Monday, July 1, 2013

What I read in June

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. I love lore, which is one reason I love history. The primary challenge of history is to synthesize lore into a story about the past. Speculative fiction and history, I would argue, face some of the same challenges to achieve authenticity, but fiction can avoid lore if it wants to. History cannot. Fiction, like history, must establish historical context to tell a coherent story--without a sense of time and place, a reader can't understand the stakes for a protagonist--but history is built of lore, while fiction can get away with conjuring historical context from symbols, images, finely observed detail, and passing references. I'm thinking of something like Doctorow's The March, a work that conjures the atmosphere of the Carolinas of 1864 to tell its story, but features less information about the events of the march than you could find in a few minutes skimming Wikipedia.

What does this have to do with A Game of Thrones? I decided to read the A Song of Ice and Fire novels after watching the first three seasons of the HBO adaptation, which frustrated me with its pointed lack of lore. The show conjures its historical context with imagery, atmosphere, and reluctant scenes of exposition, which, especially in the first season, tend to be very bad. A Game of Thrones has no end of lore. It's primary purpose, at times, is to deliver lore for lore's sake. The whole thing is a joyous gush of lore. The total lore I learned from reading the novel was vastly more than I learned in the first season of the show, and the lore per hour was greater as well. The whole thing was one long loregasm.

So it occurred to me, not long after beginning A Game of Thrones, that the novel (and the series) were one long history of Westeros. The histories of this world are told primarily through songs--its people are generally illiterate--and the series is called A Song of Ice and Fire. The first novel is the history of Ned Stark, the tragic, honorable Lord of Winterfell, and his family. To properly convey context, there is tons and tons of lore. It's great.

The story itself is quite gripping. One of the things I loved about the show, and enjoyed more in the books, was the handling of honor. Honor is valuable in Westeros, though not as valuable as shrewd practicality. The novel shows quite clearly how honor leads Ned Stark to destruction, endangering his family and bannermen. The novel shows that its characters care about honor, though many of them only pay it lip service. In Westeros, honor has value, but how much? That's one of the big questions of the novel.

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin. The second novel of A Song of Ice and Fire, and no less chock full of lore than the first. The story seemed less focused than in A Game of Thrones. A few characters spend the whole book wandering around, pretty much: Arya wanders with Yoren, then with Gendry and Hot Pie, then stops for a breath in Harrenhall, then escapes to wander again; Daenerys wanders the Red Waste, then wanders in Qarth; Bran does nothing, and ends up wandering north to the wall with Rickon. But there's so much good in all these scenes of wandering. Through Arya's eyes we see the desolation and horror of war for smallfolk. As Daenerys wanders, she matures into a leader. With Bran--well, I'm not quite sure what Bran's good for. Warg lore?

Though Sansa isn't my favorite character, her chapters became my favorites in this novel. In the first novel, Sansa believed in the existence of a world that never was: the world told in the songs, a just world of honor and beauty. After the execution of her father, she finally sees the world for what it is, but doesn't want to believe it. She still wants to believe in honor and beauty. Her chapters are haunted with the horror of realizing the world is much different than she thought it was, and much worse. Joffrey forcing Sansa to look at her father's head, spiked to the top of a wall of the Red Keep, was the most brutal thing to happen to any character in the whole book.

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