Sunday, May 29, 2011

Spoiler Alert: Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy is AWESOME


Forget sleeping or working for 2 weeks: once you've got your hands on these nearly-1000-pages-each books you won't put them down. The dark shadows under my eyes are testament to how gripping these stories were.

If you haven't read them yet, close this window because I'm about to dive into details (and you wouldn't want to ruin the story for yourself. Honestly, even if you won't read them then wait for the movies to come out in English).

SPOILER ALERT (no lawsuits henceforth):

Warning to the Swedes: All my impressions of Sweden come from what I've managed to glean from my political studies and this book series. Unfortunately I don't think I've ever met anyone from Sweden (certainly that's my loss) and the closest I come to is a college professor from Denmark (who, ironically, taught me more about the Middle East than any other place). So if you, innocent Swedish reader, feel that there is an urgent need to educate me to the real life of Swedes and Sweden, do please message me or comment on this post. I am very aware that my view is quite narrow so I am open to hearing whatever you have to say. This post is purely my narrow impression, so all have been warned.

My own experience with these books were a bit jumbled. I had actually read the second book first ("The Girl Who Played with Fire") without realizing that it was the middle part of the trilogy, then got to the cliff-hanging end and realized "AAGHHH IT'S A TRILOGY!" and had to decide whether to continue forth with book 3 before going back to book 1, and eventually went back to book 1. So I read the series in 2, 1, 3 order, which of course left me a little turned-around. On top of that the author writes the series in a turned-around way to begin with so ironically there were times when I felt like "ahh, this was in the other book" and things were clear for me, but I also know that I've robbed myself of some delicious suspense.

Anyways, the books were awesome. I'd heard of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" being bandied about, but I had assumed it was a comic book or something. That's how I stumbled on the second book and didn't recognize it. I had no idea what I was getting into.

So, book 1, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" provides a few characters and their backgrounds, including a Jewish-Muslim, a casually promiscuous journalist Mikael "Kalle" Blomkvist (try saying that name) and others, and all are described in full detail save one character: The protagonist Lisbeth Salander.

This book is no light read: Unless you're familiar with Scandinavian pronunciations, places, or inside jokes (which I'm not), you're going to be scratching your head at parts. For me, the first mystery was "Why are they calling 'Mikael Blomkvist' by the nickname 'Kalle' and why does he hate that?" Well, a quick google search revealed that there was a popular Scandinavian children's story about a young detective boy "Kalle Blomkvist" who astounded grown-ups with his insights and discoveries. After learning that (thanks wikipedia) it finally made sense how the character in the book - a proper journalist who diligently works at exposing crooks - takes offense to the nickname. Ok, yay, mystery solved.

Second, I felt like "man, these Swedes love their coffee." They can't get enough of their caffeine. EVERYBODY'S drinking it in Sweden! And their sandwiches too. I consistently felt like I was on a hurried lunch break while I read about their coffee-and-sandwiches exploits in between their actual exploits.

Also, you learn that the Swedes aren't really first-name people (well, the books definitely give off that impression) and while each character is introduced with both first and last names, they are forever referred later to by only the last name- and I get tangled at bits wondering who all these men are - and it's a host of delightfully northern names and you start to become acquainted with what passes off as common names up there (if you're like me and not acquainted with the "cold north" until these books appeared).

Well, all in all book 1 was mainly about the strange Vanger family and Blomkvist's investigative talents were enlisted to solve the mystery of Harriet Vanger's death 40 years ago. Of course, the deeper he pries the more harrowing the story starts to develop, and each puzzle piece he turns up gives me more cause to sleep with the lights on.

Book 2! Pow! "Girl Who Played with Fire" finally gives us more insight and background as to who Lisbeth Salandar is and why. A side story begins with a couple (journalist and his thesis-writing girlfriend) ready to blow apart the entire sex-trade underground of Sweden, and on the night Salandar goes out to visit them they are... murdered! Ahhh!

Suddenly Salandar isn't part of the narrative voice and as the reader you're clutching at your head going "where is she?!" as you and Sweden go into a frenzied manhunt for her. Here the book shows us exactly how police investigations can quickly devolve into a ridiculous goose-chase while the media makes the police out to be a band of idiots looking for a Satanist lesbian. For several agonizing chapters you don't hear from Salandar again, and you go along with the rest of Sweden trying to piece together a coherent picture of who Salandar really is. It's agonizing because you already know partly who she is and you have to sit through everyone else's assumptions about her and you won't know the rest until Salandar decides to - literally - come out of hiding. For both you and the people of Sweden's sake.

Throughout the book a light feeling emerges that hints at the ineffectualness of the Swedish government when it comes to protecting the innocent and punishing the criminal- which is mad, because we're talking about Sweden here right? Aren't they supposed to be untouchable when it comes to socialistic governments and gender equality? How can the system be so flawed as to create the kind of situation Larsson is writing about in his fiction books, right? Right?

Book 3! Ahh!
Salandar is injured, hospitalized and in custody. Her assailant is similarly injured, hospitalized and in custody, and his hospital room is only two doors down from hers - eek SUSPENSE! They are too aware of how much danger they pose to each other and through the drugs and the treatment they try to find ways to protect themselves should the other decide to make a midnight visit to their rooms while the nurses are gone.
Suddenly and without warning, her assailant is murdered by a suicidal madman who shoots himself after doing the job. Sweden is up in arms, wondering what the fuck is going on. Salandar is powerless as long as she's kept in the hospital, so it's up to Blomkvist to find out what the hell is happening, and as he hunts for clues he finds out that the truth is possibly too big for Sweden to handle. Salandar's history appeared at first to be a misunderstanding between her and the police, but as Blomkvist finds, it goes higher up than that- it goes all the way to the top! A government conspiracy to shut someone up who might know too much- but what is the Swedish government trying to hide? Is Salandar savvy to something even she was not aware that would threaten national security? And is it the government as a whole, or a secret group of government workers with their own agenda and bent on making sure that all who interfere will be dealt with, buried in the darkest shadows of the law?

This final book navigates the reader through Swedish political history as well as the halls and laws that govern that cold northern state, and how the first impression of "the perfect government" may need serious revision after learning the loop holes and catch-22's within the system. As an American with liberal views, I often think that my country could learn a thing or two from the Scandinavian government model- so it was surprising to find instances in the book where the police or people of authority wished that they had the same power that their contemporaries in the US had. So there goes my assumptions. Of course I am aware that there is no perfect government or system, but I had thought that the Swedes came close - and when it comes to various social issues indeed they do - but what Larsson is saying is that if such a situation in his fictional books came about, then the system would be turned on its head, and innocent people could suffer the consequences.

Wow. So there you go, a mindblowing series that is tacitly a criticism of the Swedish government on the macro level, and an intricately weaved murder-mystery plot with varied characters on the micro level. The series deserves at least two readings to be properly appreciated, and I advise readers to be prepared to sleep with one eye open- you never know who might be after you.

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