Category Archives: Books

Books: Three Great, Brutal Westerns

After decades of having no special interest in Westerns, I recently read a trio of top-notch books that have given me a fondness for the genre. Here are the books I read, and reasons you might want to read them too.

sisters-brothers2

The Sisters Brothers

This episodic Western takes place over the course of a single trip between Oregon and California during the Gold Rush. It’s a highly readable tale told in first person by a man named Eli Sisters who, with his brother Charlie, do the dirty work of a wealthy commodore. And by “dirty work,” of course, I mean “murder.”

Eli’s narrative voice is terse and to-the-point, describing their criminal acts in a matter-of-fact way. Despite the duo’s penchant for killing innocent people who happen to get in their way, both brothers come off as likable, even though they rarely see eye to eye. If you want to get into the Western spirit, this book by Patrick deWitt is a fine entry point.

Excerpt:

I asked Charlie if we could stop for the night and he agreed to this, but only if we should find a sheltered place to camp, as it was threatening to rain. He smelled a fire on the air and we traced it to a one room shack, whispy cotton-smoke spinning from its chimney, a low light dancing in the lone window. An old woman wrapped in quilting and rags answered the door. She had long gray hairs quivering from her chin, and her half-opened mouth was lined with jagged, blackened teeth. Charlie, crushing his hat in his hand, spoke of our recent hardships in a stage actor’s dramatic timbre. The woman’s oyster-flesh eyes fell on me and I grew instantly colder. She walked away from the door without a word. I heard the scrape of a chair on the floor. Charlie turned to me and asked, “What do you think?”

the-son

The Son

A book is only long if it feels long when you’re reading it. Although The Son weighs in at nearly 600 pages, the words speed by like fence posts on a Colorado highway. This multigenerational epic covers over a century in the life of a single family, cutting between time and place as the chapters pass.

The characters are raw and real, and you can almost taste the dusty planes in the historical chapters, as the whites carve out a life in Indian territory out West. The weight of history lies heavy in these pages, and you can feel the turn of the centuries as you hopscotch through time. With The Son, Philipp Meyer has written an absolute masterpiece.

Excerpt:

Around midnight I heard our dogs rucking up a chorus. I had not been sleeping well anyway so I got up to check the porthole, worried my mother or sister would see what was sticking up under my nightshirt.

Which I forgot about. There were a dozen men near our fence and more in the shadows near the road and still more in our side yard. I heard a dog yelp and then our smallest, a fyce named Perdida, went running off into the brush. She was hunched like a gut-shot deer.

blood-meridian

Blood Meridian

God, this book is a downer. Cataloging the horrors the whites and Indians visited upon each other as the pioneers expanded their empire westward, Blood Meridian is built on the stuff of nightmares.

Cormac McCarthy doesn’t care if you like these characters or if you enjoy wading through his dense, philosophical prose. The language of this book seems to have been dredged up from the pools of blood spilled in the atrocities it depicts. There’s not a sentimental word to be found here. You can and should experience this book, but only if you have the stamina.

Excerpt:

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.

A Song of Ice and Fire

got

George R. R. Martin is a crazy person. His series A Song of Ice and Fire has already secured its place among the best fantasy series ever written. The story it tells is epic in every sense of the word: it’s grand in scope, with a richly detailed world that’s populated with a staggeringly large cast of characters. And there’s nothing brief about it. Four of the seven projected volumes have been published so far, and each one’s a door-stopper. The pace of the narrative sometimes veers toward leisurely, but the characters are so complex and interesting that you’ll always want to find out what happens next.

The story is set primarily on the continent of Westeros, a land of lords and commoners that’s modeled after medieval Europe. Seasons often last years in this world, and it’s likely that the coming winter might span a decade or longer. Humans are the only race in Westeros, but there are hints of strange creatures in the north, beyond the barrier wall that marks the upper border of the continent. Magic exists, but it only happens in a messy, bodily form that very few people can control. Unlike most other fantasy series, hundreds of pages will pass without even the slightest hint of the supernatural.

Instead, the primary concern of these novels is political unrest. Who has power in Westeros, who wants it, and how they go about trying to get it, are the engines that drive the series. High-born families are lucky only in that they have some control over their fate. For the common people, life is short and brutal. Oftentimes they meet horrible ends, with their villages decimated by whatever army is vying for power, or by the bands of marauders that have taken the tumult as an opportunity.

But more than anything it’s the characters that will keep you coming back to these books. Ned Stark the natural leader, Arya the resourceful tomboy, Tyrion the sharp-witted midget, Cercei the schemer, Jaime the oath breaker, Samwell the bookworm: these aren’t archetypal fantasy heroes drawn in broad strokes. These are complex, lifelike characters, written with spark and summoned from experience. You’ll find nothing resembling the Good Versus Evil fantasy trope here. Wretched characters will surprise you with their capacity for empathy, and decent ones can change into something else entirely by the time you turn the page.

One reason the plot is so compelling is that, in this series more than almost any other, predicting its direction is futile. Book by book, the point of view hops around, giving you first-hand perspectives from characters you never thought would be important to the story. And the author holds no one sacred. Main characters you’ve followed for thousands of pages can be cut down in shocking scenes of violence.

That A Song of Ice and Fire is a fantasy series might turn off some readers of “serious” fiction, but it shouldn’t. Martin can write sentences and characters as well as anyone. The phrase “speculative fiction” is often used to describe serious works of fantasy and sci-fi, so it will have to suffice here. Few enough fantasy writers–or writers in general–have created a story so dense and compelling. Martin is on the level of other genre greats like Gene Wolfe, whose Book of the New Sun series is similarly rich.

An HBO show based on the series, called Game of Thrones, is set to start in April. The first season will cover the first book and, if all goes well, subsequent seasons based on the rest of the books will follow. I just hope Martin keeps pace with the writing. Only four books have come out over the past 14 years, and he’s been slowing down lately, with only two books in the last decade. Perhaps the TV show will spur him on. In any case, I’d hate to see this end up like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which the author left unfinished when he died.

If you want to read the books, I’d suggest reading the series as quickly as possible in order to keep it all in your head. It can be easy to forget where you saw a character last or which band of mercenaries an outlaw is attached to. Usually you’re given enough context to find your bearings, but still it’s nice to have the fan-created wiki at your disposal.

Reading A Song of Ice and Fire may take a few months, but it’s a worthwhile endeavour. Whether you love or hate what becomes of your favorite characters, Martin clearly has a vision for where he’s taking this series, and I intend to see it through to the end.

Book 1: A Game of Thrones
Book 2: A Clash of Kings
Book 3: A Storm of Swords
Book 4: A Feast for Crows
Book 5: A Dance with Dragons
Complete Collection: George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones 5-Book Boxed Set