Sunday, July 29, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Gods of Mars”

In this second book of the series “John Carter of Mars”, Edgar Rice Burroughs (again, as John Carter’s nephew) continues his narration of Carter’s life on Mars. Since we last met him in ‘A Princess of Mars’, Carter has spent 12 years trying to return to his beloved planet. Finally he does, and once more we visit the wildly creative world of Barsoom!

When I saw the title of the book, I thought it was in reference to the theme of war, and “gods” were the great warriors the Barsoomians looked up to as gods… but no, it is quite literally about their Gods! From the banks of River Hudson on Earth we travel to River Iss on Mars, on the other side of the planet; in fact, on the other side of Life! We reach Heaven, a land of beautiful trees and gorgeous blossoms, brilliant flying creatures, blue seas and amazing cliffs made of gold! The idea of afterlife introduced in the first book, is explored at length, as we journey through Valley Dor and meet The First Born, the Plant Men, the White Apes, the primaeval Black Man, the Holy Therns, and Goddess Issus!

What was really interesting was the handling of topics like religion, heaven and gods. The book questions, and - in most instances - debunks, superstitions usually linked to these topics. For example, when Thuvia, Tars Tarkas, and John Carter are discussing escaping the Gods’ lair, Tarkas has doubts, and Thuvia considers it sacrilegious to even try. It is Carter who shows the folly in blindly following baseless beliefs, and speaks in favour of exposing reality, even at the risk of being hated or tortured by their own people.

Unfortunately however, thereafter the brilliance of the book dropped. The balance of the story seemed to be a series of unlucky imprisonments and ingenious escapes. While definitely action-packed, the sequences started getting monotonous, which was a bit of a letdown, especially in view of the preceding abundant and brilliant themes.

I also felt that, beyond a few characters, such as Pirate Xodar, the slave girl Thuvia, the young Carthoris, and Zat Arras, a Jed of Zodanga, no one was especially memorable.

I also noted one or two incongruities in the character sketch of Carter, where he seemed to say what would best suit the scenario. One such example was on the aircraft, fighting the Black Pirates. Justifying throwing a sleeping pirate off the aircraft, Carter feels, “This was no time for fine compunctions, nor for a chivalry that these cruel demons would neither appreciate nor reciprocate”. Yet, moments later, when Phaidor suggests he repeat the attack on another pirate, he says, “I am no murderer, I kill in self-defence only”.

The book did however end on a fantastic note! The closing events of the Temple of the Sun, whose rooms open only once per year, and where Dejah Thoris, Thuvia, and Phaidor are imprisoned, leave us with a shocking murder attempt and a cliff hanger!

Overall, although not as good as the first one, this book was still an interesting read… I shall leave you with this thought: John Carter goes to a new land, finds the existing value system faulty, and tries to teach people a new way of thinking… do you think the choice of his initials was intentional?!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “A Storm of Swords”

* * Spoiler Alert * *

A Storm of Swords is the third book in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire. Once again, as I mentioned in my review of the second book, this is a seamless continuation of the story; I will only mention some high points that touched me deeply.

The one lasting memory I am left with is the fast, almost frantic pace at which the drama unfolds. The book plunges into the story right away: in the prologue, three horns are blown, signifying the advent of the ‘Others’, and the ride begins!

It is fascinating how each and every chapter, without exception, has an event, which is sometimes dramatic, sometimes tragic, and sometimes horrific - and always, always moving the story rapidly forward. Dramatic decisions abound! Davos Seaworth’s decision about Melisandre’s fate, Catelyn Stark’s secret arrangement regarding Jaime Lannister, Tyrion Lannister’s covert meeting with Shae, Squab (whom we last knew as Arry) and her meeting with Harwin, the tragically horrific Red Wedding, and of course one of the most dramatic events of all, Tyrion Lannister’s trial! Dramatic people abound! Some make short appearances with long-lasting effects, such as Lady Olenna Redwyne, and some are there to stay, such as the Spartan-like race of The Unsullied! And some names are dropped, with just enough information to make us gasping for more, such as the mysterious Lady Ashara Dayne, and Wylla, who might be Jon Snow’s mother!

There is immense character development in this third book. A lot of people move from the background to a very prominent foreground. Catelyn Stark’s decision regarding her captive Jaime Lannister, was one example of a hitherto passive character taking some very positive actions. Samwell Tarly emerges from the shadow of cowardice that he has been under all his life, to single-handedly confront the wights and the Others (in, what was one of the most horrific scenes of this book!) The greatest transformation, perhaps, was Petyr Baelish and his emergence as a ‘player’. He tells Sansa Stark at one point, “In King’s Landing, there are two sorts of people. The players and the pieces.” Littlefinger is certainly no ‘piece’, as later events prove!

Since this whole series is about who eventually gets to sit on the Iron Throne, it was also interesting to see who deserves that seat. Based on this book, two people showcased leadership, guts and glory. One was Daenerys Targaryen: the events that Dany masterminded in Astapor and Yunkai were specifically glorious. Robb Stark also proved to be a brave (his unwavering heroism in leading successful battles) and just (his decision to name Jon Snow as his successor, despite his mother’s profound objection to the bastard) ruler… but then again, was Catelyn right in saying that giving in and kneeling could sometimes be better than leading a brave march to the throne?

Even more fascinating, however, was a complete role reversal in some characters. People, who have been established beyond a shred of doubt as heartless villains, suddenly have their past revealed or present uncovered to show a human touched by tragedy and muffled by dictates of duty. A Slayer of Kings may have earned that reputation only as a cover-up for political intrigue that went far deeper. The men of the Night’s Watch have been established as made up of ordinary men accused of being thieves or rapists but when it comes to doing their sworn duty of protecting the Wall, the sense of pride, honour and valour they exhibit is truly moving - the war led by Jon Snow against the wildlings was a shining example of this… Perhaps in the face of all the characters that change, all the heroes that reveal villainous undertones, and all the villains that show deep humane sides, one person alone shows no human trait, and that is Queen Cersei Lannister!

In a world where enemies are becoming allies (a member of the Night’s Watch and a Wildling!) and unlikely relationships are forming (a king slayer and a king’s guard!), marriage begins to play a huge role in the political structure of the kingdoms, and some unheard of nuptials are finalized, most notably that between a Beauty and a Beast!

Speaking of relationships, the theme of the special ‘bond’ between Brandon Stark and his direwolf Summer is developed to include more than animals and more than just Bran!

The other remarkable feature about this story was the ground it covers, literally. We travel along with the principal characters and see how much the world has turned! One of the more memorable such trips was along with Jon Snow, as his ploy (started in the previous book), now takes us beyond the Wall for the first time - and what a fascinating world! We meet Mance Ryder the King-Beyond-The-Wall, Ygritte the wildling spearwife, and Tormund Giantsbane who shows Jon the giants… “And Joramun blew the Horn of Winter, and woke giants from the earth”! And as we live with and learn about the Wildlings - a race made notorious for two books as one to be feared and avoided at all costs, in fact, one for whom the very Wall was set up - we realize how easily we can fall into a trap of, what can only be termed as, racism. When Ygritte (who is, by the way, my favourite Wildling character) talks of ‘takers’ and ‘kneelers’, it is perhaps a pointed remark on modern day land usurpers.

On an interesting side note, a reference is made to the title and theme of the series when Melisandre encourages Davos to see the truth that is all around in terror-filled dark nights and hope-filled bright days; the fact that there has always been a choice between only two, not a multitude of contenders. “…There is ice and there is fire. Hate and love… Evil and good… Death and life. Everywhere, opposites. Everywhere, the war… The war has been waged since time began, and before it is done, all men must choose where they will stand. On one side is R’hllor, the Lord of Light, the Heart of Fire… Against him stands the Great Other whose name may not be spoken, the Lord of Darkness, the Soul of Ice…”

So far, this is my favourite book; I am truly moved by the intense and incessant drama that starts from the first page and ends with such fantastic events in rapid succession, as Tyrion Lannister’s encounter with his father, Jon Snow’s fate on the Wall, Petyr Baelish’s drama with Lady Lysa, and the final note on Catelyn Stark’s quest for revenge.

This storm of swords has left in its wake such a trail of death and destruction in its brutal rampage… so much sorrow… such irreparable damage… Valar Morghulis.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Postmaster”

I am actually still reading A Storm of Swords, so for this week, I decided to blog about a short story I recently re-read: The Postmaster by Rabindranath Tagore (as translated by William Radice).

Winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore (or, Thakur, as it is pronounced in Bengali) was a poet, short-story writer, song composer, playwright, essayist and painter.

What draws me most to Tagore each and every time is the sheer poetry that is used to describe simple everyday events, and the perfect harmony in which he presents joy and pathos to create that oxymoronic yet perfect balance of victory and loss that always co-exists. There is always a strain of sadness, yet, above all, there is forever the trait of human dignity in the face of all odds.

The Postmaster is about a young postmaster - referred to as ‘Dadababu’ - who is re-allocated from the metropolitan city of Calcutta to the small and remote village of Ulapur; his complete inability to adapt to the changed pace of life; and his relation with the 12-year old Ratan, the orphan girl who does his housework.

One of the most beautiful things about this story was the amazing ambience created by the writer. Within moments I was lifted out of my surroundings, and instantly transported to a quiet and peaceful, lush green village in the summer / monsoon season, where smoke curls up from the village cowsheds in the evening, strains of Baul singers float in from a distant village, and a rain-laden soft breeze envelops smooth, shiny wet grass and leaves.

Even though I was raised in Delhi, I was born in Calcutta, where most of my family still is; I know the language, and have at least passed by or briefly visited some of its countryside. The setting of the story therefore, came even more alive for me, and I connected to it in a very personal way.

The other factor that made this story leave such an indelible mark on my heart was the unique “relation” that Dadababu and Ratan shared. Where the educated, self-important, city-bred Dadababu vacillates between complete oblivion and philosophical reflections, the simple and illiterate villager Ratan can only express a silent and unwavering devotion, however unreciprocated, however illogical.

Yes, there is parting, and yes there is the tragic sorrow that comes with parting… what raises The Postmaster above ordinary tragedy is the final note of the quiet strength of human dignity and of the writer’s own reflection of life and the human heart: “O poor, unthinking human heart! Error will not go away, logic and reason are slow to penetrate. We cling with both arms to false hope, refusing to believe the weightiest proofs against it, embracing it with all our strength. In the end it escapes, ripping our veins and draining our heart’s blood; until, regaining consciousness, we rush to fall into snares of delusion all over again.”

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Koga Ninpocho” (The Kouga Ninja Scrolls)

The Kouga Ninja Scrolls (translated by Geoff Sant) is a historical fantasy novel by Futaro Yamada. It led to several adaptations in the manga, anime and movie genres; I had seen the movie “Shinobi” (Shinobi: Heart Under Blade) some time back, and liked it a lot.

The book tells the story of two ninja clans, Tsubagakure of Iga and Manjidani of Kouga, and the deadly battle between 10 ninja selected from each clan to determine which grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu will become the next shogun. Surrounding this battle are elements of love, of a deep mistrust borne of a 400-year old enmity, of enhanced physical prowess and serious physical aberrations due to years of inbreeding, and of some fantastic displays of supernatural ninja powers.

I have actually never read a story solely about ninjas. This one, in fact, went one step further by bestowing the ninja with magical abilities! This was fantasy on a whole new level! Although it took some time for me to familiarize myself with all the names, it was fascinating reading about Kouga Gennosuke and his basilisk eyes that can reverse any murderous intent aimed at him; Kisaragi Saemon and his ability to take on another person’s identity via a facial mud pack; Kasumi Gyoubu and his technique of becoming invisible by completely merging into any solid surface; Udono Jousuke and his ability to turn into a ball that can be hard as a boulder and yet light enough to roll uphill; Jimushi Jubei who has no limbs and attacks using a spear that he keeps inside his oesophagus; Yakushiji Tenzen who can always come back to life even when decapitated; Amayo Jingorou who is able to dissolve into a liquid form; Hotarubi who can summon swarms of glowing pink butterflies…!

A word of warning - and if you have read any Japanese literature, this will not come as a surprise - but the clashes can get quite descriptively gory.

One of my favourite characters was Udono Jousuke. He was a faithful friend to Gennosuke; he was the first to discover the secret scroll… and that is why his encounter with Jingorou was especially shocking.

Amid the heated battle, is a tragic love story that engulfs two generations of opposing clans - from Kouga Danjou, lord of Kouga Manjidani and Ogen the elderly chieftess of Iga Tsubagakure, to Kouga Gennosuke, heir to Kouga Danjou and Oboro, Iga princess.

Although this was not the best Japanese book I have read, it was the first of its kind, and for that reason it was a unique and memorable reading experience.

“… ninja wars are a blood-soaked hell”, says Kisaragi Saemon at one point… it really and truly was… at times underhand, at times clever, at times downright treacherous, but always, always tragic. The inherent tragedy is that the reason behind this terrible battle to the death is a secret that remains with the ninja till the very end. As the blue moonlight is reflected on the Suruga waters, and the hawk takes the scroll up one last time, no one, but no one knows the horror of the past 10 days.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “A Princess of Mars”

A Princess of Mars is the first book in the series “John Carter of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Created in the genre of science fiction, it is the story of John Carter of Virginia who gets transported to planet Mars (or ‘Barsoom’) and the adventures he encounters there. The story presents a social drama where we are introduced to new people, fascinating creatures and astounding customs!

I had watched the movie prior to reading the book, and liked it so much that I decided to check out the book. Compared to the movie (this was bound to happen!) whereas the movie is more fantasy/action (the opening scene sets the tone of the movie as a story of warring factions in Mars), the book is more fantasy/sci-fi; it reads like a journal, recording the experiences of John Carter and telling us about the life and ways of Barsoomians… war is only one part of it.

I loved the style of writing. It was such an easy read. On one hand it is the kind of writing that employs simple words to evoke grand pictures. (I had the same reaction to Burroughs’ “Tarzan”: simultaneously effortless and majestic). On the other hand, it is the kind of writing that takes you on a long and luxurious journey! At a slow pace we live, walk in and experience a whole new world along with John Carter.

The world of Barsoom completely enamoured me. Depleting natural resources and the resultant wars have taken their toll on this beautiful landscape, and yet, there is so much life, so much living. There are villains and there are heroes; yes, there are acts of petty betrayal, but there are also grand moments when a true friend selflessly arises.

My favourite character was the kind-hearted, yet strong Sola - although brought up in a tribe predominantly closed-minded of thought and savage of action, she dares to break out of the mould and speak up against injustice.

I also liked how certain established concepts are questioned. ‘Fear’ is but relative to your previous experiences; ‘heroism’ is but relative to your thoughts at the moment of action.

I would recommend this book to anyone who would like a nice, slow read, much akin to a long and lovely walk through a wondrous new world! A world with a fascinating geography, extraordinary creatures, different languages, food and customs, and different interactions: from the unemotional routine of the Tharks to the touching stories of John Carter’s relation with Woola his pet calot, Dejah Thoris the woman he loves and Kantos Kan his friend and ally.

This book is only the first part of a long series, so the ending is an open one. Although it does not seem to be the intent of the writer to provide neat, rounded off answers to all the questions and/or improbabilities in the adventure, based on just this book, I wonder if the “red Martians” are just a materialization of the “red warriors” from whom he was running in the beginning, if the “desert planet” is just a manifestation of the Arizona desert, and if, when all is said and done, Dejah Thoris is really just a déjà vu?!