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“Do you like to read books, Bran?” Jojen asked him.

“Some books. I like the fighting stories. My sister Sansa likes the kissing stories, but those are stupid.”

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only once. The singers of the forest had no books. No ink, no parchment, no written language. Instead they had the trees, and the weirwoods above all. When they died, they went into the woods, into leaf and limb and root, and the trees remembered. All their songs and spells, their histories and prayers, everything they knew about this world.”

This review has been a long time coming. I complained often to friends that I could barely remember A Feast of Crows, the last book in this series which was published over six years ago. I trusted in George R.R. Martin‘s abilities as a writer to suck me back into the action, given that the plots and backdrops to A Song of Ice and Fire are so impressively constructed.

Interestingly in A Dance With Dragons Martin resolves the split he introduced in previous volumes, with successive books focusing on a specific selection of characters and then the opposing points of view of others being presented in the next. Here we follow up on Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon Snow for the initial half of the book, but afterwards we catch up with Arya Stark and Cersei Lannister among others. Having resolved his arbitrary divide between the North and South geographical locations of these characters in order to split the material, the action finally begins to move forward.

But oh this is a long, hard read.

Part of the issue for me was that while the first books had these conflicting points of view on the series of events – which was a nice approach – the latest in the series have been see-sawing back and forth along a fictional timeline. It is quite confusing. Another issue is that either I am wearing rose-tinted glasses as far as my recollection of these previous entries in A Song of Ice and Fire, or Martin’s writing is a lot more miserabilist. For starters there is the unremitting torture and humiliation of the character Theon Greyjoy, who has gone from a ward of the Stark family (in effect a well-treated hostage), to the abused catspaw of the bloodthirsty Ramsay Snow. The chapters that relate to Reek – the name Theon is forced to adopt – are very disturbing and difficult to read. Then there is our favourite anti-hero Tyrion, traumatised by having murdered his own father and on the run to the East. Mutilated and half-demented, the quick-witted dwarf is a long way from the cynical yet oddly decent character he was first introduced as. Then there is Daenerys whose efforts at running a kingdom have left her at the mercy of competing power factions and untrustworthy advisors.

It is a credit to Martin that I feel so invested in this story, but it took me quite a while to finish it. The picture being painted here of the ‘game of thrones’ that threatens to swallow whole continents in war and destruction is vast. Increasingly however I am coming to understand why historical epics so often gloss over the scope and realities of conflict, instead introducing a sometimes insipid plot involving a small selection of characters caught in the middle of these events. Martin is trying to encompass every facet of the plot that he has unraveled, but it feels overwhelming. The taste of grit from the brutal and short lives of these people never leaves, which increases the feeling of an uphill battle to get to the last page. The sequence involving the army of Stannis Baratheon, snowed under and starving, was especially grim and the book ends with their fates seemingly sealed.

It is not all misery though. I was happy to see Davos the Onion Knight return to the book and am very excited to see Liam Cunningham play him in the second season of Game of Thrones (as discussed here on my Blue Jumper podcast). It was also great to get some story progression on Cersei and Arya, two of my favourite characters in the series in fact.

Overall though this is a troublesome read. I’m enjoying Joe Abercrombie a lot more at the moment, it is sad to say.

I blow some smoke at the ceiling

-I feel like I’m forgetting something. Vyrus. Clans. Zombies. Stay out of the sun. Don’t get shot. Abandon your life. Drink blood to survive.

I shake my head.

-No. Guess that pretty much covers it.

See I have some problems in reviewing this book. First off, it’s the fourth in a series called The Joe Pitt Casebooks by Charlie Huston. So I can’t really give away any of the specifics of the plot that might spoil readers who go on to check the series out. And you should check these books out. Secondly, as is abundantly clear by now, I’m a fan. I didn’t just read this book, I gobbled it down and asked for seconds. Sadly my library does not have the next title in the sequence – My Dead Body – so I have to be patient and hope this latest cliff-hanger doesn’t drive me nuts before I get my hands on the concluding story.

Charlie Huston is well-known for his crime fiction, such as Caught Stealing and has just had his novel The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death optioned for HBO by Alan Ball. Yes the guy behind True Blood, which is ironic, given that The Joe Pitt Casebooks are about a vampire gang-banger in Manhattan, trying to carve out a life for himself while eluding the machinations of the competing ‘Clans’, who control the island itself. Huston plays to his strengths here, with Joe being a down on his luck thug for hire who just happens to be a vampire. Occasionally he would do a job from one of the big Clans, which allows him to operate on their territory. Huston introduces further tropes from noir fiction with The Coalition, the biggest clan, resembling smart-suited Mafioso’s. Then there’s The Society, a bunch of anarchists led by Terry Bird who speaks in mixed metaphors and harps on about revolution, Charles Manson-style. There’s the Enclave, religious fundamentalists– yes, we have undead mujahideen here too. Finally there’s the Hood, a vampire street gang not too fond of white folks.

It’s an interesting mix of traditional vampire themes and modern fictional tropes. Joe Pitt himself is your typical antihero, capable of being quite cruel at times, but also possessing a code of sorts that allows you to root for him. As an independent ‘rogue’, owing fealty to none of the Clans, his position on Manhattan Island has always been tenuous. He’s always been a bit like Clint Eastwood’s stranger from A Fistful of Dollars, playing the Clans off against one another to buy himself more time. Half the Blood in Brooklyn brought matters to a head and this book deals with the fall-out.

Joe’s been living in exile for over a year in the Bronx, trying not to draw any attention to himself now that he’s burned his bridges with the Clans. Finally an opportunity arrives to return across the water. Joe’s got unfinished business in Manhattan. There’s Amanda Horde for one, the billionaire heiress he met during the events of Already Dead. She’s a human who knows all about vampires, with money enough to do something about it. She makes the Clans nervous and given her friendly disposition to Joe, he’s asked to find out what exactly she is planning. Then there’s the bounty on Joe’s head that he needs to clear and the possibility of all-out Clan war. Most of all, he’s heading back to Manhattan to find the girl he left behind a year ago. The girl he loves whose life he saved and who may just kill him for it.

Huston’s increasing the pace of the action with each book in the series and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for his grand finale. For the most part these have been books set in the familiar world of noir fiction, despite Joe’s unusual abilities. However, in Every Last Drop Huston introduces a vision of absolute horror that disturbs as much as it frightens. There’s a sense that he’s taking the gloves off, having established enough of the world in the previous novels to now smash it to pieces.

Smart, brutal and inventive, with foul-mouthed dialogue to die for.