Thoughts on reading: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin is book one of A Song of Ice and Fire which features in my top ten favourite books of all time. This is the third time I’ve read it and this time I was able to get past the awe and look at the writing. Well, sometimes. There was still a lot of awe; I love this book and its sequels. I can’t wait for the next one, A Dance of Dragons, and I can’t wait for the HBO series coming next year.

So, getting over the love, what did I notice about the writing? First of all, there’s a lot of backstory in the early chapters. It’s very tightly related to the story of the novel and is actually quite sparing. There’s enough to create the sense of a large world with a rich history, without overwhelming current events. It’s usually done a few sentences at a time to add detail but occasionally, one of the POV characters spends a few pages reminiscing. There are two things that I think makes this amount of backstory work. One, chapters are organised by POV and there are a lot of POV characters. This means that each character can give a bit of backstory relevant to them and that past events can be perceived differently by different people. The reader gets to piece together backstory from several versions of the same event. The second thing is that the backstory stays relevant to the POV character. They only tell the reader what matters to them. Every piece of exposition is doing at least two jobs; it’s adding backstory as well as giving characterisation or world building.

The other thing that Martin does really well is characters. His POV characters are great but one expects that. It’s the little characters, the ones that only appear once or twice, the ones that only have a tiny role. They are invested with as much personality and uniqueness as any of the main characters. There is not one that is a cardboard, cookie-cutter character.

He also has a lot of description in the novel. His locations are vividly realised. Again, this information isn’t dropped on us in one lump. Each character has something to say about where they are which builds up to a detailed, solid setting. The description is put to work to support characterisation and theme. I noticed that I tend to skip over description as a reader, as I want to get to the action, so I tried to slow down and pay attention to the descriptive writing. It’s made me think a lot about how I can improve that in my work-in-progress.

All in all, this is a masterpiece, from one of the greatest fantasy writers there is. I loved it as much the third time round as I did the first time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Left Hand of Darkness

I put The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin up for my book club to read. There was a point before I’d read it where I was getting worried that it would be really hard going, because two people had given up on it only a few pages in.

But I have two hours of commute and I was determined to see it through to the end. As I am quite interested in gender representations in literature and keen to avoid problematic stereotypes in my own writing, I felt that this was an important book to read. Le Guin sends a male protagonist, Genly Ai, as an ambassador to a world in which people are not defined by gender. Each person has a monthly cycle in which they are sexually active for about a quarter of the time and pairings change into male/female pairings depending on the interaction of hormones between them. Every person will be male sometimes and every person will be female sometimes. Every person will be both father and mother.

The first third of the book is hard going. There is fantastic depth to Le Guin’s worldbuilding and there’s a lot to take in. The narrator of this section, Genly Ai, is also highly unreliable, although that doesn’t become clear until later in the book. While reading it I was disturbed by the judgements Ai was making, in particular the negative qualities he clearly identified with the female. The book was written in the late sixties and reflects a very stark correlation of masculinity and positivity. I’d like to think that is less true today, but perhaps it’s just less boldly stated.

Anyway, the world that Ai is visiting is split into nations and there comes a point at which Ai goes to another nation. Here the book changes. Another character, Estraven, becomes a POV character. Through Estraven’s eyes we see things differently and realise just how unreliable Ai is as a narrator. The pace of the story picks up and in the last half is quite the adventure story.

I was awed by Le Guin’s worldbuilding. Her world is worked up from the bottom meaning that everything is different and new and we can’t make any assumptions. After having read so many fantasies lately where the worldbuilding has been quite superficial, this was both inspiring and intimidating! The writing is wonderful; I really enjoyed the lush, detailed language. The characterisation is subtle and effective. If was going to make any criticism it would be that the various voices could be more differentiated, but it’s a tiny point. The Left Hand of Darkness is amazing; go and read it now.

For non-fiction I read A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage, which looks at beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola and their impact on society. It was entertaining, easy to read, and offered a unique way of looking at history. I learnt stuff I didn’t know before which is really what I’m looking for.

Priestess of the White

Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan is not a small book. It’s the first part of a trilogy and is a massive 650 pages. The first hundred or so of these pages made me feel that finishing it would be a chore. It didn’t turn out to be, but I can’t say it turned into a real page turner either.

Priestess of the White is an epic tale of religious war between the good White and the evil Black sorcerors from the south. Problematic. I tried very hard not to draw conclusions about who was supposed to be good and evil, but in the end I was left with the idea that the author was deliberately employing stereotypical symbolism. White equals good, kind, just, true and right. Black equals evil, trickery, cruelty, lies and wrongness. These days I’m not comfortable with these racist constructions.

Compounding this are the inevitable religious parallels. Again through the use of familiar symbolism White is associated with christianity (good) and Black with paganism (evil).

I don’t know if this was deliberate on the part of the author or whether this was a case of lazy worldbuilding. Much fantasy is based on historial societies and transfers the insitutions, economics and social dynamics wholesale. Done well (e.g. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch) this can provide a solid base for a recognisable and believable world. I think that a lot of care needs to be taken that the fantasy world is more than a thin veneer.

Done badly, it becomes hard for the reader to immerse themselves in the fantasy world. I was wondering if it was meant to be allegory and thinking that if it was, it wasn’t clear what Canavan was trying to say.

Characterisation was okay, in some respects quite superficial but better than some stuff I’ve read recently. The same goes for the writing. It was unsophisticated but not the worst I’ve read lately. It did pick up as the story got going. By and large, Canavan avoided big chunks of exposition, which was nice. Overall, I felt that it lacked depth and in a book of this length that’s a real problem.

I think I will read the rest of the trilogy at some point because there were some ambiguities in the ending that suggest that Canavan is preparing to subvert and confound the assumptions she’s set up. I would really like to see that.

The non-fiction interlude was Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour that Changed the World by Simon Garfield. This was fascinating, full of lots of interesting things to know and less of a biography than an exploration the impact of the discovery of synthetic colour.