Friday, September 17, 2010

Book Reviews -- THE PRINCE OF NOTHING TRILOGY, Books Two and Three

A little over a year ago, I finished R. Scott Bakker's stupendous The Prince of Nothing trilogy of novels. For your convenience and interest, I'm reviewing them both below, and also, I'm linking a few other reviews to give you a bit more insight and another person's view of these novels.

Review of Warrior-Prophet
Another review of Warrior-Prophet

Review of The Thousandfold Thought
Another review of The Thousandfold Thought

WARRIOR-PROPHET by R. Scott Bakker

The book opens immediately after the tumultuous cliffhanger ending of The Darkness That Comes Before, and follows the Holy War on its deadly course toward the holy city of Shimeh. The tale focuses less on Anasûrimbor Kellhus from his own perspective than the first book of the series, and instead follows his exploits more through the eyes of his companions, the Mandate sorcerer Drusas Achamian, the prostitute Esmenet, and the nomadic Scylvendi exile-general Cnaiür urs Skiötha. The book is roughly divided into three segments, each an ordinal-numbered march, marking stages in the Holy War's progress through Fanim-held lands toward its lofty goal. As the crusaders fight battles and pass through many different and dangerous lands, their numbers dwindle and they are forged into a hardened, determined, and tested force.

Bakker's mastery of psychology blossoms throughout this book. Kellhus' machinations and manipulations of the psyches of others is far, far more pronounced than in The Darkness That Comes Before. More of the conditioning methods of the Dûnyain are described through the few chapters that are told from Kellhus' point-of-view. Though the narrator is of the omnipotent third-person sort, he rarely dips into the mind of Anasûrimbor Kellhus, so when he does it is a rare and insightful treat.

This mastery of character psychology creates personae that are real and lifelike. They are far more than just caricatures. Each character has deep, psychological traumas in their life, traumas that Kellhus exploits to achieve his goal of subverting the Holy War. As the novel develops, Bakker uses Kellhus to examine and expose the weaknesses and strengths of his characters and expose the depths of their hopes, fears, and coping mechanisms. Kellhus' conditioning, separating himself from history and "what comes before" in order to achieve a sort of psychological oneness and Nietzschean Wille zur Macht, enables him to exercise a sort of free will that runs contrary to the psychological determinism of all of the other characters around him.

Here, Bakker's thought-experiments with psychology and philosophy (specifically Nietzscheanism and related forms of Existentialism) achieve a more free exercise across the pages. Removed from the complex political machinations of the Nansur imperial court, the young Kellhus gradually transforms himself in the perception of his fellows from a simple peer into a religious figure. Through examination and analysis of the surrounding characters' psyches, he manipulates everyone about him. Ironically, only the barbarian, Cnaiür urs Skiötha, is aware of Kellhus' power and thus remains impervious to Kellhus' machinations.

Simultaneously, Bakker begins to weave religious and moral questions into the fabric of the tale. Although they are perceived as heathen by the Inrithi warriors, the Muslim-esque Fanim are arrogant but not truly evil. The savage brutality of medieval warfare is described in exquisite detail, and this book is truly an Anabasis of fantasy. The battles, the suffering, and the political infighting within the Inrithi host, especially once Kellhus begins to manifest himself as a religious figure, are absorbingly detailed. I flew through this hefty volume in a mere eight days, pulled forward by the excellent pacing of events and interweaving of plot threads.

And Bakker wields multiple plot threads quite well, indeed. No space is wasted. Even when the author spends time delving into the characters' thoughts, it is not tedious, but revealing. Though the book is quite descriptive, the description serves to deepen both the characters and the world. Bakker reveals the rich history and culture of Eärwa through the actions and words of the characters. He makes very little use of the sinister, evil Consult throughout the book, perhaps aware that familiarity breeds contempt. Instead of revealing their history in The Darkness That Comes Before, Bakker instead chooses to assemble their twisted story piecemeal throughout Warrior-Prophet, culminating in their attempt to manipulate certain factions within the Holy War to eliminate Kellhus, the one character they perceive as the greatest threat to their plans outside of the Mandate School of sorcery.

The book avoids becoming predictable by withholding aspects of the world and information of the environment from the reader, then springing them at a prime moment. This happens only rarely, though. As a whole, it is difficult to predict what will happen next. Knowing the psychologies of the characters, however, the reader is never in a position of disbelief. Every single character behaves exactly in accordance with their psychological make-up. This lends a very important depth of realism to the characters. Nevertheless, Bakker rarely ceases to surprise us. He takes his characters to far-away places, where they stand atop ruins of forgotten eras and are at times overwhelmed by the weight of history. The novel is laced with the interplay of a dozen ideas within Bakker's mind, and they explode into the pages with a forcefulness that is captivating.

The Thousandfold Thought by R. Scott Bakker

The conclusion to The Prince of Nothing brings to mind a number of clichéd phrases often penned by penny-ante movie reviewers, such as "tour de force," "relentless," and "mindblowing." And I hate to resort to them, but in this case, I find myself hard-pressed to describe this novel in any other way.

The plot is a continuation of Anasûrimbor Kellhus' subversion and control of the Holy War, and by extension, the establishment of a new religious philosophy within Inrithism. The final march to Shimeh itself is detailed and the plots of Kellhus, his erstwhile and prodigal father, Moënghus, and the evil, nihilistic Consult all achieve realization on the pages. This build-up of tension and anticipation kept me reading the final 250 pages of the novel at a coffee shop for three-and-a-half solid hours. I finished this book in less than a week because every time I finished a chapter, I felt the inevitable tug to begin reading the next one.

Much of what can be said regarding Bakker's interplay of history, philosophy, and psychology has already been stated ad nauseum, so I will refrain from jamming that down your throat once more. However, there is a power and a scale of epicness that comes to fruition in this book more than the other. The motivation behind the evil Consult is revealed, including their alien heritage, the history of betrayal, and their attempt to escape from an afterlife by denying the God/gods any worshipers at all and cleansing the world of sentient beings. All of the characters meet their greatest fears, and confront their most daunting challenges. Each one overcomes them in a different way (indeed, whether or not they overcome these challenges at all is up to the interpretation of the reader).

A great many strings are left untied, but Bakker has made it clear that, although this particular story has ended, there is more to be written. Nevertheless, the final pages of this novel are a triumph of tragedy, in a manner of speaking. The most sympathetic character of the novels, the sorcerer Drusas Achamian, achieves his own sort of Wille zur Macht. Kellhus inadvertently creates a number of miniature Übermensch throughout the series, among them Achamian and the Scylvendi warrior Cnaiür (who is driven mad by his awareness). The merging of psychology and philosophy throughout the novel creates an absorbing interplay in which Bakker explores the consequences that ideas have upon the lives of his characters.

The Prince of Nothing Series Overall
A definite accomplishment of astounding scale, R. Scott Bakker has done something that few have ever done within the realm of epic fantasy. He has created a lavish, detailed world, complete with religion, history, and literature, populated it with characters so rich and psychologically motivated that they seem real and vital, and used it as a sandbox to explore complex ideas. This is not simply epic high fantasy of the didactic Tolkien-esque vein, nor the largely escapist world of the early Howardian pulps. It is a bit of a fusion of the two. It is a post-apocalyptic world, much like mid-twentieth century speculative fiction (such as per Jack Vance and Margaret St. Clair) with a character that is a fusion of Elric of Melniboné, Paul and/or Leto Atreides, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

The idea of history and the play of historical (and historiographical) concepts throughout the book demand the reader question their understanding of history itself. Many of the characters in the novel become acutely aware that they will become historical figures and icons of legend. As the tale progresses, they contemplate how they will be portrayed or understood within the inevitable songs and sagas that will be written about the Holy War. The sorcerer, Achamian, not surprisingly, is acutely aware of the sort of character archetype that will arise from his participation in what will eventually become a legend, and chafes at the idea.

Bakker, through Kellhus and the Dûnyain, challenges us with the age-old question of free will. The Dûnyain repudiate history, and claim that all men are slaves to "what comes before." Through mental conditioning and special breeding programs, they gradually seek to overcome all of the psychological impulses that determine their actions. The idea that all events are caused results in the idea that they are locked into a path from which they cannot deviate. Thus, individuals are slaves to their own personal history, whilst whole nations are slaves to the histories of their peoples. (Living in Korea and analyzing why the Koreans are the way they are is incredibly revealing in this regard.) Kellhus' conditioning separates his soul from all of the things that would seek to move it, enabling him to move is own soul. This is what makes Kellhus and his father, Moënghus, approach Übermensch status. Throughout the novels, Bakker plays out the struggle between determinism and free will on an epic scale, and places the fate of the world in the balance. Only the Nietzschean superman can save the world from an (ironically) ultra-nihilist enemy.

As said in my review of The Darkness That Comes Before, the proliferation of sex (and the aberrant sadism of the Inchoroi/Consult) make this a series for mature readers. Though Bakker's rendition of sex and sexual situations lacks juvenile eroticism or clinical sterility, they are still graphically described more than some conventions of taste would permit. Bakker's work is not for immature minds, and is most certainly an mature adult work. However, if you can grasp the complex relationship between free-will/deteriminism, Nietzschean existentialism, nihilism, and individual psychology (and that is only the beginning of the myriad influences that are brought to bear throughout The Prince of Nothing), then it would be a fair bet to assume that you are mature enough for the sexual situations that pepper the trilogy.

As a piece of literature, this series is astounding in its depth and complexity. Bakker has easily overcome many of his contemporaries. As one reviewer noted, he has, in three volumes, written a deeply philosophical and psychological work with a compelling, multifaceted, narrative rife with political and military intrigue, whereas many others, have started earlier than Bakker and still not yet finished (such as the late, infamous Robert Jordan and much more respected writers such as Steven Erickson and George R. R. Martin). His series is much darker and gritty than the unmuddied heroics of Tolkien, Terry Brooks, the late David Eddings, or even Robert Jordan. As a fantasy author, he brings a great many ideas to the plate that would make his series a compelling addition to any fantasy fan's own "Appendix N." The arrangement of sorcery into schools, the religious strictures against sorcery, and the political strife between the schools themselves make for a fantastic backdrop to explore ideas and themes in a fantasy setting.

The Prince of Nothing
by R. Scott Bakker

The Darkness That Comes Before
Style A
Substance A
Overall A

Style A+
Substance A+
Overall A+

The Thousandfold Thought
Style A+
Substance A+
Overall A+

Overall A+

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Reviews

A collection of all of my book reviews to date:

10/4/2010. Asimov, Isaac. The Foundation Trilogy. Review

9/17/2010. Bakker, R. Scott. Warrior-Prophet and The Thousandfold Thought. Review

9/15/2010. Leiber, Fritz, Thieves' House: Tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Review

9/10/2010. Martin, George R.R., A Clash of Kings. Review

9/6/2010. Martin, George R.R., A Game of Thrones. Review

8/27/2010. Leiber, Fritz, Lankhmar: Tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Review

8/4/2010. Zelazny, Roger. The Guns of Avalon. Review

7/26/2010. Bakker, R. Scott. The Darkness That Comes Before. Review

7/24/2010. Reynolds, Alastair. Revelation Space. Review

7/21/2010. Zelazny, Roger. Nine Princes in Amber. Review

7/6/2010. Rohmer, Sax. The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu. Review

7/2/2010. Simmons, Dan. Endymion and Rise of Endymion. Review

7/1/2010. Simmons, Dan. Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion. Review

6/28/2010. Murakami Haruki. A Wild Sheep Chase. Review

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


About a month ago, I logged in my review of Lankhmar, the first volume of White Wolf Publishing's Borealis Legends collection of Fritz Leiber stories concerning Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. That first volume was primarily comprised of origin stories written decades after Leiber originally published "Two Sought Adventure" (now titled "The Jewels in the Forest") and tie-ins.

Thieves' House picks up chronologically where "The Jewels in the Forest" ended in volume 1. It is comprised of most of Swords Against Death and Swords in the Mist, Leiber's earlier (and more well-known) anthologies. The stories themselves vary in quality, but there is very little in the way of tie-ins now that most of the backstory has been dealt with in the first volume. The stories also vary in time of writing, and Leiber's voice changes with them. His prose is more turgidly purple and forced in the later stories (such as 1970's "The Price of Pain-Ease"), although his sense of humor has, by then, developed more keenly. It creates the impression that Leiber might very well be lampooning himself an his characters as one reads through the stories.

The eponymous tale, Thieves' House, is the fifth Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tale published by Leiber, and opens up this particular volume. Chronologically, the two adventurers find themselves returning to the Thieves' House, although for Leiber in 1943, this was his first foray and it is likely this tale saw editing in order to better fit the author's timeline. As Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories go, this is nearly as excellent as the later novella Ill-Met in Lankhmar, and the main reason is because of the Thieves' House itself. Leiber managed to create a labyrinthine setting come to life in less than 40 pages, filling it with secret passages, crypts, and dungeons enough to make the reader want to go in and explore, and then sprinkles a deep, lengthy history of the Thieves' Guild into the setting, spicing it further.

"The Bleak Shore" (1940), Leiber's second publication for the two heroes, wasn't bad but it disappointingly ended just as soon as it was getting good. This story had more of a pot-boiler quality, and the final premise and ultimate villain were both weak. Though the action was well-described, it felt as though it was cut short and would have benefited from a slightly longer and more developed climax.

"The Howling Tower" (1941) is quite nearly as pulpy and good as "The Jewels in the Forest." Leiber touches on some of the darker workings of the inner soul here, examining how fear, hate, and loathing can fuel evil, and how evil begets more evil. Not a profound work, but interesting, still. Sorcery in pulp is simply at its best when it is driven by dark obsession and tragedy, and in that regard, "The Howling Tower" delivers.

"The Sunken Land" (1942) was mediocre. Leiber gropes for a mix of mythical Atlantis and Lovecraft's R'lyeh, but falls short. However, the ending could have been the inspiration for the cloaker in Dungeons & Dragons. The problem here, as with "The Bleak Shore," is simply a problem of development. A Viking longship hell-bent on plundering the riches of lost Atlantis and finding R'lyeh instead is a fantastic idea. But Leiber doesn't develop enough beyond the two roguish protagonists for us to feel anything about the Northerner crew or their fate. Only a few pages are devoted to exploration before the just desserts are served, leaving this story pretty flat at the end.

"The Seven Black Priests" (1953) sees Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser wandering through the mountains of the cold north. Fafhrd gets to carry around the idiot ball, but in this case, it's actually a real Mac Guffin. And it doesn't really make him stupid, just... malleable. Lots of combat and near-misses, although, again, Leiber disappoints by not developing the villains enough. The story ends with the reader wanting more.

"Claws in the Night" (1951, originally titled "Dark Vengeance") is a superb example of how Leiber can excel. The story is artfully woven together by the author, who writes a tightly paced tale, full of intrigue, mystery, and suspense. It is a story in which nothing is wasted--Leiber satisfactorily utilizes every single plot element he introduces to assemble a great tale that's excitingly paced. Fafhrd and the Mouser are well-defined by this tale, and both work together and play well off one-another's strengths and weaknesses.

"The Price of Pain-Ease" (1970) comes off as pure filler, much like "The Circle Curse" (1970). We've just been through several stories in which Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have never once mentioned or dealt with their tragic loss experienced in Ill-Met in Lankhmar. Why Leiber felt it necessary to include this tale is something I don't really understand, but it doesn't really accomplish much for the characters. By now, the reader sees their losses as having shaped their personae and doesn't need the author to come down and fix it for them. So much for the flimsy purpose of the tale, the premise is just far-fetched and poorly executed. What could have been a journey into the underworld (like in Homer's Odyssey or Virgil's Aeneid) was too brief and undeveloped. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's "wizard mentors" come off more annoying than helpful.

"Bazaar of the Bizarre" (1963) is actually one of my favorite stories, although the Mouser ends up grabbing the idiot ball halfway through the story and runs with it as hard and fast as he can. And Leiber suddenly bursts out and uses an obscure word at least twice ("coolth"). The tone is nearly Pythonesque, and it is annoying seeing the Mouser and Fafhrd reduced from skilled thieves and cunning rogues (like in "Claws of the Night") to teenage errand-boys for the two wizards. Nevertheless, the idea of such a bazaar is pretty cool, and through the two annoying wizards, Leiber describes who built it, why, and why Fafhrd must destroy it. The combat is exhilarating and the description of the bazaar itself is keen and fascinating (at least, the bazaar the Mouser sees).

"The Cloud of Hate" (1963) was taken from the Swords in the Mist anthology, as was "Lean Times in Lankhmar" (1953). The former was acceptable, although, again, the villain's motivation was unclear, and a lot of questions remained undealt with (such as, how could such a temple, with such a huge congregation, go unnoticed). The Mouser and Fafhrd are the highlight of this piece, as their banter is enjoyable to read and their cunning and resourcefulness makes for a sharp, climactic action sequence.

The latter closes this particular volume on an extremely high note. "Lean Times in Lankhmar" is a long story that takes its time, develops fully, and blossoms into fruition. Leiber punctuates certain passages with purple prose, but the prose is not turgid enough to be grotesque, but rather comical. This story is probably one of Leiber's best. It is also a pretty thinly veiled commentary on religion, but that does not stop it from being a great story with a near-perfect ending.

Leiber's characters rarely carry around the idiot ball ("Bazaar of the Bizarre" notwithstanding), although Fafhrd's stubbornness and the Mouser's recklessness and hubris, though not as overwhelming in the previous volume's tie-in stories, are still enough to get them into lots of trouble. They display a resourcefulness and adaptability that keeps them one or two steps ahead of their opponents, and a kind of selfish interest that makes them believable rogues. The overall theme of sadness and loss is not present in this volume, despite the presence of "The Price of Pain-Ease." Leiber's more recent stories are written in a much less serious or adventuresome tone, instead being nearly comical and at times nearly lampooning itself. This detracts from the overall sword & sorcery feel of the book, slipping it into a more lighthearted self-mockery approaching the styles of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams.

Leiber's biggest weakness as a writer is that he cuts off more than he can chew with plot premises. This is why stories like "The Sunken Land" and "The Price of Pain-Ease" fail so dismally, especially when contrasted with his well-developed and excellently-paced tales, such as "The Jewels in the Forest," "Snow Women," "Lean Times in Lankhmar," and Ill-Met in Lankhmar. "The Sunken Land," perhaps, should have been expanded and better explored; similarly, "The Price of Pain-Ease" could have provided more internal conflict and eventually peace had it been done differently. When Leiber shines, man does he shine. But when he doesn't, he's lackluster. I got the feeling that many of these stories were simply written for a paycheck because they don't evince the love and attention-to-detail that some of his more well-developed tales. Leiber's a great storyteller, but it seems to be only when he wants to be. The rest of the time, he's an okay storyteller.

What redeems these lackluster stories are the characters themselves. Leiber can write Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser well. By the 1950s, he knows quite well who they are and how they interact, both with one-another and with the world around them. Cagey fighters and lethal swordsmen, there is a reason the Mouser and Fafhrd are two of the most iconic sword & sorcery characters ever to see print. When you read the stories, the two characters get along like old friends and compatriots. They feel real, have conversations with one-another that are believable, and know one-another inside-and-out. Their combat styles dovetail beautifully; Leiber scrawls fight-scenes where the two adventurers are constantly rescuing one-another from danger, deflecting lethal thrusts, and skewering opponents attacking the other's blind-side. Leiber's creations have aged well, I should add. Though I'm much older than I had been when I first read these stories a decade ago, I find them to be just as exciting and interesting today, as I did then, despite the flaws my more trained and literary mind detects.

Thieves' House: Tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber
Style B
Substance B
Overall B

Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Review -- A CLASH OF KINGS by George R. R. Martin

I've felt highly compelled to return to George R.R. Martin's Westeros immediately upon finishing the last book (check my review here). So, without a single moment of pause, I grabbed A Clash of Kings and started digging through it. It was when I was about halfway through it that I realized that I was totally wrong about Martin's multiple-viewpoint approach, among other things.

First, Martin's world-building is second only to Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker. And The Alexandrian is right, the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is comparable to an onion, and in this book, a number of layers are peeled back.

Martin's writing style becomes quite clear when compared to the first book. The opening book chronicled the events leading up to the outbreak of dynastic civil war in Westeros, a continent formerly unified approximately three centuries previous by the Targaryen dynasty, dragon-taming refugees from ruined Valyria. Through eight perspectives, it laid the groundwork of actions different characters took that brought the entire continent to war. It also tracked the progress of Daenerys Targaryen and her brother as they sought to rebuild their lost fortunes as exiles. I gave the ending of A Game of Thrones little thought, until I realized how perfectly it set up the opening moves in A Clash of Kings.

Martin's style is essentially to create a situation through which each character must progress--their own plot thread, basically--which resolves at he end of the book. However, this resolution often leaves the character on the precipice of another challenge that will likely develop in the course of the following book. In this manner, Martin is really writing several books in one, tying them together in a single setting, occurring roughly simultaneously. The result is that, while at first blush A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings appear very loosely plotted, they are actually extremely tight.

I was also wrong about my comments on character-driven events. In retrospect, I was really reaching for criticisms of A Game of Thrones. Martin's books aren't just character-driven, but the events of the story drive the characters, forcing them to make decisions. A great example (and I won't spoil it for you) is the choice Sandor Clegane makes at the end of A Clash of Kings. It comes as extremely surprising, but it makes perfect sense once you consider the circumstances. Martin is also paying incredibly close attention to his characters, and most authors may forget the psychologies of their characters when they put them into certain situations. Clegane's behavior (his refusal to lead the sortie) and his ultimate decision both make perfect sense when you consider his character's psychology--but it is something we can easily forget, and hence, can come as an unexpected twist. This showcases Martin's incredible strength as a writer, and largely banishes a lot of my doubts that I had at the end of A Game of Thrones.

Martin's world is coherent, and most-importantly, lived-in. His eye for detail really comes to fruition in this book. We get the dirty little inner workings of castles and towns, and we get to see the effects of a medieval chevauchée on the countryside. It is difficult to not compare Martin's work to Tolkien, but one must remember that Tolkien wrote mythologies, not histories (although his myths were coherently presented making them seem historical). Minas Tirith was a city of myth, much like Troy, or the Seven-Gated Thebes of Sophocles, but Martin writes much more down-to-earth and gritty.

Much like A Game of Thrones, the reader shouldn't expect the sort of flowery language and epic tone that Tolkien elicits. Martin, much like his contemporaries, Erikson and Bakker, are writing in a much different time than Tolkien, and it shows. His writing is straightforward, not baroque, delivered in a very matter-of-fact manner. He doesn't waste page space. His descriptions have an air of terse accuracy to them, eschewing a Dickensian turgidity of prose in favor of brevity and action. Martin writes about people doing things, and even when they are sitting around and talking, their conversations aren't meaningless, but drive the book forward.

A Clash of Kings is a massive volume. The US paperback is 1000+ pages long (almost 200 pages longer than A Game of Thrones), but before one would compare it to Robert Jordan, I'd advise that a more accurate comparison would be to Steven Erikson. STUFF HAPPENS in this book. Battles are fought, people are betrayed, entire towns and castles are massacred, people you thought were dead are really alive, religious movements are born, and Martin shoots Chekov's gun repeatedly. There were several points during this book where I almost went into convulsions when I realized that Martin was pulling the trigger on Chekov's gun--he does it and you don't necessarily see it coming, but when you realize the clues were all there, you slap the heel of your palm to your head and find yourself screaming, "THIS IS F---ING AWESOME!" at the top of your lungs.

The characters really come into their own in this volume. I have to say, my favorites are Tyrion Lannister and Arya Stark by far, but I find that I can connect with all of the characters on some level. Some critics of A Game of Thrones complained that a few of the perspectives were from personae that they actively disliked and wanted to skip. At first, during A Game of Thrones, I found myself feeling similar only for Sansa Stark, but the events at the end of the first novel and her experiences throughout A Clash of Kings have softened my opinion of her a bit and I've been able to connect with her much more easily.

Martin's development of his characters is also just as fantastic as his ability to create his world. His characters do not remain static, but transform realistically. For example, Sansa Stark's entire world has been brutally upset and she copes through a mixture of hope and strict adherence to her training as an aristocratic lady. In contrast, her sister Arya develops a keen resourcefulness, cunning, and ability to seize advantage out of every opportunity, despite her youth and inexperience. Martin deepens the internal conflicts of the characters as well, climaxing with Jon Snow's brutal dilemma at the end of the novel. Theon Greyjoy's perspective is introduced, replacing Ned Stark, and giving us insight into his own issues of inadequacy and his desperate need for approval and respect.

To summarize, briefly, A Clash of Kings is not only a worthy successor to A Game of Thrones, it's better. And it actually puts A Game of Thrones into better perspective, so that the reader can appreciate this series for the absolute genius that it is. Martin's got a firm handle on a very complex story that is probably far more literary than I had previously given it credit for being. It is not the deep exploration of psychology or philosophy that R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing is, nor the allegorical homage to early modern romance that Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is, nor is it an epic myth cycle like Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. If anything, it is Martin's answer to Tolkien and all it's pastiches (David Eddings, Terry Brooks, and yes, even Robert Jordan), and answer grounded in reality, pessimism, and politics.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Style B+
Substance A
Overall A-

Monday, September 6, 2010

Book Review -- A GAME OF THRONES by George R. R. Martin

George R.R. Martin read Tad Williams' epic trilogy, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (some of my notes and comments can be found here) and realized that fantasy was not simply for children, and that an author could do far more than just a pastiche of Tolkien (much like Terry Brooks has been accused). Williams had proven that a writer could draw from a great many sources, such as traditional romance of knights errant, Tolkienesque high fantasy, pulpy and gritty fantasy by such authors as Lieber, Howard, Moorcock, Zelazny, and Anderson, and transcend all of those influences by creating something deep and meaningful while simultaneously avoiding imitation.

George R.R. Martin was inspired by this to begin work on a massive series that was very loosely inspired by the War of the Roses. Thus was born A Song of Ice and Fire. His first novel, A Game of Thrones (released August of 1996, my senior year of high school), runs 860+ pages of intrigue, deception, plotting, and character development. The Alexandrian's review of the first few books states:
This is a brilliant series. Brilliant and painful and beautiful and stunning. Literally stunning. There are points in reading it when I found my mouth hanging agape, in sheer shock.
After reading the first volume, I have to agree.

The book is very strong in its characterization, so much so that the entire plot is very character driven. However, we are rapidly treated to a variety of plot-twists and sudden surprises. When you read this series, you will find many of your expectations to be overturned. Martin's story reflects real life in the manner that the best-laid plans do not always come together as we expect them to, and unforeseen elements will completely derail them. The characters themselves are far from stagnant. They change and grow as they experience things.

And there are a lot of characters. But none of them are identical or interchangeable. Much like R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series, they are all deeply fleshed out and multi-faceted, with entire psychologies so well-defined that their characters make sense. One drawback to this is that many fans develop deep and abiding hatreds for some of the characters, and therefore have difficulty identifying with them (a great example is the loathing many readers have for Sansa Stark). However, I believe that they are limiting themselves by simply reading about characters that they would like. Martin hasn't set about creating entirely sympathetic characters, but instead has built believable personalities and psychologies for each one, making them real and occasionally alienating. Martin's book is fantasy, but it isn't all that escapist (more on this later).

I think there is a great difference between writers like Martin and Bakker when compared to Tolkien, and that difference is the contemporary writers produce books that are propelled by their characters. Tolkien's characters almost seem as if they are along for the ride. For example, the Fellowship is essentially railroaded into the Mines of Moria, Frodo "accidentally" slips on the Ring at the inn in Bree, and the Ring's temptation of Boromir is the author driving a character to take an action that would result in a party-split that otherwise may not have occurred. It's more of an event-driven plot, and the characters are not as free to act as the ones in Bakker's and Martin's books. That being said, the psychology of the characters themselves determines their behavior in the contemporary tales, and while Martin's psychology isn't anywhere near as heavy as Bakker's, it's there and it certainly plays a role.

We may not agree with the behavior, decisions, and opinions of all of the characters Martin presents to us, but we can certainly understand and perhaps even sympathize. And we can even see how actions can cause events that spiral out of control and force confrontations.

This isn't to say that all of the plot is purely character driven (for example, Lady Catelyn Stark and Lord Tyrion Lannister just happen to visit the same inn on the same rainy day), but their behavior is perfectly in character and the choices both of them make on that particular occasion put not only themselves, but the entire continent of Westeros on a course toward war. Once these events begin, we can see that the different players, such as Lord Tywin Lannister, Robb Stark, and others, have too much to lose by not taking action. It is very interesting, especially after reading Geoffrey Blainey's The Causes of War about a year-and-a-half ago, what assumptions and plans different factions make when going into a war, and how these differ from the reality that emerges. We literally see some of these characters do risk-reward assessments for their proposed actions. In a way, this is a fascinating study in how wars can begin from small causes which ignite underlying tensions.

Martin's book is smart, but some might say that it is unfocused. One major complaint is that it jumps around too much. In A Game of Thrones, the story is told through eight separate points of view, with three major plot threads in development (one of which is divided into numerous subplots). Although these may very well unite at some point in the series, being jerked between three major story-arcs can be quite jarring for some readers. It's a symptom of what I call the "soap-opera impact" on fantasy-fiction, in which numerous plot threads have to be playing out simultaneously, and the author must constantly jump from one to another in order to keep the reader's attention. Martin's use of eight separate perspectives involves ample use of cliffhangers between chapters, but to his credit, he doesn't always leave us hanging. He often uses the transition to different character viewpoints to give us a variety of perspectives on events. This comes off as a strength, albeit a tricky one to maintain.

A possible weakness later in the series may come from our familiarity with the characters. Our exposure to more and more players throughout the series may serve to strain Martin's ability to surprise us further. I read that at one point, we get to see the inner workings in the mind of even the Kingslayer, Jaime Lannister, one of the most interesting characters in the series, as a chapter is told from his point of view. The problem with this is, while it can make the characters themselves more fascinating, it also could dispel some of the mystery surrounding their drives and goals, thus making them more predictable. Martin could end up painting himself into corners, forcing himself to make his characters act in ways contrary to their established natures in order to provide more surprises. Simply adding new characters to continue generating plot twists could get old.

In brief, though, I think Martin takes many of the potential weaknesses of his style and turns them into strengths. Instead of leaving the reader dangling after numerous plot threads over long periods of time, Martin is busy developing them. There's no sense of resolution yet, but the three main plot threads are held up by subthreads that tend to move and resolve rapidly enough to keep the reader interested, and the different character viewpoints provide one with a variety of perspectives, which keeps the book fresh and entertaining.

The weakness of this, however, is the lack of any one single protagonist with whom the reader can specifically identify. And this will honestly come down to individual preference. Some readers cannot get past the constant shifts in character, especially to certain characters they dislike. Indeed, a good literary critic might have to ask if this is preventing Martin's work from actually succeeding as something more than just fantasy. Tad Williams' work transcends fantasy, but I really can't say the same about Martin's work. It reads like a historical fiction novel, actually, and not much like a fantasy at all, and while this may be a strength, it doesn't propel the work into the sort of literary magnitude and depth that Tad Williams' books had.

That being said, though, Martin's not writing an escapist sort of story. The tale is bloody, brutal, and full of lots of unpleasantness. He's unapologetic about war. There that he sugar-coats and glosses over. He takes on a lot of challenging and unpleasant facets of medieval society. Sex and sexual violence are a part of warfare. The frequency and brutality with which rape occurs can be disturbing, but Martin is jamming it in our face in order to challenge our whitewashed conceptions of medieval warfare being chivalric (see "Chapter 3: Chivalry and the Chevauchée in John A. Lynn's Battle: A History of Combat and Culture). However, Martin doesn't employ the poetic finesse of a Tolkien that could perhaps propel this book beyond being exemplary genre and something more.

Then again, it's simply the opening volume, and Martin could further cultivate and develop a lot of these more challenging aspects of his tale further.

Is there symbolism in the book? Absolutely. The first chapter has the Starks finding the wolf-cubs, and I would most certainly suggest that the cubs' symbolize the Starks themselves, as well as their fates. This is especially poignant regarding Eddard Stark. (NOTE: This is, honestly, hardly a spoiler, because Martin foreshadows it so hard that if you are surprised then you need your head examined). What Lady's fate says about Sansa Stark is anybody's guess at this point, but I have my interpretations/theories. Arya, Rickon, and Robb all very much embody the actions and fates of their wolves by the conclusion of the book. Only Bran seems to stand out, but that is because I believe his condition is not as debilitating as it seems, since his wolf is fine.

There's some other symbolism in the book, but none of it seems to really jump out at me as embodying some higher sort of meaning. Perhaps I have to go back and reread the series again once I'm finished, but I haven't detected the sort of deeper philosophical and spiritual meaning that Tad Williams underpins Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, for example. Does that make Martin's books at all bad? Absolutely not! Indeed, Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is incredibly unique in it's ability to transcend genre. Martin's work is exemplary, and blows every other fantasy writer out of the water, with the exceptions of R. Scott Bakker, Steven Erikson, early Raymond E. Feist, and J.R.R. Tolkien himself. But you cannot really compare Martin to these works, because, although they all count as fantasy, that is like saying apples, oranges, and grapes are all fruit. There's a limit to how much similarity there is for comparison, before things just begin to break down.

Martin's purpose in writing A Game of Thrones is to tell an intensely political story, rife with labyrinthine politics and byzantine treachery, flawed and intensely human heroes (the best kind), and no clear antagonist. It's tragic, really, if you think about it, but then again, all wars are, after all. And Martin succeeds in his aim. There were times where I had to reread a passage out of sheer disbelief, for the things that occur in it. Martin lacks the over-flowery prose of some fantasy authors, and delivers his medieval setting with all the nasty, dirty details. The sheer variety of his characters and their fully-fleshed personalities is only surpassed by Bakker.

With writers like Erikson, Bakker, and Martin, I think fantasy has a great deal of potential. The only flaw in the book is a lack of a clear protagonist. But it is a necessary sacrifice for Martin to be able to tell the sort of story that he wants to tell. The variety of perspectives throughout the novel gives it a uniqueness that helps to keep the story moving and keeps us from getting bogged down in one character's shoes. Martin needs the varied points-of-view in order to tell exactly what kind of story he wants. Without them, his book would be much weaker, even if it were more solidly and conventionally constructed. Martin's risk becomes the reader's reward.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Style B
Substance A
Overall B+

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Old School Gaming Community -- Current Drama Episode

About two weeks ago, there was an enormous blow-up over Frog God Games' acquisition of Swords & Wizardry, a retro-clone of Gary Gygax's and Dave Arneson's original fantasy role-playing concepts. It is basically a simulacrum of the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, which my friends and I used back in the early 1990s when we played during our middle school summer vacations. S&W earned loads of respect, even garnering an ENnie (2009, Silver for Best Free Product).

Frog God Games is a sort of successor to Necromancer Games. Back in graduate school, I had the pleasure of playing once-a-month in a 3.5 dungeon crawl as a Galen Servetus, a necromancer physician inspired by a combination of Galen of Pergammon and Michael Servetus. I love playing wizards in 3.5 because item creation rules make the wizard character far, far more survivable and incredibly useful--if you are smart. I had a nasty tendency in that campaign to use spectral hand to lob ceramic globes of alchemist's fire so often people thought I was a pyromancer. I had a backstory that the Order had sent me to research the plague, continue my inquiries into the nature of the circulatory system, and investigate cases of unlicensed necromancy (i.e. raising dead without a license, as well as without written permission of the deceased, compensation to the family, and contractual obligations, such as agreement to bury the remains when the terms of service expire). The priest of Pelor and I had a great time arguing the merits of scientific advancement vs. sacrilege regarding unholy acts like dissecting dead bodies.

Anyway, I digress (that was a fun game, by-the-way).

What got people up-in-arms was the "About Us" section on the Frog God Games website (it's since been changed). A lot of S&W fans were incredibly dismayed by what they read. Predictably, dismay turned into anger. Like, mob with torches and pitchforks anger.

What, precisely caused this row? The "Who We Aren't" section, specifically.
We are not the guys who are going to offer bargain basement junk for a quick buck. We won't sell you hand drawn maps and clip art laid out by amateurs and posted up on as a cheap book that you look at and discard.
That's a pretty ballsy statement. It throws down a pretty heavy gauntlet. It's almost a mission-statement. They are going to use professional cartographers with quality equipment to produce good maps. Serious artists are going to illustrate their books.

Well, this received a ton of negative press in the blogosphere. So, why such a backlash? Well, pretty much summed it up:

So you want to slag on pretty much half of the 400 people interested in your product? Because, by trashing those “amateurs”, that’s what you did. It reads as a hit against every fan magazine, every bare-bones supplement, and every weekend and late night spent creating something to celebrate and contribute to play in our hobby.

The Do It Yourself (DIY) ethic is a core part of not just this corner of the hobby, it’s been a boon to those of us who wanted to create something for the games we loved, but weren’t quite sure how. We saw our peers do it, and said, “hey, maybe I can take a crack at something like that, too!” Many products—good products, that I have used the hell out of for gaming—were from, and I can spot more than a few hand-drawn maps and bits of clip art.
This is taken as a direct blow to the amateur, do-it-yourself aspect of the entire old-school renaissance zeitgeist. In this respect, the entire old-school renaissance is a sort of gestalt entity--by attacking a single aspect of it (the amateur, grass-roots identity of the movement), one is perceived as attacking the entire whole.

And old college pal of mine, Wayne from over at Semper Initiativus Unum, commented:
This bothers me not so much because it's a foot in mouth thing, as because I am in this for precisely the opposite. I want things that are amateur, I want PDFs mocked up and thrown on Trying to make it a point of honor that you aren't that is BS and nothing more. The OSR is a movement that has embraced the ethic of the early years of the hobby, and to be honest I don't want to see more "professional" products. I want labors of love.
This is head-and-shoulders above most of the other comments toward Frog God Games, which made me think somebody needed to call the "waaaaambulance." For Christ's sake, even Frog God Games' Bill Webb himself got on saying that he'd gladly "switch paychecks" with anyone and that he does this for love of gaming.

But Wayne actually solidifies his position in another comment (on a different blog):
Most of us have been through what professionals did for D&D. And, most of us, have chosen to reject that. Why should we be happy or proud or even interested that a company touting its professionalism has picked up Swords & Wizardry? Seriously now. Your stuff is well produced and very interesting and you have some good ideas, but this whole touting of professionalism just sits outside of what the OSR is and should remain.


It was the same burst of popularity in the Silver Age that killed the Golden Age. Gary and TSR won out over the hobbyists and professional AD&D was the pre-eminent game for a decade. But by the end of that decade it was a barely recognizable hull of itself, tied to bloated settings and novel lines with a bare resemblance to what it had been. Dave Cook, who worked on the excellent Expert set, was the same guy who wrote 2nd edition AD&D. TSR's victory was a Pyrrhic one, and it's a lesson we should learn from.
Kudos to Wayne for standing his ground. I heartily disagree with a few of his points, but he actually encapsulates the arguments for the entire old-school gestalt better than many I've seen with these simple comments.

In effect, this is why guys like James over at Grognardia love for guys like Dave Trampier and Jim Holloway and his mild disdain for the impact of more realistic artists like Larry Elmore (although he appreciates Elmore nonetheless). It's a desire to turn back the clock to a more innocent time period in gaming. Through the old-school renaissance, these guys can go back to being twelve and thirteen again, building sandboxes and stocking them with anything their imaginations can devise. Coherency and continuity aren't so very important. Immersion is a choice, a matter of taste. It is as if the entire nostalgic "feel" of the material could be lost if the artwork were not black-and-white sketches inked over with pen. No higher artistic techniques should be brought to bear for fear of ruining things or turning all of the pictures into some sort of anime-inspired unrealistic freakshow like much of 3rd edition's artwork was.

So, Jim Raggi threw in his perspective over at the blog for his Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG.
I know for my stuff, I've done everything I can to keep the quality high. I fail in some places, some due to budget and some just because I'm a natural fuckup, but you better fucking believe I kick myself in the ass for every layout glitch, every typo, every picture that doesn't look as awesome as the most awesome thing I've ever seen. Every single thing I've ever released, I've looked at after the fact and thought, "Oh SHIT. This isn't good enough. The next thing has to be better."


If I had the budget, every damn thing I release would be printed on solid fucking gold with unique Cynthia Sheppard work on every damn page. Not because it makes the writing any better, but because if I'm going to do something I want people to marvel at it. Hell, I want to marvel at it.

The OSR has in large part prided itself on things that perhaps it shouldn't. The fact is if you're going to charge money for anything, let alone $20 or $40 or *gulp* $65, you better make damn well sure you've done everything you can to make it special. To make it cool. To make it quality. For something to be special it's got to be something that not anyone could do.
I totally understand where Raggi's coming from, although he probably didn't make many friends with this comment. The entire do-it-yourself movement goes beyond the old-school renaissance and into all avenues of gaming (see Ron Edwards and the Forge--their entire purpose is independently produced role-playing products). I'm sorry, art matters. It does. It helps to create a visualization of the setting and world with which the characters are exploring and interacting. Without it, something is inevitably lost. I should write a post at a later date about how much I adore some of the art of 2nd edition D&D (something that would probably horrify many of these old-schoolers).

Raggi's statement that he wants his books to be absolutely amazing is entirely understandable. From what I've been reading, his Lamentations of the Flame Princess is well-designed and well-written, and the illustrations are excellent. He's put a great deal of effort not just into the nuts & bolts of rules and gaming, but in the overall presentation of his work. This is a labor of love to him. And it calls into question whether or not raising the bar for quality in presentation isn't the inspiration for Frog God Games. They're serious about putting together a top-notch product, in my opinion.

As A Paladin in the Citadel said:
You realize that it was Clark Peterson saying that, not Bill Webb, who has since gone his own way with Frog God. And it was said in 2008, when Necromancer was still trying to find a way to participate in 4E, despite the imposition of a bum deal, aka the GSL. That Clark should try to diminish or dismiss OSRIC in 2008 is disappointing but not surprising.

...I understand your anger: something you participated in and promoted, as a hobbyist, is being co-opted by commercial interests. But Matt Finch and others have pointed out that the "offending remarks" are not a slight against old-school DIYers, but were a response to sub-par Pathfinder stuff.
And this sums it all up. These guys have nothing to scream and kick about, in reality. Those comments above were not aimed at the grass-roots, independent writer who wants to self-publish a sourcebook or module. They were aimed at a large number of shoddy Pathfinder material being produced and sold on Lulu for an easy buck.

So what is this entire blow-up really about?

What we have is a temper tantrum being thrown by a large number of people who are afraid that their special little secret is about to go mainstream. But that's actually a legitimate fear. Once a counter-culture becomes mainstream, it loses a lot of its edge. Much of what made it special goes out the door.

James at Grognardia threw his own two cents in with reservation, but hope:

This is certainly big news, although I'll admit to not knowing just what this will mean in the final analysis beyond the appearance of yet another version of Swords & Wizardry by yet another publisher. Even so, I can hardly complain about this and hope it means great things for both S&W and the old school renaissance.
Just for the record, I like James' perspective the best.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

History Book -- STALINGRAD, by Anthony Beevor

I've been putting off this response to 1999's Stalingrad--The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 for weeks. To analyze and assess a work on the level of Anthony Beevor's accomplishment is a pretty daunting task. Beevor hasn't just written an narrative of the Battle of Stalingrad, but thickened it with analysis, insight, and interpretation. But that's not all. The narrative itself is brilliantly written and painstakingly researched.

As a historian, Beevor's writing of narrative history is simplistic and straightforward in comparison to the interpretation-heavy, analysis-laden studies that often emerged throughout the 20th century. This is not a weakness, as it frees him to focus on crafting a thorough and complete overview of the battle. Beevor concerns himself with more than simply the war-room discussions at the Wolfsschanze or Kremlin, but also the plight of the soldier in the trenches, manning the tanks and anti-aircraft guns, and the surgeons suturing wounds and amputating limbs. It's a heavy book--approximately 512-pages in trade-paperback form. But it is incredibly absorbing, tragic, and illuminating.

Immediately, Beevor's task is daunting. To research through German and Soviet records, documents, soldiers' letters, officers' memoirs, newspapers, and recorded radio broadcasts must have taken an incredible amount of work. However, this monumental undertaking bore fruit as this thick volume strives to shape as complete a picture as possible of the conditions and nature of the combat that characterized Stalingrad. It's complemented with several easy-to-read maps that list nearly every major location mentioned in the book, and several plates of photographs. These pictures were obviously very carefully selected for variety of topic as well as comprehensiveness. Throughout the book, Beevor peppers his narrative with case-studies drawn from his exhaustive records. He also introduces current historiographical discussion and analysis. The author soft-pads his own conclusions regarding the various causes for specific mishaps and errors, subtly embedding it in the form of character-analysis of many of the key generals and leaders involved in the strategic decision-making.

Beevor begins his narrative with the last days of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the beginning of Operation Barbarossa. The immense gains achieved by the Nazi forces against the Soviet Union and their relentless drive across the flat plains of western Russia intensifies the plummeting feeling that the reader achieves by the book's conclusion. He then describes the brutal Russian winter and minor reverses the Germans experience before launching into a description of Operation Blue. Hitler's grand design was to push for the oil-rich fields in the Caucasus. The city of Stalingrad, en route, was to be captured by General Paulus' Sixth Army and held to anchor the German flank.

Instead, Hitler became obsessed with Stalingrad, seeing it as symbolic of the struggle of Germany against the Soviets and fascism against communism. Since he personified the Nazi regime, and Stalin (to Hitler) personified the facelessness of Bolshevism and the Soviet government, Hitler was intent on capturing "the city of Stalin." It was here that the Soviet mantra "not one step backward" was brutally enforced as commissars summarily executed any retreating Soviet soldiers. Soviet general Vasily Chuikov was given the command to hold the city and not give up the western bank of the Volga. Thus, amidst the ruins of a bombed-out city, the German Sixth Army became locked in a furious Rattenkrieg ("Rat War").

The tide turned, however, as winter approached and Soviet general Georgy Zhukov executed a brilliant campaign that turned Stalingrad into a disastrous trap for Paulus' Sixth Army. Operation Uranus resulted in the encirclement of the Sixth Army, cutting it off from support and supply, followed shortly by Operation Little Saturn, which foiled a German attempt to reconnect with the Sixth Army and thrust the main German forces backward, further isolating the Sixth Army. Finally, after sitting through weeks of freezing cold, malnutrition, and disease, the Sixth Army was brutally crushed.

Beevor then describes the conditions of German internment in Soviet P.O.W. camps, and how brutal treatment and neglect combined to kill the lion's share of German prisoners. This is juxtaposed against the comparatively civil treatment the Soviets extended to officers and generals. The interrelations of the German generals in captivity is a fascinating study in how tragic loss and disastrous reversals of fortune can impact the psyches of individuals.

Beevor's Stalingrad is ultimately a tale of utmost human tragedy. Although he doesn't say it directly, all of the evidence and character analysis lays the blame for the destruction of the Sixth Army and the resulting reversal of fortune for the German war machine in Russia upon Hitler and the neutered Wehrmacht high command. Poor decision-making, spineless sychophantism, backroom politicking, and hubris combined to allow Hitler and the German high command back at the Wolfsschanze to underestimate the strength of the Soviet military machine and their ability to effectively counter-attack. In the end, Hitler abandoned the Sixth Army to starvation, exposure to the elements, and the "tender mercies" of an enraged Red Army.

It's difficult not to feel pity for both the Soviet soldiers and civilians suffering throughout the German advance. Likewise, however, once the Sixth Army is cut off, it is also difficult to remain callous to the starvation and suffering experienced by the German soldiers (see left for a German P.O.W. escorted by a Soviet soldier with a PPSh-41). Throughout the final segment of the book, Beevor describes the variety of reactions the individual soldiers have toward their own suffering and that of their comrades. The reader's emotional reaction should be confusing and difficult to categorize. On the one hand, the Soviet leadership and the brutal tyranny of Stalin are difficult with which to sympathize. However, the individual Soviet soldier was often brave and self-sacrificing for his comrades. Many women took part in the battle against the Germans, initially shocking and dismaying them. Indeed, reading about German doctors who fought to care for patients regardless of the circumstances, also made them much more real and pitiable.

As I mentioned above, the tale of Stalingrad is a tale of human tragedy. The book abruptly ends with the fates of the city and the captured generals after the war, and the division of Germany. The overall tone is inescapably bitter. Hundreds of thousands of human beings were cut down by bullets, bombs, the cold, disease, and hunger for a ruined city that mattered mostly because of its name.