Review: Game of Thrones, Season 2

Game of Thrones Promo ImageI really meant to review this ages ago, but it had the misfortune of airing at pretty much exactly the start of the shittiest part of my year, and I didn’t really review much of anything (or do much of anything) for a good while after that. But we’re coming up to the second year anniversary of this blog, and I find I just can’t let the year pass without paying tribute.

You guys know I like A Song of Ice and Fire, and you know I enjoyed HBO’s landmark first season of it last year (had, indeed, been waiting with anticipation for it since the end of Rome). It’s expected that I was going to enjoy the second season, I guess, but it’s no exaggeration to say that I was completely blown away. In almost every facet it was even better than last year. Part of that is because the source material is better – A Game of Thrones, the novel, is a slow burn that I probably would have given up on if not for the insistence of a friend that I had to keep reading. By A Clash of Kings many of the characters are established and we already understand a bit about the history and politics of this vast and complex world. In addition, we meet a number of new characters, including Brienne of Tarth, the fearsome and fearless women who has forced recognition of her fighting ability, gaining the status not only of knight, but of Kingsguard to Renly Baratheon. She’s one of my very favourite characters, and her relationship with Jaime Lannister becomes an increasingly compelling read.

But the success of Game of Thrones, season 2, is not solely down to the progression of the books and the development of the characters in the source material. Many actors who gave memorable performances in the first season out do themselves to become truly sparkling in season 2. Peter Dinklage won a well-deserved Emmy for his role as Tyrion Lannister last year, but his performance this year was even better. It isn’t simply that we get to see him perform in award winning episodes like ‘The Battle of Blackwater’ but that his performance is so masterful. ‘Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!’ he declares, and you understand how the Half-man could win the support and loyalty of a bunch of disillusioned and dispirited commoners who have just seen their king run to hide in his mother’s skirts. For there is not merely bravery, but regret and fear in his tone. Dinklage portrays not only the intelligence, but the honour and the sadness of Tyrion. I loved this character in the book, but Dinklage has made the role his own – it’s a different Tyrion, in some ways, but I like it:

Lena Headey surprised me with the strength of her performance as Cersei in this season. Not quite at the heights that she would reach in her role as Ma-Ma in Dredd 3D, but strong, and in my opinion notably superior to her performance last year. I felt that she had relaxed into the role and really begun to understand Cersei. Again, I feel the need to draw attention to scenes from ‘The Battle of Blackwater’ – that episode was undoubtedly designed as a special effects extravaganza, but the quieter scenes away from the battle itself are not to be dismissed. The scenes between Cersei and Sansa (Sophie Turner) as they hide with the other noble women, waiting to find out if they will be raped and slaughtered, are claustrophobic with their sense of helpless imprisonment. And Cersei’s bitterness at the way she has been robbed of power, as a woman, seems to slowly permeate the room like a toxic fog – increasing with every glass of wine she drinks:

It’s masterfully done. I wrote quite a bit on Cersei and Sansa and the different representations of women in season 2 over on my Tumblr back in June. This was in response to Laurie Penny’s article that basically accused Game of Thrones of being sexist for all the wrong reasons. Because, all the praise aside, it is problematic, and if you’ve read any of my Read Along with Rhube posts on A Dance with Dragons you’ll know just how much I’ve warred, personally, with its issues. Baseless accusations like saying that Game of Thrones is just a ‘racist rape-culture Disneyland with Dragons’ do nothing but embarrass the author of the article. And it’s important to know the difference precisely so that the accurate criticisms don’t get silenced in the knocking down of the straw man. You couldn’t get much less Disneyland than Game of Thrones, and whilst it does tackle the issues of rape-culture head on, you can hardly pretend it endorses the world that supports them. However, the books of the Song of Ice and Fire series are considerably more problematic. The treatment of Daenerys, in particular, is often presented for titillation rather than critique. And let’s not forget that at the start of the series she’s meant to be thirteen. It’s all kinds of skeevy, and that’s why I’ve forced myself to write so extensively in critique of these moments in reviewing A Dance with Dragons.

Even so, it’s important to discuss such treatment in the context both of Daenerys’s growth into a formidable woman (and one clearly damaged by her experiences) and the other female characters. A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones are both notable for a range of female characters rarely seen in books or television. Women are not simply ‘strong’ or ‘weak’, they are multifaceted, fully rounded characters, many of whom express strength in very different ways: Brienne, the formidable knight; Arya, the determinedly ungirly-girl who is also becoming a skilled fighter; Cersei the queen, politician, manipulator; Catelyn, the honourable lady and ferocious matriarch; Daenerys, the wise and powerful girl-ruler, leading an army of disparate peoples to conquer a world, take back her birth-right, and challenge the slavery she herself was sold into; Margaery Tyrell, great beauty and canny political mover, who declares that she doesn’t want to be a queen, she wants to be the queen; Asha/Yara Greyjoy, capable of leading fleets of ironborn in a way her brother, Theon, could never hope to; even Sansa Stark – feminine and meek, but enduring with quiet dignity what she cannot change and showing a different kind of strength in sticking to her values in a hostile world. And there are many, many more.

As Cersei holds forth on a woman’s power residing in her sexuality, there is in no danger of this defining a view of women for the books or for the show – it is undercut both by Cersei’s obvious dissatisfaction with her lot in life and by the many and varied ways that other women have been shown to have power. We see the precariousness of power based on beauty in this season as Margaery Tyrell emerges as a rival to Cersei’s beauty – a younger rival – and Cersei is faced with men, such as Stannis, who cannot be seduced.

As to the accusation of racism… there might be some more truth, there. There’s certainly a presentation of savagery in the dothraki people that might seem indicative of a supposition of barbarism in non-white races. And I’m not entirely comfortable with the parroted phrase ‘It is known’ which seems to be almost the only thing the women of the dothraki are capable of saying – it rings of a lack of knowledge and a culture that discourages questioning and learning. One could read Daenerys as an unusual female example of the white man come to teach the ‘natives’ how to do their culture better than they do it themselves. I think there may have been an element of that at first, but I feel like there are also some significant differences from that archetype. Daenerys does not enter the culture possessed of power and confidence in some alternate ‘white’ norms. She is a lost and broken child who never really knew the culture that birthed her. She has a romantic memory of the ‘house with the red door’, but it’s a childish memory, barely connected with anything concrete. She does not force a home in this other culture, she learns it and adapts to it as a mechanism of survival. As the books go on we see her act as chameleon in several different cultures, and she makes many, sometimes grievous, mistakes as she tries to force her values – her dream of an abolition of slavery – on others. Slavery is wrong, but marching in with an army and demanding that a culture abandon central elements of its identity and economic structures can have catastrophic consequences.

Moreover, if one is inclined to cast the dothraki in the stereotype of savages, one can hardly say that all the races and nations outside of Westeros are presented as ‘uncivilized’. We haven’t seen much of them yet, but by modern standards the ‘Free Cities’ in many ways show more aspects of what we might call ‘civilisation’ from a ‘western’ point of view. Volantis is a democracy, Braavos is religiously tolerant and has outlawed slavery, as has Pentos – not much is known of the other city states, yet, but there’s some interesting discussion on the Wiki of Ice and Fire about them.

There is, perhaps, a case to be made for exoticism of other cultures. Here I feel like I’m not on a stable ground to make a judgement. My instinct is to say that there is always an element of exoticism in fantasy worlds. Part of the appeal is presenting cultures that differ from our own with a sense of wonder. Westeros itself is a somewhat exoticised view of medieval feudalism. Yet, there is no question that we are encouraged to identify with the white, European-like, faux-Britannia as the central locus for point of view action. To an extent the Daenerys plotline is unusual in fantasy novels in basing one of the major plots in completely different, non-European-like cultures, and it does allow for more non-white characters that are not ‘evil’ than you see in the average Hollywood show or Anglo-American novel. But equally, her plotline is the most exploitative in terms of titillation and presentation of other cultures for spectacle. I don’t know. I don’t feel confident making a call in this area as I’m aware of my own privilege as a white European, but my instinct is to make the same call as for the sexism issue: A Song of Ice and Fire is problematic, but does good things as well as bad, and, on the whole, Game of Thrones, the TV show, does its best to tone down some of the more problematic elements (see my discussion of the ‘Qartheen dress’ below).

Returning to the topic of the presentation of female characters, I can’t not stop off to tip a hat to the glorious Arya Stark. Arya’s story develops along new and interesting lines in season 2. Her plot takes a darker turn as she is forced to try and survive in war torn Westeros, concealing her gender for fear of what would be done to her if it were known that she is a girl. She travels with young boys and hardened criminals, heading for the Wall and learning to hold her own. Witnessing death and torture she begins to build a list of people she will kill one day as a coping mechanism, and having saved the life of the assassin, Jaqen H’ghar, she uses his debt to her to begin wreaking vengeance. We also see her treading a careful line in Tywin Lannister‘s shadow. This is sheer invention – a contraction of events from the books to enable a more digestible format for our screens – Tywin and Arya never meet like this. Yet it works; Maisie Williams and Charles Dance make captivating verbal sparring partners, creating for Tywin a charm he didn’t really have in the books, but which works very well for the TV series.

Daenerys Targaryen in the TV series version of the Qartheen gownAnother change from the books that I very much appreciated was concerning the notorious Qartheen dress. In the books this marks an uncomfortable and inexcusable exoticism mixed with misogyny. This is a style of dress that indicates the exotic nature of Qarth by having it just so happen that the women of Qarth traditionally walk around with one breast exposed. A breast that is described in loving detail. There is no obvious reason why the people of Qarth would favour such a style, and whilst some cultures do favour bare breasts, this usually comes with a more relaxed attitude towards nakedness that makes breasts a much less fetishised body-part than they are in much of the so called ‘developed’ world. Such an attitude does not seem to be present in Qarth, and it’s pretty clear that the reason why this outlandish fashion is the way it is does not lie in some flavour of world-building colour, but in seeking to titillate the (presumed male, heterosexual) audience. In case you can’t tell, I found these passages pretty sickening, in the book. It is to Game of Thrones‘ credit, then, that they chose to redefine the Qartheen gown to look like this (above). She still looks stunning, as is only right for a character described in the books as the most beautiful woman in the world, but she’s not in the least bit over-exposed. Rather, this is a dress that exudes strength – complete with metal power-shoulders – at the same time as enhancing her beauty. This dress says that being beautiful does not render a woman weak.

Brienne and CatelynBut lest we start thinking that the message is that ‘only bad witches are ugly’, let’s recall that this series also features Brienne of Tarth, or ‘Brienne the Beauty’ as she is mockingly called. At 6ft 3in, Gwendoline Christie was inspired casting for Brienne, and you can see that they made full use of the camera’s bag-o-tricks to enhance the height difference between her and other characters. Moreover, Christie reportedly put on 6.5 kilos of muscle for the role, enabling her to cut a truly impressive figure as a fighter. Granted, the Brienne from the books is described as considerably more ugly than Christie could hope to be, but her awkward gait and clear lack of typical female mannerisms marks her out in a way that one could see might well be judged unattractive to the men of her world.

It’s wonderful, then, to see the shift in perspective on Jaime’s face when he sees her fight and kill for the first time. He realises that she’s no joke – she might even be his equal, and few men could say that. I’ve always felt that the most interesting thing about Jaime is that, whatever else he may be, he’s a good fighter. He always seems more comfortable talking to people about battles and fighting, and on screen we can see him visibly relax when the conversation turns to such things, as he finds himself on firmer ground. In this way, Jaime is able to respect Brienne as he has no other woman, in the area that matters most to him.

Season 2 shows us just the beginning of what I’m hoping will become the Brienne and Jamie Very Bloody Buddy Movie, which is basically what I’ve been calling season 3 in anticipation. I can’t wait!

It’s not all squee. I can’t say that I’m a fan of how Melisandre has been presented. Not that I’ve ever really been overly fond of the character, but I didn’t think her relationship with Stannis needed sexing up the way it was. Apart from anything else, it’s completely out of character for Stannis. Whether you agree with his principles or not, Stannis is all about doing what’s right, and even if he doesn’t show much affection for his wife, having an affair with his priestess doesn’t seem like his style. It felt like the producers just saw another pretty woman they could get naked, and I couldn’t help but feel that this is a show with enough of those already. I like a bit of sex in my fantasy, but I prefer it in character and less exploitative.

The other big changes that I haven’t mentioned concern the ‘Battle of Blackwater’. In the books, Tyrion’s stroke of genius is not simply making use of Cersei’s stock-piled wildfire, but in trapping Stannis’s ships with a massive chain across the harbour, preventing escape. It’s a shame, as it’s a striking element in the books and a mark of Tyrion’s strategy, but you can see why it was cut. Blackwater was always going to be difficult to stage, and they went with the most dramatic looking elements to portray. It worked. The other significant change is that [spoiler] Tyrion’s nose doesn’t get chopped off. He does get a slice across the face that leaves him with a (supposedly) disfiguring scar, but losing half his nose becomes such a big issue for Tyrion in the books that it does seem like a slightly more problematic departure. Some people have said they thought the make-up would have been difficult to achieve, but I’m not convinced. I’ve seen noseless people/monsters on screen before. I suspect that it had more to do with keeping the face of one of their most celebrated stars intact than anything else. I don’t mind too much. I imagine it would have been difficult to look at a gaping wound like that, and I enjoy Peter Dinklage’s face the way it is, but I had half-hoped for a more gutsy move, there.

Aside from that, however, it really was an impressive production. I finished every episode bereft, like I could have continued watching forever. For quite a while after it had finished I really wasn’t sure how I was going to make it until next year. Of course, I have managed to fill my time with other things since then, but it’s undeniable that Game of Thrones has become a televisual experience not quite like any other.

Read Along with Rhube 9: A Dance with Dragons, Chapters 17 & 18

(Index to previous ADwD posts is here.)

Bear with me if I can’t remember things’ names – I’ve just had a job interview and am wedded to a computer away from home whilst my phone charges. I’m too wired to do my research, so I’m doing this for you guys – I just can’t, you know, access my massive book to check things.

Chapter 17: Jon

You’ll be pleased to hear that I enjoyed these two chapters a lot more.

In Chapter 17, Jon checks out the food stores the Night Watch has set aside for winter. They’re really impressive, but not impressive enough – not with Stannis’s men and a bunch of wildings to feed.

Speaking of Stannis: he’s wanting to get some action going – rockin’! With the Boltons heading South he likes the idea of taking one of their strongholds, but he doesn’t have enough men. One dude has pledged his allegiance on the condition that he gets Mance Rayder’s head for a drinking cup, because he’s classy. Even then, he’s not willing to fight other members of his house if they should meet on the battlefield, and some of his family have declared for one of the other sides. Stannis’s knights are keen to take up the offer and rock on down to the stronghold, but Jon, who knows the area better, knows this to be foolish. He’s got a better idea, which he gives to Stannis on the condition that Stannis leaves him the wildings to man the Wall: woo the mountain clans. It’ll take longer, but could garner Stannis 3,000 more men.

Also, Lady Melisandre has made a ‘gift’ of a wildling dude (I think?) named Rattleshirt (maybe?), who apparently hates Jon, but is now under Lady M’s control.

I liked this chapter. The strategies and debate were really interesting. Stannis is actually going to do something. Maybe. In a bit.

I’m still bored to tears with anything to do with Melisandre – she’s just too much of a walking cliche, and even the promise of mind-control isn’t making this plotline sexy for me – but she didn’t dominate the chapter. It just a shame she’s not going to leave with Stannis when he departs. The only other thing that bothered me is that Jon seems to have suddenly gained a whole lot of tactical information about the houses and politics of the far north. I know he’s been levelling like crazy, but it is a bit like he spent his points in Northmen Lore having gained them in Wildling Fighting. I can appreciate that he was raised by Ned, and Ned knows these people, but I somehow doubt he had quite the same education on the matter as Rob. Rob, I would expect to know this shit. Jon, I would expect to have general thoughts about it, but maybe not detailed names and character profiles of every man in the north who can wield an axe. Wildlings and the Wall are what he has experience in. Sam has a reason to have had the time to read up on this, but Sam’s not there. I dunno, it’s not 100% implausible, it just seemed… convenient.

All of which should not detract from that fact that I did enjoy this chapter – it was like a balm to my soul after the last few – it’s just that there’s not that much more to say about it: there was strategising, it was interesting.

Chapter 18: Tyrion

A Tyrion chapter where something happened! At last! Hurray! Again: liked this one; lots of fun.

Tyrion’s still traveling with his misfit crew of secreteers, but now they’re travelling through a strange fog that hangs over a dead city where frozen figures reach up from the water and mad ‘stonemen’ lurk in the mist. Don’t want to touch those stonemen, or you might catch what they have, and it doesn’t look nice. Mind you, you could catch it’s tamer cousin, greyscale, just by breathing the air. Why is Tyrion travelling this route again? Why would anyone travel through here on purpose? I know the demon road has a bad rep, but I can’t help thinking there has to be a better way.

Nevermind. It looks awesome.

I must confess that I am a sucker for ruined cities and dead civilisations, so I’m eating this shit up. Plus, people are starting to uncover each others secrets – Secret Identity Angst ahoy! 😀 Turns out Young Griff is actually a secret Targaryan prince who everyone thought was dead. That’s why he dies his hair blue – because no one else in the world has white blond hair outside this family – and why he’s so unfathomably well-educated. Seriously, with the colour scheme, in my head? he’s now a bit like Superman. I think I’m now Team Young Griff. It doesn’t hurt that Tyrion seems to have declared for his side.

But – oh noes! – the stonemen rush the boat. And everyone’s all ‘protect the prince!’, and Tyrion does, and he’s awesome, but then he’s tumbling into the Evil Water, being pulled down by a stoneman. Noooooooo! And the Chapter ends.

I’m telling you now, Martin – you better not have hurt my Tyrion! Not so early on! He hasn’t met Dany, yet!

Which is my way of saying: I was totally gripped by this and am thoroughly enjoying myself once more.

Carry on, sir!

Read Along with Rhube 7: A Dance with Dragons, Chapters 13 & 14

(Index of previous ADwD chapter reviews here.)

Sorry this was so long coming – it’s been a busy week and I found chapter fourteen rather annoying to start with, so wasn’t greatly drawn back to it. I polished it off this morning, though, and did find some positive things to say about it in the end. To the review!

Chapter 14: Bran

Someone finally got somewhere! Finally! There’s been such a lot of set-up and people pootling about on journeys but not actually getting anywhere or doing anything significant, but Bran did it – he reached the three-eyed crow. But he has to battle through a bunch of zombies, first, who are lying in wait for him and his party under the snow.

This was nicely done. I enjoyed the fight. I’m still a bit puzzled as to why the group spends a goodly little bit of time standing around discussing how they need to get a move on rather than talking and walking at the beginning, but ho hum. Once they get going and the white-walkers rise out of their snowy holes to attack, it’s all pretty cool. I loved the bit where Bran possesses Hodor’s body to save the large simpleton by directing his strength to battle the monsters and move in the right direction. Very interesting – especially with the question hanging over it of what would happen if Bran’s body were to be killed whilst he was in possession of Hodor. That said, I did find the comment ‘He wondered what Meera would think if he should suddenly tell her that he loved her’ to be rather out of left field. Is this Bran just thinking that he could mess with Meera’s head by having Hodor tell her the he loves her? Does Bran love Meera? Does Hodor? What? More context needed here, please!

Anyway, they battle the white walkers and escape into the cave that has been their destination with the help of a ‘child of the forest’ – a creature Bran recalls from Old Nan’s tales. (Just an aside, here, but I loved the moment in Game of Thrones, the TV show, where they have Old Nan tell Bran the scary stories of above the wall he really wants to hear. Very nicely done. Served for a very effective call back for this moment in my mind.) Alas, Brandon’s monster, the ranger, cannot enter, as there’s some kind of ‘No bad things allowed’ field surrounding the cave. Anyway, the child takes them down through the cave until finally they reach the three-eyed crow, who turns out not to be a crow at all, but a man or corpse with roots growing all through his wasted body.

It’s a nice image and nice for a character to actually reach their goal for a change, but I was starting to feel a bit of ‘wonderous new things overload’ towards the end of this chapter. For most of A Song of Ice and Fire these books have been curiously and interestingly devoid of fantastical elements. There was a rumour of dragons and white walkers, but little of magic actually seen. It was all politics and sex and violence. In some ways its great to be finally seeing the magic that underlies this world, but in others it’s a bit of a sudden shift. Now we have child-like beings with cat eyes leading us through magical caverns to an undying corpse-lord prophet. I dare say I’ll get used to it, but for now it’s a bit like walking into another book.

Chapter 14: Tyrion

Sadly, the start of this chapter is very familiar in style. Unlike Bran, Tyrion is nowhere near his destination, and I have a feeling he’s got a great deal of journeying left before he gets there. And now one of his companions is a septa who just happens to like getting naked and going for a swim in front of him every morning and who seems utterly cool with the fact that Tyrion makes no secret of perving over her whilst he does it. I’m not sure if I want to yawn or smash things. I just don’t know what this section added to this chapter except to make me feel alienated and objectified. Is something going to hang on this flirtatious septa’s nudist ways somewhere down the line? It doesn’t seem like they’re destined to have a relationship together – Tyrion’s fairly clearly hung up on the idea of finding Tysha and somehow persuading her that gang-rape is a thing that should be forgiven in the name of love.

Eventually, the chapter moves on and finally starts to have some interesting elements. Tyrion notes that there’s something decidedly fishy about the extensiveness of the education Young Griff is receiving from the Halfmaester (this keeps making my think of the Hoffmeister, help me). He then challenges the HoffHalfmeister to a game of not-chess*, the winner of which will win secrets from the other. We don’t find out exactly what it is that Tyrion wins, but I guess it’s something to do with the birth of a king, as Tyrion thinks something cryptic about this at the end of the chapter.

One thing I did really like about this chapter was the scenery in the last few pages. I’m a sucker for ruins, and the image of Nymeria’s palace at Ny Sar broken and home only to bonesnapper turtles was pretty striking. As was the appearance of the Old Man of the River – a turtle of truly massive proportions. I only wish this moment had been dwelt upon a bit more, as it’s quite a striking concept, but felt a bit thrown in at the last moment.

Overall, this was not my favourite chapter so far, but it did have a few nice elements, and has led me to speculate hat Young Griff is actually another suitor for Dany’s hand. Bless. He seems like a nice lad; she’d probably eat him alive. n the other hand, I might become Team Young Griff just so that she can get with a Nice Boy for a change – anything’s better than her current crush.

Tune in next time for more frolicking dragons!

* Incidentally, this version of fantasy not-chess reminded me rather strongly of Sheldon’s Three Person Chess from the Big Bang Theory. Annoyingly, YouTube won’t allow this video to be viewed embedded, so the below is just a pretty picture. You can view it here, though.

Read Along With Rhube: A Dance With Dragons – Prologue & Chapter 1

Me and A Dance With DragonsThere are already ample reviews of George R R Martin’s latest plump volume. I was never going to get ahead of the curve on this one, and I have no intention of rushing the pleasure of reading such a sumptuously large volume to try and get a review out before the buzz has died. There’s no point, and I’ve waited too long for this to treat it so brusquely. Instead, I’ve decided to do something a bit different. Enter: Read Along With Rhube*.

What it is, is this: I’ll periodically update with my reflections as I go along. This may result in less of on overview, and I may sometimes jump to conclusions that later get overturned, but hopefully that will all be part of the fun. It’ll also mean that people who are still reading the book themselves can engage with a bit of critical reflection without being spoiled for later chapters. I’m madly curious about all the reviews I know have already gone up, but I’m not going to touch any of them with a barge pole until I’m done reading, and by then they may be buried under a host of new posts.

I had planned to do some sort of exciting YoutTube extravaganza. (Still excited by the laptop-cam.) However, having read the prologue and first chapter I realised I was gonna have to talk about some stuff I wasn’t comfortable with having plastered all over YouTube for people to find out of the context of this blog. So, I’m writing instead. Maybe for future sections I’ll do a video blog, but not so much, this time.

Me and my Riverside ShakespeareAnyway, I’m going to start with first impressions. In an age where people are using e-books more and more, the book as a physical object is coming more and more under scrunity, and I’ve heard a lot of noise about how heavy and awkward A Dance With Dragons is, so I thought I’d do some comparisons. First off: this is not the biggest book I own – not by a long shot. This fine book to the right is the biggest book I own: The Riverside Shakespeare (second edition). As you can see, The Riverside Shakespeare is both taller and wider than A Dance With Dragons, and believe me, it’s fatter and heavier, too.

But, you may be thinking, surely this is not a fair comparison. A Dance With Dragons is a single novel, not a compilation of the plays and poems of one of the most prolific writers ever known, interspersed with extensive criticism and glossy pictures. And that’s very true, but it misses the point. There’s no doubt that my Riverside Shakespeare is a very special and luxury item. It was a Christmas present from my mum, of the kind that you get as The Big Special Thing a parent might send you off to university with. It’s a very special item. But that doesn’t stop it from being a very useful and enjoyable thing to have and read. My Riverside Shakespeare didn’t sit on my shelves to be looked at and never touched. It was an invaluable academic resource, and now it’s an invaluable pleasure item. Sure, I could get any of Shakespeare’s plays off the web more quickly and easily, but when I want to dip into a Hamlet sililoquy or my favourite sonnets, nine times out of ten I still dip into the Riverside. I really do see the value of e-books for those with e-readers – I’m currntly thinking very carefully about buying one myself – but lightness and speed of access are not the be all and end all of the reading experience.

A Dance With Dragons is not quite the same style of book, but it is a pleasurable thing to have it in hardback, and I appreciate the style with which it has been presented. You can’t tell from the photo, but it’s a gorgeous matt effect that makes a nice contrast to most books you see these days. That’s a canny choice. I’ve got a copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell that a cat weed on and after a wipe-down with a bit of bleach it was perfectly OK. The same would not fly with my Dance With Dragons hardback. I find myself treating this book with an extra special reverence as a result. I don’t want to risk spilling tea or wine on it, and no way am I letting it within a mile of any cat with insufficient bladder control.

You might think that’s a negative, but I rather like it. No one ever bought a hardback first edition because they thought it would be the most ergonomic reading format. Yes, some people buy first editions because they just can’t wait (and that’s a serious consideration with a book that has mass-popularity amongst heavily socially networked groups, as this one does), but usually you buy a first edition because you want to treasure it. This book is practically shouting for careful treatment and love.

Me and The Dark Tower, Volume 7Still, it doesn’t have quite the same special relevance as a Riverside Shakespare, I must grant you that. Let’s do a more like-for-like comparison. Let’s take another first edition from a later volume of a well-known epic fantasy series. This (left) is my US first edition of Vol. 7 of The Dark Tower: The Dark Tower. It’s much the same size as A Dance With Dragons. Both are nearly 1,000 pages long (ADWD is 1,016 pages including apendices, but skirts just under for actual story) and slightly unweildy to cart around, but they come from a long line of very long fantasy books, and, honestly, if you get to book five of a George R R Martin series, or book seven of a Stephen King series, and you’re expecting a short read, you might want to examine your reading choices in general. I like really long books. If they’re really well written, why wouldn’t I want to prolong the pleasure of reading them?

Darum: cover artDon’t get me wrong, a book can definitely be too long if it doesn’t succeed in carrying you for 1000+ pages. Sarum (right) is over 1,300 pages long in its paperback edition, and hoooo-boy! I was determined to finish that bugger, and it took me three months, but I did it. What it taught me is that you really don’t need to finish a book just because you started it. Especially if it’s really long. It doesn’t follow, though, that books like The Stand, The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Tower, or A Dance with Dragons should be missed out just because they’re long. I’d have missed out on most of my faourite books if I acted like that.

Now, that’s not an argument against the e-book alternative, and each reader has to take their call on that. There’s no doubt that I get more for my money from my Riverside Shakespeare or a first edition of a Dark Tower volume than I do out of A Dance With Dragons. My Dark Tower hardbacks are full of gorgeous glossy illustrations, and I don’t get anything like that from ADWD. But then, I don’t get anything like that from my Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, or Fool’s Fate, and I know I’m going to treasure those books for a long, long time, in a way that goes beyond the simple fact that I adore the stories contained within.

Long and short is: A Dance with Dragons makes for a very nice physical object. I think the cover illustration is simple, but gorgeous. I like the matt effect. I like even more the little note on the back that says it’s made of paper that comes from a sustainable resource. Yes, trees died for my pleasure, but they did so sustainably, and I think it was worth it.

On to the text itself! I’m really intrigued that the usual map of Westeros is omitted from the three maps at the start of this volume. I very much enjoyed a few minutes of looking over the new territories depicted. We’re going to find out more about the lands above The Wall, The Free Cities, and Valyria – sweet! When I went on to read the prologue I had a fair amount of fun flipping back and forth and going ‘Aha, that is Milkwater, and Thenn, and The Shivering Sea’. Overall, I really enjoyed the glimpse into life north of The Wall that this opening scene provided.

(At this point I’m going to say that I did have some comments about these chapters that were not 100% positive. But they concern a personal reaction to content I’m not not sure I really want to open debate on. Because I want the rest of this post to be open to discussion, I’ve put it in an aside below, for which I’ve disabled comments. I hope you’ll understand and respect this, and focus any comments you’d like to make on the content of this post only. I know this is a bit of an awkward way to do this, but it’s the best compromise I could make with myself.)

Enough of that: on to the prologue. In spite of myself, I did really enjoy the scenes with Varamyr alone in the deep, deep cold. Sometimes the land north of The Wall can be a bit too stark for my liking, but I was held interested. I really felt the desperation – the fear of the white walkers; the fear of the cold. There is a special quality to presenting a man like Varamyr, and then showing the sort of thing that he might fear. It was nicely built up to, so that even though on the first page I was thinking ‘Oh poo – not a character I already know’, I was gripped by the end.

I also really enjoyed my re-acquaintance with Tyrion – one of my favourite characters. It’s more of a struggle than I expected, trying to pick up the threads of what happened the last time we saw him. I remembered that Shae had betrayed him, but not how, or with whom. His emotions still bear a pathos, though, and I’m really interested to know what he’s going to do next, and where he will go. It’s also fascinating to see how differently information works in a world without the sort of connectedness we all take for granted. Tyrion is a well-connected, well-informed man, yet he has no idea about all the events that have been going on in other parts of his world that may still have an impact on his life.

I’m looking forward to finding out what will happen next.

*Yeah, yeah, it ought to be ‘Serenity Womble’, but ‘Read along with ‘Serenity Womble just didn’t sound as good.

[Index of future chapters and RAWR posts availabke here.]

Game of Thrones – A Reflective

The Iron ThroneYou may recall that I blogged six months ago at the precise moment when my squee for the proposed HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones reached a level at which I felt I could say with conviction ‘This is going to be AWESOME’. Since the show started airing, I felt like I should blog about it, but didn’t feel I had much to say beyond ‘So, I was right, then’, which is both dull and off-puttingly self-satisfied. But now that it’s over I find that I do have some points of reflection that might be worth sharing, even if those points are still largely in the ‘Awesome, wasn’t it?’ spectrum.

First off, let’s just talk about what an incredible and inspiring achievement this is. It actually sort of feels like it marks a shifting point in the dynamic of how we view television and what we use it for. There have been other successful TV adaptations of books. Plenty of them. It’s not even HBO’s first. From that perspective, Game of Thrones is just riding the crest of the groundswell of book-to-TV adaptation that has been popularised by the success of such shows as Dexter and True Blood. We’re all familiar with the film adaptations of books that have gone horribly wrong because the plot was necessarily butchered to fit a 90-120min slot. It’s evident that TV executives have discovered the retrospectively obvious fact that a TV show offers the opportunity to preserve much more of the original material whilst capitalising on the interest of existing fans. On the other hand, it’s still rare to see a television show that sticks so faithfully to its source material. If there’s one comment people will have heard over and over again about this show from pre-existing fans of the books it’s their surprise and joy about how faithful it was.

Mr Darcy/Colin Firth in a wet shirt, having just emerged from a lake.

Mr Darcy in a wet shirt: This never happened in the book, it was just for cheap titillation to keep the women interested.

Now, again, this isn’t entirely original to Game of Thrones. We’re all quite familiar with successful mini-series adaptations, especially for historical novels. For the most accurate and enjoyable TV adaptation prior to Game of Thrones I probably would have pointed to the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice from the mid 1990s. (Not that it didn’t have its minor deviations.) On the other hand, Game of Thrones is a substantially longer book, and it’s probably a lot easier to make an accurate TV adaptation if you can use existing stately homes for your settings and don’t need to worry about the special effects necessary to represent dragons and walls of ice several hundred feet high. In other words, fantasy has not always fared quite so well, even in the mini-series. I’m still trying to apply sufficient brain bleach to forget Stephen King’s It.

Game of Thrones was an ambitious undertaking. It has more main characters than most TV shows would attempt to comfortably accomodate. Much of its tension centres around complex political situations in a world that isn’t our own, and can only loosely be said to call upon the Wars of the Roses for reference points. It jumps about to wildly different settings, from a far north that would place the Scotland-analog in the arctic circle to a distant south where the France-substitute looks like it might be in north Africa.* It’s violent, risque, and morally ambiguous. In short, it’s a lot for producers to take a gamble on, and many would have hauled on the reins for at least some of it. Admittedly, there is slightly less nudity in the show than in the book (no, really – they made the very wise decision of cutting the ‘Catelyn forgets she’s naked’ moment, for instance), but that’s about it. This was a fat book, and very, very little was cut from it. And it works.

I feel like this has opened the doors to other fantasy novel adaptations in a way we really haven’t seen before. I rather hope so. I have been eagerly eyeing my shelves, thinking of all that might be. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell anyone? Assassin’s Apprentice? Maybe even Perdido Street Station? It gives you hope for the mooted Dark Tower project, at the least, although the latest rumour-mill suggested it may be a no-go.

Not that every single thing was just how I pictured it. Ned Stark still wasn’t right, for me, although Sean Bean did a good job on the vision that was clearly handed to him by the producers, and it works as an alternate view that plays up the North/South divide. I was also not as inspired by Jon Snow as I had been in the books – the lad’s just not how I pictured him. A bit too old and stocky. But as he seems to be a firm favourite with my mates who hadn’t read the books, I guess he’s still working the required magic for new eyes. Overall, these are minor gripes in what was, in general, phenomenally appropriate casting.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion LannisterI don’t think I can go any further without mentioning this fine figure of a man: Peter Dinklage. I stick to my original comments that he’s far too attractive to play the Imp as he is portrayed in the book, but I can’t honestly say I mind. And it’s not exactly a bad thing to challenge our stereotypical conceptions of male beauty by casting an attractive man to play a character with dwarfism. But enough about his looks. Although Tyrion Lannister was always a firm favourite of mine in the books, Dinklage undoubtedly adds an element of charisma that effortlessly makes this character centre-stage of any scene he’s in. There’s been a lot of noise in the blogosphere and twitterverse about him deserving an Emmy for his performance, and I can’t really help but agree.

Over and above Peter Dinklage as an actor, though, this is a great part. As a member of the most wealthy family in Westeros, Tyrion is uniquely placed, by virtue of his dwarfism, to commentate both from a position of education and privilege, and as an under-dog outsider figure to whom we can relate. These characteristics culminate delightfully in such moments as when he is able to both verbally and physically lay a smack-down on the crown prince, Joffrey – probably one of the most unlikable characters in literature. Apparently people like that sort of thing:

Jaime LannisterBut Tyrion isn’t the only stonkingly well-cast character. Much credit should be given to Nikolaj Coster, who plays Jaime Lannister. This is a difficult and subtle role to play. Jaime is one of the most complex and interesting characters I have ever encountered, not least because he initially struck me as unutterably shallow and despicable. One of the first things we see him do is an unspeakably horrible act, yet we are gradually brought to see that this is a character of many facets. His duality is neatly encapsulated by the nickname by which he is frequently insulted ‘Kingslayer’. He stabbed a king in the back. It casts him as traitorous, cowardly, and untrustworthy. He is almost universally despised… except by those who have fought with him. We see this in fleeting conversations long before we ever see him fight, and the build up to his demonstration of skill does not leave one disappointed in its climax. In his confrontation with Ned and Ned’s men one thing is clear: Ned is good, very good… but Jaime’s better. He is neither cowardly nor unskilled, and though he may have betrayed his king, he also killed a madman who had cruelly murdered innocents when no one else dared stand up against him. There’s a lot of complexity to convey, here, and we see little, in the first season that allows Jaime to show a more sympathetic side, yet I felt Nikolaj Coster achieved this nonetheless… without losing Jaime’s inherent insufferableness, either.

Daenerys TargaryenCredit is also due to Emlia Clarke. Daenerys Targaryen was probably my least favourite character in the books, as much of her role seemed to revolve around her use as an object of male gaze. However, despite the fact that I’m not as sold on her acting as I am by Peter Dinklage’s, say, I actually became involved in her story – even rooting for her and her rapist-cum-husband, Kharl Drogo.

Arya and Syrio water dancingBut the true joy was watching Arya flower into the beginnings of the forceful woman she will become. Miltos Yerolemou is fabulous as Arya’s ‘dancing master’, Syrio Forel, and Maisie Williams is just perfect as Arya. To the New York Times journalist who thought that women would only watch this for the sex, all I can say is that you clearly didn’t have enough role-models like Arya growing up. She’s awesome, and she’s still the sort of woman I want to be when I grow up.

I really could go on and on, but I suspect this review would lose all structure, so I’m going to finish on a note of fun: with the long break between now and season two under way it won’t be updating as often, but I still thoroughly recommend My Mom Watches Game of Thrones**, a comedy blog about a comedienne’s conversations with her mum about Game of Thrones. That link is to the beginning. Like many comedy things, some of the jokes build over time, and you’ve plenty of time to catch up between now and the new season.

And now it really is time to sign off. Long days and pleasant nights…

*As mentioned in my previous post, Game of Thrones follows a familiar tradition in western epic fantasy of being set is a world whose countries look suspiciously like the British Isles and Northern Europe. Moreover, there are more direct ties to British history as it relates to the Wars of the Roses, with the Lannisters making a fairly clear analog to the house of Lancaster, the Starks an analog for the house of York, King’s Landing a fantasy version of London, Dorne practically a portmanteau of Devon and Cornwall, and so forth.

** It has come to my attention that, because Tumblr is an unfathomable mystery to me, there is no stable link to the first page of the ‘My Mom Watches Game of Thrones’ blog – the page number increases as posts are added. If anyone is aware of how to solve this dilemma I will happily fix the link. In the mean time, if you click the link and scroll to the bottom and find a ‘previous page’ button… click that. In the mean time I will try to correct the issue if I spot that the page number has increased, but otherwise, you know… sadly, I’m still mortal.