‘Playin’ with Ice and Fire – A Game of Thoughts’ is a chapter-by-chapter read through of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Elena brings the perspective and fresh eyes of a new reader to A Song of Ice and Fire, and I offer the pseudo-wisdom of a re-reader’s experience (that is as official a spoiler warning you’re going to get–though new readers or those who haven’t read up to A Feast for Crows can still follow Elena’s views and enjoy the ride). She’s the new hotness and I’m old and busted. Elena will not be reading my portions, but we will have various themed supplementary posts as either of us deems fit to make sure we touch on important points and keep shit rockin’.
The POV Readers
So here’s what I knew about George R. R. Martin going in to this read-and-discuss project as the person reading A Game of Thrones for the first time:
- He swears a lot, which I know thanks to a mockery cover I saw once renaming AGOT The Knights Who Say “Fuck.”
- He uses many multiple points of view.
- He has no compunctions about killing off even major characters.
- He writes “gritty” and violent and “dark” epic fantasy.
- He hasn’t finished the series and is taking so long between books that some of his fan base is shifting anxiously for him to get on with it, lest he leave this mortal coil ere he completes The Great Work like Robert Jordan did.
A Song of Fire and Ice came onto the fantasy scene shortly after I grew out of Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan (speak of the devil and up he jumps, right?), got bored, and went to play in a different corner of Genre in the mid- to late 1990s. The series has been near the top of my Shit I Really Do Need to Read list for a while. I’ve had this book on my shelf for 2 years, remnant of a trip to a used bookstore the last time I was in a place that had one with a decent SFF section. So now I’m reading it, and chronicling my journey for your amusement, your enlightenment, or the vicarious experience of reading one of your favorite books for the first time all over again. Also, I’m taking ye ole Knights Who Say Fuck at his word and canting in my natural tongue, not my usual “polished” AKA ixnay on the uck-word-fay tonality of more formal reviewing. Anyway. Enough yap from me. Let’s talk about part the preliminary, titled “Prologue.”
I’m entering as somebody who has read all the available material, however, it’s been some years since I’ve crashed Westeros, thus I am not at all surprised that I’m instantly back in the mix with this prologue. It’s not just because I claim this series as one of the best of any genre that I’ve ever read, but also because I tend to be a chronic re-reader who enjoys the experience of revisting old haunts.
I know, I know, with so many potential great and new experiences on the shelves, why re-read? For me it’s the distinction between enjoying and admiring something and being a fan of something. I don’t want to downplay the former, because I think genius can as easily reside in that category, but the difference as I see it is in level of immersion. A certain quality distinguishes books you look forward to (and that even eventually deliver satisfaction) and full blown ‘event’ publishing. Some books you close fully satisfied and ready to recommend at the instance the opportunity arises. A Game of Thrones is not one of these books. It’s a rarer breed, one that makes even the naturally cool, calm and collective into a proactive, determined hunters; delaying sleep, causing slippage into fevre dreams while googling names of characters people, places and terms you didn’t know existed a week — a page — before.
You do this just before you go on your own hunter’s run for more of your kind, a club that comes with its on passwords. You know, those that know the code, R + L = J. Whether we believe it or not, we recognize those that speak our language. You need to talk about aSoIaF to gather more information and pool resources to mentally catalog even later when no one else is around. I’ve championed this series since the ’90s; on the surface, a harmless enough statement that has deeper implications–it’s been a part of my life for more than a decade now. As lovely, educational, thrilling and as glorious the one-night stand can be, we aren’t still talking or contemplating about them after a decade.
This makes the experience no less welcome, but we are hardly ever sad to see them go, at best relegated to a dust-collecting trophy for the (book) shelf. I find myself in 2010 doing a re-read in unison with someone who is taking her first dive into the fire (w/ ice). If you’ve read the series already, you know it’s one that has a second , third, an almost infinite life in discussion. aSoIaF promotes gatherings and prompts construction of forums where proof-in-pudding cans are found mixed within the best and deliciously worst of of crackpots. Before talks of DARMA and the Others, we talked Aegon and the Sword of the Morning. When we do/did this, we actively participated in expanding the world in the process, Westeros and our own. A Game of Thrones introduces us to this world, one where we don’t just read and talk about character’s actions, interactions and their dialogue — we also get together and gossip about their secrets. From childhood to even now, there is perhaps nothing in life makes us feel more in the moment, anxious, connected, then when we swap and uncover secrets with one another. These are the bonds of mischievous discovery. A Song of Ice and Fire is the best of both worlds: a friend with benefits. A Game of Thrones is that first magical and knowing impression that the latter was in play.
Prologue read like a ghost story. Three watchmen on a patrol. One old grizzled vet, knows his shit. One young boy used to poach the woods, best woodsmen in the garrison, knows his shit. One young, arrogant, younger son of an aristocrat, may know his shit and have balls of steel to boot, may have the dullest instincts and lowest survival odds of them all. Hard to say at first, when the two guards keep getting creeped out by the woods and the officer keeps remanding them for it, insisting they qualify the instinct that neither one of them can quite explain.
Normally they watch from something called The Wall. I’m assuming it’s, you know, a wall, and on one side of it is this cursed or haunted or maybe just really ill-favored forest, which they take ranging expeditions into but are always careful not to stay too long in. They were tracking a group of raiders. The younger guard said he found their camp and they were all dead, apparently from exposure. Which made no sense because it wasn’t that cold yet. So the captain and the boy go look. Bodies are gone. Boy goes up a tree to scout. Crazy glow-y crystal-sworded “white shadow” shows up.
I’m picturing some end of The Dark Crystal shit, when the Skeksis and the Mystics finally meld again, but the description’s pretty vague. Nothing to discount that, though, so I’m keeping it. But however you dice it in your mental eyeholes, creepy shit, reeking of magic and winter. Pretty boy captain goes down. Boy in the tree waits a long time before he climbs down. When he gets there pretty boy captain resurrects, wet with his own blood but eyes lit with the blue fire of his murderers. Oh, shit. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand darkness.
So, it set the scene effectively. Malevolently magical forest. Typical rich-have-authority, officers-are-arsehole-morons and poachers-bring-the-hammer-down medieval-ish society (equipment included chain mail, swords, knives, axes, and horses, so the accoutrements seem right in line with that, too). Suggestion of some seriously hard core enemy that threatens to fuck their world up, that the people on The Wall and behind it aren’t yet cognizant of. They may, you know, in a vague way suspect it’s there, like that’s why they built The Wall, and that’s why they don’t go on the other side of it very often, but none of them seem quite aware of what, exactly, they’re hiding from and watching for and guarding against.
The writing was easy to read, easy to follow. I hated the captain almost on sight, so obviously there was good, nearly instantaneous, even, identification with some of the characters, because I saw the captain how they did. My one complaint was that the boy could see red in the forest when night had fallen and the moon was lighting it. I’m not going to complain about it being only a quarter moon, cause, fuck if I know, maybe their moon is 10 times the size of ours.
And maybe they’re up in the mountains, and from camping trips I’ve taken in the mountains with snow all over the ground to reflect it, moonlight can effectively light the scene to show everything that he saw. I’m not arguing that. But moonlight bleaches color. He wouldn’t have seen the color red. That bugged me. I’m not trying to nitpick, but I still read fantasy cynically—that whole getting bored with and abandoning it thing really scarred me—and that jumped out as a What the Fuck, Really?, sort of moment.
But, otherwise, good shit. Engaging, emotion-rousing (he got me afraid for that boy within 5 pages, which is damned impressive considering some people have written books that don’t manage that in 500), and exciting: the three E’s you need for success. E-team for the fucking win. I want to know more. If I had never heard of the book to put it on my Shit To Read list by virtue of it being something I ought to try due to genre impact, and just picked it up in a bookstore and said, “I’m going to read the prologue to see if I like it,” this book would be going home with me. Mission accomplished.
*Spoilers below for those who have not read through A Feast for Crows*
This is perfect. You read everything Elena just put down right? All of this sensory overload, as Westeros-virgin eyes take in and breathe for themselves the kool aid that is the cool kid epic fantasy series of the last decade. Some Spooky shit for sure, but still, you might have thought you just landed in a typical epic fantasy novel. Hell, you might be putting together some choice vitriol-flaked words for your next encounter with that friend who has been hyping Thrones to you for years and has you reading this book that starts with three adventurers while doing their “duty” getting killed by supernatural enemies near a conveniently and neatly identifiable “Wall” they are guardians of. You probably think it’s been quiet for years, and what lurks in these forest — which by the way is called the “haunted” forest — have evolved into mere superstition or stories for children who even care to listen.
You may think the people of this land have forgotten their history and it’s now rising back up to perhaps bite them in their ass, after all, we’ve never heard of the term “Those Who Forget History Are Doomed to Repeat It” and seen it applied to other fantasy or fiction in general. You may even feel like you’re just a chapter around the corner from being introduced to — and I quote — a “spell-forged” sword. You’d be absolutely correct on all accounts, and on paper and in most courts you’d win, but your friend new best friend has you outmaneuvered. This is epic fantasy, after all that’s why and likely how most of us got here, but it’s
None of this matters. At least that’s the trick Martin pulls on us, getting many readers who may have come from decidedly different roots in fantasy buying into what is with little doubt the grandest sword and soap opera ever told, causing us to forget about the crazy ass, funky moment that’s not that much less drastic of a departure from ‘reality’ as Lo Pan showing up (with astounding posture I might add) in the rearview after Jack Burton ran his ass over. What happened here is crazy, and while I’ve come recognize thee extreme and blatant relevance of this prologue over the years, this is the first time that it didn’t seem to be the part to get through before getting to the Starks and the sweet tranquility and charm of beheading via Valryian steel.
Martin has become best known for A Song of Ice and Fire, but we are talking about an author who has historically shown that he excels in whatever climate he choose to write (like several authors, but the one that struck me at the time was Dan Simmons). I’ve always found that writer’s who are true masters of psychological horror, are much like those comedians who evolve and row into rolls outside of comedy. Sure, there’s simple talent, but I like to think there’s something that the comedian and horror writer shares in understanding, identifying, and grabbing emotional timing (there’s probably some relation to the number of sub-par attempts at horror films that are prone to be more successful comedies).
Martin is and always has been a fine writer of horror, especially in the short form, and this prologue server as essentially a short story and functions as this independent, atmospheric, macabre vignette that’s literally chilling and cold blooded. I’d guess that he’s probably also a pretty funny bastard. Regard that in this short piece, we saw and knew three individuals. How did we know them? Or rather, how did we know that we knew them? Martin makes us react differently to each of their fates. Twice. This is quite absurd in a prologue.
In the first (next) chapter, we will get one of Martin’s initial plays with perspective that distinguishes him in the field, as an individual we meet in this prologue becomes merely and object to talk about. You will get caught up in and will be enthralled by court intrigue, but we must not forget that this is where Martin wanted to start. This is important. It just doesn’t matter.
I want to talk Waymar Royce, because if I were him I’d be really pissed off. I really feel for this guy. A young, apparently good looking cat who can dress that we are at least initially set-up to not like love. The guy manned up at the end though. I think we are looking at a good man once he shed his youth, and if I do dislike him, it’s only because I’m old enough to have the general dislike for kids and teenagers that people my age are evolved granted privilege to have. He’s the rich kid with the cool gear who gets some perks because of who his daddy is. But he’s not. He plays the part true, but there is nothing privileged about being in the Night’s Watch.
I’ve known enough of them to know not dismiss them entirely, and if one considers what we learn about the Wall later – the reality of it – he seems to have taken it in a manner that’s somewhat admirable. After all, he actually lost what was probably a reasonably easy life. I’d be pissed, and while it may be simply naivety that he’s not, the way he met his end makes me feel like my guess that the Sworn Brothers lost a good man this night. At worst, he’s unlikeable in the way young officer who don’t listen to their NCO are. At best he’s a prime example of how in a very confined space Martin can turn someone distasteful into someone you root for, and then into boogie monster of the forest. Not sure which you enjoy more, right? I do. I hate zombies.
Bottom line? It’s a rather interesting exercise to just read the prologues of the four novels (try it) and all of them have a murderous intent and bend to them. Martin illustrates through a couple of familiar archetypes that we aren’t ready for what’s coming. The beauty in this horror story — one that offers up, plays out, then murders expectation — is that the rest of the series, book, or even the next chapter, isn’t a quest to answer questions. These question don’t matter to most people, and the rest don’t know to ask. Martin has empowered and trusted the reader–the unnamed POV of each and every chapter — to carry the knowledge of the boogiemen for him to every scene. He is most certainly not our bitch, but damn it we are engaged.
This is our song.
Come back tomorrow for Chapter I, a Bran chapter, and then expect around six installments each month!