Thursday, April 28, 2011
George R.R. Martin's A STORM OF SWORDS
First George R.R. Martin built and knocked down a towering edifice, then he let us sit back and watch everyone scramble through the rubble, and now in this third book of A Song of Ice and Fire he's got us watching the corpses rot, an epic fantastic literary version of all of those fascinating and disorienting fast-forward films of decay that pepper the films of Peter Greenaway, especially A Zed & Two Noughts. We have scavengers fighting over scraps, we have carpet beetles devouring flesh, we have smaller animals and bands of animals conducting tiny guerilla wars over who gets to fill the niches left behind by the big beasts that lay bloating and stinking in the diminishing sun -- diminishing because winter is coming, and on this world, winter lasts years.
A Storm of Swords is, in other words, rather a dark book, even for a series in which, as fans always chant approvingly, "no character is safe." And that's fine. I like dark.
But I'm starting to lose patience with this series just a bit.
As mostly a non-fantasy reader, I've really enjoyed examining the imaginary cultures Martin has created here, and the politics, and the personalities -- and there are some new facets to this to be enjoyed in this third book, including a whole new locale with its own set of folkways and circumstances* and artistic inspirations -- way more than the magical/mythological bits. I like the feel of reading historical fiction about a time and a place of which I had never heard before, and I've enjoyed the wars and conflicts and petty squabbling a very great deal.
I emphasized "petty squabbling" up there for a reason, and that's because it's a term that has crept into the discourse of these books more and more as the big story progresses. It comes up to contrast all of these things I've liked against the much bigger and more important coming conflict which is something I'm pretty sure I'm not going to like so much.
Because apparently at bottom these books seem destined to wind up having been all about yet another epic struggle to save the world itself, Big Good versus Big Evil and you'd better choose sides soon, buddy. And it's fantasy, which means monsters and magic (both of which I'm okay with overall) and... gods. Which really, I'm not.
This may sound strange coming from a self-confessed fan of ecclesiastical history and of heresies and heretics, but really it's not that I'm a fan of that stuff so much as an addict. I cannot tear myself away from stories of the ridiculous and inhumane lengths to which people will go to spread belief in their own imaginary big daddies and stamp out other people's imaginary big daddies. Our history is so full of torture and murder and mass murder and imprisonment and ostracism and persecution over differing ideas about stuff we made up that it's sickening and I still don't understand why this is so and I feel the need to, because until we do, until we all do, it's obviously not going to stop. And it needs to stop.
But so I read that stuff out of need, not because I like it or think it's interesting in and of itself. We're getting into the old territory for which my personal synecdoche is the dog and the finger: talk to your dog and point to something and the dog is most likely to look at your finger and not at whatever you're pointing at. I'm interested in what this stuff says about us and in keeping alive the hope that it can someday change, not in the stuff for its own sake.
Which is why I get really, really exasperated when all of a sudden a perfectly interesting story about people being people in a slightly different, more colorful and strange version of our own world suddenly gets splattered by great messy plops of theology and jihadism about gods and crusades that are even more made-up than the historical ones in that this is stuff Martin invented expressly for these books. This including not one but two competing monotheisms (which are the worst and most totalitarian without exception, in our world and in most made-up ones) and two vaguely polytheistic ones. And of course both of the monotheisms have bossy, hectoring spokesmen who run around lecturing everybody else about how they'd better give up whatever they were doing and believing in, and convert and join the real crusade. Your life is meaningless if it's not serving my imaginary big daddy, and even then you're still just a tool in his hands. Even if you're a king.**
I really, really hate that, and hate how it winds up deforming the story, and how it presages that every book beyond this one is going to have more of that crap until it's subsumed everything I've liked about these books and ultimately there is nothing else left.
I really hope I'm wrong about this.
At least so far, A Storm of Swords is still recognizable as the Song of Ice and Fire I've thus far been enjoying. Most of the characters are ignoring the religious fanatics, mostly because they've got more immediate problems like surviving and getting home (if they still have one) or creating a new home (if they don't). And they're still developing and deepening and experiencing all that powerful tension and jeopardy that has made this series something I've come to admire so. There are genuine shocks and turns and surprises and deaths, and Martin has very skillfully continued to add and develop new characters to keep this from becoming an epic-scaled version of Ten Little Indians, all the while feeling as perfectly free to mow down the brand new ones we're just getting to know as he does to kill or maim the folks we've lived with through three big fat books. So I'm sticking with it despite my misgivings and despite the cliff edge that I now see in the offing and despite one other pet peeve I'm developing about the series, which is some of the language.
Martin has been orders of magnitude better than a lot of the fantasy also-rans that annoyed me into just giving up the genre in disgust late last century in terms of using faux (or even carefully researched and excruciatingly historically accurate) archaisms and half-baked ideas of courtly speech, but he still has some tics that bug the hell out of me. Whenever something has happened a lot of times or a reasonably large number is wanted it's "half a hundred" which is just silly. Did anyone say that ever? Really? Even more laughable is the oath/expletive pretty much everyone in the series uses "half a hundred" times, "gods be good." I'm sure it's meant as a kind of prayer/expression of hope like our own "god willing and the creek don't rise" but whenever I see it, I stumble and giggle and read it as weirdly parental. "You gods be good now, no wild parties, and don't take any sacrifices from strangers!" Additionally, the noun compounds that keep occurring whenever a member of the nobility (which is almost everybody, at least among the major characters in these books) is under discussion: "your lord father" "his lady wife" and the ridiculous euphemisms -- a girl who has experienced menarche has "flowered" and now has "moon blood" every month, for instance, make my eyes roll harder than anything has since I at last finished Moby-Dick.
So yes, my enthusiasm for the series is flagging, and maybe if I weren't reading all four of them in a row (for yes, I have started on the next book, A Feast for Crows) at least the silly language problem might be diminished. That wouldn't address the god problem, though.
Man, I really hope I'm wrong about where all this seems to be headed. Nothing irritates me more than a shaggy god story.
*I'd warrant that George R.R. Martin is either a fan himself of the anthropological works of the fascinating Marvin "Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches" Harris, or knows someone who is, for Martin's imaginary regions within his imaginary world seem deeply informed by the kind of thinking for which Harris is famous: the material circumstances, the resources available to a people, are the biggest shapers of a people's culture. Thus the folkways and mores of people living on barren, rocky islands are very different from those who live on the tundra or surrounded by an abundance of quality temperate farmland. This could just be a by-product of Martin's basing them loosely on cultures in the real world, but sometimes it seems to me that the care he's taken here bespeaks a more deliberate effort to understand and explain why his characters are the way they are.
Posted by Kate Sherrod at 4:40 PM