(Contains some spoilers.) Lately, I’ve been dreaming of hidden daggers, glimpsing my own dangling intestines, hungry wolves, and dwarves wielding crossbows. I’ve lost countless hours to George R. R. Martin’s as yet unfinished series, A Song of Fire and Ice, popularly called Game of Thrones. Sucked into the first book during a long plane ride, I eventually fumbled through the second, soared through the third, and swore a whole bunch at the fourth, which was narrated by a series of boring-as-shit one-dimensional characters: Samwell Tarly (coward), Brienne of Tarth (honourable), Cersei Lannister (corrupt), Sansa Stark (innocent). Happily, A Dance with Dragons had some more lift.
Spotty character development aside, there’s something electric about Martin’s marathon examination of power and its instruments, particularly its transformative effect on people. Nearly all of Martin’s characters—great and small— are pawns, often stricken or struck dead by circumstances, constrained by massive power moves, or tied up by loose tongues and meddling. The composed puppeteers that skirt the sidelines— Varys, Littlefinger, Melisandre—are powerfully propped by certain facts: many can be bought and much is uncertain.
The most pathetic figures imagine themselves well-positioned and find themselves imprisoned, exiled, or dead. The smarter stock suspect everyone and too often get tangled in their own scheming. The calmest bring deep pockets, rigid tradition, or impressive political dexterity. And almost all frequently forget that—cue the stern facial expression— winter is coming.
With a potential apocalypse on the horizon (the longest winter in memory, supernatural Others rising from the dead) readers see a handful of possibly worthy saviours prodded under our noses, proving their worth. It’s a great sport. There is no older story, and Martin’s sprawls, unnecessarily so. After reading the Wikipedia entry on ADWD for a few refreshers, I couldn’t even remember what was missing, what hadn’t been fleshed out by that entry, or why something that’s merely twisting is all too frequently describing as gripping.
But for the most part the intrigue’s all wrapped up in the unfolding. Martin is setting the stage. Dany and Jon both struggle with the idea and execution of cross-cultural political partnerships. Both exhibit a refined nobility in their sentiments (the end of slavery, human unity in the face of monstrous threats), which, as the online community suggests, hints at the answer to Jon Snow’s questionable lineage (R+L=J if you don’t care to Google). The twisted threads, surprise connections, and grand plans are what delights me most about Martin, but in interviews he insists his work is organic: while he admits he has a couple of broad strokes in mind, he claims he feels out situations through his characters.
Organic doesn’t always impress. I like to picture Martin with a computer in a room empty with the exception of one hell of a flowchart. I like to think Book Seven will be a tightly woven masterpiece. ADWD is better than A Feast of Crows, for sure, but there are also just really long pieces of yarn: Bran is even more psychic. Tyrion is humiliated and then possibly redeemed, again. Arya continues to try and repress the fact that she kills well and enjoys it. Sansa does something sort of motherly instead of naively girlish. Why the fuck am I reading this again? It’s definitely not for the sex scenes.
I keep reading because:
1. I’m a sucker for Medieval shit.
2. Martin still feels honest, even in his fumbling bulk.
Power scars, brings to the knees, transforms, disfigures. All bonds but the most desperate and basic get stripped away. What I like about the “bleakness” in his work is the very real, very exhausting frustration of political intrigue. I like the routine yet consistently shattering violence. I’m terrified by the ball-shrinking sadistic portrait of Ramsay Bolton, but I like it very much, too. I like the saturation of greed, which starts to look a lot like the common human denominator. And I like the constant humiliation, the grotesqueries, the people pissing themselves at the worst possible and best possible times, and the shining innards spilling everywhere. The base, stark, naked bits, that, when faced in reality, help us keep our noses in our books, out of headlines, and out of the world during our early morning commute. Perverse? Sure. Fantastic? Maybe. Escapist? Yeah, but for me at least, Martin makes it the painfully conscious kind. Someone may be riding off into the sunset on a dragon, but you bet your ass that someone is half-starved and slipping, with hands and feet bleeding, about to lose the other half of their nose. And yeah, you just stepped in vomit on the TTC, and that passed out guy might be dead. But I for one, am frequently incapable or unwilling to wake up, and if you’ve an appetite for all-consuming distraction, Martin is your man.
Maybe I’ll try again with the TV series. But nothing beats the feeling of bounty in reading a thick book.