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Night Shift by Stephen King (1978) 316 p.

Stephen King, back in the day, could spin a damn good yarn. It’s a shame that in the last decade or so he went a little odd – as I lamented many times while slogging through the end of the Dark Tower series – but he really had the spark in his youth. Night Shift, first published in 1978, is a collection of various short stories King had published throught the late 60s and the 1970s, at the very beginning of his long writing career.

By and large I enjoyed most of the stories in here – particularly “Grey Matter,” “Trucks,” “Children of the Corn” and “One for the Road” – and found that quite a few of them hit that sweet spot of intriguing paranormal mystery. I like King not so much because he’s a horror writer – I’m never scared by what he writes, more “creeped out” – but because I find an engaging mystery to be an excellent form of fiction. I don’t mean a whodunnit mystery, with a group of diverse and enigmatic characters discovering a murder on a train in the 1920s and trying to figure out which of them did it. Those kinds of mysteries are boring. (Spoiler – it turns out one of the characters did it!) What I love is a good speculative fiction mystery, where something bizarre and inexplicable is happening – like the TV series Lost, the Priest’s Tale in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, or the novel Inverted World.

Where King falters in Night Shift is when he tries to explain the mystery, and usually does so with the Bible/witchcraft/demons. One particularly egregious example is “The Mangler,” an otherwise excellent story about a piece of industrial laundry equipment which keeps injuring and killing people, and which an investigating police detective feels has some kind of malevolent presence inside it. It should have been left at that – an inexplicable bloodlust in an inanimate object. That, for my money, is a lot more frightening (and, in terms of suspension of disbelief, plausible) than King’s explanation, which involves a witchcraft ritual and a possessive demon and a crazy set of coincidences. Once that sort of thing starts trickling in I find myself rolling my eyes, and unfortunately a fair few of the stories in this volume could have been a lot better than they are precisely because of this over-exposition. There are also two ordinary “literary” stories towards the end of the book, and if I want to read something with no horror, sci-fi or fantasy elements, there’s a fairly long list of authors I’ll turn to before Stephen King.

Nonetheless, Night Shift is still a pretty good collection of short stories. A lot better than most anthologies I read, and a hell of a lot better than most stuff he’s written since the 1990s – although, with a lot of positive reviews for The Wind Through The Keyhole and 11/22/63, I may have to look him up again. I definitely want to read some more of his early works, and I have The Long Walk and The Running Man on my TBR pile.

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin (1999) 1009 p.

George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice And Fire series continues well, picking up where A Game of Thrones ended: with a number of different rulers vying for power following the death of the old king. The realm is wracked with war and chaos, and the surviving viewpoint characters from A Game of Thrones are joined by a few new ones as they struggle to seize power, fight tyranny or simply survive.

Martin’s pacing is still his strongest point; unlike many 1000+ page fantasy bricks, the books in A Song of Ice and Fire actually deserve to be as thick as they are. Martin never wastes time with unneccesary clutter, and the pacing of the story rarely flags.

Characters are also considered one of his strong points, though I find a few of them to still be annoyingly dull (Jon) or inserted merely to serve as vantage points to critical plot elements (Catelyn, Davos). Theon undertakes a course of action which is a complete about-face from anything he’s done before, and which would have been a lot better if there’d been some foreshadowing for it in the first book. Bran spends too much of his time wandering about in a mythic dreamscape. Daenerys continues to be a fairly dull character, but was interesting to read about simply because she’s in the most interesting locale in the books. Sansa is a dull character in a relatively interesting situation, held captive by the book’s villains in a hostage/guest type relationship, and realising that she’s going to have to try to hide her feelings and earn their trust and play a very long game to escape. Arya is much more interesting than she was in the previous book, as she flees north and provides the reader with a perspective of what the war is like for the peasants and stickpickers of the kingdom, caught between multiple armies and suffering badly for it.

Far and away the best character is Tyrion Lannister, the cynical and conniving dwarf who is sent to the capital by his father to act as regent to the Lannister family’s villanous boy-king, Joffrey. Tyrion is technically a bad guy, but he stands out as being one of the few characters with a brain in his head, which – coupled with his dry wit – make him easily the most likeable character and the one that you find yourself rooting for. The chapters in which he consolidates his power, working simultaneously with and against his sister, are some of the best in the book.

Martin’s tertiary characters, however – of which there are hundreds, with extensive family appendices, the Freys and the Tyrells and the Tullys and so on – are much more thinly drawn. Or perhaps they aren’t, but there are so many of them, with so few distinctive names or characteristics, that it’s hard to tell them apart when their myriad sons and nephews and cousins show up in armour at various battles or parleys. No matter – they’re rarely important, and Martin does a better job than I would expect of at least keeping roughly 20 or 30 key characters memorable.

A Clash of Kings is a good, solid sophomore entry in a very engrossing fantasy series. Next up is A Storm of Swords.

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