Tag Archives: A Song of Ice and Fire

Run like hell

Too bad about those cheesy White Walkers at the end, but otherwise the second season of Game of Thrones ended on a pretty high note. I always wondered what the St. Crispian’s Day speech would have been like if Henry V’s inspiration hadn’t been firing on all ten cylinders, and now I know — as does Theon Greyjoy, whose future is going to be extremely grey with very little joy. Like Sansa Stark, he’s about to learn that in George R.R. Martin’s universe, the only sensible response to a reversal of fortune is to run like hell.

One of the side benefits of the HBO series is that its quality inspired me to return to Martin’s novels. I’d enjoyed the hell out of the first three books, but  A Feast for Crows taxed my patience well past the breaking point, so when A Dance with Dragons came out last year I shrugged and figured I’d get around to it. I jumped with both feet a couple of weeks ago found Dance to be pretty much a return to form, though the title verges on false advertising. The Winds of Winter better have some pretty hot dragon action to make up for this latest tease.

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Friday finds

Duke University has a digital archive of over 100 travel diaries written by British and American women.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing.

Not to be outdone, Ray Bradbury has 12.

George Orwell’s rules for making a perfect cup of tea.

The creator of Dracula died broke. There is also some dispute over what killed him.

Here’s an original way to reduce cognitive biases. And don’t we all want to reduce cognitive biases?

“I visited the Jenolon Caves in Australia, and in some of the caves they have self-guided tours where you pick up a headset and get descriptions of what you’re looking at. Since this is a big tourist destination they offer these in many languages. One of which is Klingon. I was startled when I saw that – I do wonder how many people choose to take the Klingon tour. But that has now become my ambition, to have the Dothraki language added to that, so we have equality with the damn Klingons.”

John Peel’s record collection, digitized. Starting with “A,” appropriately enough.

Behind the scenes at the auditions to find Sean Connery’s replacement as James Bond.

Now that a remake of Total Recall is about to open, look at some concept art from the time when David Cronenberg was set to direct the original film, before it ended up in Paul Verhoeven’s hands.

So — what would happen if you stuck your hand into the Large Hadron Collider? Well, you wouldn’t turn into Dr. Manhattan, that’s for sure.

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A song of ice and ire

So I just finished A Storm of Swords, the third volume in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and I had a fine bloody-minded time with it, right up to that closing shocker that literally leaves everything hanging.  I like the way Stannis has moved to the foreground, I approve of the parting gesture Tyrion made, and I appreciate the way Dany is being groomed for greatness.

I’ve heard so much badness about the next volume, A Feast for Crows, that I’m somewhat reluctant to pick it up, though I want to be in shape for next month’s release of A Dance with Dragons, the title of which suggests we’ll finally be seeing some serious fire-breather action. (Though I did like the way the black one toasted that trash-talking slaver — great scene, that.) So I will put Martin on hiatus with a link to this discussion with the designer of the wonderful opening credits for Game of Thrones, the HBO adaptation now drawing to a conclusion.

Just to decompress from such an immersion in high fantasy, I’m re-reading portions of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck crime novel series. Right now I’m on The Fire Engine That Disappeared, and while I can salute Stieg Larsson for using the Martin Beck books as the model for his Millennium series, novels like The Laughing Policeman do three times the storytelling work of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in a fraction of the space. Martin has ice and fire nailed down, but Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo trafficked in ice and ire.

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Big books

My long march through George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire cycle got more than a little bogged down in A Clash of Kings, the second volume. After eagerly gulping down the first book, A Game of Thrones, I found the second book leaden and slow, with hundreds of pages of wheel-spinning as the various kinglings and their factions jockeyed for position. But the last third or so rallied: the depiction of the attack on King’s Landing in all its bloody confusion was superb, and the final surprise twist involving the fate of some important fugitives was heartening — I’d wanted to spend more time with those characters. Meanwhile,  the third novel, A Storm of Swords, is every bit the bacon-and-cheddar awesomeburger fans of the series promised it would be.

Reading these books, as well as some other recent bestsellers, once again shows how often the most successful fiction flies in the face of those storytelling rules so beloved of editors and publishers. Show, don’t tell. Avoid long passages of exposition. Keep the writing tight. Don”t confuse the reader with lots of characters. Dan Brown’s novels and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium threesome (which have a lot more in common than Brown’s fans probably realize, or that Larsson’s fans would care to admit) groan under the weight of big slabs of exposition, and they have enough characters to fill Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Ditto Martin’s novels, which are far more gracefully written but still defy many of those ironclad rules laid down by editors. (The chapters of A Clash of Kings shift among nine separate viewpoint characters, plus a third-person omniscient prologue, which is enough to send most editors staggering to the fainting couch.) And while the Harry Potter novels were officially written for children, they offered enough characters and exposition to tax the memory of the average adult.

None of this is an argument in favor of baggy prose or out-of-control casting, but it should remind us that many readers go to a novel for an immersive experience, and that means complexity and depth. What’s most interesting is that the authors who broke the rules most successfully have all been genre hands, working outside or on the fringes of literary respectability. Which leaves us to wonder if genre editors are more open-minded in their approach to novels, or if genre writers, whose work is considered infra dig by many reviewers, benefit from the freedom that comes with going downmarket.

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Snobs is as snobs does

If you thought the artistic and commercial success of the three Lord of the Rings films, capped by the 11-award sweep on Oscar night for The Return of the King, would finally earn the fantasy genre some long overdue respect, take a gander at this New York Times review of HBO’s Game of Thrones mini-series and think again.

I haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s underlying novel, or indeed any of the books in his Song of Ice and Fire cycle, but I have read enough of Martin’s other works to understand that the man is no joke. I was still an avid Analog reader when his early SF stories, such as “With Morning Comes Mistfall” and “The Second Kind of Loneliness,” helped serve notice that the John Campbell era was most definitely over, and I consider Fevre Dream a neglected Eighties classic — one of the most original and ingenious vampire novels ever written. I gather that the bulky A Song of Ice and Fire series is Martin’s bid to write a fantasy epic with the scale and ambition of J.R.R. Tolkien while avoiding slavish imitation (and even staking out higher literary ground). I have no doubt he’s the man for the job.

But, as Jeff Sypeck notes, Ginia Bellafante’s review is a sour-smelling landfill spilling over with the stalest, tritest cliches ever excreted about fantasy fans and authors. There’s nothing in the piece you haven’t read a thousand times already, from the gibes about boys with no dating prospects to the whining about having to keep track of so many names and characters. The craft of criticism is not well served by lazy hacks who disdain the effort of understanding a work on its own terms, and knock it for failing to rise to their limited expectations. A critic isn’t required to like a given work, but the critic is required to show at least some interest in what the work is trying to do. If Ginia Bellafante couldn’t be bothered with this task, she should have stepped aside and let a real critic show her how it’s done.

Bellafanate’s clueless wanking reminds us that one of the many blessings of the Internet has been the elimination of credentialism in arts reporting. The days when a Times copyhack could command respect simply by virtue of collecting a paycheck from the Gray Lady are over, and good goddamned riddance. Most newspapers have already dealt themselves out of the cultural criticism game by getting rid of book reviews — after all, why would an industry that depends on readers want to cultivate people who buy books? — and training their lenses on whatever dive Snooki has decided to pass out in. The most informed, passionate and worthwhile arts writing has been exiled to the Internet, and Bellafante’s piece shows why we should be happy about it. There was a time when someone like Edmund Wilson — a valuable and versatile intellectual, but also frequently a ridiculous snob — would take a few sniffs at Tolkien or Lovecraft before cocking a leg over them, and we were all expected to be grateful for the golden shower of attention from a Certified Big Time Critic. Well, in this wide-open arena, the credit goes to writers with wit, style, and knowledge, and none of those qualities apply to someone who writes something like this:

If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.

I hope this doesn’t shake you up too badly, Ginia, but this Wire fan understands that stories where the characters wield swords instead of Glocks can have just as much to say about human values and instincts. My literary world is big enough to put Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance alongside John O’Hara and John Steinbeck. When the Game of Thrones boxed set of DVDs comes out, I’ll give it a privileged place in the bookstore rental collection alongside The Wire, Treme, and The Singing Detective. An artist engaged with real human emotions and actions, regardless of the genre he works in, is always more interesting than a two-bit critic scoring cheap snark-points.

Embrace your irrelevance, Ginia. You’ve earned that, if nothing else.

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