Monday, June 02, 2014

Song of Ice and Fire

As usual, I came late to George RR Martin’s enormous Saga of A Song of Ice and Fire. I know my share of pop culture, though I try not to jump the bandwagon. For example, I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey and do not wish to read it either. However, Martin is a different story. I have known about the books much before Game of Thrones became such a phenomenon on HBO. I had even downloaded the ebook versions of the books, to read them at leisure. That never happened.

I came to Game of Thrones during the third season, thanks to a colleague who gave me the earlier episodes. I liked it. I liked some storylines better. I liked Ned Stark and Tyrion Lannister and Arya Stark. Then I decided to give a serious try to read the novels. I ordered the books from flipkart. Together, they were frighteningly massive. They sat there for a long time. Sometimes I would pick up one copy from the boxset, study the maps or perhaps read some pages and put them back. It was frightening to start the whole thing. The worry was: When am I going to finish the whole thing?

And, dear reader, last month I finished the whole series, from Game of Thrones to A Dance with Dragons. For better or for worse. Now, I want to know how the story ends. So badly. Who will finally sit on the iron throne? You know, there are three dragons. Who are the two others besides Dany who will ride them? Things like that. For the last one month, I have been dreaming of Westeros. No, it’s not a fairy land. Given a chance, I probably would not go there. Even if I am forcefully sent there, I do not think I will survive for more than a week. It’s a hard and merciless place, but fascinating.

I have always been a fan of JRR Tolkien, and Martin has often been compared to Tolkien. Which is a good thing. But Martin is extraordinary on his own right. I thought I would just make a short list why Martin is so great.

1. Allegorically, the series reads like part anti-slavery saga, what with the story of Daenerys Stromborn defeating the slave masters. On the other side, the story is a plea for equality for people, especially migrants. The set-up at the Wall, with the arrival of the Others and how Jon helps the free folks, speaks about the idea of asylum. In the American context, you can read it as a story of migration to American and how migrants are treated. So, on the one hand, we have the African Americans and on the other we have the Mexicans on the border, in a medieval fantasy set in a place like England, written by an American. An odd beast, indeed.

2. For a fantasy fiction, Martin does a curious thing, he invents religion, not one but several. Religion in fantasy fiction is not new. But in most cases, they are all smoke and mirror, a sideshow to the real story, and when a religious discourse is delivered, it has its roots in the real world. But, Martin’s religions in the novels are so diverse that it would be difficult to find a real-life equivalent. There is the old religion, involving weirwood trees, there is the new religion of the Seven, there is the Fire God, there is the Faceless One. Martin makes every one of them real.

3. Another hallmark of high-fantasy literature is detailed geography. Tolkien was a master. But Martin almost surpasses Tolkien, in the sense that he creates so many tiny details, not only the great cities, even the small towns are mentioned in detail, so are the rivers and hills and roads, and even places where no immediate action is taking places. The unique thing, however, is the weather, a land where a season lasts for years. Yet, there are places where it’s perpetually cold and there are places where it is warm even in winter.

4. As a practicing writer, I know how difficult it is to create a named character and make it stand out. Martin does it with effortless casualness. The novels have thousand of named character. Not just their names, we know the names of their fathers and grandfathers and from where they came. And they are so full of quirks and each of them are individuals. Even characters who do not have much role to play in the larger scheme of things, like Sir Beric’s squire, whose aunt was in love with Ned Stark.

5. The story in the real-time is so full of drama and intrigue and with such a diverse cast of characters that an ordinary writer would skip the back-story to the minimum. But Martin creates a back-story to what is happening in Westeros with such vivid and luxurious details that they are worth a novel themselves. But like a good narrator, he doesn’t tell the back-story at one go, but in bits and pieces, as part of stray conversations, so that the readers have to pick them up and join them together. This is where the fun lies. I mean, we still don’t know who is Jon’s mother. It may be Lyanna, Ned’s sister. We also do not exactly know what happened between Lyanna and Raegar, the last dragon.

6. To tell a story of such diverse characters, spread across such vast distances, Martin chooses an extraordinary narrative devise, which serves him well. He jumps from one point of view from another, at times narratives overlapping, at times going on different directions. But always engrossing. What’s more, it makes the readers an ally to the narrative. Sometimes the readers know more than the characters and this dramatic irony serve them well.

7. Creating fantasy literature is not about setting the story in a far off land or giving them fantastic names or introducing dragons. It’s all that and more. It’s about creating a parallel universe where you have to account for where the food comes from, customs and traditions of the people, with the rationale why. Martin does it admirably well. He describes clothes with the eye of a designer. He describes food like a chef, with variety, how the food in Winterfell is different from that of Drone. How the people of Meereen dress. How the bastards of each region are named from something unique to the region. Bastards from North are called Snow whereas bastards from Dorne are called Sand. It’s an entire world out there.

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