Wednesday, January 02, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

A Game of Thrones
George R. R . Martin, 1996

A Game of Thrones is the first novel in a sequence which is perhaps the most ambitious ever attempted in fantasy. When complete, A Song of Ice and Fire will run to seven immense novels, a feat of sustained story-telling which makes The Lord of the Rings look like a preliminary sketch. The first novel in the series introduces Westeros, a continent riven by civil war and broadly equivalent to medieval Europe. This is not surprising: Martin is a student of medieval history and has cited the Wars of the Roses as an inspiration. The plot arc is one of competing houses vying for the throne of Westeros, with a huge cast of characters buffeted by events outside of their control.

Other than the immense scale on which Martin's imagination operates, two other features are worthy of note. The first is the extremely risky multiple-point of view narrative strategy he adopts. Each novel has between eight and a dozen third-person narrators. Each chapter within the novel uses a single one of these viewpoint characters and the effect can be dizzying. Martin risks reducing identification with the characters--and hence immersion in his fictional world--by chopping and changing so frequently; but the approach does allow him to keep several major plot arcs going simultaneously. By the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, Martin seems in danger of losing control of the material: some storylines have been abandoned altogether (to be picked up again in the yet to be published A Dance with Dragons). It's just about impossible to keep so many balls in the air at once, and Martin has decided to set some down in a dignified way rather than have the whole lot collapse around him. It's a sensible and pragmatic decision.

The other main characteristic of Martin's narrative is his willingness to kill off sympathetic characters. With so many viewpoint characters on stage, he can destroy some major ones without losing momentum or narrative coherence. The result is electrifying, and the reader really does get a sense of the brutality and arbitrariness of life in a war-torn pre-industrial world. It's a technique that's almost impossible to use in a more conventionally structured work: if you have a single protagonist, you might kill him off at the end, but you can't do it halfway through. The result is that Martin can not only imperil his characters, he can follow through on the threat. It's another high-risk approach and it's magnificently successful.

How has it influenced me?

A Song of Ice and Fire has been a huge influence on The Dog of the North, in more ways than I realised at the time. The Macmillan cover of my book, with a flaming city at the top and a sheet of ice at the bottom, draws out one very obvious (but unintentional) parallel. And Martin's interest in medieval warfare and political intrigue is also at the centre of my own fiction. Martin's world is bigger, rougher and more brutal than mine (although he greatly admires Jack Vance, not a lot of that admiration seeps through into his writing), but we both draw on some similar motifs and inspirations.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Your story is as long as it needs to be

Effective fantasy works not because of the 'fantastic' trappings, but through the richness and depth of the characters

History provides a marvellous touchstone and sourcebook for the fantasy writer - it's what you do with historical material once you've got it that makes it fantasy

When writing a long story, there is a delicate balance between sustaining interest by using more viewpoint characters, and losing focus by having too many of them


David Isaak said...

I'd add one other lesson from Martin: Your early works may not presage what you're capable of. To be frak, I thought he was rather ho-hum until "Game of Thrones", but he forced me to drastically revise my opinion.

Oh, and one other lesson: When writing fantasy, it's catchy to have two middle names. George R.R. Martin. J.R.R. Tolkein.

So M.F.W. Curran must be on the right track. (You wouldn't by chance have two, wouldja, Tim?)

Tim Stretton said...

I haven't read a lot of Martin's earlier stuff - but I thought Fevre Dream was an interesting take on the vampire story, with a nicely realised atmosphere.

As for initials, it's looking pretty gloomy. Not only do I not even have a third initial, I don't even have a second. "T. Stretton" is a feeble byline for a fantasist...

David Isaak said...

Hmm. Well, I guess it's either add "R.R." to your name or just cross your fingers and hope for the best in the Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, John Varley crowd...

Come to think of it, maybe fantasy isn't actively aided by several extra names. Maybe the field is simply more willing to tolerate all those extra names...