Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Song of Ice and Fire: Guuuuuush!

Some background info: I'm just out of hospital. As of two pm yesterday. Still made it into work today though, booyah! It started last Tuesday when a twinge in my back became full-blown excruciating pain up and down my spine, all over my lower back and down my legs. I couldn't get off the sofa without screaming, as my poor housemate will testify. So I got to the doctor who gave me four different medicines, two of which were Diclac and Valium.

So started five days of varying degrees of pain, interspersed with sleep and boredom. To stave off the boredom I played Earthbound, did Nom-Con work, made some beaded crowns and re-watched Game of Thrones. Watching that back to back was one of the best things I did that week.

When I finally felt well enough to leave the house, I went to see Harry Potter with two friends of mine and afterwards, Game of Thrones was casually mentioned. I suddenly went off on this great big gushing session about how it's the best fantasy to ever fantasy while my friends just nodded and waited for me to shut the hell up. I don't think I've gushed about anything so thoroughly since I was seven and ponies were the best thing evar!

Two days after the gushing session, I had a delayed reaction to one of the medications I was on. I know that now, at the time I thought I was having a stroke. I called the hospital in a blind panic begging them to send me an ambulance. they told me they had no ambulances. So for a moment I gibbered madly and then spat out ' what do I do?' 'Call a taxi,' they told me. Well, shit. I did. I even managed to throw some clothes on whereas I would have hopped in the ambulance in my pyjamas (this was 6:20 am, by the way) but then I was in so much pain and in such a panic I left the house and paced up and down the road waiting for the taxi, completely forgetting to bring my phone and something to read. I thought with the pain I was in, I'd get seen pretty quick. Especially when I started having breathing trouble in the taxi.

So I got to the hospital, where the receptionist clearly didn't give two shits whether I was dying or just there to bug her about a sniffle, and she took my details ever so slowly as I writhed in pain in front of her. Then I went to triage where they gave me a pill to suck, where the nurse put a load of metal doodads on my chest and then rolled the monitor not towards me, but AT ME! As in, she shoved it so hard it slammed into me. She muttered 'sorry' and took my details, sort of. She kept wandering out of the room while I was describing the pain I was in.

So by now you're probably thinking 'this isn't a review of SOIAF, it's some moany bint talking about healthcare reform in Ireland! It's been done!' I'm getting to that. The waiting room had several people in it that had been there all night and I waited around for about three hours with nothing to do. By now the pain had died down, but my back pain had flared right back up again and sitting in the crappy waiting room chairs was a special kind of torture. When I did get seen finally, it was because I ran into my ex-employer there (who happens to be an A+E doc) and he let me in. Turns out they lost all the info I'd given them, and I'd still be waiting there now if I hadn't gotten so lucky. I got seen, they gave me new meds and established a plan to get my back working again, and now I'm at home internetting and watching Supernanny. So what has this got to do with Game of Thrones?

While I was sitting in the torture devices that pass for chairs at Beaumont, I passed the time by mentally compiling the family names and mottos in the Ice and Fire books. When I did that, I traced their family lines and notable battles and schemes. Sounds boring, doesn't it? That's because it is boring, but it was the closest to a state of Zen I could achieve. It actually kept me amused for the eight hours in total I spent in A+E.

ASOIAF is fantasy for people who don't like fantasy, and that's me. I like the idea of fantasy, but I find it all a bit 'listen to me describe this tree for 68 pages in a language I made up' while the author sounds like he's narrating the whole thing from a deckchair while drinking sherry. It's the best of deconstructions, all the fantasy elements are in there (direwolves, dragons, princesses, magic) but done in a way that makes them both realistic and grimly suitable to the medieval setting. The princess has her fairytale prince who's handsome and charming, but he's an inbred amoral creep and as soon as her protection is stripped from her, she's reduced to a twitching nervous wreck. There's a cheeky tomboy princess too, but that situation is given the grimdark treatment too. When we last saw her in Storm of Crows, her path to achieving Robin Hood-style outlawhood takes her to a guild of the most dangerous assassins in this world, and her training requires a total loss of her personality so her initial thoughts of revenge for the havoc wreaked on her family have to be put away.

The other 'classic' princess in the story, Daenarys Targaryen, stays that way for about five minutes. The first time we meet her, she's being married off to this world's equivalent of Genghis Khan by her creepy brother, and although the marriage ends up being a surprisingly happy one it's not long before it all goes tits up. Last time we saw her, she was sacking cities and recruiting an army to take back her throne, which will likely bring her into conflict with the other heroes of our story.

That's the crux of this whole tale; there are few good characters, and the ones that are good are on opposing sides of the conflicts running through the narrative. Our hero in the first book is married to a woman that's a bona fide villain by the end of the fifth book. The most morally upright person with a claim to the Iron Throne is relying on blood magic performed by an evil sorceress to get him there. The exiled princess on her way to reclaim her throne has possession of three out of control children that burn up friend and foe alike. If you're a knight, you'll die a horrible violent death in a pointless battle that you're probably on the wrong side of. If you've taken the black, you're under threat from wild barbarians and zombies and will die of frostbite if they don't get you first. If you're a noblewoman, you'll likely be married off to some slobbering degenerate, especially if you live near a Frey. If you're a nobleman, your lands will be sacked by roaming bands of thieves or rogue knights. If you're a peasant, hope for a quick death because every roaming band of everything will be gunning for you and your children first. If you're a peasant woman, expect the same but expect gang rape first, especially if the Dothraki are anywhere nearby.

What makes the books special is their sense of scope; the grim feel is pretty accurate to what you'd expect of plague-era Europe, and the world GRR Martin writes in is similar to ours to keep a sense of realism but with the fantasy elements placed perfectly to seem natural where they are. His most compelling characters are the ones who make the best of their circumstances, such as Tyrion Lannister, the outcast dwarf who's cheated death several times by talking his way out of trouble. The real genius is the way the book has the magic, the dragons and the like as a sort of footnote, and the story is based around schemes, revolution and scandal. And who doesn't like a good scandal?

The fans of the series had a bit of a bitch fit lately because Feast for Crows took the viewpoint away from the more popular characters like Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister and Daenarys Targaryen. I thought this was a genius move, one of the reasons I never read Harry Potter and preferred the films was because I never warmed to the three main characters, I found the side characters more interesting. ASOIAF as such fascinating side characters, it was a delight to get their perspective for a full book. I wish more authors would do that kind of thing. It's like he wrote fanfiction for his own novel.

Martin has been described as the American Tolkien. He's so not. He's the anti-Tolkien. His Orcs and Urukh-Hai would run screaming from the Dothraki and the White Walkers. His snooty elves wouldn't last a minute before Littlefinger has them all killed in the most convoluted way possible. And as for Aragorn, son of Arathorn, I don't care how rugged he was when Viggo Mortenson did him, Daenarys Targaryan is half his age at least and ten times as tough.

So gush, gush, gush, gush, gush. A Song of Ice and Fire is the second coming of Christ. I'm going to stop now because I could go on, but I'm tired of typing and methinks you're tired of reading. So stop reading this and go read book one, Game of Thrones. Or watch the series. Or do both. Just do something!

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