Thursday, January 31, 2013

[Re-read] Sansa II: Growing into the Game

Back in the day, and I'm talking the time before A Feast for Crows, when I was ten years younger and more gullible, I still believed that everything George R.R. Martin wrote was pure gold. It was a more innocent age, when certain filters had not yet been installed; it was a time when nothing was wrong, and perhaps the best time for George R.R. Martin to push product on his readers. One of these products was the limited edition tome GRRM: A Rretrospective. It was rather expensive (a new copy on Amazon right now is priced at $335) but it was Martin, and I wanted everything Martin back then. When the book arrived I was awed by the box it came in, the size of the book (about 1200 pages), and dived into it with glee; reading Martin's own notes about him growing up, and getting to read the collected short stories and novellas was appealing to me. I wanted to know more about this man who single-handedly had made me interested in reading, writing and medieval history through those three incredible novels of his: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. It was also pretty cool to have a numbered item, but the autograph didn't and still doesn't look real and so I guess it's just printed onto the paper from a digital image of his scrawl. It took me a while to realize that reading those early stories of his - most of them in the sci-fi/space opera genre - weren't nearly as entertaining as A Song of Ice and Fire. I chalked it up to the stories being presented chronologically, and thus that they would increase in entertainment the deeper into the book I delved. I ended up with a massive tome for a massive price featuring exactly one story I cared about - The Hedge Knight, which I already owned in the first collection of Legends. No, I did not expect medieval fantasy tales. Yes, a few stories like The Sandkings had some neat ideas. The stories simply lacked the magic of the three first Ice & Fire novels. 
Now, the reason I am bringing this up is because Martin's latest advertisement blog post is about the new Bantam edition of Tuf Voyaging. You can win a free copy by sending a mail to Ser Patrek (you remember him from A Dance with Dragons probably) - and the post reminded me of those days of yore when I purchased GRRM: A RRetrospective. It has, as you can guess, stories about the character Tuf. And I have to say that the least interesting stories in the collection were indeed the stories about this Tuf. Least interesting to me, of course. Tuf's isolation was grating on me. Other fans, of course, probably love this stuff. Still, out of pure academic interest in Martin's work, it was interesting to pick up early uses of names and concepts that would later find their home in Westeros - but it was also my first disappointment with Martin, and heralded a new age of long waits and the divide of the readership, a rift that could be healed by The Winds of Winter if we're lucky.

Moving on to A Storm of Swords, we've come to Sansa Stark, her second chapter in the novel. Like the previous chapter it opens with a line of dialogue and immediately the contrast to Jon's chapter is enormous. Where Jon stood in the snowdrift watching an army of mammoth-riding giants, lost to the world and partially lost to himself and struggling with his loyalty, Sansa is being presented with a new gown, an old woman measuring her hips to make sure the 'silk and Myrish lace' will fit. The contrast lies of course in the luxury surrounding Sansa, and the harsh wilderness surrounding Jon - but they are both prisoners of sorts, so there is a link between them as well. Ah, I can't help but love how the pieces of the puzzle fit so nicely together in these books. A tapestry with no broken threads, Martin's finest achievement. The old woman tells Sansa that "the queen has commanded it", and Sansa, perhaps to show her insecurity, asks "which queen?" This is another nice link - not only is the realm full of kings, there are more queens now, as well. Margaery who was Renly's queen and is to be Joffrey's; Cersei, of course; and the Queen of Thorns (and let's not forget the Queen across the Water - and more queens will be forthcoming as well). It was Cersei who ordered a new gown for Sansa, because, according to the old woman, Sansa is a woman now (Martin subtly reminding us that in A Clash of Kings she finally had her first flowering). Her breasts have grown, she's gained height, in short she's had a growth spurt; Sansa is polite to the old woman, but I'm sure it hurts inside to say about Cersei that "she is good to me". The seamstress leaves Sansa, after having promised her all the clothing "befitting a...a lovely young lady of noble birth". Yes, note the "a...a" in there; the seamstress hesitates when she says this, just the smallest clue that there's more to this sudden generousness from Queen Regent Cersei (not that we needed it - still, it's great to see how much a well-placed ... can do in a text).

Alone, Sansa wonders about it as well, half concluding that this is the doing of the Tyrells - remember Sansa's meeting with Lady Olenna and Margaery - though as a reader, it's good to remember that we are watching the world, and thinking about the world, through Sansa's senses now, and of all the characters in the story the Tyrells are perhaps the most ambiguous, the ones whose motivations we know the least about. I've certainly changed my mind about Margaery Tyrell over the course of the books. Turns out Margaery has been exceptionally kind (a warning sign perhaps in this brutal setting?), as have her ladies; she's been given harp lessons, she's been gossiping, listening to stories, generally been able to live like a noble lady. Margaery's cousins, Elinor, Alla, and Megga (incidentally, 'megga' is 'the bitch' or 'that bitch' in Norwegian) have taken Sansa into their company "as if they had known her all their lives"; yeah, reading this the first time I was just happy for Sansa to find some reprieve. Now, I'm frowning suspiciously at these girls and their seemingly over-friendliness. So much going on between the lines! Sansa's having a great time, though, and I find it much easier to envision these passages of description than Jon watching the mammoths; it really is two worlds in one setting. We learn that these cousins occasionally share Margaery's bed where they gossip all night - guess this is a line to keep in mind. Also, knowing that her brother Loras is a homosexual, could Marge be homosexual as well? Sansa remembers the Hound on the night of the Blackwater battle, but this seems more to have been added to remind us of that scene. The memory kind of breaks the flow of the narrative a little bit. Megga gushes over Joffrey (in Sansa's memory of an earlier incident happening between chapters), and the way Megga says it also makes me suspcious, as if she's trying to coax Sansa into spilling the beans about Joffrey's true nature. Elinor is promised to a young squire and son of Lord Ambrose; this may or may not come into play at a later point in the story, but if all these minor details have to come to play before the end, the series can't possibly end after seven books. There's just so many threads in this epic tapestry, and it breathes such life into the story. Hear me gush. One more point about the three cousins of Margaery - Martin uses them so that Sansa can see herself in them: "They are children," Sansa thought. "They are silly little girls, even Elinor. They've never seen a battle, they've never seen a man die, they know nothing." A bit like Jon Snow, then. That last part, anyway. Sansa is growing, though, as a character, seeing through things and having realized that her dreams were just that...dreams.

Still in Sansa's mind, we know move to Margaery herself. According to Sansa, she's different from the three cousins. The most revealing bit, I think, is said right at the beginning of this section: "Sweet and gentle, yet there was a little of her grandmother in her, too." Devious, then. We get a flashback to another scene not written - Sansa and Margaery outside of the city hawking - a fresh breath of air for Sansa, though we can't escape phrases like "the dead had been burned or buried", "scarred and splintered", "hulls of smashes ships", and "shallows like gaunt black fingers". On this nice excursion, Margaery talks about Willas Tyrell, her oldest brother. Apparently, he has the best birds in the Seven Kingdoms. Well, that will make Sansa happier. Interestingly, though, "sweet bird" is what the Hound used to call her - so it's almost ironic. It is during this hunt that Sansa finally dares tell Margaery that she must not marry Joffrey, her eyes full of tears as she tells her that he'll hurt her. Margaery, however, seems confident, partially because Loras has been named Kingsguard and will be there to protect her. This is pretty cool - it is the opposite of the story between Jaime and Cersei, isn't it? Margaery shows herself as brave, confident, and with a streak of Arya to her as well...but Sansa feels doubt still gnawing on her. Briefly, she imagines a war inside the city between the Tyrells and the Lannisters and I am going to hold on to that vision, because you never know when it will turn into foreshadowing. 
Ser Dontos Hollard has told Sansa that she must not go to Highgarden to marry Willas Tyrell; "I tell you, these Tyrells are only Lannisters with flowers." A correct observation, or just a way of trying to free her for his master? We are reminded that on the night of Joffrey's wedding, Dontos has planned to whisk Sansa away from King's Landing, a plot that's been in the making for so long. But now Sansa doesn't want to; this is when Dontos tells her that the Tyrells want her claim, not her. Apparently, Sansa is still wearing blindfolds. She sees that the three cousins are gullible, but she is still gullible herself. There is still a way to go before she really learns the game of thrones. Dontos has to remind her that she is the heir of Winterfell and that's a pretty good argument in his favor. Of course the Tyrells would be interested in dominion of the North. Are the Tyrells merely a more cunning version of House Lannister? Even more devious, and better at hiding their motivations and intents? I happen to think so. In that way, I've really come to like the Tyrell family creeping into the story as they have, slowly but surely. Well written characters and with no POVs on their side, we can remain unsure about them even now, in 2013. Clearly Sansa doesn't know that power begets power when she wonders why Willas would want Winterfell when he already has Highgarden. She spends some time thinking about Willas, his broken leg, and how they could none the less enjoy each other's company with puppies in their laps. At this point I'd like to slap Sansa in the face and tell her to stop daydreaming, you're going through the same motions again. Remember what Littlefinger said. Life is not a song, sweetling. 

Mind you that story-wise, exactly nothing has happened except for the seamstress taking Sansa's measures. It's all Sansa dreaming and thinking and pondering, and even so it's very interesting, because the paragraphs are kept fairly short and self-contained as she skips from thought to thought, bringing us up to date on certain things, reminding us of other things. Sansa is still infatuated with Ser Loras, or so the text seems to suggest to me, whenever she tries to picture Willas in her mind's eye, the face turns into Loras'. The chapter, short and swift, ends with a paragraph where we sense Sansa taking pride in herself: "She would wear the gown for the ceremony at the Great Sept of Baelor (...)". I can't see a way that Sansa could, on her own, come to realize what is really going on - so when she finally realizes just why Cersei wants her to look splendid, it comes as a shock not only to her, but to the reader as well. Dramatic irony at its finest as Sansa's last thought before the chapter ends, is "She could scarcely wait to wear it." 

Oh man. If only she knew how much she really should not want to wear that gown. I feel sorry for her already. One of the great twists in the saga, this one, but seldom mentioned in the same breath as certain other twists. Looking forward to Sansa's storyline in HBO's show! Two more months... 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

More stories

I haven't updated my story section Words are Wind in a while, so I did this now. In Words are Wind I present short stories and flash fiction I've done over at SFFWorld's writing forum. Right now, I have a flash fiction in this month's competition, which is The Bishop who Prayed in the Wrong Direction. It currently has two votes. 

I have also added the stories I've written over the last couple of months: My Eyes are Open and I Am Immortal, Nightfall and Lights Rise (which won), Sleepy Dead, and A Company in Red which I think has a strong beginning. In Love and Carnage is a little vampire story that was a bit too confusing for the voters. I enjoyed writing it, though, and that's the most important part for me - having fun while making up fantasy stuff.

Currently I'm working on the January-February short story competition (so I still have a month). It's a curious tale where I try to blend environmental issues with sorcery, in a setting inspired by medieval Turkey / Arabia, trying to make it stand out. Most of my stories are based on a setting I began working on decades ago for my roleplaying games, kind of like how the Malaz world developed. It's fun to be a geek.

Locust of Nerdity

Oh, what is it about those secondary worlds? Sometimes I do not understand myself. Over the last weeks I have been going through my shelf of role playing game materials, reading through countless fictitious histories, geographies, governments etc. You see, now offers the game Neverwinter Nights 2, complete with its major expansion packs (Mask of the Betrayer and Storm of Zehir and Mysteries of Westgate). Though I did have a boxed copy of the game, I couldn't resist this offer. I never played through the game the first time I purchased it, but I've really been in a Forgotten Realms-mood after having started a new tabletop campaign (still just done one session though) and so I bought it, and settled well into it, and what do you know, I'm having fun. This in turn reinforced my reading lust, so when I was done going through my old boxed sets, modules and sourcebooks, I sought out the always-excellent Noble Knight Games to begin a new quest - to complete my collection of 2nd Edition (that's old school) Forgotten Realms RPG products. Not only this, I have also gone so far as to read novels set in this world, and they are not that good, especially when you are used to the works of Martin, Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Erikson et al, but, and this relates to the question of understanding myself, I have this trait let's call it 'obsessive' and when it hits, it hits hard. So while I think the Realms are full of silliness, I still really enjoy reading up on its lore, for the time being. And one day, who knows when, I'll tire of it and, like a locust of nerdity, I'll obsess over something else for a while.
That's how I began this blog. I was obsessing a great deal over A Song of Ice and Fire. I'm not that obsessed anymore. I watch season two as it is finally being shown on television, and I dip into A Storm of Swords about once a week. I suspect that once more news and spoilers begin to pump out of Disney/Lucasfilm I'll be obsessing over Star Wars Episode VII. It's a given. 
Well, since January 2010 my main obsession has been the world of Malaz, but right now there's nothing new, and maybe that's why the Realms re-entered my life. It's like I can't go without being really busy with one secondary world or the other. It's a strange, strange thing, really it is. When Erikson publishes Fall of Light I'll probably fall under the Malaz spell again. And who knows, maybe one day we'll be lucky to receive our copies of The Winds of Winter and it is time to redirect brain power toward Westeros and environs. How I hope it will be a return to form for Mr. Martin. How I hope...

Friday, January 25, 2013

[Re-read] Jon II: Membership Required

This post contains spoilers for Jon Snow's last chapter in A Dance with Dragons.

Our dear author, George R.R. Martin, continues to take his sweet time doing, well, everything at once. Or not. I am not sure anymore. We've been promised a new Dunk & Egg novella for quite some time, but unfortunately the man hasn't been able to finish this story and instead we will be given The Princess and the Queen, which will basically be a collection of notes he's been writing for the also-long-overdue world book. How long can this man keep screwing his fans over? While the Tower of the Hand gently calls it "a surprise", and Westeros (boo!) provide a dry and emotionless presentation of the fact, people over at Is Winter Coming? are a bit more [NSFW!vocal and outraged (as can be expected; this is the forum, after all, where people who do not wish to be screwed over anymore congregate). It doesn't help being pissed off at Martin's bad habits of course, but it is also good to know I'm not the only one feeling constantly disappointed by the man. In fact, the very fact that he is unable to deliver the Dunk & Egg novella after years is kind of even worse than him being late with his Ice & Fire novels, because it shows so clearly that his priorities are a tangled mess. Based on his blog posts I have the feeling he really enjoyed writing those fake historical bits for the world book, and that's what he's been spending his time on, and thus that is what he can add to the Dangerous Women anthology, because he had nothing else produced. I don't know, but...wouldn't any reasonably sane fan of Ice & Fire rather wish that the man focused on The Winds of Winter instead of a world book - for a world that still is unfinished, so to speak? Enough ranting, it is time to dive back into A Storm of Swords, and a time when there was no anger, no disappointment, no resentment, and everyone believed Martin was an incredible author and that it could only get better from there. If you disagree with anything in this rant, feel absolutely free to throw in a comment with your counterarguments! I honestly want to believe better of mr. Martin, but he makes it harder for each and every post on his Not a Blog. Still!

Anyway, we're back to the North - the real North as Craster would remind you - and Jon Snow, bastard of Ned Stark, most likely the son of Ned's sister Lyanna (seriously, I will cook and eat my entire collection of mismatched socks if this turns out to be false), who remains a bit of a boring character in my opinion (but then he's being compared to some of the best characters in fantasy literature ever); still, he's kind of the main character in a way. The young, naive somewhat rebellious character who sets out into the world (and might just end up the big hero in the end). His last chapter in A Dance with Dragons is just a setback, people, and most likely it will end up giving him even more personal power/prowess. 

The chapter opens with a line of dialogue - "Big enough for you?" - and this being 2013, and Martin having turned out to be quite the dirtbag in the meantime - makes me cringe because it is kind of hard to read Ice & Fire without dirty /sexual allusions cropping up, due to the man behind the words having turned into such a creep. You may disagree, but for many readers, the continual increase in awkward sexual situations and plain disgusting scenes gives rise to the thought that not only is Martin not afraid of writing outside the safety net, he enjoys his naughty fantasies. The words he spoke at a certain panel last year goes a long way in supporting this view - Martin is a dirtbag and I somehow feel dirtier for reading some of his stuff. Now, I'm not averse to dirt and I am certainly not offended by anything in his books as they are fantasy and I can't say I am a shining paladin of virtue myself; what gets me is that it makes the author, at conventions and such, seem so socially inept (which he probably is anyway) and that he can't keep his mouth shut when it comes to the dirty. I much rather enjoy the first three books where the amount of perversity is relatively low; when we get to A Feast for Crows it becomes more filthy than edgy, more disrupting of immersion than a look at the setting's norms of behavior. 

Dammit, now I ranted again. Sorry about that. Guess I'm not in a good mood today. Which could happen to anyone not getting a good night's sleep, eh? Anyway, it is Tormund who asks the question, and, if we decide to keep our minds on the dirty side, it doesn't help that the question is followed by "Snowflakes speckled Tormund's broad face, melting in his hair and beard." Seriously, this line is probably as innocent as they come (huh), but once you read the books with the mindset of "George is a creepy pervert", almost everything becomes dirty. So I'll refrain from that now, lest this blog becomes unsafe for work. Which, incidentally, is where I am right now. Lunch breaks are good for many things.

Fortunately, the size Tormund is referring to, is the size of giants. Giants! Yes, we've come a long way from the quasi-medieval earthy A Game of Thrones, 'cause now we are actually witnessing actual giants, and for a moment there you could almost think you had picked up the wrong book and were reading something from, say, the Forgotten Realms. Martin has his own twist on the giants, though, which I think was a smart move, to distance the concept from ye traditional giants as seen in Middle-earth, Dungeons & Dragons etc. Martin's giants are hairy, they ride mammoths (that's another "high fantasy" thing kind of isn't it) and look more like a genetic mix of Chewbacca and neanderthals, then resized to Pretty Damn Big. We get a good long description of them giants which allows us to forget the 'classic giants' and keep believing in the world of Westeros despite the amount of fantasy ramping up considerably. Sometimes I feel the giants, mammoths and other fantasy elements kind of take away from the medieval politics of the south; as if the contrast becomes to large and the story gets separated sort of, if you know what I mean. And at other times I don't care and just get lost in the narrative. It's definitely a scene that probably has HBO scratching their heads, what with a column of mammoth-riding giants (Jon loses count at around fifty), a mammoth's tusk passing over the top of Jon's head. We are given the name of one giant, Mag Mar Tun Doh Weg, quite different from everything else in naming in the series, to be sure. I particularly like the 'Doh' part. D'oh! 
Tormund and D'oh! exchange pleasantries (well, manly talk) and then Tormund and Jon walk back to the head of the column because Mance Rayder will be waiting for them.
All in all this opening scene feels a bit artificial because Tormund and Jon are just standing there so that we can get a look at the giants. I can't say I'm a fan of anything here, really. Tormund is kind of funny when he suggests the mammoth D'oh! is riding, is his father (or so I read it). But...meh.

On the way back, Jon asks if it is true that Tormund has killed a giant, Tormund replies with a story about a storm and him cutting open a sleeping giant to sleep inside her for warmth. I am sorry but I can't help but be reminded of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke is kept warm inside a Tauntaun. This part of the tale I can believe, but Tormund doesn't stop there, the story continues with the giant waking up in spring and taking him for his baby. Scratching my head and wondering if Tormund's just making shit up, or if there's any truth to the tale at all. Jon asks more questions about how Tormund earned his other nicknames (he's got a whole host of them); what Jon is really trying to find out, is more information about the legendary Horn of Winter. This leads to another tale from Tormund, and the way he tells it reminds me of a boasting dwarf, the type you play in Dungeons & Dragons, you know? There's a bit o' dirt here as well, with big teats and members hardening, and rape actually, but again it seems Tormund is just having fun with Jon with a story so silly it can't be believed. I guess this is Martin characterizing Tormund as a blowhard, a spinner of exaggerated tales, lustful and not taking himself seriously. And look at that, the circle is complete as talk does indeed turn to the size of Tormund's member. 

What are they thinking?!

Tormund wonders why Jon doesn't give in to Ygritte's charms, and Jon admits that he realizes Ygritte wants to sexy-time with him. He spends most of his days and nights in her company, but doesn't seem to like it - so far, at any rate. We get a closer description of Ygritte as Jon thinks about her; there is more stirring of body parts, and Jon's thoughts serve to show us that he's slowly falling under Ygritte's spell, so to speak. Tormund pesters him about it all, telling him he should go for it, Jon blushes and feels uncomfortable talking about it. It's kind of weird, they are talking about this mundane stuff of sleeping or not sleeping with Ygritte, all the while this huge train of giants and mammoths rumble past. Still, Jon is growing fond of Tormund - or so the text states, rather than showing us - and he is forced to consider the implications of "civilized behavior" as compared to the "free sex, drugs and rock'n'roll" life style of the wildlings. It's a good thing to contrast, I think. It gives this part of the story some needed depth, some food for thought - what is civilized behavior anyway? Is civilized behavior the same as wildling behavior, but with added guilt and deception? 

Martin gives us a paragraph's worth of reminders of who the main players in Mance's army are; Rattleshirt, the Weeper, Harma Dogshead, Styr, Varamyr Sixskins....reminding us that even though Jon is on good terms with a few of the wildlings, there are more than enough potential enemies. But I don't feel the tension here; remember a few chapters back when Arya and her companions faced the uncertainty of an approaching band of outlaws? It was ripe with tension. Here, I don't feel tension; it's just the two characters walking alongside the column of mammoths, and Jon thinking this and that about Ygritte and the other wildlings. I don't get the feeling that he's afraid, or nervous, or uncertain. 

This is followed by a few paragraphs of pure exposition, weakening the chapter in my opinion, but of course it is also a necessity if we are to understand the wildlings better. The essential information, I guess, boils down to how Mance Rayder assembled this host, that there are factions within the host that are considered rivals, and that for all the wildlings' talk of being free people, Mance Rayder does actually function as a uniting leader, a king (because Westeros needs more kings right now, eh). 
More backstory reminders of how Jon had joined the wildlings at Qhorin Halfhand's command, and reminders that Jon is still loyal to the Night's Watch as he thinks of his mission (infiltrate and learn); we realize that Jon knows nothing of Bran and Rickon or the fact that Winterfell is pretty much ruined - of course, as long as he is with the wildlings, news of the south will be sparse. 

There's finally a little injection of tension as we learn that the wildling host is closing in on the Fist of the First Men, where he expects to find three hundred men of the Night's Watch. However, from the book's prologue we know that the men of the Fist have probably already been attacked by the Others, thus taking away a little bit of the tension - well, on Jon's behalf I mean - we know that he won't have to fight his friends, but there is still tension for us as readers as we will want to know what Jon discovers on the hill - will he find his brothers dead, or turned into wights?

More thinking as Jon considers how undisciplined the wildlings are, how few mounts they have. Then, we get Jon meeting up with Ygritte, who comes trotting beside Jon. More description of Ygritte, some singing, and it does provide a certain "mythical" feeling akin to Tolkien's song verses found in The Lord of the Rings; it's almost hard not to envision a party of dwarves walking the frozen wastes, singing:

In stone halls they burn their great fires,
in stone halls they forge their sharp spears
Whilst I walk alone in the mountains,
with no true companion but tears (...)

Ygritte actually has tears on her cheeks when she finishes singing, weeping for the fading of the giant race from the face of the world, not unlike how the dwarves and ents of Middle-earth and the Elves too, are "fading". The scene with the singing really brings home Martin's fantasy influences, while the medieval history influences are literally gone here. 

And then WHAM after all this thinking and trudging and blushing and mentions of various penises, suddenly Jon is assaulted by an eagle, the world turning upside down in "a chaos of feathers and horseflesh and blood". It comes so suddenly, it's like...Okay I've been giving a lot of exposition and there's been a lot of talk, better have something exciting to keep the readers' attention. The eagle fortunately missed Jon's eye; he's bleeding and his face is throbbing, but that's the extent of the damage. Maybe there's a small trauma in there, too. Tormund bellows for the Bag o'Bones to "call off his hellcrow", so this is basically confirming the fact presented earlier that Jon has more enemies than friends among the wildlings. And some of them aren't scared to try and hurt him, no matter what the King Beyond the Wall says. Orell, a man slain by Jon, apparently still kind of lives inside the eagle (hey, is that why Tormund spoke of sleeping "inside a giant" - could this be foreshadowing, and not just empty boasting from the character? - either just to subtly clue us in and lay the groundwork for Orell/the eagle, or might we even see Jon Snow taking up residence inside a giant in The Winds of Winter? Since reading Dance I've been quite sure we'd see Jon warging into Ghost, but maybe he'll go for a giant instead - it would link up nicely to this chapter, at any rate). 

Jon decides to not tend to his wound just yet, wanting Mance Rayder to see it first. Rattleshirt comes to fetch Jon, calling him "the crow-come-down", that's a cool nickname. I should've called myself Crow-Come-Down all those years ago instead of Slynt. For some reason "Slynt" stuck, though. Easy to pronounce, and not well liked among most readers ;-) Such is the lot of those who dare speak freely like a wildling! Muha. Anyway. 

I'm kind of flipping the pages now hoping the chapter to be over. It's really not a very interesting chapter in my opinion. They gallop off, two miles down the column through swirling snows, the shape of the great white hill looming above the trees (take note HBO - trees!!! dammit) - that hill being the Fist of the First Men, a raven looking down on Jon (could it be Mormont's?); they circle the south slope, and here we go, Jon discovers a dead horse half buried in snow; entrails spilling from the carcass, not eaten by wolves. Mance is already on the top of the hill (I actually don't remember this scene, even on the {sigh} ninth reread); to cut to the chase, Jon realizes that the black brothers are no longer on the fist, they have been attacked and most of their horses are dead. 

In Mance's tent, Mance learns that Jon was attacked by Orell the Eagle (did you know that "orell" is actually 'eagle' in I think it was Hungarian correct me if I'm wrong); Mance is kind of pissed off because Jon hasn't told him the truth about the number of men on the Fist (or so I read it) and Jon admits they were three hundred; "You should never have lied to me, Jon Snow" Mance says, tension rising; Jon is forced to admit the Old Bear himself had been here, and that Castle Black's command is under Bowen Marsh. This is of course vital information for Mance, and not something Jon really wants to give him. It's a dilemma, folks. In fact the whole story arc beyond the Wall is one big dilemma. Mance decides that they will try and follow the wights, using Varamyr's wolves as scouts (that's a pretty neat idea, wolf scouts); Rattleshirt wants to see Jon dead, but Ygritte steps in front of Jon; this furthers the dilemma, as not only is Jon forced to think about who he is, but Ygritte must find out who she is, as she tells Rattleshirt that they can't blame Jon for trying to protect his former allies; she, unlike Rattleshirt, sees through the organization to the personal. I don't know if I made sense right now. 

The solution to the confrontation is simple, and Martin has laid the groundwork for it earlier in the chapter; by telling Mance that he shares his sheepskin cloak with Ygritte (insinuating that they are doing the sexy without lying that they just sleep). "Is that the way of it, Jon Snow?" Mance asks. "Her and you?"
Jon struggles between honor and shame, but it is apparently enough to appease Mance. Is it just me or does this Mance Rayder seem a little too gullible here? However, Mance adds that Jon will join Jarl and Styr on the next day to climb the Wall - and to prove his faith with something more than words. A good thing to add, to make it more believable on Mance's behalf. "I'm not trusting you just yet," is what he is saying. Between them lines. When the Magnar of Styr objects, Mance says that should Jon betray them, the Magnar can cut out his heart. So he isn't that gullible, after all. Good, good! 

Finally the chapter comes to a close with a short confrontation between Jon and Rattleshirt who still thirsts for Jon's blood. Fortunately, at the exact right moment to match their dialogue (weird isn't it), Ghost reappears after having been off hunting in the woods, a threat more than good enough to have Rattleshirt not draw his sword and instead back away. Ygritte and Jon ride off on their garrisons, Ghost at their side, and Ygritte tells him that tonight they are going to hanky-panky. Good for Jon Snow, not very interesting for me. I do wonder at Ygritte's motivations, though. Why would she go out of her way to have sex with Jon Snow, when he's not trusted by any of her allies? Doesn't she stop to think that it might be a know, treasonous for lack of a better word? I can't quite buy this little love story in the middle of all the giants, mammoths, undead, and dilemmas. Maybe later chapters give a clearer picture of Ygritte's motivations, I don't remember. We'll see when we get there. Next up is Sansa however, whose story is vastly more interesting to me personally.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

[Re-read] Catelyn II: Fallout Mom and the Leftfield King

It’s been extremely cold of late, with temperatures dropping to – 25 degrees Celsius, and so there’s been a lot of time spent indoors. I spent Sunday playing old school AD&D, I’ve played a little bit Skyrim, Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate (the original, not the enhanced edition) and even gained a couple of levels last night in Vanguard: Saga of Heroes (unfortunately the game won’t run for long before the laptop freezes; it is so about time I get my act together and buy a new stationary monster gaming computer). Since I’ve started up a new AD&D campaign I’ve been reading a number of sourcebooks for the game’s setting, Forgotten Realms, and even started a novel set in this world – an old book titled ‘Red Wizard’, and it really is terrifyingly bad (as I expected). Reading it, I actually fear that my own appreciation for writing will be degraded. I’ll come back to it if I manage to finish it. I’m thinking of it as an experiment, and to glean some ‘feeling’ for the Realms so that I may use it to portray this particular setting in my roleplaying games.
To counter this, I better read some more George R.R. Martin, so as to not slide off the scale, to remind myself that there’s also well-written fantasy. So here we are, in A Storm of Swords, at the beginning of Catelyn Stark’s second chapter. On a slightly related note, you can see her in the most recent update from HBO’s Game of Thrones, Molding the Book into a Series.

Riverrun as it probably won't look on the TV.
Martin throws us straight into the chapter with Catelyn realizing her son Robb is returning from Riverrun, the scent of his direwolf sending the hounds at the camp into a frenzy. I love how Martin seems to have this detailed imagination - he doesn't forget that the direwolf's approach has consequences, its presence is felt, and reminding us that these direwolves are scary keeps us aware (this in contrast to aforementioned novel Red Wizard where I struggled trying to imagine a centaur setting up a tent, and the author doesn't bother to give us any insight into how this works). Not only does Martin quickly reestablish the presence of Grey Wind, he also, in the same quick sketch, remind us that Catelyn is a person, thinking of how her brother Edmure hasn't bothered speaking to her, and in the same breath he establishes a certain atmosphere to lend the chapter's beginning strength: "It had been raining for days now, a cold grey downpour that well suited Catelyn's mood." A prisoner of the home - well, castle - she grew up in, Catelyn's situation is perfectly linked to the mood; the rain beating down (she's kind of beaten down), the cold grey downpour symbolizing how she's being kept out of the loop (she's only given choice bits of information on how the fighting in the riverlands is going). 

Also, and this becomes so incredibly obvious when reading Red Wizard, Martin remains the master of the limited point of view. Catelyn isn't getting that much news, so we aren't getting that much news. We are limited to Catelyn's view for her chapters, and Martin keeps it that way. It's tight, efficient, draws us closer to his characters, and for me at least it feels oh so right. Compare this to Red Wizard where the point of view seems to randomly skip from character to character (I guess this is third person omniscient POV - the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all the characters in the story); it seems to be just as valid a way of writing - classics like Anna Karenina are written using this method - but to me, perhaps because of George R.R. Martin's strict adherence to his characters' points of view, it just feels so wrong. I guess it's a matter of taste. To me, it makes a story feel less real, and thus more artificial, and it makes it harder for me to immerse myself. In Red Wizard, there are scenes where you, in the span of a paragraph, read the thoughts of three or more different characters and it seems so...clunky. Maybe I've read too much limited POVs? Or could one in fact argue that, yes, limited POVs do improve a story? I guess there's no easy answer. This is by no means the only thing that detracts from appreciating Red Wizard, and I won't go further as we're talking about A Storm of Swords and not some crap licensed novel, but reading "lesser" fantasy does make me appreciate Martin's efforts all the more. Perhaps I need to read another Forgotten Realms novel along with A Dance with Dragons

Maester Vyman with the winner of the Oscar Awards 2013.
Anyway. Catelyn muses that, with all the depressing stuff going on, there's something else that's wrong as well (as if it wasn't bad enough with her father dying, her brother ignoring her, her son fighting wars, her husband beheaded, her daughters hostage and missing, her youngest sons presumed dead - just off the top of my head). There was something going on in the courtyard of Riverrun the other day, and though Catelyn doesn't know exactly what, Martin's description makes it pretty clear there's been a confrontation and that about forty men abandoned the cause. Maester Vyman refuses to explain, but we know enough, don't we? That all is not well in Robb and Edmure's army. Another fine detail from the master, then; in many fantasy novels the sides are clear-cut, black and white; here, there is dissension within the ranks, consequences beget consequences. Vyman does suggest, however, that it is Edmure who is holding back information from his sister.

"But now Robb was returned from the west, returned in triumph."

Yeah, I believe you, George. Triumph isn't exactly the most bandied-about word in Westeros and environs. When he adds that Catelyn hopes that Robb will forgive her, you should remember that old adage that so captures the spirit of this long tale: Don't get your hopes up. It really encapsulates A Song of Ice and Fire so far doesn't it? Cat, don't get your hopes up. 
Ser Desmond comes to pick her up, and takes her to the Great Hall where Robb awaits her. Yup, Robb doesn't come running up the stairs for her embrace, he awaits her in the Great Hall. Like a king. 

The hall is crowded, she recognizes some of the people in the assembly; with a few quick strokes Martin re-establishes these minor characters so that we might remember them just in case they'll become more important later on (or he just loves mentioning all these characters, which might be the simpler, more correct answer). Lady Mormont is present, as are the Greatjon, Lord Jason Mallister, and Tytos Blackwood. And Robb is standing on the dais, and he's changed:

"He is a boy no longer, she realized with a pang. He is sixteen now, a man grown. Just look at him. War had melted all the softness from his face and left him hard and lean. He had shaved his beard away, but his auburn hair fell uncut to his shoulders. The recent rains had rusted his mail and left brown stains on the white of his cloak and surcoat."

Again the detail! How many fantasy novels have you read where the characters' armor remains pristine? Here, the consequence of the heavy rains has been given thought, leading to this quick description of Robb's armor rusting. 
In short, Robb seems more kingly, and the effect is realized by taking a break to describe the young man standing on the dais, and further illustrated when we see Edmure Tully, his uncle, bowing his head modestly at his nephew.
The perfect example of Martin adhering strictly to point of view is that Catelyn comes into the Great Hall while Robb is in mid-sentence, and we don't get to hear the first half of his words because, you know, Catelyn didn't hear them. 
Robb's men are shouting and roaring but as Catelyn and Ser Desmond approach the dais, "a hush grew around her" - perfectly described, I can imagine all the northmen's faces turn toward her with dissaproving glares, Catelyn holding her head high...the makers of the TV series truly do not need bothering rewriting this scene at all, it's efficiently and perfectly described and can be lifted wholesale into their scripts. And this season, they will apparently take heed of that guy near Robb, his greatuncle Brynden Tully, the Blackfish, who may or may not be a gay character depending on your interpretation (not that I care, but I've noticed online discussions about this particular subject). 

All right, and now Martin gently nudges us towards apprehension; there's a squire Catelyn does not recognize; behind the squire a young knight and an older one, both with unfamiliar sigils on their surcoats; there's a handsome older lady and a pretty maid and yet another girl at Sansa's age. Now, if I want to be all nitpicky about this I'd probably move this information to immediately when Catelyn enters the Great Hall; wouldn't this be the first she noticed - a host of strangers surrounding Robb on the dais? Minor niggle, there, mr. Martin, perfection has not been achieved but damn it is close. 

Utherydes Wayn (who can forget Utherydes Wayn?) bangs his staff on the floor like a proper herald of yore, hey and look what have we here, the very word I used in the previous paragraph, apprehension, only Martin has turned it around and it is Robb looking apprehensive. Nice. What should Robb fear? Oh, oh, something's fishy in Riverrun and I'm not talking about Brynden Tully.

In these post-Skyrim days I couldn't help but raise my eyebrows in mild amusement when Catelyn looks up at her son and tells him she's heard he was wounded. "I took an arrow through the arm," he explains and I guess I don't need to elaborate. Tee and also hee! Good thing he didn't get it through the knee, that could have more severely limited his adventures as a commander and king of the North. Robb is all safe and sound then, and who would expect anything else from this important character who has taken up his father's legacy as a stern leader of men? Surely he will lead the North to independence and... you know, triumph.

Not wanting to circle the subject (what we in Norway call, for some silly reason, "walk around the porridge"), Catelyn immediately asks Robb if he knows why she released Ser Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer. His answer is suitably short: "For the girls."
Lord Rickard Karstark pushes his way to the fore, clearly not agreeing with Catelyn on the decision (we knew that already, of course, but it's a way for Martin to remind us of the personal conflicts brewing in this here hall of greatness). Greatjon rumbles that it was "a mother's folly", but Karstark names it "treason". Whatever hopes Catelyn had before coming to the hall, she should perhaps have realized beforehand that there would be trouble from Lord Rickard (and I'd dare say, his anger is justified too). 

Fortunately for Catelyn, she's not the only one who's gone and done folly. Nice weaving of story, there. The story could have demanded Catelyn's execution or at the very least imprisonment forever, but Robb's a fool too, and so the story can be given a nice little twist instead. Robb forgives Catelyn (to Lord Rickard's dismay - and yes, again Martin doesn't forget and will instead weave a consequence out of this as well - it's all so amazingly coherent, the tapestry so rich): "I know what it is to love so greatly you can think of nothing else," Robb tells her and that's the turning point isn't it? Strange, though, that she doesn't immediately wonder what he's talking about. Robb commands everyone (well, almost) to leave the hall. Catelyn realizes that Grey Wind is missing. This is a subtle hint (actually I don't know how subtle it is, but the first time I read the series I wasn't really aware of just how intrinsically linked the wolves were to the kids and that this wolf missing now means bad). It also leads us into the second half of the chapter, where we are given new and plot-changing elements.

The strangers on the dais are introduced; first up is Lady Sybell, wife of Lord Gaven Westerling of the Crag. Catelyn is now able to place them as a minor house sworn to the Lannisters. Next up Robb introduces Ser Rolph Spicer, who is Lady Sybell's brother, the young knight is Ser Raynald, there's a Elenya (who can forget Elenya? I did), Rollam Westerling is the squire; Cat wonders whether Robb has won the allegiance of the Crag which seems pretty obvious doesn't it, but of course we're saved the best for last which is the maid, shy and all that, and then Robb drops the bomb: "Mother, I have the great honor to present you the Lady Jeyne Westerling. Lord Gawen's elder daughter, and my...ah...lady wife." Well, the first thing I notice on this read is that the name of the Lord of the Crag is spelled either with a 'v' or a 'w' (I'm suspecting the 'w' is the one that will stick). 

Jeyne : Shelling out to the Starks
Catelyn's response is surprise, and a number of thoughts all vying for space in her mind, but what she mainly reacts to, it seems, is the fact that Robb kind of tricked her into this by forgiving her for her own follies of love. Annoyed but also admiring him for this trickery, is how Martin describes it. Stiffly she takes Jeyne's hands in her own and welcomes her into the family. Now here comes the second nitpick of the day; shouldn't Catelyn's immediate reaction be anger, and thinking of the deal struck with Lord Frey? I don't know, maybe they don't think of Frey as important anymore since they got the army across the Twins, but rankles me just a tiny bit. Now, it also seems that Catelyn is reining herself in and that we'll get a proper explosion from her later (I honestly don't remember). Cat makes note of Jeyne's good hips which I believe is a tidbit to file away for future speculation. 

When Catelyn and Robb are alone, she is able to find her words and get into a proper discussion with her love-blinded son. Jason Mallister captured Jeyne's father - Lord Gawen that is - in the Whispering Wood and been held at ransom at Seagard; Robb intends to free him, but admits that Gawen might just stay on the Lannister side anyway, as he did not consent to the marriage. 

It's in this chapter that I feel mostly that Robb maybe should've had his own POV. I'd like to see the story of how he met and fell in love with Jeyne. The TV series is pulling it in (albeit in very different strokes); it comes perhaps as too much of a surprise in this chapter. All of a sudden, Robb's married and we had no real signs (that I'm aware of) that Robb could rush into something like this. He's always been Ned's son, cool and all that. I understand HBO's decision; in the TV series, Robb suddenly turning up married with a girl not seen before would feel less believable. 
Catelyn reminds her son that they now have lost the Freys, which is one of the more important plot points to keep in mind as we continue the story. It also explains what happened back in the courtyard with the forty men leaving Riverrun, and so Martin comes full circle in this chapter. Not only is Robb a fool for his loving, he's also chosen a girl from a minor family who will assist the Starks with an astonishing fifty men. Well, looking on the bright side, that's ten more than those who left in anger, so now the Starks are at + 10 fighting men. Of course, as Catelyn and Robb too, probably, realize, if he'd married a Frey their army could have had a much more substantial bonus. 

No, to be honest, this plot twist doesn't really work for me. Robb never seemed to me the guy who could do this. Is there any subtle foreshadowing I've missed that point to Robb walking into this trap of his own devising? Robb goes on to explain, but it doesn't really convince me - I mean, I "believe" it because it's what happens, but I have a hard time buying into this particular development precisely because there's been no build-up to it. It just...comes out of left field I guess. That's what the singers will call him a thousand years from now, you know. Robb Leftfield Stark. Or the Leftfield King. You can't miss Robb's second mention of taking an arrow in the arm, by the way. Jeyne treated him back to health (so that's where HBO got their own plot from with "their" Jeyne being a field medic). And so they did a little beasting and followed up with a marriage the day after. And here I thought it was Tyrion always thinking with his twig. Also, Robb tells her he got the news about Bran and Rickon being dead, and so he was in very much need of consolation, provided by Jeyne's moose knuckle (yeah I am really onto slang am I not?).

I'd buy this story if I could kind of experience it with Robb; be in his thoughts as he got that arrow in his knee arm, understand his motivations as Jeyne came to him to heal him and, ah, heal him some more, to be there when the Crag fell. But we only have Robb's recollections, and that I fear is too little for such an important plot development. I guess I've made myself clear on this issue.

Robb admits to having botched everything except for his battles; he admits he should have listened to his mother instead of sending Theon off. Boy I wonder how Robb felt when he heard that the Iron Islanders were attacking the North? The more I think of it, the more I'd like to have Robb's POV in this novel. Catelyn reminds Robb (and us) that the Freys are now grievously insulted, setting up the repercussion to come. Robb seems to think he might yet get out of this pickle, but Catelyn tells him that Walder Frey is an unreasonable man. They discuss back and forth, but Catelyn wins out; her arguments are stronger. 

Brynden reappears (the text - at least in the Kindle version I am reading at the moment - calls him "brother", which should be uncle), telling them to get a room. To discuss the matter at hand more privately, that is. Catelyn then asks Robb where Grey Wind is. It's a nice bit of dialogue right there, and shows us that Catelyn is sensing the supernatural link between man and beast better than Robb himself seems to do; when Robb says he's keeping the wolf away because it's growling and snapping and restless, Catelyn thinks, And there's the heart of it (...) There's a clue here too; "He bares his teeth every time Ser Rolph comes near him." In most stories the characters wouldn't think much more about it, but fortunately Catelyn immediately reads between the lines (so to speak) and begs her to send the knight away at once. There's a reason the wolf distrust the knight, Robb; Martin is spelling it out for us all. 

"Any man Grey Wind mislikes is a man I do not want close to you. These wolves are more than wolves, Robb. You must know that. I think perhaps the gods sent them to us. Your father's gods, the old gods of the North (...)" (who I happen to believe are the Children of the Forest; well, believe is perhaps the wrong word; it's kind of settled isn't it?) It's nice when a character for once sees through the crap and calls things out as they are. Robb agrees to keep Ser Rolph at a distance, and Catelyn is relieved. Now, no matter what happens down the line, Martin has efficiently planted a seed of doubt in our minds as to Ser Rolph Spicer, and by extension, the whole Westerling family. 

Me no like spicey scents
But the chapter doesn't end there (though I feel it should, perhaps, end now)! Next up Martin moves the scene to Lord Hoster Tully's private audience chamber, a small room above the Great Hall, where Robb takes the high seat and Edmure blathers about the fight at the Stone Mill. The Blackfish is tired of the man's boasting and, again we have a character calling things out for us, which feels good. Brynden tells Edmure he's boasting and even goes so far as to tell him he'd flay him for his stupidity. Seems both Brynden Blackfish and Robb Leftfield are displeased with Edmure, and they have the right to; he was supposed to hold Riverrun, not get out in the field to bloody Tywin's nose, sacrificing men against orders. A discussion follows, in which Martin drops a few details to keep us informed on battles and who is doing what where, and it also shows us that Robb is, as Catelyn noted early in the chapter, very much acting the king: "I told you to hold Riverrun (...) What part of that command did you fail to comprehend?" Edmure must be feeling pretty shameful getting this from his young, young nephew. I do wonder if this will also have repercussions. Consequences. Will Edmure betray House Stark? Become a dissenter? Seek someone who values him more? Who the hell knows?

There's a lot of talk here, about things going on elsewhere, and again I am caught feeling that we should have been shown all this stuff and not being told about it. Of course, A Storm of Swords would become very large and we'd probably be waiting for A Feast for Crows still...Catelyn wonders if Edmure is out for glory - again, Martin subtly shading Edmure's character. I will have to keep an eye out on this brother of Catelyn. He's a very well realized character, and he's probably not happy with being shamed like this. He wants to be a good leader, a hero perhaps even, and it seems to me reading this that he is more than a little envious of Robb's status. 

Sigh, I want to do something else now but the chapter just keeps going on dammit. Next, Catelyn tells Robb that he should stop looking to the south; don't worry about the Lannisters and the Tyrells, but turn north - where Theon Greyjoy sits in Winterfell. She's pretty blunt about it too: "Your first duty is to defend your own people, win back Winterfell and hang Theon in a crow's cage to die slowly." Guess she regrets being such a bitch to Jon all this time when she could have directed that anger at Theon. A chilling line from Catelyn here, the best of the chapter no less: "All that remains is vengeance." Hard words!

However, getting back to the North is no easy thing; there's Moat Cailin, and the Greyjoys control the seas and, snake bites tail, they would have to re-cross the river commanded by Lord Walder Frey's castle. Oh, how the story twists and turns, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. Robb and his host is trapped in the south when they really should be in the north; Edmure is being shamed; Lord Rickard is becoming a liability; Robb is foolishly in really doesn't bode well for the North any of it. 

"We must win back the Freys," Robb announces. He says he'll give Lord Walder whatever he requires, be it apologies, honors, lands, gold -- anything that could soothe the old dirty man, and the chapter closes with Catelyn countering that they can win him back not with something, but with someone. 

Plots within plots and all that aside, I kind of feel sorry for Robb too, you know. He's just a boy, trying to be king. And I feel sorry for Catelyn, who witnesses everything she loves and cares about being either destroyed or taken away from her. I even felt a little sorry for Edmure trying to do his best but not really managing anything worthwhile. The only one in this chapter that comes across as a little cardboard is Brynden Tully, who, compared to the other main characters here, doesn't feel as fully realized -as human if you will. 

Be very afreyd! Muhah.
Now what does Catelyn mean by someone? Is she suggesting Robb go off and marry a Frey anyway (by first annulling the marriage to Jeyne)? I believe that's precisely what she's thinking. Well, we'll see how all these complex political narrative strands are woven further. I obviously remember where it all leads - to a scene that any reader is unlikely to ever forget; but the journey toward that scene is just as interesting now on a re-read, seeing all the little details Martin conjures up that together form this incredible and incredibly entertaining story that is simply put unique. Laterz.

Hey! Now I notice that Forgotten Realms novel I'm reading is called Red Magic and not Red Wizard. No wonder I need to re-read books ten times, eh.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Increasing the Magic

Lovely Elmore-painting (D&D).
Over the last decade or so, beginning with my first readings of A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords all those years ago, my affection for fantasy literature and games has steadily become 'darker' in the sense that, especially in gaming, I've gravitated towards the fantasy that is dark and gritty. Where I before George R.R. Martin enjoyed Tolkien's works and had explored to some extent a couple of similar fantasies (The Wheel of Time, Conan the Barbarian and a few books based on the Dungeons & Dragons-license), after George I became more enamored by the grittier ways of fantasy. Following Martin's fantastic novels it seems that almost every kind of fantasy - be it literature, gaming, art - became darker and grittier, and that more novelists sought to subvert the tropes of 'classic' high fantasy as worn down by Tolkien's many imitators. 
In roleplaying games, more and more "dark and gritty" and "realistic" games were made, which in turn allowed Ice & Fire-fans to create games that ran closer to Westeros and the medieval age than, say, Middle-earth. 

At the time that I discovered Ice and Fire, I was running an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign set in a world of my own making. Gradually the setting, the stories and the characters became more similar to the way Martin portrays his fantasy world - dungeons and wizard's towers were replaced with politics and the struggle of the smallfolk, gods rising from the ground to smite the party replaced by grueling civil wars and murder and betrayal; characters became the focal point - in the end, the high fantasy that AD&D was geared towards could no longer serve us and we turned to the grittiest, most deadly RPG published (as far as I know): The Riddle of Steel, published by Driftwood Publishing. The game, unfortunately, is out of print but we've been using the system for many years and never looked back. There are a few additional books to the core rules - Of Beasts and Men, Companion and The Flower of Battle - and these have served my gaming group all the way. The system is perfect for Ice & Fire-style games as it focuses on character and its combat system seeks to emulate medieval sword fighting. It's a complex game, no doubt, with a number of flaws, but it allowed us to create an epic story - going on for six years in real-time - and it allowed us to create stories, characters and situations in the same style as Martin's novels.

Looking back on it, I see that I in several cases lifted stuff straight from Westeros; the characters served an order protecting a physical barrier in the landscape, for example - complete with black cloaks and cold environments (only they were in a mountain range separating the continent instead of a Wall); the complex family trees were also heavily influenced by how Martin handles these things; several Martin characters appeared in disguise, so to speak; and we loved playing it. The players knew that this was a harsh and unforgiving world, the odds were against them, but they persevered (well, one early character death aside) and there definitely was a palpable thrill to playing in a Westeros-like world. If you'd be interested in reading some campaign journals and setting descriptions from the first five or so years of our homebrew The Riddle of Steel game, you can check out 'The Empyrean Chronicles'. I kind of stopped updating it a long time ago, but there's some stuff there if you like reading other people's RPG stuff. 

The Fellowship of the Ring by the Hildebrandt brothers.
However, in the last couple of years we've moved apart and play only occasionally to advance the story, either by getting together for a weekend or running an evening's session using Google Plus and the excellent Roll20. At the same time, I've moved on from my Martin obsession and discovered Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont's fantasy world. This in turn has led to me introducing stranger elements to the story, slowly shifting a bit toward epic fantasy again. The Malazan world occupies a strange place between the two extremes; it is more epic and fantastic than Middle-earth, yet it also has that down and dirty quality of Westeros (in fact, it's even harsher at times). 

Now, I've met some new folks who live nearby and we've decided to roleplay together. The first time I met them, I introduced them to The Riddle of Steel but after the session I felt burned out on it. I thought at first that it was the complexity of the game and having to teach it to the new players that was making me less enthusiastic; then, when on the next meeting we tried A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, I realized that I felt just the same after that session. Then it hit me. I'm a bit burned out on the low fantasy grit; you can only play so many years before you've "seen it all", so to speak. With game worlds with little or no magic, no peculiar Tolkienesque races and a certain deadliness, you need a pretty strong story to keep it going and I felt perhaps that after so many years gaming in the blood-red mud of medieval fantasy, it was about time to seek...higher fantasy. 

So for this weekend, when I'm meeting the new guys again, I've asked for just one more game attempt before settling on what kind of campaign to run, and I've gone way back. I've dug up my old Advanced Dungeons & Dragons stuff and have spent a little time this week preparing a first session of a campaign set in the classic Forgotten Realms setting. Instead of an over-arching plot I'll go for the sandbox approach, starting off with a relatively small area and let the players go ahead and forge their legends. After many years of low fantasy gaming it will be hard, perhaps, to get into an almost Disney-like fantasy world full of silliness and implausibilities, but at the same time I long for that charming feeling of playing with those polyhedral dice, pull out those big maps from the tattered Realms box and just have fun with it. 

Digging up old school fantasy stuff. I loves.

It will be refreshing, I  hope, to not look to deep into character motivations, backgrounds, family ties; to not juggle distances and time and making sure everything is connected perfectly almost like a novel. Instead, I am ready to once again play foul Orcs and goblins and bash some player character skulls. Instead of intricate politics and warfare, I'll be content to let the players take their characters wherever they want, and do whatever they feel like and settle back and just enjoy some good old-fashioned epic fantasy. 

All this led me to think that the increase of magic throughout A Song of Ice and Fire is a good thing; if it were just as "medieval" all the way we might tire of the ramifications; with magic burgeoning, rules are stretched and as a reader you know that anything can happen. I do wonder just how far Martin will take the supernatural in the coming novels; if you read the recent Arianne preview chapter, it's written like a historical fantasy; substitute "Dorne" for "medieval Spain" and it could have been part of a historical novel - but of course there are many other POVs where magic is prevalent. Hey, the TV's on in the background and someone just said on History Channel that "winter is almost here". I'll take that as a sign.

Knowing me and my gaming ADHD, I'll probably hanker for some medieval fantasy next week. But first, the casting of spells and the exploration of ancient ruins filled with magical deathtraps! Woo! And who knows, maybe we'll end up seeing a fellowship of adventurers questing their way through Westeros toward the Others in the north, carrying magical swords, wielding mystical powers and ... hey, that could actually happen. Kind of.

Blood & Bone Done

Finally finished Blood and Bone, Ian C. Esslemont's fifth novel of the Malazan Empire, last night. It was a good read, at times great. Certainly Ian's best effort so far, and the book that feels the closest in style, scope and prose to the main sequence, Steven Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen

It's a typical Malazan novel in most respects - a veritable host of characters forcing me to flip back to the dramatis personae to be sure I know who I'm returning to, obtuse events and unexplained situations and characters, even a convergence of sorts, and all the trappings of the setting can be found. The big difference is that for the first time in a Malazan book location becomes more important, to the point that the jungle of Himatan becomes a character on its own, and in no other Malazan book does it feel so real and "there". I wish we could get as good a look at some other places in the series which are hardly described, like Quon Tali or Korel. In fact, one could say that the book's title, Blood & Bone, refers directly to the jungle of Himatan where large parts of the story takes place. 

As enjoyable as it is, like the other books in the series, I will need to re-read it to truly grasp everything. While I've grown accustomed to the tropes and style of these books there are still things going on that I simply don't catch on the first read and leave me scratching my head (and checking the spoiler threads over at Malazan Empire's forums). 

All in all, it was yet another entertaining trip to this amazingly complex secondary world, expanding our knowledge about the Warrens (which are treated almost game-like, mechanically in this book and less vague), the High King, the Crimson Guard etc. There are elements tying the story to both Erikson's prequel, Forge of Darkness, the books of the fallen, and Esslemont's other books. So now I've read sixteen volumes of Malazan lore. For each volume, it becomes more addictive, no matter how hard this series is to get into at first. But before you read Blood and Bone, I suggest you read Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice, House of Chains, Midnight Tides, The Bonehunters, Reaper's Gale, Toll the Hounds, Dust of Dreams, The Crippled God, Night of Knives, Return of the Crimson Guard, Stonewielder and Orb, Sceptre, Throne. Just saying.

Now I'm looking forward to the conclusion of Esslemont's Malazan novels, his sixth book, which will be a massive convergence of a number of plot threads from all his books.