Monday, March 16, 2015

Stark words

I've just finished A Clash of Kings, the second novel of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire pentalogy. I now understand just about every Martin reference I've ever heard, whether it's someone crying "Hodor!" in a silly voice, or someone else muttering darkly about Lannister-scale ambitiousness (not to mention the line, "A Lannister always pays his debts."). I know what wildfire is, as well as a godswood, a septon, a weirwood, and a kingsroad. I'm aware of the religious variety in this world: the old, nameless gods; the seven aspects of God as articulated by the (new) Faith; the worship of the Drowned God ("what is dead may never die"); and the various forms of black magic that we encounter from the likes of the priestess Melisandre and the Sorrowful Men who try to assassinate Danaerys Targaryen with a stinging manticore (essentially a human-faced scorpion) in the second book. I know that the regal families all have their "words" (i.e., their mottos). For the Starks, those words are "Winter is coming," a dictum that is always true in a "stopped clock is right twice a day" sort of way: as long as the seasons are cyclical, winter will always be coming.

I have a lot to say about the series as I've experienced it thus far. Fortunately or unfortunately for you, I can't help but see the series through the lens of my previous fantasy-novel reading, which began with the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson and then moved on, somewhat grudgingly, to Tolkien, who is in truth the font from which many of Donaldson's tropes come (Donaldson's other major source is CS Lewis—a fact that I didn't appreciate until I read all the Narnia books). So expect a lot of Martin/Donaldson comparisons that won't make sense to you unless you've actually read your Donaldson.

The most annoying aspect of Martin's series is that there are just too damn many characters, places, and subplots to keep track of. The constant shifting of the point of view borders on ADHD. James Clavell, the revered author of Shogun among other novels, was excellent at weaving multiple subplots together into a coherent story; in her own scaled-down way, JK Rowling showed a similar expertise in her Harry Potter heptalogy. Martin could use some lessons from these two, but I'll give him credit for keeping so much detail straight in his head. One doesn't get the sense, with Martin, that he had spent years and years crafting his alternate universe in quite the same way that Tolkien had: instead, one gets the impression that Martin blasted out all his details at once, liberally sprinkling his world with cities and rivers and people of a multitude of different cultures, geographies, and dispositions.

Martin is conscientious enough to slip in reminders of who certain characters are, what they've done, and how they relate to yet other characters, but it's not always easy for me to recollect who did what to whom, and where, at any given point in the story. Some subplots are easier to follow than others—like Danaerys/Dany's subplot, for instance. She's an outsider to most of what's happening in Westeros, but she represents a looming danger to all the warring, conniving families and kingdoms of that continent. Martin is also somewhat uneven in his characterizations: some characters are full of life and three-dimensional—like Tyrion Lannister, the crafty dwarf—but others barely register.

Anyway, the whole thing makes for an interesting ride. It reads like historical fiction by Tom Clancy, and while I've figured out where Martin's sympathies lie (it's not surprising to hear that Tyrion is, according to Martin in an interview, his favorite character), I find it difficult to suss out what his message might be, or what the major themes of these novels are. So in my fuller post on A Song of Ice and Fire, coming sometime soon, I'll attempt to think out loud about the deeper aspects of the series.



  1. The theme is: this series never ends!

    Finish the story, George!

    I think you have proven yourself, Kevin. You are now ready for this:

  2. Hilarious. Thanks. I've tweeted your link and given you credit for it. Great song, great message. And that lead singer looks like Oz's answer to Jack Black, but even fatter and uglier. After watching that video, I then avidly clicked on "Do You Want to Build a Snow Dick?"

    At the rate I'm going, I'll be through the fifth book by the end of the semester or just after. Thus far, I've seen only video clips of the "Game of Thrones" TV series. The singer's right: the power of imagination is mightier. I've also seen enough video to know that the TV version royally messes up some major moments from the book (e.g., the death of Ser Rodrik Cassell, castellan of Winterfell).

  3. Rory,

    Here's an oldie but a goodie. I thought this was funny even before I started reading the series.

  4. Ha! That is good.

    Yes, after the first series, the TV show really diverges, and combines a lot of characters, subplots, etc.

    Still awesome.



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