Tag Archives: Epic fantasy

Jaime, the final proof

Mild spoilers for HBO’s Game of Thrones and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire lie ahead.

Is George R. R. Martin a good writer?

song of ice and fire-book cover‘What!’ You scoff. ‘How can you even ask that question, when the TV show based on his books is arguably the most popular drama in the English speaking world, when his plot twists and turns so much that you have to consult websites to keep track of who’s where, and his books have sold millions of copies all over the world?’

All that this goes to show is that he’s a successful writer, whose books have intricate plots, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a good one in every person’s (haha) book. Sales have nothing to do with it, really, nor do convoluted plots. If the letter were the case, The Iliad is the least successful story ever. Its plot is notoriously straightforward.

Spoiler alert: There’s a big battle and pretty much everyone dies.

Personally, I consider various fantasy writers good for widely differing reasons. For instance, Tolkien is great in my eyes because he did something few people had done before him, and made it popular. Rowling because she managed to, along with building such an alluring world, pull readers of all ages into it and alongside her hero, making her books ‘grow up’ as much as her protagonist did. Jordan because his writing can be incredibly poetic, almost enough to make up for the needless skirt adjusting and posturing that bogs his books down in the middle. And Martin because, well, his characters.

I don’t think Martin is stylistically amazing. When I picked up A Game of Thrones I wasn’t wowed by the writing. I remember finding it clumsy, especially in comparison to the weighty, immediately epic quality of Jordan and Tolkien, which I was, at that time, more familiar with. What kept me reading was the plot, and the characters, all of whom I could immediately ‘side’ with. Martin plays his cards incredibly close to the chest, so that the first characters whose heads you inhabit to any great length are the Starks: Bran, Arya, Sansa, Jon. Ned and Cat. In fact, the only non-Stark characters whose heads we enter are Dany and Tyrion, and a brief prologue with Will, the unfortunate Night’s Watch member.

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This goes towards Martin’s establishment of the Starks as our ‘guides’ to this world. Their ethics and morals become ours, easy enough since (as I outlined in this post), they are the closest to a ‘normal’ family (what we by and large understand as one in the mainstream) we have. Therefore, their enemies become our enemies, and their friends, ours. Sadly the latter are few and far between.

jaimeThis also means we see a lot of the characters through the Starks’ eyes, particularly one who becomes super important (and POV character on his own) later on: Jaime Lannister. And he fares particularly badly: Bran’s chapter shows him callously pushing a young child off a tower, and Ned’s are littered with memories of a man who not only ‘dishonourably’ killed his king, but also might have been trying to steal the Iron Throne for himself, until Ned stormed in and interrupted his private party. Sure, Tyrion has good things to say about him, but even then Jaime comes across as extremely privileged and therefore, not exactly ‘likeable’. Besides, we only have the word of his doting little brother to prove that he’s a good man, and that’s not exactly an unbiased opinion, certainly not enough to balance out the other things we’ve seen him do.

But then Martin does something incredible: he gives us Jaime’s point of view, but only after we’re sure he’s a horrible person. Jaime is the first person he pulls this switcheroo with; until A Storm of Swords, we’re pretty much dealing with the same POVs—mostly the Starks, Tyrion, Dany, with the addition of Davos. All of them are ‘good’ people (even if Tyrion is from the ‘enemy’ family, he’s smart and sympathetic enough that we overlook his Lannister roots), none of whom have previously been painted in a bad light. Martin doesn’t have to work too hard to get us on their side, not even Davos who, though Stannis’s man and a smuggler, seems to have a sense of loyalty that grounds him.

When Storm opens, right after a prologue, you’re sucked straight into Jaime’s head, watching as he cruises snarkily along a river, happy to be getting back to his sister. ‘Hang on, this is the same sister he has had three children with,’ you think, ‘what a sicko,’ but that impression doesn’t last long. Instead, Jaime’s ‘love’ for Cersei, revealed in his memories of her, and concerning her, doesn’t strike you as ‘sick’; it’s twisted, true, but I at least believe, and even maybe root a little for him when he declares (as he did so dramatically in a recent episode) that he would do whatever it took to get to her side.

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‘Okay, creepy love for Cersei is no longer so creepy. But he’s still a Kingslayer!’ you tell yourself, slightly discomfited by this surprising about-turn. And then Martin whips out another surprise: Jaime didn’t kill Aerys because he lacked loyalty and wanted to grab power, or because he was ‘switching sides’. No, he killed him because that was, he thought, the only way to save the rest of the city. It was done for the greater good. And he’s been living with the knowledge of what he did, knowing what people think of him, trying not to let it affect him.

Oh, the angst.

Jaime’s seemingly carefree attitude is exposed much more early on in the show for what it is: an overcompensation. Tywin reminds him that he ‘cares too much about what people think’, and this contributes a good deal to his anxiety, his inability to do what his father might see as ‘needing’ to be done. But increasingly, he appears to lose this weakness, instead employing what people ‘think’ of him to his advantage. He’s a cruel, horrible Lannister who doesn’t shy away from killing babies to get what he wants—at least, that’s what he uses to convince Edmure Tully to get off his high horse, and thus, with minimal bloodshed, retake Riverrun. With this, Jaime shows us that he’s grown enough to understand what must be done, and do it without posturing; but he also manages to employ his smarts enough to get it done in a way that suits his conscience.

Jaime-Lannister-Profile-HDA Song of Ice and Fire is driven by many of the things that define epic fantasy: star-crossed lovers, dethroned, ‘rightful’ rulers, a conflict that threatens to end the world as the characters know it. It is also built on subverting many of the expectations that come with the genre, with Martin refusing to shy away from killing ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ alike, and playing havoc with readers’ feelings for them. Jaime Lannister is a smarmy, horrible man in A Game of Thrones, but by the end of A Storm of Swords, he had become one of my favourite characters, consistently among the most fascinating people n a series chockfull of them. He does horrible things for a twisted love, and is driven to commit acts that cross the boundary of decency and honour in a land considerably lacking in either of the two qualities, but still, I can’t help rooting for his eventual happiness.

And that’s how I know Martin is not a good writer. He’s a great one.

Finding Fellowship

LOTRFOTRmovieA couple of weeks ago, I realised it had been nearly 15 years since The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out. This had two effects: one, it made me feel incredibly old (didn’t help that one of my friends looked at a picture of Arwen and said ‘Oh, her! That movie came out when we were kids, man’) and two, I just had to go rewatch it and marvel at the fact that despite its age, the movie’s effects and such are still top notch. All those Elves and Men toppling off cliffs for no apparent reason at the beginning—good stuff.

I can safely say that watching the first Lord of the Rings movie was one of the hallmark moments of my life thus far. I’d like to believe that it will always be an important point, one that biographers will research painstakingly, hunting down the man (or his descendants) who ran the ‘VCD/DVD’ rental place from which I borrowed it, my school friends who were treated to my first squealing impressions of it, possibly paging through my middle school diaries to find out what exactly I had written after watching it (I should find those before they fall into the wrong hands). It will be a chapter all on its own, titled with the appropriate Upworthy headline: ‘Girl watches a movie. What happened next changed her life.’

Basically, I really liked it.

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No, that’s an understatement. I loved it. I watched the Fellowship of the Ring (henceforth referred to as FOTR) on my lonesome on a sunny evening in Hyderabad, a pirated VCD (three of them, to be precise) spooling out its secrets and inviting a 12 year old me to Middle Earth (I actually watched the movie in 2002, you see, missing the hype in December). I was still reading the books, and had just about trudged into The Two Towers, so some of the characters who popped up perplexed me. Plus, I was really sad they’d cut out Tom Bombadil, since I genuinely enjoyed the chapters about him.

Well, I was 12 years old and he was the only vaguely childish character in the book. You can’t blame me.

What did I love about it? Everything. Sure, some of the characters were not how I had pictured them, and there was no Old Forest or beauteous Glorfindel, and Gollum was way creepier than I had anticipated, but I was awestruck by the fact that someone had taken this world, so lovingly built by Tolkien, and converted it to such beautiful film. The settings, the costumes, the fights—everything screamed labour and detailing, and had evidently been put together by people very invested in making as great a Middle Earth as they could. I couldn’t believe that someone took this book seriously enough to do that, and it gave me so much hope.

Because The Lord of the Rings was the book that made me fall in love with fantasy, irrevocably. I had read Harry Potter, of course, and was up to speed with the books, but Harry Potter was still, for me, a school story, with the added bonus of magic. It was only in Book 4 or 5 that Rowling dramatically upped the stakes and it became a Hero’s Journey/Epic Quest/Fantasy novel. But LOTR, right from the get go, from that first map and that intro to Hobbits— I knew this was a serious look into another world.

And the movie basically told me it was cool to like something like this. I lived in Hyderabad, India, where I didn’t know anyone else who was seriously into the kind of books or movies I liked. I’d grown up watching Disney princesses, and hadn’t been able to make the 1716995-mulanswitch to Shah Rukh-led Bollywood blockbusters that so many of my peers had. I just couldn’t be absorbed by mundane romance the way I had been by 2 dimensional heroes and heroines, battling witches and viziers and wrapping things up with true love’s kiss. I was still figuring myself out, and in strutted FOTR in all its Weta-workshopped glory, showing me that there were movies for my kind out there, and they were being made with loving attention to detail.

It’s a little uncool now to say that a movie based on a book brought you into a world and made you a lifelong denizen, but that’s what FOTR did for me. It was after watching this movie that I dived headlong into finishing the book, determined to beat my uncle’s record of seven readings, determined to live and breathe Middle Earth, just like those who had made it come to life. After LOTR, I moved on to more ‘adult’ fantasy, Wheel of Time, American Gods, A Song of Ice and Fire, asking friends to mail them to me from the US when I couldn’t find the books anywhere (yeah, I’m super hipster. I read Game of Thrones before you could find the books in India. Deal with it.). I joined discussion forums and websites, and found a community, people with whom I could discuss these books and others and go crazy dissecting theories and fan art and everything else that makes a fandom amazing. It happened at just the right time, 13 going on the rest of teenager-dom, and it’s never stopped.

Frodo

There are those books and movies that change your life, and I can safely say that LOTR and the FOTR movie feature in that short but strong list for me. They jumped in and told me it was okay to want magic and wonder even when you’re supposed to be a cynical teenager, that it was possible to build a life around those things. And I can only be glad that this community of fantasy lovers, always so supportive and wonderful when I was younger, has continued to be around, and has indeed grown. Who woulda thunk you’d find Martin on every other bookshelf in certain circles? The world can change in good ways. 

Throne of the Crescent Moon

Everyone knows about the Arabian Nights, right? Those stories spun by a captive Princess, who postponed death by entertaining her sociopathic husband with tales of genies and rogues, magic and pioneering sailors? They’re right up there among the literary treasures of the world, and plenty of people have plundered them and created compelling entertainment. My favourite example is Disney’s Aladdin, which offered a highly sanitised version of the original, and while indulging in (now) problematic exoticisation of the ‘East’,  brought about many people’s sexual awakening.

Given the status of these stories, and the ‘mystical’ flavour of the Middle East in general, it is a little odd that not much fantasy set in this realm has made it into the mainstream. Sure, there’s been plenty of movies that exploit these settings, but full-length fantasy novels (in English and published by American/British houses)? Not so much.

Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon rights that. Set in Dhamsawaat, the capital of the Caliphate of Abassen (one of the three Crescent Moon kingdoms), the book follows the struggle of Adoulla Makhslood, ageing ghul-hunter, and his friends to (you guessed it) save the world from doom and destruction at the hands of a bloodthirsty, power hungry megalomaniac. This is complicated by the fact that none of those in power believe him, and in fact, seem to do everything they can to hinder the team’s efforts.

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The appeal of the book, for me, lay chiefly in the portrayal of Dhamsawaat. Ahmed captures both the complexity of a large city—its varying cultures, the worlds within worlds, the sheer diversity of people and classes that make it up—as well as the differing relationships people have to it. This is where most of the action takes place, and each of the characters in Adoulla’s group has a specific view of the city. For Zamia, the Badawi tribeswoman from the desert, it is an unknown land, a site of strange smells and peoples. For Raseed bas Raseed, Dervish and holy warrior, it is a site of temptation from his chosen path. And importantly, for Adoulla, it is home: a place at once loved and detested, filled with people he has dedicated his life to protecting, often receiving little to no recognition for his sacrifices. But as Adoulla keeps reminding himself ‘He who tires of Dhamsawaat tires of life,’ and that has not happened to him quite yet.

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I don’t recall reading a fantasy book—a high fantasy book, I should specifiy—that placed the city front and centre in quite the way that Ahmed’s does. Not all the characters are ‘natives’ of this place: in fact, only Adoulla can claim to have grown up in Dhamsawaat. Circumstances have brought the others here, and though they may not relate to the place in the same manner that the ghul hunter does, not see it as ‘home’ (with all the layers of meaning and emotion that word evokes), they feel some form of obligation, if not connection, to its winding streets and put-upon residents. Indeed, one of the main conflicts that Litaz, an alkhemist from the Soo Republic (one of the other Crescent Moon kingdoms) seems to face is when to leave the ‘damned city’, and go home. Being a woman with her heart and priorities in the right place, she chooses to postpone it till the saving-the-world has been attended to.

Ahmed has built an engaging, multihued world, filled with characters who face down inner demons as threatening as the ones they meet in real life. The dialogue can, at times, become stilted and rather strangely Tolkien (excessive formality in fantasy will do that to you), but the narrative as a whole is fast paced and pelts the reader on from encounter to encounter, introducing characters with a sort of breathless energy and hurtling towards a bloodsoaked, sword and sorcery conclusion. This is the first of a trilogy according to the blurb, and Ahmed does leave tantalising openings for the next book. So come on down, stop on by, there are no carpets that fly, but step into the Dhamsawaati night.