There is a fairly common fantasy trope that bothers me. Take a look at the guy on the right, here. You’re looking at your fairly standard fantasy barbarian type. Twin swords, skulls and hides, bare chest, etc.. It is common for fantasy worlds to depict these fellows as the kind of guys you do not want to mess with–tough, deadly, and more than a match for any armored knight from any civilized country. The problem with this is, of course, that it is complete and utter hogwash.
As a military technology, fantasy worlds, authors, and fans often underestimate high-quality half plate, plate-and-mail, and even the rarely worn full plate armors of actual historical Europe. They are thought of as being too heavy and too cumbersome, and that warriors that who wore this stuff could be easily overpowered by a fellow like our friend on the right here, simply by dint of the fact that he is ‘faster’. This idea is inherently false and, while our bare-chested fellow might be expected to defeat an armored opponent, the odds are rather heavily stacked against him if, in fact, he’s fighting a guy who knows what he’s doing in that suit of mail.
First off, let’s dispel the ridiculous myth that being clad in plate mail suddenly means you can’t move around. Even the heavy stuff wound up weighing about 50-60 pounds, distributed across the whole body. When you consider that modern soldiers are expected to march around carrying even more weight than that, and they can move around, it isn’t all that crazy to expect a medieval knight who has trained in this stuff more-or-less his entire life could comfortably maneuver himself with it. A soldier who can’t move on the battlefield is a dead soldier, and people didn’t spend centuries crafting suits of expensive armor because it meant they were killed by whoever happened along in a leather tank-top. Granted, a guy in full plate armor isn’t going to be scratching the small of his back and he certainly isn’t running a marathon, but in the relatively short-term usage it would be expected to be used (i.e. a battle), a physically fit man who had practiced in the stuff would be comparably as agile as a guy without the stuff. The guy without the stuff would simply last much longer and could run faster. This is, of course, partly why the guys in the heavy armor often rode around on horses.
A suit of armor isn’t clothes–it’s a weapon. Just like a shield is a weapon. It suddenly enables you to do stuff on the battlefield the unarmored guy can’t, such as, I don’t know, grab the other guy’s sword by the blade. Or not bother trying to parry, since you know full well this Conan-wannabe’s overhand swing is going to glance off your helm like rainwater (just like has happened to you hundreds of times while training) while you’re running him through the guts. Suddenly, your enemy went from having a target of your whole body to having a couple, pretty small targets for him to hurt you–your armpits, the back of your knees, maybe your groin, and that’s about it. Provided the armored fellow knows what he’s doing (keeps himself from getting off balance, doesn’t needlessly exert himself, etc.), the guy without the armor is royally screwed.
But…what if the unarmored guy is, like, super super skilled?
Well, yes, an exceptionally skilled fellow has a much better chance of beating a less skilled fellow. Of course, if the less skilled fellow is wearing steel from head to toe, skilled guy is going to have to work his ass off to win. He’s much better off running away, hiding, and trying to get off a cheap shot when armored guy isn’t looking.
One fantasy series that pays attention to the uses of armor is George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. The Dothraki, for instance, eschew armor in favor of speed. This gives them strategic advantages and allows them to hit and run quickly, but in close combat is often shown to be very, very stupid when used against armored knights. Barristan the Bold in the most recent book proved the foolishness of not wearing armor quite clearly. At the same time, Tyrion’s mercenary friend Bronn shows what happens when an idiot throws on a suit of armor and chases a guy around the room without using his ‘weapon’ correctly. Had he stood there and bided his time, Bronn would have been a dead man, and no mistake. As it was, he had to work his ass off to beat that moron (who, let’s be honest, was carrying the idiot ball).
So, no more of this ‘plate mail sucks’ nonsense I frequently detect among fantasy fans. No, it doesn’t. It is a potent military technology that was only rendered obsolete by the invention of the gun. If nobody’s packing heat, plate mail (and the physical conditioning and training to use it) is as good as it gets.
Recently I attended a dramatic staging of CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. The performance was engaging and it did a good job of refamiliarizing me with a work that I had only really skimmed while in college (and that primarily so I would have frame of reference to understand what some of my friends were talking about), but it also got me thinking about God, gods, and the fantastic portrayals of them.
In particular, I recall feeling a certain sense of discomfort with the way in which the Devil and, by extension or association, God is presented by Lewis in the Letters. It isn’t that I objected to the religious sentiments and moral quandaries being explored *via* the dramatic portrayal–that didn’t bother me in the least. Rather, the issue I had was the way in which God, the Infinite, the Creator of All Things was pigeonholed into the basic ‘angel on your shoulder’ thing and Evil, also, was likewise simplistic, cartoonish, and more ‘emblematic’ than ‘realistic’ (insofar as any portrayal of the infinite can be judged on the basis of realism). I suppose it’s easier to think of God in terms of a big guy in the sky and set Him up as oppossed to some fork-tailed, well-spoken demon in the underworld. It’s easier because it’s where we started–symbols and simplistic explanations for things we don’t or can’t understand. I don’t see God that way, or at least not since I ever sat down and give this idea some good, serious thought. Seeing as I don’t really mean to make this into a theological post, I’ll leave it at that.
What this line of thinking led me to is the use of gods and demons in fantasy literature. Like in The Screwtape Letters, gods are typically very tangible, understandable, and even physical things in fantasy literature. We know, for instance, that the Blood God of the Warhammer World, Khorne, sits on a Throne of Skulls, has a big sword, and bellows for blood to be spilt in his name. In Tolkien, we know the dispositions and behaviors of the Valar, and the Maiar, like Mithrandir and Sauron, are likewise personal, physical (on some level), and understood in concrete terms–Sauron needs a ring, Mithrandir is called Gandalf and blows smoke rings, etc.. There are numerous other examples, of course, but it isn’t just physical manifestations of the divine that I find interesting. Also curious is the extent to which the divine is demonstrably real in fantasy. Priests wield actual magical power; prayers can have actual, metaphysical effect; miracles are made real. The Red God of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series has real power, if called upon, just as the Old Gods seem to.
The divine is an unquestionable power in Fantasy, as often as not, and the more characters question it, the more we expect them to be proven wrong by some ‘unexplainable’ miracle that is, with a wink and a nudge from the author, obviously evidence of the divine power the character themself doubts. Think Han Solo–he doesn’t believe in the Force, but we know he’s wrong. You’d think that the Force wouldn’t be open to question, given what Jedi are known to do, but it is. It’s even doubted by people who live in the world of the prequels, where Jedi are much more common. Lucas does a good job trying to ruin his own world by giving the Force a ’scientific’ explanation with the Microbes-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, but we ‘real’ fans of Star Wars (cue snort and a push-up of the glasses) know that it’s religion, not science, that drives the Jedi.
Why is this so? Why does the divine get such unquestionable back-up in fantasy lit? Where is the agnostic or atheist or, heck, even skeptical fantasy? Why can’t that moment of faith, where the paladin calls upon his God, be answered not with lightning from the sky or some magical burst of inexplicable fortune, but rather with a feeling of peace and certainty and even energy that is so often the fuel of the faithful and the target of the doubters? Is fantasy literature there to reassure us, on some level? Is it there to help us believe in things, whether they be gods or simply the purity of good and evil? I think this might be the case, and I’m honestly a little bothered by it. If I believe in God, I don’t need to have my belief bolstered by tales of a parallel world where a little boy really believed and had his belief confirmed from a light from on high and a magic sword.
I’d rather explore the doubt–I think that’s where the real drama lies, anyway. I want to pit believers who can’t furnish miracles pitted against non-believers who can’t furnish sufficient doubt to sway the believers. I’ve set Alandar up this way, at any rate–absentee Gods, conflicting mythology, magic more akin to science than anything else, but just mysterious enough to confuse. Maybe I’m wrong about this; maybe that isn’t what fantasy should be. Then again, it’s my fantasy, isn’t it? I get to explore what I like.
Say you really loved the sitcom, Cheers. You were totally into the zany exploits of Sam, Norm, Cliff, Woody, Fraser, and the rest of the gang. You tuned in every week like clockwork and laughed your butt off. Then, somewhere around the 11th or 12th season, the plot followed Fraser as he moved to Seattle. It spends a lot of time with Fraser, actually. Next thing you know, every episode is set in Seattle, where we meet Fraser’s father, his zany brother Niles, and a bunch of other characters. You keep watching, but you also keep cursing and asking the TV ‘where the hell is Norm, guys? What’s going on at the bar?’ Then it hits you–you aren’t watching Cheers anymore. This is a spin-off called Fraser.
Except nobody ever told you, and the show is still called Cheers.
This, my friends, is exactly how I felt upon finishing A Dance with Dragons this weekend. I have come to the conclusion that I am no longer reading the series of books I started and, accordingly, my interest in the storyline has faded to almost nothing. I am not reading any more of the books, since I don’t see the point. I didn’t sign on to watch Fraser, guys.
Oh, and if you care about these things, there are lots of ‘spoilers’ below. I put the word ‘spoilers’ in quotes because I fail to see how a series of storylines completely irrelevant to the one you’re reading now could be ‘spoiled’ at all (presuming you are in the first three books of Song of Ice and Fire). Anyway, you’ve been warned.
Before I set about tearing into the book, I’d like to give some shout-outs to the things I liked. There aren’t many:
1) To Jon Snow: For cutting off that fucker Janos Slynt’s head. That felt good.
2) To Wyman Manderly: For uttering the following line: “Perhaps it is for the best. Had he lived, he would have grown up to be a Frey.” <zing!>
3) To Theon Greyjoy: For having the decency to mope about all the Starks being dead and the old days being gone for good. I really identified with him in that sense.
4) To Danerys’s Dragons: For fucking shit up and finally, finally introducing some action into the plot, even if it was only for the last 10% of the book.
Now, to Brass Tacks
I will henceforward refer to the vast majority of this book and the last book as ‘The Dithering’. I call it ‘the Dithering’ because that’s what happened–Dithering. Most of the books were various individuals sitting on their asses and wondering what to do next. So much internal monologue it made me want to scream, and this is even though Martin is really good at writing inner monologues. This wouldn’t have been so bad if we were seeing the thoughts and hopes and dreams of characters we cared about, but Davos Seaworth? Victarion Greyjoy? Quentyn Martell? Jesus Christ! Booooring! Also, it seems to me that Martin deliberately avoids writing action sequences since, for the vast majority of instances, the action happens off-stage. Did Stannis have his head cut off by Bolton? If so, HOLY CRAP that’s something I would have liked to see. Screw you, Martin. If it isn’t true…meh. More Dithering is to come, I suppose.
Beyond the Dithering, however, is the fact that the story is no longer about the things I care about anymore. It has become a series about other plots, other families, and other conflicts that, frankly, don’t interest me in the least. My interests, at the start of the series, were as follows:
#1: The Fate of the Starks: I wanted to know if the Starks could spring back from the blows of the Red Wedding and Ned Stark’s death. I have my answer now, and it is ‘no, they can’t.’ Ned is Dead, Robb is Dead, Catelyn is Dead, Jon is Probably Dead, Sansa is worthless, Rickon is a toddler somewhere, Arya Stark is being actively convinced by other characters to stop being a Stark, and Bran has decided to sit down and become a tree. Gotcha–I can stick a fork in this one, folks.
#2: Justice for the Lannisters: I wanted to watch the Lannisters pay for what they’d done. Well, Tywin is dead, Joffery is Dead, Jamie is gone rogue, Cersei is mortified and finished, Tommen and Mycella are children, and Tyrion is halfway around the world and no longer directly involved in this plotline anymore. Finished here.
#3: Can Jon Snow Hold off the Others at the Wall: The answer is ‘no’. Even if he isn’t dead, everybody up there sucks so badly at life that I think it’s a foregone conclusion.
#4: Will Danerys being the Targaryens claim the Iron Throne: This, I should point out, is a distant fourth. I really only care insofar as it related to plot’s 1 and 2, and all the Dithering has convinced me that the amount of time it is going to take Danerys to get her ass back to Westeros is such that it doesn’t make sense for me to read the other books. Besides, there’s Young Griff already back there, ruining the surprise for Danerys, and there goes the novelty of that little plotline. Booo.
As for the rest of them, they can all jump, for all I care. I don’t care about Dorne, I could give a crap about Sam and his schooling, the Seastone Chair I have already ranted about at length, all those mercenary companies disinterest me, Stannis and the Bolton’s deserve each other, the Others can undead-ify the world, for all I care, and the whole slave revolt/Red God thing? Who cares? Martin trying to get me to care about the slaves of Slaver’s Bay is like Hermione Granger trying to get everyone to give a crap about House Elves.
Oh yeah, and Danerys had her chance to ride her dragons a long time ago. Now it’s too late–I just don’t care. When all those guys from her past were giving her crap about not moving on from Mereen while she was hallucinating, I was right there with them saying ‘yeah! Tell her!’
So, there you have it. I’m done with Westeros–all that has thus far occurred has convinced me I haven’t anything to look forward to. At the very least it isn’t like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which took a somewhat more kick-ass story (and somewhat less ‘gritty’) and dithered itself away into a bloated monstrosity of nothing happening at all until, at last, the author died. Yeah, at least that hasn’t happened to Martin.
Have you seen pictures? If you’re a fan, you should write him a letter. Tell him to eat a salad once in a while and no, Taco Salad doesn’t count.
Dear George RR Martin,
Why are there vikings in the Song of Ice and Fire? Seriously, I’m honestly curious. I mean, yeah, Vikings are cool, but you made a deliberate decision somewhere (second book, I think, or maybe third) to make the squabbles among the folk of the Iron Islands into a major subplot and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why.
Let me be clear: Theon Greyjoy is a great character. He is, frankly, the best thing about A Dance with Dragons; were it not for his wandering around Winterfell and regretting everything that happened to him, I’d probably have put the book down by now (I’m about 75% through at this point). To have Theon, though, we didn’t need the Iron Islands. It isn’t like there’s a shortage of murderous dickheads in Westeros. There are dozens of petty lords and assholes scattered around the north of Westeros whom you could have easily had revolt at some time in the past and have Eddard Stark kick their asses and then have Greyjoy grow up with the Starks and so on and so forth, but no–you needed to create the stupid Seastone Chair and waste our time with idiots like Euron and Asha and Victarion.
That’s right: Waste. Our. Time.
I just read a chapter where Victarion is considering sending men into the rigging of his ship to chase monkeys. Yes. Monkeys, in his rigging–apparently it’s a problem. You should know this, since you must have spent at least an hour or two writing this chapter and thought to yourself ‘you know what would be funny? Monkeys on a sailboat.’ You know what would have been more funny, though? Having Arya stab Cercei in the eyes. Much more funny, I promise.
Okay, so granted, that whole chapter wasn’t about monkeys in the rigging (though you did spend a bizarre amount of time describing their shrieking and poop-flinging episodes), but it isn’t as though the rest of the chapter was somehow interesting or worthwhile. Moqorro? You had to bring him back from the dead? Why? So he could convert Victarion to the worship of the Red God? WHY? WHO THE FUCK CARES? One guy we don’t care about converting some other guy we don’t care about to a God we’ve already seen used plenty of other places doing the same exact thing? Sheesh…
Here, for your perusal, is a list of facts:
1) Nobody gives a crap about Victarion. At all.
2) No one from the Iron Islands has interacted with a single other major character in Westeros for something like 1000 pages. No, Asha talking to stupid Stannis doesn’t count.
3) The person who sits on the Seastone Chair is completely, 100%, and in all other ways irrelevant to the main plot of this series. Provided it still has a main plot, which I’m beginning to doubt.
4) The idea that Victarion and his crappy band of Viking buddies are sailing off to capture Danerys is stupid. Why? Well, we already know Danerys isn’t in Mereen, anyway. Plus she has dragons. Plus there are a billion other people there to kick Victarion’s ass. Plus WE DON’T CARE ABOUT VICTARION OR WHAT HAPPENS TO HIM!
Seriously, Mr. Martin, this is driving me bonkers. I really love your world, here. Well, specifically, I love the story of the Starks and the Lannisters, I’m interested to see what happens with the Others, and I’m willing to tolerate Danerys long enough for her to deus ex machina Westeros out of being consumed by snow demons. I really cannot stomach the Iron Islanders. They have nothing to do with the story in any interesting fashion, Theon excepted. Can’t we just forget they exist? Can’t we go back to seeing what happens to Arya and Tyrion and Jon? Remember when the main characters occasionally talked to each other about things that were interesting? I miss that time. I want that time back. Every page I waste hearing about the Drowned God keeps me from the time where that may yet happen again.
So, in short, if you wanted to write a book about Vikings, you should have done so in some other book. Here, it’s just plain annoying. They’re a bad sideshow, a disinteresting distraction, a plot thread I’d rather see get cut with a massive set of Editing Shears than see to its conclusion. Don’t take this personally–you are a fine writer in most other respects and probably a very nice person. Let’s face it, though, the Ironborn are just plain old stinkers and they ought to all go to their Drowned God.
P.S.: Don’t get me started on the Dornish.
I’m just now about halfway through George RR Martin’s A Dance with Dragons. He is a fine writer and has a gift for characterization, but, while I tore through the previous four books (okay, the first three and read the fourth in a week), I’ve found myself stumbling through this fifth in the series. I’ve been trying to pin down why, exactly, and I believe I’ve figured it out: This series isn’t about a person anymore, or even a group of people or two groups of people. It’s about Everyone.
Let me be frank: I don’t care about everyone. I mean that in the context fiction, specifically (primarily, at least, but let’s not delve into my misanthropy just now). No matter how much I get drawn into a work (and Martin really sucked me in with A Game of Thrones), I pin my interests and cares on the main characters, whoever they are, and there my concerns stay. I did not cry when they blew up Alderaan. I did not give a crap when all those dwarves died in Moria. I produced a big shrug when the aliens in Independence Day nuked Los Angeles…
But I cheered when Will Smith’s dog evaded that giant fireball.
A story, to my mind, should about a character or groups of characters going through a journey that changes them and challenges them. The more characters you have, the harder it gets to keep the reader focused on the story and the harder it becomes to engage them with the characters. Too many irons in the fire; too many cooks in the kitchen. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has become an unwieldy behemoth of a series, with well over 100 characters. It’s a pretty huge struggle for me to give a crap what happens to them all. There are barely over 100 real people I care about that much.
Let me make this clear, as well: it isn’t that I can’t keep the characters straight. I have a pretty solid memory for things like plot and character–I picked up Dance and started reading after having read the other books many, many years before and was able to keep up just fine. I remember most things of consequence and the stuff I forgot I am reminded of as soon as it comes up again. I’m on top of the narrative–comprehension isn’t the problem.
The problem, I’ve come to realize, is that the only characters I care about–and I stress the word only–are those
characters present in Winterfell when King Robert came to visit in the first book. That’s it–those are my characters. Even Daenerys is, well, only mildly interesting (I was frustrated by her inclusion in the first book, honestly. She got better, but I still wouldn’t give a crap if somebody stuck a knife in her eye…well, aside from the overriding plot repurcussions that might prevent GRRM from reasonably resolving this story, but whatever). Those characters at that castle set the tone for the rest of the series and presented to me all the protagonists and antagonists I’d really care to meet in this world ever.
Now, how many of those characters are still around, keeping us interested? How many of them are still relevant to what is happening in the world at large? How many of them have we even seen in the past book and a half? Yeah, not that many. Two? Three? Screw it, I say. I’m getting bored, and not because the book is badly written (far from it), but because I feel like I’m done here. It’s like watching the playoffs after your team’s been eliminated–why bother? I got plenty of other books to read where characters I like are still involved in the main plot.
This, in the end, is the main cost of writing ‘epic fantasy literature’ in its various forms. The author gets so invested in his world, he forgets why it exists in the first place: To give interesting characters a place to live and strive and die. Take away the characters, or drown them in a sea of unfamiliar faces, and the books lose something essential, something elemental to all storytelling.