an excellent one. There is a touch of that mid-book sagging that so many mysteries have, but I really liked the fact that the mystery served the emotional drama rather than the other way around. Small doses of action throughout make up for the lack of a wild and crazy showdown at the end. Also: setting up a potential Big Bad for the series in John Opperman? Inspired, and a terrific use of the already-established continuity.

One Was a Soldier definitely doesn't have the emotional train-crash/instant classic aspects of All Mortal Flesh and its plot is not the best of the series, but it still easily stands as one of the series' strongest novels. Spencer-Fleming's writing is as clear and strong as ever and her sense of character has never been better. A final-sentence twist (admittedly, a fairly predictable one) sets up the next book with aplomb. This is one series that shows no signs of flagging quality, even seven books in.

NEXT UP: Due to my full re-read of the Harry Potter series, I haven't updated this blog for a while. Never fear! I'm currently working on a couple of books, including A Feast for Crows and Anne Perry's The Face of a Stranger.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin, 2000

Dany shrugged him off. "Viserys would have bought as many Unsullied as he had the coin for. But you once said I was like Rhaegar. . ."

"I remember, Daenerys."

Your Grace," she corrected. "Prince Rhaegar led free men into battle, not slaves. Whitebeard said he dubbed his squires himself, and made many other knights as well."

"There was no higher honor than to receive your knighthood from the Prince of Dragonstone."

"Tell me, then--when he touched a man on the shoulder with his sword, what did he say? 'Go forth and kill the weak'? Or 'Go forth and defend them'? At the Trident, those brave men Viserys spoke of who died beneath our dragon banners--did they give their lives because they
believed in Rhaegar's cause, or because they had been bought and paid for?" Dany turned to Mormont, crossed her arms, and waited for an answer.

"My queen," the big man said slowly, "all you say is true. But Rhaegar lost on the Trident. He lost the battle, he lost the war, he lost his kingdom, and he lost his life. His blood swirled downriver with the rubies from his breastplate, and Robert the Usurper rode over his corpse to steal the Iron Throne. Rhaegar fought valiantly, Rhaegar fought nobly, Rhaegar fought honorably. And Rhaegar
died.---(page 330)

I am going to make a concerted effort not to write this review in ALL CAPS and littered with exclamation points and glowing words of praise. I'm going to try to rein myself in and be balanced and reasonable. This will not be easy because A Storm of Swords is SO FREAKING AWESOME IN SO MANY WAYS!!!!!!!!

Ahem. Yes, as I was saying, Storm is--well, it's incredible. It's just an incredible work of writing, a truly staggering novel that made me want to organize a parade for George R. R. Martin. Storm pushed so many of my buttons, and in some combinations that I didn't even know existed. It makes the first two novels in the series look like slow, plodding mammoths. In Storm, plotlines that have lain dormant begin to sizzle, character arcs pay off explosively and the story twists and turns as violently as a roller coaster. Martin's writing has never been better, his characters never more fascinating, infuriating, lovable, despicable, funny, hateful and conflicted. This is the kind of novel where mammoth-riding archers engaging in battle at a seven-hundred foot wall of ice is a lull in the action.

The War of the Five Kings is still going as Storm begins, even after Stannis's crushing defeat at the Blackwater. New Hand of the King Tywin Lannister has engineered a politically advantageous marriage for King Joffrey that will cement an important military alliance, while Stannis licks his wounds on Dragonstone and Robb tries to rectify a potentially disastrous mistake.

Meanwhile, Daenerys begins her conquest of the eastern realms, Davos Seaworth attempts to stop Stannis from trusting Melisandre, Jon finds himself a turncloak spy inside the wildllings' camp, Arya falls in with a mysterious band of outlaws, Tyrion is trapped in an unusual marriage to Sansa, of all people, Bran travels beyond the Wall, Catelyn struggles to keep Robb's campaign afloat and Jaime Lannister goes on a painful journey of self-discovery.

And believe me, this is a seriously truncated summary. So much happens in Storm that it makes the previous two novels in the series look positively sleepy. There's very little set-up here; this baby is all payoff. The rivalries, wars, conflicts and intrigues that have been carefully set in place explode like nukes. Martin's plotting is mind-blowing in its intricacy and internal consistency. He reminds me of J.K. Rowling in his ability to drop in a seemingly irrelevant detail that turns out, a thousand pages later, to be the key to solving some crucial mystery. He has character revelations galore up his sleeve in this installment--some heartbreaking, some jaw-dropping. Nearly every chapter changes the game in some significant way.

One incredible twist (which occurs two-thirds of the way through the novel) is one of the most shocking I've ever encountered, as is the one that occurs on the book's final page. To call it gutsy would be a massive understatement. Martin takes constant risks and 99.9% of them pay off in the end. I can honestly say that I've never read any author who could out-plot Martin.

The characters are progressing amazingly, too. Tyrion? Still awesome. Arya? Still awesome. Jon? Awesomer than ever. The sheer number of compelling characters in the series is staggering; even characters with minuscule roles (Podrick Payne, Tormund Giantsbane, Osha) become fascinating figures in Martin's able hands.

A few characters get boatloads of new development, too, especially Jaime Lannister, who was formerly a one-dimensional villain. Martin expertly shows us Jaime's side of the story and, of course, I was loving him by the end of the book. It's a tribute to the incredible moral complexity of the series that a man who threw a child off a tower with the intent to kill him can become a likable antihero. Jaime's chemistry with Brienne is one of the book's best subplots. Come to think of it, George R. R. Martin does romance surprisingly well: Jon's sweet, sad love affair with Ygritte is a notable highlight in a book jam-packed with them.

One of my other favorites: the gorgeously sad scene near the end where lost, lonely Sansa builds a replica Winterfell in the snow of the Eyrie. Martin knows just exactly how to move his readers; he toys with our emotions like a master puppeteer, giving us just enough decency, hope and goodness to keep us going through the grim, gory and harsh world he's created.

Do I have anything bad to say about Storm? Not really. I did think that Bran's story was a total non-starter in this particular volume, despite the cool revelation that he can possess people as well as animals. This doesn't much bother me, though, because I trust Martin enough to know that he is going somewhere with Bran.

Fiction doesn't get a whole lot better than this. Storm is definitely the best book in an already-amazing series and it's the kind of book that you can climb into and live in for a while, a completely absorbing read with a fantasy world so detailed and complete that you can sometimes forget it's fantasy at all.

And those cliffhangers he leaves us with? Freaking brutal, but still amazing. Tyrion killing Shae and Tywin, Jon being made Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, Dany settling down to rule her "practice kingdom," Arya leaving Westeros and Catelyn BEING ALIVE, as well as completely badass? Now that's how you finish off a book. Magnificent.

NEXT UP: Julia Spencer-Fleming's latest, One Was a Soldier.