Some notes on George RR Martin’s prose style

George RR Martin’s prose style in his epic A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series of novels is unstable. By this I mean it veers from purely functional modern thriller prose to prose larded with fake medievalisms, from a lexicon of short, Anglo-Saxon words to one suddenly stuffed with neoclassical and latinate vocabulary. On the same page there can be ‘ofts’ and ‘elsewises’ from the 15th century and then things being ‘divvied up’ or people asking ‘What’s that all about?’ as if in modern New York.

For fun I’ve tried to identify various aspects of his style:

1. Crisp The default setting of Martin’s style is lucid and functional:

When morning came, none of them quite realised it at first. The world was still dark, but the black had turned to grey and shapes were beginning to emerge half-seen from the gloom. Jon lowered his bow to stare at the mass of heavy clouds that covered the eastern sky. He could see a glow behind them, but perhaps he was only dreaming. He notched another bow. (p.301)

There are a few nods in the direction of cod-medievalism, a few stylistic gestures towards the books’ fantasy setting (see below). But these tics don’t conceal the fundamental modernity of the prose and the worldview it conveys.

Bran was too frightened to shout. The fire had burned down to a few bright embers and his friends were all asleep. He almost slipped his skin and reached out for his wolf, but Summer might be miles away. He couldn’t leave his friends helpless in the dark to face whatever was coming up out of the well. (p.195)

2. Poetry. When his characters are not swearing or chopping off each others’ heads, GRRM’s limpid style can have a powerfully simple beauty. I particularly associate this with the character of Arya Stark once she’s set sail from Westeros for the island city of Braavos.

Faint and far away the light burned, low on the horizon, shining through the sea mists.
“It looks like a star,” said Arya.
“The star of home,” said Denyo.
His father was shouting orders. Sailors scrambled up and down the three tall masts and moved along the rigging, reefing the heavy purple sails. Below, oarsmen heaved and strained over two great banks of oars. The decks tilted, creaking, as the galleas Titan’s Daughter heeled to starboard and began to come about.” (FFC98)

His prose can be wonderfully evocative. I’ll long remember the word paintings of the Water Palace of Lord Martell of Dorne:

When the sun set the air grew cool and the children went inside in search of supper, still the prince remained beneath his orange trees, looking out over the still pools and the sea beyond. A serving man brought him a bowl of purple olives, with flatbread, cheese and chickpea paste. He ate a bit of it, and drank a cup of the sweet, heavy strongwine that he loved. When it was empty, he filled it once again. Sometimes in the deep black hours of the morning sleep found him in his chair. Only then did the captain roll him down the moonlit gallery, past a row of fluted pillars and through a graceful archway, to a great bed with crisp, cool linen sheets in a chamber by the sea. (FFC40)

(I can’t decide whether the repetitions in this passage – of ‘cool’ and ‘still’ – are signs of haste, or careful repetitions designed to evoke the lazy, torpid atmosphere of Lord Martell’s sea retreat.)

3. Types of scene Martin can manage an impressive variety of scene:

Big setpieces such as:

  • the epic Battle of Blackwater Bay of which we get a panoramic overview as well as the point of view of the heroic dwarf Tyrion Lannister
  • the grisly Red Wedding where Robb Stark and his allies are massacred, seen both from Lady Catelyn’s viewpoint inside the castle and from Arya’s as she rides up to it from outside
  • the sudden mayhem when the Kings Landing mob riot and attack Joffrey’s procession, seizing horses, dragging riders off into the baying crowd and Martin vividly conveys fear and panic and confusion
  • the battle of the Wall as Jon Snow and the Night Watch defend against the wildlings’ attack, and then the sudden arrival of King Stannis and his cavalry
  • the Others’ attack on the Night Watchmen on the Fist of the First Men

Small, dramatic scenes such as:

  • the countless duels, for example between Bronn and the knight of the Vale for Tyrion’s life; between the Oberyn Martell and the Mountain that Rides; between Jaime Lannister and Brienne in the Riverlands
  • sudden violence, as when the wights ambush Bran, Hodor and Meera and Jojen Reed at the mouth of the cave of the prophet; or the three mercenaries ambush Brienne at the castle on the Fingers; or Jon Snow is assassinated; or the Hound cracks Arya on the head with his axe
  • the extraordinary scene where the demon birthed by Melisandre enters King Renly’s tent to murder him
  • the wonderful opening of Feast for Crows where the Damphair drowns and revives a convert to the Drowned God

4 Dramatic dialogue Confrontations between opposing characters are done though terse, charged dialogue. As a reader on numerous occasions you experience a real dramatic shock when you realise, along with one character, the implications of another one’s words, and are horrified or shocked. When Cersei orders Sansa’s direwolf to be killed; when princess Margaery realises Cersei is trapping her in the dungeon at Baelon’s Septon; when Eddard Stark realises he has lost control of King’s Landing.

Tyrion is a master of stylish banter, witty asides, the telling bon mot, throughout the books.

Littlefinger is arch and aphoristic, especially once he takes Sansa Stark into his ‘care’.

5 Distorting English Martin employs the slight deformation of existing standard words or phrases into something rich and strange. A frequent example is that knights (warriors in armour riding horses) are called ‘Ser’, an obvious distortion of the traditional Sir, which starts out sounding silly but, by sheer repetition, comes to seem the natural term. Similarly, girls who have had their first period have ‘flowered’, they have tobacco in Westeros but use it to chew and call it ‘sourleaf’; they have a sedative drink called ‘dreamwine’, and so on. By repetition over the multiple scenes, and scores of chapters, Martin’s slightly distorted English, and slightly amended concepts, become your home setting.

6 New coinages Matching and echoing the epic scope of his imagination, Martin has coined completely new, medieval-sounding words to fit the fantasy medievalism of the story. These are a highly creative and enjoyable aspect of his style, and there are hundreds:

  • Sept and septon and septa (shrine and priest and priestess to the seven gods), maester (doctor/alchemist), wildlings (wild men from north of the Great Wall), pyromancer (reader of the future in fire), holdfast, warg (human who can inhabit an animal), damphair, and many others.

7 New word combinations English (like its parent German) allows its users to combine words to make new ones. Martin uses this facility to coin scores of neologisms:

  • sellsword (mercenary), smallfolk (ordinary people),  strongwine, westermen,  ironborn (inhabitant of the western Iron isles), bannermen (minor families loyal to a great lord), woodharp, stumbletongue, firewine, greensick (seasick), kingsmoot (meeting to decide a king), skinchanger (who can change into an animal), godswood (holy wood where the magic weir trees grow), weirwood (the holy trees), greenseer (wise man of the Children of the Forest), greensight (second sight of the greenseers), sweetling (term of endearment), beastling, shadowcat , crannogman,

As with the distortions of standard English and the new coinages, these new word combinations build up a linguistic base for the otherness of his fantasy world. The more there are, the more frequently you encounter them on each page, the greater the sense of moving into his otherworld, the greater the sense of the completeness of his fantasy world.

Read a comprehensive account of Martin’s use of affixes, compound and combination words

New names It’s one thing to point out that the Song is full of hundreds and hundreds of characters, each realised with great vividness and precision. (Someone has counted over 1,000 named characters in the saga so far.) But of course almost all of them require names. The names of the hundreds and hundreds of characters partake of the alienation affect mentioned above, of being nearly recognisable but bent or distorted. We feel we are nearly in a familiar world – but not quite.

Martin’s names can be grouped into three categories:

a) Similar names Jon Snow is a straight down the line English name (extremely rare in Martin). His fat friend in the Night Watch is Samwell Tarly. Jaime Lannister’s name is almost English. Tywin is definitely foreign and so is Tyrion. Bronn sounds as if it should be English. Joffrey is an English name, distorted. Ditto Margaery, Dorna, Cleos and Kevan, Eddard and Robb, Tommen or Lyonel.

b) Alien names Others are entirely alien like Tygett, Darlessa, Gerion, Emmon, Lancel, Arya, Hodder, Mace or Loras, Brienne, Barristan, Viserys, Daenerys, Balon, Renley, Stannis, Euron, Asha, Walder,

c) Exotic names Let alone the exotic names of characters from the free Cities of the eastern continent, Essos: Hizdahr zo Loraq, Khal Jhaqo, Skahaz mo Kandaq, Daario Naharis,

In these and related ways the text works on a purely verbal level to draw you into a parallel universe, whisperingly close to our English history and culture, yet bracingly alien and explosive.

9. Cod medievalism

Martin all-too-frequently remembers he’s writing a medieval epic and abandons his natural crisp, clear style to slip into pastiche medievalism. I suppose we should be grateful he avoids the standard medievalisms – thee and thou, ye, prithee and so on. But there is a number of would-be medievalisms which become annoying mannerisms:

  • The most persistent one is removing the -ly suffix from adverbs. “He is like to be angry”; “He has near finished the task.”
  • ‘Oft’ instead of the sensible ‘often’
  • ‘Elsewise’
  • ‘Among’ and ‘while’ become the archaic ‘amongst’ and ‘whilst’
  • He invents some cod medieval phrases such as ‘much and more’.

Sometimes entire paragraphs or chunks of dialogue will use these and other tame medievalisms to create a style closer to Victorian pastiches of medieval prose than the real thing.

Conclusion

In my post on Affixes and compound words I try to show that if Martin’s style answers to / is responsive to  the medieval world of the narrative, it is not because of the occasional pseudo-medievalisms (‘oft’ and ‘elsewise’) which are in fact blemishes on his otherwise swift clear style;  it is because he consistently chooses words of Anglo-Saxon origin and generally avoids Latinate and neoclassical vocabulary, thus giving his prose a cumulative feeling of woodiness, antiquity, pithiness.

The thoughts above are intended to shed further light on the distinctive strengths and achievements of his uneven but often wonderfully powerful and evocative style.


Related links

All quotes copyright George RR Martin 2013.

Sexual violence in the fiction of George RR Martin

As the drums reached a crescendo, three of the girls leapt above the flames, spinning in the air. The male dancers caught them about the waists and slid them down onto their members. Dany watched as the women arched their backs and coiled their legs around their partners while the flutes wept and the men thrust in time to the music. (Dance with Dragons, p 237)

Wet and willing The central misogynist fantasy is that women are nothing but sexual objects, devoid of personality or autonomy, who are always wet and willing to be used by men at the drop of a hat. Over the course of his bestselling series of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin’s books become more and more imbrued with this fantasy, fantasies of women permanently ready to fuck (and ‘fuck’ is the word used, with increasing frequency, throughout the books), eternally lubricated and waiting to be taken at a moment’s notice. It comes to dominate the atmosphere of the later books, becoming the default attitude of almost all the male characters, and made to be a recurrent part of women characters’ own consciousnesses:

She loved the strength in his arms, the sound of his laughter, the way he would always look into her eyes and say her name as he slid his cock inside her. (ATF 35)

Her captain slept beside her, yet she was alone. She wanted to shake him, wake him, make him hold her, fuck her, help her forget… (ATF 37)

“Come back to bed and kiss me.” No one had ever kissed her like Daario Naharis. “I am your queen, and I command you to fuck me.” (ATF 40)

“Get out,” Lord Janos roared at her. She did. But as she slipped past Jaime, clutching one shoe and a pile of her clothes, she reached down and gave his cock a squeeze through his breeches. (ATF 116)

Her noble husband was soon fast asleep. Daenerys could only twist and turn beside him. She wanted to shake him, wake him, make him hold her, kiss her, fuck her again… (ATF 157)

“Forgive me, High Holiness, but I would open my legs for every man in King’s Landing if that was what I had to do to keep my children safe.” (ATF 216)

In Feast For Crows Victarion Greyjoy leader of the ironborn, thinly-veiled Vikings, leads a brutal attack on a longship, chopping up numerous opponents with his enormous axe. So far so grisly. He lets his men tidy up after the carnage as he returns to his cabin, there to find a black slavewoman ready and waiting to pleasure him.

The wind was freshening, and his thirst was raging. After a battle he always wanted wine. He gave the deck to Nute and went below. In his cramped cabin aft, he found the dusky woman wet and ready; perhaps the battle had warmed her blood as well. He took her twice, in quick succession. When he was done there was blood smeared across her breasts and thighs and belly, but it was his blood, from the gash in his palm… As a reward for his leal service, the new-crowned king had given Victarion the dusky woman, taken off some slaver bound for Lys. “I want none of your leavings,” he had told his brother scornfully, but when the Crow’s Eye said that the woman would be killed unless he took her, he had weakened. Her tongue had been torn out, but elsewise she was undamaged, and beautiful besides, with skin as brown as oiled teak. (FFC 484-8)

The way the slavewoman is permanently wet and ready is already far into male fantasyland. But the way her tongue is torn out to make her a mute powerless fantasy sex slave makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t like. I don’t like acquiescing in this kind of abuse even in a work of fiction.

Misogynist verbal aggression Almost all the characters despise and abuse women. The later books create a claustrophobic atmosphere of vitriolic misogynist abuse. For me this is exemplified by the ubiquity of the c word. I’m sure it gets more frequent as the series progresses. In the first book I turned down pages where it occurred and there are only 2 or 3. In the last book I stopped bothering to turn them down because it occurred every 3 or 4 pages, hundreds of times.

‘A man would need to be a fool to rape a silent sister,’ Ser Creighton was saying. ‘Even to lay hands upon one… it’s said they are the stranger’s wives, and their female parts are cold and wet as ice.’ (FFC 73)

Brandon loved his sword. He loved to hone it. I want it sharp enough to shave the hair from a woman’s cunt’, he used to say… I am old now, a dried-up thing, too long a widow, but I still remember the look of my maiden’s blood on his cock the night he claimed me. I think Brandon liked the sight as well. (ATF p 14)

The kraken’s daughter turned out to be just a woman after all, the captains and the kings would say. See how she spreads her legs for this soft green land lord. (ATF p21)

Most of the guest paid them no more mind than they did the other slaves… but one Yunkishman declared drunkenly that Yezzan should make the two dwarfs fuck, and another demanded to know how Tyrion had lost his nose. I shoved it up your wife’s cunt and she bit it off, he almost replied… (ATF 109)

but no, I had to have a whore. Kinslaying was not enough, I needed to have cunt and wine to seal my ruin, and here I am on the wrong side of the world, wearing a slave bell with little golden bells to announce my coming. (ATF 260)

He sucked her nipples till she cried out half in pain and half in pleasure. Her cunt became the world. She forgot Moat Cailin and Ramsay Bolton and his little piece of skin, forgot the kingsmoot, forgot her failure, forgot her exile and her enemies and her husband. Only his hands mattered, only his mouth, only his arms around her, is cock inside her. He fucked her till she screamed, and then again until she wept, before he finally spent his seed inside her womb. (D&D 390)

The word becomes disconnected from the context of sex, where it might just about be justifiable, to become a generally widespread disparaging term about women, the ultimate word of contempt, abuse and power.

‘Get her up, turncloak.’ Holly had her knife in her hand. ‘Get her up or I will. We have to go. Get the little cunt on her feet and shake some courage into her.’ (ATF 171)

She imagined how sweet it would be to slam an elbow into Septa Scolera’s face and send her careening down the spiral steps. If the gods were good, the wrinkled old cunt might crash into Septa Unella and take her down with her. (ATF 219)

You look awful, even for a man’s been dead a dozen years. Blue hair, is it? When Harry said you’d be turning up I almost shit myself. And Haldon, you icy cunt, good to see you too. Still have that stick up your arse? (D&D 361)

From time to time Martin deploys a shock turn of thought whereby characters embark on a civilised or humane dialogue or action, only to deliberately crude with in-your-face sexual brutality. For me the affect was counterproductive. It made me dislike the character, but also dislike the author who feels the need to shock me with his capacity for crudity. It reminded me of being down the pub with a certain kind of guy who tries to impress everyone by how blunt and crude he can be about “bitches” and their “cunts”. After a while everyone wonders whether he’s still a virgin.

The fat man grew pensive. ‘Daenerys was half a child when she came to me, yet fairer even than my second wife, so lovely I was tempted to claim her for myself. Such a fearful, furtive thing, however, I knew I should get no joy from coupling with her. Instead I summoned a bedwarmer and fucked her vigorously until the madness passed.’ (D&D 82)

Sexual threat Elsewhere large sections of the novels are disfigured by permanent sexual threat. Too many of the proles, the common soldiery, but also the so-called lords, are just bursting with anti-woman abuse any time a female of any age comes near. Brienne of Tarth in particular, as she wanders through the riverlands in volumes 2, 3, 4 and 5, wherever she goes and whoever she meets, is subjected to verbal abuse, threat and often sexual attack. There are so many examples, each one horrible. One stands out, when Asha’s troop are ambushed in the woods and fight desperately. She kills several men and then:

Her last foe was a northman with an axe, a big man bald and bearded, clad in a byrnie of patched and rusted mail that could only mean he was a chief or champion. He was not pleased to find himself fighting a woman. “Cunt!” he roared each time he struck at her, his spittle dampening her cheeks. “Cunt! Cunt!” (D&D 407)

There are too many fantasies of humilating, brutalising, raping, killing, threatening and abusing women, and this is viciously epitomised the growing ubiquity of the c word as an everyday and acceptable term.

Martin’s position In an interview with the Atlantic magazine Martin has said the gratuitous sex is no more gratuitous than the gratuitous violence, the gratuitous heraldry, the gratuitous descriptions of feasts or jousting, let alone the vast and complex gratuitous genealogies. Ie it’s part of the excess of the fantasy genre. How, he asks, can people enjoy reading about knights cleaving each other’s skulls open with axes or wolves tearing children’s throats out but object to fairly vanilla depictions of straight sex?

I think the answer is that when two huge knights start knocking six bells out of each other we (the male reader, anyway) feels empowered. I vicariously enjoy the violence, I identify with men pitching their strength and skills against each other. I’ve been in fights, played rugby and other contact sports, go to the gym, I identify with physical endeavour and competitive combat, I find the descriptions thrilling – I can identify with both sides because I’ve won fights and lost fights: I am the stronger man beating down the loser, I am the plucky loser dodging the blows, the fiction allows me to exercise my physical imagination. And, crucially, at any point I can bail out of being the loser and identify with the winner (even if it’s the disgusting Clegor brothers or Ser Ilyn Payne) as when watching any kind of war movie or Western or adventure film I, the male viewer, always identify with the Hero Who Survives and barely notice all the movie extras who are blown up, plummet to their deaths, are shot down all around me as I stride through the flames.

Fights between men can go either way but the winner will always be a man. When it comes to the sex, however, the traffic is all one way; the sexual violence is always against women. Women are raped, threatened with rape, forced to have sex, raped then killed, raped and have their breasts cut off, are whores or treated like whores continually, throughout this world. It is imaginatively narrowing; it doesn’t liberate my mind, it traps my mind. And it doesn’t invigorate me as the physical violence between men does – it degrades me.

In a battle anything can happen and in the novels a lot of the violence is shocking because it is surprising. When Jaime gets his hand cut off, when Bran is pushed from the window, when Eddard is beheaded, when Renly is garroted by a ghost, when Tyrion kills Tywin – all of these are shocks, all of them are unexpected and occur in novel and (admittedly brutal, but) imaginative ways. But when Tyrion returns to his rooms to have sex with Shae, when Victarion comes back from battle to have sex with his slave, when Daenerys is forced to take it behind from Khal Drogo, even when Cersei commands her handmaids to have lesbian sex with her, there is an abusive domination about these sexual encounters, and it is always the woman being abused, commanded, exploited, raped.

The imaginative argument against sexual violence If a knight gets his head staved in, I switch my imaginative allegiance to the victor and feel an (admittedly brutal) sense of triumph. Thousands of shoot-em-up computer games are based on this premise. But if I attempt the same level of identification with Victarion taking a black slave whose tongue has been torn out but who is still unrealistically nubile and improbably wet – I feel, frankly, ashamed and dirtied. I feel embarrassed to be reading the book. I don’t want to be in the mind of a woman-mutilating slave owner or a rapist. In the mind of Damphair the visionary prophet, of Jon Snow battling to save the Wall, of Tyrion scheming against his family, of Jaime trying to do the right thing, of Petyr Littlefinger scheming against the lords of the Vale, yes, it is imaginatively stretching and exhilirating to be in their shoes. But not in the shoes of a psychopathic rapist. It is sullying.

The stylistic argument against sexual violence The sex is more predictable and samey and monotonous than the violence. All the characters have sex in the same way – not the same positions, but with the same carefree absence of psychological consequences. A very male functional view of sex. There is a large class of female characters whose only function is to be permanently wet and ready to be penetrated. This is not just biologically impossible (50 years of sex manuals, advice columns and feminist tracts have established that most women require lubrication to have penetrative sex and/or don’t climax from penetrative sex alone); but it is socially impossible.

The historical argument against sexual violence Whereas there have been societies as brutally violent as Westeros (central Europe during the Thirty Years War), there has never been a society where half the female population are either sexually willing whores or sexually available servants and bedmaids. The dirt and disease and religious doctrine and social stigma attached to any sort of sex outside marriage, and even to sex within marriage, have been overwhelming inhibitors of sexual activity for all human history until, arguably, the last few generations, and then only in advanced industrial societies blessed with modern hygiene and sophisticated contraception. In this sense the ubiquitous violence is acceptably realistic but the ubiquitous sex isn’t.

The moral argument against sexual violence Not many of us are likely to dress in full armour and engage in mortal combat. But the persistency with which women are referred to as cunts, only worthy of being raped or having their teats cut off, degrades me, the reader, and accustoms me to a degraded rhetoric or style of thinking about women. I grew to resent being made to think like this, as I increasingly was as the series  am on page after page, and so I’m reaching the end of the series with a sense of relief at escaping its oppressive, sexist atmosphere.

In summary Whereas the brutal violence of the books is both plausible and (to some extent) imaginatively invigorating, the sexual violence of the books is both implausible and degrading.

A Dance With Dragons 2: After The Feast by George RR Martin (2011)

The seventh and most recent (2011) book in George RR Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels, this is in fact, as previously explained, part two of the fifth book, Dance With Dragons, itself too large to publish in one volume. The two Dance with Dragons books combined would have totalled 1,117 pages of text, plus the 60 pages of genealogies at the end of each book; hence their division into two more manageable volumes.

But if you are reading the series, this is the final, most recently available book. Finish it and you join the legions of GRRM fans waiting impatiently for the next instalment, The Winds of Winter, expected publication date – 2015!

Photo of Harry Lloyd as Viserys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Harry Lloyd as Viserys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

This is a photo of Viserys Targaryen, exiled as a child from the kingdom of Westeros where his royal father has been brutally overthrown and killed. Viserys is brought up abroad, dreaming of completion and fulfilment, hoping to return and claim his rightful throne and bring his sad story to a triumphant conclusion. Instead he spends his childhood in an alien city and his adult years wandering across an endless steppe, thrown among brutal strangers, abused and humiliated, before being suddenly and sadistically killed by having molten gold poured over his head.

It is tempting to joke that reading all seven Song of Ice and Fire novels has been a somewhat similar experience. It’s taken me three long months to read them, three months during which my initial enthusiasm, my delusions that the multiple plotlines might reach some kind of fulfilment or closure, has peaked, plateaued and then, in this last book especially, rapidly declined.

Three things in particular have eroded my initial enjoyment – the misogyny, the climate of failure and the sense of disappointment. I’ve written about the misogyny of the novels in another post.

The Reader’s Disappointment

The first book, Game of Thrones, is given the underlying tension and pageturning exitement of a thriller as  we watch Lord Eddard Stark close in on the Great Secret at the heart of the Lannister succession. In the last pages he is abruptly executed and his secret is casually revealed in the second book by which time no one cares as the kingdom descends into civil war. The next few books have brooding over them two great, exciting threats – the attack on the Great Ice Wall which we know is being planned by an unseen army of wildlings and things of the night – and the threat that Daenerys Targaryen will sweep back to Westeros to claim her throne astride the three mighty dragons she has brought to life. Yet both these overarching narrative arcs fizzle out with no real resolution: King Stannis’s army decimates the wildling horde pretty easily; and Daenerys locks her dragons in a dungeon and gets bogged down in endless pointless politicking in the godforsaken slave city of Meereen.

Other great set-piece conflicts are set up, such as Robb Stark’s military triumphs in the North and Renly Baratheon’s elegant march across the South. These also are rapidly deflated as Robb is unceremoniously assassinated at Walder Frey’s castle and Renly is also assassinated by an evil spirit. The biggest battle in the whole series, the Battle of Blackwater Bay, also has a great sense of anticlimax as the attacker Stannis loses all his forces and the evil Lannisters emerge victorious.

“All signs are foreshadowing the terrible disaster that is to come,” it says on the Wikipedia entry for A Clash of Kings. But it never comes. One reads the ensuing four books in hope that something, anything, decisive will happen. Instead Robb is crushed, Stannis is crushed, Renly is crushed, Daenerys runs into the sand – the characters and plotlines may ramify out like weeds, but the edge-of-your-seat tenterhooks of the earlier novels slowly evaporates.

And this is directly connected to…

The Characters’ Failure

  • Lord Eddard Stark thinks he’s acting nobly and for the best. He fails and dies.
  • Eddard and Robert Baratheon think they can secure a peaceful transition of power but both fail; instead the continent collapses into brutal civil war.
  • Lady Caitlin Tully thinks she’s acting for the best when she releases Jaime to be exchanged for her daughter, Arya and Sansa. But Jaime is captured and mutilated and she never lives to see her daughters.
  • Robb Stark thinks he’s acting from duty when he marries Jeyne Westerling who he’s been sleeping with. it is a catastrophic error, as he had promised his hand to a daughter of the powerful Lord Frey and Frey takes his revenge by killing Robb, his mother and most of his army.
  • Sansa Stark thinks her young boy king fiance will give her a life of chivalry and beauty. It is a terrible failure of judgement; he strips and humiliates her.
  • Cersei Lannister’s every action is designed to protect her children but her beloved son dies in front of her eyes, while her daughter Myrcella is hideously maimed. She then plots to get her boy son’s fiance, Margaery Tyrell, accused of made-up crimes of fornication and debauchery – only to be herself imprisoned and tried for the same crimes – in her case, with justification.
  • Lord Tywin Lannister is motivated solely by the good of his House but he dies at the hand of his disgraced son, and it looks like the the entire house will be eclipsed by House Tyrell.
  • Jon Snow sends Maester Aemon to the Citadel for his own safety but far from being safe, Aemon dies on the way from the rigours of the long sea journey. Jon makes elaborate plans to incoporate the wildlings into the Night’s Watch, against mounting opposition from his own men who eventually turn on him and murder him.
  • Stannis Baratheon judges himself the rightful king of Westeros but all his plans are crushed at the Battle of Blackwater Bay. Although his defeat of the wildlings beyond the wall is a success, his journey to attack Winterfell is another catastrophic disaster in which most his army perish in the deepest blizzard seen for decades.
  • Brienne of Tarth dedicates her life to defending King Renly who is promptly murdered before her eyes. She is charged with bringing Jaime to King’s Landing and fails to prevent him being mutilated on the way. She is charged with finding Sansa and Arya and fails, getting herself hanged in the process.
  • Daenerys Stormborn is such a vital and heroic figure at the end of book one, having endured a forced marriage, and then the death of her beloved husband and unborn son, before being reborn along with three dragons ushering in a new age in Westeros. Sadly, she spends the next six books wandering deep into the desert continent of Essos, shedding dead followers along the way, before embarking on a pointless quest to liberate the slaves of the great slaver cities. Her stated aim is to return to Westeros and claim the throne due to her (and her dead brother Viserys), as children of the deposed king Aerys. Instead her threads in two or three books are entirely devoted to evermore tedious politics of faraway cities full of ungrateful citizens who she’s liberated form their shackles. All the promise and excitement of her thread died years ago.
  • Theon Greyjoy is an epic failure: determined to prove his worth to his father and touch sister, he takes the almost empty castle of Winterfell, only to be himself overrun by the terrifying Ramsay Snow, who locks him in a dungeon, starves him and tortures him, destroying his mind and body.
  • Mance Rayder, the Night Watchman turned wildling, assembles and leads a vast army of the ‘freeborn’ against the Great Ice Wall which defends Westeros. But after several books of threat and suspense, just as he’s attacking the Wall, King Stannis and his army emerge from the mist and decimates Mance’s forces, shattering all his ambitions and leading to his enchained imprisonment. In a later twist he’s freed to lead a raid on Winterfell, wrongly believing the young girl betrothed to Ramsay Snow to be Arya Stark. It isn’t her, all his spearwife helpers are killed, and he himself captured and tortured.
  • Ser Jorah Mormont, in exile in Essos, dedicates his life to defending Daenerys but when she realises that he’s been informing King’s Landing of her doings all along, she dismisses him from her service and he becomes a wrecked man.
  • Failure runs in the family as his father, Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, leading an ill-fated expedition north of the Wall to spy out the wildling forces and rescue Ben Stark, fails in both endeavours and ends up being murdered by his own men in Caster’s House.
  • Young prince Quentyn Martell, son of the gouty old Lord Martell of Dorne, is despatched to Essos to make a match with Daenerys the dragon mother, only to arrive far too late, Daenerys being up to her neck in complex court machinations in Meereen; and then, in making a stupid attempt to free the dragons from the dungeon where they’ve been chained, is himself burned to death.
  • Arianne Martell seduces Arys Oakheart of the Kingsguard to get his help in smuggling little princess Myrcella away from Sunspear. She intends to declare the little princess queen and raise an army around her. Instead her plot is foiled, the loyal Ser Oakheart is chopped to pieces before her eyes, and little Myrcella has half her face hacked off.
  • Victarion Greyjoy, a man already haunted by the failure of having his charismatic brother cheat on him with his wife (whereupon he beats his wife to death by hand), sets himself to be the next king of the ironborn when their father, Balon, dies. He is ignominiously defeated. When he sails for Eassos, also attempting to contact Daenerys and her dragons, almost half of his iron Fleet is destroyed.
  • Davos Seaworth, the “Onion Knight”, having had his fingertips chopped off by his stern lord Stannis, then watches his master’s plans come to destruction at the Battle of Blackwater Bay, where no fewer than four of his sons are killed. He is later despatched by Stannis to White Harbour to secure the loyalty of local lords, in which he completely fails and is imprisoned.
  • The dwarf, the Imp, Tyrion Lannister, sets out to preserve his family and keep his lover, Shae, safe –  but ends up killing his own father and strangling the beautiful Shae. He flees abroad seeking safety and ends up being sold into slavery.
  • Lysa Tully is hopelessly in love with cunning Petyr Baelish and thinks her dreams are finally coming true when he arrives back at the Eyrie, despatched from King’s Landing to secure her allegiance. Until he calmly pushes her out of a window 600 feet up a mountain. So much for childhood sweethearts.
  • Kevan Lannister believes he is acting for the best when he allows his niece, Cersei, to be led naked through the streets of King’s Landing to atone for her sins. He is just carefully planning  his next move when he is assassinated.
  • Even the supercunning eunuch, Lord Varys, though still alive, hadn’t anticipated when he helped to free Tyrion Lannister from the King’s Landing dungeons, that the Imp would defect from the escape plan to track down his own father and kill him with a crossbow – thus ensuring the end of Varys’s career as a statesman and player.

After this exhausting marathon, almost the only major living character who hasn’t failed is the (very) cunning Lord Petyr Baelish (aka Littlefinger) who has successfully based himself in the Vale of Arryn, cooly murdered his overtrusting wife, and playing divide and rule among the local lords. My son and I have been reading the series together, discussing its many aspects – and we’d agreed our favourite characters were Tyrion, Jon Snow and Littlefinger. Only with the death of Jon and enslavement of Tyrion did it begin to dawn on me that we liked them because they were successful. With the others more or less failures (and dying is a telltale mark of failure) it dawned on me maybe this is the reason we, as readers, like Baelish – even though he’s shown himself to be an amoral killer – because he has the charisma of success. Tyrion also had it for most of the series – in the early books he was a benchmark of irony and sanity and savvy – but his successive failures and humiliations have rubbed it off him.

This is interesting because it suggests a novel needs at least some characters we readers can identify with – not in the naive sense that they are like us, but in the Freudian or fairy tale sense that they live out our fantasies – they overcome obstacles and succeed.

Watching a succession of unlikable characters fail, more or less miserably, while countless bystanders get hacked to pieces, in an atmosphere drenched in woman-hating swearwords and crude abuse, has taken its toll on my senses – and I am oh-so-relieved to have finished this vast, amazing, appalling odyssey and escaped back to the real world.


Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

Westeros.org links through to scores of other GoT websites, as well as hosting hundreds of FAQs about the series.

The books have been made into an ongoing HBO TV dramatisation. Series 1 and series 2 are now available on dvd. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

A Dance With Dragons 1: Dreams and Dust by George RR Martin (2011)

The night was rank with the smell of man.

The warg stopped beneath a tree and sniffed, his grey-brown fur dappled by shadow. A sigh of piney wind brought the man-scent to him, over fainter smells that spoke of fox and hare, seal and stag, even wolf. Those were man-smells too, the warg knew; the stink of old skins, dead and sour, near drowned beneath the stronger scents of smoke and blood and rot. Only man stripped the skins from the other beasts and wore their hides and hair. (page 1)

This, the fifth volume of George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, starts with a wonderful prologue, a vivid description of a warg, a man who can enter the bodies and experience the keen sensations of animals, who is both lying shivering in a snow-covered shelter in the far North of Westeros, but also inhabiting the body of a wolf hunting with his pack, hunting fleeing, ailing humans. I’ve never read anything describing this situation and rarely read anything so vivid and powerful and cold and tangy. Chapters of writing this good are one of the reasons GRRM fans adore him.

‘Dreams and Dust’ – as GRRM explains in the preface – doesn’t exactly follow the ‘previous’ novel, ‘A Feast for Crows’. It runs in parallel with it. The series is now so complex and unwieldy, he has so many plotlines unravelling in all directions, that one volume simply can’t contain them all, so he needed two running in tandem.

So – ‘A Feast for Crows’ covered the ongoing adventures in the kingdom of Dorne (Lord Doran Martell), on the Ice Wall (Jon Snow and King Stannis Baratheon), among the Ironborn Vikings (Asha, Victarion and Euron Greyjoy), in the Riverlands (Jaime Lannister raises the siege of Riverrun), in the Vale of Arryn (Petyr Littlefinger strengthens his grip and cultivates the runaway Sansa Stark), with Samwell Tarly (accompanying the aged maester Aemon on the long sea route to the Citadel) and in King’s Landing (where Cersei Lannister’s paranoid incompetence brings disaster).

Whereas ‘Dreams and Dust’ covers the same period of time, but follows a different set of characters:

  • The ironical dwarf Tyrion Lannister, on the run from murdering his father Lord Tywin, is in Essos where the same magister Illyrion who sent Daenerys on her adventures, despatches him on a boat with a mystery crew down the vast river Rhoyne, introducing a whole new landscape, new peoples and languages and perils. The strange abandoned cities their boat passes silently in the fog are wonderfully evocative…
Charles Dance as the masterful Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Charles Dance as the masterful Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Daenerys Targaryen, supposedly progressing west along the coast of Essos with her three dragons and aiming to reclaim the Iron Throne lost when her father was murdered by the Lannisters. But she has become embroiled and delayed. After liberating the slaves in two of the great cities around Slavers Bay – Astapor and Yunkai – only to see them descend into anarchy, the kindhearted Daenerys has not only liberated the slaves of Meereen but is determined to rule them and their city peacefully and justly. This turns out to be harder than she thought as an insurgency of resentful former rulers takes to murdering the men and women she’s freed, as gruesomely as possible. Meanwhile her dragons have now grown so large that they are killing sheep and cattle and Daenerys is having to compensate angry farmers and, eventually, is forced to chain them in a dungeon…
  • Once upon a time the idea that Daenerys was reborn in Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre along with real live dragons was mysterious and strange; her travels across the desert and the growing dragons threatened she’d bring a revolution to Westeros. but by the end of Dreams and Dust this storyline has fizzled out, losing all its energy; Daenerys confronting yet another roomful of angry citizens is as fantastical as watching Boris Johnson on TV. I speedread her last few chapters just to see if anything happened. And nothing did…
Photo of Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen arguing with her loyal servant Ser Jorah Mormont (Ian Glen) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen arguing with her loyal servant Ser Jorah Mormont (Ian Glen) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Crippled 11 year old Bran Stark, carried by the gentle giant retard Hodor, continues his quest north of the Ice Wall, along with the two crannogchildren, Meera and Jojeen. They are guided by an improbably friendly Other, Coldhands, further and further into the snow in quest of the owner of the third eye, a prophet, one of the last surviving children of the forest, the almost exterminated aboriginal inhabitants of Westeros. I found it increasingly hard to remember why these children persisted in driving deeper into the freezing north at risk of their lives, though the intensity of their suffering is certainly harrowing and vivid…
Photo of Kristian Nairn as the giant simpleton Hodor, tasked with carrying the crippled boy Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kristian Nairn as the giant simpleton Hodor, tasked with carrying the crippled boy Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • The Merchant’s Man turns out to be Quentin, the son of Lord Martell of Dorne, who has been despatched to the Free Cities to meet Daenerys and recruit her dragons for the cause of Dorne. Which is ironic because we know the mystery crew of Tyrion’s ship down the Rhoyne turn out to be  escorting the supposedly dead Prince Aegon Targaryen on his mission to raise sellswords and form an alliance with Daenerys to reclaim his rightful throne in Westeros. Everyone is after Daenerys’s dragons, except Daenerys who is frightened to use them.
  • Meanwhile, a thousand miles north, gorgeous pouting Jon Snow takes to his duties as Lord Commander of the Night Watch, pitifully undermanned as they seek to guard and protect the 700 foot-high Ice Wall from the next wave of attackers who will either be wildlings – free humans – or the terrifying Others, blue-eyed black-skinned zombies. He has to cope with mutterings among the older Watchmen on the one hand and on the other manage King Stannis Baratheon and his prophetess Lady Melisandre, who came North with his army to destroy the first wildling invasion. This threatened invasion, led by the renegade Watchan Mance Rayder, created an atmosphere of brooding menace throughout the 2nd, 3rd and 4th books, giving a real sense that the invasion of these supernatural forces would sweep away the vicious scheming factions let loose by the War of Five Kings. However, their sudden and absolute defeat by Stannis’s army evaporated that threat and, in my opinion, has taken some of the pleasure out of the books… Martin tries to revive the sense of brooding threat over the Wall but, having seen how the first attack was swiftly crushed, it is gone, there is no threat, the tension has vanished…
Photo of Kit Harington as the bastard Jon Snow, raised to power as Lord of the Night's Watch, in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kit Harington as the bastard Jon Snow, raised to power as Lord of the Night’s Watch, in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Davos Seaworth, long-suffering servant of King Stannis, is despatched by sea to win over the harsh lords of the eastern islands, namely Lord Wyman Manderly of White Harbour. There he suffers bitter failure, discovering Lord Manderly’s castle full of Freys, the vast extended family who own the Twin Towers castle in the Riverlands and who killed the self-proclaimed king of the North, Rob Stark, and massacred his army during the so-called Red Wedding. And so Manderley, afraid for the life of his son, held hostage by the Lannisters in King’s Landing. rejects Davos’s offer of alliance with King Stannis and it is difficult, again, to see where this storyline is heading…
  • Reek is the dungeon name of the raddled wreckage of Theon Greyjoy who we first met happily playing with the Stark children in Winterfell in volume one. In teenage competition with his clever sister Asha, he led a small troop to capture Winterfell, left almost empty by Robb Stark as he went campaigning in the North. But in his naivety, Theon was taken prisoner by the psychotic Ramsay Bolton who stormed into Winterfell, murdered everyone, burned the castle to the ground, dragged Theon back to his fortress of Dreadfort. Here Ramsay throws Theon into prison, flays him, tortures him, and reduces him to a shattered wreck of a stammering, shaking, filthy grey-haired dog. This is a particularly disturbing narrative thread, and goes a long way to justify accusations that, as Martin has run out of plot, he has resorted to ever more disgusting sadism. The scene where the terrified Reek is ordered to deflower the terrified young girl given to Ramsay in marriage, is particularly repellent; it describes the systematic humiliation of a naked 15 year old girl by a psychotic killer.
Photo of Alfie Allen as the very ill-fated Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Alfie Allen as the very ill-fated Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The chapters are named after: Tyrion (9 chapters), Jon 8, Daenerys 7, Davos 4, Reek 3, Bran 2, The Lost Lord 2, The Merchant’s Man, The Windblown, The Wayward Bride, Melisandre, The Prince of Winterfell, The Watcher.

Martin continues to write blistering scenes, to vividly depict fights, feasts, treacheries and betrayals, moments of fear and panic or quiet, soulful moments, in a crisp clear style:

Jon stepped out into the night. The sky was full of stars, and the wind was gusting along the wall. Even the moon looked cold; there were goosebumps all across its face. Then the first gust caught him, slicing through his layers of wool and leather to set his teeth to chattering. He stalked across the yard, into the teeth of that wind. His cloak flapped loudly from his shoulders. Ghost came after. Where am I going? What am I doing? Castle Black was still and silent, its halls and towers dark. My seat, Jon reflected. My hall, my home, my command. A ruin. (page 442)

He can write the mysterious, incantatory chapter where Bran finally meets the lost prophet and begins his spiritual journey:

The moon was a crescent, thin and sharp as the blade of a knife. The pale sun rose and set and rose again. Red leaves whispered in the wind. Dark clouds filled the skies and turned to storms. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, and dead men with black hands and bright blue eyes shuffled shuffled round a cleft in the hillside but could not enter. Under the hill, the broken boy sat upon a weirwood throne, listening to whispers in the dark as ravens walked up and down  his arms. (page 521)

Hundreds of pages show his writing at its immersive, imaginative and compelling best. But I enjoyed this least of the six books I’ve read. My son said the last two are the worst. The woman I’ve been swapping notes with at work about the series just wants to hurry up and finish. For me the mystery, the suspense and the threat which made the earlier books so thrilling has evaporated to be replaced by an increasing and depressing reliance on foulmouthed brutality:

“”I would sell my mother for a bit of breeze,” said Gerris, as they rolled through the dockside throngs. “It’s as moist as the Maiden’s cunt, and still shy of noon. I hate this city.” (page 101)

“We’re the Windblown and we fuck the goddess Slaughter up the arse.” (page 107)

“Does your dwarf ride as well as he pisses?” (page 131)

“Can Salladhor Saan eat the king’s word? Can he quench his thirst with parchment and waxy seals? Can he tumble promises into a feather bed and fuck them till they squeal?” (page 144)

The dwarf watched Lemore slip into the water. The sight always made him hard. There was something wonderfully wicked about the thought of peeling the septa out of those chaste white robes and spreading her legs. (page 210)

As the drums reached a crescendo, three of the girls leapt above the flames, spinning in the air. The male dancers caught them about the waists and slid them down onto their members. Dany watched as the women arched their backs and coiled their legs around their partners while the flutes wept and the men thrust in time to the music. (page 237)

The wine was strong and sour and required no translation. “I suppose I shall have to settle for your cunt.”… “Cut off my head and take it to King’s Landing,” Tyrion urged her… She did not understand that either, so he shoved her legs apart, crawled between them, and took her once more. That much she could comprehend, at least. (page 338)

“Before you came Meereen was dying. Our rulers were old men with withered cocks  and crones whose puckered cunts were dry as dust.” (page 347)

“You look awful, even for a man’s been dead a dozen years. Blue hair, is it? When harry said you’d be turning up, I almost shit myself. And Haldon, you icy cunt, good to see you too. Still have that stick up your arse?” (page 361)

Too heavy even to stand unassisted, he could not hold his water, so he always smelled of piss… But he was said to be the richest man in Yunkai, and he had a passion for grotesques: his slaves included a boy with the legs and hooves of a goat, a bearded woman, a two-headed monster from Mantarys, and a hermaphrodite who warmed his bed at night. “Cock and cunny both,” Dick Straw told them. “The Whale used to own a giant too, liked to watch him fuck his slave girls…” (page 336)

He pushed her back onto Glover’s bed, kissed her hard, and tore off her tunic to let her breasts spill out. When she tried to knee him in the groin, he twisted away and forced her legs apart with his knees. “I’ll have you now.”… She was sopping wet when he entered her. “Damn you,” she said. “Damn you damn you damn you.” He sucked her nipples till she cried out half in pain and half in pleasure. Her cunt became the world. (page 390)

Her last foe was a northman with an axe, a big man bald and bearded, clad in a byrnie of patched and rusted mail that could only mean he was a chief or champion. He was not pleased to find himself fighting a woman. “Cunt!” he roared each time he struck at her, his spittle dampening her cheeks. “Cunt! Cunt!” (page 406)

Behind them some sailor was bellowing loudly. “”They call this ale? Fuck. A monkey could piss better ale.” “And you would drink it,” another voice replied. (page 428)

“I said we could not abandon her in Volantis. That does not mean I want to fuck her.” (page 509)

The dwarf lingered in the galley after supper, celebrating his survival by sharing a few tots of black tar rum with the ship’s cook, a great greasy loutish Volantene who spoke only one word of the Common Tongue (fuck)… (page 515)

“Lady Arya. Get on the bed. Yes, against the pillows, that’s a good wife. Now spread your legs. Let us see your cunt.” The girl obeyed wordless. Theon took a step back against the door. Lord Ramsay say beside his bride, slid his finger along her inner thigh, then jammed two fingers up inside her. The girl let out a gasp of pain. “You’re dry as an old bone.” Ramsay pulled his hand free and slapped her face. (page 582)

These books have a vast wealth of compelling writing and gripping storylines, a whole convincingly imagined alternative worldful. But I, too, feel like I’ve been slapped in the face, and just a few too many times.

—————————————————————————————————————————————-

Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

Westeros.org links through to scores of other GoT websites, as well as hosting hundreds of FAQs about the series.

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and was released on dvd in March. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

All quotes copyright George RR Martin.

A Feast for Crows by George RR Martin (2005)

Prologue On page 1 some magicians’ apprentices are discussing how they’ll save up the money to pay to deflower Rosie, the newest whore in the tavern they’re drinking in:

He could hear Emma’s laughter coming through a shuttered window overhead, mingled with the deeper voice of the man she was entertaining. She was the oldest of the serving wenches at the Quill and Tankard, forty if she was a day, but still pretty in a fleshy sort of way. Rosey was her daughter, fifteen and freshly flowered. Emma had decreed that Rosey’s maidenhead would cost a golden dragon.

On page 8 there’s the first use of the f word, in a typically crude exchange:

‘Your mother was a monkey from the Summer Isles. The Dornish will f*** anything with a hole between its legs.’

On page 17 Pate, the apprentice to whom these insults were addressed, having stolen the key to the maegicians’ Citadel and handed it over to a mysterious alchemist in exchange for the gold with which he hopes to pay to deflower young Rosey, instead falls to the cobbles, betrayed and poisoned and dying.

Yes. We are back in the steamy, sexually charged, treacherous, densely packed and wonderfully imagined fantasy world of George RR Martin and his vast sequence of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire.

Photo of Gethin Anthony as the ill-fated Lord Renly Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Gethin Anthony as the ill-fated Lord Renly Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Cornucopianism, or The problem of overflowing In this, the fourth book of the series, Martin has to deal with the problem he’s created for himself in the first three, namely that he has created so many characters pursuing so many plotlines that they won’t all fit into one book. I christen this problem ‘cornucopianism’. In their fecund sprawl the plotlines overflow themselves. In fact, several storylines have already ended, in that they had a beginning, a development and a decisive climax – but they continue anyway – such as the Threatened invasion by the wildlings, Brienne’s quest to return Jaime to King’s Landing, Robb Stark’s kingship, the Coming of Daenerys and her dragons.

Undaunted, Martin solves the problem of cornucopianism by splitting a manuscript which had become unmanageably vast into two more normal-size books. This one, ‘A Feast For Crows’, focuses on one set of characters – all the other characters are followed up in the next volume, ‘A Dance with Dragons’. But – important point – the second book doesn’t follow the first one; events in both take place in parallel. Which allows for some nifty timeshifts as characters in the second book refer hopefully to things which we know from the earlier book have or haven’t fallen out to plan.

I very much liked the result. In ‘A Feast for Crows’ the focus of the series shifts significantly from the previous books to follow events in three of the seven kingdoms of Westeros which had been previously ignored or overlooked – the southern kingdom of Dorne, the western sea-kingdom of Pyk – the Iron Kingdom – and the eastern kingdom of Arryn, dominated by its castle in the air, the Eyrie (illustrated below by Ted Nasmith).

'The Eyrie' as depicted by Ted Nasmith. © Ted Nasmith

‘The Eyrie’ as depicted by Ted Nasmith. © Ted Nasmith

colour-coded map of Westeros might come in useful for understanding the location of the seven kingdoms of Westeros and, of course, there’s one available on the internet.

In this fourth novel, along with new locations, a new suite of characters is introduced. Two of the most striking are the Damphair or prophet (a religious leader of the Iron Men’s harsh seaworshipping religion) and The Captain of The Guards (who serves Lord Doran Martell, ruler of Dorne). These are powerful and ‘deep’ characters; which means they invoke deep associations – to the power and mystery of the Sea for one, to sheer mute strength with the other. But in addition there are other, new, “narrative characters”, ones who give their names to the chapters which see events from their point of view: the Kraken’s Daughter, The Soiled Knight, The Iron Captain, The Drowned Man, The Queenmaker. In the earlier novels the chapters were named after specific characters; in these later ones they’re as often named after generic types, a new wrinkle which gives them Tarot-card-like mythic associations.

The Iron Islands The Ironborn are Vikings who live in storm-lashed islands and love nothing more than to sail their longboats on raids along the vulnerable coastline of Westeros. Their king, Balon Greyjoy, has died in a freak accident and the novel follows their assembly at a great kingsmoot where the pretenders to the throne stake their claim. Will the Ironborn vote for Balon’s brother Victarion or his daughter Asha, or for the returned exiled eldest brother, Euron. The latter, it turns out, who offers a grand plan to raid right round the coast and sail for distant Essos to capture the fabled princess Daenerys and her dragons.

Photo of Carice van Houten as the priestess Melisandre in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Carice van Houten as the priestess Melisandre in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The kingdom of Dorne This kingdom is evoked in a marvellous piece of scene-setting, painting the ailing lord of Dorne, Doran Martell, at his country water palace, watching children frolic in fountains, on the beach and in the sea. It is an eerie, strange and moving image. It reminds me of the landscapes of Entropy in JG Ballard’s collection, ‘Terminal Beach’. Lord Martell is himself in constant pain due to untreatable gout and arthritis, and is accompanied everywhere by the enormous, silent, totally obedient Captain of the Guard,  Areo Hotah, and his 7 foot double-edged axe.

But a reluctant and ailing Martell is forced back from his pleasure palace to Dorne’s capital, Sunspear, to put down his brother’s illegitimate daughters, nicknamed the Sand Vipers. They want to invoke Dornish law to declare the 10 year-old Myrcella Lannister (sent to Dorne as a tactical ward by the powerful Lannister family) the true inheritor of the Iron Throne, and set her against her brother, the boy-king Tommen. But Lord Martell realises this will bring down the wrath of the Lannisters on a weak kingdom which couldn’t possibly stand up to them. But, unknown to him, his own daughter, Arianne, is seducing the member of the Kingsguard supposed to protect Myrcella, in a cunning conspiracy to start the very war Martell is striving to avoid…

The kingdom of Arryn After suave, scheming Petyr Littlefinger has brutally disposed of the woman he married, Lysa Tully, sister of Lady Catelyn Tully/Stark, he is free to rule Arryn as he wishes, with the 13 year-old Sansa Stark whom he rescued from King’s Landing in the ambiguous situation of being his pretended natural daughter. This thread of narrative revels in Littlefinger’s smooth cunning and Martin enjoys getting Littlefinger to explain to Sansa exactly how and why he’s manipulating the lords and ladies he meets. It’s like Holmes and Watson. For the bannermen (loyal lords) of Arryn smell a rat and want to take stewardship of Lady Lysa’s son, the sickly heir to the throne, young Robert. Petyr’s great.

Photo of Rory McCann as Sandor Clegane, nicknamed 'The Hound', in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Rory McCann as Sandor Clegane, nicknamed ‘The Hound’, in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Cersei If the first half of the book offers several refreshing changes of scene, the last part is dominated by the machinations of the wicked Queen Regent Cersei in the overfamiliar setting of the capital, King’s Landing. Convinced all her advisors are weaklings or out to get her, the increasingly paranoid egomaniac makes a series of rash decisions, unravelling the alliances crafted by her father, Lord Tywin, alienating allies, appointing highly dubious councillors and making terrible strategic mistakes like allowing the growing numbers of religious fanatics – the so-called ‘sparrows’ – to rearm and establish their own independent powerbase, a decision which she is soon to rue…

Sex This novel is noticably more pornographic than the previous ones. I marked all the pages which included the f or c word and there are about 50. For the first time in the series, entire chapters are about sex, for example the lavish description of Arianne Martell’s seduction of Ser Arys Oakheart of the Kingsguard, who she exploits to help her smuggle princess Myrcella out of Sunspear. The final part of the book is dominated by the wicked Queen Regent Cersei and includes, among her general decadence, how she takes her handmaidens to bed and has lesbian sex with them, in a typically exploitative joyless kind of way. Elsewhere soldiers and lords casually but continually refer to sex in the crudest terms. The ugly but heroic female knight Brienne of Tarth is subjected to sexual threats on almost every page of her sections.

Somehow I feel the hothouse eroticism of the sex passages and the football terrace sexual abuse let the book down. The superbrutality and the testosterone cynicism are all well and good; I’ve paid my money, I’ve signed up for a machiavellian swords-and-shields fantasy and this GRRM delivers in wonderful spades. But the sex scenes risk the criticism of all sex scenes, that they’re heavyhanded and embarrassing; and the barracking is too much like being stuck in a pub with a coachload of football hooligans. It isn’t inspiring and terrifying like the violence. It’s lowering, it lowers the tone. In this book more than any of the others I think Martin lets himself down with too much swearing and the barely-veiled hostility to women which underlies it.

‘I think I’m going to fuck you up the nose, wench,’ Shagwell announced. ‘Won’t that be amusing?’

‘He has a very small cock,’ Timeon explained. ‘Drop that pretty sword and we’ll go gentle on you, woman. We need gold to pay these smugglers, that’s all.’

‘And if I give you gold, you’ll let us go?’

‘We will.’ Timeon smiled. ‘Once you’ve fucked the lot of us. We’ll pay you like a proper whore. A silver for each fuck. Or else we’ll take the gold and rape you anyway, and do you like the Mountain did Lord Vargo…’ (page 331)

Having said which, almost all the people I know who’ve read the series are women. I ask them, Doesn’t the sexism, the raping and killing of women, the continual verbal abuse and threat against women characters, doesn’t that put you off? Yes, they reply, but the story is just so exciting.

So, compelling narrative trumps repellent subject matter, apparently.

But… This issue aside, there is still lots – lots and lots – of inspiring and breathtaking writing here. The opening scenes of  the Ironborn thread, depicting the Damphair or prophet of the Drowned God performing the ritual by which he drowns and then revives initiates in the freezing northern sea, is inspired, brilliant, visionary.

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Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

Westeros.org links through to scores of other GoT websites, as well as hosting hundreds of FAQs about the series.

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and has just been released on dvd. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

All quotes from A Feast For Crows copyright George RR Martin.

A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold by George RR Martin (2000)

A Storm of Swords is the third book in George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire‘. When delivered to his US publishers the book weighed in at over 1,000 pages so the decision was taken to publish it in the UK in two parts or volumes. So this is the third book, part two, titled, ‘Blood and Gold’. Ie the fourth physical book in the series.

Why are these books so compelling?

Epic Martin has brought into existence an absolutely vast new world, fully imagined in every detail, from the sound of the horses to the names of the continents, from the theology and practice of not one but several religions to the decorations on each knight’s shield. It is an awesome achievement, and a joy and delight for readers with a taste for this sort of thing to be drawn into this wonderfully complete and encyclopedic realm of the imagination. Returning after a break reading some books about music, I was immediately back there, in Westeros, in the world of fear and violence, conspiracies and sorcery, and on tenterhooks awaiting the next shocking surprise.

Number of characters A big feature of the books is the hundreds of characters. Each part of Westeros is dominated by a handful of big name families – the Baratheons, Greyjoys, Starks, Lannisters, Freys come immediately to mind – each of these Houses has scores of subsidiary branches which intertwine as dynastic marriages are arranged – and between all the Big Families are minor noble houses, the so-called bannermen who owe allegiance to a Major House, and these in turn have countless intertwined genealogies. The result is that in his five books to date Martin has named over 1,000 characters, as well as innumerable unnamed smallfolk who generally meet a grisly end. Charles Dickens created just short of a thousand named characters in his 14 novels. Martin has bested him in just five.

Cult Martin’s world is so big it’s spawned a host of secondary contributors – wikis and fanclubs, conventions and merchandise, the hit HBO TV series, cookery books and board games, and a number of fantasy illustrators who’ve given visual life to Martin’s stunning imaginings. Artist and musician Ted Nasmith has made some wonderful pictures of key locations in the Ice and Fire saga, like the one below, of the great Ice Wall which separates the kingdom of Westeros from the frozen North, home to wildlings, cannibals, wargs and the terrifying ‘Others’.

'Castle Black and the Wall' by Ted Nasmith © Ted Nasmith

‘Castle Black and the Wall’ by Ted Nasmith © Ted Nasmith

See more images of A Song of Ice and Fire on Ted Nasmith’s website.

Thriller Though filed under Fantasy, these books deploy the techniques of a thriller: each chapter doesn’t so much move the narrative on as deliver a punch. New and shocking things are continually occurring leaving you on continual tenterhooks as to the next outrageous event. These shocks are part of the larger worldview of stunning brutality, where characters are routinely raped, murdered, tortured, eviscerated or cynically betrayed – and all they themselves think about is scheming, sex or murder.

Multiple POVs Each chapter follows a specific character: the complicated action of ‘Blood and Gold’ is seen from about ten different viewpoints. This allows Martin to move the reader at great speed, very effectively, to completely disparate parts of the fantasy world of Westeros, to allow the reader to witness key developments taking place in the five or so major strands of plot. Like cuts in a TV series, the technique makes for speed of events, and for suspense. You are whisked away from one character just as something vital occurs – and it might be 50 or 100 pages before you return to their part of the plotline.

In this book, the chapter characters are:

  • Jaime Lannister, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Sansa Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Bran Stark, Samwell Tarly.
Lena Headey as Queen Cersei in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Lena Headey as Queen Cersei in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Style The default setting of the style is clear and spare and functional:

“When morning came, none of them quite realised it at first. The world was still dark, but the black had turned to grey and shapes were beginning to emerge half-seen from the gloom. Jon lowered his bow to stare at the mass of heavy clouds that covered the eastern sky. He could see a glow behind them, but perhaps he was only dreaming. He notched another bow.”     (p.301)

There are a few nods in the direction of cod-medievalism, a few stylistic gestures towards the books’ fantasy setting: the most persistent and slightly irritating one is removing the -ly suffix from adverbs. He is like to be angry. He has near finished the task. Sometimes entire paragraphs or chunks of dialogue will use these and other tame medievalisms to create a style closer to Victorian pastiches of medieval prose than the real thing. But these tics don’t conceal the fundamental modernity of the prose and the worldview it conveys.

“Bran was too frightened to shout. The fire had burned down to a few bright embers and his friends were all asleep. He almost slipped his skin and reached out for his wolf, but Summer might be miles away. He couldn’t leave his friends helpless in the dark to face whatever was coming up out of the well.”                                                                                                                                   (p.195)

Coinages Matching and echoing the epic scope of his imagination, Martin has coined completely new, medieval-sounding words to fit the fantasy medievalism of the story. These are a creative and enjoyable aspect of his style:

  • New words sept and septon and septa (shrine and priest and priestess to the seven gods), maester (doctor/alchemist), wildlings (wild men from north of the Great Wall), pyromancer (makers of wildfire, a kind of napalm), holdfast.
  • New combinations sellsword (mercenary), smallfolk (ordinary people),  strongwine, westermen,  weirwood (ancient holy woods), ironborn (inhabitant of the western Iron isles), woodharp, stumbletongue, firewine, greensick (seasick), kingsmoot, skinchanger, godswood.

English (like its parent German) allows its users to combine words to make new ones. Martin uses this facility to coin scores of neologisms, just one of the verbal techniques he uses to reinforce the otherness of his fantasy world. And the more there are, the more frequently you encounter them on each page, the greater the sense of moving into his otherworld, the greater the sense of the completeness of the fantasy world.

Another is the slight deformation of existing standard words or phrases. A frequent example is that knights (warriors in armour riding horses) are called ‘Ser’, an obvious distortion of the traditional Sir, which starts out sounding silly, but by sheer repetition comes to seem the natural term.

Names The names of the hundreds and hundreds of characters partake of the alienation affect mentioned above, of being nearly recognisable but bent or distorted. Thus Jon Snow’s fat friend in the Night Watch is Samwell Tarly. Jamie Lannister’s name is almost English. Tywin is definitely foreign and so is Tyrion. Bronn sounds as if it should be English. Joffrey is an English name, distorted. Ditto Margaery, Dorna, Cleos and Kevan, Eddard and Robb, Tommen or Lyonel. Others are entirely alien like Tygett, Darlessa, Gerion, Emmon, Lancel, Arya, Hodder, Mace or Loras.

In these and related ways the text works on a purely verbal level to draw you into a parallel universe, whisperingly close to our English history and culture, and yet bracingly alien and explosive.

Charles Dance as Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Charles Dance as Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The Worldview is shockingly brutal. These books have more in common with Hannibal Lecter than JRR Tolkien. Key characters who we’ve grown to like or at least sympathise with over the previous 2,000 pages of text are brutally snuffed out in a few lines: the young hero stabbed through the heart, the mother whose throat is cut and body thrown naked into the river, the young girl who learns to stab bandits in the belly, the friendly whore who is whipped through the streets, the hero whose sword hand is unceremoniously chopped off, the gallant knight whose face is punched in by a giant, the noble father who is abruptly beheaded, the bard whose tongue is cut out. And these are the leading characters. The secondary characters are killed in scores of ways and by the thousand, burned to death or drowned in the Battle of Blackwater Bay, crushed by mammoths, stabbed by wildlings, shot through the throat with arrows, cut down, hacked to pieces, on almost every page.

Intrigue Allegedly Martin was inspired by the Wars of the Roses with its complicated intriguing and politicking, backstabbing and machiavellianism. Maybe. But the characters in the Song demonstrate depths of cynical manipulation which owe more to the 21st century than the 15th. Also, I can’t make up my mind whether it’s a drawback or a strength, but they are all cynical and manipulative in the same kind of way. The trouble with real life is people are strange and hard to read. Whether you’re chatting up a guest at a party or hiring a new chief executive it’s the hardest thing in the world to read other people, who are continually surprising with their unpredictable combinations of acuteness and obtuseness. Lord Tywin, Cersei, Danaerys, Robb Stark, Catelin, Theon Greyjoy, Lord Mormont, Varys, Petyr Littlefinger, Bronn the sellsword – they all think the same – they are all playing the same game, the Game of Thrones.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Killing off Most of the key players in the Wars of the Roses which, apparently, was one of Martin’s inspirations, lived reasonably long lives. I think the events of the Song have covered a year, during which half of the key players – and a lot of the ones I really liked – have been killed off. I begin to wonder whether Martin will run out of characters before the series ends. On the other hand, these surprise executions very effectively add to the tension. After he’s bumped off a few real favourites, you realise no-one is safe. It makes the books all the more gripping.

Sex The brutality includes the attitude to sex. Both men and women share an essentially male view of sex – functional and brutal and phallocentric. Men routinely get hard and immediately enter their women with no foreplay. Martin makes all the characters use the f word with abandon and on a few occasions the c word. And these are the royal families ie the most highly bred people in this world. Morality starts cruel and brutal at the top of this society and gets worse as you descend. Every woman is permanently at risk of rape. Any man can be murdered at any point, by his lord and master, his brother, his father, his son. No-one is safe.

Pagan In a way these books are a massive advert for Christianity. Though three or four religions are described in Westeros (the religion of the first men, the religion of the children of the forests, the religion of the Seven gods, and the new religion of Light), none of them at all restrain their adherents from astronomical cruelty and barbarism. At the end of his hugely enjoyable and politically savvy History of Christianity (1976), the (Roman Catholic) historian, Paul Johnson, makes the case that human history of the past 2,000 years has been pretty bloodthirsty and appalling – but without the restraining influence of Christianity it would have been a whole lot worse. Whatever you think of that as a defence of Christianity, George RR Martin’s Westeros could be said to be an unflinching depiction of what Europe would have looked like without any restraining religious or cultural influences at all. It is in many (OK, most) ways a vision of Hell.

Check out George RR Martin’s blog.

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and is now out on dvd. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin (1998)

31 December 2012

A Clash of Kings (1998) is the second volume in the epic 7-volume fantasy series by George RR Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. It follows seamlessly on from the end of the first volume, A Game of Thrones, with numerous plotlines continuing to unfold:

  • from the 700 foot-high Ice Wall which defends the Seven Kingdoms from the wildlings and strange powers lurking in the frozen north, Jon Snow, aged 15, bastard son of the great Lord Eddard Stark, accompanies a reconnaissance mission of the Night’s Watch into the frozen waste.
Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • the terrifying and cunning Lord Tywin Lannister despatches his dwarf son, Tyrion Lannister, to the capital, King’s Landing, to take power from the incompetent, spoilt boy, Joffrey, aged 13, who is reigning as king and alienating everyone except his evil mother, Cersei Lannister, she who conspired in the death of her hated husband Robert Baratheon to enable her son to succeed to the throne.
  • Tywin himself hunkers his army in the haunted ruins of ancient Harrenhal, built by Harren the Black to be impregnable but then melted by dragonfire back in the legendary days.
  • It is to this gloomy ruin that little Arya Stark, aged 10, tough tomboy daughter of the executed Lord Eddard Stark, arrives through a series of accidents, fights and massacres, a witness to and survivor of the brutality and sadism all around her.
Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • meanwhile Robb Stark, 15, heir to his father’s house, is declared King of the North and leads his armies to victory against Lannister forces at Whispering Wood and Oxcross
  • and also meanwhile, the brothers of the late king Robert Baratheon – young courtly Renly, and hard old Stannis – both declare themselves King in the South and raise armies from different sets of bannermen and subjects to fight each other, Stannis leading his army to besiege his brother in the ancient citadel of Storm’s End on the east coast of Westeros…
  • while an eerie sub-plot unfolds concerning Stannis’s conversion to the new religion, the way of the Lord of Light, which is replacing the old religion of the Seven gods. The old way was administered by septons in their temples, called septs. In a haunting chapter Lady Catelyn, distraught widow of the executed Eddard Stark of Winterfell, prays in a smallfolks’ septon en route back from trying to broker a peace between the brothers Baratheon – and the outlines of the crudely drawn seven gods dance and mock before her eyes…
Michelle Fairley as Lady Catelyn Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Michelle Fairley as Lady Catelyn Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • …but just as war between the brothers seems inevitable, King Renly is struck down in mid-sentence in the safety of his own tent by a shadow which seemed to slide into the tent and raise its sword and cut wide his throat with no physical presence. Is this new black magic controlled by the Red Lady, the priestess Melisandre, devotee of the Lord of Light, who has found favour at grim King Stannis’s court?
  • And while Lord Eddard Stark’s heir, Robb continues his successful drive in the west against Lannister forces, sneaky Theon Greyjoy, who spent 10 years as a ward in Winterfell, the seat of House Stark, and desperate to impress his harsh father Lord Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands,  returns to capture Winterfell with a small handful of fighters. But the lad finds keeping a castle can be harder than winning it…
Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • And meanwhile, a thousand miles away on a different continent (Essos), Queen Daenerys (aged 14), sole survivor of the overthrown House Targaryen follows her lonely destiny. She was betrothed to the savage Dothraki Khal Drogo by her brother, Viserys, as part of a deal whereby Viserys hoped to use the savage’s soldiers to reclaim his throne, both Viserys and Daenerys being children of the mad king Aerys Targaryen of Westeros whose overthrow and murder by Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark is the mainspring of all the plots. But Viserys went mad with impatience and was killed by Khal Drogo, who himself was turned into a lifeless zombie by a captured witch – leaving Daenerys to fend for herself.
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • In a bizarre twist at the end of the first book Daenerys walked into the funeral pyre of her husband with three fossilised dragon eggs she had been given as curious wedding gifts, and not only survived the flames but the eggs cracked to hatch three baby dragons thus, apparently, starting a new Age of Dragons when magic will once again work in the world – but to what end…?
  • This book sees Daenerys venturing across the arid deserts of Essos accompanied by her loyal knight, Ser Jorah Mormont, a small band of Khal Drogo’s surviving followers and her three baby dragons, seeking help in the slave cities of the south to return to Westeros and reclaim her rightful throne, unaware of the complex machinations and battles going on back in Westeros for that very throne..

The stills on this page are from HBO’s riveting TV dramatisation of ‘A Clash of Kings’ which aired in the States – and in the UK on Sky Atlantic – last year, and is now out on DVD.

Series 3, based on the third novel, ‘A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow’, starts airing on Sky Atlantic, also in March 2013.

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (1996)

27 December 2012

‘How different, how very different from the home life of our own dear queen’,’ one is tempted to comment about the shenanigans at the court of King Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, who led a victorious rebellion to overthrow the mad king Aerys and his House of Targaryan, and now rules the continent of Westeros. (Numerous maps of Westeros are available on the web, including a colourful one defining the regions ruled by each House; the ones included in the books are usefully collected on this page.)

Game of Thrones is the first in the epic seven-novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, by American fantasy writer George RR Martin, set in the mythical medieval land of Westeros. The novel follows the fortunes of the powerful noble families or Houses who divide up the land, interweaving the stories of countless kings and queens, knights and concubines, servants and maesters, as they scheme, poison and fight each other for power.

Genre Swords and dragons. Fantasy.

Style The style is Tolkien meets Michael Crichton. Tolkien because, although he wasn’t the first to write stories set in medieval times, far from it, I think he was the first to combine elements of legend, the supernatural, and previously disparate folklore entities – elves, dwarves, giants – into one coherent imaginary world, created with such enormous attention to detail, to the backstory, the languages, the geography of that world – that the Middle Earth he created is a universe which fans can still immerse themselves and get lost in to this day.

Suspense Michael Crichton because the chapters are short and punchy with a clear narrative focus, moving the story on at pace like a modern thriller. Something happens in each chapter, often shocking and unexpected events. Each chapter is named after a character and tells the developments in the complicated plotlines from their point of view. So a shocking surprising event happens in a chapter devoted to the dwarf Tyrion. But instead of the next chapter following on, it will jump to the adventures of Jon Snow on the Great Ice wall a thousand miles to the North. This leaping between about ten different characters, so that you don’t find out what happened next to Tyrion, creates a permanent sense of suspense which is very gripping.

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in HBO's 'Game of Thrones' broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Style Similarly, although he throws in the odd token medievalism (‘oft’, ‘elsewise’, ‘near’ used as an adverb, inversions – “he was a man full grown”) essentially the tale is told in tough modern prose. A disconcerting symptom of the modernity of thought and style is the swearing. The characters quite often say ‘f***’ and sometimes the c word, something I don’t think we find in the genteel narratives of Dr Tolkien. If nothing else does, the swearing alerts you to the harsh, cynical, contemporary mindset underpinning the books. Maybe it’s more Tolkien meets Tarantino.

Paratext is the term is used by literary theorists to refer to the font, layout, pagination, prefaces etc which hedge round the text of a published book and which to some extent qualify and mediate our experience of the text. The book ‘Game of Thrones’ comes with five pages of maps, preparing you for a narrative which involves travel, and in an unknown fantasy land. It ends with 30 pages of Appendix featuring a couple of pages listing all the members of the major Houses, and a timeline of Westeros history, alerting the reader to the scope and complexity of the story. When my son was persuading me to read it, this long appendix put me off – I though, God, do I have to learn all this? In the event, it’s vital and addictive: and I kept referring to it to understand who was who and why they were plotting against each other.

With a bit of license we can extend the meaning of ‘paratext’ to include the cloud of associated products and merchandising which so often surround the modern text. First, there is the network of websites, beginning with George RR Martin’s website, his blog, A Song of Ice and Fire wiki and numerous others. Each of the characters has their own facebook page!

Mark Addy as King Robert Baratheon in HBO's 'Game of Thrones', broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Mark Addy as King Robert Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Meanwhile, you can buy Ice and Fire hats, t-shirts, card games, board games, models, scarves, pendants, mugs, magnets and cook books (see the selection available at Forbidden Planet!) ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ isn’t in the Harry Potter league yet but it’s trying.

And there is now a TV series. This first book, ‘Game of Thrones’, came out in 1996. In 2011 the American channel HBO broadcast ‘Game of Thrones’ converted into ten pacey, violent and quite pornographic hour-long TV shows. (Beware of showing them to your children!)

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO's 'Game of Thrones', broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Series two covers the events of book two (‘Clash of Kings’) and was broadcast last year (2012).  Series three has completed production and will be broadcast in March this year (2013). It transmits in the UK on Sky Atlantic.

HBO trailer for Game of Thrones on YouTube

Delay The novels themselves, originally intended to form a trilogy, were extended to a set of five, and now seven. ‘Game of Thrones’ was published in 1996. The fifth installment, ‘A Dance with Dragons’, took over five years to write and was published in 2011. The sixth book, ‘The Winds of Winter’, is being written. The waits between volumes have become notorious: see, for example, this page summarising the reasons fans are anxious GRRM may never complete his epic task.

Going by precedent, the sixth book should come out in 2014 and the last one in 2017, 21 years after the first one! And there’s a possibility the T series might overtake – or have to pause to wait for – the books. Assuming a new season every year, the seventh season will air in 2017, so production would have to start in 2016 – a year before the book it’s based on is published.

So there’s not just suspense about the plotlines and narratives and characters in the text – there’s a higher level metasuspense about the resolution of the entire series, and its interdependency with the TV series. And the unspoken anxiety behind all this – what happens if – God forbid – GRRM (born 1948) dies before finishing the last books? Will it become the greatest unfinished novel since Charles Dickens’ ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’? Would any one of the thousands of other fantasy writers publishing today be invited to complete it? Or if GRRM does complete the series, what’s to stop his publisher commissioning other authors to extend the stories, to write sequels in the way James Bond novels continue to be published to this day, 50 years after Ian Fleming’s death?

Not just the novels – but the status, feasibility, long term future of the stories and characters they contain – will continue to be the subject of feverish speculation for the next four or five years, at least… for a humorous example, check out this video of a song written by US comedy duo Paul and Storn encouraging GRRM to hurry up and finish the series and “Write like the wind”:

The MUSIC and LYRICS of “Write like the wind” copyright Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo and Paul Sabourin

Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and will be out on dvd in March 2013. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

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