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The Books that Ate Camp NaNoWriMo [A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin]

August 23, 2012

I was going to do Camp NaNo again in August. June hadn’t been much of a success, I didn’t make it halfway to 50,000 words, and I was determined to do better in August.

Then, foolishly, I went on Amazon, late in July. I wasn’t even going to buy a book. I had just tracked down a film I’d seen half of as a kid, and was ordering the DVD so I’d finally know how it ended (side note, The Dragon Ring was indeed the half-seen, half-remembered film I’d been looking for, has some hilariously bad “special effects” but I can totally see why I enjoyed it as a kid. Definitely keeping that one.) But DVDs don’t get free shipping, and books do, so I decided to order a book as well.

And ordered A Game of Thrones.

I’d heard a lot about the A Song of Ice and Fire series, but had never gotten around to reading it (unless you count the first few pages that I read while waiting for the Tad Williams reading to start in a Viennese bookshop last autumn), so I figured I might as well give it a try.

Not one of my better ideas. I should have waited for September.

Because once I’d started, I was unable to stop. Work was difficult at that time. I didn’t want to work – I spent all morning wishing for lunch break, so I could read, and all afternoon wishing for going-home time, so I could read some more. And it took all my self control not to sneak off to my locker and read a bit in between.

When I’d finished A Game of Thrones, I immediately rushed off to the biggest bookstore in Big Town, the only one with a decent selection of English books* to pick up A Clash of Kings. I would have bought the rest as well, but they were out of the third volume, so I didn’t.

When I went to pay, the cashier took one look at it and said, “oh, great, now I’ll have the tune from the tv series stuck in my head for the rest of the day!” and went on to tell me that he was also just reading the series in English, and how great it was. I could only agree.

This was just before I left for the Netherlands – I’d thought I’d spend some time on the train writing, but no. A few hundred words, but then I again succumbed to temptation.

In the train from Düsseldorf to Amsterdam, I had the bad luck to sit right behind a group of drunk, noisy guys – loud talking, loud music, as annoying as it gets. A bachelor party, as it turned out, and the husband-to-be was supposed to kiss as many women as possible while his friends filmed him. (Side note, if my fiancé – not that I have one – behaved so rudely on a crowded train, the wedding would be off!) I slouched down low in my seat and hid my face behind my book.

I almost made it to Amsterdam without them noticing me, but only almost. Suddenly, two or three of them where standing over me, camera in hand. I slouched a little lower, raised my book a little higher and mumbled something along the lines of, “go away, I’m reading.” That wouldn’t have stopped them from trying to get me to kiss the soon-to-be husband, if one of them hadn’t suddenly leaned past the others and asked, “What are you reading? Is that A Song of Ice and Fire? I’m just listening to the audiobooks! They’re awesome! What volume is that? What scene are you reading just now?”

The upside: nobody was asking me to kiss a drunk stranger.

The downside: now I had a drunk stranger leaning over my seat, breathing into my face as he babbled at me, and just not noticing that he was invading my personal space and I did not want to talk to him.

I would have been happy to discuss the book with a stranger. No problem at all – probably fun, even. But not with a drunk stranger. I really do not like drunk people.

Finally, finally we arrived in Amsterdam, and in the mad scramble for luggage and exits, I managed to escape…

Memorable moments that will forever be preserved in those books. Annoying as this particular encounter was, it’s still another point on the list why I prefer print books over e-books – e-books are rather less likely to spark conversations with strangers, be it at the bookstore check-out or on the train.

I would have loved to see what other conversations the books would have led to, but soon after I’d returned home and bought the rest of the series (and had another little chat with the same cashier), I fell ill. Which was annoying, because it was warm and sunny and I would have loved to go swimming, but on the other hand, whenever I felt awake enough, I could read, read, read, with no work getting in the way. Or even any chores, because I had a quite good excuse for not doing them, not being able to get up without getting dizzy.

So I read, read, read. On Sunday morning, the day before I went back to work, I finally finished the last few pages of A Dance with Dragons (and no, I didn’t plan it that way. It might have been convenient, but honestly, I hate sick leave. I’d rather work, and be able to go outside. Also, I missed medieval dance.)

And now…

Now I’m trying to figure out what I think about them.

They’re long. That’s the most obvious thing about them. Five volumes of about 1000 pages each, so if you’re new to the series, be prepared to spend a lot of time in Westeros.

They’re unputdownable (as you’ve probably noticed by now). Well, that’s a subjective thing of course, but I could not stop reading them. Not even when I got to borrow my friend’s review copy of The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams, and Tad is my favourite author. There’s just always something going on, and so many balls up in the air, even if one character should be temporarily save, there’s always another character to worry about.

I quite enjoyed the world, and the way it is presented. Well, admittedly, I do have a bit of a problem with this “seasons that can last years” thing… how does that work? And if seasons last for years, how is a year defined? But I’ve learned to accept or ignore a lot of crazy stuff since I started reading fantasy, so it’s not that big a problem. And there are plenty of things I like. It’s a large, rather detailed world, but G.R.R. Martin doesn’t shove that in your face from the start. The world is introduced slowly, bit by bit, and the maps are expanded and grow more detailed from book to book. That was something I really appreciated, because the more cluttered the map is, the harder it is to find something, so it’s nice to be able to learn the locations of the main towns first before they become obscured by less important places on the map.

Similarly, the history of world and characters is introduced slowly, bit by bit. It’s a lot to keep in mind, so I’m still a bit confused on some points, but I’d rather be confused than having everything shoved into my face. Heck, I’m confused about a lot of real-world history as well, so it just adds a bit more realism!

One thing that usually bothers me a bit is having both real and made-up names for characters. But G.R. R. Martin repeatedly mentions the different groups that have settled in Westeros over the course of time, so it seems logical that they would have brought different kinds of names to the continent. Works so much better than what Paolini did in the Inheritance Cycle, tagging on a note at the end saying something like, “oh, by the way, Alagaësia was settled by different groups of people at different times, so that’s why there are all sorts of names.” – one of my pet peeves with these books!

People die. Lots of people die – lots of nice people, too. I had been warned about it, and it’s true: G.R.R. Martin lets you fall in love with characters, and then he kills them. I don’t know how often I’ve sat there thinking, “oh no, you didn’t!” … and yes, he did. Except one time he didn’t. And dead people don’t necessarily stay dead. Not something I usually approve of, but I suppose if one of the big threats to your world  are undead people in the north, it makes sense to have living corpses in other places as well… And then he leaves us with one of those “oh no, you didn’t!” moments right near the end of the fifth book…  if, when the next book comes out, it turns out he actually did kill that character (not mentioning names here, because I know I hate spoilers), I think I’ll be bawling.

The language can be crude. Another thing I’d been “warned” about, but honestly… I do, apparently, talk “like a lumberjack”, so it’s not like it bothers me.

What did bother me a little, though, was the way some words/expressions were used over and over. I guess they weren’t used that often, considering we’re talking about 5000 or so pages, but near the end, I was beginning to think, “if I read ‘nightsoil’ or ‘much and more’ or ‘or near enough as makes no matter’ one more time, I’ll scream!” I don’t know why it bothered me so much, but it’s the same thing as with translations, I guess, I’m just very sensitive to language… and I also don’t like repetitions. People asking me to repeat myself make me want to scream, as do people who say the same thing over and over. (Which doesn’t stop me from making the same jokes over and over…)

There are an awful lot of characters. But I did astonishingly well at keeping track of them all.  I’ve sometimes thought I’d lost the ability to remember a large cast, but apparently not. I think I like Arya best (I have a soft spot for characters with Rebellious Princess Syndrome… living vicariously, because I was never very rebellious…), but really it’s hard to decide. I care enough about all of them that I had to keep reading, keep reading, to make sure they’d be OK. Or not.

There’ll be a long wait for the next book. Another thing I’d been warned about and had I forgotten. About halfway through A Storm of Swords, I remembered, “Oh yeah, that was why I was going to wait…” Well, nothing to be done about it now, I can’t un-read it. But somehow, this waiting-for-the-next-book thing was a whole lot more fun when I was in school and everyone was discussing what might be happening in the next Harry Potter book.

Map comparison – A Game of Thrones and A Dance With Dragons. It’s not as in-focus as I’d like, but I think you can see A Dance With Dragons has a lot more names on the map.

There’s probably more that could be said, but those are the main things that come to mind. Overall, great, well-written books, but not a series I’ll reread often. I will definitely reread them when books six and seven come out, because I’m sure I’ll need to refresh my memory, but not in between, and probably not after for a long time. Because rereadability for me is determined by scenes that make me happy, and there are precious few of these with characters stumbling from one unpleasantness to the next, and half of them dying along the way… I guess that puts it on about the same level as Robin Hobb’s Tawny Man trilogy, a little below Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Which I really need to reread, and would if I weren’t halfway through The Dirty Streets of Heaven, with half a dozen unread books waiting for me…

Speaking of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, I read somewhere that G.R.R. Martin mentioned this as an inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire. I wonder if I would have noticed it if I hadn’t known, but at the beginning of A Game of Thrones, there were a few scenes that reminded me of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Particularly Bran climbing the walls and roofs of Winterfell. I remember smiling to myself and thinking, “aw, isn’t that almost like Simon at the Hayholt!” – but before I could feel too warm and fuzzy, unpleasant stuff happened, and the fleeting similarity between Bran and Simon was gone. But, for that one moment, it was there, one of the few happy moments in the entire series.

And don’t even try to tell me that it’s coincidence that there are two brothers (mentioned a few times) called Josua and Elyas, when Memory, Sorrow and Thorn has Josua and Elias as rather important characters.

I’m sure I could think of even more to say, but I think this is long enough as it is, and I’ve said all that matters. Who does really need to know that I have a soft spot for Tyrion because I’ve got a brother with a growth disorder, or…

… no really. I’ll shut up now and go to bed. I need to be at the airport in about 26 hours, and I haven’t packed a single thing yet, or watered any plants, or decided which book to bring with me.

_____

* I don’t do translations. I occasionally make the mistake of buying a book in translation, and most of the time, they make me want to claw my eyes out (see the last section in this post, after the last picture). For A Song of Ice and Fire, the decision was mostly based on bookshelf space and money – in German, each book has been split up into two volumes, making it ten instead of five so far. But just a brief look at the translation brought me to the claw-my-eyes-out point, when I read the translation of “Casterly Rock”. “Casterlystein”… seriously? I can’t stand language mish-mash. “Casterly” is not German. It does not look or sound German. Please, just don’t do this. It hurts.

Oh well. I will probably never be entirely happy with any translation, so I should just not read them. Admittedly, I do wonder what they did with all the, “my name is Reek, it rhymes with …” lines in A Dance with Dragons… but do I really want to know? (Much as I love rhymes and puns, from the point of view of a translator – I used to translate Harry Potter for my family while we waited for the “official” translation – they are a pain in a certain body part!)

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