Book Review: The Frustrating Pleasures of “Fire and Blood” (by George R.R. Martin)

Let me preface this review by saying how frustrated I am by this book’s publication history. For almost 8 years I have waited very impatiently for The Winds of Winter to finally see the light of day, and when I heard that instead we were going to get the first part of a two-part history of the Targaryen Dynasty, I was quite annoyed. I even contemplated not even buying this book as a (undoubtedly futile) form of protest.

Unfortunately, for all of his flaws, Martin is one hell of a world-builder and, since I really did enjoy both The World of Ice and Fire and A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, I found myself drawn inexorably toward Fire and Blood.

Though I am still deeply frustrated, I have to admit that this book was a true pleasure to read. I, like many other fantasy aficionados, always find that the histories of secondary worlds are (all too often) more interesting than the actual stories sent in those worlds. Fire and Blood succeeds precisely because it shows us the sinners and saints, the benevolent monarchs and cruel tyrants, that shaped, and continue to shape, the destiny of those living in Westeros.

This history reveals that the Targaryens are some sort of unholy combination of Julio-Claudian and Ptolemaic Dynasties, with all of the associations those two families in the ancient world possessed. We also are left with the distinct sense that, in Westeros as in the real world, the actions of one generation continue to influence their descendants, often in ways that they could never have predicted. Just as importantly, Fire and Blood reveals that this universe is one of both great beauty and unspeakable cruelty.

Some have criticized Fire and Blood for being too much like a history textbook (and thus boring). For me, that’s precisely what makes it so much fun to read. It also reveals just how vast Martin’s creative vision is, how much effort he has put into his secondary creation. Whatever the flaws of A Song of Ice and Fire (and they are substantial), there is no doubt that this is still a world with its own internal consistency and its own contradictions.

Indeed, that is one of the most compelling aspects of the book. Gyldayn (the book’s fictional narrator) seems, at first blush, to be merely transmitting information to us, his readers, but he also makes clear at several points that our understanding of the past is necessarily shaped (or misshaped) by the sources available to us. In his case, he has to rely on both eyewitness accounts of the events of the past as well as less reputable reports (some of the most amusing snippets come from the fool known as Mushroom). History, as Gyldayn reminds us, is ultimately written by the victors, and it would be a mistake (or, at least, Martin wants us to believe it would be a mistake) to view anything in the volume as the absolute truth.

That being said, I do have a few critiques. First, while I appreciate that the people of Westeros have a very biting sense of humour, it gets a bit repetitive to continue hearing about the sundry nicknames that they grant their superiors. Unfortunately, this tendency to find a device or turn of phrase and beat it to death with overuse has become something of a thing with Martin (see also “where do whores go?” in A Dance with Dragons). When it’s used sparingly it can be very effective and conveying the particular characteristics of the Westerosi, but in Fire and Blood it starts to become rather irritating.

Likewise, the (to my mind unnecessarily) convoluted family true of the Targaryens makes keeping them all straight something of a chore. This unfortunate problem is exacerbated by the bewildering similarity of their names. If you want my advice, focus on the absolute major characters (mostly the regnants), and you should be fine.

The larger criticism is that much of this material is a retread of what we’ve seen before in various places, both in A World of Ice and Fire and in the numerous edited collections to which Martin has contributed over the years. Admittedly, it’s been supplemented, but it does lead a cynical mind to wonder whether this is just another cash-grab for Martin while he flounders his way through the narrative morass that is the main thread of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Because I hate ending a review with a negative, let me reaffirm that this is definitely a must-read for fans of the novels who want to gain a richer, deeper understanding of the blood-soaked past of Westeros and its most infamous dynasty.

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Ramsay Bolton/Snow and the Complicity of Violence in “Game of Thrones”

Warning:  Full spoilers for the show follow.

Like millions of other TV viewers, I have long since grown tired of Ramsay Snow (lately Bolton), one of the few unambiguously evil characters in HBO’s Game of Thrones. While I think that Iwan Rheon deserves a lot of credit for bringing this character to chilling life, I think the writers have made a bit of a misstep by having Ramsay be so straightforwardly bad (and I blame Martin for this as well). Frankly, I’ve been hoping for his death since at least last season, and even somewhat before that. One can only tolerate pure evil for so long.

Fortunately, the most recent episode of Game of Thrones gave us what we have been asking for:  Ramsay Snow, defeated by his fellow bastard Jon and ultimately fed to the dogs that have been his preferred weapon for far too long. In a wonderful bit of poetic justice, it was our own beloved Sansa that was the instrument of his death and who delivered a chilling curse upon him in his final moments. While this was preceded by a wonderful scene in which Jon pummels his enemy into near-oblivion, it was really the (mostly unseen) mauling that packed the greatest punch and that proved the most satisfying.

There was something intensely, viscerally satisfying about seeing Ramsay receive the punishment that he so richly deserves. It was hard not to feel one’s heart pounding with exhilaration as Jon Snow pummeled the man responsible for the gradual descent of the North back into chaos and barbarity, and  I literally felt my body responding with a queer sort of thrill when that dog began licking his face and finally made the lunge, my skin crawling with a mingling of visual (and sensual) pleasure and revulsion. There is something particularly heinous and terrifying about the thought of being eaten alive by dogs, one’s body and being rendered into nothing more than a body.

Of course, part of the reason for this affect has to do with the many, many, many things that Ramsay has done to the characters that we love. His callous murder of Rickon in this episode alone would have been enough to enrage those who remain loyal to the Starks, but let’s not forget the fact that he gelded Theon (after months of torture), killed the wilding Osha, and fed his own stepmother and half-brother to his dogs. If anyone in this series deserved this horrible way of death, it was Theon.

And yet…and yet. Despite my cheers and thrills at seeing this bit of justice, a little voice in the back of my mind kept reminding me of my own complicity in the vision of violence and torture that Thrones continues to feed us. How was it possible, I ask myself, that I, a relatively enlightened and reasonable person, could find myself so thrilled at the sight of horrific dismemberment? Was the fact that Sansa was finally able to reclaim a bit of her agency really enough to justify this mental behaviour on my part?

It’s hard not to read Game of Thrones in light of the fraught political climate in which we currently live, in which emotion and passion has come to dominate rational discourse and enlightenment. Given that, I find my responses to this scene in Thrones even more disturbing, and this realization has reaffirmed my fervent belief that now, more than ever, we must indulge the better angels of our natures. Otherwise, we all risk becoming no better than the monsters, like Ramsay, that we have struggled so mightily to overcome.

“Game of Thrones” Season 5 Postmortem

Having now had a good few weeks to think about the most recent season of Game of Thrones, I thought I would set down a few of those reflections on what worked and what didn’t in this most recent season of HBO’s most popular series.  Overall, this season delivered on some promises and left enough open so that our desires remain at least partially unfulfilled.

To begin with, this season marked some significant developments in terms of the violence against women problem (which has long remained one of my most consistent critiques of the series).  Ramsay’s terrifying rape of Sansa, while filtered through Theon’s perspective (we never actually see it take place on screen), stands out to me as one of the more nuanced and heartrending scenes of such violence.  Further, the juxtaposition of that horror with Stannis’s sacrifice of his daughter Shireen in order to gain the favour of the god R’hollor, makes it clear just how little this world values its women.  However, this season does seem to be a bit more critical of that cultural phenomenon than in seasons past, rather than using such violence as a flimsy excuse to show off the naked bodies of its female characters.

Similarly, I felt that Cersei’s storyline this season was also on-point.  The High Sparrow manages to be both paternal and patriarchal, charismatic and charmingly ruthless as he lays deep plans to topple the leaders of the Great Houses (the confrontation between him and the Queen of Thrones out as one of the best the series has yet produced).  Cersei’s penitent march through King’s Landing, similarly, highlights this season’s investment in pointing out the patriarchal hypocrisy of Westeros.  And her final scene, in which she is carried offscreen by her giant protector (a presumably zombie-fied Gregor Clegane), is one of the most chilling I have yet seen in Game of Thrones, with its sinister suggestion that her desire for revenge may not only spell her own doom, but also that of everyone around her.

However, this season stumbled with a few of its other key female characters.  While I have always found Maisie Williams’s Arya to be one of the series’ finest creations (in both book and television form), this season feels like a bit of a misstep.  For much of the time, it has felt like Arya is merely spinning her wheels in Braavos, with the series desperately trying to maintain our collective interest in her rather staid storylines.  The same is true of Brienne; due to the fact that the series has eschewed the Lady Stoneheart plot (much to my dismay and anger), she is left with very little to do except chase Sansa around the North.  Even her last-minute (presumed) slaying of Stannis does only a little to mitigate the way in which the series wasted her character this season.

Overall, I felt that the the season did a great job streamlining portions of the last two of Martin’s published volumes in “A Song of Ice and Fire.”  Many readers, myself included, felt that both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons became too sprawling, falling victim to the long-standing curse of epic fantasy, in which the author becomes too enamoured of ancillary story-lines that ultimately encumber and distract from the core characters.  Thus, while some may be upset that the adaptation has done away with such side characters as the Martell siblings Arianne and Quentyn, I felt from the beginning that it was a brilliant and necessary move (considering the fact that the former continues to flounder and the latter is dead by the end of Dance, I can’t help but think the novels would have been better without them).

I know that I, for one, am both excited and a little nervous that the HBO series has now moved beyond the pale of Martin’s published work.  Of course, some of this is allayed by the fact that Martin has given the producers an indication of the final trajectory of his series.  Details about how next season will shape up have been rather sparse so far, but I am curious how they are going to deal with the fact that so many of the series’ characters are so far scattered.  Perhaps, as the rumor mill has suggested, the series will institute a time jump so that the various characters can finally break out of their narrative prisons (this would certainly help the books along).  Or perhaps this will happen in the series’ (presumed) seventh season, or maybe even later (if/when it makes its leap from the small to the big screen).

Whatever happens, the series seems to have really found its stride, showcasing what can be achieved when the medium of television is allowed the budget and the freedom to invest in serious and complex storytelling.