Monday, September 13, 2010

Winter is Coming...Err, Next Spring, That Is

There is supposed to be a trailer here. Click Read More to watch; it's there but it isn't displaying on the main page.

George R.R. Martin's dark fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire is probably near the top of the list of post-Tolkien fantasy when it comes to popularity. Unlike the two series I would consider its closest competitors - the late Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time and Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun - as an utterly irrelevant side note, Gene Wolfe also invented Pringles, which is amusing because he looks rather like the Pringles man without hair. But unlike the dense, overwhelming, psychologically driven memoir of a possibly mentally ill ruler of the world and his creepy sword that Gene Wolfe wrote, and the increasingly enormous Tolkien-meets-Herbert-meets-Tolstoy epic that Robert Jordan wrote so long he died of it, Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire as a trilogy of byzantine intrigue, resurgent magic, vengeance, justice, fire, blood, and the most likable characters getting screwed over constantly by the same attributes that make them likable.

But you see, because Martin is a fantasy author, a trilogy was too little. Unable to cap it after the first 2400 pages, Martin announced upon the release of the third book, A Storm of Swords, that he was extending the series to a seven-part epic. This news was met with surprise on the part of those who ASoIaF had introduced to fantasy and a resounding we told you so from everyone else. But there were quite a number of people who got into fantasy from ASoIaF, because, considering its doorstopper size, it is a remarkably accessible story - far more so than, say, Stephen King's The Dark Tower, a work of similar length and scope. And now it gets an HBO series, to be released Spring 2011.

Some spoilers may follow. The big one won't, obviously, because it's big.

So. The thing you have to realize about George R. R. Martin - apart from the fact that he has been steadily increasing the interval between books to the point where some fans are genuinely worried that he might die before the last three are released - is that he once famously commented on The Lord of the Rings that "Gandalf should have stayed dead."

Even taking into consideration that he calls LotR one of his favorite stories - it was with such sentiments in mind that he set about creating the expansive world of A Song of Ice and Fire, where seasons can last for years at a time; dragons and wizards are roundly scoffed at as vanished legends; and the primary concern of most of the main characters is not defeating an evil overlord but rather crowning themselves rulers of a rather backward continent that everybody else in the entire world thinks of as a land of ice, snow, and sheephumping barbarians.

As various factions scheme to win control of the Iron Throne and winter approaches for the first time in nearly a decade, the ancient, decrepit order of warriors known as the Night's Watch mans a seven-hundred-foot-tall Wall of ice against encroaching hordes of wild men...and perhaps something worse than mere men. The king, the legitimated usurper Robert Baratheon (to be played by Mark Addy), travels to the northern citadel of Winterfell to approach his old friend Eddard "Ned" Stark (Sean Bean - no, really) to take up the position of Hand, or chief advisor, in the stead of their deceased foster-father, Jon Arryn (John Standing). Meanwhile, Ned's wife, Catelyn Tully Stark (Michelle Fairley, also to play Hermione's mother in the next two Harry Potter movies) receives a letter from her sister, Jon Arryn's widow, Lysa Tully Arryn (Kate Dickie), that Jon was murdered by the queen, Robert's wife, Cersei Lannister Baratheon (Lena Headey from 300).

Now this is a difficult situation, since Cersei is accompanying Robert to the north, along with her twin brother, Jaime "Kingslayer" Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the man who killed the previous king, Aerys II Targaryen, and thus won Robert the throne. However, since Jaime was sworn to serve Aerys, he is thought by pretty much everyone to be an honorless murderer, and only the influence of he and Cersei's father, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), keeps him in the realm's good graces. Also accompanying these two is the fearsome Lannister-allied warrior Sandor "The Hound" Clegane (Rory McCann) and the third Lannister sibling, the dwarf Tyrion "The Imp" Lannister (Peter Dinklage).

But wait, there's more. All is not well in Winterfell even without this talk of kings and Hands and murder. As the Stark motto goes, "Winter is Coming" - and not just literally. Ned's eldest - but illegitimate and therefore unable to inherit - child, his son Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is dissatisfied with his lot, realizing that he will only ever be second-in-command to Ned's heir, Robb Stark (Richard Madden). Jon Snow - not to be confused with Jon Arryn, whom he is named for - wishes to join the Night's Watch. And of course, the other Stark children have their own domestic problems with each other and who various much older people are scheming to marry them off to.

Even more: on a completely different continent, the son and daughter of the dead king Aerys live in near poverty, trying to survive as exiles in a land that holds no respect whatsoever for deposed royalty. Prince Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) plots to marry off his younger sister Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) to the barbaric, Genghis-Khan-esque Dothraki Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) in the hopes that Drogo will give him the army he needs to reconquer the Targaryen kingdom that Robert successfully usurped fifteen years ago.

And this is just in Book/Season One. I haven't even mentioned some of the main characters by name, such as Robert's younger brothers Stannis and Renly; Ned's good daughter Sansa and less-good daughter Arya and unwisely adventurous son Bran; the entire Great House Tyrell and Great House Martell, who despite the similarity of name hate each other and are on poor terms with the throne; the shamed knight Jorah Mormont who guards Daenerys; the obligatory but utterly likable scheming bureaucrat Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish; Cersei's suspiciously malicious son Prince Joffrey Baratheon; Ned's ward/hostage Theon Greyjoy and the entire clan of quasi-Viking reavers that does not care about him as much as he likes to think; the Hound's brother Gregor "The Mountain That Rides" Clegane, the amorally charming mercenary Bronn; the fat and unfortunate but genuinely intelligent in a world that badly needs it Samwell Tarly; the fire-witch Melisandre; the smuggler-turned-knight Davos Seaworth; the unfortunate girl-who-would-be-a-knight Brienne of Tarth; the Commander of the Night's Watch, Jeor "The Old Bear" Mormont, Jorah's estranged father; the creepy old man Walder Frey - I haven't even gotten to the end of the second book yet, and I'm going to stop before I run out of italics.

Now you're confused, and you should be. Martin's world is enormous and complex, not as complete or staggering in scope as Tolkien's Middle-Earth or Wolfe's Urth, but no less ambitious and in many ways just as strange - the unnaturally-long seasons, in particular, are a remarkably interesting piece of world-building that exists in no other fantasy world I can think of - unlike in Lewis' Narnia, where a single season is unusually prolonged by way of magic, the strangeness of ASoIaF's seasons is just part of the world - and far more important than it initially appears. But it can get oppressively large at times, and it doesn't help that all the characters have about three names, if not four, and a bunch of them are named after each other.

Sean Bean enjoying a day of vacation
Dies your interest? Well, I've already rambled on long enough about the glories of the series and its adaptation (created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, with a good deal of input and praise from Martin himself) - so I will just say this: if you can get through the end of the first episode - and from the early script drafts we know that it has quite an ending - you will probably want to keep watching. It's an HBO show, after all; the ludicrous amounts of colorful medievalesque swearing, colorful medievalesque gore, colorful medievalesque sex, and colorful medievalesque battlefield atrocities and murderous intrigue can keep pretty much anyone's attention. I mean, it's got Sean Bean, ffs.


I know I'll be there in spring 2011. Winter is coming, a few months late. We'll be trying to review episodes as they come - television is film too, after all.

1 comment:

  1. I'm ludicrously excited for this. If you figure out a way to get your hands on it without, you know, having HBO... let me know.


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