George R.R. Martin

Game of Thrones, Season 4 (2014)

Game of Thrones, Season 4 (2014)

(On Cable TV, April-June 2014) As a promise for this season of Game of Thrones, “adapting the second half of George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords” couldn’t have been a more enticing prospect given the book’s sheer density of high narrative points. What we got was a bit more than that: a restructured narrative thread that mostly stuck to the book, but went cherry-picking plot threads from latter book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series in an effort to even out the pacing and even added subplots and a crucial bit of information not found anywhere in the books so far. Not that the additions were all required: simply telling the story as written was crazy enough, with plenty of role reversals, character deaths and sweeping set-pieces. As an adaptation, you can see the TV show slowly becoming its own thing, trying to keep order over the increasingly out-of-control sweep of the book series. But it’s still remaining broadly faithful to the books, enough so that fans should be pleased with the results. Peter Dinklage and Lena Headley once again steal the show as the lead actors, although new actors such as Pedro Pascal shine by fully incarnating minor characters with a great deal of skill and charm. Otherwise, it’s continuity in action, as the level of quality of the series remains constant and there are few major tonal shifts in what’s on-screen. The budgets are either getting bigger or the production team is getting better, because it seems as if the visual aspect of the show gets more impressive each season. Still, it’s the writing that remains so interesting, especially the way the screenwriters are wrestling a massive thousand-page epic into a format digestible and enjoyable by TV audiences. There’s no watching this series casually now: with the number of characters, the convoluted back-story and the multiplicity of sub-plots, it takes dedicated effort to watch Game of Thrones, and to its credit HBO isn’t even trying to dumb it down to network-TV standards. Even hitting its fourth season, Game of Thrones is more impressive than ever. Of course, the real challenge begins next year, as the adaptation hits what is widely acknowledged as the weakest/dullest book of the series, and the plot lines start venturing past what has been published to date. But it’s been a solid series so far –let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the show-runners for the rest.

A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin

A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin

Bantam Spectra, 2011, 1040 pages, C$38.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-553-80147-7

So, here we are.  After manfully resisting the impulse to start reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series before it was published in its entirety, the TV show made me break down and now I reap the consequences of my folly: I’m done reading the fifth volume, and now I have to wait for the rest of the series like so many other readers.  At the pace Martin is writing his thousand-page doorstoppers, the next volume isn’t expected until 2014 at the earliest, and the planned concluding volume of the series probably won’t hit shelves before the end of the decade.  So it goes; I’m joining the club of impatient Martin fans.

The wait is made even more maddening by the unusual structure of the series.  It started out as a trilogy and then escaped all control, growing into a pair of linked trilogies, then grew even more misshapen when the fourth volume was split up in two based on the geographical location of its characters.  A Dance with Dragons is the second half of this split, and it covers the characters missed by the fourth book A Feast for Crows until its last third, at which point the entire story once again starts moving forward in time.  Readers hoping for significant forward progress may want to temper their expectations, though, since this is really still the beginning of a new story arc: This fifth volume is so busy setting up its pieces that it practically forgets to deliver any payoffs.  The last third of A Dance with Dragons doesn’t really move the story forward in time as much as it sets up cliffhanger after cliffhanger, all leading to… the next volume in the series.  Which is at least a few years away.  But I repeat myself.

Fans of the series will, at least, get to spend some time with familiar characters.  Lovably modern Tyrion is finally back in-narrative after a sorely-missed absence in A Feast for Crows, and the adventures he gets into while exiled from Westeros are good for a few picaresque thrills.  Meanwhile, at the Wall, Jon Snow gets busy with the business of leading the Night’s Watch, preparing for winter while setting up defenses against the foreseen invaders and managing the influx of refugees clamoring for resources and protection.  Alas, A Dance with Dragon also goes back, at length, to dragon-queen Daenerys Targaryen, who has decided to stop traveling for a while and try to lead for a change.  It doesn’t go well, but the Mereen chapters of A Dance with Dragons have a bigger flaw: they’re remarkably repetitive, with Daenerys occasionally reverting back to love-struck teenage moping while the situation around her goes from bad to worse.  Even the convergence of plotlines and characters toward her doesn’t reach a meaningful conclusion in this volume, a long-promised battle being pushed into the next volume.  And that’s without mentioning another battle in a land far away, much-teased but not delivered.

At this point, not having any idea how this turns out, much of A Dance with Dragons is, as with A Feast for Crowd, just set-dressing.  Martin introduces a lot of new characters here, and their importance isn’t particularly clear.  Some of it feels arbitrary, as when another pretender to the Iron Throne is introduced without too much ceremony.  Some of it feels dull, as with the Iron Born racing from Pyke to Mereen.  Some of it feels pointless, as with the entire Quentyn Martell storyline.  None of those new characters can measure up to the ones introduced in the first three books and imprinted onto the readers.  Maybe it will all make sense with the added resonance of the next volume.  At this point, though, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that Martin has lost control of his series. 

At least the novel is more satisfying when it comes to its established characters.  Red Priestess Melissandre gets an intriguing passage told from her own point of view, whereas Arya features in a pitch-perfect chapter titled “The Blind Girl”.  Tyrion is as self-aware as ever, and despite some reprehensible acts at the end of A Storm of Swords, seems to be one of the few characters with a sense of humor about his own trials.  Everyone who went through A Feast for Crows hoping that paranoid sociopath Cercei would get some comeuppance will get their wish here, although in typical Martin fashion the punishment seems rather harsh, and leads to a closing passage with ominous overtones.  Still, her retribution is nothing compared to what happened to a much-hated character after his last appearance in A Clash of Kings: returning as a spectacularly damaged shadow of his own self, “Reek” shows how mean Martin can be to his characters, and how readers’ expectations about some characters can flip from one book to the other.  (Also see; Jamie Lannister)  Finally, the epilogue of the book marks the bloodthirsty return of a character who had disappeared almost completely after the third book, setting up bigger questions about true allegiances and what that means for the rest of the series. 

But, as tantalizing as those developments can be, it’s easy to feel as if the last two volumes have been a spectacularly overblown exercise in throat-clearing.  It’s not clear whether the relevant plotting in this huge split-up mess couldn’t have been condensed in a single snappier tome, or whether the incredible amount of detail in this series has grown too unmanageable to handle.  It’s all nice and well to feature dozens of protagonists, hundreds of secondary characters and somewhere around 1500 named characters spanning an entire world, but keeping up with all of these people takes time, and Martin is still adding more complexity to the mix.  His ultimate success will be judged after he delivers the ending of his saga; in the meantime, it’s not as if any fan of the series will skip a volume on their way to the conclusion.

A Dance with Dragons does at least feel like a step up from A Feast for Crows.  During the last third of the novel, as more and more plotlines were advanced forward, I even found myself getting back some of the pure reading joy I had last experienced in the latter half of A Storm of Swords.  That joy was muted when it became more obvious that this was just another round of cliffhanger-making in time for another long wait.  It’s a bit of a shame, from a reviewing perspective, that appreciation for A Dance with Dragons is so closely linked to unknown factors.  Maybe the conclusion will wrap it all brilliantly.  In the meantime, readers are left hoping that the next volume will step on the gas a little bit.

Game of Thrones, Season 2 (2012)

Game of Thrones, Season 2 (2012)

(On Cable TV, April-June 2011)  The first season of Game of Thrones was an astonishing adaptation of a long and complex epic fantasy novel into an easy-to-digest, well-produced, well-written ten-hours TV series.  The second season may not be as groundbreaking, but it, too, manages to adapt a lengthy novel with a cast of hundreds into a fairly successful series of episodes.  This time around, though, the changes from George R.R. Martin’s source text are more apparent: Sometimes for cost, sometimes for dramatic balance, sometimes to exploit the talents of the series’ actors, and sometimes to keep fans happy.  The result is, despite a few noteworthy weak moments, generally successful.  The War of the Five Kings is successfully brought to life despite the limited budget of the series, and the ninth episode, “Blackwater” is noteworthy for dispensing with the story’s multiplicity of subplots to focus exclusively on a spectacular military engagement.  The story adds many more characters, but nearly everyone turns in some distinctive work: Peter Dinklage is up to the standards set by his Emmy-winning first-season work, but there’s also some fine work by Maisie Williams as Arya and Lena Headley as Cersei.  Story-wise, many subplots hidden in the novel are shown onscreen, Arya’s travels are successfully condensed (something that led to the addition of a few gripping all-new scenes) and Theon’s inner conflicts are made more obvious while Daenerys’ time in Quarth is clumsily altered for greater dramatic suspense.  These alterations to the original text are enough to keep readers engrossed in the series, even as they serve to adapt the original material on-screen.  It’s unclear whether Game of Thrones will be able to juggle all of the extra subplots to be introduced in the next season, but the adaptation so far is amazingly faithful within the constraints of the production.  On to Season 3!

A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin

A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin

Bantam Spectra, 2011 reprint of 2005 original, 1104 pages, $C10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-553-58202-4

One of fiction’s most fundamental narrative engines is the balance between tension and release.  Typical fiction-writing advice is to send your characters up a tree and then throw rocks at them.  The more rocks you throw, the sweeter their success once they climb down the tree.  Authors spend most of their time setting up dramatic payoffs –the fun is in releasing all the tension the closer we are to the end of the story.

This ties in A Feast for Crows insofar as this novel is almost entirely pure buildup.  As fans of the A Song of Ice and Fire series know, Martin first planned on a trilogy.  Then the trilogy grew to a planned six books: two linked trilogies separated by a gap for five years in the internal chronology.  But life seldom goes according to plan, and that’s how Martin found himself with a fourth volume so big that it couldn’t fit between the covers of a single book.  Unusually, he split the book in two halves, following a different set of characters separated by geography.  (It helps when you’re writing about an imagined world so big that characters can go entire novels without meeting each other.)  A Feast for Crows is the first half, A Dance With Dragons following (six years later!) to complete the experiment.

The first discovery of A Feast for Crows is the realization that it’s meant to re-start the series with a chunk of new characters.  (This isn’t surprising given how many died in the third book.)  Alas, the first hundred pages of the novel is laborious, as the usual fatal prologue is followed by two chapters going off to the Iron Island and Dorne in order to open up new plotting avenues.  There’s a definite break in structural form as Martin titles chapters using mysterious titles rather than the names readers were used to see.  The three leading characters by number of chapters aren’t even from the Stark family: Cersei, Jaime and Brienne have much of the book to themselves, although that usually translates into interminable treks in a devastated post-War Westeros.

The title of the book hints at the gloominess of the setting (which turns into autumn as the foretold winter is coming), as the continent of Westeros wakes up from the ravages left by the War of the Five Kings.  Brienne and Jamie, in particular, each do their tour of the land, meeting ancillary characters while smelling the carrion.  Brienne remains herself, while Jamie continues his unlikely narrative redemption as one of the sanest characters left alive.  Meanwhile, the ten chapters given to his sister Cersei’s viewpoint do nothing to make her more likable: If Jamie got more likable as we got inside his head, Cersei gets progressively more despicable even as we understand her particular brand of madness.  Her inner monologue is that of a paranoid sociopath, and reading her chapters are like being stuck in a very unpleasant mind that keeps plotting (not very well) against a plethora of enemies both real and imagined.  Additionally, we do get a handful of interesting chapters from the perspective of the two Stark daughters, another not-so-interesting handful of chapters from Dorne and the Iron Island, engaging episodes of Samwell Tarly’s fearless journey to Oldtown and a few more new characters that, frankly, don’t do much to earn the reader’s affection.

The problem with A Feast for Crows, however, isn’t as much with the characters as with the fact that little actually happens.  As the opening of this review suggests, Martin is setting up a new tetralogy’s worth of narrative threads, and with a series of this bulk, it takes time to put everything into place –so much time, in fact, that we can expect A Dance with Dragons to be more of the same.  (Late in this book, Petyr Baelish has a few lines about “wishing he had four or five more years” to set up his plans that hilariously reflect Martin’s own experience with the series.)

This translates into a curious reading experience: While the main attraction of the series has been its deep immersive nature alongside a cast of thousands (no, really), it’s not designed for fast reading.  A Feast for Crows is even slower than any of the previous three books, and the conscious absence of half the characters only reinforces that this book feels like imposed exercise before getting to the good stuff.

Not that there aren’t any rewards in here.  In addition to the numerous chapters of palace intrigue in King’s Landing there are plenty of rewards in-between the cracks of the novel: Alert readers will notice a short homage to “Archmaester Rigney”’s Wheel of Time series; and those who, ahem, go look up online concordances will find a lot of fascinating back-stories, some of them even acting as possible epilogues to striking characters from earlier books.  Martin appears to continue his heartless dismissal of beloved characters with a few minor deaths and what looks like a big cliff-hanger.

Still, A Feast for Crows isn’t nearly as satisfying as the previous books in the series.  The events on the Iron Islands are dull (the ironmen are not sympathetic characters to begin with, and nothing that happens in this novel makes them look any better), while the Dorne chapters don’t seem to amount to much.  Much of the novel is spent setting up new elements, or looking at the wreckage left by the previous books and saying “well, that happened.”  Meanwhile, nothing (much) is happening, even though some of the latter chapters hold some promise.

Fans of the series will read the novel anyway: it’s an essential bridge between A Storm of Swords and whatever form the continuation of the series will take.  It keeps up A Song of Fire and Ice’s immersive sense of detail, but it may also present a lesson of sorts to writers embarking on very long series –it’s not hard to feel as if Martin’s control over the story has slipped away from him, and that the book is a lengthy attempt to start wrestling it back.  Ultimately, we will have to wait for the entire series to be completed before passing final judgment on its installments.

A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin

A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin

Bantam Spectra, 2011 reprint of 2000 original, 1216 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-553-57342-8

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice fantasy series may have been originally conceived as a trilogy, but by the time third volume A Storm of Sword wraps up, it’s obvious that we’re in for a much longer story.  The cast-of-thousands carnival of the story’s sprawling plot has seldom felt as chaotic, and the conclusion is nowhere in sight.  As ironic as the statement can be after a 1,216-pages book, it’s time to settle down and enjoy the ride.

It goes without saying that long-running series have the strengths of their weaknesses, and vice-versa: There’s enough space and time to fully develop the world of the story, to pile on characters and see them evolve through dramatic changes in situation.  Properly handled, this can lead to a fundamentally different reading experience than single novels or even mere trilogies: an entertainment experience closer to a long-running TV series (in which Martin’s series is slowly being adapted) rather than anything else.

On the other hand, multi-strand narratives featuring the proverbial cast-of-thousands can also test readers’ patience.  Not everything is equally compelling, and some characters are just annoying.  The setup/payoff cycles pacing, in particular, can be off for a while as the author builds plot-lines that will resolve later on.

These strengths and weaknesses are particularly obvious in A Storm of Swords, which contains some of the dullest but also some of the finest moments of the series so far.  The first half of the book is about setting up dominoes; the second half is about upsetting them.  The wait is substantial, but the payoffs just keep happening once the book races to a conclusion.

For series fans, it means that Arya keeps wandering around Westeros, never quite reaching her intended destinations.  It also means that she gets a long-awaited payoff late in the book.  Jon Snow keeps trudging through the snowy north, but he also gets a bit of recognition for his efforts at the conclusion.  Far away, Daenerys Targaryen is still in the process of trading a paperclip for a house a trio of dragons for an empire, but even the growing power of her fire-children can’t completely excuse the monotony of her quest so far away from everything we know about this world.  Closer to the center of action, Tyrion Lannister can’t get no respect as the unheralded savior of King’s Landing, but the book ends on a few shocking development that may make readers wonder about him and the nature of his revenge.

Not that he’s the only character to be re-evaluated by readers.  One of the first groans in A Storm of Swords is seeing Martin give viewpoint chapters to Jamie Lannister, the no-good incestuous children-thrower who crippled Bran Stark at the very beginning of the series.  Imagine our surprise as Jamie undergoes enough extreme hardship to deserve some sympathy, and reveals himself to be more than a good-looking psychopathic warrior.  (It helps that he’s one of the wittiest characters around.)  Such, again, are the advantages of lengthy pre-planned series: Villains to heroes, and possibly heroes to villains.

The first half of A Storm of Sword may not escape a bit of tedium (something that the narrative structure of the book, which locks itself in subjective point-of-view for lengthy chapters, does little to soften), but the accumulation of shocks and revelations in the book’s final third more than compensates for the initial slow burn.  Even readers who feel that they have spoiled themselves reading about the book will find that there are more surprises in store than they ever expected.  (Hint: don’t read about the “Red Wedding”.  Just accept that it’s coming and it’s going to be bad.)  HBO recently announced that A Storm of Swords would be adapted as seasons 3 and 4 of the Game of Thrones miniseries; I’m already looking forward to comments and reactions to the second half of season 4, as the body count piles up and characters start doing things that will surprise even their biggest fans.  It’s going to be a wild ride.  If people through season one was merciless, they haven’t seen anything yet…

These adaptation considerations, of course, have no reflection on this third book, which eventually ranks as the strongest volume of the series so far.  Martin has embarked on an ambitious project with A Song of Ice and Fire, and A Storm of Swords suggest that he’s making things even harder on himself as he goes along.  In the wreckage of the book’s multi-strand conclusion, readers are expected to blink in astonishment and wonder… what’s next?

A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin

A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin

Bantam Spectra, 2012 reprint of 1998 original, 1040 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-553-57990-1

Reading a long and tightly-plotted series of books isn’t like other kinds of reading experiences.  Unlike loose series of novels, a fantasy saga spread over five books (so far) with dozens of characters and almost as many subplots demands commitment, patience and indulgence.  In fact, considering the experience of reading a fantasy series like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice like a long-term relationship makes a whole lot of sense, especially in considering what to say about the second volume in a series. 

The first volume is all about boundless expectations, the thrills of seeing something new and the giddiness at what’s going right.  A Game of Thrones spent so much time introducing its gigantic cast of characters, discussing eight thousand years of back-story, establishing its harsh and unforgiving tone (most notably in getting rid of its most honorable character) that readers couldn’t help but be enthralled at the result.  With second volume A Clash of Kings, however, the long-term relationship is starting to set and some of the charm is becoming an established pattern.

If nothing else, the novel does deliver on the mayhem promised at the end of the first volume.  The king is dead, there’s considerable turmoil surrounding his succession and no less than five kings are proposing themselves as the rightful heir to the throne.  (How complex is this series’ plot?  Well, consider that one of the self-designated heirs is on another continent and remains unknown to the other four.)  After a first section in which it becomes clear that there will be no gentle alliances, the remainder of the book sees the four pretenders fight it out.  Westeros is scoured (peasants don’t have a good time during wars), various dirty tricks take place, fortresses fall and Martin once again presents his battles in an elliptical, highly subjective point of view.  One major battle midway through the book is averted through a shocking death that still remains unexplained by the end of the book (one of the hallmarks of the series are its longstanding mysteries), whereas the results of the second half of another major battle late in the book is announced through an unreliable character’s ranting.  Fans of battle action may want to confirm their impression that the series is not meant to wallow in lengthy fight sequences (although there’s a rather good naval engagement near the end of the book.)

But never mind the broad strokes of the war of succession: What about the characters?  Long-form series such as this one live or die based on their cast of characters and whether we want to follow them along.  With nine viewpoint characters and about ten times that number of secondary speaking characters (and who knows how many named ones), there’s a lot of ground of cover.  Poor Arya gets hauled from one part of the continent to another, gradually regaining agency in the second half of the book.  Jon Snow goes trekking in the Great White North.  Tyrion Lannister gets the chance to prove how clever he actually is.  Theon Greyjoy gets less and less likable.  Mom-and-daughter Catelyn and Sansa Stark don’t do much but look on as other people do interesting things around them.  Meanwhile, far away, Daenerys Targaryen solidifies her power base and plots her return.  There are, mind you, a few significant plot developments.  Another king dies in mysterious circumstances; a mighty safe haven is burned down; two pretenders to the throne clash leaving one triumphant; and the Starks lose one major engagement, with several supporting characters killed in the process.

More significantly, the series’ mostly hands-off approach to magic gets a bit less hands-off in this volume.  Characters comment that magic spells are becoming more effective; the best-informed of them suspect that dragons have something to do with it.  Reading between the lines, a red priestess seems to be raising all kinds of hell in the parts of the story our viewpoint characters can’t see, whereas the North’s zoo of bad critters seems to be poised to bring even more misery to the Seven Kingdoms.  Slowly, the action is reaching a boiling point.

And “slowly” is a key word in this case.  One of the particularities of long-form series is that they favor depth and scope over pacing and intensity.  We do not experience these stories as a series of events as much as we live with the characters as the events occur around them.  The difference is as significant as watching a long-running TV show over a feature film: The ten-twenty hours of a series make up for a radically different pace from the energy of a two-hour film, and so Martin’s series is meant to be read leisurely.  There’s little instant gratification as plot threads and unanswered questions multiply: there is, however, a far stronger sense of identification with characters and sympathy at their odyssey.  This is a different kind of reading experience, and Martin’s better at building up the atmosphere required for this kind of narrative than most of his contemporaries. 

If it means that readers have to be patient and enjoy the trip rather than being in a hurry to get to destination, then so be it.  The sequels will tell if the journey is worth the trip –in the meantime, it’s best to be swept along with the plot and make frequent reference to the cast of characters at the end of the book.  Because, as in any relationship, you get as much from Martins’ series are you’re willing to invest in it.  With A Song of Ice and Fire so far, Martin’s achievement has been to present a hugely detailed universe that rewards intense attention.  Even small characters can live fully and die (dis)honorably in the back-pages.  Such depth isn’t common, nor can it be found easily in smaller narratives.

While even the kindest reviewers will note that A Clash of King may not carry the same punch as its predecessor (fewer set-pieces, repetition of effects, a sense of languid rhythm are all fair charges against this second volume), it does an effective job at carrying the story forward, delivering on a few promises and setting up further mayhem later during the series.  That’s good enough for most middle-volumes of series, and when it’s done as skillfully on a chapter-by-chapter basis as it is here, there’s little cause to complain.  A long and complex series is what readers asked for in reading this sequel, and A Clash of Kings delivers in that regard.

A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin

Bantam Spectra, 2011 reprint of 1996 original, 864 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-553-57340-4

When it comes to long-form epic fantasy, I have no scruples relying on social proof as a reading guide.  I’ll make my own damned reading decision with shorter books or in genres I like, but if I have to read a 5,000+ pages epic fantasy when I don’t particularly like either long-form stories or epic fantasy, it better be worth my time.  It’s been a fixture on the Hugo nomination ballot?  It’s a New York Times best-seller?  It has a monstrously big fan following?  It led to an HBO mini-series?  Those are all reassuring hints telling me that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series, as launched by A Game of Thrones, is better than the usual fantasy swill that I’ve become allergic to.

I’ve had the first four books on my shelves for years now, but it took the HBO series and an extended amount of time spent at home to convince me to pull the trigger and start reading.  I have a few rules of thumbs when it comes to selecting books to read, and A Game of Thrones pitted two of them in a match to the finish.  Should “Read the book as soon as you can after seeing the movie” win over “Don’t read a series until all the books are out”?  Well, sure.  It’s not as if the last volume will be published before 2018 anyway…

And let’s make one thing clear: The HBO series couldn’t be a better advertisement for the book.  Adapted with a surprising faithfulness to the source material, it’s a monumental ten-hour achievement that manages to portray an epic fantasy with dozens of characters and sweeping events within the scope of a TV series budget.  SF/Fantasy fans are used to reading books while understanding that they could never be adapted for the screen, but this is an exception. The casting is perfect (something that becomes clearer after reading the book), the advantages of a lengthy miniseries over a motion picture are cleverly exploited (by featuring depth of characters, density of plotting and a rhythm that has time to breathe) and it shows just enough to make would-be readers about the extra depth that the book could contain.  By the time the bittersweet conclusion of the first season rolls, it’s hard to take a look at Martin’s series lying on the bookshelf and resist the impulsion to read the first volume and rush through the subsequent books.

The first surprise is the lack of surprise. Or, rather, it’s the satisfaction of seeing how closely the series has adhered to the novel.  There are a few changes, of course: Most of the young characters are even younger in the book (something that works better on the page that on-screen), the book is told in tight point-of-view that restricts the omniscient viewpoint of the series, and some scenes feel noticeably looser in the book, as if the series had tightened the bolts of an unwieldy mess of plots and sub-plots.

But more significant are the similarities: Fans of the series will immediately recognize the characters, events and complex lineages that end up forming the backbone of the series.  The density of back-story that this first volume has to explain is such that having seen the series pays off almost immediately in the first few pages: References that would be meaningless to first-time reader are immediately understood, enhancing the immersion in this new universe.

Commenting the story on its own merit, it’s now clear that Martin, when this first volume was published in 1996, was trying to deliver a somewhat grittier take on heroic fantasy than many of his colleagues.  The universe of A Song of Ice and Fire is tough and unsympathetic toward its heroes.  One of them falls because he is too moral for his surroundings; he even disgraces himself in vain in a bid to gain mercy for himself and his family.  Another dies of infection following a relatively minor wound.  This is a universe with stillborns, prostitutes, self-deluding would-be princesses and very little explicit magic despite hints that the world used to be far more interesting in this regard.  Most of the book is centered toward palace intrigue writ large, with warring factions being set up and lined for a fall.  (If the series had an earnest subtitle, it would be something like “Problems with the concept of hereditary succession, with many examples.”)  The temptation to be attached to characters is tempered by the suspicion that Martin is only too ready to kill them off at the slightest opportunity. 

In short, A Game of Thrones takes familiar elements of classical epic fantasy and re-uses them competently.  The density of awe-inspiring wonders is less here than in other series, but the attention to characters, the depth of the imagined mythology and family lineage, the deceptively easy prose all combine to produce a smooth reading experience.  This is about as good as long-form epic fantasy ever gets, so it’s no big wonder if the series has gained such a popular following inside and outside the usual fantasy circles: It’s good, it’s handled with skill and (it always helps) it’s now even further enhanced by its TV adaptation. 

The result is good enough to make me ignore my usual “don’t read books before the last volume is out” guideline.  It’s a roaring start to a promising series, and I’ve got four more books to go before I’m as caught up with it than the other fans.  Onward!

Game of Thrones, Season 1 (2011)

Game of Thrones, Season 1 (2011)

(On Cable TV, February 2012) The fact that this ten-episode television series exists at all is remarkable: Few would have predicted that the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s sprawling epic fantasy series could have been adaptable to the screen with any degree of faithfulness –let alone become a compulsively watchable success in the process.  Featuring a credible fantasy world, continent-spanning intrigue, scores of characters, nudity, gore and complex family backstories on a TV series’ limited budget, this first season of Game of Thrones sets the stage for epic developments, keeps the essence of the book and manages to deliver a striking ten hours’ worth of entertainment in the process. Sean Bean makes for a compelling anchor as Ned Stark, a good man woefully out of his depth once thrown in the capital’s palace intrigue, but it’s Peter Dinklage who steals the show as Tyrion, perhaps the most self-aware character in a cast of a hundred.  The amount of sex and violence is such that the series could only come from HBO, as is the patience through which the story is developed.  The flip-side of such faithfulness to the 700-page book are a few pacing lulls, especially for viewer unwilling or impatient to piece together the slowly-developed back-story.  Still, the result is worth the sit.  The limits of the budget sometime show, especially in large-scale sequences, but the result on-screen still works well.  The nudity, gore and sexual content often straddle the line from gratuitous to essential: It does affirm Game of Thrones‘ more adult scope, but some sequences combine nudity with exposition in ways that may be more audacious than successful.  Still, the overall result is the beginning chapter of a fantasy series with scope and power.  I hope ratings and DVD sales will be good enough to warrant enough latter installments to do justice to the rest of Martin’s as-of-yet-uncompleted series.

The Armageddon Rag, George R.R. Martin

Pocket, 1983, 399 pages, C$19.95 hc, ISBN 0-671-47526-6

To youngsters like myself, born in the latter quarter of this century, the mindset and attitudes of the “sixties” are either ridiculous or alien. Granted, an impressive fraction of the values pioneered in that decade has endured and even entered mainstream society (often through unusual means, such as the philosophies underlying the Internet as we know it), but digging back through the easy clichés of the period, we find a movement that simply appears too strange to have been real. Free sex, communes, political riots, anticipation of a revolution, drug advocacy… no wonder the United States were so screwed up during these years.

Those were excessive years, and the return to the norm has been harder on some than most. Still, unless someone explains those years to us, the younger generation will miss out on a decade of experiences that could be useful to learn.

That’s what George R.R. Martin does in The Armageddon Rag, cleverly disguising it as a crime thriller with supernatural overtones. You may be fooled into thinking that it’s just a very good novel set in the early-eighties music industry, but it’s really a recapitulation of a generation, with some nostalgia and a lot of style.

The Armageddon Rag begins by hooking us as a good crime thriller: Sandy Blair, novelist in creative crisis, receives a phone call about the death of a rock promoter. But not just any promoter; the ex-manager of the Nazgûl, the best rock band of the sixties. And not just any death, but a gruesome murder with plenty of evidence to suggest that it was done by someone with a thorough knowledge of the band…

Before long, Sandy has chucked it all: The expensive Manhattannite girlfriend, the assorted apartment and the creative crisis, all for an article on the murder. But as he progresses further, not only does the events surrounding the murder get stranger and stranger, but Sandy is drawn further back in his own past sixties, filled as they were by rebellion, violence and barely suppressed pain.

All and all, the plot is a rather good excuse to systematically revisit the sixties through various archetypical characters. Sandy himself is the observer turned pro, the ex-journalist now novelist. Other friends haven’t fared so well: One revolutionary turned ad executive, another still living in an increasingly silly commune, another stuck in mental constructs far more restrictive, another turned college teacher, another (draft dodger) now claimed mentally ill by his domineering father… All facets of the children of the sixties, morphed by latter events.

Before long, we’re (maybe) deep in a supernatural plot to unleash demonic forces on the world. Or maybe not; it’s that type of novel. But the ambiguity isn’t too terribly frustrating.

It’s all quite fascinating, and unusually readable too. Martin is, after all, a Nebula and Hugo-winning pro, and The Armageddon Rag sucks you right in, holds you tightly thanks to some good plotting and doesn’t disappoint through the ending. Characters are sharply defined, the style is brisk and the details are telling. The music-related details are well done, bringing in evocative rock concert descriptions, believable lyrics and an overall feeling of authenticity.

Best of all, The Armageddon Rag doesn’t really show its age, whether it’s thirteen years after initial publication or thirty years after the main period of interest. Musically, it’s easy for a modern reader to imagine Nazgûl as sounding more or less like Rage Against the Machine on a good day. As far as the “spirit of the sixties” is concerned, it works rather well at presenting a particular point in time and the mindset associated with it, even though the concept of a “revolution” nowadays will be cause for more giggles than nods of approval.

It’s hard not to like this novel, both for what’s it’s saying and how it’s saying it. It’s a gripping read, and should appeal to a wide readership, whether or not the individuals were there during the sixties or not. Rock and roll will never die!