Zoo City

Lauren Beukes Avoids the Sophomore Curse with Zoo City

Zoo City’s Only Fault? Inconsistent Awesome

Lauren Beukes' Zoo City; UK Cover by Joey Hi-Fi aka D. HalvorsenAt it’s core, if we strip it of most of its fantastical elements, Zoo City is a arguably just a crime drama – a so-called hardboiled thriller. Or so some blurb writers might have us believe – as well as whoever wrote Lauren Beukes’ Wikipedia entry. But even without the element of mashavi manifested as animals that criminals must bear as they go about their daily lives – imagine Hester Prynne having a scarlet ibis flapping along behind her throughout Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter – Beukes’ second novel is more than just a well-written thriller set in the seedier side of present-day Johannesburg.

Beukes, a self-described recovering journalist, has obviously put her Fourth Estate skills to work and put together an entertaining and rich yet subtle commentary on prejudice, culture and society interwoven with a work of gritty or realistic urban fantasy. Indeed, Zoo City owes more to Gibson and Gaiman than Tolkien and Lewis, to be sure. It’s also a credit to Beukes as an author that a work that could have easily been formulaic and derivative is actually original and eminently readable.

You People: Being Animaled in Zoo City

A bit of explanation is in order: Zoo City is set in an alternate present-day Johannesburg, South Africa. In the world of Zoo City, serious criminals are beset with their own specific animals that mark them as a criminal, making them a so-called “zoo.” In fact, in Beukes’ Jo-burg there isn’t so much prejudice between black and white as there is against the animaled – the zoos – from all quarters. The animaled are  “you people” in Beukes’ alternate world, regardless of the color of their skin.

Given that this is South Africa, many believe the animals attached to those that commit crimes are mashavi, the spirits of people that have left no descendants behind or whose descendants no longer honor or remember them. The idea of mashavi (that’s the plural, shavi is the singular) comes from the Shona people of Zimbabwe, or at least the term does; animism and belief in ancestral spirits is a traditional belief in many traditional African religions.

In any event, within the context of Zoo City, being animaled marks you in no uncertain terms in most people’s eyes, as we see through Beukes’ chief protagonist and first-person narrator, Zinzi December. Like her creator, Zinzi is a former and maybe would-be-again journalist. Unlike (presumably) her creator, Zinzi has served time in prison for a violent crime, and as such is animaled: she now lives with a metaphorical and literal monkey on her back. Only it’s not a monkey, in Zinzi’s case, but a sloth, and as result she lives on the margins of society, even though she has a college degree and professional experience, and has ostensibly paid her debt to society – but we all know how that works, real life or fictional.

Lauren Beukes' Zoo City; North American ho-hum cover artAnd it’s to Beukes’ further credit that she never actually resorts to that cliché about monkeys, backs and bad habits – implied, perhaps, but never stated. This, despite the fact that Zinzi is also an addict (or a recovering one, depending on your sense of semantics and vernacular).

Along with being animaled, being graced with a shavi also gives some people unique talents or skills akin to magic; in Zinzi’s case this is finding things that people have lost. As Zoo City begins, we learn that Zinzi uses this skill as her livelihood, since she is a marked woman in the eyes of society; the South African version of Vanity Fair (or its equivalent) is not likely to come knocking, looking for her byline.

When her current client dies unexpectedly before Zinzi can get paid, she reluctantly agrees to take a potentially lucrative missing persons job, something she ordinarily avoids. It just so happens the missing person is also part of a teenage popstar duo, and we’re off and running with our thriller plot, which is inextricably mixed up with mashavi and magic.

Didn’t Quite Get There: A Bit of an Anticlimax

In fact it would be difficult to have exactly the same thriller of a plot if we stripped away the mashavi; they are at its core. Nevertheless, if there is one disappointing thing in Zoo City, it’s the culmination of the plot. If we do take away the element of the mashavi, the climax leaves us with the standard, ho-hum stuff of pop-fiction thrillers.

But then it is Beukes’ talent that perhaps works against her in this respect; Beuke’s sophomore novel is so well done she perhaps sets up some unrealistic expectations. The characters in Zoo City are so wonderfully realized, the element of mashavi expertly woven into the otherwise common fabric of a seedy, urban backdrop — bringing something blessedly original to a crowded sub-genre – that one anticipates some mind-blowing, oh-my-gods-no-one-could-have-seen-this-coming climax to Zoo City.

And this is not to say that the climax is bad or not otherwise well written and realized, it is. It just doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the novel. Furthermore, this is also certainly not to say that you shouldn’t read it; you should; it’s nothing short of great stuff, particularly considering it’s only the author’s second novel.

Beaukes: Clarke Award Winner, Master of Metaphor

Zoo City is a winner of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award (I’m a nerd and keep track of such things as winners of Arthur C. Clarke awards; the master is still one of my favorites, too). In this interview with Beukes from the venerable science fiction podcast, Escape Pod – following the news of the award — one of the first questions the interviewer asks her is how she scored a book blurb from author William Gibson; the story of how this came about is particularly post modern.

Comparisons to Gibson and his contemporaries is perhaps inevitable, given the subject of her first book, Moxyland, it being an example of the cyberpunk science fiction, another crowded subgenre that Gibson himself helped define decades ago. I’ve read enough of Moxyland now to have a feel for it, but I have to say that it is Zoo City actually reminds me much more Gibson’s cyberpunk works, even though Beukes’ second novel is set in the present day.

While her writing style is somewhat akin to Gibson’s earlier works, it is the character, Zinzi, who is reminiscent of someone out of Burning Chrome or Neuromancer. Here we have someone who is existing on the margins of society, a member of a subculture that most people outside of it seek to either avoid or take advantage of. Here we have someone displaced by an omnipresent aspect of their culture and yet using the very same in order to get by – indeed, that aspect is inescapable; it drives much of the plot and characterization in Zoo City, as it does in Gibson’s cyberpunk works. In Gibson’s stories and earlier novels, that aspect was advanced technology; in Zoo City it’s mashavi.

In lesser hands, the mashavi and the colorful side of the Jo-burg tracks would overshadow Zinzi and the novel’s coterie – menagerie? – of other zoos; in the hands of a less capable author, Sloth would be a cutesy character that overshadows Zinzi. Fortunately for Beukes’ readers, neither is the case. Narrator Zinzi occupies front and center stage, albeit with Sloth – who is nevertheless a character in his own right – along for the ride.

In fact it’s surprising given her background as a journalist that Beukes seems to spill out such effortless prose as that in Zoo City; not all recovering journalists make good novelists. But it’s quite easy as a reader to become immersed in Zinzi’s world pretty much from the outset on page one:

Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears through my windows. My own personal bat signal. Or a reminder that I need to get curtains.

Shielding my eyes – morning has broken and there’s no picking up the pieces – I yank back the sheet and peel out of bed. Benoit doesn’t so much as stir, with only his calloused feet sticking out from under the duvet like knots of driftwood. Feet like that, they tell a story. They say he walked all the way from Kinshasa with his Mongoose strapped to his chest.

The Mongoose in question is curled up like a furry comma on my laptop, the glow of the LED throbbing under his nose. Like he doesn’t know that my computer is out of bounds. Let’s just say I’m precious about my work. Let’s just say it’s not entirely legal.

Only one more thing to say about this: hell yes. How could you not be hooked? By the way, you can hear Beukes herself read this passage in the Escape Pod interview.

And just in those few paragraphs, laden with a few but key details, we learn so much about Zinzi and her world. This is not a fluke; much of the novel unreels like this, bit by bit. It’s quite simply a pleasure to read.

Beukes also has a flair for interesting and colorful metaphor. This doesn’t always work, but it does much more often than not. And when it does, wow. For example:

Emmanuel’s grin drops from his face like a kicked puppy, bounces on the pavement and tumbles into the gutter with a pitiful yelp.


Mr. Huron, I presume, emerges onto the balcony with a flourish. He’s not so much a barrel of a man as a bagpipe, all his weight loaded in front …

Not so much a barrel of a man as a bagpipe. That’s … that’s brilliant; that’s brilliant, original metaphor. Color me green with envy.

Then there is this passage, when Zinzi tells Benoit that her current client died that afternoon.

“She died. Murdered, if you want to be technical. I was practically there and the connection just … withered up.” Saying it, I feel the kick in my gut again. Like a lost heart attack that’s wandered into my intestines by mistake.

It’s this flair for metaphor that brings Zinzi and her world to life, lending an actual flavor of realism to Zoo City, thankfully making that gritty urban world more than just a subgenre – or worse still – marketing label, in this case. To wit, Zinzi’s description of her first day outside of prison, after several years:

I spent most of that first day hiding inside the apartment, trying to figure out what my next move was. In prison, you can drift between claxons that regiment the day, just doing what you’re told, like a ball in a slow-mo pinball machine. I missed those claxons.

Okay, technically that’s a simile, but you still, you get the idea (yes, I’m a word nerd). This talent for metaphor is also one of the things that reminds one of Gibson. Just as he gave us a Chiba sky “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” the tiles of a dilapidated swimming pool in Zoo City “are chipped, the lapis-lazuli blue faded to a dull glaucoma.” Just as a Gibson character in Count Zero gave us meatspace as a metaphor for reality, as opposed to cyberspace (is it sad or cool that I know this off the top of my head?), Beukes’ Zinzi describes herself as “meat with faulty programming.”

I really wanted to believe that there were these magic celestial bodies that would direct my life, tell me what to do, and it turns out it’s not stars, it’s some bits of screwy DNA. I’m just meat with faulty programming.

Fortunately for us, Beukes’ meat is programmed with considerable talent for the written word.

Interested in Beukes’ first novel, the cyberpunk opus Moxyland? Follow that link.

Post script: As you may have noticed, there are two different covers presented here; one is the North American one, the other is the United Kingdom edition – the black-and-white one. I’d be curious to know why the publisher thought we needed the more standard cover here in North America – the artwork is fine, but it’s just a basic, standard pop-fiction cover. It wouldn’t stand out at all on a bookstore shelf.

The UK cover on the other hand, is quite arresting. In fact its creator, South African artist D. Halvorsen, won an award for the work at this year’s British National Science Fiction Convention for best cover art. Check out Halvorsen’s portfolio; it’s worth a visit.

Post post script: For some odd reason, the ebook edition I downloaded from Amazon – I pay for books from living authors, and you should too, if you are in a financial position to do so – has the North American cover, but the text uses spellings found in British English (presumably the standard in South Africa). What one English friend of mine once termed English English, as opposed to American English.

One could argue the efficacy of covers in the dawning age of ebooks, but we’ll save that for another time. As for English English vs. American English, well that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish (and chips, with vinegar, yum).

A Song of Ice and Fire: Part the Second

George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire:
The Long and the Longer of It

Seven Hells! Inconsistent prose and epic confusion

Editor’s Note: This is the second part — hence the title — of this review. To see the first part of the Ice and Fire review, go here.

The Wall -- the northern border of Westeros, in Martin's Ice and Fire, as portrayed in HBO's Game of Thrones.While its length allows Martin to delve deeply into some of his characters, others remain under developed or underutilized in the lengthy epic that is A Song of Ice and Fire.

Furthermore, this is only complicated by Martin choosing to narrate each chapter in a limited third-person point of view, from that of several specific characters for each book. In fact there are no less than 17 (!) characters who serve as narrators for multiple chapters, in addition to eight more who only get one chapter. I first read this on the Ice and Fire Wikipedia entry before I began reading the series a few months ago; I’m not sure I believed it. But now that I have the books in hand, I can verify that this is indeed the case. So it’s essentially impossible, or at least really difficult, to flesh out other important members of Ice and Fire’s considerable cast of characters.

The end result is that the characters you have come to know and appreciate in one book might not make an appearance in the next, or we only find out about their current fates in a tangential manner – one of the current book’s characters receives a report/rumor about another character’s adventures, accomplishments, or demise. It can be a little disconcerting for the reader, to say the least. In retrospect, I think Martin might have done well to utilize an omniscient third-person narrator; he still could have switched back and forth between the various plot threads and locations, ether from chapter to chapter or whole sections of a book.

Martin’s limited third person narrative is a further shame, too, because some of the most interesting characters are the minor ones that may only make occasional brief appearances in the story. While this is inevitable in a work of this scope, there are still several characters I’d like to know a bit more about.

Bronn the sellsword getting his fight on, as portrayed in HBO's Game of Thrones, based on the work of George R. R. Martin.Take Bronn, for example, Tyrion’s mercenary personal body guard who eventually gets elevated to the status of knight, gaining the appellation of “ser” in the lingo of Westeros (as opposed to “sir”) for his actions in defending a key holding in a battle for King’s Landing (the royal capitol). Ser Bronn’s not necessarily a sympathetic character, but he’s certainly an interesting one; alas we never get a chance to know what he’s thinking or what his motivations are. With an omniscient third person narrator Martin could have shed some light on these questions without necessarily adding significantly to the overall length of the story.

Littlefinger is another example. A major character introduced in the first novel, he plays a critical role in the third and fourth books. And yet, since he is never actually a chapter narrator; we never get inside his head. We only have a broad idea of his motivations from the recollections of others and his occasional dialog. And in case you are wondering, “Littlefinger” is a nickname based on the peninsula where his ancestral home lies.

On the other sword hand, this feudal cast of thousands is already difficult to keep track of, and that’s putting it mildly. There are often points, particularly in reading the latter works, where it is difficult to keep track of who is related to whom, and which knight did what or which lord or family is responsible for what domain. This gets even more complicated when we have many knights and lordlings and ladies with the same last name running hither and yon about Westeros on both sides of the game of thrones.

Martin provides lists of each family and characters in the back of the novels; they take up dozens and dozens of pages. I think some flow charts or family trees would also help. In fact there were times while deep into the third and fourth books of A Song of Ice and Fire that I consulted fan sites because I was confused about who Ser Dingleberry of the Long Pants was, and what it was he did or didn’t do in the various battles for the various thrones (at one point there are five declared kings in Westeros, if we include the deceased Robert – six if we include Daenerys and/or her brother, who is the heir to the throne prior to the revolution led by Robert nine years before the opening of the first book in the series).

And no, I’m indulging in a bit of hyperbolic parody; there is actually no Ser Dingleberry in Martin’s books (I think).

Sound confusing? It is.

But this is arguably an aspect of the genre; not even Tolkien is exempt – and I’m sorry Martin lovers, but Martin’s no Tolkien – as he can legitimately be criticized for the complexity of his elven and Numenorean family trees. I love and respect Tolkien so much that I read scholarly works and critiques of his oeuvre, but I’ll be damned if I even I can ever keep straight all of the various Fëanors, Finrods, Fingolfins, Finarfins, Fingleberries, Fimbulbs and Fiddlefarts, etc. and so forth, by the time I get to the end of Silmarillion. For the casual reader it’s difficult enough remembering that Pippin is a fool of a Took. So perhaps we can’t quite fault Martin for this, but casual readers of fantasy (those who’ve never been to a con, for example) should consider themselves warned.

The book’s length also contributes to unevenness across the span of the first four books in terms of the prose. I would guess that this has more to do with editing and publishing schedules than Martin’s technical writing prowess. Particularly in Game of Thrones and Clash of Kings, the first two books, there are delightful turns of phrase and vivid expository descriptions. To wit:

“Ned had known their faces as well as he knew his own once, but the years leech at a man’s memories, even those he has vowed never to forget. In the dream they were only shadows, gray wraiths on horses made of mist.”

This is, of course, describing a dream that Ned Stark tries to recall the next day, a dream about his youth.

Even in the later books, we are treated to passages such as this, told from the point of view of a direwolf possessed by a human in his dream – a warg:

“He could feel the high stone calling him. Up he went, loping easy at first, then faster and higher, his strong legs eating up the incline. Birds burst from the branches overhead as he raced by, clawing and flapping their way into the sky. He could hear the wind sighing up amongst the leaves, the squirrels chittering to one another, even the sound a pinecone made as it tumbled to the forest floor. The smells were a song around him, a song that filled the good green world.”

A lovely description, to be sure. But in the latter two books of the series the reader is at times subjected to unwieldy prose and metaphors that just don’t work; if I had to hazard a guess I would say these books were ushered quickly through production, as these are things any reasonably good editor would catch and fix, given time adequate to the task – that’s what a good editor does. Here’s my “favorite” example from Feast for Crows:

“Her face had been stone before he spoke; then it hardened.”

Er, what? I understand what Martin is trying to convey here, but it doesn’t quite work; what’s harder than stone? Diamonds, I suppose, but that would make for a silly metaphor. Rather, if we simply rearrange the sentence to read: her face had hardened even before he spoke; then it turned to stone, I think it works much better.

Another example from Storm of Swords:

“The tower stood upon an island, its twin reflected on the still blue waters. When the wind blew, ripples moved across the surface of the lake, chasing one another like boys at play.”

Um, er, boys at play are erratic. They run around in random, chaotic directions, like noodles in boiling water – not marching like neat, compact waves riding at specific, regular intervals across a lake. Perhaps if there were stiff winds switching and swirling back and forth, causing little white-capped waves to crash into one another like boys at play, that might work.

Now before any Martin fanboys get their panties in a bunch, let me add a caveat here: I think anytime you’re writing such a large work, there are always small (yet significant) problems like this. No, I’ve never written a 1,000 page novel (yet), but I’ve written pieces for print and online pubs that get into thousands of words. It is a problem even then, so I can imagine it is multiplied many times over when we’re talking about a series of interconnected novels.

I would say it just goes with the territory when you’re writing hundreds or even thousands of words a day, in a work that is some tens of thousands of words (or in Martin’s case, hundreds of thousands of words) in length; these kinds of nit-picky errors must be somewhat commonplace in the best writers’ work – in the first draft. Again, this isn’t so much a criticism of Martin’s writing as it is his editors and publishers; I think it’s obvious these last two texts in the series were a bit rushed, given the huge popularity of the first two.

Another editing nitpick I’ll throw out here, to both Martin and his editors: more (logical) paragraph breaks, please (at least in the ebook editions). There are some horrendous walls of text in Ice and Fire (I know, I know, pot and kettle, black, etc.).

Nitpicking the Expository Necessities

Another issue with the length of the series, complicated by the fact that it is ongoing for another planned three books (for a total of seven), is that while each is written more or less as a standalone novel, they are clearly written as part of a whole. Some subplots get tied up more or less neatly from book to book; others just seemingly taper or off or get left hanging, ostensibly to be picked up in an ensuing book.

Furthermore, while I’m sure Martin’s tale has grown with the telling, as Tolkien put it, clearly he’s had the main plot ideas in mind for Ice and Fire from the start. As a result, there is some repeated expository passages in the later books, here and there, to tie things together for readers who may not have read one of the previous books. I’m nitpicking here, to be sure; for someone who has already read the previous books, it’s a minor annoyance at best. But I think all readers would have been better served with a “story so far” synopsis at the beginning of each book following the first one – one that readers in it for the long haul could skip.

This would also better serve readers coming into the series in the middle; it would give them a chance to get to know the major characters better. It would surely be very difficult for someone who may have picked up the third or fourth book by chance to understand some of the characters and why they are doing what they do or are in the situations they are in, in the later books – Samwell Tarly and Arya Stark come to mind, for example.

But this last is a trifling matter, really, in the larger scope of this very large tome; most readers of this work will naturally start at the beginning – particularly now that Game of Thrones has become a series on HBO.

It’s Not (Splatter) Porn (But Sometimes It Seems Like It’s Trying)

Tyrion gets laid ad infinitum in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. Here he is portrayed in the HBO series Game of Thrones, based on Martin's work.Editor’s Note: There are some naught words ahead. If that’s a problem, stop reading — and if you’re that conservative in your sensibilities, A Song of Ice and Fire ain’t for you. Better had back to Narnia.

In the 1990s I remember picking up a magazine of questionable repute called Future Sex whenever I went to the tattoo parlor, piercing shop, or alterna-coffee shop — I know, big surprise, eh? A Song of Ice and Fire could be subtitled Feudal Sex.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But I could also suggest that the series ushers in a new fantasy subgenre called “sword and gore,” or “(flesh) sword and debauchery” (as opposed to sword and sorcery, for those that need it spelled out) and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration. There’s plenty of each in A Song of Ice and Fire. While it’s not as gratuitous as some critics might have you think, some of it, quite frankly is plainly gratuitous. If this is a problem for some readers, they would do well to avoid the series. But generally speaking, the sex does serve either plot or character development. Take the following for example:

“Tyrion put down the candle, took her hand in his, and pulled her gently to him. She bent to kiss him. Her mouth tasted of honey and cloves, and her fingers were deft and practiced as they found the fastenings of his clothes.

When he entered her, she welcomed him with whispered endearments and small, shuddering gasps of pleasure. Tyrion suspected her delight was feigned, but she did it so well that it did not matter. That much truth he did not crave.

He had needed her, Tyrion realized afterward, as she lay quietly in his arms. Her or someone like her. It had been nigh on a year since he’d lain with a woman, since before he had set out for Winterfell in company with his brother and King Robert. He could well die on the morrow or the day after, and if he did, he would sooner go to his grave thinking of Shae than of his lord father, Lysa Arryn, or the Lady Catelyn Stark.”

Here we learn some important things about Tyrion. At this point we already know that Tyrion is extremely intelligent and nobody’s fool. But here we learn that he’s not always the cold and calculating intellectual cynic; we learn that he can be a bit sensitive – as opposed to the ravishing whore monger he might have us believe otherwise. Not to mention the fact that he’s like anyone else; he craves the comfort of a warm body in his bed the night before a day that could be his last. And yet he’s intelligent enough not to fool himself, at least deep down, about the nature of a prostitute’s expostulations of love.

Indeed, it is through his sexual relationship with the camp follower Shae that we gradually come to learn about Tyrion’s childhood and one of the turning points early on in his adulthood. It is an event that comes back not only to haunt Tyrion, but his siblings and father as well. So arguably some of these sex scenes are necessary, and more interesting than just having a narrator tell us what’s going on in Tyrion’s head. This is one of the cardinal rules of creative writing, after all: show, don’t tell.

On the other hand, a few books later we have this scene between Tyrion and Shae:

“Tyrion turned to look. … The hidden doors are here somewhere, they have to be. That was as much as he had time to think, before Shae turned his head to kiss him. Her mouth was wet and hungry, and she did not even seem to see his scar, or the raw scab where his nose had been.

Her skin was warm silk beneath his fingers. When his thumb brushed against her left nipple, it hardened at once. ‘Hurry,’ she urged, between kisses, as his fingers went to his laces, ‘oh, hurry, hurry, I want you in me, in me, in me.’ He did not even have time to undress properly.

Shae pulled his cock out of his breeches, then pushed him down onto the floor and climbed atop him. She screamed as he pushed past her lips, and rode him wildly, moaning, ‘My giant, my giant, my giant,’ every time she slammed down on him. Tyrion was so eager that he exploded on the fifth stroke, but Shae did not seem to mind. She smiled wickedly when she felt him spurting, and leaned forward to kiss the sweat from his brow.

‘My giant of Lannister,’ she murmured. ‘Stay inside me, please. I like to feel you there.’ So Tyrion did not move, except to put his arms around her. It feels so good to hold her, and to be held, he thought. How can something this sweet be a crime worth hanging her for?

‘Shae,’ he said, ‘sweetling, this must be our last time together. The danger is too great. If my lord father should find you …’ ‘I like your scar.’ She traced it with her finger. ‘It makes you look very fierce and strong.’ He laughed. ‘Very ugly, you mean.’ ‘M’lord will never be ugly in my eyes.'”

At this point I think we could have skipped the sex and cut straight to the important dialog. The reader knows long before now that Tyrion’s father has forbidden him to bring Shae to King’s Landing, and yet he has. The reader also knows that the current plot line is coming to a head. Clearly here is an example of gratuitous sex; it’s certainly not the only one.

Besides, much as I really like the guy, I really don’t need Tyrion having sex in my mind’s eye for the upteenth time. That’s not a knock against dwarves per se; more a matter of aesthetics — I’m sure no one would want to see me having sex either, for that matter, myself included. Then again, if that turns your screw — noseless dwarves having sex with wanton young women in a eunuch spy master’s bed (no, really, it’s all in Ice and Fire), you’re in luck: popular fiction  is now catering to your desires. No longer must you hide in shame in the dark.

Anyway, as for violence, well, it’s an epic story about war; war inevitably involves killing – typically the removal of people’s blood and guts from their bodies, and occasionally limbs and heads as well. Like the sex, sometimes what we see as the reader is necessary for reasons of plot and characterization; at other times, it is arguably war porn, I suppose. At times as I read Ice and Fire I would catch myself thinking “Yes, yes, we’ve covered this. Battles with swords involves lots of gaping wounds, spilled guts,  chopped off limbs, caved-in skulls, etc. etc., and the smell of  blood and shit. Got it. Let’s move it along.”

But I wouldn’t say that Martin goes to extremes at every opportunity; in fact one of the best battle scenes in the book involves little to no gore, and is yet one of the most gripping and well written battle scenes in the whole series to date in A Storm of Swords.

Here John Snow, bastard of the Lord of Winterfell consigned to the Night’s Watch because of his illegitimate status, ends up commanding the remnants of the Night’s Watch as they defend Westeros’ northern border – dubbed The Wall for good reason – against a Wildling attack on the one open gate within the Wall. Here Martin takes us inside John’s head and let’s us experience every aspect of the battle, from the tension before it begins, to the constant rise and fall of adrenaline and exhaustion during the fighting, to the shell shocked yet emotionally intense and difficult aftermath; there’s nary a stringy bowel or spurting, severed limb or neck to be seen.

When Martin’s on his game, it’s good stuff.

And in Conclusion (Seven Hells, It’s About Time)

George R. R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire series, as captured by photographer David Shankbone.So, if you made it with me this far, you probably don’t need a summation. Nevertheless, here it is (this is the way they teach you in writing school). George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is not without merit; quite the opposite, in fact. At times it is a ripping good example of the realistic or gritty fantasy subgenre – gut and bodice ripping, that is. But it is not without its weaknesses, although these generally don’t detract so much from the end result as to make it significantly less enjoyable – at least not to the point that you wouldn’t want to read it. But don’t expect the perfection of an epic life’s work.

Furthermore, one more warning: if you’re troubled by gratuitous sex, violence and ambiguous morality, Ice and Fire is not for you.

P.S. If you’ve seen the first two episodes of the Game of Thrones television series on HBO and are considering reading the books now, I think it’s safe to say if you like the show you will like the books well enough (assuming you like to read, that is). I think the show is more or less true to Martin’s work, at least so far (as of this posting, HBO has broadcast the first two episodes).

Like most literary works brought to the screen, I think it’s inferior to the written work – although it works much better as an ongoing series, rather than it would have as a movie or even a series of movies. Would that Lord of the Rings had been given that treatment; then perhaps Peter Jackson wouldn’t have butchered The Two Towers quite so badly. But that’s another wall of text for another time.

P.S. II, Electric Boogaloo: All of the photos in this post are from promotional/press materials from HBO to promote its series, Game of Thrones, which is based on Martin’s Ice and Fire books.  Except that is for the author’s photo above, which was cadged from Wikipedia courtesy of photographer and scribe David Shanbone.

P.P.P.S. I made it to the end before I made a joke/reference to Pat Benetar’s Fire and Ice. This opposed to Ice and Fire. Is that why Martin called it that?

P.S., The Reboot: I’ve already linked to the Wikipedia entry for A Song of Ice and Fire somewhere above or in the first part; here it is again. It’s a handy reference for both new readers and veterans of the series. Also an excellent fan site/invaluable resource is The Tower of the Hand, especially this awesome map of Westeros.


A Song of Ice and Fire

George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire:
the Good, the Bad, the Debauchery

Grit, gore, grime and gams make for busy knights

The covers of the first five books in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire realistic fantasy series.What better way to inaugurate Barking Book Reviews than a review of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series? It’s immensely popular within the fantasy/sword-and-sorcery genre among both readers and critics; the various books in the series have all been nominated for Locus, Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards; the first in the series, A Game of Thrones, won a Locus award. The fourth book, A Feast for Crows, debuted at no. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list upon its initial publishing in 2005 – the first fantasy genre book to do so.

As if that weren’t enough, the fifth book in the series, A Dance with Dragons is already listed among the top 10 fantasy ebooks on Amazon.com; it was sitting at no. 10 as of this posting. The thing of it is, that’s just for preorders; it won’t be published until later this year in July.

Then there is the television series based on the first novel in Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones, that just debuted on HBO a few weeks ago. This is bringing Martin new fans judging by the appearance of the books in various book sales lists.

As for myself, I just finished the fourth and most recent book in the series, A Feast for Crows, and am looking forward to the erstwhile fifth book in the series, some six years in the making.

A confession: I’m a little skeptical of the gritty/realism movement in fantasy; if you can’t write well in the first place, trying to be gritty or modern isn’t going to help. Yet it seems many authors use this as a crutch, and manage to get published. But if I may indulge in a bit of grit myself: all the mayo in the world can’t turn chicken shit into chicken salad; would that it could. Plus … realistic fantasy – bit of an oxymoron, that. Furthermore, while I do not read a lot of fantasy and sword and sorcery, the authors I do read, I tend to read closely. In fact, I’m enough of a Tolkien nerd that I read scholarly critiques and annotated versions of his works.

But generally speaking, Martin does gritty better than others. At times over the course of the books (so far) he does get carried away with the grit – not so much in the first book, Game of Thrones, nor in the fourth one, Feast for Crows, both of which are fairly taught narratives. This is particularly true when they are compared to the middle works, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords; in these two there is plenty of gratuitous sex and violence. Now I like sex and violence when it serves to move the plot or characterization along. And there’s nothing wrong with gratuitous sex even when it doesn’t do those things – if it’s well written and titillating. The sex in Martin’s works isn’t particularly titillating – he probably shouldn’t forsake fantasy and science fiction for erotica – so some of the gratuitous sex is a bit annoying and distracting, at times. More on this later.

A Song of Ice and Fire: the Short of It

Warning, a HUGE WALL OF TEXT ensues — in two parts, no less; an epic in which each part spans hundreds of pages perhaps deserves a critique of several thousand words. Plus there is a huge wall on the northern border of Westeros, so this is apropos.

Want to skip it? Let it suffice to say that perhaps Martin doesn’t always do gritty realism as well as it could be done (but at times he does), but it is a cut – a detailed, bloody one from groin to collarbone that causes bowels and other assorted entrails to fall out – above the standard bookshelf fare when it comes to quote-unquote realistic fantasy.

And if you like fantasy and sword-and-sorcery epics, and you’re okay with the aforementioned grittiness and gray ethical areas, Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is definitely worth a read. It’s not without its faults, some of them considerable and some potentially deal breakers for some readers. But on the whole this epic is an enjoyable diversion, reasonably well written (usually) and at times even thoughtful.

On the other hand, if you want your fantasy more traditional – beautiful and immortal elves, elderly but powerful wizards, magic spells and charms, shining white knights skilled at swordplay and damsel rescue, orcs, goblins, dark lords specializing in ultimate evil and world domination, etc. – with clear boundaries between good and bad – A Song of Ice and Fire is not for you. And that’s not to imply that modern fantasy with those elements can’t be good (just look at Tolkien, the author who started us down this road). Rather, you simply won’t find it in these books of Martin’s.

The Long of It: The Strengths of A Song of Ice and Fire

One of the things that recommends Martin’s series and makes its considerable length justified is its characterizations. One of the things that proponents of gritty, realistic fantasy often cite about this genre – I suppose it’s probably considered a full-fledged subgenre, at this point — is that, like real life, seemingly nothing is black and white; there is no ultimate good and no ultimate evil.

You will find no Aragorn, Gandalf or Frodo in Westeros, the small continent (or perhaps a portion of a larger one) in which the majority of Ice and Fire is set. For that matter, you won’t find Sauron, Nazgûl, orcs, goblins – nary a hobgoblin, even. There are giants riding mammoths, dragons and the seemingly implacably evil “Others” but they are largely in the background of these first four works – although Martin uses the Others, an ancient evil that hasn’t been seen in Westeros in thousands of years, to bring about several pivotal scenes/plot complications in the third book, A Storm of Swords – not to mention the prologue of the first.

Yes, magic is there in Westeros and the mysterious, exotic lands to the east across the Narrow Sea, but it is in the background. In the foreground we have several dynastic families at the pinnacle of a feudal system reminiscent of medieval Europe – lords, ladies, servants, knights, lusty wenches and washer women, learned men in robes – there’s even an analog to the early Catholic Church, as well as the Old Gods, which are clearly analogous to Druidic beliefs (although unlike their real-world counterparts, these two belief systems don’t seem to be troubled with one another). In fact, while Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has been praised for being original in terms of fantasy, one could argue that in many ways it gives us a trite and stereotypical view of medieval Europe – but then, this isn’t a history lesson but popular fiction.

The cover of George R. R. Martin's A Clash of Kings.All of these families are warring for control of their various lands and ultimately, all of Westeros. Indeed, as many others have remarked, it reminds one who is familiar with British history of nothing so much as the War of the Roses and its aftermath; Henry the VIII would have been quite at home in Westeros – and probably would have fared much better than Martin’s King Robert, a fellow epicure. Certainly Henry would be quite at home with the heads that constantly roll from torsos in Ice and Fire.

Again, there are no elves to be found, and the dwarves are, well, really dwarves, as in people who fit the clinical, medical definition of a dwarf, as opposed to those of German mythology and Tolkien, et al. And unlike Tolkien’s dwarves, Martin’s Tyrion, a dwarf central to the ongoing plot of the entire series, can be valiant in battle, but only because he’s left little choice; it’s certainly not his idea of a pleasant way to pass an afternoon. As Tyrion himself says shortly after his first battle near the end of Game of Thrones:

“No, I’m done with fields of battle, thank you. I sit a chair better than a horse, and I’d sooner hold a wine goblet than a battle-ax. All that about thunder of the drums, sunlight flashing on armor, a magnificent destriers snorting and prancing? Well, the drums gave me headaches, the sunlight flashing on my armor cooked me up like a harvest day goose, and those magnificent destriers shit everywhere.”

Gimli he most certainly is not – although they largely seem to share the same opinions on horses.

Tyrion: Everyone’s Favorite Dwarf

Tyrion is one of the best examples of the in-depth characterization we find in Martin’s Ice and Fire. While in some respects the series’ length is a weakness, its length does lend itself to some in-depth character development. As for Tyrion, being a dwarf in a feudal society – even being the scion of House Lannister, one of the most powerful families in Westeros – is surely no easy thing.

He is a major character of the first three novels, and presumably will return in the fifth. When we first meet Tyrion he is seemingly drunk, debauched, cynical and more than a tad pompous, not to mention ugly, Martin tells us – he’s known even among his immediate family as The Imp – but we quickly learn in the span of a few chapters that there is more to Tyrion Lannister than his stature and cynicism might suggest. He realizes that as he has no means to be a champion of arms, like his brother Jamie – reputedly one of the best in the realm – his mind must be his weapon; it is his wits that he wields instead of a sword.

Over the course of the first three books we get to watch Tyrion wield his wits quite effectively as he navigates the politics inherent to the game of thrones, not to mention that of war and family; Martin also draws out Tyrion’s painful history in bits and pieces, as the debauched dwarf of the initial chapters becomes one of the most interesting and complex characters of the entire series. Indeed, many of the principal characters of the book remain one dimensional – granted, those characters tend not to last long, however, so I won’t name names – spoilers are the bane of a potboiler review, and at its core Ice and Fire is nothing if not a political potboiler. You’ll just have to take me at my word. But Tyrion becomes a fully fleshed character, and I confessed I missed his absence in the fourth book.

Fortunately, as relayed on on fan site Westeros.org, it seems Tyrion will be one of the character narrators when the fifth book, Dance With Dragons is published.

Jaime: One of Many Lannisters We Love to Hate

The cover of George R. R. Martin's A Storm of Swords.Serving as somewhat of a foil to Tyrion is his brother Jamie; he is everything Tyrion is not: literally a knight in shining armor that exhibits unparalleled prowess with sword and shield, and the object of many a maiden’s fantasy. He is the golden boy of House Lannister and the pride and seeming protege of its partriarch, Tywin Lannister (one of the aforementioned one-dimensional characters, he is almost a stock bad guy: intelligent, rich, cultured, manipulative, cold and evil; if Henry the VIII would feel at home in Westeros, Tywin Lannister would feel right at home in Tudor-era England, and probably in the offices of a modern-day global business conglomerate).

In fact, we quickly see that Jamie is despicable, and even evil. Again, details would only give away major parts of the entire story arc. Let it suffice to say that Martin establishes Jamie’s initial character quite early on in the first book.

And yet, over the course of the next three books, things happen to Jamie that change him – it’s not a dramatic change (although the events that drive these changes are) but a gradual one that Martin couples with glimpses into the recent past as well as the childhood that he shared with Tyrion and their sister, Cersei (the queen of Westeros at the time Game of Thrones begins, and really the spiritual heir of Tywin Lannister, as opposed to Jaime).

In fact, by the end of A Feast for Crows, Jamie, if not a sympathetic character, is at least not the one-dimensional, sick and despicable golden boy of A Game of Thrones; he becomes one of the more interesting and complex characters in the series. Furthermore – and this is a credit to Martin as a writer, in as much as his characterizations go – by the end of the fourth book it’s actually kind of hard not to like Jamie, at least a little bit, in spite of the awful things he does early on. We learn that he is not quite so single minded or as self centered as he seems and even displays a dry, self-deprecating humor in the face of diversity and life-threatening situations – again, I can’t say more without spoiling a major plot complication.

It is this humor, more than anything else, perhaps coupled with a sensitivity that one wouldn’t have thought he possessed – he’s almost downright philosophical by the end of book four – that makes Jamie likable, and even sympathetic (at least to me; I’m sure many others would disagree). With the house of power that Tywin Lannister built beginning to crumble – okay, bit of a spoiler, that, sorry – by the end of the fourth book, I found myself hoping that Jamie would escape the apparent worst of it to come in the books ahead – despite the fact that he undeniably deserves it.

There are other fully-realized characters as well. There is Arya, for example, the tomboy daughter of House Stark that serves as foil to her older sister, Sansa. Sansa ascribes to be a lady and dreams of being queen; she entertains fantasies of being courted by chivalrous knights and the magic of the royal court (at least she does in the beginning; later on she becomes … less than enamored, shall we say, with these ideas). Arya, by contrast, dreams of being a knight herself with sword in hand, dispatching her enemies with martial aplomb. Then there is Brienne, the warrior maid of Tarth; she could easily have been a stock hottie warrior maiden character and it’s to Martin’s credit that she is not.

The cover of George R. R. Martin's a Feast for Crows.Now I won’t presume to offer a feminist critique of A Song of Ice and Fire here, although that would certainly be interesting examination and discussion. Furthermore, I don’t think that anyone is going to mistake Martin’s writing for that of Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy or James Tiptree. But I would claim that there are more fully-realized female characters in this tome than one would perhaps expect, especially given all of the wenching, raping, pillaging – that gritty realism – and so forth.

In addition to its in-depth characterization, the series’ length lends itself to its political potboiler plot and subplots. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is arguably also an historical epic, albeit a fictional one. Needless to say it would be hard to squeeze into one standard novel-sized work all of these fully realized characters along with the sweeping milieu of warfare and politics that spans generations and sweeps back and forth across a continent – not to mention all the beheadings, bebowelings, hangings and raunchy medieval sex and rape. In this day and age when many readers seem to equate literary quality with quantity (sadly enough), Martin undeniably delivers on this score (each book in the series gives even the wordiest Leon Urises of the literary world a run for their word count) – and more or less reasonably competently.

Here ends the first part of the history of the War of the Ring Jeff’s review and criticism of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. The second part is called The Two Towers the same thing, but with a Part II appellation; it looks at the not-so-good aspects of Ice and Fire.