Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

hpandthedeathlyhallowsFor a moment after reading this, I felt elated that it was over. No more crying. And I think that this is one of the most enticing things about the whole series: it challenges us emotionally. Following Harry Potter’s life at Hogwarts is rewarding in many ways but the best thing about it – at least as far as I’m concerned – is that it makes you feel. A lot. There are not many books I cry over but I feel that the last two books of this series will always accomplish that. And that’s good to know.

Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, don’t return to Hogwarts for the new school year. They set out on the mission of finding and destroying horcruxes into which Lord Voldemort has infused parts of his soul. But the mission is a dreary one at first since Dumbledore has given them few clues to work with. The strain on the friendship gets overwhelming and Ron leaves the other two after a fight – only to return and save Harry’s life. The friends gain insight into the myth of the Deathly Hallows, are being taken captive by the Malfoy family and barely escape – losing a friend in the process. The return to Hogwarts, finally, brings on a showdown that will cost even more lives but results in the Dark Lord’s death.

I hope that last one wasn’t too much of a spoiler. It’s how all stories must end – evil dies, good endures. Endures because there is no real victory in war, and Rowling knows that. Too many lives had been lost but, for once, the wizarding community actually comes through for Harry Potter as he and his classmates are joined by family and friends. It is not the great assemblage one might want to fight with against a powerful wizard but considering how Harry had been left fighting for everyone for most of the series it is a pleasant surprise.

If there is a weakness in this last book, it is the long passages where things are being explained. I am not saying that it wasn’t necessary, it was – and Rowling makes sure to cover all unanswered questions – but these passages can be a little tiring because they are bulky. Especially the scene with Harry and Dumbledore in King’s Cross and Harry walking through Snape’s memories. As I said, they were necessary but they still make for slow reading.

One thing that I only just realized – or maybe I had only forgotten – is that with all the fear the wizarding world has of Voldemort, he really isn’t that great a wizard. He is cruel, certainly, but he is not as clever as he thought himself, as others thought him either. Seeing his whole story revealed, he is more cunning than clever. And seeing how Grindelwald struck up a friendship with Dumbledore because of a kinship in character, he might have been the stronger opponent.

There are always those small doubting voices in the back of one’s head, asking questions like: why didn’t Dumbledore kill Voldemort? He was the most powerful wizard ever, why give the job to a teenage boy? These questions are certainly valid and I’d say that people should seek for their own answers. I, personally, wouldn’t have wanted to read a story about a very old wizard defeating a younger one who probably never had a chance against him in the first place. The story wouldn’t have had the same appeal. It might make us think less of Dumbledore that with all his power he did not stop Voldemort’s first rise to power, that he didn’t prevent the Potter’s from being killed, but a vengeance story makes for better reading.

About the epilogue Nineteen Years Later. As many have agreed, I could have done without it, too. Especially from the point of view of a fanfiction writer, it would have been nicer if the story hadn’t been closed off this way. It’s a very sentimental piece of writing, assuring the reader that twenty years later all is well still, that even Draco Malfoy can be part of a community that lives just as before. Because what the epilogue does not do is: show progress. Muggles are still looking strangely at progressions of wizarding families, the Hogwarts Express still leaves from platform 9 3/4. And this is where I would have liked to see change, if only a little. It would have been nice to see that after the crises, wizards/witches could have come out to muggles. But Rowling decided that the wizarding community just went back to normal – opening the field for another story just like Potter’s tale where a teenager has to solve the problems of a community that never changes.

There are a lot of things one can praise and criticize within the Harry Potter-series but that makes for even better reading. Harry Potter is a great story, it changed our world.

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

The story of A Game of Thrones continues in the second installment of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Unfortunately, it is not quite as compelling as the first part. At least, I didn’t find it so. More than ever I am compelled to say that this is just my interpretation and mood is a strong factor when one is little inclined to read – or is reading some other things in between. However, the fact that I did indeed read eight other novels while having A Clash of Kings lying about may reflect on my inclination.

But let’s start with what happens: when last we were in the Seven Kingdoms, there were a handful of kings fighting over land and riches, a young maiden – also a queen – far away from home and willing to go back where she should reign. Well, nothing much changes. Stannis, Robert Baratheon’s brother (and rightful heir since Joffrey, reigning king, is not really Robert’s son), now also wants a piece of the Iron Throne but he has little to go for him: he is not charming, he is not likable but he has some evil priestess working for him. This evil priestess (she herself does not see herself as evil but good) kills Stannis’ younger brother Renly who is no rightful heir but good-looking, charming (and also gay), with magic. Stannis takes over his host and with it some disloyal courtiers.

Tyrion Lannister does everything in his power to protect the city from attacks but it goes mostly unnoticed because he is a dwarf and not taken very seriously. Everybody has their own agenda and everybody wants to have a crown or a title or some kind of power – this is at least true for the men, the women mainly want their children to be safe.

I have already written about the sexism that seems inherent in the medieval trope and it holds true. There is some comment between the lines that tells us that the women within the story are all brave (many braver and stronger than the men) but the problem is that the only one who seems to openly comment on sexism and what it has made of her is Cersei Lannister – and she’s a bitch. So, feminism becomes once again the realm of the bitter woman who seeks too much power (the woman with the penis-envy). And yes, I like the women in the book and I actually think they are well written but it is disturbing (and frustrating) to see that they are paralyzed within the story-telling because they are women.

Which brings us to another problem, one I have also already written about: rape as plot-device. While the first book made a comment on it in the form of Daenerys, no such comment is bothered with in the second book. It actually gets worse as rape as plot-device is drifting into rape as background noise. It seems that every 50 pages a woman is raped (preferably by multiple men), and every twenty pages a woman is threatened with rape. And this is unacceptable.

I have begun to watch Once Upon a Time, a tv show that is about an evil queen who curses all the good people of a fairy tale land to live in our world, a world without magic. At some point she makes the huntsman her sex-slave. Well, needless to say tumblr was all a-twitter with comments on this. How evil, how bad, how not fit for a family show, what have you. A woman raping a man is bad. Well, I have yet to read a single tumblr blog where the number of women raped on A Game of Thrones is commented on. Abuse is abuse – but there seems to be a distinguishing factor that makes abuse against men something to comment on and abuse of women in great numbers forgettable.

Well, I will not forget and I will not forgive. A Song of Ice and Fire is obviously not for me. It grieves me, really. I came to like some of the characters, especially Cersei Lannister and Arya Stark, I came to ship some unlikable pairings, like Catelyn Stark and Brienne of Tarth, and Cersei and Sansa Stark (I know… not gonna happen but what’s in a canon that cannot be redeemed by some clever head-canon?). But I will not continue reading. A friend recommended Joe Abercrombie to me, so he will probably be the next from the genre of fantasy I will be reading. Hopefully, I will like his stories better than Martin’s.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

There are a couple of people in my life who recommended both the books and the HBO series to me. I was reluctant to begin reading and watching. For once, reading even one of these books means commitment – and commitment to a genre I have little experience with – because I would most likely not only read one of the books but each and every last one. For another, the medieval look of it always conjures up familiar tropes of rape and sexism that I am not very willing to face. A couple of weeks ago, I watched the first episode of the series and it was mainly how I imagined it would be: brutal and sexist. I gave up on the television series after this episode but I could obviously not do the same with the book series.

Do we really know the kinds of obsessions that form under the surface, and the mechanisms that lead to these obsessions? For me, the mechanism seemed to be looking at the books in my local bookstore and feeling mocked. Here is a good story, the books seem to say, a story people talk about, one that wil work its way into the popular culture much like Harry Potter did and if you don’t read it, you will feel left out. I also wanted to see Martin’s approach on his female characters. In the end, I bought the first book – meanwhile I have bought the second book as well – and have read it by now.

The story develops in multiple places, from the points of views of several people. We are introduced to a world that seems slightly familiar in its medieval trope – which may or may not be more familiar to Europeans than Americans (I would like to hear your take on that theory). The seven kingdoms are reigned by one Robert Baratheon who just lost his second-in-command and chief advisor to a sudden illness. Sudden illnesses have the tendency to be not of natural cause and the widow at least suspects foul play. The king, on the other hand, does not. He goes in search of a new Hand – that’s the title – and comes to his old friend Eddard “Ned” Stark, a lord in the far north and an old friend. Ned becomes Hand to the king reluctantly but mostly to solve the murder of the former Hand, Jon Arryn, who was not only an old friend but also husband to Ned’s sister-in-law Lysa.

That’s the premise. There is a lot of historical background being told while the story unfolds. There is a wannabe-king in some far land who sells his sister to a horselord to get his men to go to war for him. Said sister, Daenerys, turns out to be the stronger character among the siblings, the one who could be able to go back to the seven kingdoms to cause havock. But there are others who are willing to help things along in the kingdoms and war ensues when Ned finds out that the heir to the king is not heir to the king but actually son to the queen and her twin brother. When Robert dies, due to a hunting accident, that might not have been entirely accidental, Ned wants Robert’s brother Stannis to take the throne but the queen has other plans and imprisons Ned as traitor. Several lords mobilize their armies and in the end, there are four kings: Joffrey, heir to king Robert though not his trueborn son, Stannis, eldest brother to Robert, Renly, younger brother to Robert who somehow feels himself intitled to the crown, and Robb Stark, fifteen years old and heir to Eddard Stark who at this time of the novel has become an ornament on the walls of Joffrey’s castle.

A Game of Thrones is a well-written story. Yes, there are the common tropes of woman stands beneath man, woman may be raped at any given moment since it is costumary especially within a medieval war theme, and men underestimating women at every turn. Yet there are also strong female characters who put these tropes to shame. Cersei is evil and cunning, Catelyn willful and strong, Arya a free spirit and a tomboy, and Daenarys is simply glorious in her stubborn believe that she is entitled – to pretty much everything she desires. Martin is eager to give his female characters almost as much space to develop as his male characters, yet the men still have more room to act – as they are the main players at war.

Another thing I thought captivating, was Martin’s willingness for confrontation. He likes his coincedental meetings and doesn’t shy away from pulling through a difficult plot. Take Catelyn’s confrontation with Tyrion Lannister at the infamous inn on the crossroads: it could have been easy for Martin to dodge this highly explosive moment by just having Tyriion not see Catelyn. Instead he chose to have this confrontation which results in Tyrion’s imprisonment. He does this on several occasions to quite surprising outcomes. As a writer, I find these moments in the novel daring yet conclusive.

I am still not sure if I am really a fan of the series, though. I will continue to  read it, I find the investment into characters of such a long story quite rewarding although I might at first shy away from it. But with all that is really good and exciting, there is still the one trope of partriarchal story-telling that I cannot simply comply with: rape. There is a comstumary repitition in literature – and culture – that produces compliance within society, we seem to accept it as part of a story. I must say, though, that Martin does comment on this critically when he has Daenarys stop the men of her husbands army from raping several women. On her part, it is too little too late but the fact that here is a heroine who at least tries to stop something that has become a normal, expected part of warfare for the men, is an unexpected and positive commentary.

With so many characters and the different points of view it is easy to relate to them – or at least some – and quite natural to formulate favorite characters. As per usual, I am more partial to female characters but I really like Tyrion Lannister, the imp. He is intelligent and a cynic. Besides him, I like Arya Stark and Cersei Lannister best. Yes, these are quite different but I have alwaysbeen partial to evil queens and it helps that Lena Headey plays her on the series. Ambition can turn so ugly so fast.

On the whole, I think A Game of Thrones a rewarding tale and I am looking forward to the sequel.