Monday, December 18, 2017

BookMarks #30: A Dance With Dragons

Title: A Dance With Dragons
Author: George RR Martin
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Setting: Fictional continents of Westeros and Essos in the medieval times
Published: 2011

Tyrion is taken by Varys to Pentos, where he is put up with Magister Illyrio who suggests to join up the cause of Daenerys Targayren to which Tyrion agrees. During the journey, Tyrion discovers that Rhaegar’s son, Aegon is alive and had been kept hidden by Jon Connington who is plotting to place him back on the Iron Throne. On the way, Tyrion is kidnapped by Ser Jorah, who had been exiled by Daenerys. Jorah intends to win back Daenerys’s favor by presenting Tyrion to her. They are accompanied by a dwarf girl Penny. During the journey they are taken by slavers and sold as slaves to the Yunkai. Tyrion, Penny & Jorah escape and join the free company of Captain Ben Plumm, who had earlier deserted Daenerys.

Aegon is taken to the Golden Company, who swear allegiance to him to win back the Iron Throne. Jon Connington takes back his home lands to prepare it as a platform for Aegon’s return to power. However, he has suffered from the deadly greyscale which he keeps hiddene.

In Mereen, Daenerys faces multiple troubles from former slave-owners, the sons of Harpy and her growing dragons who have taken to hunting down sheep and cattle and even children. Daenerys is forced to keep her dragons under leash. However, Drogon, the biggest of the three makes his escape. Daenerys marries Hizdar Loraq in a bid to bring peace to Mereen. As the fighting pits are opened, Drogon arrives creating havoc all around. Daenerys tries to stop him and is carried away to the Dothraki Sea where she is found by Khal Jhaqo, another Dothraki Lord. In Daenery’s absence, Ser Barristan Slemy takes Hizdhar in his custody and attempts to govern the city.

At the Wall, Jon Snow tries to fit into his new role as the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. He has to fend off Stannis, who wants them to join his cause. Jon brokers peace with Tormund and the other wildlings, giving them passage through the Wall, attempts to settle them in nearby lands, forges a marriage pact with Northern Houses and brokers a deal with the Iron Bank. However his attempts do not find favour within the Watch and he is stabbed multiple times by his Brothers.

Stannis executes Mance Rayder, the king-beyond-the-wall, before going on an expedition to get more men and take over Winterfell from the Boltons. However, the party is caught up in a snowstorm. However, Mance had been switched with another wildling by Melisandre. Based on Melisandre’s prophecies Jon sends Mance to Winterfell. 

Beyond the Wall, Bran and his companions Meera, Jojen and Hodor are able to reach the Three-eyed-raven aided by the mysterious Coldhands and the Children of the Forest. The Three-Eyed-Crow teaches Bran how to become a seer. Bran communicates to Theon in Winterfell using his new abilities.

Ser Davos journeys across Westeros in a bid to gain allies for Stannis. The Manderlys offer Stannis allegiance in return of Davos being able to rescue one of the Stark boys who was presumed dead.

Ramsay tortures his captive Theon, who now calls himself Reek. With Reek’s help, they secure the castle of Moat Cailin from the Iron men. Ramsay’s father, Roose Bolton arrives with Jeyne Poole, who is pretending to be Arya Stark. Ramsay married Jeyne, believing her to be Arya. After continuous torture from Ramsay and guided by Bran’s messages, Theon with the help of wildlings sent by Jon escapes with Jeyne and reaches Stannis’s army, which had been snowed in on its march to Winterfell and meets his sister Asha, who is a prisoner.

At King’s Landing, Cersei confesses to some of her sins. As part of her atonement she is made to walk naked through the town. At the Castle, Qyburn introduces her to his creation Ser Robert Strong, a newly appointed member of the Kingsguard.

In Dorne, Prince Doran prepares his own plans to counter Cersei, who has sent him the promised head of the Mountain. He also sends his son Quentyn to marry Daenerys, but is too late, as Daenerys is married to Hizdhar. In a bid to win Daenerys' favor, Quentyn tries to free the dragons but is burnt to death in the attempt.

The real Arya Stark continues training at the Temple of the Many-faced God in Braavos after getting her vision back.

In the Epilogue, Varys returns to Kings Landing and kills Grand Master Pycelle and Kevan Lannister. 

And there are white ravens signifying “Winter has come”.

This is the 5th book in the series, A Song of Ice and Fire. The story runs in parallel to A feast for Crows, focusing mainly on characters missing in the previous book. 

The book seems like reading a collection of parallel stories in the same universe, rather than one big novel, and the story meanders a lot, specially in comparison to the TV series. Even our comic book serials have more linkages between characters.

The show and the series now have seemingly no relation. Many dead are living and vice versa. Many characters do not exist and many are in a different place altogether. Many endings are uncertain as well. But it adds to the charm of reading even after having seen the entire series! And even for those who read the books previously, the show is a different beast altogether, having skipped and moved ahead in many parts.

Previously on BookMarks: Catch-22

Thursday, December 14, 2017

BookMarks #29: Catch-22

Title: Catch-22
Author: Joseph Heller
Genre: Fiction, War, Satire
Setting: An American air force base in Italy, during the 2nd World War
Published: 1961

Short Summary
This is the story of Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier in the US Air Force based in Italy during the Second World War. The novel narrates the experiences of Yossarian and his fellow airmen, as they go about doing their “duties” while planning to return home.

Catch-22 – The title itself is the book's single biggest contribution to the English language. It describes an impossible situation, a set of paradoxical conditions from which there is no escape. The pilots in the novel need to plead insanity to escape flying any more missions. But their very act of making an insanity plea shows that they are sane and are thus fit to fly more missions. Thus showing that there is no escape.

The narration is pretty weird (probably the reason why it is in most “greatest novels” lists). The story moves in the form of a “jalebi”. One event doesn’t necessarily lead to another. But one incident refers to a previous narrative, sometimes taking it forward, sometimes filling up the backstory and sometimes hanging out as a loose thread to be tied up much later. Overall making it slightly difficult to keep track of the happenings in this non-chronological tale.

There are attempts at humour even in the light of tragedy, making the tragedy even starker. After all, it is a tale of war. There is blood and gore and black humour. As the novel proceeds, it grows grimmer, as we see our characters die one after the other, while also coming face to face with the horrors of war. There is an attempt of the airmen to retain their sanity in light of the goings-on. They question war itself, but carry on with their”duties” while also fighting their own bureaucracy, which at times is an even bigger enemy than the Germans (whom we never see). They are just a bunch of weary men eager to go back home. Nothing sums it up better than the contrast in attitude between Yossarian, a war “veteran” and his roommates who are fresh joinees. 

My favorite line from the book – “that men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance”. A reminder to the warmongers the world over – that the soldiers dying in the war are also real people. Especially to those who think that bringing up soldiers dying at the borders is a good analogy for any cause.

One word about Milo Minderbinder and his M&M transportation using fleets of fighter aircraft from both sides. There is war and there is business. Sometimes they go hand in hand. And somebody can run a profitable business empire at the sidelines of a world war as well.

Previously on BookMarks: A Feast for Crows

Sunday, December 10, 2017

LearnNBlog #12: The Shortest Chess Game

I learnt the basics of chess at a relatively young age of 6 years. (I say relatively because there are kids who go on to become Grand Masters by the time they are 13!). Always found the 64 square board fascinating. Was quite a passionate follower of the game (Woke up in the middle of the night to watch live the Kasparaov-Anand World Championships Match in the 90s). Over time, chess took a backseat. However, recently, have rediscovered chess - thanks to a combination of, a longer commute and 4G data connection! And this has led to some interesting learning.

All this while, I thought it took a minimum of 4 moves to win a game of chess - the Scholar's Checkmate. Basically attack the king's bishop pawn through a combination of a bishop and queen to win via mate. So this used to be my standard opening attempt. Try to arrange my pieces to attack the king's bishop pawn (regardless of which colour I played), while also ensuring that I am not the victim of the same attempt. Sometimes would also need to throw in a knight which would delay the proceedings. However, four moves was the minimum requirement to win this. Also being a victim of this combination was one of the basic chess learnings!

Recently I learnt that there could be a complete game in just 2 moves (!) with Black emerging the victor. And there are a few options in this as well.
Move sequence
  1. g4 e5
  2. f3 Qh4+ Black wins by checkmate!
Alternately - White can move either g or f pawn in any sequence and the f pawn can be moved either to f3 or f4. Black can move the e pawn to e6 or e5. 

And just like that realized that there are so many things we can learn and keep learning.

Links & Other Readings
Previously on LearnNBlog: 14th February & Bhagat Singh

P.S. Also remembered that it has been months since I post a LearnNBlog! Need to show more sincerity here. After all it's not the "Learn" part which is an issue but the "Blog" part!