The Great ‘Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn’ Re-Read

Update 12/3/16: Read my second big update on the #MSTReRead here.

I’m rereading one of my favorite fantasy series, Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, which is comprised of The Dragonbone ChairThe Stone of FarewellTo Green Angel Tower: Part 1, and To Green Angel Tower: Part 2.  (The original paperback edition of To Green Angel Tower had to be split into two parts due to its length. The forthcoming reprints make the series a proper trilogy again, I believe.)

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s a classic of modern fantasy and which I’ve talked about at some length here before.  George R. R. Martin often cites it as a major inspiration for writing A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series behind HBO’s ubiquitous Game of Thrones.

I’ve read MST many times before, but it’s been a few years since my last re-read.  And since Mr. Williams is releasing five sequels over the next few years, starting with The Heart of What Was Lost (forthcoming in January 2017), to be followed in April by The Witchwood Crown, the first book in the sequel trilogy The Last King of Osten Ard. I thought now was the perfect time for a fresh look at the “four-book trilogy” that in so many ways defined the fantasy genre for me.

You can find more information about Tad Williams and his upcoming Osten Ard novels at TadWilliams.com.  You can also read a lot of great updates and information about Osten Ard and the forthcoming books at The Wertzone.  Larry Ketchersid, an author and contributor at SFSignal, has also written an in-depth reread of MST that’s available both on his website and collected for Kindle for $2.99 (or for free if you’re a Kindle Unlimited member).

Rather than doing a more traditional blog re-read, where I would write regular, fairly lengthy blog posts summarizing each chapter or chapters and discussing them, I’ve decided to tweet it all.  Using Twitter not only gives me a quick and easily accessible way to talk about the books, but the 140 character limit also forces me to speak plainly and minimizes the temptation to ramble.

I’ll collect the tweets periodically in blog posts here, but for live updates follow me on Twitter or follow the hashtag #mstreread.

I’ll discuss the story as I read it, but not necessarily comprehensively and certainly not chapter-by-chapter.  Likely, I’ll jump around, vacillating between the general and the specific, moving forward roughly as the story does.

Here are my thoughts on the first two hundred pages or so (Part I) of The Dragonbone Chair:

The Bottom of the Iceberg

Mark Lawrence recently wrote a blog post for Bookworm Blues on worldbuilding in fantasy, an aspect of writing fantasy that I think he’s quite good at.  He uses the metaphor of the iceberg to discuss the topic, referring to the wealth of backstory, culture, and history that goes into creating the worlds of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.  Both of these authors are well known for having created reams of information about their respective worlds, most of which never sees the light of day in their actual novels (or doesn’t until, whether due to death or superstardom or both, this content becomes desired and profitable).  But Lawrence takes a step further, asking the question of whether the bottom of the iceberg actually needs to exist, or whether it’s enough that it seems to exist:

But … is the rest of the iceberg there? Does it need to be?

Perhaps GRRM takes 5 years to write his books because for each of them there’s an unseen bulk of background material, floating there in the depths. Maybe one day there will be a ‘Game of Thrones’ Silmarillion. Or perhaps there’s just a scaffold, a skeletal support propping up the edifice, just as when you step behind the stage sets for the TV series there’s a mess of struts, plywood, paint tins, and four Irish workmen sitting down to a pot of tea.

The important question is really – does it matter if the rest of the iceberg’s down there? I would suggest the answer is ‘no’. We want to feel as if it’s there, but if the writer has the skill to give the impression of all that hidden detail … it’s fine with me if it’s not really there.

Mr. Lawrence is particularly adept at this type of world-building: giving the reader the impression of depth and history and backstory, without actually having to start by writing that all down.

It’s all a question of process, really.  Maybe you’re a writer for whom it’s helpful and inspiring to draw up genealogies and write world history, or maybe you’re one who, like Mr. Lawrence, sits down and starts writing.  I fall somewhere in between, myself.  I have copious notes about my worlds, but they’re not terribly organized.  I don’t know the specific backstory of every character I write about, or their family histories or power levels or the origin of every minor artifact.  As Mr. Martin has been quoted as saying, when I need that information, I’ll make it up.

What about you?  What’s your worldbuilding process like?  How much of it do you know beforehand?  Does the bottom of your iceberg exist yet?

Game of Thrones Season Five

As a fan of George R. R. Martin’s novels, the fifth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones was in many ways the most interesting to date: it was the first in which the show truly diverged from the books in a major way, and the first in which the story progressed chronologically beyond them.  It’s well known at this point that Martin informed the show’s creators (D.B. Weiss and David Benioff) of the major plot developments and endings for the main characters, but what isn’t known is which parts of the show represent the showrunners’ inventions and which represent revelations from Martin himself.

Season Five saw a lot of major plot developments, including (apparent) endings for a number of characters, so the question of who influenced these events is particularly interesting.  Spoilers abound for the books and the show, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading here.

Continue reading

Will HBO’s Game of Thrones Reach the End of the Story Before the Novels?

You’ve probably heard the news by now that the sixth novel in George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, on which the incredibly popular HBO series Game of Thrones is based, will not be released in 2015, according to his publisher Harper Collins.  This was hardly a surprise for Martin’s fans, given the frequent and often massive delays between books in the series.

That being said, Chris Taylor over at Mashable took the time to do some basic math and came to the (quite reasonable) conclusion that it would be impossible for Martin to finish the series before HBO does at this point.

What HarperCollins didn’t draw attention to is that the later arrival of Winds of Winter all but guarantees that the HBO series will do what Martin has long hoped it wouldn’t: overtake the books. Here’s why. (Caution: What follows indulges in mild speculation, and includes mild spoilers if you haven’t read the books.)

Season 5 of Game of Thrones arrives in April. It is based on book four, A Feast for Crows, as well as parts of book five, A Dance With Dragons. (The producers managed to split book three into two seasons, but that was jam-packed with plot; sadly, there’s barely enough meat in Crows and Dragons combined to make for a single season.)

The HBO show is on a regular schedule; it films every fall, and screens every spring. There’s little hope of delaying Game of Thrones, especially given its large number of teenaged actors who are growing up faster than the pace of the story allows. Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who plays Bran Stark, has already gone through so much pubescence that the producers have already parked Bran at the place where he arrives in book five.

The producers have made it quite clear they intend to end the show with Season 7. So we already have a clear road map: Season 6 arrives in 2016, and the HBO show will grace our screens for the last time in 2017.

Martin’s roadmap, meanwhile, involves two more novels: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. The titles were announced nearly a decade ago.

So let’s be generous to Martin, and imagine that Winter is coming in early 2016, just ahead of the TV season that will likely be based on it. That schedule is not entirely beyond the bounds of reason, given that he has already offered two sample chapters of the new book online.

What is beyond the bounds of reason, however, is that Spring could be completed just one year later, in time for Season 7 in 2017. Martin’s books are behemoths lasting between 800 and 1,100 pages each, and even the early books — when he was actually writing fast — had two-year gaps between them.

In other words, at his fastest conceivable writing speed, he would have needed to release Winter this year — and that possibility has just been taken off the table. So we can definitively say that all the long-debated secrets of the series (who Jon Snow’s mother is, who ends up on the Iron Throne, whether the dragons and the arrival of winter destroy everything and everyone) will be revealed on screen before they arrive on the page.

I’ll spare you further commentary on Martin’s writing speed, polemic about whether he’s anyone’s bitch and what, if anything, authors owe to their readers, and pointless speculation about potential differences between the TV and book endings.

What I will say is this:

1.  The TV show has surpassed the books in storytelling quality in certain areas, particularly in regard to its treatment of certain characters (Cersei, for instance) and the plot of the later books, so this isn’t as disappointing to me as it otherwise might be, given that I first fell in love with Martin’s world through the novels.

2.  Mr. Martin has stated publicly that the television show is a major motivation in hastening his work, but I have no doubt that when it becomes clear to him and his publisher, as it may well have already, that they cannot beat HBO to the punch, we’ll see an immediate return to the years-long delays ASOIAF readers have experienced with prior volumes in the series.

3.  Martin has said before that he would consider expanding the (as of now) seven-book series to eight or nine books if he needs to to tell the story.  It seems to me that if the motivation of ending the story ahead of the show disappears, so will any motivation to fit the print story into seven books.  This would be unfortunate, as the story has already gotten flabbier than it should have.