Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Backstory bait and switch

I’m looking forward to the biannual beach vacation, which is now less than three weeks away, for a variety of reasons, and one such aspect is the opportunity to return once again to the Worldwar series by Harry Turtledove, which I have mentioned before is a sci-fi alternate military history series which I reserve exclusively for beach reading. A couple years ago, around the time I read the second book in the four-volume saga, I joked that it would be quite the horserace for me between finishing Worldwar, given my self-imposed beach-only rule, and finishing George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (aka the game of Thrones books) which I’d make time to read at the drop of a hardcover but is entirely dependent on Martin actually finishing writing the final few volumes. Now here we are, mere days away from beach week, with my copy of Worldwar volume three sitting on a shelf waiting to be toted shoreward, and we’re definitely done having babies so who knows, we might swing back from every-other-year at the beach to once a summer, which means I could very well finish reading all of Worldwar by the end of August 2015. Whereas at this moment, Martin has not released any more of Song of Ice and Fire than he had last time I brought this all up. Plus, rumors have begun to fly and multiply since Game of Thrones the tv series has become a runaway monster hit, everything from Martin sharing the big climactic ending of his overarching story with the showrunners, so that they can finish the necessary future episodes even if Martin never finishes the books, to Martin hinting that well, maybe, the way the story’s evolving in his head, it won’t be seven books after all, and it could be eight, or more! So it’s no longer even money; finishing Turtledove first is definitely the odds-on favorite.

Of course it’s technically inaccurate to say that Martin has written nothing whatsoever related to Song of Ice and Fire in the past two years. I recently got hold of and started reading Rogues, which is an anthology of short stories written by various big names in modern genre fiction, all revolving around the common theme of main characters that fit into the trickster/thief archetype. One of the big selling points for the collection (both in terms of obvious marketing strategy and for me personally) is the fact that George R.R. Martin is both an editor of the book and a contributor to its contents, supplying the final story, one which relates directly to Song of Ice and Fire. Right now, I have read all five of the novels Martin has put out, and I’m up to speed on the first three out of four seasons of the tv series, as I wait for the release date for season four on Blu-ray to be announced (already pre-ordered, of course) and remain on the lookout for whispers about a potential publication date for book six. A short story isn’t much, but it’s a nice little bonus when the pickings for feeding the addiction are otherwise slim to none.

Except, and forgive the malodorous whiff of entitlement here, but it’s not a great story. It’s not even really a story at all, I would argue. What Martin has done in Rogues is provided a bit of backstory to his magnum opus, explaining certain sequences of events that factor into the historical backdrop of his imaginary world of Westeros. He does this in the form of an excerpt from a scholarly tome on the Targaryens, the dynastic rulers who were overthrown fifteen or twenty years before Game of Thrones properly begins. The excerpt covers events from generations before the downfall of the Targaryens. And it does so in exactly the dry, objective, unemotional and uneditorialized fashion you would expect from a scholarly tome. There’s a hint of a framing device in the sense that the excerpt is written by a Maester of the Citadel, and that organization continues to play a part in Song of Ice and Fire as it unfolds. But by and large it is a recitation of facts, with acknowledgments throughout that some of the facts are in dispute because they could only be known to individuals who witnessed things behind closed doors which could never be verified.

The story has no point of view, and no emotional arc. In theory it belongs in a book called Rogues because it is about the schism that developed between a king and his brother the prince, with said younger brother becoming a bit of a wastrel over time because he was neither the head of state nor directly in the line of succession. But there’s not enough narrative meat in the exercise to bear comparisons to other great roguish characters like Robin Hood or Han Solo. I understand, in the grand scheme of things, how Martin needs to save most if not all of the good stuff for the main Song of Ice and Fire novels that are his livelihood. And part of the appeal of the saga is that it constantly has the freedom to recast past events in a new light, because it all takes place in a world where literacy is low and hearsay runs rampant, and the most sacred truths held up as historical fact are always subject to reinterpretation. To provide a first-hand account of events hundreds of years before the main story would be too definitive, too restrictive for the remainder of the epic. Fair enough, I suppose, but Martin has also shown a talent for telling stories from the perspective of the lowborn commoners, who travel along their own arcs even as the great and powerful play out their dramatics over their heads. A story like that, about the time of old dragon kings, I think I would have rather enjoyed. But a pseudo-official document which reads more like a summary of plot points than a tale worth telling? That’s a letdown.

So far I’ve only read four of the stories in the book: Martin’s, one by Joe Abercrombie that’s a hilarious Rube Goldberg device of a story about a maguffin being stolen and re-stolen over the course of a single night, one by Gillian Flynn about a con woman who works as a modern-day fortune teller, and one by Patrick Rothfuss about the fae character Bast from his Kingkiller Chronicles series (another trilogy I’m caught up on and impatiently awaiting the publication of the final installment). The Rothfuss story did not disappoint at all, which is good because that was the other half of the reason I bought the whole anthology, and the Abercrombie and Flynn made me want to read more by each of them (Flynn’s Gone Girl was already on my list for this year, and now I’m looking forward to it all the more). I skipped to the end to get to Rothfuss and Martin, and although there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll go back and read all the other stories from the middle of the book eventually, it’s still a little odd to go 1-for-2 on the big draws.

And then there’s the conundrum of Dangerous Women, which is another anthology edited and contributed to by Martin, released back in December of last year. In this case, what Martin brings to the book is a much longer piece, a novella that also happens to be set well before the events of Game of Thrones and its sequels. That sounds like a better bet for entertainment value than what I just got out of Rogues from Martin, but I’m proverbially twice-shy. Of course, yet again, it’s a collection and there would be other stories by other authors to make it worthwhile even if Martin whiffed again: a Harry Dresden story by Jim Butcher (yet another series I’m perpetually in the middle of, since it’s about fifteen novels and numerous short stories along and counting); an Outlander story by Diana Gabaldon (I seriously have no idea what this is, except that it keeps showing up in my Facebook feed because apparently a lot of my friends are huge fans and totally geeked about the fact that it’s being adapted as, I think, a Starz tv series); Lev Grossman (who I keep meaning to get into); more Abercrombie; &c. &c. Oh, who am I kidding, of course I’ll end up acquiring this one, too. I’m not made of stone, people. In fact sometimes I might as well be made of woodpulp.

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