Wednesday, April 22, 2015

ASOIAF: the appetizer

I don't want to keep promising and promising a reaction to George RR Martin's ponderous saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, without ever actually giving you a reaction. As I wrote before, I'll be publishing my lengthy thoughts on the series in installments, blog post by blog post. But for now, just to whet your appetite, here's a more or less substantive reaction to ASOIAF taken from a recent email to my buddy Mike, who is a big Martin fan (along with his two daughters). Mike's wife (whose name appears as [X] in the email below, for privacy's sake) has been persuaded to take up reading the series herself, even though she's not normally a fantasy-lit kind of person. Part of my email addresses that issue. Without further ado, then:

Martin is a big history buff and one of his themes (at least an insinuated theme of his interviews) is that history has people popping in at all points. Narratives don't start and end with a single fixed group. While this is indeed true, even this historian must pick a topic and tell that story.

Martin has a point regarding the chaos and constantly shifting dramatis personae in history, but as you say, it's sometimes advantageous to just pick an arc and stick with it. I was thinking about that recently; as you may know, I'm through Book 3 and have just started Book 4 (which, according to many disappointed reviewers, is the odd man out because it follows so many point-of-view characters who haven't been strong POV characters up to now), and I'm going to be writing a rather long reaction to what I've read.

One thought that occurred to me, as I began drafting my essay, was that the rough Korean equivalent of this story might be something like the historical drama "Great Queen Seondeok," the 2009 series that I watched during Mom's cancer. But that series keeps Seondeok as its central character, even though it skips around to include the viewpoints of other characters around her. It never loses its focus.

Because I've been reading a bit of GRRM-related material online, I've discovered (as you doubtless already know) that one running joke about ASOIAF is that it's nearly impossible to figure out who the main character is supposed to be. My own guess would be that we're supposed to be most interested in Arya, Jon Snow, Tyrion, and (per your tweet suggesting this) Dany. At this point, three-fifths of the way into the story, the death of any one of those characters would come as a shock to me.

Interesting parallel: what happened in Westeros, early on, also happened in Essos: King Robert and Ned Stark both died, which cut the reader's legs out from under him because these seemed like strong characters ready to make big decisions that would affect the realm; by the same token, Khal Drogo died pretty early on thanks to that nasty, festering nipple wound and the malign influence of the maegi who "treated" him. So in both West and East, we immediately lost a clutch of strong male characters, and the result in both cases was chaos and infighting, the natural consequence of a power vacuum. This put me in mind of what James Cameron did in "Aliens," when he killed off Sergeant Apone and most of the virile fighting men (like Drake): it's horror-movie psychology—remove all the capable-seeming people and let's see what the apparent weaklings can do to fend for themselves.

I'm planning to say, in my essay on ASOIAF, that Martin has structured his story as "a matrix of asymmetries," i.e., there are vectors of force that don't push directly against each other, resulting in general chaos and unpredictability. House A hates House B; House B hates House A, but is intent on sacking House C; House C hates A and B but also has to contend with elements from House D; way off to the side is House E, which hopes eventually to conquer all of A, B, C, and D. It's a hell of a lot for a writer to keep straight in his head, and I imagine that Martin has extensive notes to help him out. I'm almost tempted to say that there's been a Tolkien-scale effort at world-building, here, but I'm not yet willing to award Martin that particular prize: Martin wasn't a philologist like Tolkien; he hasn't introduced a truckload of exotic foreign languages into his tale—just bits and pieces like "Valar morghulis/Tout homme doit mourir." I also don't think he's created long, in-depth histories of the nations and families he's been introducing us to.

Anyway, it's an interesting juggling act, this saga of Martin's. In some ways, I credit him with more compelling storytelling than that done by Stephen R. Donaldson, even though I'm a big-time Donaldson partisan. Donaldson often trips over himself in his attempts to write purple, grandiloquent prose, and this occasionally gets in the way of the story. Donaldson also imbues his characters with super-complex, overly agonizing, cosmic motivations whereas Martin keeps things fairly parochial and Darwinian: people are motivated by simple things like lust, greed, ambition, and family loyalty. And then, off to the side, just to unbalance the equation even further, there are The Others, who represent (as Stannis Baratheon has noted) the real fight for existence.

Righto... I'll close off there, otherwise I'll be writing my blog post in this email. Lots to say, and it's been a fun ride, except for that damn first book. Then again, even the first book was OK once I got through about half or two-thirds of it. By that point, there had been enough repetition of character and place names for me to have a general sense of the fantasy world. So here's hoping [X] can make it far enough to catch the story's momentum. My own way of handling the story was to stop trying to keep track of everything and just read. I basically said "Fuck it" and started plowing through the plot, trusting that Martin would remind me, from time to time, of who these characters were and why they were significant. [X] will have a better time, I think, if she does something similar: just let the story wash over her.



The Maximum Leader said...

I wanted to write back on one item you mentioned. You write: "I also don't think he's created long, in-depth histories of the nations and families he's been introducing us to." On this I believe you are mistaken. I got for Christmas Martin's book "World of Ice and Fire"

While the book is not solely Martin's product, it is by all accounts mostly his product. If I recall correctly, his co-authors in WoIaF started as "superfans" that he has used to keep details straight as he writes. Then these people helped flesh out this history of Westeros for the book.

So the back story of Martin's world is pretty full all in all.

Kevin Kim said...

What?? He had help? That's cheating! Hoary old JRR, that grizzled war veteran, would have gone it alone! (Or would he have...?)

Chip Lary said...

It's interesting that the first book was the one you've liked least so far. It's my favorite because most of the characters were concentrated into a relatively few stories. As each subsequent book came out they kept fracturing into more and more separate sub-stories, many of which I have a sneaking suspicion will not have much to do with the eventual outcome, but are instead there because Martin likes to explore this world he has created, reader be damned.

Kevin Kim said...


Good points.

As for my thinking Martin's first book was a slog: I had much the same reaction to reading The Fellowship of the Ring: there was this blizzard of names and places that I couldn't relate to—no real buildup, either, and the book's pace was frightfully slow. The first third of Fellowship is little more than a long walk through the woods. It seemed as though we were thrown into this different universe with little to latch on to, so I had trouble feeling any sympathy (or whatever) with any of the characters. Even by the end of Fellowship, I still didn't have enough emotional engagement to care all that deeply about Boromir et al. Then along came The Two Towers, and the story really picked up for me. Same for Martin: by the time I hit the second book, I had a pretty firm grasp of this alternate universe and could even relate to the characters—probably because the characters Martin chose to focus on were, for the most part, children (like Arya) or marginals (like Tyrion, who is doomed to be alien no matter where he goes or what he does).

I admit that I picked up and put down Martin's first book maybe ten times. I would read partway through the prologue and the first chapter, get antsy, leave the book off to the side (I say "book," but it's on my phone's Kindle app, so... "e-book"?), then pick it up later, having forgotten nearly everything thanks to a lack of interest, and start again. Finally, one day, something clicked, and I managed to get from the first to the second chapter. The incident involving Bran's being pushed out the window by Jaime was a good hook; in fact, I think the reason I began to get emotionally engaged with A Game of Thrones is that many of the characters placed in danger were children (and most of those kids are still in danger, albeit a lot wiser by the end of the third book).

I don't mind the splitting-up of the "fellowship," so to speak, in ASOIAF; Tolkien's arc also takes his characters on separate journeys, and as you say, it's a way to explore the fantasy world more fully.