George R.R. Martin Critiqued Via A CLASH OF KINGS

clash  choque

So I’ve tried to read several George R.R. Martin books along the way.  The one I’ve liked best so far is  A Clash Of Kings, the second book of his A Song Of Ice And Fire series.  I read it in both English and in its Spanish translation (I sometimes read less demanding books in Spanish AND English so as not to let my college Spanish completely evaporate from my head– I use the English version as a crutch).  It would only cheat myself if I always counted the Spanish version as a separate book in my march through The 300, so I don’t– but I AM counting the Spanish version this time because it brought something illuminating to Martin’s writing that I might not have noticed as deeply without the dual-language approach.

The interesting thing about reading the Spanish version of A Clash Of Kings was that I realized just how much wordplay Martin is using in his stories.  He really is quite a wordsmith.  Unfortunately, wordplay is not something that moves easily from language to language.  It’s one of the reasons some people say that the best poetry is truly untranslatable.  I also think that’s why Byron’s poetry was so well-received in Europe… he wrote fairly straightforwardly about simple universal themes, such as love, lust, and death; furthermore, for Byron, poetry was more about SENTIMENT than how clever he could be with word games (if you re-read Byron, however, you’ll see how good he is at choosing the RIGHT word)… But for all these reasons, Byron’s poetry was pretty easily translatable into other languages without losing much of what was essentially “Byronic” in Byron (Byron is one of my favorite poets, by the way, though his star seems to descend more with each passing decade in the eyes of both critics and public).

Just one example of many from Clash Of Kings of the language barrier is the translation of the geographic area named “Storm’s End” by Martin.  The translator chose to render this as “Bastion De Tormentas”… giving the name a different connotation in the new language.

George R.R. Martin has written hundreds of thousands of words… book after book after very thick book.  I don’t think a writer of this sort is aiming to make every paragraph poetry.  And yet the great prolifics (and Martin is certainly one of them), even operating under the burden of their drive to produce, can still offer us a descriptive gem here and there– and usually the great ones make sure one of those gems appear at the books opening.  Martin does that here, with a great opening few paragraphs about a comet burning across the sky.  The first thing one reads upon starting this tale is, “The comet’s tail spread across the dawn, a red slash that bled above the crags of Dragonstone like a wound in the pink and purple sky.”

I have to say, I don’t think a reader of a long fictional work would WANT every paragraph to be poetry.  It would make for quite a slog.  For long fantasy adventures, pacing becomes extremely important… The artist writing the story must know when to speed up and when to slow down, when to pile on the action and shove the story forward, and when to luxuriate in details of place or personality or backstory that fans of the genre relish.  Speaking for myself, once the author has me hooked, I’m gobbling up the story so greedily that I’ve found myself not even noticing for awhile that the story I’m reading just turned into ten pages of dialogue with hardly any description or internal dialogue… If done well and at the right time, a dialogue heavy section can be the perfect style for that part of the story.

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One might not think it to judge by the mass of words produced by Martin, but he can be quite economical when he wants to be in his descriptions.  For instance, to convey the age of one character (Cressen), he sum ups much in two short sentences… “His flesh was wrinkled and spotted, the skin so papery thin that he could see the web of veins and the shape of bones beneath.  And how they trembled, these hands of his that had once been so sure and deft.”

Or there’s this description of Stannis… “His eyes were open wounds beneath his heavy brows, a blue as dark as the sea by night.  His mouth would have given despair to even the drollest of fools; it was a mouth made for frowns and scowls and sharply worded commands, all thin pale lips and clenched muscles, a mouth that had forgotten how to smile and never known how to laugh.”

For those of you know the character of Stannis, you can also value the TYPE of metaphoric language Martin is using– bringing in “the sea” because Stannis and his ships are important to the story, and also the fact that Stannis is not happy in his silence– thus his brows are “heavy” and his eyes like “open wounds.”  Byootiful.

Martin is, of course, a writer of fantasy… so he better be good at creative invention, which he is.  Like Tolkein, his has created a large and intricate world, and the details and histories he provides for this made-up world are astounding.  Not many people can do what Martin can in terms of world-building.  I could cite many examples of Martin’s world-building details, but to choose one of my favorite…  Martin has come up with a priestly class of wise men, men who form an order with certain rites and roles and tokens.  The most important mark of their order is a chain worn about the neck, “each link forged from a different metal, each symbolizing his mastery of another branch of learning.” 

And then there’s the intricate backstory Martin gives a major-minor character named Davos– a whole family history including how he got his nickname, the “Onion Knight,” and how he came to serve– and serve loyally– the same man who once cut off the fingers of one of his hands.  Normally, I’m prone to grow very bored very quickly with those intricate backstories comprising so much of the novels of high fantasy… But Martin, with some irritating exceptions, usual provides entertaining and relevant backstories.

Our author also creates in A Clash Of Kings an entire religion, complete with rites and mythology.  Actually, he creates SEVERAL religions… My favorite is the religion of the “old gods”– seven gods representing seven essential “types” of humankind… from Mother, to Warrior, to the Stranger, and so on.  It sounds like a pretty cool religion as far as religions go.  The greatest zealots in the multi-book saga actually belong to ANOTHER religion, one that worships fire and light.

I could go on with this… just skimming the surface of the vast ocean of world-creating detail Martin gives us.  I will try to limit myself to one more example… Martin creates a small sea-faring race with its own religion as well… a religion centering around the “drowned god.”  Now, I’ve read a lot of mythologies in my time…  I’ve read of an Egyptian god dying and getting hacked to pieces and put back together… I’ve read of a God taking human form in Galilee and being murdered by being nailed to a crossbeam centered on a single upright pole– only to come back to life in three days… But I never remember reading about a god who drowned.

The sea-faring race I mentioned has “salt wives” and “silent sisters” and “begging brothers” and a cultural disdain for men who merely BUY things– for, obviously, a real man “pays the iron price” for his property– in other words, he wins it in battle.

Basically, Martin is very good at seizing upon THE vital characteristic of a person or a people and then working it and working it… mining that characteristic for all that it’s worth.  It’s debatable if he sometimes goes too far, but I was never deeply annoyed by it.  An author with a similar ability was Frank Herbert.  In Dune, he created a world in which water was in very short supply… and then preceded to ingeniously consider how this one fact would affect the culture in multitudinous ways.  Martin does the same– but for multiple cultures.

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Martin puts into the words (spoken or thought) of his characters many nuggets of wisdom throughout his stories.  “Courage and folly are cousins,” for instance says Tyrion, probably Martin’s wittiest character.  In another place Tyrion counsels his sister, the Queen, “when you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar.  You’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”

There is, in fact, much philosophy in Martin.  At one point a character considers that there is no shame in fear– only in how you face it.  In another paragraph a character contends that it is not so much WHAT we do, but WHY we do it.

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Martin knows the nuts and bolts of how to put a story together and keep it moving.  There is plenty of intrigue– and needs be to hold our interest over the course of thousands of paragraphs.  Sometimes we, the readers, know who is double-dealing or backstabbing, and sometimes we are left to wonder.

For the most part, Martin is a genius at subtly reminding us where we left off with a character whom we haven’t seen in fifty or a hundred pages.  This is just basic good story-telling which no author should ever get too artsy to do.  Other times, however, Martin can feel a bit heavy-handed, as when he has a character launch into a “remember when…” account of something that happened in, say, the previous book.

And boy oh boy, this talented author can throw out some zinging banter– some of best coming in the dialogues between Theon and Asha, and also between Tyrion and– well, pretty much anyone he’s talking to (even when they don’t have the wit to respond, Tyrion more than makes up for their lack with his own loquaciousness).

I also liked that Martin kept each chapter to one distinct point of view.  Each chapter “belongs” to a certain character, and for that section of the book we see the world through that character’s eyes and hear that character’s biases and interpretations.  Very well done.

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As I continued reading A Clash Of Kings, I discovered that I wanted to spend more time with some characters– but started wanting to skip completely over chapters centered on other characters.  By the end of the book, I was hardly reading the sections dealing with Catelyn or Bran or even Daenerys at all.  It was Tyrion and the people he mingled with– especially Varys and Bronn– that I really enjoyed reading about, and I was always impatient to get back to them whenever the story veered toward other character circles.

That said… two of the most exciting chapters centered on Arya and, separately, Daenarys.  Each of these chapters occured over 600 pages into the book– just when I was growing bored with these two story lines.  They were so well-written that they could stand alone as viable and entertaining short stories.

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I do have my quibbles with Martin.  One of the first pieces of advice I ever arrogated myself to tell a fellow writer was this… When you’re writing in the third person, don’t change the name you (the narrator) call your characters.  No matter how many different names a character is called by other characters within the book, the narrator should choose the name he wishes to call the character and stick with it.  If your character’s name is Robert Smith, don’t switch back and forth between calling Robert and Smith, and don’t call him Robert at some times and Bob at other times.

But, of course, Martin, a great writer, unabashedly violates my little rule.  For one example, King Joffrey, Tyrion’s nephew, is sometimes called by our third-person narrator by the name of “Joffrey,” but at other times the narrator is suddenly feeling so chummy that he shortens it to “Joff.”

As I briefly mentioned early, Martin can sometimes spend too much time relating this-and-that character’s reputation and personal story and going into the long histories of royal lineages and and that sort of thing.  As I’ve learned while machete-ing through my list of 300 books to read, I am not the quintessential fan of fantasy fiction… This is for the simple reason that I grow bored with too much fiction-world history and too much mythology explication.  Whereas, a true a fan of the genre eats-up this stuff with pitchfork and shovel– page after page after wearying page.  So, what I’m saying here is– yes, I find these long descriptions and the more irrelevant anecdotes tiresome, and yes I do indeed fault Martin for this– though at the same time I realize that others will quite enjoy it all, and obviously have.  Alas, one man’s hearty stew is another man’s bowl of soggy plant parts and dismembered creatures.

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