Monday, December 30, 2013

The 2014 Bookshelf Challenge!

Not my room, sadly, but definitely my dream wall.

Back in January of this year, I posted that I was going to make a serious effort to make it to 25 books in 2013. And... I ended up making it to 55! I was posting on each of them here for a while, and then gave up because my reading was getting far ahead of my posting (I'll post the complete list below). I read more new books than I think I've ever read, constantly putting holds on books at my library when they were just mentioned in "upcoming releases" in book sections of papers and buying new books at the bookstore (THAT is an addiction I've had for years).

But through it all, I stared at the bookshelves surrounding me — and as many of you know, I'm literally surrounded by bookshelves when I sit here at my desk; they form a wonderful semicircle around me — and realized I wasn't making a dent on any of them. There are favourite books I'd like to read again, but have been so caught up in reading everything else that I just don't attack the ones on the shelves. In recent years I'd buy new books I'd read about in the paper or through friends, but they'd be shelved because I was working on a Finding Lost book or too busy trying to bomb through a TV series to get to it. (By the way, my TV viewing was seriously lacking this year, and yet I still felt accomplished having read all these books instead.)

My best friend Sue has the same issue; volumes of books piling up around her while she's taking out stacks of books from the library or borrowing books from me or buying new books because of the various book clubs we're in.

And so, a few weeks ago, we were discussing this conundrum, and I suggested we take on a challenge in 2014: no library books, no new books (unless someone else buys them for us). No. We can only read the books on our shelves.

Of course, there are exceptions. I put a hold on one library book when I first heard about it, and then it won a kajillion awards and now has hundreds of holds on it, but I'm right near the top. So we agreed I could keep that hold. She has a hold at the library she's going to keep, too. And of course we're both in a graphic novel book club and a second book club, ones that obviously recommend books we don't already have. So we can buy those books or get them from the library. But for personal reading, which accounted for 70% of my reading this year, we have to stick to what we've got.

If anyone else wants to join in, we'll be posting at the end of every month (when we remember to) what we read this month and how much we've conquered from our bookshelves. I'm very excited. As I told someone the other day, I have a book I bought in grad school that I moved from that room to my first apartment, second apartment, first house, second house, and now third house, and it's STILL THERE and I have never read it. I alphabetize my bookshelves (stop laughing; at least I don't organize them by font), and it's always the first one I put up there, which is why it haunts me. It's Peter Ackroyd's English Music, and dammit, I will read that book this year! God, I hope it doesn't suck.

And now, here are the books I read in 2013. I've put a star beside my very, very favourite ones. Let me know what your favourites were that you read this year!

1. Marbles by Ellen Forney
*2. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
3. Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
*4. My Name Is Mina by David Almond
*5. When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
6. Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire
*7. Blankets by Craig Thompson
8. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
9. Habibi by Craig Thompson
10. Skellig by David Almond
11. Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher
12. Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman
13. Divergent by Veronica Roth
14. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
15. The Last Girlfriend on Earth by Simon Rich
*16. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
17. Supergods by Grant Morrison
18. The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr
*19. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks
20. All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
21. Red Son by Mark Millar et al
22. Life After Death by Damien Echols
*23. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
24. Hyena in Petticoats by Willow Dawson
25. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
26. Fables: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham
27. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
28. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
29. The Escapists by Brian K. Vaughan
30. Fables: Animal Farm by Bill Willingham
**31. Tenth of October by George Saunders
32. Eternal Life by John Shelby Spong
33. Jinn Warriors by Marwan El Nashar
**34. Where Did You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
*35. Wool by Hugh Howey
36. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
37. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
*38. Blacksad by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido
39. The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper
*40. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
41. Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
42. Green River Killer by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case
43. Dear Girls Above Me by Charlie McDowell
44. Jim Henson: A Biography by Brian Jay Jones
*45. The Blondes by Emily Schultz
46. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
47. Empty Cradle by Diana Walsh
48. Hamilton Illustrated by David Collier
49. Haunted Hamilton by Mark Leslie
**50. Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
51. Perfect by Rachel Joyce
52. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
53. Saga (vol 1) by Brian K. Vaughan
**54. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
55. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

Monday, December 23, 2013

2013: A Year of Lost Numbers

I realized when this year began that I was going to be hitting a couple of Hurley's numbers on Lost, in significant ways. And now that the year is over, I realize that I hit all of them.

The number of decades I've been around, as I celebrated my 40th this year.

The number of days I spent in Hawaii in September... checking out Lost locations, appropriately. (And yes, I still owe you guys the other half of that post I wrote about them!)

The anniversary of my first book — on Xena: Warrior Princess — which I first held in my hands on April 25, 1998.

The number of years I've officially been working in publishing.

The number of years I'd been with my husband, as of January 2013... now it's just shy of 24. Yes, we started dating when I was 16.

And finally...

The birthday my husband celebrated this year.

(I could add 108, the number of grey hairs my kids gave me this year, but it was probably much higher than that...)

Did anyone else hit the numbers this year?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Game of Thrones Book Club: Book 1, Part 5

And here we are, at the end of our discussion of the first book in George RR Martin’s fantastic Song of Ice and Fire series. Along with my cohort, Christopher Lockett, I will be discussing the final section of the book, pp. 652-end mass market; 544-end trade paperback (starting with JON "Are you well, Snow?)

Christopher: Well, here we are at the end of A Game of Thrones, and if the way GRRM leaves it doesn’t make everyone who’s made it through want to run out and buy A Clash of Kings … well, I just don’t understand you. Of course, Nikki, I know you’ve already ordered book number two, so I guess my first question to you is: did you find the conclusion of the novel as satisfying as the series?

Say what you will about GRRM, he’s a dab hand at keeping us turning the page and running out to the bookstore for the next book. The admixture of triumph and despair, of shock and confusion that we encounter here is genuinely impressive. Here at the end, the war that everyone has feared has finally broken out, and first blood goes to the Starks. Well … first blood on the battlefield, at any rate. The Shot Heard Around Westeros was of course the shocking execution of Ned Stark; and like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, it collapsed all the shaky structures of diplomacy that had been hastily built and made a grinding, bloody war inevitable. Had everything worked out as it was supposed to, with Ned taking the black, the Starks might have been brought back into line—certainly, with Ned “confessing” his crime and naming himself traitor, there would be nothing for the North to stand on in terms of casus belli. Even with the Lannisters and the Starks clashing on the field of battle, peace could have been brokered.

If not for the Little Shit. Joffrey. Who decided all on his own that he would not suffer traitors and nicked off Ned’s head before anyone could do anything. Isn’t he just adorable.

What I love about Joffrey’s capricious assertion of royal fiat is how it asserts a similar caprice in the movement of history. Fantasy as a genre is frequently invested in the idea of prophecy and fate and destiny; what happens is meant to happen, and it all unfolds according to a larger, transcendent logic. Not that that sort of logic isn’t on display in A Game of Thrones—after all, the broader story arc entails a great cosmic showdown between the forces of implacably cold anti-life in the form of the Others, and, well, everything in Westeros with a warm body.

But here at the moment of Joffrey’s petulant sentence, he throws everything into disarray (and reminds us that he’s a total sociopath). History is capricious, and GRRM does a really subtle job of playing that basic fact off against the broader sense of social and political (and magical and mythical) moving in mysterious but often implacable ways.

Speaking of the battlefield that Westeros is to become, we get our first glimpse of that common fantasy setpiece: the large-scale clash of armed forces. GRRM does not disappoint on this front: the battle as experienced by Tyrion is wonderfully rendered, with enough detail to communicate how it proceeds and give the reader a sense of the disposition of forces; but falling short of a Bernard-Cornwell-style history lecture (though I do love those, too—for anyone who craves specific historical detail, check out any one of his many, many works of historical fiction). And here, the novel is vastly superior to the series: I remember being quite put out by the way in which the show cheated, giving us a glimpse of the camp and Tyrion’s rousing little speech to his troops … but then Tyrion is knocked unconscious as his men trample him in their eagerness to get to the battle, and he comes to after everything is done. I understand the need to keep things on budget—large-scale battles are expensive to film—but it felt a lot like a cop-out at the time.

Some day we’ll have to have a discussion of battle sequences on TV versus on film. What did you think of the first actual clash of arms, Nikki?

Nikki: It was wonderful, and I’m glad you reminded us that Tyrion gets knocked unconscious in the show. Even though I hadn’t yet read the book, I remember being put out at the time that that’s all we get from the battle. So put out… I apparently put it out of my mind. So when the battle happens from Tyrion’s POV in the book, I kept thinking, Why don’t I remember this?! I’m glad it’s because the show didn’t bother showing it, and not because my memory is terribly faulty. As I read it, I thought it felt so visual, like GRRM was actually writing the script for the series and not just the scene in the book. I loved it; it was on-the-edge-of-your-seat tense, and even knowing how it was going to pan out, I thought it was still full of suspense.

As was the actual beheading scene. On the series, we see the sword come down on Ned’s head, and Arya’s head turned away by Yoren, who grabs her because Ned pleads with him to not let her see it. And yet… we know the sword connects with Ned’s neck. We know he’s dead. (I still remember the chatter after, and the few people who thought he was NOT dead, despite it being pretty darn clear on the episode.) And yet… how shocking to get to that part and discover that you see even less of the execution in the pages of GRRM’s book than you did on the show! We see Ilyn Payne come out, and then Arya’s wrenched away, and the moment that Ice makes contact with Ned’s neck is overshadowed by Arya’s distress, and trying to remember the name of the man who has her. I kept thinking they were coming back to it, that time had been suspended for this moment of Arya trying to get her bearings, when the story continues… “The plaza was beginning to empty. The press dissolved around them as people drifted back to their lives.” Wait, what? I had to go back and reread that page about three times before I realized the decapitation happens entirely within our minds, with no description. It’s as if GRRM came to a point in his book where he had to kill off his hero, and then couldn’t bring himself to actually do it. So he just left the execution out and put us directly in Arya’s perspective, being jostled about on the streets and confused and trying to put her mind on something else. It’s one of the most brilliant scenes I’ve ever read in a book.

And then there’s how the word travels. From that point on we see the others find out… Bran gets a raven; Sansa throws herself on the bed and hides from the world; Tyrion finds out from an offhand remark made at a council meeting, and nearly chokes on his food… and then we get to Jon Snow and Catelyn, and their stories continue after they’ve found out. Again, like with the beheading, we don’t read how they find out, just what they do when they know. Jon jumps on his horse and races southward, thinking he’ll join Robb’s battle and help him. And Catelyn is grief-stricken and in shock, trying to focus on her son’s battle, but she can’t help but thinking of her husband, followed by, “Oh Ned…” or “Oh, poor Ned…” as the memory suddenly hits her anew once more. I loved how GRRM has this ability to unfold the story by showing the consequences and reactions, not necessarily the Big Moments themselves.

Do you remember your reaction when you first read the scene of Ned’s execution?

Christopher: I remember being baffled more than shocked. Your description of how GRRM handles the moment of execution is spot-on—you don’t see the actual downstroke of Ice, and with Arya our gaze is forcefully turned aside. The first time I read it I didn’t gasp or throw the book down, as it seemed entirely likely Ned might still be alive, that I’d just been subjected to some cruel misdirection. But as you astutely point out, all doubt about Ned’s death is erased in the subsequent chapters.

I’m also struck by your observation that GRRM quite artfully emphasizes not the shock of Ned’s death in the moment but the reverberations through Westeros. For the assembled crowd, it’s an afternoon’s entertainment. The real sturm und drang in King’s Landing, we assume, happens offstage as Cersei et al panic over Joffrey’s peremptory action. Elsewhere, we see how irrevocably things have shifted. When one of Tywin’s more craven knights suggests suing the Starks for peace, Tyrion’s answer is apt: throwing his wine goblet to shatter on the floor, he declares, “There’s your peace … My sweet nephew broke it for good and all when he decided to ornament the Red Keep with Lord Eddard’s head. You’ll have an easier time drinking wine from that cup than you will convincing Robb Stark to make peace now. He’s winning … or hadn’t you noticed?”

It really is such a GRRM flourish to hand the Starks a great victory simultaneously with unspeakable loss. Robb’s first victory shows the Lannisters that they had underestimated him drastically, and in capturing Jaime he has taken that which is most precious to Tywin. Had Ned not been killed, trading Jaime for him would have been the obvious move, one that might even have established peace—a wary, unstable peace to be certain, but one in which the statesmen would have had some breathing room.

Jon Snow’s reaction to his father’s death is one of my favourite parts of this novel. His headlong flight down the Kingsroad is a poignant reminder of just how much he loved his father, and his friends’ refusal to let him go signals that he now in fact has a new family. Lord Commander Mormont is wonderful here: gruff, sensible, wise. When Jon grudgingly admits that his desertion would not bring his father back to life, Mormont turns that fact around on him rhetorically and reminds him of the stakes the Watch are now playing for: “We’ve seen the dead come back, you and me, and it’s not something I care to see again.” There is so much laded in that brief statement, not the least of which is that death is irrevocable, and where Jon’s ultimate responsibility lies when it proves otherwise.

The last four chapters set us up for A Clash of Kings, each ending with a suggestion of what is to come. Jon Snow’s last chapter has him accepting his new identity as a Brother of the Night’s Watch, and Mormont’s declaration that, for the first time in centuries, the Watch will ride in force.  Mormont’s resolve on this point is both literally and figuratively chilling—something the series translated well by having his speech play over images of the assembled Watch marching through the tunnel at the base of the Wall into the wilderness beyond.

Here at the end, we see several characters transformed. Jon embraces his new identity, while to the south his half-brother is acclaimed King in the North. What did you think of how GRRM brings each of these narrative threads to a provisional close?

Nikki: It’s so beautifully done, and I can’t believe initial readers such as you were forced to wait for the next book. No wonder new installments are snatched up quicker than new Harry Potter novels. GRRM has a masterful touch with knowing just how much to reveal, and how much to hold onto. I’m not sure if he’s able to maintain that throughout the series, but certainly in this first book, he knows what to show and what to suggest; to whom he can give a perspective chapter and who should remain more of a mystery; and in these final chapters, how much of the story to give us here to make it feel like it’s the first major stage in the game of thrones. The entirety of the King’s Landing material leads up to Joffrey becoming king, but he knows you can’t leave it there… you need to go one step further, showing what a nasty and thoughtless (and reckless) king he is. Not only is he a sociopath, but the little shit has just wreaked major havoc throughout the kingdom. In that incredible earlier scene in the Eyrie, with Bronn fighting the champion chosen by Lysa, it’s clear that there’s something not quite right with Robert, Lysa’s young son. (And on the series they cast him perfectly.) And this odd child who’s a little touched in the head continually claps his hands, stomps his feet, and shouts, “Make him fly!!” because his mind wants nothing more than watching a dwarf fly through the Moon Door.

And now, here we are at King’s Landing, where Joffrey is older, more mature, and should know better than to act rashly with so much going on around him, but he’s essentially the same impetuous child that Robert is. He practically hops up and down squeeing and clapping his hands for Ilyn Payne to make Ned’s head fly in much the same way Robert had earlier, and he clearly takes much pleasure and glee in the execution while everyone around him looks horror-stricken. Sansa and Arya because it’s their father losing his head, and Cersei because she’s cunning enough to know this is a VERY grave error. Joffrey is nothing more than a child, and a psychotic one at that. He believes that with Ned Stark dead, the Starks are out of play, and everyone else will claim fealty to him.

He’s forgetting about the mother of dragons.

The scene at the end of the book is as powerful and moving as it was in the series. The death of Khal Drogo was even more devastating on the page than it was on the show. Once again, I was gobsmacked to see just how faithful to the book the show was when it came to the entire thing, from the mage and Khal’s men refusing to listen to Dany, to the death of her baby and her ultimate sacrificing of the zombified Khal that she’s left with. It made me cry in the book, something that it didn’t do on the show. And Ser Jorah stands by her side the entire time, never wavering in his loyalty to her. (Another character that was perfectly cast on the show; I can’t imagine anyone else in the role.) Did you think Daenerys was going to become as powerful a character at the end of this book as she did? Were you surprised when her sun-and-stars died?

Christopher: I wasn’t surprised by Drogo’s death as much, if for no other reason than it was obvious Daenerys was destined to be the one with power, something that couldn’t happen if Drogo lived (which I guess answers your other question—yes, I did expect Dany to become a powerful character. Any doubts I had on that front evaporated when she ate the horse’s heart). But the khal’s death was extremely affecting: much more so than if he’d died in battle. One imagines a Boromir-esque death for Drogo, in which he is impossibly outnumbered and only gives up his last breath atop a mountain of his enemies’ corpses. But again … GRRM doesn’t play to expectations. Drogo suffers a double humiliation: weakened by an infection to the point where he falls off his horse, and then reduced to a vegetative state. There is a certain brutal poetry to his actual death: Daenerys’ act of euthanasia is a mercy but not, in either her or Drogo’s mind (if he could still think), a killing—the Drogo she knew was gone, and she has learned enough about him to love him and know how much he would hate being left like that.

If the other characters like Robb and Jon and Arya take on new identities at the end of A Game of Thrones (and Sansa too, in a somewhat different way), Daenerys is the one to experience a genuine rebirth. The final chapter is one of the most emphatically mythic sequences we find in A Song of Ice and Fire: with Drogo’s humiliation and death, all of those who might have been Daenerys’s power base desert her. She is only left with a few hundred, mostly women, elderly, and infirm—and her would-be bloodriders, all of whom inform her that being bloodrider to a woman would shame them, and their last remaining task is to escort her to Vaes Dothrak to live among the other widowed khaleesis. Ser Jorah implores her to flee with him and sell the dragon eggs—and is horrified when she consigns them to the fire. All of which is a classic moment of divestment, when the mythic hero finds himself shorn of all worldly goods, wealth, and power.

But here the mythic hero is a her. Having lost nearly everything, Daenerys makes a leap of faith. Had she been docile, she would have gone to Vaes Dothrak; had she been pragmatic, she would have fled with Jorah, sold the dragon eggs, and lived in comfortable exile. But no: looking out at her sparse followers, she wonders “How many had Aegon started with?” However little she has, she knows, it is not nothing.

She has next to nothing. She is quite literally in the desert. The setting is frankly biblical. She walks into the conflagration of Drogo’s funeral pyre, glorying in the heat, and Jorah finds her afterward—rising phoenix-like from the ashes, dragons clinging to her. It’s actually a scene done so well in the series that I can’t let it pass without showing it (warning: NSFW):

And as it appears in the novel:

“As Daenerys Targaryen rose to her feet, her black hissed, pale smoke venting from its mouth and nostrils. The other two pulled away from her breasts and added their voices to the call, translucent wings unfolding and stirring the air, and for the first time in hundreds of years, the night came alive with the music of dragons.”

This moment is a rebirth for the world as well: the magic that had gone out of it with the Fall of Valyria and the decline in Targaryen fortunes is reborn in the three dragons. GRRM does not pull any symbolic punches here: Daenerys literally becomes the Mother of Dragons, having figured out how to hatch the eggs; that two of the three dragons are nursing at her breasts sort of drives that point home.

In all, a pretty spectacular way to end the novel. It’s worth noting that A Game of Thrones is the only novel in the series (so far) to not have an epilogue. Generally, the books begin and end with chapters from the perspective of characters other than those featured in the standard POVs. But here, we end with Daenerys—anything less would subtract from the power of this conclusion.

What did you think, Nikki? How did you feel the novel’s end compared with that of the series?

Nikki: That’s so funny that you posted that YouTube clip, because I had it banked and all ready to post myself! J Perfect. I thought the ending was near perfect, and again, almost shot-for-shot the way it was on the show. The main differences were the two dragons suckling at her breasts (I’m kind of glad they removed that for the series, to be honest, although there’s certainly a suggestion of it, the way she has the one positioned on her lap) and the fact that all her hair is singed off so she’s bald when she stands up in the book. I didn’t know about the epilogues (I’m not a huge fan of epilogues) but I’m really glad this one ends like this. It gives the novel a sense of an ending of this first wave of the game of thrones, but every ending also stands as the beginning of the next stage.

As you said at the outset, it was during this final section that I jumped online and ordered A Clash of Kings. And here I said I would be able to stop at the end of the first book… (Now you see why I neither smoke nor drink; I have an addictive personality, apparently.) I couldn’t stop there. Even though I’ve seen so much of it played out on the TV series, reading these books adds a new dimension to the story that you simply can’t get from the series. Despite the astounding fidelity to the books that the series offers, the books put us in their minds, reminding us that Sansa is just a little girl; that Catelyn is a harder woman than I thought she was; that Littlefinger has a difficult past and is worthy of some sympathy; that Viserys was a little boy once who lost his family; that Daenerys might be 14 but she never betrays her youth, not even in her thoughts; that Ned Stark regretted what he did right before he died, and that he lost his head thinking of his children. The show can hint at all of these things, but you only really get a sense of the interior workings of each of these characters’ minds when we get the books from their perspective. I’m very excited to see which voices we’ll hear in the future (presuming he’ll branch out and offer some new ones) and I can’t wait to get started on Book 2. Incidentally, I received the package containing Book 2 just two days ago… on a Sunday. I have never, ever received a package from Canada Post (delivered right to the door, no less) on a Sunday. Methinks there is some magic afoot.

So stay tuned everyone… we will be covering A Clash of Kings next, so make sure you get your second books and we’ll reconvene in the new year, after Chris and I have read the book in advance so we’re not rushing to do these things every week!! I’ll post the schedule in January. And until then, thanks to everyone for reading along with us, and thanks to Christopher, as always, for offering his perspective and being my better half in all of these installments. Prepare for winter… it’s coming.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Game of Thrones Book Club: Book One, Part 4!

Welcome to Week 4 of our Game of Thrones book club! With only one week to go, stakes have gotten higher, and the tension is at a boiling point. This week we’re reading Part Four: 489-651 mass market; 409-543 trade paperback (starting with DAENERYS "The heart was steaming in the cool...")

Nikki: Whew, I was on the edge of my seat for this section. Looking back, it was only about 150 pages in my book, but a lot happens in a short span of time. We begin with Viserys demanding his golden crown, Ned finding out that Robert has been hurt on a hunt, Jon going on his first ranger mission north of the Wall, Tyrion meeting up with the clansmen in the woods, and Catelyn being reunited with Robb. By the end of the section, Viserys is dead and Khal Drogo has agreed to cross the water to join the game of thrones; Robert is dead; Ned’s been captured by the Lannisters; Sansa is under their thumb and being told what to do; Arya has escaped and is on the run; banners in the north are deciding which team to play for; we meet Tywin for the first time; and Catelyn’s made a deal with the Freys involving the futures of two of her children. Wow.

What I’m particularly enjoying in the book is the different subtleties that have been introduced that I don’t remember being there in season 1. Jon Arryn is dead, and Ned’s trying to discover who would have poisoned him to keep the secret of Joffrey’s real father quiet. But now there’s a suggestion that Lysa was terribly unhappy with her husband because he was going to take her beloved son away and let him be raised by Stannis Baratheon. Suddenly she becomes a suspect, even if that never goes anywhere. Meanwhile, Cersei steps up and takes command, getting rid of her enemies quickly, and using Sansa in a brilliant way to try to pull the Starks onside (or just pull them within shooting distance). Now I can see why you’ve been saying all along that she should have been played by Polly Walker, Chris. As of this scene, I say absolutely. Cersei’s far more cunning and harsher than she’s currently played on the show; Lena Headey does a great job, but she plays her a little more demure and contrite, as if there’s more scheming than actual doing. I don’t particularly remember Sansa writing all those letters, but I do remember Cersei manipulating Sansa right out of the gate. If I hadn’t seen Jack Gleeson’s portrayal of Joffrey at this point, I would actually think that he was going to help Sansa. When she begs for mercy for her father, Joffrey is the only one who comes across as sympathetic, who calms her nerves and doesn’t talk down to her like she’s a child. Of course, we all know what awaits Ned anyway… perhaps making Joffrey even worse than he is on the show. I’m looking forward to the little shit having a bigger role soon.

What are your initial thoughts on this section, Chris?

Christopher: I love this part of the novel, and remember feeling entirely taken aback with how quickly everything goes wrong for Ned. Still no idea of what awaits him, of course, and I seem to think I wondered “what else could possibly go wrong?” Ah, but then I was reading in a pre-GRRM paradigm—five novels later and we know, things can always get worse in Westeros.

The part where Daenerys eats the heart is harrowing, not just for the stomach-churning description but the account of how she trained for it by eating bowls of gristle and clotted blood. Urk. If the whole queen gig didn’t work out, she’d have had a good secondary career as a contestant on Fear Factor-like shows.

And Viserys … poor, sociopathic, abusive, megalomaniacal Viserys. It’s a measure of GRRM’s deft touch with character that, even after everything he’s done we feel a certain sympathy for him in his last few moments. Or … I have a certain sympathy for him. Do you? It doesn’t obviate the rather visceral satisfaction of seeing the monster finally get his comeuppance, but at the very end he has gone from being a terror to a pathetic shell, humiliated and inept and completely aware of his failure. Not that he can own that failure, of course—he blames everyone but himself, and his ignorant, drunken blasphemy in the Dothraki holy space serves to epitomize his irredeemably self-obsessed character.

And the scene illustrates just how far Daenerys has come as well—sold cynically by her brother, she has risen to the occasion and become the leader he could never be. There aren’t many bullhorn-symbolism moments in Ice & Fire, but Daenerys eating a stallion’s heart is certainly one of them. Viserys woke the dragon—he just couldn’t have known that the dragon wasn’t him. She is sad but resolute as she sees what Drogo is about to do; the old Daenerys would have begged for her brother’s life, but the khaleesi sees it as justice and necessity.

Also developed in this penultimate section is the growing threat in the North, and Jon’s chilling (ha!) encounter with the wights. We’re some six hundred pages on from the prologue now, with plenty of narrative action to blur the memory of that opening scene north of the Wall—but of course we’re brought sharply back by the appearance of Jon’s dead brothers, both of whom have startlingly blue eyes. When they lurch back to life and attack the Lord Commander, the story itself lurches from straightforward fantasy to that genre we’re all so familiar with, the attack of the living dead (Carl, get back south of the Wall!). That scene is just as terrifying now as it was the first time I read it; when I first read it, however, the zombie craze had not yet begun. I hope readers only coming to the series now don’t think to themselves “sheesh, more zombies … how unoriginal.” GRRM has a knack for genre mixology, and his introduction of the wights is at once an interesting turn on a figure that first appears in Tolkien (the barrow-wights), and a prescient variation on the Romero-esque zombie.

Nikki: The wight scene is truly terrifying. I remember when you and I first started writing about the show and you flipped back and forth between “white” and “wight” and I couldn’t figure out which was the correct spelling, and now I realize they both are! The white walkers are the same as the wights, is that correct? The scene is really frightening, especially when Jon finds the door wide open and the dead guard on the other side; if I’d been reading it without knowing the outcome, I would have thought the direwolf was going to get it. But then again, I started to worry that maybe Ghost WOULD die in the book, and they just kept him on for the show; it was that scary.

I couldn’t agree with you more about Viserys. Last week my husband and I were driving to Toronto, so he was trapped in a car with me for two hours as I talked about the book and how amazing it is, and I told him he really has to read these himself. (Though, like me, he knows he won’t be able to stop and then he’ll be ahead of the TV show; but then again, I kind of like the idea that the TV series spoiled me for the books, and now the books are going to spoil me for the TV show…) And it was Viserys I was talking about specifically. Like you, I felt a pang of sympathy as he drunkenly loped into the party, with thousands of dothraki laughing at him as he roared about being their rightful ruler. As I said a couple of weeks ago, and can’t stress enough, he was a child when his entire family was ripped from him, and he raised Daenerys himself from her infancy. What kind of a child is able to do that? And considering the strong-willed warrior woman she became, perhaps Viserys wasn’t all bad. Not having parents, and spending his childhood and adolescence on the run with a baby on his back, he’s never been allowed to truly mature and grow up, instead just resting on the laurels of the great dragons from whom he’s descended. After being treated like a leper or a wanted man for most of his life, one can’t really fault him for raging against the perceived wrongdoing against him, for insisting that he finally get his due just for bloody surviving all these years in the face of all of Westeros keeping an eye out for him. I really did feel sorry for him as the golden crown was poured over him, and I think GRRM meant for us to.

Speaking of the Targaryen family, I only just realized this week that there are entire family trees of all of the major families at the back of the book. Duh. Let’s just say it’s made reading this book a hell of a lot easier and has cleared up a lot of things with regards to both the book and the series. Something I keep forgetting to ask you, but were the Tyrells introduced prominently back in season 1 of the show? I don’t remember Margaery really coming into anything until the second season with Joffrey, and the grandmother showing up in the third, but they’re already talking about her, and we’ve seen her brother Loras on the jousting field. I DO remember Loras being in the jousting tournament back in season 1, but then he was shown to be Renly’s lover, and that’s not even insinuated in this book (yet). Is that something introduced on the show only, or does it come later in the books?

Christopher:  The white walkers—the “Others”—are distinct from the wights. The former are malevolent magical beings, and the wights are the dead humans they resurrect to act as their undead army. Back in the prologue, Ser Waymar Royce fights an Other and is killed, and then comes back as a wight a few lines later. (Speaking as an English prof, I think someone really needs to write a tongue-in-cheek paper on the white walkers under the title of “Discourse on the Others”).

I have to confess, as regards Renly and Loras, that it never occurred to me that they might be lovers until the series made it explicit. Going back now and rereading, the hints are all over the place, but I was merrily oblivious. Part of the reason for that, to be sure, is that neither Renly or Loras benefit from a POV or that of another character intimate enough with them to reveal their relationship.

The Tyrells as a group are introduced in the novels in dribs and drabs—first with Loras, then with the mention of Margaery. They enter the story in significant fashion in book two and become an increasingly significant presence as the series proceeds (much, as you will have gleaned from the series, to Cersei’s annoyance and unease). For the time being, they fill a role not unlike that of Tywin Lannister for most of this first book—a name and a vague sense of wealth and power. They are, after all, one of the Big Seven, the families that had ruled Westeros when it was still literally the Seven Kingdoms, before the Targaryen conquest. The Tyrell demesne is a large region to the south called The Reach, and the castle of Highgarden their seat of power.

On another front, as you point out, Ned’s Great Unraveling continues (and yes, isn’t Cersei totally Atia-worthy in this part of the novel?). What did you think of that moment of betrayal, when Littlefinger pulls his knife on Ned? I would argue that that is really the pivotal moment of this particular story, and the harshest lesson Ned learns—though too late, far too late. It is a moment that unfolds in the series almost exactly as it is described in the novel … but on rereading, there is a substantive difference in sense and tone, something almost intangible, which I attribute to our slightly different understandings of Littlefinger in the novel versus the adaptation. Or perhaps I’m projecting: it’s in seasons two and three that we really come to understand Baelish’s ruthlessness, epitomized in Varys’ dark observation that “he would see the realm burn if he could be king over the ashes”; but in the novel he’s a far more ambiguous character, and his actions more inscrutable, as it is made obvious just how deep his love for Catelyn was and is. What do you think? I was not shocked by his betrayal of Ned when watching the series, obviously, but when it happened in the novel I was gutted … first, because I had come to like his character in spite of myself and (foolishly) trust him, and second, because it seemed to obvious in retrospect. But what made it seem obvious on that first go-around was the sense that the betrayal proceeded from a singular motive: to have Ned out of the way. Of course, we soon realize that his motives are more tangled than that.

But in the series, his motives again seem straightforward—and far more cynical and mercenary. Thoughts? Did you see much difference in this scene as opposed to the series?

Nikki: There is a huge difference in the two scenes. Like Viserys, Baelish is a far more sympathetic character in the novel, as we’ve discussed. Played on the series, he always has a mischievous, almost sinister gleam in his eye, and the nasally tone of his voice makes you constantly suspicious of him, waiting for him to show his true, nasty colours. But in the book he waffles, moving back and forth, seeming to be trustworthy one moment and deceitful the next. And yet his love for Catelyn, shown through both the flashbacks and in the moments where he’s seen with her and seemingly helping Ned, he appears to be working against the Lannisters, hiding Catelyn away and arranging clandestine meetings with Ned in the brothel. Now we see it was all a trick, making it look like Ned spends his time in brothels while dear, pure Littlefinger was innocently off doing his own thing and had no idea Ned was there. By the time he pulls out the knife, I gasped. I’d COMPLETELY forgotten that he did that, just because this Baelish had drawn me in so much more than the TV one had, and I was just as shocked here as I was on the show when he pulled his knife; more so, in fact. Game of Thrones is one of the best shows on television, but when you are that caught off-guard by something you’ve already seen on the HBO series, it certainly points to the book’s superiority over the series. (Yay, once again… books win!)

And what of the Starks? When Sansa was working with Cersei in the TV series, I rolled my eyes along with everyone else who hadn’t actually read the books and thought she was such an annoying character. Now, from her perspective, you can see how she was drawn in hook, line, and sinker by Cersei and Joffrey, and I don’t hate her at all; I feel sorry for her. There are times when you are right there with her, believing that if she just does these things, the Lannisters will spare her father, right? RIGHT?!

And then there’s Arya. Already established as a scamp and the most fun of the Stark youngsters, she’s in the middle of her dancing lesson when the Kingsguard comes for her. I want to say here that I love how GRRM unfolded the betrayal. Littlefinger pulls the knife on Ned and that pretty much endeth the section. You don’t have Ned being dragged off kicking and screaming, you just have this moment, and GRRM leaves it up to the reader to figure out the obvious conclusion of what happened next. Instead he moves to the children, a far more sympathetic move, because if Ned is captured and locked away for his failing to guess the temperature of the situation, that’s one thing, but watching the far-reaching consequences of his actions puts a much finer point on it. Just as on the show, Syrio steps up and tells Arya to run, and she does, and he stands before the Guard. I remember at the time writing that I really hoped we’d see the teacher again, because I never believe that someone is dead unless I saw them die. But… now I realize that he’s dead. (Unless there’s a REALLY big surprise in a future season or book, but I really doubt it at this point.) With the whole Guard before him, his job has ended, and now we see if Arya can actually take care of herself without him.

Ned is desperate and realizing the scope of his errors as he sits in the dungeon, and Catelyn and Robb are travelling to the Freys to see if they can find a way to cross the Twins. You begin to realize in this section just how scattered the Starks are, with Sansa being kept close to Cersei’s bosom; Arya on the run; Bran and Rickon up at Winterfell and both unable to do anything; and Jon at the Wall, working as a steward and fighting snow zombies. But back to Catelyn; when Walder Frey is brought out on his litter, I couldn’t help but shudder. I know what’s coming with this foul, decrepit old man, and he’s even more disgusting in the book than he was on the show. I barely remember him in this scene in season 1, and instead the extent of his rudeness is shown when Robb and Catelyn return to the castle before the Red Wedding in season 3. But GRRM lays it all out right here. He’s 90, he’s got a 16-year-old wife, he’s got countless children and grandchildren, he’s rude and obnoxious and horrible to everyone around him; the only person I can think of who turns my stomach more in the book just for the way he treats his own family would be Craster, the man north of the Wall who rapes his own daughters to beget more daughters that he can rape. Knowing what’s to come with Frey, I felt a cold chill throughout this entire scene, muttering under my breath, “Don’t agree to this, Catelyn… don’t agree to this.” While I’m the first person to talk about how much I hate spoilers, I must say the tension of the book is increased tenfold when you know what Ned’s fate will ultimately be, and when you know what’s going to happen later at the Freys.

And, speaking of which, we now ready ourselves for the big finish. I can already feel my palms beginning to perspire, knowing what’s coming next.

Christopher:  I can honestly say I’d forgotten how revolting Walder Frey is. Not that he’s at all sympathetic in the series, but David Bradley’s portrayal makes him a truculent asshole rather than a repulsive old man (and this is the actor who played Argus Filch, too!). GRRM’s depiction of Frey makes my skin crawl, between the verbal tics he gives him and the way he describes his toothless mouth working, and of course the prospect of him forcing himself on whatever young bride he’s recently wed. As you say, knowing what is coming way down the road does in fact make this part of the novel more harrowing … and it is also retrospectively fascinating to see all the foundation blocks being laid, especially in terms of Frey’s paper-thin ego and obsession with family honour.

The scene with Syrio handing the guardsmen their asses is one of my bittersweet favourites from this novel. I loved that character from start to finish; and you’re right, there really isn’t any chance that he survived it. Yet another moment where GRRM dashes expectations with a painful dose of realism. Inigo Montoya would have survived, but that’s because he inhabits another fantasy realm. Ditto for D’Artagnan, Zorro, Jack Sparrow, or even the Dread Pirate Roberts himself … not if they stood and fought, anyway. Even with a sword in hand, Syrio could not best a knight in full plate.

But he sacrifices himself for his student, and Arya is able to escape—and in the process kills for the first time. It is a moment that will haunt her in later books, even after she grows accustomed to killing.

I think it’s worth mentioning the slaughter in the Red Keep, in part because I remember being somewhat shocked by it my first go-around. Ned has been taken prisoner, as has Sansa, and if all had gone according to plan, the Lannisters would also have Arya in hand—certainly, enough hostages to bring the Stark people to heel? But no—Arya literally trips over the bodies of her family’s entourage, and even Septa Mordane is murdered as part of what could only be called a purge. This is really our first glimpse of the zero-sum game of thrones, a grisly realization of Cersei’s dictum that “you win or you die.”

And on that cheery note, readers, Nikki and I leave you for another week. Tune in next Monday for our final installment of the Game of Thrones Book Club!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Game of Thrones Book Club... Is Coming

Sorry, we're going to be a day or two late on this week's book club. Technical difficulties. (Meaning we got started late way back on the first one, and I've never been able to catch up with the reading because I stubbornly refuse to begin reading the next part until we've finished the current one.) We shall have it for you soon!

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Walking Dead 4.08: Too Far Gone

And… welcome to the midseason finale wrap-up of The Walking Dead, where I’m joined as always by my co-host, Joshua Winstead. This week we look at the war that last week’s episode led to, and the horrifying fallout. If you’re reading this on Facebook, please click on the link below to go to the full article.

Nikki: A mother loses her daughter on a riverbank. Two girls watch their father lose his head. A father finds his infant daughter’s baby seat empty and covered in blood. And the Big Bad Governor — the one-eyed king — is taken down by two women, one holding a sword, the other a gun. Yep, turns out that chess metaphor was apt; in chess, the king is rather weak, able to move only one square at a time while the rest of the pieces shield him. The queen, on the other hand? A total badass.

Last week Josh and I were quite disappointed in the turn of events. There was a lot of chatter on here about how looking at the Governor trying to redeem himself would have been far more interesting than giving us one taste of redemption and then taking it all away in the next episode. Most of the readers disagreed, and said while good people can turn bad, bad people can’t really be redeemed. Especially when they’re raging psychopaths like Philip. I’ll reiterate that maybe Philip couldn’t have ultimately been redeemed, but watching him just try was fascinating. Imagine if we’d seen him attempt to be the good guy for a full eight episodes, facing loss after loss and heartbreak after heartbreak. The moment when Rick looks at him through the fence and says we can all change, and Philip looks moved for half a second before saying, Liar, and slicing of Hershel’s head would have been a far more powerful moment. But instead we just checked in with him and then checked out. Perhaps David Morrissey was too wrapped up in his new upcoming AMC show (the real death knell of any character) to offer up a full-season recap of this character.

Or, perhaps the writers have recently marathoned the first three episodes of Star Wars and forgot that Vader ultimately picked up the Emperor and tossed him over the railing. The Dark Side can be redeemed!!!

Alas, not on this show, but all that is beside the point this week. Let’s just focus on the events at hand. At the beginning of the season, I joked that the show was becoming so grim I wondered why I was watching it for “enjoyment.” And then it got grimmer. And then the prison setting started getting boring. But then there was hope: they went away for a week to a suburb… but that ended with Carol being let go. Ooh, but then they had that wicked prison episode with Hershel! But… now he’s dead. Ooh, ooh, but… the episode of the Governor becoming Brian! Best episode of the season. Followed by a downer of an episode that was just a repeat of most of the episodes from season 3. And now I wonder aloud — without the irony — why I’m watching this for enjoyment. But by the end of the episode, when I could barely compute what had just happened, when the death toll was so high I felt I had to pull out an abacus just to keep track, I realized I really do care about these characters. I didn’t want to see any of them go; not even the Guv.

I knew the Hershel thing was coming. The moment Rick began his speech about how they all had good in them, about how he refused to be the sole leader, about how they could all work this out together, the camera zoomed in on Hershel smiling. That man never smiles. So I knew that was the end of him. He has quickly stepped up this season to be one of my favourite characters, if not my absolute favourite. “Internment” is one of my favourite TWD episodes yet, and he was the star of that episode. I felt sad and bereft. Of course he had to go: he was the moral compass of the show, and in this world, maybe that just holds you back.

But Judith? The moment Carl and Rick stumbled upon the bloody carseat, and we’d just seen her alive and well moments earlier, I lost it. I started crying. I hadn’t expected that. It caught me off guard the same way Sophia’s death had caught me off guard, but where that death had been led up to by a full season of exposition, this one happened with no notice. And in a zombie apocalypse, perhaps that’s a more realistic death (keep in mind I’m referring to realism within the context of a zombie apocalypse). It was heartbreaking. The kids had been lugging her car seat (jolting that poor baby actor all over the place, I might add!) to the bus when Lizzie stopped them and said no, we need to stand and fight. Was it her little speech that made them abandon the carseat in that spot, leaving Judith alone to be devoured by walkers? I hope not… But then again, the alternative is that those little girls were killed too.

Glenn and Maggie have been separated; Carl and Rick are reeling after the loss of Judith; Tara and Lily have abandoned the rest of their people and Lily has become a killer (interestingly, tough-talking Tara didn’t have it in her, which I thought was a really intriguing turn of events for her character; it’s the first time I’ve liked her); half the people have left on a bus and the other half are still lurking around the prison; the prison itself has been destroyed to a point where no one can use it; and the zombies are coming. I’ll admit, a lot of this fight just felt like the Woodbury war in the prison setting, and I do feel at this point they’re recycling parts of previous scripts, but this season has also boasted three of its best-ever episodes, three weeks in a row: “Indifference” (where Rick abandoned Carol); “Internment” (where Hershel was stuck in the infectious cell block saving lives); and “Live Bait” (where we saw where the Governor had been). And so I’m really intrigued about the change in scenery, about the people being separated again and trying to find their way in the world. What I loved about season 1 was that everyone was apart and had to come together, and they didn’t have one single place to be at. I remember by the end of season 2 I didn’t want to be on Maggie’s farm no more, and the prison was an interesting new setting, but that’s gotten old, too. I’m really excited about them heading out and learning to live from scratch again. But I worry that they’re going to have to inject a wee bit of hope into this world, or it’s going to become too depressing for me to carry on with it. 

Josh, what are your thoughts?

Joshua: I agree that this monumental shakeup was definitely something the show needed, and the timing couldn't be better. You know I wasn't as big a fan of The Governor's comeback tour as you, feeling that “Live Bait” showed promise but was ultimately too abbreviated to carry all the heft necessary to justify giving a maniac like Blake a pass, and likewise being highly disappointed with the uninspired bait-and-switch of “Dead Weight” and its waste of that compelling potential. Similarly, it seemed a huge misstep to risk canceling out the intensity of the season's early character work by leaving the prison for two full weeks right before a midseason finale that would undoubtedly see the deaths of cast members we hold dear, robbing us of the time to build to their exits with more than a handful of moments.

As it turns out, if there was anything this episode lacked, it was certainly not intensity.

There was a mantra I found myself repeating over and over during these last few Guv-centric episodes, and again during “Too Far Gone”: those poor, poor women. As we watched Lily question who this man really was that she'd chosen to trust with the lives of her family, as we saw her fear when he left her behind and her panic and anguish at Meghan's attack and subsequent death, as we witnessed Tara's horror as the prison battle spiraled out of control, all I could think was how tragic his search for redemption had proven to be for the two of them. Since they both survived the bloodshed, I do hope the show decides to check back in with them in the future so we can see how this experience colors their future.

Speaking of bloodshed, we come to the sad end of Hershel Greene. Back when the character was first introduced, the soft-spoken country vet seemed so ill-suited for life in a world like this, and I remember thinking for sure that he wouldn't last long. Against all odds, he wound up not only surviving but becoming one of the most vital members of the group – always watching, always close with the right word or act to help a struggling friend see things more clearly. Regardless of the circumstances, he was able to fight through the anger and heartache and doubt and stand firm in his faith that the end of the world didn't have to mean the end of everything. He was a good choice for an impactful death because of how very much he meant to each one of the group, not to mention the audience, but I will desperately miss the quiet brilliance of Scott Wilson's portrayal from week to week. Daryl said it best, sir: you were one tough sumbitch, right to the end.

Surprisingly, Hershel was the only major death aside from The Governor himself, unless you choose to count Lil' Asskicker amongst the fallen. Though I try to avoid reading any other commentary until after we've written these up each week, I'd imagine there is much debate around the internet regarding Judith's fate. You sound fairly sure yourself, Nik, but I'm not so certain. Rick and Carl's reactions were obviously meant to imply finality, and they were gut-wrenching moments, to be sure, but the mere sight of an empty, bloody carrier is far from definitive confirmation.

For me, there were several hints that things might not have been exactly as they seemed, the biggest of which is that, aside from the bus pulling away, and Rick & Carl's disappearance into the treeline, we didn't actually see any of the other sub-groups leave the grounds. Daryl and Beth seemed pretty close to the fence line, so it's likely they just slipped right out into the woods from where they were, but as for the other two splinters, we have no idea what became of them beyond a certain point. Maggie, Sasha and Bob Stookey were still very much nearby when we last saw them, and Bob's gunshot wound could easily explain the blood on the carrier. It would have been even more difficult for them to try to escape with a gunshot man, a flu-weakened woman, and a baby as well, but it isn't unthinkable.

But most significant in my mind was the way things ended with Tyreese and the girls. After Lizzie shoots Tara's girlfriend, saving Tyreese from where he was pinned down, he yells at them that they have to leave. Then the girls start running, and he yells after them again, saying they're going the wrong way. And that is the last we see of them. This immediately raises the question in my mind of why they would run back toward the building instead of to safety. The obvious answer? Because they're the ones who had been carrying Judith, of course, and that was where they left her. Because they were running back to get her.

I know this is all fairly pointless theorizing based on vague hints and indeterminate details. It's quite possible that only the empty carrier was shown because the minds behind the show, or perhaps the network executives, simply didn't feel comfortable being more explicit. This show, however, has never been one to shy away from rubbing our noses in the ugliness. Historically speaking, such scenarios are left deliberately vague for a reason.

What do you think, Nikki? Am I grasping at straws here, or might a glimmer of that hope you're looking for be possible in an unseen eleventh-hour rescue of the little infant that could?

Nikki: You, sir, have certainly given me hope. I didn’t get to watch the episode until yesterday afternoon, and then my husband watched it last night when I was madly trying to read the next installment of Game of Thrones. This morning he said to me, “So… do you think the baby’s really dead?” When they first happened upon the baby carrier, I thought nah, no way she’s dead. Unless you see the body, they’re not dead. But then Rick and Carl fall apart. And then I realized there would be poetic justice in it: the Governor loses his mind because of losing his daughter, and now Rick, who’s fought such a hard battle to get his mind back, loses his daughter. What will it do to the boys left behind? And it just felt like they were pointing to her death as a certainty.

Also, the last time I was convinced a child was absolutely alive because we didn’t see her die, she dragged herself out of the barn and into the daylight and I wept. A lot.

So at this point, I no longer keep my hopes up. I just let them fall, and maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Could Judith be alive? Absolutely, and GOD I hope she is. I’m hoping the blood in the carrier is just that of a walker splattered all over it, and that Judith had been extracted much earlier. Come on, Tyreese, save Judith!

What intrigues me a lot about the idea of them all being in exile is that now they all share the fate Rick had bestowed on Carol just a few weeks ago. The difference being, she had a car, a full tank of gas, food, and supplies. These people have nothing. I was a little let down by Daryl’s response to Carol’s exile; while I didn’t see him freaking out and killing Rick (he’s too understated a character for that) I did feel like the acting in the scene was a little forced, to be honest, and that Reedus just paced angrily rather than really having much of anything to say. Daryl is stuck though; on the one hand he cares deeply for Carol, but on the other, if Rick is telling the truth, then maybe she’s not the person he thought she was. Notice that Rick didn’t get a chance to tell Tyreese about Carol, and now they’re heading out into the wilderness. What are the chances that Tyreese, now separated from Rick, will encounter Carol and work alongside her, not knowing what she’s done? That might be an intriguing storyline.

I wanted to give one major shout-out to Bear McCreary in this episode. His soundtrack is stunning. From the “Boom… boom…” heart-pounding sound as the Guv stood on the tank shouting at Rick to come down to him, to the sweeping music that played as Rick walked slowly down the hill to meet with him — the music was so ominous, you just knew something awful was about to happen. It was gorgeous, and was matched only by the stunning soundtrack that accompanied the battle scene. It was extraordinary, almost like a character of the show itself.

But, you know, the real question is, who the hell dissected that rabbit all biology-class-like? Has Bob Stookey been spending a lot of time in the basement slowly going mad?

What are your hopes for next season, Josh?

Joshua: Way back at the end of season 2, after things went south at Greene's Farm and everyone got split up, I remember being most intrigued by the prospect of the group staying separated for a while, thus opening up all kinds of new possibilities for story divergence. That wasn't the way things turned out, but I think the odds are better this time. With how fractured the tribe has become in the wake of this catastrophic encounter, and how haphazard was their dissemination, I could easily see several storylines emerge from this point and carry us through not only a wide variety of trials and tribulations, but also the chance to offer new twists in unusual pairings, perhaps an unconventional romance or two, and the enduring promise of joyous reunions down the line.

In short, things haven't been more desperate for the survivors in a long, long time, but things may never have been so exciting and rich with potential for the audience. Rick is shot and half beaten to death with no one but Carl to take care of him. Glenn is still sick and stranded on a bus full of strangers. Sasha is recovering but far from capable, with shot Bob and a grieving Maggie. Daryl and Beth are perhaps the most capable team but both still reeling from their own respective tragedies. Tyreese suddenly finds himself fostering four young girls. None of them (save maybe Glenn's field trip class) have any supplies to speak of. And that's not even taking into account the vivisected rabbit and the many disquieting thoughts it conjures (my vote for the culprit is little dead-eye Lizzie Borden, not weak but “just messed up” – I suppose we'll see). I love your idea of Tyreese finding Carol, too; admittedly the same thought occurred to me, but whatever the specifics, it would seem like a foregone conclusion that she'll pop back into the story somewhere down the line. Her character was just too exceptional to abandon for good.

Which brings us to Michonne. Did anyone see what became of her after she ran Patchy through and then pulled pulp-beaten Rick up off the ground? Another surreptitious disappearance... Perhaps she was the one who absconded with sweet Judith! I love the image it conjures of her, face once again hidden by the old hooded cape, with the baby slung papoose-style over one shoulder and that long katana sheath slung over the other, laying waste to walker after walker like a fallen angel fighting her way back out of Hell.

What's not to look forward to?

Nikki: I, for one, would tune in solely for The Judith and Michonne Show. They could call it “Asskickers Times Two!” (And now you see why I don’t work in television.) But we saw that moment where Beth handed Judith to Michonne momentarily, and how it looked like it was driving a stake through Michonne’s heart. I believe she’s lost a child, and having to have sole custody over Judith might rip her heart out in new ways.

Overall, this first half of the season had some amazing storytelling, a few let-down moments, some plot recycling, but some absolutely gorgeous character pieces. I’m looking forward to the second half of season 4 in a big way, even if I’m still reeling from the horrific events of this particular episode.

We shall see you all again in February!