Thursday, July 7, 2011


A brief warning: if you've only watched the first season of the show or read the first book or two, there are a couple of minor spoilers below. Caveat lector. No "Dance with Dragons" spoilers, of course.

I grew to resent George R. R. Martin over the course of reviewing "A Dance with Dragons." It wasn't over the terror I felt for my favorite characters in Martin's latest gorgeous, populous novel, nor was it even over the time I spent away from my increasingly annoyed wife, who kept saying things like, "Please don't read that at the table" and "Did you hear what I said?" No, it was for the damage wreaked on my already fragile back by the 10-lb manuscript, which runs to more than 1400 pages and is, somehow, still too short.

It's difficult to know what trick to use on one's friends and neighbors to force them to begin reading Martin's vast fantasy series, "A Song of Ice and Fire," since talking about the books' events with fellow travelers through Martin's Westeros is half the fun (don't think for a moment that I'd want you to read the books in the hope that you'll enjoy them. I want you to suffer like me until the next one comes out). The titles don't inspire confidence, with the exception of "A Feast for Crows" and maybe "A Game of Thrones," which has come to adorn the HBO show based on the books. Certainly "fantasy series" isn't the sexiest phrase in the English language, nor the least likely to provoke a roll of the eyes or worse, a polite smile.

I have settled on the following method: like a drug dealer, I give the first book ("Game," buy it here, you'll like it, I promise) to a friend, entirely for free. "I've bookmarked it with the receipt," I tell this friend. "If you make it to the receipt and don't like it, just take it back to the store for something you like more."

The receipt, of course, sits, early in the novel, at the page after the first of the horrifying hairpin plot twists that most clearly distinguish "Ice and Fire" from other fantasy fare, and nobody has yet told me that he got to that place, stifled a yawn, and set out for Barnes & Noble. If it's not a series with universal appeal, what appeal it has certainly extends to my circle of friends.

Martin has taken nearly six years to turn out the fifth volume in his series, a length of time made to seem much longer for the fact that the series' moral center and its most widely beloved character, the brilliant and insolent dwarf (that is, a sufferer of the rare medical condition, not a mine-dwelling beard gardener) Tyrion Lannister, appeared nowhere in book four ("Feast"). Nor did Danaerys Targaryen, whose plot thread appears to be load-bearing. "Feast" is generally considered the weakest of the bunch, although I have a soft spot in my heart for it, given its devotion to damaged and entirely deranged points of view within its rich world.

On that point: Martin's reputation as a heartless disembowler of favorite characters is certainly earned (it's hard not to fling the third book across the room when you hit the big reversal at its halfway point, and you'll probably give "Dance" a heave, too, but both books are heavy and unlikely to fly far), but he maintains and nourishes in his readers a surprising sympathy for the maimed, the crippled, the ugly, and the unloved - a touching and frankly moral impulse that seems at odds with the books' brutal dedication to the nastier aspects of human nature, and their unsparing medieval milieu. Unlike Tolkien or C.S. Lewis or even contemporaries like Gene Wolfe and Philip Pullman, Martin takes his cues from history, not mythology or modern politics, and the five volumes (so far) of the series render in bleak detail the minutiae of living in a period approximately adjacent to War of the Roses-era England.

And because it's hard to express my affection for these books in sometimes too-distant language available to critics, I guess I might as well just come out with it: no contemporary American writer has produced a body of work I admire more than George Martin's. His novels are fucking awesome. The characters are cunningly drawn, the world is thoroughly imagined, and the plots are carefully and intelligently constructed and rewritten until they are of the highest quality. And best of all, they are surprising.

The stories - and there are many, all running simultaneously - in "A Song of Ice and Fire" are consistently, unambiguously shocking in the best possible sense, meaning that the surprises are of a piece with what we know of the characters we've come to love or despise - it's just that, somehow, Martin has laid out the story so that we're always looking left when he's about to turn right.

Reading these wonderful novels is a constant struggle to stretch our crania to contain the depth and breadth of their complexity, a race during which Martin is necessarily a few steps ahead, since he's doing the imagining first. Moreover, you can actually surprise yourself with them again, during a rereading - not because you get caught up again in the percussive action of the books' most harrowing passages, but because there are actually plot points hidden carefully in the story's darkest corners. Those paragraphs you read too quickly on your way to see whether or not your favorite character dies - read them again. You'll see people you recognize.

Which brings me to a point I'm sorry to be the first to make: George R. R. Martin is not "the American Tolkien," as all of his dust jackets proclaim him in the words of well-meaning Time Magazine critic Lev Grossman. Tolkien was not a very good writer.

He was a wonderful builder of worlds, and for that we must forgive him his prose style, but Martin is several orders of magnitude superior to Tolkien in nearly every respect - he writes intelligently about women, he delineates multiple points of view within a given conflict, he is not in love with war, and no two of his thousands of characters are easily confused with one another. Most of what Martin shares with J. R. R. Tolkien comes between his first name and his last. Any two of the "Ice and Fire" novels are, by themselves, longer than the entire "Lord of the Rings" cycle and any one of the books is three times as interesting.

This is not to call Tolkien worthless, merely to say that Martin is standing on his shoulders, and is thus taller. In addition to the older writer's gift for scope, Martin brings a gift for depth, illustrating wonderful absurdities within a given economic or political system. The Wildlings (unruly nomads beyond the Wall that marks the borders of the central kingdom of Westeros), for example, are considered uncivilized and worthless - violent, crude, and totally ineligible to be incorporated into Westerosi society. After a few characters say this, we take it as fact, until we find out the reason these people are such pariahs: they're democrats. For one man to have one vote, it seems, is totally unacceptable to the monarchial civilization at the books' core, and so the Westerosi national guard (the Night's Watch) goes to war with them in the third volume.

Another example: there's a religion (one of many) in these books so ridiculous that no one, not even its priest, a minor character named Thoros, believes in its tenets. Thoros vanishes for several hundred pages after being seen to carry through a joust a cheap sword dipped in napalm and set on fire in mimicry of a messiah he doesn't believe is coming, only to be found a book and a half later sitting sheepishly next to that messiah, watching in awe as his savior unsheathes a sword made of red flame and battles with it before his very eyes. These are the least surprising and interesting of the books' twists - I'd much rather not spoil the others for you, if you're planning on reading them, which you ought to do.

Given the level of quality here, I'm unsurprised that Martin's fans have turned on him to some extent. Devotees of "Ice & Fire," presumably unused to literature written on this level, have gone feral, taking to blogs that exist solely to harass their favorite writer into hurrying up so that he can finish the series before he dies (and are also given the time of day by, hilariously, The Wall Street Journal; presumably the WSJ ombudsman is on vacation).
This has come as a nasty shock to poor Martin himself, a very nice, married middle-aged New Jersey Native living a quiet life in New Mexico, who has been toiling in the genre fiction ghetto for several decades, where he has logged most of science fiction and fantasy's tonier prizes (his sci-fi short stories are a wonder to behold, but the medium has fallen out of favor and, by extension, print), but remained mostly untroubled by fame.

To his everlasting credit, Martin has let his perfectionism win over his vanity, and has kept "A Dance With Dragons" until it is as good as he can make it. It is pretty damn good, too. May he do
the same with "The Winds of Winter" and "A Dream of Spring," the final two installments in the series. There's something really incredible going on here - painful frankness and unstinting craftsmanship on the level of an Alfred Hitchcock or a Theodore Rousseau - that makes me happy to be alive while it's being produced. If there's a disadvantage to the books' length, it's that the series gives Martin so many opportunities to irretrievably screw up. The astonishing corollary, of course, is that he hasn't.

Next week: a Q&A with the man himself, from an interview I did for Variety back when the show was getting made.

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