Saturday, May 03, 2008

Have You Heard This Song?

"Winter is Coming"

The words of House Stark, from A Song of Ice and Fire

The last time I blogged about books was about eight months ago. Maybe it's because books aren't a very engrossing subject to write about. Maybe it's just that I have not been reading as much as I would consider ideal. Or maybe, it's 'cause the average Malaysian user of the internet fills that little box in their Blogger, Friendster or Facebook profiles regarding their favourite books with phrases like "Books? Can eat arh?" and "Sorry, I have a life, okay?" - so by extension, I am forced to conclude that not many of my readers would like me to talk about something that they aren't quite sure is edible and have possible ruinous effects on
that mockery of what they consider
their lives.

Anyhow, any time I do expend the effort to write about reads is usually when I have something truly awesome to share with everybody. This time around, I like to spread the good word about George R. R. Martin's high fantasy series; A Song of Ice and Fire.

Not the most seductive of book jackets, I know.

The first book was published more than a decade ago but the series had flown under my radar until present time due in part to their lacklustre covers. Yes, in accordance to popular belief, I seriously do judge books by their covers. I chose two of my favourite pieces of contemporary literature off their shelves (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke and Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy) simply because I really like how they look, while not having read any reviews written on them previously. If you need proof that a book with a shitty cover can suck so hard it spawned a website dedicated to tearing it apart in all literary aspects, look no further than this,

The unholy lovechild of Christopher Paolini and Satan.

In the future if I ever manage to get a book of mine published, I'll cite him as my inspiration. He's everything I aspire not to be.

Okay, back to ASOIAF; So, what made me pick up the first book in spite of its really cheap-looking cover)? Well, back to some time last year on a really boring Saturday night, I decided to update my Books-I-Want-To-Read-Before-I-Die List (what d'ya mean you don't have one?) by googling for top 100 lists of fantasy novels. It was then that I discover that that goofy-covered series was in the top ten of every bloody list I scrutinised!

It took me awhile to hunt the first book, A Game of Thrones, down at the Borders of Queensbay Mall in Penang after the Borders at The Curve and the KLCC Kinokuniya failed me (I don't shop at MPH on principle). I started reading it a few months after on the nights I was suppose to slave away at the desk for my Second Year Medical School Exam, and couldn't put it down till I finish it. I was completely hooked. When I visited a proper bookstore in Bangalore after my North Indian backpacking trip, I bought all the other available books in the series in one go.

Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer. One of the many characters in the books which are made out of pure cool.

The story is told through the limited, third person point-of-views of several characters - and in the first book, they are mainly the members from the noble house of Stark, one of the many powerful families controlling the continent of Westeros. By the end of the fourth book, the latest book to date in the series, the number of POV characters ever featured have increased exponentially to a staggering grand total of 25! That is mainly due to the tendency of the author, Martin, to suddenly (and violently) kill off any one of his characters at any time - hence, replacements have to be brought in to fill their shoes.

I've read many, many books of various genres and I noticed that many writers just don't have the balls to kill off their characters - those that matter, at least. George R. R. Martin not only display great testicular strength in that aspect, but he is also willing to kill off many characters that readers care very much and root for. The books read like a game of fantasy Russian roulette. You have this terrible feeling anyone - absolutely anyone - can die in Martin's universe and you're genuinely afraid of growing too attached to any character.

When J. K. Rowling did mass character killing in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, it came off as s cheap gimmick to draw the readers' emotions out with a syringe; she simply did not give deaths worthy of her characters. Not Martin - this guy makes the deaths come hard, fast and entirely unexpected, with all the drama or irony he can wring out of their corpses.

From a literary point of view, his willingness to remove main characters means that the whole storyline can shift entirely within a chapter, completely abolishing any generic forecasts a reader can make and rendering the plot giddily unpredictable. There's an alarming amount of "Oh my God, he's dead, what is going to happen now?!" moments in his books.

Lord Eddard Stark, cleaning his sword in the godswood in quiet contemplation. Art courtesy of Dabel Brothers Publishing.

Another advantage of using a large cast of POV characters is that it essentially allows a rather breathless pacing of the story. The author tends to end every characters' chapter with a cliffhanger (and darn good ones too) and the reader will only find out what follows in the next chapter focusing on that same character. So, imagine some horrible and unknown fate awaits a character you sincerely care for and the chapter ended before revealing the outcome - you'll have to wade anxiously through 4 or 5 chapters concerning the fortunes of the other characters before you can find out. Against your will, you'll be forcefully strung along. These books absorbs you completely into them, and won't let go until the final page is read. "Unputdownable" is something said very often in blurbs found in the dust jackets of novels these days (and that had subsequently cheapened its value) but ASOIAF truly deserve to be praised thus.

There's a living sense of paranoia which hangs over a reader from the start, partially due to the ridiculous amount of significant characters. When someone is murdered in the story, every other character is a suspect. If you've played the board game Clue before, you'd know precisely what I mean.

The crowning attribute of the series, I feel, is the incredibly realistic morality evident in its universe, quite unlike the tired trend in high fantasy of good versus evil. It started off centering on the Stark patriarch and his children, basically the "good guys" of the story (though that means little enough in Westeros). There is an entire circus of apparently evil characters, somewhat evil characters, and characters which naturally attracts suspicions like shit attract flies. I can't say a lot without revealing too much of the twists in the story, but by the time I finished the fourth book, I can't freaking tell which are the good guys and which are the bad guys anymore.

Sansa Stark, eldest daughter of Eddard Stark, building a replica of her castle home, Winterfell, in snow. Also from Dabel Brothers Publishing.

The speculative fiction market is clogged by imitators of Harry Potter, crappy dragon fantasies (with Eragon at its pinnacle, no doubt) and pop fantasies with the same damned elves, same damned orcs and same damned dwarves - the ASOIAF series is one of those original genre defining works that will, in its turn, sire its own bastard clones seeking to emulate its success. I consider it the equivalent of the Lord of the Rings of our generation. What J. R. R. Tolkien is for the Norse myth is what George R. R. Martin is for medieval Europe and the War of the Roses. The irony that they both have the middle initials of two R's was not lost on me.

Anyhow, any one book of the ASOIAF series seems almost as thick as the entire LOTR trilogy, and quite unlike its spiritual predecessor, the events occurring in Martin's Westeros is not punctuated by big chunks of text describing the scenery and the geography of Middle Earth. ASOIAF is a bluntly effective and simple read quite literally stuffed with suspenseful happenings, while making no sacrifices in the beauty of its proses and phrases. I find that fantasy novels often fall into either of two categories; one which painfully describes each and every mundane square inch of the world the story's set in with the excuse that it provides an immersive read - and the other, which is obsessed with the coolness of its characters and awesome fighting and war scenes which basically reads like a sword-and-sorcery version of Die Hard. ASOIAF apparently found the best possible spot in between the two, being immersive without droning and kick-ass without being mindless. I now consider them my favourite novels, displacing Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell from the top of my Best-Reads-Ever list.

It's an ongoing series, and three more books are forthcoming - to make it a nice seven (a number of curious importance in the story). I'm waiting eagerly for the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, which should hit the bookstores before Christmas this year. I'll most definitely get the prequel novellas, The Tales of Dunk and Egg, as well while I wait for book six and seven (known as The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring respectively). HBO have bought the dramatisation rights to the novels and a television series is currently in planning, with every season encapsulating the events told in a single book. George R. R. Martin is going to be co-executive producer, and is expected to write one episode per season. I can't bloody wait.

In related news, I've updated my Books-I-Want-To-Read-Before-I-Die List again a couple of days ago after sifting through hundreds of reviews on the web. It's pretty short at the moment, considering all the book shopping sprees I've had in the past few years. Here it is, in an order of descending priority,
  • The Hedge Knight by George R. R. Martin (from The Tales of Dunk and Egg series)
  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One)
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (from The Gentleman Bastard sequence)
  • The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
  • Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  • Little, Big by John Crowley (also known as The Fairies' Parliament)
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • Tea with the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy
  • The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth, and Other Stories by Roger Zelazny
  • Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson (from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever)
Quite a number of them won't be easy to get in this part of the world or in Malaysia, I understand - but luckily, I do so enjoy a good book hunt. It's a special kind of satisfaction to have finally found a book of a specific publication and edition which you've been hunting for for years, and finally putting in on your shelf with pride and a swelling sense of accomplishment.

Such bliss. Such sweet, sweet bliss.

Is back to being book crazy,
k0k s3n w4i


lingghezhi said...

We shall see.

*scribbles his own little Must Read List*

Anonymous said...

go read the wheel of time.

to me that's more worthy of a must-read-before-i-die book.


Constant Drama said...

Hey Kok,

I have been reading your blog for a while now but never commented, until now that is.

ASoIaF is without a shadow of a doubt one of the best series ever spawned by man. Seriously. I have read all of them though I think the last book currently "A Dance with Dragons" is not Martin's strongest. Its sucks coz the first four books were sooo good its ridiculous.

I completely agree with you when you say the book plays out like Russian roulette. You never know what's coming. I hated Sansa throughout the series and then when she was held captured againt her will by the Finger, well change my whole perspective about her. Jamie is cool, fo sho but I have to go with Cersei- his power hungry twin/lover. The woman is delicious in her evilness.

And oh you know how I found out bout the series? I happened to have MPH vouchers and the books 1-4 cost excatly as much so that's why I bought them. To use up the vouchers. Pure fluke. A great fluke though.

Really enjoy your blog. Will be back for more.

Constant Drama said...

Wait wait, I forgot Tyrion!! How could I forgot him?!

He is my favourite character of the whole books. He's cunning, he's intelligent and funny too. I think in the 4th book where he was held againts his will by.....Catelyn Stark's sister. The insane one. Rmbr her? And rmbr how he got out of that. I think they way he talked his way and then duel his way out is one of the most clever part of the books.

Tyrion rocks! I <3 him. =p

金太郎 said...

まさか家のエレベーターでフ ェ ラされるなんて思ってなかったよ。。ww
「ここでフ ェ ラさせてくれたらもっと報 酬あげるよ♪」

Elaynne said...

Kok Sen Wai!

My bf went to get the book already
*look what you have done*


Maybe I'll steal from him to read a bit :)

k0k s3n w4i said...

lingghezhi: so, you gonna give them a go?

anonymous: why makes you think I haven't? The series, in my opinion, is highly formulaic, written for the legions of fantasy fans who finds comfort in the familiar and cliched storytelling template so many fantasy writers use. The word "Trollocs" ought to have steered me away from buying the first book. They aren't bad books. But they aren't exactly groundbreaking either.

constant drama: that's funny. i thought u commented a little while ago xD. I think the last book currently you referred to is "A Feast For Crows" since "A Dance With Dragons" have yet to be published. Essentially, Both the books are suppose to be one book, but it gotten too big so Martin had to split it. Be careful with mentioning spoilers there :). I am a big fan of Littlefinger and the Imp, Tyrion Lannister, as well. But I did not mention them because I have no pictures of them to mention about. Cersei's a pretty psycho bitch, but a tad too one-dimensional, won't you agree?

金太郎: Go away, crazy Korean bugger.

elaine: Eh, ur bf read my blog one mae? (how come I got a feeling I asked this before?). Try the books - I recommended the first book to Myn Wee and she seems to like just fine :)

Anonymous said...


Let me guess you have read the first or maybe even the second book only - hence the conclusion.

Sure it uses the familiar theme - the epic battle between good and evil. But then again which fantasy book doesn't deal with it?

The series being "highly formulaic" serves more to illustrate the richness and complexity of not only the characters but also the plot and the "world."

k0k s3n w4i said...

anonymous: Sure it uses the familiar theme - the epic battle between good and evil. But then again which fantasy book doesn't deal with it?
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, most of the books in The Earthsea Cycle series by Ursula K. LeGuin, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, the Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick and most of all, Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees... these are the few books i can rattle off the top of my head that don't contain the tired format of good versus evil (which explains why most of them received more prestigious literary awards and nominations than Robert Jordan). Good versus Evil is the crutch of the fantasy genre - and we already get it; good fight bad, good wins. It's time fantasy writers expand their minds and wrap them around more complex themes.

The series being "highly formulaic" serves more to illustrate the richness and complexity of not only the characters but also the plot and the "world."
If it's richness of a world you want, read Tolkien (and the Silmarillion and the Children of Hurin). He actually created SEVERAL functional languages for them.
If it's complexity of the characters, try the series I recommended above.
Besides, being bad in an aspect, and in effect, drew attention to other better aspects in a book can never justify a flaw. It's like saying that it's good to have one of my arms broken so I can use my other limbs more often. Like I said, the Wheel of Time books aren't bad - it's just they don't add anything new to the genre. It's just a twist to the same old thing.

minwi said...

shite you finished all 4 ALREADY? man...i'm still stuck at e 3rd, was quite certain i'd finish e 4th by my 2nd month in melb but turns out there hasn't been time to catch up on my reading, which is so miserable!!

but yeah i agree w you, you can't tell who's good n who's evil. actually i think it's fantastic tht he shows tht even in e "evil" characters there exist humane, somewhat virtuous attributes. n i have learnt not to get particularly attached to any character in e story cos they always die so unexpectedly. blergh.

anyway. havent been reading your blog in ages! how you been?

k0k s3n w4i said...

minwi: 4 isn't all that great (3rd is still the best!) due to it only following the story of just half the characters. the other half of the characters will receive their dues in A Dance With Dragons (both the events in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons happen simultaneously).
I haven't heard from u for a pretty long time too - guess you've been too busy to drop by xD. I'm well - but overworked. thanks for asking :)

Anonymous said...

Hi, I've been addicted to your blog ever since I discovered it from Linges' blog and you don't know me btw. Have you tried Greg Keyes' works? The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone Series: The Briar King, The Charnel Prince and The Blood Knight? The fourth book is not out yet- The Borne Queen. From the way you mentioned how the cliffhanger goes in Martin's books, yeah the case is the same here.Here's the link: I'll try out Martin's books-they sound really exciting and promising. And P.s. Keep up the adrenaline rush of blogging about books! It's just too bad for people who don't read. They're missing out a big exciting part of life XD

k0k s3n w4i said...

soul07: the fourth and final book came out in March, if my source did not cheat me. I must say that the synopsis of the series got my attention, and I can almost swear that I had this series in my previous booklist. Must have forgotten about it somehow. Thanks for the heads up, mate. Will talk about more books when I find any worth talking about :)