Monday, January 23, 2012

Just one more book . . .

One more book . . .
One more book, he had told himself, then I'll stop. One more folio, just one more. One more page, then I'll go up and rest and get a bite to eat. But there was always another page after that one, and another after that, and another book waiting underneath the pile. I'll just take a quick peek to see what this one is about, he'd think, and before he knew he would be halfway through it.
That's Samwell Tarly, speaking, a bookish boy stuck in a warrior's world in George R. R. Martin's A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in his ongoing Song of Ice and Fire series. After several years of avoiding the series--primarily because rocketlass thought Martin's prose would likely bother me--I dove in just after New Year's. And now, like Samwell, I find I finish one book and think, well, I'll just take a look at the next one before I pick up something else . . .

They're far from perfect novels. They're too long, Martin's technique of shifting the narrative viewpoint among more than a dozen characters brings nearly as many frustrations as it does pleasures, and rocketlass is right: Martin's sentences aren't mustering a challenge to the likes of Nabokov. If I never read the word "jape" again, or read another description of a festering sword wound, I'll be happy. But they are compelling: Martin's muddy, bloody, vicious medieval world is more convincing than Tolkien's, his characterizations are much richer, as are his battle scenes, and his plotting is spectacular. I often say that one of the things I like best about sports is that you truly don't know how things are going to turn out, a pleasure that even the best literature, the most thrilling of novels or films, doesn't often afford. Narrative arcs are too familiar, and they're broken too rarely, to offer the pleasures of real uncertainty. But that's what Martin delivers: his world is actually dangerous, and by the end of a book or two, you start believing that any character really could die at any time.

On top of that, Martin does retain some of Tolkien's Norse-borrowed sense of the long march of history and the tales that accompany it. This passage, from A Storm of Swords, isn't typical, but it's a nicely compact example of the way his characters are constantly thinking about, and living in a world inflected by, the tales of past heroism:
The Nightfort had figured in some of Old Nan's scariest stories. It was here that Night's King had reigned, before his name was wiped from the memory of man. This was where the Rat Cook had served the Andal king his prince-and-bacon pie, where the seventy-nine sentinels stood their watch, where brave young Danny Flint had been raped and murdered. This was the castle where King Sherrit had called down his curse on the Andals of old, where the 'prentice boys had faced the thing that came in the night, where blind Symeon Star-Eyes had seen the hellhounds fighting. Mad Axe had once walked these yards and climbed these towers, butchering his brothers in the dark.
If that doesn't stir some remnant of the fantasy-loving twelve-year-old in you, then these books aren't for you. It reads like a flight of authorial fancy, like Martin started in on that paragraph and was having so much fun he just kept going--"the thing that came in the night" and "butchering his brothers in the dark." But it's better than that: many of these stories are ones we've heard, in whole or in part, already; of others we'll hear later. Martin has created a world, written its history, and peopled its present. It's quite an achievement.

So now I have not quite two novels to go before I find myself in the position of the readers Neil Gaiman chided on his blog and the New Yorker raised a puzzled eyebrow at last year: waiting and waiting and waiting for the sixth novel in order to find out what happens next.

Which does set A Song of Ice and Fire apart from the book that finally drives poor Samwell Tarly to get up and see to his duties: Septon Jorquen's Annals of the Black Centaur, an "exhaustively detailed account of the nine years that Orbert Caswell had served as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch":
There was a page for each day of his term, every one of which seemed to begin, "Lord Orbert rose at dawn and moved his bowels," except for the last, which said, "Lord Orbert was found to have died during the night."
If you're interested in reading more about Lord Orbert and his bowels, Jorquen's history can be found, alongside a number of other books from Martin's world, available for checkout in the Invisible Library.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Martin should undertake a self-imposed ban on the word "jape"! I also think that "leal" is overused and that there is an almost fetishistic obsession with the lopping and cropping of ears, noses, heads, limbs, etc. - I can easily imagine amputee-fetish GRRM slash fic, it wouldn't take much exaggeration!