Category Archives: A Song of Ice and Fire

Some random thoughts on the finale of Game of Thrones Season 6

First thought–

Ho-lee frack.

Before I expand on that, however, a public service announcement–

**SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS

 

In making known my thoughts about this final episode, I assume most of you know at least the general outline of the overall Game of Thrones story.  I am not even going to think about summarizing the story so far.  We’d be here until winter (which is coming, you know).  If you don’t know the story, go and binge-watch the series, now.  This post will still be here in 2017.

So, in no particular order–

1.  Ho-lee frack.  Oh wait, I did that one already.

2.  Geez, how many characters were knocked off, blown up, incinerated, stabbed to death or self-splatted in this episode?  Margaery Tyrell (which made me really sad), Loras Tyrell, Mace Tyrell, Lancel Lannister, Kevan Lannister, the High Sparrow, King Tommen, Grand Maester Pycelle (good riddance), Walder Frey, Black Walder Frey and Lothar Frey (no tears shed over those a-holes, either).  That’s one way to help simplify the story-line.

3. Cersei has gone all Richard the Third.  I can’t decide if this was her plan all along or if it is a desperation move now that her crowned pawn, Tommen, is gone (although he had demonstrated a disturbing independence of late, as least from his mother).  Either way, she’s now got the power she’s always craved (and quite possibly full-on bat-shit crazy as well), with nothing in King’s Landing to stop her– but she’s also a patent usurper, even by the loosey-goosey standards of post-Targaryen Westeros.  Her destruction of the bulk of her enemies (along with a large number of innocent bystanders and a fair portion of King’s Landing) at a single blow is the move of a ruthless tyrant, brilliant as a piece of political assassination, but sure to set all of Westeros against her.

4. Maggy the Frog’s prophecy is coming true.  All that’s left now is for the “younger and more beautiful” queen to show up to finish Cersei off.  Smart money is on Dany, but GoT has thrown us curve balls before.  By the way, the show has allowed itself an extra degree of freedom than the books by omitting one line from Maggy’s prophecy, which reads as–

“And when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you.”

As valonqar is Valyrian for ‘younger brother’, this has generally been interpreted by fans as meaning that Tyrion will kill Cersei in the climactic confrontation between the Lannisters and everyone else (certainly that is Cersei’s interpretation, and the source of much of her antipathy toward her brother), but Jaime has also been suggested, since he was born after Cersei.  But since the show-runners excluded this line, they don’t have to expend any story time dealing with its implications.

5. The destruction of the Great Sept of Baelor is one intense piece of dramatic cinematography.  The music, which is a change of pace for the show, particularly builds up the tension.  The explosion and its consequences are dramatic, tragic and horrifying all at once (the bell’s a nice touch).  I’ve already noted how I hated to see Margaery Tyrell go out in this manner.  It all has the tragic inevitability of the Titanic’s sinking- you know it’s going to happen but you wish there was something you could do….

5. We see Olenna Tyrell negotiating an alliance with Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes (although it’s not so much a negotiation as a rather tart schooling), whereupon Varys, Daenerys’ envoy, shows up to offer an added element to the anti-Lannister vengeance coalition.  Olenna’s presence and appearance in Dorne makes an important point about something which has confused many fans– how people seem move around the world of GoT so quickly. For example, Varys appears to leave Meereen in one episode, appear in Dorne shortly thereafter, and then very quickly reappear on Daenerys’ ship at the end of the final episode.  The truth is that weeks have passed between each scene.  This is evidenced by the fact that Olenna is in mourning  when she goes to Dorne– she already knows about the deaths of her kin in King’s Landing.  She also refers to how “Cersei stole the future from me”.  If we took the breaks between scenes as amounting to a mere day or so, she would not have even yet received in Highgarden the news of the deaths of Margaery and the others, considering the distance between King’s Landing and the Reach.  In fact, in the show, as in the books, considerable time often passes between scenes, and the intervals are irregular, at that.

6. Daenerys is on her way to Westeros, and not before time.  There has been a lot of griping out there in fandom about the fact it took her six seasons to get moving in this direction.  As frustrating as that might have been to viewers, I think from a story perspective it could not have come any earlier.  Dany and her dragons have obviously been set up as key, perhaps critical, assets to be used against the White Walkers. Sending them to Westeros before the WW’s offensive reaches it’s critical moment would have ruined the whole plot-line, as if Frodo had actually flown a giant eagle to Mount Doom and just dropped the Ring into the lava.  Struggle, failure and frustration are essential to drama, and Dany’s effort to create a base for herself in Esteros was the necessary prelude to her offensive to retake the Iron Throne.  Time also had to pass in order for the dragons to realistically grow to their full, terrifying size.  You cannot rush drama without dissipating its energy (about which, see below).

7. We finally see the second part of the Tower of Joy flashback.  This sequence has been generally interpreted as confirming the “R+L = J” fan theory, that Jon Snow is actually the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen rather than Ned Stark and some unknown woman.  The scene certainly implies this, but I have to note that the show-runners are actually still teasing us– when Lyanna whispers to Ned, we cannot hear the first part (at least I couldn’t, and I turned my ear-buds up so high I nearly bled out my eardrums), hearing only “Robert will kill him” clearly.  The show-runners could still throw one of their curve-balls at us.  Fans, I think, should brace themselves for a surprise.  Just in case.

On the whole the episode paid off big in many ways, resolving story-lines and fairly effectively setting up the ultimate and necessary confrontations that will wrap up this whole epic.  Waiting a whole year for Season Seven is going to be very tedious.

Having said that, the episode is not without issues.  Chief among these (for me, at least) is the hurried way in which the alliance between Dorne, the Tyrells and Dany is cemented.  It seemed sketchy, as if the writers were feeling pressured to squeeze it into this season.  An alliance as critical to the story as this one should have involved more time and development.  The whole Dorne story-line, in fact, has felt rather thin, over both Season Five and Six, as if the writers didn’t have the time to do it up properly.

For me this raises a concern.  Despite the fact that the list of characters who still possess a pulse on this show is now considerably shorter, there are still a lot of story-lines to resolve, involving two major conflicts, between the Lannisters and their enemies, and between humanity and the White Walkers– and there are only ten hours of TV left in which to wrap it all up.  That’s not a lot compared to the weight of what needs to happen to bring this tale to a satisfactory conclusion.  It worries me.

Drama is hard.  Pacing in drama is hard.  Pacing in epic drama such as this, with hundreds of characters and all manner of disparate elements that all need to mesh, is supremely hard.  I’ve watched or read any number of epic stories in which the ending seems to be hasty, patched together, or thin, not living up to the promise of everything that preceded it.  J R R Tolkien is about the only writer I can think of off the top of my head who pulls it off successfully, resolving the critical story-lines and outstanding questions in a satisfactory manner, chiefly by taking time to work them out (in my paperback edition of The Return of the King, there are one hundred pages of action after the destruction of the Ring).  I am very much afraid the ten hours remaining to this series are not going to be enough.  I will be very, very disappointed if the good guys finish off Cersei in a perfunctory manner, and then vanquish the White Walkers in a few episodes, as if all the threat they have posed in the previous seasons was hollow and false.

Still, I’m going to risk the disappointment– I want to see how this all comes out.  I’m hooked.  It’s going to be a long year….

Later.

 

 

 

 

 

Five fantasy books that have influenced me

Despite the fact that I have stopped posting chapters of Horse Tamer, I remain intent on writing the complete novel. Although it has to take a back-seat to finishing Princess of Fire, I’ve started re-orienting the existing text to my revised start-point and my grimmer vision of Mankin. I expect this will be as much a labor of love as the posted chapters were.

Writing Horse Tamer got me to thinking about my fantasy influences, and I realized that some of the best deserve to be called out and honored, especially as younger readers might not be familiar with some of them. Considering how picky I am with my genre reading, it’s also worth noting the books I go back to, over and over again, for inspiration, or which influenced me at an early age.

In no particular order, here are five of my favorite fantasy books–

The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien– naturally. This is the ur-work of modern fantasy. Both fantasy and sword and sorcery existed before Tolkien– William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End was published in 1896, and Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian twenty years before Tolkien completed LOTR. Tolkien’s work, however, has defined the genre for the last two generations.

I definitely fall into the camp of those who assert that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is, taken together (as it was originally meant to be), the most influential novel of the Twentieth Century. It powerfully encapsulates our culture’s growing realization that modern society was not the paradise its propagandists said it was– and suggests a remedy– not a bucolic retreat into medievalism, of which some critics accuse the trilogy, but a regaining of a sense of our dependent inter-relationship, both with each other and with nature. In one sense, the Lord of the Rings is the first ecological cautionary tale, published years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In another, it was a vanguard of the counter-culture. In yet another, it is a profound anti-war tale.

The Blue Hawk, by Peter Dickinson — an example of a rare type of fantasy I admire and aspire to write. These are fantasy stories with little or no magic. Other examples would probably include the Gormenghast trilogy, Watership Down, and Shardik. Personally, I dislike magic– to me, it’s a cop-out, and usually takes me away from the kind of setting I really enjoy– the sort that focuses on human relationships and struggles, while set in partly or wholly imaginary worlds. There is considerable debate whether these sort of stories are actually mannerpunk, steampunk or sci-fi; for me the debate is almost meaningless, precisely because genre boundaries on the whole are growing increasingly meaningless.

In the book Dickinson creates a world that is refreshingly not medieval, but rather a re-working of Egyptian or Sumerian culture and history. The young priest Tron intervenes in a ceremony and becomes entangled in a political struggle that at first appears to be merely between the kingdom’s priestly caste and the nobility, who want to break out the strait-jacket the priests have placed on the kingdom– but which in the end is revealed to be a story of gods and their purposes. I love the story, and the atmosphere Dickinson creates, of desert temples, winding rivers, highland peasants, shadowed struggles between priestly and royal factions, and of a place and time far removed from ours. More fantasy needs to be written like this.

The Doomfarers of Coramonde, by Brian Daley. Another story that blurs the boundary between sci-fi and fantasy, it revolves around the discovery of a portal leading from the mundane Earth to a fantasy world. The first half of the story involves a US Army armored cavalry APC in Vietnam that is pulled into the fantasy universe to help defeat a dragon. Inevitably, complications ensue. The second half involves the APC commander, who returns to Coramonde to help the rightful prince Springbuck regain his throne.

This book captured my imagination in large part because I read it while I was still in the Army, in an actual armored cavalry regiment, so I was immediately able to relate to the APC crew, their weapons and attitudes, and their profound sense of dislocation at finding themselves in a different world. Brian Daley was a Vietnam veteran, and he brought a great deal of authenticity to the story. The book was an important milestone for me, in terms of how it presented realistic characters and dialogue, even in a fantastic setting.

Unfortunately, Daley passed away in 1996 from cancer, far too soon.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. This story has become one of my personal favorites, the sort where you read the book until it falls apart. Set in a fantasy world modeled on Reconquista Iberia, it tells the tale of the breaking of a curse that has haunted the royal house of Chalion. Its protagonist, Lupe dy Cazaril, is a rare example of a good character– honorable, honest and dedicated to those he serves– who is not boring. Bujold redeems Cazaril’s straight-arrow qualities by presenting him also as deeply-wounded, humble, self-deprecating and sometimes blundering. I’m the sort who needs characters I can root for in his books and movies, and Cazaril is just the sort of sympathetic character I latch on to.

Bujold also does something else in this book I deeply appreciate– instead of utilizing magic, she has constructed a detailed theology revolving around five deities who, to the characters in the story, are not theoretical at all, but participants in the action, with their own agendas (what the gods want, in fact, is a major plot-point). This allows Bujold to talk about a number of issues– faith, surrender to God, duty, miracles– that might be difficult to handle otherwise.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin (aka, Game of Thrones, which is technically the title of only the first book in the series). Since these books are still being written, the jury is not yet completely in as to just how effective the story will be as a whole when it is finished. For one thing, I am personally scratching my head as to how Martin is supposed to wrap up everything in just two more books– there are so many threads and loose-ends, it feels to me as if he needs three or four. Of course, that may be the difference between me and a literary genius.

Because, despite the incomplete nature of the series, it’s clear to me that A Song of Ice and Fire is a work of genius. It has re-defined the fantasy genre, away from the Lord of the Rings template toward something dark, gritty and more sensual. In fact, A Song of Ice and Fire is seen by some as the prime and most successful example of the “grimdark” sub-genre, which is itself a reaction to Tolkien’s work. Of course, as was the case with Tolkien, most of Martin’s imitators cannot match his power.

The power of Martin’s writing lies largely in his refusal to flinch away from the hard realities of life, and particularly life in a medieval setting. It’s often hard to read his work, but for me that resonates– it reads like history, and anyone who reads history knows the first requirement of a historian is a strong stomach. There is no idealization of the human condition in Martin’s work– he fully comprehends the basic fact that people are selfish, false, treacherous, violent and power-hungry. They use power to hurt, and rape as a weapon of war. Good people die for no reason, and too often the wrong prospers. Westeros is the power-obsessed Middle Ages re-written in a modern idiom.

The saving grace in all this darkness is a handful of characters- Brienne of Tarth, Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Davos Seaworth, Daenerys Targaryen, among others– who you come to root for, because they preserve in themselves some aspect of hope and integrity. None of them are perfect– Tyrion, for example, is a completely mixed bag of lust and square-dealing– and you have to steel yourself for the possibility that someone you love is going to get it, as Martin has no compunction about killing off characters. But that just illustrates his narrative honesty.

Martin’s ability to create nuanced characters is another major contributor to his power. Good, bad, in-between, they are all three-dimensional and believable. I find myself liking amoral self-servers like Bronn the sellsword, because he has a pragmatic honesty and a sense of humor, and even Cersei Lannister is revealed, beneath her vicious exterior, as a fearful and wounded woman who loves her children. How Martin manages this while creating a cast that may dwarf that of War and Peace is an opaque mystery to me.

I hope that Martin can, in the end, wrap up his epic in a way that resolves all the threads. Writing a genuinely epic fantasy is tough, but resolving it in a satisfactory manner is probably the toughest part of all. Off the top of my head about the only author I can think of who actually accomplished the feat was Tolkien. But among modern authors, Martin is probably the one person who can do it.

It suddenly seems almost sacrilegious to mention my faltering and simple-minded effort with Horse Tamer in the same breath with these works. What inspires you frequently also creates a sense of futility– I know my stories will never match the grace and power of these books. But the inspiration also creates the desire to honor your sources with your own effort. Sometime after I complete Princess of Fire and before I start Princess of Stars, I intend to finish Horse Tamer.

And then I guess we’ll just see what happens.