Thursday, January 12, 2012

Winter is Here

I recently finished reading George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. For the first time.

Look, I know, okay? And if I hadn’t had some idea of the reaction to that statement before, I certainly would have when I announced that I was starting the book on twitter, and the hivemind lost its collective mind over the fact that I hadn’t read it yet. Most people were excited, and told me what a treat I was in for, and jokingly said they’d look forward to hearing from me again in a couple of months, once I read through the series. Some were surprised – this series is, after all, one of the big books in fantasy, and I can understand why people would have assumed I had read it, and wondered why I hadn’t read it before.

I love George R. R. Martin. I’ve loved his writing even since before I knew it was his writing – Beauty and the Beast was one of my favorite television shows when I was a kid. I enjoy his short fiction. I spent a memorable evening with others in my Clarion class sitting around his feet at the 2009 WorldCon as if he were Socrates and we were his disciples as he gave us career advice. (Yes, he is kind and funny. No, he wouldn’t remember me.) So it wasn’t that I had been avoiding the book because of some personal dislike.

Here’s the truth: I had tried to read A Game of Thrones before. But it was during a period in my life that could have been soundtracked by Tom Waits’ “Everything Goes to Hell,” and I didn’t finish it. Too dark, too hard, too cold. I couldn’t bear to read the book. It wasn’t him, it was me.

But one of the labels I would apply to the novel I am currently working on is epic fantasy. Part of my writing process is reading things that are somehow related to what I am working on. It seemed, whether I wanted it to or not, winter was coming.

This time, I finished the book, tearing through it in about three days. The experience was a little surreal. I have enough friends who are fans of the book that I knew all of the big plot twists already. I even had images of all of the lead characters in my head, thanks to John Picacio’s fantastic 2012 A Song of Ice and Fire calendar.  And I was reading with my writer-brain fully engaged, watching for how Martin transitioned between characters and plot threads, considering the ways in which I learned what happened.

I enjoyed reading A Game of Thrones a great deal, enough that I am tempted to bump A Clash of Kings higher in the pile of research books in my office. I’m reluctant to say more than that about it now, largely because, even after 800 pages, it was very clear that this volume was only the beginning of something, and I don’t want to talk about oh, say, my thoughts on Martin’s female characters, without feeling like I really understand how they function in the story as a whole. (Though I will say that one of the characters I genuinely liked was Daenerys. The other was Tyrion. Some, I am reserving judgment. Most, I would not let into my house.)

But there were two big things that I noticed that I do feel I can talk about now. One is how much Martin and these books have influenced recent fantasy. Not just in the often-discussed ways of the grittiness of the setting and the fact that no characters are guaranteed to get out of the story alive, but in the fact that there is a greater tolerance for ambiguity now. We no longer expect black hats and white hats, but are perfectly happy to see everyone cloaked in varying shades of grey.

The other was how much this book reminded me of Alias. Yes, the J.J. Abrams tv series. One of the things I really enjoyed about Alias was that it wasn’t just a spy show, it was a show about the complexity of family relationships. The effects of those relationships were a great complication during the show’s run. It seems to me that the strange twists and knots of family will play a key part in A Song of Ice and Fire as well. I’m looking forward to reading how they unravel.