Friday, February 14, 2020
February 14, 2020: Fantasy Stories I Love: George R.R. Martin
[Since I’m teaching the Intro to Sci Fi/Fantasy class this semester, for my annual Valentine’s series I wanted to focus on fantasy authors & stories I’ve loved. Leading up to a weekend post on an emerging community who deserve more love!]
On why the book that took Martin’s blockbuster series off the rails also exemplifies his ground-breaking achievements.
I know it’s very difficult to write about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series in 2020 without discussing HBO’s Game of Thrones, the adaptation Martin’s books that became one of the biggest TV shows of all time. But as someone who read the first Martin book, A Game of Thrones (1996), shortly after its initial release—and someone who gave the TV show the old college try when it came along 15 years later, getting a season and a half in before realizing that it was so fully not my beloved Martin books that there was no way I would ever be able to enjoy it—the books are what I love, and so they’re what I’ll write about in this Valentine’s Day post. Perhaps my favorite thing about Martin’s books, the way that each chapter is written in the third-person limited omniscient perspective of one character (with at least a dozen distinct such perspective characters per book, and more added with each volume), opening up countless layers of characterization, backstory, and world-building as a result, was simply impossible to replicate in the show; that’s a difference in medium, plain and simple, but it wasn’t one that I was going to be able to get past as a viewer.
No post about Martin’s books can avoid the elephant in the room: the entirely uncertain status of the series, and more exactly of whether Martin will ever finish it (the most recent, fifth volume, A Dance with Dragons , came out 6 years after the prior, fourth book, A Feast for Crows ; and it has now been nearly 9 years since Dance with no sixth book in sight). There are of course all sorts of theories and arguments about why the series has slowed down so markedly, but many of them focus precisely on those fourth and fifth books, and in particular on a hugely controversial choice that Martin made with Feast: his work on the book in progress was getting so voluminous that it looked unlikely to be published as one volume; and rather than divide it up at the halfway point as you might expect, Martin decided to publish one book featuring half of his central characters (Feast) and then a second featuring the other half (Dance). At the time a concluding note in Feast suggested that the follow-up book would be published in the following year; but of course it ended up taking six years for Dance to be completed, and it’s difficult to separate that fraught period from this controversial decision and thus from Feast as the embodiment of all those issues.
I get all that, and as a reader desperately waiting for book six I share these frustrations (while recognizing that no, Martin does not owe us anything). But I’m also frustrated by the frustrations, because to my mind A Feast for Crows is a towering achievement and one that exemplifies much of what makes Martin’s series so unique and successful. To put it simply, Martin’s series is the most realistic epic fantasy I’ve ever read, combining plenty of fantastic elements (dragons, magic, chosen ones and quests, etc.) with profoundly realistic depictions of historical and social themes like class, gender, sex, love, marriage, family, power, politics, and, most importantly for Feast, war. You see, by the fourth book the multi-part war that began in Game of Thrones has been raging for some time, and in one of Feast’s plot threads a main character finds herself traveling across the countryside with an itinerant priest seeking to tend to the lives, families, homes, and communities that have been affected by that conflict. I know many readers have complained that this thread was a digression, embodied the ways in which the series began to lose steam with Feast. But I think it’s at the heart of Martin’s project, a vision of epic fantasy that does all the things we love in the genre but also seeks to do things we (or least I) had never seen, like portray, with realism and sensitivity and power, the historical and social effects of those genre elements.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Favorite fantasy authors or stories you’d share?