Saturday, October 29, 2011

Without Fail by Lee Child

Without Fail by Lee Child, 2002

"Better just to walk away now," he said.

They didn't, like he knew they wouldn't. They responded to the challenge by crowding in toward him, imperceptibly, just a fractional muscle movement that eased their body weight forward rather than backward.
They need to be laid up for a week, he thought. Cheekbones, probably. A sharp blow, depressed fractures, maybe temporary loss of conciousness, bad headaches. Nothing too severe. He waited until the wind gusted again and raised his right hand and swept his hair back behind his left ear. Then he kept his hand there, with his elbow poised high, like a thought had just struck him.

"Can you guys swim?" he asked.

It would have taken superhuman self-control not to glance at the ocean. They weren't superhuman. They turned their heads like robots. He clubbed the right-hand guy in the face with his raised elbow and cocked it again and hit the left-hand guy as his head snapped back toward the sound of his buddy's bones breaking. They went down on the boards together and their rolls of quarters split open and coins rolled everywhere and piroutted small silver circles and collided and fell over, heads and tails. Reacher coughed in the bitter cold and stood still and replayed it in his head: two guys, two seconds, two blows, game over.
You've still got the good stuff. He breathed hard and wiped cold sweat from his forehead. Then he walked away. Stepped off the pier onto the boardwalk and went looking for Western Union.--- (page 19)

One of the things that kept cropping up in my mind while reading Without Fail was the durability of Lee Child's formula. After reading six or seven of his Jack Reacher novels, recurring patterns clearly start to form. In truth, most of the Reacher thrillers are pretty similar in structure. The setting, characters and details all change, but there's usually a comforting sense of familiarity to the way things are going to go down. We know from the start that it's going to end with Jack Reacher kicking some ass and then riding off into the sunset. It speaks to Child's grasp of storytelling and his terrific sense of pacing and tension that the ending is always white-knuckle anyway.

Another sign of Child's superiority is his ability to do new things with his basic formula, keeping the series feeling fresh even when very little about the novel's skeleton changes. Without Fail, like all of its predecessors, is a fantastic thriller/mystery with a twisty plot, lean writing and terrific action scenes. But it also contains some very finely wrought bits of character development and world-building that Child sneaks in with such finesse that it's easy to overlook, what with all the shooting and punching and such.

The plot: Jack Reacher is in Atlantic City when he's approached by an old ex-girlfriend of his brother's: Secret Service agent M.E. Froelich. Froelich has an unusual proposition for Reacher. She wants him to assassinate the Vice President-elect, Brook Armstrong. Froelich is running a security audit and wants to see if her system can be breached by a professional. However, a team of real assassins are closing in on Armstrong, and it falls to Reacher and Froelich to foil their plan and save the Vice President-- who knows more about his would-be killers than he's letting on.

The novel's basic premise is a little rickety, especially when the Secret Service takes on Reacher as a consultant, immediately making him privy to all of their classified intelligence. The novel's midsection is also a bit humdrum-- a lot of running around between the Secret Service office and various hotels and restaurants, not a lot of action, a couple of too-convenient plot devices. Having Reacher actively working for law enforcement is an interesting and atypical move, but it also makes us wait until the end for the usual sense of vigilante justice.

A slower pace isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it gives the novel time to develop a highly interesting subplot: Reacher dealing with the death of his brother and coming to terms with their difficult relationship through the lens of Froelich's memories. Reacher's family is a thematic undercurrent that has subtly run through the series (most notably in The Enemy) and Child prises apart Reacher's emotional armor with exceptional delicacy and understatement. Like many good writers, he lets the moments of emotional revelation come in dialogue rather than in description, and there are several conversations between Reacher and Froelich that are surprising in their emotional impact. The storyline's main Achilles heel is that Froelich herself is a fairly bland character, and having her serve as the Obligatory Love Interest feels both boring and a little cheap.

Much more interesting than Froelich is Frances Neagley, who makes her first appearance in the series here (she also shows up in Bad Luck and Trouble, a few books into the series). Violent, damaged, smart and insightful, Neagely is my favorite recurring character so far. She's one of the rare characters that is truly presented as Reacher's intellectual and tactical equal. It's a lot more interesting to give Reacher a potential love interest who, like him, is an emotionally scarred warrior (he's had way too many tough-but-vulnerable flings over the course of the series). Child keeps their relationship fairly low-key, not hinting too strongly at a romantic connection. Hopefully theirs is a relationship that will be explored further.

Without Fail is not the most dynamically plotted of the Reacher novels; the clues and twists are well-placed and deployed with Child's usual verve, but there's little that's highly shocking. Child seems to be setting up his bowling pins a bit too carefully in the opening segments. The novel hums along entertainingly until a big twist in the narrative about three-quarters of the way through. From there, things get kicked into high gear and yes, the finale is, as always, something special. This time the showdown takes place in a remote, snowbound Wyoming town. The last forty pages are a little masterpiece of building tension and the climax, while not as over-the-top as some, is masterful. I don't think I've ever read an author as accomplished at this kind of sequence as Child. I also liked the fact that the villains were not professional killers or assassins (although they're certainly deadly enough).

The parameters of the series are a bit too clear for my taste, it's true. I would love it if Child branched out a little more, exploring different stories and trying different methods of telling them. He could also work on more interesting supporting characters; there are several in Without Fail who make next to no impact, including the crucial character of Froelich. There have been encouraging signs throughout the series that Child is indeed trying out different things, such as Without Fail's surprisingly emotional subplot.

But let's face it: with a formula this rock-solid he doesn't really need to try new things. Child has already found a structure that more or less guarantees excellent thrillers, and Without Fail is another great one, despite a couple of saggy sections. I suppose the old ain't-broke-don't-fix-it adage applies. When the you-know-what is hitting the fan, very few writers can deliver the pulse-pounding tension and suspense like Lee Child. And even though I usually talk up the action and thriller elements, his writing is sometimes disarmingly sharp and insightful, even a bit poetic, in a hard-boiled sort of way. Good suspense doesn't really work unless you care, and Child does a wonderful job of making you care about where it all ends up, even though you know it'll end the way it always does: the victorious, lonely Jack Reacher taking a bus out of town.

NEXT UP: Mario Puzo's modern classic The Godfather.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin, 2011

Before them a pale lord in ebon finery sat dreaming in a tangled nest of roots, a woven weirwood throne that embraced his withered limbs as a mother does a child.

His body was so skeletal and his clothes so rotted that at first Bran took him for another corpse, a dead man propped up so long that the roots had grown over him, under him, and through him. What skin the corpse lord showed was white, save for a bloody blotch that crept up his neck onto his cheek. His white hair was fine and thin as root hair and long enough to brush against the earthen floor. Roots coiled around his legs like wooden serpents. One burrowed through his breeches into the desiccated flesh of his thigh, to emerge again from his shoulder. A spray of dark red leaves sprouted from his skull, and grey mushrooms spotted his brow. A little skin remained, stretched across his face, tight and hard as white leather, but even that was fraying, and here and there the brown and yellow bone beneath was poking through.

"Are you the three-eyed crow?" Bran heard himself say.
A three-eyed crow should have three eyes. He has only one, and that one red. Bran could feel the eye staring at him, shining like a pool of blood in the torchlight. Where his other eye should have been, a thin white root grew from an empty socket, down his cheek, and into his neck.

"A. . . crow?" The pale lord's voice was dry. His lips moved slowly, as if they had forgotten how to form words. "Once, aye. Black of garb and black of blood." The clothes he wore were rotten and faded, spotted with moss and eaten through with worms, but once they had been black. "I have been many things, Bran. Now I am as you see me, and now you will understand why I could not come to you. . . except in dreams. I have watched you for a long time, watched you with a thousand eyes and one. I saw your birth, and that of your lord father before you. I saw your first step, heard your first word, was part of your first dream. I was watching when you fell. And now you are come to me at last, Brandon Stark, though the hour is late."

"I'm here," Bran said, "only I'm broken. Will you. . . will you fix me. . . my legs, I mean?"

"No," said the pale lord. "That is beyond my powers."

Bran's eyes filled with tears.
We came such a long way. The chamber echoed to the sound of the black river.

"You will never walk again, Bran," the pale lips promised, "but you will fly."
--- (pages 177-178)

For many fans of the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance With Dragons represented a crucial moment for the cycle. Dance could either deal with the problems of its predecessor or succumb to the same issues (an overcrowded narrative, missing characters, too many loose ends) that made Feast a disappointment. Personally, I enjoyed Feast despite its failings, but I still hoped that Dance could return the series to the insanely high level of quality that the first three books exhibited. Having just finished the massive volume last night (some time around midnight), I can say that it's an improvement on Feast, but not without some serious missteps and some of the most aggravating cliffhangers that Martin has yet put to paper (and that's saying a lot).

While the Westerosi attempt to unite their shattered kingdom, trouble is brewing in the east and the north. Daenerys Targaryen, exiled dragon queen of Westeros, has settled in the vicious slaving city of Meereen, hoping to reform Slaver's Bay and bring peace to the troubled Ghiscari. Her well-intentioned efforts set off a chain reaction that makes her thousands of enemies, both within and without her city. As war claims the continent of Essos, several westerners make their way to Daenerys, including Tyrion, who fled from King's Landing after murdering his father with a crossbow, and a Dornish prince who wishes to honor a secret marriage pact made between his country and the Targaryens.

In the north, the combined forces of the Freys and the Boltons are trying to subjugate Robb Stark's old allies and force them to accept Tommen as king. Stannis hopes to use the turmoil to his own advantage and wage his war on the Lannisters with the northmen. Behind the Wall, however, another, deadlier foe is gathering, and Jon Snow, newly made Commander of the Night's Watch, must unite his men and their old enemies, the wildlings, if any hope to survive before the onslaught of the Others.

Meanwhile, Arya continues her bizarre training in Braavos, Davos attempts to sway the Manderlys to Stannis's side, Cersei faces up to the consequences of her actions, Ser Barristan struggles with his sense of honor, Jaime encounters someone unexpected in the riverlands, Victarion Greyjoy hunts for Daenerys, Asha is captured by Stannis's forces, Bran undertakes a highly unusual journey beyond the Wall, a broken man named Reek (who was once Theon Greyjoy) tries to find the courage to defy his sadistic master and, most surprising of all, a new contender for the throne of Westeros arises in the East, one long thought dead.

I could go on (and on, and on). There's an insane amount of plot in Dance, all of it labyrinth and entwined. The backstabbing, double crosses, secrets and lies are so thick on the ground that it's hard to remember what anyone's agenda is. It's this kind of plotting that Martin excels at. In fact, he's so good at it that he lets it run away from him, leaving the readers with too many names and too many details. At the same time, the main plot moves forward fairly slowly, with little significant action. Many pieces have been moved into play and rearranged on the board, but we haven't seen much gameplay. To boot, Dance's main narrative runs parallel to Feast, picking up where A Storm of Swords left off, and then continuing on past the end of Feast, a messy chronology that creates a stopping-and-starting feel, particularly to the book's last third.

A certain unevenness is to be expected in a book of this size and scope. Keeping his hundreds of narrative threads straight must be a huge challenge for Martin, and he does a very good job of it, for the most part. What's frustrating is when he seems to continue adding more and more and more plotlines and character arcs when he already has an enormous number to work with. Martin can't seem to stop creating: cultures, races, religions, creatures, cuisine, vehicles, social structures, each one more bizarre and fantastic than the last. Martin is a great writer and a staggeringly talented world-builder, so it's hard to complain about having too much of a good thing. Very few of the new inventions are boring; most of them are fascinating. But particularly in Dance, his seemingly limitless powers of invention are working against him, and preventing him from serving the series' core story as well as he could be.

There are some fabulous character threads in the book, the very best dating back to the first book. Jon's experience as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch is terrific payoff for all of the time we've spent with him on the Wall (and beyond it). I especially like how Martin ensures that Jon's time with the wildlings in Storm remains critical to the storyline, since it seemed as though it might get brushed under the rug. Jon's storyline ends, however, with a truly irritating (albeit nicely done) cliffhanger which we'll probably have to wait another six years to complete.

The book's other MVP is probably The Artist Formerly Known As Theon Greyjoy. Now Reek, a mutilated product of unspeakable torture at the hands of Ramsay Bolton, Theon goes through what could be the darkest plotline in the series so far--which is saying a lot, considering Martin's propensity for the nasty and brutal. The storyline, like Jon's, beautifully pays off Theon's arc in Clash, an interlude that could have been written off as filler. As usual, I have no clue where Martin is taking the character, but Theon/Reek's journey to redemption is the most bleak, haunting, beautifully written storyline in the novel.

I wish the other characters had gotten plots as good. Tyrion, usually the highlight of any scene he's in, is not in top form in Dance. His story is too meandering and seemingly random, and Martin seems to be trying a little too hard to make him entertaining (he still gets all the best lines, of course). Dany, too, has a bit of a hit-or-miss arc. I really like the moral complexity of the choices she's continually faced with, but the ins and outs of Meereenese politics is too far from the series' main action to be really absorbing, The scene where Dany confronts Drogon in the fighting pit definitely stands with her emergence from the fire in Game in terms of awesomeness, though.

Characters like Arya, Jaime, Cersei and Davos get annoyingly scant coverage, with only a chapter or two apiece (Sansa, Samwell and Undead Catelyn don't appear at all and one of my personal favorites, Brienne, only pops up for a mysterious cameo). Melisandre, a cipher since her first appearance, gets a single chapter to herself that, infuriatingly, leaves more questions than answers. And don't even get me started on Bran, whose storyline is undoubtedly the oddest in the entire series. No idea where Martin is taking that one. Due to the novel's unusual structure, the character's storylines are not very evenly distributed, a problem that was probably more or less unavoidable.

Overall, most everything in Dance is at least good. The elements that are frustrating are frustrating not because they're bad, but because they're confusing and seemingly unrelated to the major plotlines of the story. Sure, Martin does a good job describing the personalities of the Yunkish commanders or the political system of Volantis, but these things aren't really necessary, nor are they relevant to the story I'm invested in, which is about Starks and Lannisters and Westeros. Martin always wants to challenge the reader's assumptions about who or what is really the center of the story, a device which is both kind of brilliant and highly irritating.

Speaking of highly irritating, the cliffhangers that end the novel have got to be the most aggravating yet, partly because they're not even that good. Tyrion's is completely random and not all compelling and Dany's is even more random--and comes at the end of a long, draggy chapter that kills the book's pace dead. Jon's is the most exciting, and horrifying, but for the most part the novel just stops abruptly. Even an epilogue with a fairly big twist can't help the fact that most of the momentum that Dance builds up over its 1,000-page length goes nowhere. It's a middle book, a transitory volume that gets the series out of the sticky character-divide that started with Feast.

Middle books are great, too, of course, and Martin's extraordinary gift for storytelling and his fantastically rich, layered prose are very much in evidence. Dance may not be the most satisfying reading experience, but it's certainly as enthralling, thrilling, moving and complex as its predecessors. Hopefully the best is still yet to come. In a pre-book note, Martin promises that the characters "will all be shivering together" in the next volume. Personally, I can't wait to see where he goes next.

NEXT UP: Without Fail, another Jack Reacher novel from Lee Child.