Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Everything Old is New Again

Dual review extravaganza!

First of all: I am now prepared to say that A Song of Ice and Fire is the best fantasy series this side of Tolkien. I just wrapped up A Storm of Swords, the third entry in the saga, and was just blown away by it. This is a series to treasure, one that gets better and deeper as you plunge further into it, instead of petering out like Raymond Feist's Midkemia books or spiraling out of control like Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time.

As I described earlier when reacting to A Game of Thrones, these days I'm reluctant about reading new fantasy. It's time-consuming and too often frustrating. I'm glad I did with this one, though.

Before plunging into spoiler territory, I wanted to share some random musings on the subject.

First of all, while I said that ASoIaF is the best fantasy this side of Tolkien, I think most of my peers would actually place it above. This difference gets to the heart of a tension among fantasy writers and readers: emphasis on plot versus emphasis on the world. Most of my friends, who have great taste and who I respect a great deal, cannot abide reading Lord of the Rings due to the lengthy scenes of journeying, storytelling, and conversation that fill its pages. They love the story and action, but are frustrated by everything that gets in the way. In contrast, I wouldn't love the series nearly as much if it wasn't for those interludes: they transport me out of a Hollywood movie and into a world as vast, complex, and perplexing as my own. Middle-earth feels real to me in a way that no other fictional realm has achieved, and a big part of that is because Tolkien made the story serve the world, not make the world serve the story.

So in this classic division, where does Martin come down? He actually bypasses this dilemma. He has pulled off a neat trick, one that he couldn't have done with a shorter series, and one that shows he had a great deal of confidence going into this. To start with, I'm now realizing that Westeros (his fictional realm) is nearly as fully realized as Middle-earth. Let me put this in perspective: let's imagine a logarithmic scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the world of Middle-earth and 1 being the world of Willow (the movie, not the Buffy character). Randland would be a 5, Stephen Donaldson's The Land would be a 3, and Narnia would be a 2. After three books, I'll put Westeros as an 8. I don't think any other book would rate higher than a 5. To be more specific: George R. R. Martin has invented thousands of years of history, a complex system of heraldry, at least three religions, complex and interleaving codes of chivalry, honor, and fidelity, economic systems, and still more details that elevate the realm and make it plausible.

And yet! Unlike most other authors, Martin never beats you over the head with it. Nor does he spoon-feed this complex, engaging history. Instead, he plunges you into the heart of this world, and trusts you to catch up. As a result, the experience of reading ASoIaF is a great deal like growing up in our world: your vocabulary expands as you are exposed to more words, but it takes a while for you to understand the meaning behind those words, and still more time to grasp all the nuance and significance.

I want to give one specific example which is a
Early in the first book, when the Starks are riding near Winterfell, they come across a dead direwolf impaled by an antler. Reading this scene, you the reader occupy the same mental position as the Stark children. You can sense that Eddard and Catelyn are bothered by this scene, but can't tell why.

A book later, I thought back on that scene. Without re-reading it, I now realized the significance: the direwolf is the Stark symbol, while the antlered stag is on the Baratheon coat of arms. For people living with these symbols, that scene would certainly be ominous. Martin could easily have made sure that before we came to that scene we understood those things, but he didn't. Instead he kept the action going. He never slows down for dry exposition; rather, through sheer osmosis, as we are exposed to these details in the course of the plot, we come to gradually understand these things.


Anyways... that's a minor thing, but very illustrative of the way Martin operates. Where Tolkien would stop for a song to describe a moment in history, Martin will, over the course of several hundred pages, provide enough snatches of conversation, glimpses of paintings, and musings that the reader eventually develops a composite understanding of that historical moment. He shows rather than tells.

A side effect of this is that, the deeper you get into the series, the more engrossing it becomes. At first I was reading to learn what would become of the Starks; now, I'm seeing this as the culmination of thousands of years of history. The scope of the book broadens as you are exposed to more, both becoming wider and deeper.

The world, therefore, is excellent. However, I still have to say that Martin's best strength remains his excellent characters. They're like almost nothing else in fantasy. Intriguing, ambitious, cowardly, desperate, prideful... the whole range of human emotion and ability is on display. Martin doesn't just cut across genders, bringing a much-needed female perspective into the center; he also explodes the traditional age category, moving outside the 18-to-25-male-hero who dominates the genre. Narrators can be as young as seven or as old as their golden years; major non-narrating characters cut even younger and older. The characters aren't merely fascinating in their own right, though; it is their interaction that stuns me. The evolution and transformation people go through is as compelling as it is believable.

("Narrator" is a misnomer. The book is told in a third-person narration, but focalized through a character that shifts in every chapter. Hopefully it won't scare you off if I say that the effect is a bit Joycean. Even though the narration is third-person, the color of the narration is strongly influenced by the perspective it is attached to. For example, when a young boy centers the chapter, it will tend to have shorter sentences, be focused on physical stimuli, and not pay much attention to long conversations. In the third book, a very sarcastic and proud person starts centering chapters, and this snide tone is adapted when the narrator describes the people and situations encountered. Anyways. The narration isn't really flashy, but it's quite interesting, and I'm probably not the only English Lit major to be struck by it.)

It's painful, too. I'll warn you up front that Martin has a bad habit of making you care about people and then making nasty things happen to them. It's a tad manipulative, but also powerful. Bad things happen to good people all the time in the real world; why not in fantasy?

One last note on characters before moving on: I think that Martin is the best fantasy author since Stephen Donaldson in crafting morally ambiguous characters. Even though most of the primary characters can be thought of as "good," they often cannot stand one another. The characters for whom I have the most sympathy are also the ones who make tragic mistakes that result in horrible bloodshed; on the other hand, characters with cruel or vindictive streaks can be a great force for good. Actually, I should be careful about using the word "good"... Martin doesn't exactly have the same good-versus-evil calculus that is found in a lot of fantasy. Well, let me rephrase that: there are some characters and situations that we would unquestionably call evil, and there are forces which oppose that evil, but the reader is kept off balance about whether those opposing forces are necessarily better than their foes. It isn't unusual to cheer for a savior, only to find that they turn into a monster. I guess this is kind of a depressing worldview, but it makes for fascinating reading.

So how does Martin manage to pull off this amazing blend of exciting action, intriguing plot, realistic world, and great characters? Partly by hewing to our own world when it suits him. It becomes clear during the first book that the events in Westeros bear a great deal of resemblance to the War of the Roses in England. It isn't a one-to-one allegory at all, but many of the details (banners, the feudal system, importance of marriage in alliances, chivalry, etc.) are carried over wholesale, giving an instant weight and believability to the book... we know that this could happen, because it DID happen. He then playfully writes on top of that foundation, exploring the brutality of war, the fickleness of those alliances, the suffering of peasants... all stuff that we know would be real, even if we have no first-hand acquaintance with it occurring. Having gotten a leg up in his first book, he can move beyond the medieval European setting of Westeros and move more into the realm of pure fantasy as his scope widens to include foreign lands, foreign gods, and the vast reaches of prehistory and mythology.

One more thing worth noting: Martin works for everything he gets. Robert Jordan used to churn out Wheel of Time books every year; Martin took five years between the third and fourth book. I'm therefore in the rare enviable position of getting to a series late... if I play my cards right, I'll be wrapping up the fourth book shortly before the fifth, A Dance with Dragons, comes out. He seems to have things planned out very well. Part of what's stunning about the third book is his revelation of some mysteries from the very start of the first book. There's plenty of drama left to unfold, but he tightens things up as much as he spins them out, giving me a good feeling for the direction of the series. Along the same lines, he has a handle on the whole series, with a total of seven books scheduled. Of course, there's no guarantee that things won't fall apart, but he has gone for three thousand pages without disappointing me yet.

I want to discuss a few more things which will be considered

First, Things That Annoy Me about A Song of Ice and Fire (a short list):
  • The way Martin uses words and names that are a single letter off from well-known English words. "Ser" for "Sir", "Joffrey" for "Jeffrey", "Eddard" for "Edward", etc. It just seems a little arbitrary and annoying. Why do people say "Lord" but not "Sir"? Why "Brandon" but not "Richard"?
  • Killing off characters I like.
  • It seems a tad sloppy to use real English swear words instead of inventing his own, especially when he is reworking so much language anyways. I guess it does help make it clearer that this is an adult book before the really bad stuff starts happening.
  • Um.... I think that's it.
Also, for the record: I love the way Martin has handled magic. The word "magic" isn't even uttered for the first five hundred pages or so of the series. Now, the very first scene is decidedly supernatural, but still, the majority of the action so far has taken place in "civilized" lands, where magic is thought of as something that used to happen in other places. By the end of the third novel, it had become clear that magic is real and is growing more important, which makes its overall effectiveness far higher than if it had been a major plot element from the start.

And now, random thoughts:
  • Favorite Character: Wow, this is like impossible. It was probably Jon and Eddard early in the first book. By now, I'd have to say Arya and Tyrion.
  • Favorite Battle: I love the way that news of Robb's battles gradually drift back to the narrators... you hear a snatch of conversation about a victory, rumors about his magical powers, and finally, a hundred pages later, word from his lips about how he won that fight.
  • I'd love to see a pencil-and-paper RPG made of this. Has anyone done it yet? If not, why? If so, is it in print?
  • Favorite Book: I'll stick with Storm of Swords. I think I've covered this above - the deeper you get, the more impressive it becomes. I expect that Feast for Crows will continue the trend.
  • Favorite New God: The Stranger.
  • Favorite Writing Quirk: I love how Martin always describes every meal anyone eats. Seriously. Why don't people do this more often? My mouth regularly waters when the characters feast in a castle.
  • Favorite City: I actually want to see more of the southern cities; Oldtown in particular sounds intriguing. That said, I think Pyke is the coolest so far. If I had to pick somewhere to actually live, forget Pyke. I'd go with the Bloody Gate.
  • Favorite House: Stark, natch. Though I get more impressed with Tully as the series continues.
  • Least Favorite House: Going with Frey for now, though it has changed before and will likely change again!
  • Favorite Member of the Small Council: Petyr Baelish (aka Littlefinger) is fascinating. What IS he up to?
  • Favorite Foreign Land: Probably the Free Cities.
  • Favorite Weapon: It wasn't on stage long enough, but I love the influence that Needle continues to hold over the series. I'm also attached to Ice for sentimental reasons.
  • Favorite Villain: This is just impossible! Joffrey is one of the purest monsters in writing. I may give the edge to Gregor Clegane. All of Arya's tormentors deserve special treatment, though.
  • Favorite Song: Not the Maid and the Bear... that's a little too perverted for me. Probably the wedding song.
  • Favorite Tale: I like the one about the crannogman who jousts at Harrenhal. Oh, wait: favorite is probably the Rat Cook.
  • Craziest Person: There actually are surprisingly few crazy people in this series, especially if you discount the psychopaths (like Gregor) and the fanatics. Of those remaining, I think Lady Lysa... she seems quite normal when you first hear about her, but she has a very skewed vision of reality, particularly when it comes to her son.
  • Favorite Dead Guy: Jon Arryn is a towering figure for someone who dies before the book begins. Rhaegar as well - it feels like he had a lot of potential, and yet I hardly knew him. Same with Eddard's elder brother. Man... a LOT of people are dead. That's yet another thing I like about this series: Martin sets this fascinating civil war over a decade in the past, and makes it so interesting and important that you still feel its aftershocks.
That's all I can think of for now, although I'm sure there will be more coming. Looking forward to the fourth and fifth books!


Now, let's turn to our second installment. The Cobweb by Neal Stephenson is the second of his Stephen Bury books that I've read. Like the first one, Interface, it reads like an innovative Tom Clancy novel: a nominal thriller, it is as interested in technology and the workings of government as it is with mysteries and spies. It's solidly B-level Stephenson, which means it is still far more entertaining than most books out there.

I want to talk about the content of this book, but first, some spoiler-free thoughts. Stephenson completists needn't fear picking up this book... while not one of his best efforts, it is entertaining and stylish. That said, this feels even less like a "normal" Stephenson book than Interface. He seems to really tamp down on his trademark digressions, and does not explore technology with the same vigor that he did in the first book. If you only read one of the books, I'd recommend "Interface."

Where Interface focused on the front end of politics - campaigning - The Cobweb focuses on the back end - career bureaucrats who actually do government work. It does include a token political campaign, but everyone considers it far less important than the actual work being done. And its view of the bureaucracy is truly frightening, far closer to "Brazil" or "Office Space" than "24" or "Law & Order". Weirdly, Stephenson (and George - I don't mean to slight his co-author) is able to craft a lot of tension out of this ossified world. Red tape becomes an enemy, the joint committee a threat, and you start to quiver when an Inspector General takes the stage. Dense acronyms fill the Washington section of this book in the same way that coinage filled Quicksilver.

Let's see, what else... besides the campaigning/governing dichotomy, I can think of some other oppositions. Interface was neurology, The Cobweb is biology. Interface was the struggle to reach Washington, The Cobweb the struggle to effect things outside it. Political gurus in Interface are geniuses, and in The Cobweb they are clowns. All that to say, these two books decidedly occupy the same space while decidedly being very different works.

All right, I think that's all I can cover without dipping into


Another division is that Interface is set in the near future, while The Cobweb is set during a very specific period: the run-up to the first Gulf War. This means that, unlike Interface, we get walk-ons from some real historical figures. I was startled when Dick Cheney made an appearance, and again when George H. W. Bush himself enters the scene. The book was published in 1996, and it's impossible to read it today without thinking about the present war.

Side note that doesn't belong in the spoilers section but fits the flow here:

The first Gulf war is the earliest political story that I remember. Unlike my parents, who (sensibly) were worried about the potential conflagration in the Middle East, I was an enthusiastic supporter in the way that only a little boy could be. I thought the vehicles were cool, the war was just, Saddam a bad man, and our soldiers heroes. I'd still consider all these to be true (only the second item being even slightly questionable), but I still doubt I'd muster the same level of enthusiasm in the same circumstances today.

I recall that the war was a big, positive part of my popular culture exposure. I remember being in my elementary school cafeteria, eating juicy gummy candies that were shaped like U. S. Air Force planes; the coolest ones were the stealth bombers, and I'd save those for last. I also bought some collecting cards. You know how a baseball card shows the player on the front, and their stats and a small bio on the back? You could get cards of the same stuff for the war: schematics on our aircraft, bios of military leaders, cards for battleships and submarines and allies... all pretty remarkable, and all pretty commercial.

So, while the first Iraq war made a pretty big impact on me, over time my attitude towards the war has shifted, from less of a "Yay, woo-hoo! Let's invade this thing!" to a "Well, if we had to fight that war, we did it the right way." And, circling back to Interface, I keep thinking about our current role in there.

In some ways, the situation with the current war would be both similar and opposite to the war in the book. The heroes in this book are struggling against an entrenched Washington bureaucracy that is trying to keep the U.S. from war, and shoots down all attempts to uncover Saddam's plans for acquiring weapons of mass destruction. They need to operate outside the conventional channels in order to uncover the truth.

If the same book were written today, of course, the heroes would be struggling against an entrenched Washington administration that is trying to push the U. S. to war, and shoots down all attempts to explain that Saddam does not possess weapons of mass destruction.

The situation in the book is actually a bit more complex than real life. In the book, there is kind of a sandwich effect: people at the bottom know what's going on, and people at the top want to do the right thing. The struggle is working through the middle layer, whose only interest is protecting the status quo. Whereas in the rush to the second war, the analysts who determined that there was not a strong case of war faced a President who was convinced that there was. In the hypothetical modern version of The Cobweb, the only hope would have been reaching the media or the public directly... and in the case of the threat faced by protagonists in The Cobweb, doing that may not be an option.

Race plays an interesting role in the story. The African-American characters' race does not seem to have much influence, but a large number of the minor characters are international students primarily from south Asian and Middle-Eastern nations. Stephenson pays a lot more respect to their immigrant experience than I was expecting... the really digs into native's attitudes towards foreigners, the overwhelming strangeness of American culture, and the odd sort of power games that are played when American universities poach the best and brightest from their homelands. Before one character dies, he earnestly urges another to convert to Islam and save his soul, a scene that I found quite touching.

One thing that I really appreciated about both this book and Interface is its grounding in the American Midwest. I grew up there, and so I'm especially attached to its portrayal in fiction. All too often the Midwest is used as a blank, featureless canvas on which crazy action can take place, with maybe some funny accents tossed in if you're lucky. Stephenson grew up in Iowa, though, and he really shows an understanding of this land and its customs. You can sense the difference between Clyde Banks, born and raised in Iowa, from the suave FBI agents out of Washington. He perfectly paints the land grant university system... Eastern Iowa could never be confused with a school on the East Coast. Even little details, like the social functions at the church, rang very true with me. Stephenson isn't showing off his knowledge here, all of it is background, but it's a rare and therefore most welcome example of a positive, accurate depiction of the Midwest in a novel.

Now, this wouldn't be a Stephenson novel unless there were some plot threads that never went anywhere. A while ago the New Yorker printed the letters between Raymond Carver and his editor -this was utterly fascinating, a glimpse behind the curtain at the "magic" process by which raw inspiration is turned into what we actually read. I would LOVE to see the equivalent letters between Stephenson and his editors. Hopefully they're bright enough to recognize that, when he breaks the rules of good writing, he is achieving a greater good. A big part of the fun of reading Stephenson is the wild, sloppy, gee-whiz-isn't-this-cool? attitude that he brings to his stories. So, while I claim I would have liked resolution on the murders and intrigues which are never properly explained, I also recognize that that wasn't part of the deal... I'm sharing a good yarn with Stephenson, not reading a complete and accurate history, and should just focus on enjoying the ride.


That's that! For the record, I HAVE read more books since my last "review", but these were the first ones about which I had anything specific to say. I think I am now finally, officially, finished with all of Neal Stephenson's novels, although I still would like to chase down his short stories and travel writing. Just now I hopped on Wikipedia to make sure that this last sentence was accurate, and so I just now discovered that his next book is FINALLY scheduled: Anathem. It's been about four years since System of the World was released, and I'm far from alone in eagerly anticipating his next offering. Also, that Wikipedia page links to a blog entry describing an interview Neal Stephenson gave at Google Kirkland. I really hope he does a tour with Anathem, I'd love to see him.

On a related note, if you haven't already read his Slashdot interview, please do so now. It's among the greatest things I've seen on the Internet. (Disclaimer: I am a huge nerd.)

In any case, I have my work cut out for me... I was about a third of the way through Midnight's Children when it came due, so I need to take another crack at that, plus there's some nonfiction I've been waiting to tackle. There's never enough time for everything I want to read, but it always feels good to put another few notches in my belt.


  1. I hope to be literate again when I return to a land where English language books are available this summer, so I'll be sure to look for the series in your post! In other news I was looking up Raymond E. Feist characters on Wikipedia, and oh the nostalgia! I'm not sure I'd be up for reading his newer stuff, but it's fun to re-visit the plot and characters I'd forgotten about from the old.

  2. Yeah, early Feist was a lot of fun... Magician and the first two sequels. The middle and side novels were fine, but I detested the Serpentwar Saga, or at least the little I could stand to read.

    Also, it's really weird to think that I wouldn't have read Feist if it hadn't been for Sierra's "Betrayal at Krondor." How odd!

    Enjoy your return to English-language books, there's far too much good stuff out there to choose from.

  3. Bro- Hate to point this out, but you write the title of the series as A Song of Fire and Ice. Its actually "A Song of Ice and Fire."

  4. Ah, thanks for the note! I'll correct it for posterity's sake.