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‘Said the crow to the raven…’ October 5, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
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(Vaguely spoilery for A Song of Ice and Fire.) I’m always on the lookout for new fantasy series, preferably of books that go beyond the usual cliches. I’ve read enough about elves, dwarves, swords, sorcery and dragons to last me a lifetime, and gritty, urban vampire-werewolf crime-fighting only held my attention for a few months before I realised how appalling most of the writing was and how difficult it was to find ‘urban fantasy’ that wasn’t Anita Blake-style paranormal romance. I still hold a great deal of affection for Celtic and historical fantasy, but it’s usually so sweet-natured (unless written by Sara Douglass) that after a while I feel like I’ve overdosed on toffee and caramel.

So this summer I thought I’d try out George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I’m surprised it took me so long. I first became aware of ASoIaF (there’s a clunky abbreviation!) when Jo Walton linked to a series of redesigned fantasy book covers, supposedly with titles that accurately described the books. ASoIaF was retitled ‘Knights Who Say Fuck’. This made me giggle a bit, but then I forgot the series again until Neil Gaiman made his infamous blog post berating a Martin fan who was getting impatient at Martin’s seeming inability to complete the series: ‘Look,’ wrote Gaiman, ‘George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.’ Martin was clearly a writer who aroused strong reactions (and, apparently, caused me to swear twice on this blog, something I try not to do). Then one of my friends on TRoH started reading the series and posting about it, and I knew it was time to do the same myself.

I adored it. So much so that I devoured all five books in about a week (and they devoured my bank account). I joined the legion of impatient fans desperate for Martin to overcome the writer’s block he’s been suffering while struggling to complete the sixth book, A Dance With Dragons, although, as a fan of Isobelle Carmody (who began her Obernewtyn series in the 80s and is yet to complete it) I’m a little more understanding than most.

But what is so special about ASoIaF? Isn’t it just another vaguely historical, swords and sorcery epic fantasy? There are dragons and a ‘dark power brewing in the North’, after all, but there the resemblance to paint-by-numbers epic fantasy ends. ASoIaF is loosely based on the Wars of the Roses, one of the most violent, fratricidal, betrayal-filled periods of English history. The thing that has always struck me about the Wars of the Roses was their pointlessness. It was as if the country went insane for 100 years, experienced an orgy of killing, intrigue and backstabbing until all of the original combatants were dead, and then a victor who had sat back and enjoyed the show climbed over the corpses to get the prize. The struggles left the country reeling, ruined and disoriented, although the deaths of so many of the nobility would lead to great social mobility and change.

In ASoIaF, however, we haven’t got to the end of the battles yet. Martin appears to be wrapping up one of his main arcs (involving his versions of the Yorkists and Lancastrians, the Starks and Lannisters) and moving on to another arc involving Daenerys Targaryen, the Henry Tudor figure. Readers who have stuck with the series for the first five books have been treated to thousands of pages of death, battle, torment and brutality. ASoIaF is certainly not for the faint-hearted or the weak-stomached. A friend of mine warned me before I began reading that Martin was not averse to killing off main characters, and that no character was safe. There were moments where I was on the verge of tearing the book up, I was so angry with the injustice of what Martin was putting his characters through.

But at the same time, that injustice and emotional manipulation is what makes the series so refreshing. Martin has broken one of the cardinal rules of epic fantasy: moral uprightness does not protect a character from death. In most other fantasy series of this style, if a character’s cause is just and he or she is a good person, he or she survives. At worst, a character might die heroically, knowing he or she has ushered in a newer, better order. Martin doesn’t treat his readers like escapist idiots. Good women are abused and murdered, protective mothers see their sons die before their eyes and even children travel across the country, tortured, taken advantage of, emotionally abused, only to have their every hope and dream dashed before their eyes. Most importantly, people who put honour and morality and compassion before reason suffer the logical consequences of a dishonourable, immoral and cruel world.

This is the absolute opposite of what normally happens in fantasy novels, where such people are rewarded for their positive qualities. Martin also doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of war. Every battle he describes is followed by pages of narrative outlining the suffering meted out to the unfortunate peasants who happen to live nearby the site of the battle. Martin’s choices show great respect for fantasy readers, who are often dismissed as soft-hearted, dreamy fantasists, people who read speculative fiction for ‘escapism’.

There’s no escape here. Readers looking for a nice story about elves and dragons, with black and white morality and glorious heroism will be sadly disappointed. Those who like their fantasy to provide a window into reality will feel right at home.

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Comments»

1. Lol - October 5, 2009

Not that this is even remotely like aSoIaF, but have you read ‘The Demon’s Lexicon’, by Sarah Rees Brennan?

2. dolorosa12 - October 6, 2009

No, I haven’t, but I’m going to see if it’s available at either the council library or one of the university libraries. It sounds interesting, and more like the kind of urban fantasy I’d enjoy reading.

3. Losseniaiel - October 10, 2009

In defense of paranormal romance, I would say that Anita Blake isn’t really paranormal romance either, any more than it’s urban fantasy. Urban paranormal erotic chick lit, maybe? I’m not sure, and any time I suffer a vague curiosity about the series, the reviews soon cure it, so I’ll probably never find it.

Paranormal romance itself has the good, the bad, the ugly, and the downright saccharine WTF, but it has the romance prerequisite (a must for me, but probably a real drag for anyone else) of a happy ending between the hero and heroine in which they realise that they love one another, and do not go round shagging anything that moves. 😉 Of course, I prefer it when this happy ending is not all hugs and bunnies, and all problems do not miraculously go away (read any review of J.R. Ward’s books, which I love, and you’ll probably see what I mean). But without this, the Anita Blake books fall into an odd genre hole. I have read one or two books that fit into this non-category, and as a romance reader I found them profoundly unsatisfying, and not exactly what I’d categorise as fantasy either.

Anyway, that wasn’t to do with the main point of your post. Sorry; Anita Blake always gets my hackles up.

4. dolorosa12 - October 10, 2009

Yes, you’re probably right, and I certainly defer to your much wider knowledge of the genre. HOWEVER I certainly would not classify Anita Blake as urban fantasy, since it gets MY hackles up when people lump it in with wonderful, wonderful urban fantasy such as China Mieville’s books. The Anita Blake series has that semi-prerequisite of paranormal romance that there be some kind of supernatural crime going on, which the heroine has to solve, which is why I tend to include it there.

As you say, every fantasy sub-genre has its good, bad, ugly and WTFery, and it’s up to us as readers to read enough in order work out what suits our tastes best.

5. whit3butt3rfly - October 13, 2009

I haven’t read this book yet, but a few years ago I was asking someone in Borders to recommend a good fantasy one and recommended this one. I haven’t gotten around to reading it, but from memory he was saying it’s about political stuff? Which I don’t know really interests me much – maybe why I haven’t been in a hurry to read it (I’m a typical girl reader in that way, I like interwoven, some nice romance as well). I just read the start of your review, and I think I might try it! Thanks!!

This is a good idea to have a separate blog for reviewing of books… what other types of blogs do you have?
I’ve been trying to separate private/friend blogs from my writing, but can’t decide where to put them, and how to divide them 😛

6. dolorosa12 - October 13, 2009

Well, it’s about politics in the same way many epic fantasy stories are about politics – the struggle between various people to attain the kingship. However, it’s much more complicated than that, in that there are about six different people claiming the kingship, and all their followers, and all the backstabbing and intrigue going on in the background. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and there certainly isn’t any romance to speak of (indeed, it’s kind of anti-romance).

I really loved it because it’s based on the Wars of the Roses, and I’m a massive history nerd.

I currently have three blogs (and one private one which is mostly for any very angry rants that I don’t want to burden my friends with but just have to get off my chest somehow). The main livejournal one is essentially for for memes, personal stuff, and for reading and commenting on other blogs and communities. This one is more formal. It’s for reviewing books, films, TV shows and sometimes music, and also to write more general essays about some aspect of literature/film etc that has grabbed my attention. I also write about life in Cambridge here, as some family members read this blog and this is how they find out how I’m going. My other blog is a wordpress blog that is a fanblog for the Romanitas trilogy by Sophia McDougall at http://longvision.wordpress.com/. I set that one up because I was disgusted at the lack of fandom for that trilogy, and hope to start creating a fandom for them.

You should try separating your blogs somewhat. I find it helps keep me sane!

whit3butt3rfly - October 13, 2009

Good idea about separating blogs! I agree, I feel like I want to unload and have angry vents, but there are a few obernet friends, and other friends who see what I post and I feel I should curb the anger. So perhaps a more private venting one is needed with vox, then the LJ one for general personal stuff, and then wordpress for writing… Thanks for the tip 🙂

Thanks for letting me know about the book too, I will have to get around to read the first one at least, since I’ve got it! 🙂

7. Get medieval « Geata Póeg na Déanainn - November 7, 2010

[…] There are deep flaws with this series (the one I find most troubling is that rape and sexual deviance are used as shorthand for moral depravity, which strikes me as plain lazy), but you can’t say it’s an inaccurate depiction of its Wars of the Roses source material. It absolutely sucks to be a woman in this universe. If you’re lucky, you’ll dutifully make an arranged match with someone who treats you decently, and be expected to lead his forces when he’s otherwise occupied (Catelyn Stark, who is so awesome I can’t find the words to express how much I love her character; the Catelyn-bashing among the fandom disgusts me). If you’re unlucky, you’re Arya Stark. Or Sansa Stark. Or Brienna. Or Cersei Lannister. In any case, Martin, for the most part, gets it right. (I’ve already written about this series here.) […]


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