Wednesday, August 29, 2012


By Garth Nix

Here I am, dipping back into the fantasy genre. What gives?!?!

Long time readers of my blog (all four of you) might be wondering: "Wait a minute, Ryan. You have professed over and over again you staunch hatred for fantasy and yet here you are, yet again, reading a fantasy book."

You're right! And my reasoning is twofold...

First, I'm running out of books! I have precious few books on my shelf at the moment and none of them look especially appealing. I'm heading to Taipei this weekend and there is a shipment of books coming in from Canada soon, so my dearth shall last no more than a few more weeks. But it shall be slim pickins' here in Hualien for a while yet. Oh, I'm sure there are some really good books among the seven that currently reside on my shelf but none of them are jumping out at me. So it's really a sort of crapshoot at this point. Let's hope I get lucky with what I have.

Second, I went back to fantasy because of a a promise I made to commenter when I read the first novel in Garth Nix's Old Kingdom Series (Sabriel, reviewed... poorly... here). I used Sabriel (unfairly) as a vehicle in which to lash out at fantasy fans and (incorrectly) accused Garth Nix of copying both Harry Potter and Game of Thrones (both of which were published after Sabriel). It was an embarrassing post to say the least.

A commenter named Merc took me to task on my glaring factual errors and dismissive review. One thing led to another and I promised him/her that I would read the second in the series since I hardly gave the first novel a chance amidst my own biases against the genre.

So here I am making good on a promise to an anonymous commenter from over a year ago who probably hasn't been back to my blog since. Don't anyone ever accuse me of not paying my dues.

Anyway, turns out Merc was right. Lirael, the second novel in the Old Kingdom Series, is far superior to Sabriel (which despite my dismissiveness and unfairness I still dislike). In fact I would go so far as to say the book is downright good.

Lirael picks up fourteen years after the end of Sabriel. Lirael is an orphaned daughter of the Clayr who has not yet received "the sight." Through a series of events Lirael comes to work in a library. During that time she uncovers a long buried secret.... about herself. This secret is directly responsible for her leaving the Clayr on a mission to save the Old Kingdom and have a novel named after her.

Meanwhile, Sabriel and Touchstone rule the Old Kingdom hand-in-hand and have sired two children: Sameth and Ellimere. Hamlet.... I mean Sameth is an ungrateful, whiny, indecisive shit of a kid who was educated in Ancelstierre (the country south of The Wall, completely devoid of magic and suspiciously similar to 1920s England). Sameth's Ancelstierrean school buddy, Nick, decides to visit the Old Kingdom (which is apparently akin to trying to visit North Korea) at precisely the same time as an ancient free magic entity has awoken and begun to cause serious trouble.... with zombies. Naturally, everyone's stories overlap and things happen.

Oh yeah, and there is also a character called the Disreputable Dog.

Despite my terrible attempt to recount the plot (it does requires a lot of explaining), this is really a decent little book (and when I say little, I mean 700 pages). So how do I go from hating the first book to liking the second? Good question. Easy answer.

Garth Nix is simply a better writer this time around. He does a far better job of explaining important elements of his world in Lirael. My major complaint about Sabriel was the fact that Nix didn't take enough time to explain key concepts such as Free Magic, Charter Magic, Charter marks, the Abhorsen's bells and their relationship with each other. Not only does he cover these things in Lirael but he also fills us in on some of the pertinent history of the Old Kingdom. Furthermore, in Lirael, Nix elaborates on the hierarchical system of the Old Kingdom and how it works. He discusses the bloodlines of the royal family, the Abhorsens and the Clayr. This made for a far more enjoyable read.

Don't get me wrong, I still don't like fantasy, I still don't like magic and the end of this book was TERRIBLE but I found that Lirael has softened me a little on the genre. It has softened me enough to finish the series (due to the terrible ending I actually have no choice in that matter), and perhaps enough to delve a little deeper into the pool of fantasy novels.

But don't think for a second this will get me to crack Lord of the Rings. No sir... I won't do it again.

Friday, August 24, 2012

127 Hours Between a Rock and a Hard Place

127 Hours Between a Rock and a Hard Place
By Aron Ralston

First, let's cover some blog business. As you can see, I've changed the name of the blog to something more indicative of my living (and reading) situation and the challenges that I have as a reader. I appreciated all the suggestions and I also appreciated all the people who showed support for My Life in Books. I briefly considered keeping it, but the idea of adding Taiwan into the title was too enticing to pass up. I'm going to try Reading in Taiwan on for size for the immediate future, but if I think of something more clever along the way, don't be surprised if I change it again.

Second, someone (I believe it was Zohar from the fabulous blog Man of la Book) who urged me to read more Taiwanese fiction and blog about that. Good god, I wish I could. Fact is, there is precious little Taiwanese literature that is translated into English. I have tried to get my hands on as much as I can but I usually end up with non-fiction books about Taiwan history or culture written by Western writers. It would be nice if there was more Taiwanese literature available to English readers but until that time, I'm stuck reading what I've got. Sorry.

Anyway, let's get on with the blog. I actually have something to say about 127 Hours, or, more specifically, Aron Ralston aka the guy who amputated his own arm in Blue John Canyon in Utah in 2003 after being stuck with minimal water for 127 hours. The book is divided into two alternating stories. The first is Ralston's time trapped in the canyon, his right hand pinned between the canyon wall and a chockstone, is a relentless story of survival that had me riveted to the page. It's a textbook in perseverance of the mind and body and a testament to fitness both physical and mental. The alternate story is Ralston's backstory. Had the book focused entirely on the ordeal in Blue John Canyon it would have been fine. My issue is not with the 127 hours in the canyon, it's with the rest of the story.

To begin, I want everyone to know that I'm going to listen to Aron's mother who, at the end of the book asks park officials and media: "don't be judgmental." I've decided that I will try to remain objective about this but I fear this may skirt perilously close to a rant. Aron Ralston is obviously quite intelligent and certainly knows more than I about surviving in the wilderness. Christ, he cut off his own arm with nothing more than a blunt camping tool, a Camelbak and a little elbow grease. That takes a hell of a lot more grit than I'm afraid I have. I'd like to say I'd do the same in his position but mercifully I haven't been in his position and hope I never am. But Ralston is not a writer and I must be mindful that perhaps an element of nuance is missing from his story.

It is also important to note here that I would probably like Aron Ralston. No, I've never met him in person and they only things I know about him are what he wrote in his book. I was in Taiwan when this media storm played out in 2003 and I haven't seen the movie that was recently released so for all intents and purposes this book was my first exposure to Aron Ralston. Aron Ralston almost seems like the sort of guy that I could hang out with. We share common interests in hiking, biking, climbing and camping. I will not profess to be as experienced as he claims to be (and I hate skiing) but commonality goes a long way, regardless of how many hours you have invested. I do say"almost," however, and there are two reasons...

The first is Aron Ralston comes across as a douche. While I appreciate Ralston's love for the outdoors and his dedication to pushing his body and mind to the limits I couldn't help read the thinly veiled contempt Ralston seems to have for anyone who is not climbing 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado or biking 100km a day in the Moab. There's a certain inherent ostentatiousness in his recollections. It often doesn't sound so much like he's recounting stories so much as showing off. In fact his entire life seems to be a game of one-upmanship with his friends and family. It's a constant competition for stories to tell over margaritas and a fat joint (dude likes Phish and the String Cheese Incident... he cleaned the drugs out of the book but don't even try to convince me Aron Ralston isn't a pothead). Hell he even thinks to himself that cutting his own arm off will make a great story WHILE HE'S CUTTING OFF HIS OWN ARM! Seriously, that's a pretty douchebag move and his entire life sounds like a bad Mountain Dew commercial.

The second thing (and it sort of relates to the first) is that for someone who loves engaging in high-risk activities he sure is an irresponsible shit. I've done my fair share of camping, climbing, canoeing, hiking, biking and such and I'm not suggesting that I have been 100% careful on each and every trip I've been on, but I make an effort, especially when I go out alone. But Ralston's complete disregard for safety protocols borders on the pathological. In one story Ralston tells of a particular skiing excursion in which Ralston leads two friends down a ski run that he knows full well is prone to avalanche. The results are predictable and one of his friends almost dies. Before the end of this story I was shouting at the book that if I was either of these two I'd have clocked him upside the head (I was gladdened to learn that neither spoke to him again). And don't even get me started about his story about the bear.

Ralston is exactly the sort of outdoorsman that I would never, ever go into the wilderness with. For all his rescue training and know-how he's reckless and dangerous not only to himself but others. It's ironic that the accident that would claim his arm has nothing whatsoever to do with his reckless behavior. However, the fact that he didn't tell a single person his knew and trusted exactly where he would be and when he would be back as careless, thoughtless and downright stupid. One doesn't simply up and wander into slot canyons in Utah without leaving a plan, carrying a cell phone, checking in with a ranger station, or something.... anything. Ralston's mom can say all she wants about being judgmental (and I admire her son for many of the other things he has accomplished and experienced) but by not leaving his route (even a general idea of a route) with someone not only put his life in danger but those that would be charged with searching for him as well.

Sorry if I come off as heartless or nit-picky here, but these issues really bothered me throughout the reading of this book (a book that I thought could have been about 200 pages shorter to be better). Like I said at the outset, I admire Ralston's gumption and his intense will to live. No matter how snobby or reckless a person is, nobody deserves to go through what Ralston went through. But I hope some good came from the ordeal. and I truly hope he learned how to be a better person during those 127 hours in the desert and I wish Ralston the best of luck in life from here on in.

Nothing personal, just my observations.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Girl With A Pearl Earring

Girl With A Pearl Earring
By Tracy Chevalier

Hi there.

Please allow me to apologize. You see, I have lured you here to my blog under false pretenses.  You have, most likely, come to my blog in search of a review of Tracy Chevalier's charming novel Girl With a Pearl Earring. And while it is most assuredly the most recent novel I have finished, I have very little to say about it that hasn't already been said. It was, after all, a New York Times Bestseller and hardly needs my help as a reviewer. It was a fine novel. I enjoyed it. You might too. Read it. If you only came here for the review, hopefully the above words have satiated your need for literary criticism. I suspect they haven't and therefore the apology. I don't care about this book, but I care about you because I'm hoping you might help me. Please bear with me as I explain.

See, my blog has a certain consistency to it. Every single entry save two (Year in Reviews) have been posts pertaining to the book I have most recently finished. I read one book at a time and blog about it after I finish. Each post title is the name of said book and it is accompanied by an image of the cover of the book and I try to write something witty along the way. I like the consistency. I've been doing this for almost two years now and I've never stopped along the way to introduce myself or explain exactly why my blog is the way it is. It would have ruined the continuity. I don't intend to break that so I've been waiting patiently for a book to come along that prompted minimal feelings for me. I planned to co-opt that book's blogpost and use its space as a way to ask a question to all who visits.

That blogpost just happens to be Girl With A Pearl Earring. Fine book, like I said.

Anyway, enough about all that. I have an agenda today and I need your help. So let me get right to the point:

I'm thinking about changing the name of my blog.

When I first started this blog I was totally unaware that there was an entire world of book bloggers out there. In my blissfully ignorant mind I was a pioneer! I would be the first person to read books and write about them when I finished. I was going to bring literature to the unwashed masses of the Internet. When Blogger asked me to type a name, I did so without much thought and barreled forward toward posting. I had a mission, people, and it did not wait for a witty title! My Life in Books. Good enough.... moving on!

Since then, of course, I have discovered the multitude of wonderful book blogs out there, I realized how entirely inadequate both my blog and my blog name really was. My Life in Books? Atrocious. I aspire to greater creative heights that that! The name simply has to go.

Worse still is that it doesn't reflect what I do here, which is read any and all books that I can get my hands on.

For those unaware, I live in Taiwan. I'm neither Taiwanese nor ethnically Asian. I'm Canadian by birth and identify myself as such, but I live here nonetheless. How that came to be is a decidedly longer and more personal story so it may have to wait for another book that elicits zero feeling in me. I promise, however, that I will write it at some point. Rest assured that it's not important to our task at hand.

Taiwan has very few English bookstores or libraries. Most of the few are relegated to the largest urban centers: Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung. I do not live in any of those cities. I live about as far away from those cities as one can on this island (Hualien if anyone is Google Mapping it). The closest city with an English bookstore is Taipei, three hours north by train or 2.5 hours by car... if the road is open. There are no English bookstores in my town. Imagine that.

There are, however, English speakers in my town, many of which read. So there is a good collection of novels that have trickled down to my town via current and former expat residents as well as books left behind by tourists making the circuit of the island (it pays to befriend the owners of local hostels!). A lot are cheap romance novels, a fair amount of science fiction and way too many Penguin classics. So finding books in my town isn't impossible, but you rarely find exactly what you want.

I do go to Taipei a couple times a year and always buy books. I get shipments of books from my family back home a couple times a year, which is really sweet of them to do and I have a Kindle which means I can get books online. So, if I really want something, I can get it. It will just take more time (this is why I tend to read books that are a bit older than the books most other book bloggers read). I do miss browsing book stacks, though, and I develop fits of jealousy when I see other book bloggers blogging about their trips to bookstores, book shows or libraries and showing off their stacks of new books. I miss that a lot. For those counting, I have seven unread books on my shelf right now. That number will get much smaller before it gets bigger. But don't cry for me or anything. It's not as bad as it sounds. Just different.


I need a new name for this blog!

I would like a blog name to reflect my circumstances but I have not, as of yet, thought one up. This is disconcerting to me because I pride myself on my ability to be creative and yet...

I have been toying with the name Just Reviews to reflect my affinity to posting reviews only (and my attempt to be honest about everything I read), but it's just not capturing me. I thought I'd open up to everyone who visits to see what you think and whether you have a name suggestion. I can't promise I'll use it, but I'll take each and every suggestion seriously.

So, what do you think? Please take the time to offer your comments or suggestions. I'd greatly appreciate it...

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In Patagonia

In Patagonia
By Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin's book In Patagonia is a minor classic in the genre of travel literature. Initially written in 1977 as a series of magazine articles, Chatwin's travels through the Argentina and Chile are chronicled in a mesmerizing freeform style that intertwines his own travels with the unique, and often bizarre history of the region. Furthermore, In Patagonia confirms to me that a certain element in the art of travel has been lost in recent years, but I'll get to that soon enough.

In the course of this book, Chatwin travels from Buenos Aires in the north as far as Tierra Del Fuego in the south (which would be the entire length of Patagonia, in fact). Rather than simply cataloguing the sights and events of his travels Chatwin entrusts himself with a host of locals, depicting the area as one of the most ethnically diverse areas of South America. Not only does he chronicles the stories of the indigenous people in Patagonia but also the surprisingly large numbers of immigrant populations: Aside from the obvious Spanish population, Patagonia is rife with Welsh, English, German, North American, Italian and Jewish families. Chatwin, who has the sort of detached writing style you expect from a British big game hunter in Africa circa 1870. There is a certain laconic wit that pervades through the entire narrative giving it an airy, formless feel.

And that's what's so wonderful about In Patagonia. It encapsulates that wondrous sense of unstructured excitement and discovery that comes from travel. The book ambles along, randomly picking up the travel narrative between nuggets of esoteric history (I had absolutely no idea that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had any connection whatsoever with Patagonia. As it turns out, they have a significant connection). In Patagonia brings us face to face with outlaws, cannibals, con-artists and unicorns. There are a host of eccentric men and women who dazzle us with their stories and Chatwin delivers simply by engaging in conversation and dinner.

Chatwin dishes the story in utmost style. I especially liked the way in which Chatwin bookends his narrative with his own personal story about a piece of skin from an extinct giant sloth that his grandmother kept at her house. The skin fragment was the only surviving piece from the remnants of a giant sloth uncovered from the ice in Patagonia years earlier by Chatwin's grandfather and would go on to the the physical impetus for Chatwin's wanderlust.

The structure of the book alone is worth the price of admission, but the way in which Chatwin weaves the narratives of the local people along with the history into one long, meandering river of words and meaning, it is so much more than a simple travelogue. In fact, I wouldn't use this book if I ever traveled the same course. In Patagonia is just as much about it's time as it is its place, which is why I loved it so much. It's a snapshot into the heady days of Peronist Argentina and the Chile of Allende. While many of the people Chatwin spoke with during his time in Patagonia have since denied much of what he published in In Patagonia, it hardly seems to matter. Such controversial issues don't dissuade from the enjoyment of a good story. It is travel literature the way it is supposed to be written.

See, I love aged travel literature. I have no interest in reading current travel literature. It's all the same. Fly here, see time, talk with him, eat that, lesson learned. Much like travel itself, travel literature has fallen into a predictable rut. This blog is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of globalization but Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat mentality has done irreparable harm to the travel industry. I don't mean tourism, which is alive and well and relaxing on a beach in Cancun. I mean travel. The make-your-way-however-and-with-whoever-you-can mentality of seeing the word. Hitting the road with a pack over your shoulder and no idea where you will be spending the night. Packing light and traveling hard. Travel is supposed to be about discovering the world and all it has to offer. Culture, food, people, ideas, experience. Travel used to offer it all. Now it's been reduced to tracks.

Nowadays you get off the airplane in Beijing, Budapest or Buenos Aires and you have the same stuff waiting for you. The same Starbucks coffee and the same Subway sandwiches. Travelers are given a menu of routes to take and it it increasingly difficult to skip you way off the well-travelled trail. Sure there are out-of-the-way places that you can visit to experience "authentic XXXXX culture," but one more often than not comes away from those experiences feeling as though they duped into yet another culture-for-profit display. It can all be a bit unsettling.

Even those who travel in search of extreme adventure have found themselves pigeon-holed, classified and market researched. Given the popularity of hiking to Everest base camp in Nepal, Arctic adventures and the parade of tourists who climb Kilimanjaro every day, even though who excel at finding out-of-the-way places are having trouble finding themselves off the beaten track.

This isn't to say there aren't places on this Earth that don't offer the real deal for travelers in 2012. Certainly I can think of dozens of locales that have not fallen prey to McTravel, but the ability to travel and immerse yourself in a culture off the tourist track becomes less and less likely as cultures trade their uniqueness for a pair of Adidas shoes and an iPhone. Perhaps my next vacation will be to Antarctica. The cooping of that experience is still a few decades away, one hopes.

But I digress.

In Patagonia is a travel story that would be extremely difficult to write today. Much of Chatwin's narrative would be stories about arguing with taxi drivers and the throng of touts that lurk in the shadows of train stations and descend on people with backpacks like a pack of wolves. I'm not hating on travel, I adore traveling, but it's not the same anymore.

And this is why In Patagonia is a classic. It's a glimpse into what used to be.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Storm of Swords: Book Three of a Song of Ice and Fire

A Storm of Swords
By George R.R. Martin

1216 pages later...

Who needs a drink?

I remember when I first started the Harry Potter series. I enjoyed the first and second book but it wasn't until the third and fourth books in which I thought J.K Rowling really hit her stride. In The Prisoner of Azkhaban and especially in the Goblet of Fire, I felt that Rowling had finally developed a sense of comfort and maneuverability within the mythological world she had created. By the fifth book in the series she had done away with the tedious recaps that plagued the opening chapters and was freed from constantly reminding her readers the personality quirks of specific characters. While these interludes and decidedly necessary, especially in the early books of a series, they tend to slow the narrative to a grinding halt at times just because the author needs to get the reader up to speed. Fair game, of course.

In turn, by the third book in any series, the reader has invested time, money and emotion into the characters, narrative and themes. By this point, the author doesn't need to grind the narrative to a halt nearly as often because you know that Hermione always studies hard or that Gryffindor really doesn't get along with Slytherin or that Snape really dislikes Harry. What was necessary backstory in book one becomes tacit understanding in book three. If the series has a cast of hundreds, one must logically assume that the reader has them (for the most part) figured out and doesn't need to be constantly reminded by the writer about their history and allegiances.

George R.R. Martin is such a writer.

While I am certainly not taking anything away from the first two books in Martin's epic saga A Song of Ice and Fire, A Storm of Swords is head and shoulders above its precursors largely because Martin, by this point, is free from the constraints of explanatory writing and can concentrate on simply moving the plot along at breakneck speed. Anyone picking this novel up more than likely understands the world of Westeros and the politics therein. Any minute detail that one has forgotten is wriggled into the narrative as deftly as possible without resorting to flashbacks or recaps.

And what a narrative it is!

For fear of spoilers, I will speak in generalities that are known for anyone thigh deep in this series but not yet at the end of this installment. A friend of mine scolded me after reading the second novel that George R.R. Martin obviously hates women given the way in which he treats his female characters throughout the narrative. While I would agree that many, if not all of the women in this series are treated rather harshly, it seems to me that the women neither give nor receive more or less punishment than the men and children in these books. Martin seems to be equally evil toward all his characters as if he's siting in his writing room thinking to himself: "You've had your leg cut off, your husband was butcher in front of your eyes and your newborn baby was skewered and cooked while you watched... what other atrocities can I heap onto your already frail psyche?"

Those familiar with the series know that Martin has no hang-ups with killing his most central characters. We've known that since the first novel, but it is here in the third novel where Martin's bloodbath really begins. Since Martin's story is populated by scores of characters, they often appear, disappear and die with jarring regularity. If you are gearing up for this book, do not get comfortable with anyone. Martin will only break your heart.

As with the previous novels, Martin divides the chapters by character. A Storm of Swords is told from the perspective of ten characters interacting in four distinct theaters of action: The South (King's Landing), The Riverlands, The Wall (and beyond) and Essos. This was the first book in the series in which I enjoyed each and every narrative strand (I was bored to tears by Sansa Stark's story in the first novel and Theon Greyjoy's story in the second novel, while obviously necessary, lacked any real excitement). In A Storm of Swords I especially liked the character progression for Jon Snow and Arya Stark who are rapidly gaining on Tyrion Lannister as my favorite characters in the series (Alas, Tyrion's story in this novel was my least favorite, though it was still damned good). And Jaime Lannister turns out to be a far more complex character than I could have ever assumed. At this point, I desperately hope Martin uses Cersei Lannister as one of his character perspectives in the next novel, A Feast for Crows. Or Varys....


Frightening character.


I also love the way Martin toys with his readers. He spent two novels urging his readers to hate the House Lannister only to turn the entire series on its head in the third book and paint the family in a more sympathetic light as it disintegrates under the crushing reality of power. At this point in the story I couldn't even begin to guess who will rule Westeros at the conclusion of this conflict but for the first time I can honestly say that it doesn't matter. Each and every candidate for the Iron Throne has their merits (though I'm still throwing my hat in the ring for Daenerys).

My only real complaint about this novel and the series as a whole is its realism. It's a small complaint and has no bearing on my enjoyment of this series but it's worthy of a rant, so here goes:

When I reviewed the first book, A Game of Thrones, I commended the novel and the series for being the most realistic fantasy novel I have ever read thereby intently becoming the only fantasy novel (and series) I have ever enjoyed.  Martin downplayed the traditional ingredients of the fantasy genre and focused primarily on the human story rather than dragons and warlocks and spells. While these ingredients are ramped up in the second and third novels, they are still incidental elements to the broader story and haven't yet made much difference in the narrative (though it's coming, one can plainly see). Furthermore, Martin has thrown in enough non-traditional fantasy fare (reanimation, wargs and wights) to entice non-fantasy readers such as myself. More succinctly, Martin a capable writer and doesn't need to crutch on gimmicky elements to tell his story.

However, his ultra-realism is beginning to bite him in the ass. With such a crippling (economically, socially, demographically, psychologically and ecologically) war of succession raging throughout Westeros and as many as six kings claiming the throne and maintaining influence over particular parcels of land, what of the common citizens of Westeros, or as Martin calls them: the smallfolk? Kings are only kings because the majority of people allow authority in return for protection of their rights. It's what Thomas Hobbes calls the Social Contract. Without said contract, society reverts to a "state of nature" which is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." This defines the current state of Westeros perfectly, but Westeros is a society with a Social Contract (or one presumes). So what gives?

In Martin's version of Westeros, not a single king has ever once discussed a matter of state. You know things such as the rising price of grain or price tariffs or the impact that this devastating war should be having on seasonal harvests and, in turn, their food supply. There is a modicum of justice but it seems to exist only for those involved in the War (i.e. those committing crimes against the state). Rarely, if ever, do any of the kings, queens, hands or greatjons hold court for the grievances of their populations. Hell, rarely are their populations mentioned. You know, the populations from which they gain their legitimacy. In short, these would-be kings spend all their time conniving to consolidate their power via war, intrigue and subterfuge and absolutely zero time attending to the affairs of the state or the rights of their citizens. What is this, North Korea?

What of the common people? Are they starving? Are they scared? Are they being butchered? Are there mass migrations of refugees moving toward safer territories in the Free cities or the relatively safe lands of the Eyrie? If the land is not being tilled or pastured and entire villages and towns have been abandoned (or slaughtered), where is the food coming from? Are taxes being levied and collected? If so, by who? Knights have zero regard for the lives of the people they are supposed to protect. Why are these guys vying for the throne anyhow? Not a single one of them seems to have a grasp on how to rule over actual people. People with jobs and trades and families and such.

Isn't it plainly obvious to a blacksmith or a farmer or a shepherd or a prostitute that their government quite obviously doesn't give a shit about them, whatsoever? Doesn't it gall them that the people who supposedly rule over them plot and counter plot against each other without a single thought about their people's welfare? By the third of fourth political assassination, wouldn't the common innkeeper in the local ale tavern say: "Anon, methinks yonder royals want not heed our grievances. Perchance we could undertake improved governance." Wouldn't the people of this realm have risen against such blatant corruption? Why isn't there a people's revolution against the stifling and brazenly prejudice tradition of entitlement in Westeros? Christ, if you are not born into one of the ruling families (either major or minor), your life is worthless. It's oligarchic apartheid for chrissakes!

Certainly there are one or two low-born or bastard-born people in Westeros that see the complete disregard for governance and would begin a grassroots organization to bring rule of law and justice to the land. Sure, it took Medieval Europe a couple of thousand years and more than their fair share of war to get to that point, but the war in Martin's series makes the shenanigans between the Carolingians and Merovingians look like a lesson in state diplomacy and bureaucratic prudence. And we all know what happened to them, don't we...

/end rant

Anyway, like I said, it's a small complaint and one I am more than happy to overlook. Despite it's realism, A Song of Ice and Fire is fantasy and one is supposed to suspend their disbelief. If you haven't yet read this series, get going. You won't be disappointed.

Other reviews from A Song of Ice and Fire:

A Game of Thrones
A Clash of Kings
A Feast for Crows