Friday, October 17, 2008

Off the Shelf: Game of Thrones & the window

I've decided to change how I review books from this point out. Apparently, whether I liked or disliked a book matters little to my readers. It's not a popular feature. Also, many of the books I read are not good fits for this blog of mine which is about coping with disabilities.

Still, I only justify my reading if I analyze it, so there needs to be a place for that analysis. Aren't you lucky? I may ultimately spin all these book reviews off onto The Absentminded Bookshelf again, but for the time being will post them here. This means that on topic books will continue to get their own dedicated reviews, such as Hide & Seek by Wendy Aron which I hope to begin reading in earnest this week. Off topic books will get dumped into an occasional Friday post I'll call "Off the Shelf"

So how exactly will this be different? Well, since I want to be a writer I'll review the books as a writer not a reader. Hah! How's that for pretentiousness? Should be good for a laugh.

Books reviewed today:
“Game of Thrones” by George R. R. Martin
“the window” by Jeanette Ingold

“Game of Thrones” by George R. R. Martin:

During my writer's workshop with Brandon Sanderson, he would often cite authors of one writing style or another relevant to whatever point he was making at the time. Brandon is very well read, so I came away with quite the reading list. George R. R. Martin's work was one of the authors on the list. If I remember correctly (vaguely), Brandon described his style as graphic fantasy. That intrigued me so I ordered a book from my library and proceeded to renew it over and over again until I finally got around to reading it.

In short, Game of Thrones is a story about empire, the quest for power, and the threat from ancient enemies.

I could tell within the first several chapters that the book was being paced for sequels. This did not seem to me to be a good thing. I'm not sure why, but I knew that the Others - a gruesome, supernatural species at home in raw winter weather - were being saved for later. I've wondered if that was me being clever or the result of poor foreshadowing and I've decided it was poor foreshadowing.

Each chapter was told in the first person from one of the many characters in the story. In fact, each chapter is simply named after the first person character. The prologue was written as if the book were fantasy horror, but the chapters that followed were written much more realistically, filled with the cultures of court. Aside from the fact that the setting was not any medieval kingdom known to Earth, the chapters had little fantasy in them and were quite disconnected from the prologue. Eventually, the events in the prologue began to thread into the narrative in the form of folklore, but by then I began to suspect the story wasn't going to be finished at the end of its 807 pages.

Since I plan on writing a multi book series, I take notes on pacing when reading others' works. After about 100 pages, it became obvious this book wasn't about supernatural ice beings, but about war and power struggles among men. Judging by how much time was being spent on setting up the epic, and judging by how little anything I read had to do with ice beings, I began to suspect I had picked up Book One of many.

Is that bad? No. It's just not the story I want to write. I suppose I am not a large fan of epic fantasies with a cast of dozens whose lives intertwine like tangled skeins that eventually form a plot long down the road. I do think, however, that the prologue felt tacked onto the beginning as if from another book. Some people may be awed by a prologue that fails to tie into the story until another book or two later, but I felt the writing style was just a bit more artful as opposed to the more practical writing style of what followed which contributed to its disconnect.

It is possible I would have had a different opinion had I enjoyed the book. This "graphic fantasy" wasn't simply violent and gory as I had assumed. It was also crass, vulgar, and randy. I'm not entirely a prude, but I felt less discussion of the textures of sex would have been nice. I also found modern vulgarities a bit incongruent with the medieval setting. It's not that I think knights didn't swear. I simply question whether they use the F-word as we do. Nothing nails a culture into our modern world like the liberal usage of the F-word.

These issues were minimal for me, however. The real problem I had was with the plot involving a thirteen year old having graphic sex with an adult barbarian. I found those scenes disturbing and uncomfortable, especially since they were told in the first person. Although the characters involved are not real, and social moires of the past are not the same as today, I am a father of four girls, one of which is thirteen, and I live very solidly in today's world. In my opinion, the various descriptions of lovemaking were not so necessary as they were lurid and prurient.

Another example of poor foreshortening came in the beginning when this thirteen year old girl was given ancient dragon eggs as a wedding gift. I knew the dragon eggs would hatch. I'm not terribly clever here. Hatching is what eggs do. What was frustrating for me was that Martin brought them up over and over again. He made me wait hundreds of pages to see them hatch.

Why go on about this? It is because I have important elements I want to bring up in the beginning of my story that will play a role much later in the story. There seems to be a balance that was off in Martin's writing that wasn't off in, for example, the writings of J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series. There is an art to foreshadowing. Of course, what I see as a problem may simply be the nature of 800 page books with a cast of dozens. Some reiteration is necessary when the point of view bounces from cast member to cast member. Still, I don't think it would have hurt to not mention the eggs at all until they were needed.

Although I felt Martin created a milieu very rich in detail and culture, and therefore very believable (something worth studying), in the end it was his treatment of women I found most disappointing. This society he created was very violent to women. Probably true to its era, but still difficult to read. For example, there were an awful lot of whorehouses in this world, but not a lot of educated women. Women seemed to have few roles in Martin's world except as vessels for men's manhood or to serve their lords. This was made all the more harsh for me to read because most of his female characters were young children.

Illegitimate daughters of kings grew up to be whores. The thirteen year old was frequently beat by her brother. A young princess was beat by a knight. The women were cut, bruised, slashed, raped, and killed. The events were truly horrible. It makes me wonder. How much detail is necessary to paint a picture of a society that is violent towards women? Does the adage "show, don't tell" work in this situation when it produces controversial scenes? Martin obviously succeeded at depicting a savage and graphic fantasy, but it was not necessarily enjoyable reading for me.

Overall, Martin's "A Game of Thrones" featured a rich, gritty world, and there were many characters I found fascinating. Hodor, the mentally challenged man, being one of my favorites, as well as Arya, a tomboyish princess. Unfortunately, the story suffers from character overkill, leaving many characters a bit flat for me. I believe this is a challenge for all epic writers, however, especially if the scope of the story is so large characters can get lost in it. Brian Aldiss' Helliconia trilogy comes to mind.

What I take away from this book is that I need to be sure that I have a small cast or I'll lose interest in my own book. Likewise, my story cannot be too large or I will run into the same problem. I'll also need to find that artful balance between foreshadowing and keeping secrets. Lastly, I cannot fall in love with my world to the point that it becomes a main character.

“the window” by Jeanette Ingold

This short Young Adult fiction was a breath of fresh air for me. The writing was beautiful and evocative. Clearly, I am discovering that I'm more interested in beauty than grit.

I heard Jeanette Ingold read from her book at WIFYR last June and sought out her book as soon as the convention was over. It centers around a girl named Mandy who recently lost her mother and sight in the same fateful accident.

The story revolves around the bitterness of a teenager dealing with hardship and disability as she starts a new life with distant relatives she neither knows nor has a rapport with. She encounters friends at school with problems of their own that helps her put her own life in perspective, she grows to love her new family, and there is the mystery of the window. When Mandy is near the window in the attic she can see and hear into the past. Slowly she learns about a young woman named Gwen who's life is intricately entwined with her own.

At 181 pages, it is a short story that makes for a quick read. I noticed that the writing became more practical and less artful as the story moved along. It made me wonder if Ingold was under space constraints considering how beautiful the beginning was. I also didn't like the ending. The window plot element wasn't resolved in a satisfactory way for me. It seems that the window merely acted as a plot catalyst in Mandy's life. Once the real world plot took over, the window plot was closed.

I suppose I wanted to see Mandy's gift manifest itself in other ways going forward, or the reason for this magical connection to the past explained a bit more. Instead, the window was left as an enigma. The window let Mandy see into the past because Mandy needed to see into the past to understand her past. There was no more to it than that. I suspect my Science Fiction/Fantasy background had me demanding more from that particular element than was ever intended to be supplied.

What I take away from this book is that the language and writing of the first few chapters is critical for establishing tone for the rest of the novel. However, I might want to consider returning to artful writing whenever the plot slows down in order to provide consistency throughout the book. It's an idea. I'll have to see where it takes me.

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