Sunday, June 23, 2013

Stick them with the pointy end

For Frances, on the theme of travel.

I was so happy to be watching three episodes of Game of Thrones in a row to catch up with millions of people in the world, that I suspended all my knowledge of The Red Wedding while watching Episode Nine. When the classical Romantic-Comedy-style first half of the Tully and Frey Wedding turned into the Westerosi version of the Glencoe Massacre / Night of the Long Knives in the second half I reacted without restraint, gasping, covering my mouth in shock, and involuntarily saying god knows what during the starkly drawn horror of those scenes (starkly drawn with Stark blood). The writers of Game of Thrones are utterly superb; they deliver short and powerful scenes that move the politics along so tightly each episode feels like twenty minutes.

The short and powerful scenes of the TV series may be sexy and visceral and shocking, but they are only the barest highlights, the main points from the novels that develop a world of characters that keep you company long after you close the book. My respect for Martin as a writer grew in leaps and bounds as I read A Song of Ice and Fire, mostly in leaps and bounds inspired by death, devilishly clever politics and a long, arduous journey with the characters. It was his nonchalant killing of main characters that really got my attention at first – he reminded me painfully of Robin Hobb and her cruelty to her characters, except she didn’t kill with Martin’s obvious delight and lack of warning.

Then I began to grasp just how good Martin’s politics really was as the books developed. I was already deeply pleased to have both High Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery Fantasy on one planet and in one giant war, and I was thoroughly enjoying the War of the Roses being fought out again for my continued anguished pleasure. But it was the first swift and devastating reduction of the reasons for great dishonor, bloodshed and betrayal to a childhood slight that tipped Martin into 'Godlike Author' territory for me. He dismissed the reasons for his first books in a few sentences, and I was beginning to grasp the fact that Martin had politics, plotlines and character to spare, so killing one or all of them was just not an issue.

After his first enormous betrayal of the conventions that lesser writers adhere to, he went on to create some of the mightiest characters operating in the grey areas of morality ever written, their morality so perfectly real to us now that we cannot help but feel they could counsel us if we needed it. He went on to seduce us with characters we had been callously set up to hate, but once we got into their skin we could not remember how we used to feel about them. He even introduced characters that were simply created to torture the reader, to remind us that we can never actually leave these characters to suffer on their own, and that he would be the only one that could finally strip all of Westeros away from us until we were nothing but a flayed and sobbing mess.

I am never silent when I read Martin, even at 3am in the morning. Ploughing through a chapter of horror to get to the next one so I can work out if someone I love is going to survive, I make unconscious noises in reaction to the world on the page. Travelling for years through your own life and also through years of a character’s life is a bonding experience inexplicable to someone who is not much of a reader, but the secret language of anyone who loves books. And sometimes it may be a secret language, but it is not a silent one, as the wails of Martin-induced horror rising up from his readers and now watchers can attest.

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