Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dancing in a Minefield: A Brief Look at A Song of Ice and Fire


Hey, it’s me again. I am that guy who started a blog making you think it was about something incredibly important and it ended up being about Epic Fantasy.

I know you’ve been waiting with bated breath for me to elaborate on my points, and now that my cable provider has finally cut me off for not paying my bills, I have plenty of time to write.

I want to touch off the discussion by talking about A Song of Ice and Fire, but that’s not an easy task.

Not when you consider ASOIAF is one of the hottest topics on the Internet. It might be the one subject matter that can rival porn in terms of Internet traffic.

And now it’s closing in on porn, too!

Everybody has their pet peeves with this series. I thought mine was a simple one that would have no big consequences in the long run. But, man, I haven’t been this wrong since the time I thought Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would be a good movie.

I’m still waiting for my refund to arrive in the mail.

Part I: Misbalance of Terror

What better way to start than to discuss the clumsy employment of magic in ASOIAF? In general terms, there’s this broad divide between the people who love the realistic aspects of the story (the quasi-historical power struggle between dynasties, court intrigue, the emotional impact of war), and those who enjoy the fantastic elements (Dany’s dragons, the Others, prophecies, dreams, wargs, visions, etc.) as much as the mainstream elements.

But like much of the whining on the Internet, this discussion has only scratched the surface. It’s not an issue of whether you prefer dragons over the down-to-earth feud between Lannisters and Starks. It’s an issue of balance, and ASOIAF has tipped the scales too much to one side, creating a situation for potential disaster.

Like me walking past a Burger King.

Nobody will dispute that magic was there from the start. It is right there in the prologue of the first book when the Others attack the Night’s Watch rangers, it is there in the abnormal length of the seasons, it is an important part of Jon’s storyline, and it alters Dany’s fate dramatically at the end of the book. The issue is that these elements make but a fraction of the plot.

The core of A Game of Thrones is a detective/political story. That’s what the majority of the audience responded to, and because it constituted the bulk of the plot it was only natural for readers to imagine it was setting the template for the saga.

And for the most part, the template was exactly that. This approach did relegate the fantasy elements to the fringes, but they were still there. The problem was that, being on the outskirts, these elements didn’t have time to develop properly, namely with a set of rules that ensured the characters didn’t become too powerful and that magic couldn’t be used as a crutch.

The most deftly executed magic element in the books is skin changing. It happens gradually and doesn’t have an undue impact on the plot. Bran Stark has dreams where he sees the world through the eyes of his direwolf. As the story progresses, he learns how to control this ability and, by this process, the reader gets a feel of how the magic works. Arya and Jon go through similar processes, but they are not as relevant to their respective arcs (at least not yet).

(There’s an opinion on the Internet that Jon’s discovery of the immense wildling camp through the eyes of Ghost is an example of deus ex machina, but given that the ultimate outcome of his arc for A Clash of Kings would have probably been the same if he hadn’t had that vision, I’m going to disagree with this guy. Moreover, technically speaking, Jon doesn’t really save his party thanks to that vision.)

One last point: the wildlings have skin changers themselves, so one doesn’t see the imbalance that deus ex machinae tend to bring out. This last point is very important. I have nothing against dragons, shapeshifters, sorcerers, or any other fantastical creature in this or any other book per se. I only get peeved when magical elements give one set of characters an easy advantage over their adversaries. 

This gives me the perfect opening to talk about Melisandre, who stands on the other end of the magic spectrum. Here we have a character that is anything but; it’d be more accurate to call her a plot tool. For most of the books she plays the part of evil sorceress moving from victory to victory with an arsenal of spells nobody else in the world seems to possess.

Except for the whole baring-your-tits-to-get-your-way thing.

Her introduction in the prologue of ACOK was the first clue I had that Martin would start relying on magical gimmicks to resolve certain plot elements. Her use of prescience and “shadow-birthing” makes for a very jarring note in the symphony that is ASOIAF. At this stage of the story, it feels as unnatural as the idea of Iron Maiden releasing a cover of “Love Hurts.”

Then again it couldn’t be any worse than their cover of “My Generation.”  

What’s more irritating about Melisandre is that her very presence snuffed out what could have been an excellent storyline. As the story stands, her spells enable Stannis Baratheon to become a serious contender for the Iron Throne. Without her, he would have had to consider some drastic changes to his personality in order to gain allies. And if he’d still wanted to be a stubborn wanker, it could have given poor Davos something to do besides being a fly on the wall 90% of the time he’s in the book.

It would have been nice to see Davos play the part of reluctant diplomat, for instance. Either story or a combo would have made for a terrific and very human arc, but because we had Melisandre waving her magic wand and forklifting Stannis to relevance, we got a cheap fantasy sub-tale instead. Sloppy execution will affect content every time. If Martin was willing to do this for a major player once, who was to say he wouldn’t do it again?

Of course, that’s exactly what happened.

Again in ACOK, Dany spends her second-to-last chapter in a bad acid dream having one prophetic vision after another…this in a book series that had proved in its first installment that it could deliver the goods without overworked tropes. In a Storm of Swords, the Ghost of High Heart spouts her share of prophecies, as well. That some of these visions have so far turned out to be true is beyond the point. The point is there was never a dramatic necessity to introduce these elements in the first place.

Take out the dragons and you have a great poster for BDSM lovers everywhere.

In A Storm of Swords, that bane of dramatic impact, the resurrection of dead characters, reared its ugly head in the cases of Beric Dondarrion and Catelyn Stark. Now even death was losing its meaning. This from a writer who once criticized Tolkien for resurrecting Gandalf.

In A Feast for Crows, Euron Greyjoy wins the kingsmoot with the aid of a magic horn that scares the bejesus out of his future subjects. It’s only the arbitrary introduction of this instrument that gives him victory. In that same book, Martin revises history by subjugating Cersei to a prophecy to justify her hatred of Tyrion and Margaery. Everything that had been established about her superiority complex explained her motivations adequately enough. Supplanting that with a prophecy (“complementing” would be too generous a word) is beyond superfluous; it’s a diminishment of her humanity and the artistry of characterization.

That’s what clichés and tropes can do to a story: they damage the integrity of the fictional world in service of arbitrary events that hurt verisimilitude.


It means anything can happen.

But if anything can happen, if there are no rules to adhere to, then how do I get invested in the characters? Why should I care about their actions when all kinds of contrivances can wash out what they do and give an unfair advantage to other characters (i.e., Melisandre, Euron’s horn)?

And how can we tell when something is unfair? By observing the implicit and explicit laws of the universe. But there are few rules like that in ASOIAF, because magic has been underdeveloped. Magic comes to the fore whenever it suits the plot or to give fans something to write dissertations about during the 5-year-long waits between books.

You know what my favorite part of ASOIAF is? The Red Wedding. Yes, it is the most shocking event of the saga bar none, and it is the greatest highpoint of ASOS, a book that delivers more highpoints than any other fantasy novel in living memory. But the real reason I liked it is that Martin went through with the natural development of that storyline without resorting to a deus ex machina to save Robb’s life.

Typically, a hero can afford to pull off outrageous stunts or go on suicide missions because, unless this is the very last time we’ll see him in action, it’s a sure bet that he’ll survive whatever the story throws at him. This is not the case with Robb. He committed one fatal political error after another (a chip off the old block, indeed) and instead of giving him a pass, Martin finished off his story on a natural note.

Ultimately, that’s what bothers me most about Martin. He’s immensely talented. He has a rare gift for storytelling and an occasional willingness to stray off the beaten path. Why does he need to resort to clichés then? How many people would have regarded A Game of Thrones so admiringly if he’d played it safe from the start? It’s because I know the man has it in him that I’m waiting for the best despite the massive disappointment that Book IV and V were. I live with the hope that AFFC and ADWD will be remembered as necessary evils that ensured that the last two books would be the masterpieces this saga deserves.

But I have more doubts than hopes, and not only because Martin has proven himself susceptible to the temptations of tropes. My doubts stem from concerns that I have about the genre itself. I wonder if too much escapism pervades it.

Part II: Escaping Escapism.

Let’s get one thing straight. All stories, no matter how realistic, are escapist in nature. They draw us into a world different from our own, sometimes for soothing, life-affirming purposes (as in most genre literature), other times to confront us with a harsh reality using aesthetic alterations to make it more palatable (Schindler’s List and The Pianist to name a few). To put it in a different light, while I love The Beatles as much as the next guy, I wouldn’t like them as much if I didn’t have The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Black Sabbath, or The Clash to turn to when I’m in the mood for something less comforting.   

But there are degrees of escapism, and fantasy tends to go for the more comforting route. In that case, it stands to reason clichés and tropes would be so prevalent. After all, they form the backbone of cheap escapism. And if cheap escapism really is the core of fantasy, then maybe the scorn that is sometimes heaped on the genre is well-deserved.

Hey, I did say “sometimes.”

The more realistic and human storylines of ASOIAF (Jaime’s redemptive arc, Tyrion’s dawning realization that he’ll be despised for his appearance no matter what he does, Arya’s fight for survival in the Riverlands, and Jon subsuming his true loyalties to infiltrate an enemy force) raise more important questions than the fantastic and quasi-mythological ones (the prophecy of Azhor Ahai reborn, the Children of the Forest, the Others’ long-delayed invasion, The Prince That Was Promised, Jojen Reed’s visions, etc.). Humanity already has more mythologies than it needs, but there is never a shortage of deep and engaging human stories.

In my previous post I said that I didn’t think Epic Fantasy was bad, irrelevant, or silly. Maybe by now you’re thinking that was a lie, but it isn’t. I still think the more standard tales of Epic Fantasy (and any subgenre of fantasy, really) have a place in the literary canon. I’m not what you would call a religious man, but I still have the deepest respect for religion and all the good it can bring out in people. But just like religion needs secular counterweights, so does typical fantasy need more realistic and morally challenging counterparts. And as long as authors keep resorting to tired tropes and crutches, things will stay the same.            

ASOIAF came close to breaking the mold. I like to think there’s still hope for the saga. If it doesn’t make it, it will fall to another generation of fantasy writers to pick up where it left off. The world needs intelligent and confrontational stories now more than ever.

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