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  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

Earning Your Cliffhangers

Screen Junkies’ recent video on the Top Ten TV Show Cliffhangers got me thinking about the cliffhanger as a storytelling mechanism.  As classic a move as it is, it’s still risky.  Done well it can be game-changing; done poorly, it plays as a cheap trick.

Let’s say you’re the IT guy in your average American corporate workplace.  The dress code is business casual, which translates to the same pleated J.C. Penney khakis and button down shirts responsible for the downfall of sartorial standards for the modern American male.  After years of reading GQ on the toilet at home, you finally get up the courage to wear a suit to work.  So you show up Monday with a Mens Wearhouse special and, to your surprise, everybody asks you who died.  When they find out that you didn’t go to a funeral that morning and that, in fact, you wore a suit to work because you think you’re that awesome, the heckling begins, and suddenly you’re known throughout the company as the Duke of Fucking Windsor.

It’s not that the IT guy can’t pull off wearing a suit to work.  It’s that in addition to doing it with dead-certain confidence and a healthy dash of style, he’s got to lay a foundation first.  He can’t just bust in looking all Mad Men–or, worse, looking all Rudy Giuliani–and expect to start getting propositioned over the Keurig machine.  He’s got to start slow, go from pleated to flat-front–make the jump from Sketchers to Florsheim before he tries on the Aldens.  Spend more than ten dollars on a haircut and buy some socks that aren’t white.  That way, when he finally does work up to the slim-fit, double-vented Milan-cut suit with a handmade linen pocket square, he’s given people some time to adjust.  Then instead of guffaws, he gets jealous whispers.

OK, maybe that’s unrealistic.  Chances are you’re still going to be the Duke of Fucking Windsor.  But my point is, you need to earn a cliffhanger, just like you need to earn sartorial respect.

Screen Junkies made a great list, and I suggest you watch it.  I’m going to disagree slightly with them on one, however.  Battlestar Galactica (the reboot) has a number of great cliffhangers, but my favorite comes at the end of season one.  You already know what I’m talking about: the Galactica and the human fleet are still at Kobol, trying to decide between colonizing it and continuing the search for Earth.  Commander Adama has just ordered President Roslin arrested for treason, after she secretly convinced Starbuck to steal the captured Cylon Raider and return to Caprica for the Arrow of Apollo.  The Cylons have caught up to the survivors over Kobol, and battle ensues.  In a daring attack, Boomer (the Galactica iteration), lands her raptor on the Cylon Basestar and destroys it, after learning once and for all that she is indeed a Cylon.  She returns to Galactica, where Adama holds out his hand to congratulate her.  Her Cylon programming taking over, she takes out her weapon and fires two rounds into Adama’s torso.  Cut to credits.

BSG 1x13

It’s an incredible scene.  But much like the related action of killing off characters, it’s only powerful because of the strong foundation that the writers have laid.  A lot of dramatic tension and characterization over the course of a whole season of television went into creating that scene.  It works because of the general excellence of the storytelling: we feel for these people, we’re horrified at what they’ve survived; we’re rooting for them despite overwhelming odds.  We’ve also become very invested in these characters.  Commander Adama is the valiant, wise military commander we all hope would be in charge in circumstances like this: a man bred for war, a man whose flaws make him a bad family man but a great general.  He’s pulled the dregs of humanity out of the fire time and time again, and always made it look easy, always kept it together.  He’s a father figure for the entire crew of the Galactica, for all of humanity, really: he can be hard and determined and unforgiving, but he can also be compassionate and self-analytical when necessary.  He’s not afraid to admit it when he’s made a mistake.  It feels a lot of the time, watching the first season, that Adama is holding things together single-handedly.  And then one of his own officers puts him on the ground.

We’re left wondering whether Adama survives.  It’s shocking, and traumatic, and creates a feeling of desperation and hopelessness in the viewer: where do we go from here?  How can we go on without Adama?  Who else has the grit to get the job done?  Ron Moore and his team earned that cliffhanger.  They established Adama as a person, someone we’d fear to lose, and then, in true expert style, took him away from us.

But what if it had been Colonel Tigh that Boomer gunned down?  Sure, Tigh’s a great character too; in the first season in particular, he’s one of those guys you love to hate.  A useless drunk who’s not qualified for his rank or position.  If he’d been blown away you’d probably have thought: eh.  No great loss.  Moore and co. took away our favorite character at a vital point in the story, and gave us no indication of whether or how he’d survive.  And, importantly, it left us wanting more than simply to know the answer: it left us wanting to see and experience the aftermath.  Does Adama survive?  How?  What does he do afterward?  What are the consequences for him, for Boomer, for humanity?

Conversely, when cliffhangers don’t work, it’s a much less visceral experience.  George R. R. Martin has written some great cliffhangers, but he’s also written some crappy ones.  It’s a danger of overusing the form: eventually you’re going to miss.


The example that comes to mind with Martin is the way he leaves Arya Stark’s character at the end of A Feast for Crows.  Having fled Westeros for Braavos, Arya comes to the House of Black and White to train as an assassin.  She essentially gives up her identity as Arya Stark and becomes Cat of the Canals.  That old identity asserts itself, however, when she runs into Dareon, sworn brother of the Night’s Watch and erstwhile traveling companion of Samwell Tarly, who is on his way to Oldtown to become a maester.  Presuming that he’s abandoned his post on the Night’s Watch, she kills him as punishment.  She returns to the House of White and Black and is given a glass of milk to drink.  She wakes up the next morning blind.

Admittedly, A Feast for Crows isn’t Martin’s best work.  And there are logistical reasons why the book ends as it does: due to the problems surrounding the writing of Crows and its sequel A Dance with Dragons, what was originally one large book was split into two smaller ones.  So it is entirely possible that Arya’s ending changed as a result of the years-long editing process.  That said, when we finally learn what happened to Arya in Dragons, the result is fairly anticlimactic.

It turns out the potion only made her blind temporarily, as punishment for her transgression.

Now, maybe it’s just me; maybe other readers thought this was a great cliffhanger.  Maybe it’s just that the years between Crows and Dragons created an artificial sense of importance that wasn’t intended to be attached to Arya’s blindness.  But the way it felt to me was Martin was messing with us, and not in a fun way.  He left us thinking Arya might be blind forever, only to come back years later in the sequel and essentially say “oh, yeah, that was totally just a red herring.  She was blind for a few days.”

That’s not a cliffhanger I can get behind.  That’s a cliffhanger for the sake of having a cliffhanger.  That’s a cliffhanger that might be acceptable between two episodes in the middle of a TV show season, but not one that I find acceptable between two major volumes of a large work.

The good news about cliffhangers is that readers have an excellent nose for bullshit: they know when they’ve been played and when being left hanging actually serves the story.

So remember, writers: earn your cliffhangers.  Don’t taunt your audience.  Look what happened with Lost.

What are some of your favorite cliffhangers?  Which worked, and which didn’t?  Why or why not?

Karthanas Goes to Dinner

I’ve been taking a break from my work on the sequel to Exile to work on an as-yet untitled epic fantasy novel that has been taking shape in my mind for some time now.  You can read an early version of its first chapters here, though it has evolved a lot sense these were written.  Eventually I’ll post the updated version.

This one’s darker, racier, and decidedly not for children, so if you’ve got a problem with sex and violence, it’s probably not for you.  Here’s a (PG-rated) taste.  If you like sword and sorcery, swordpunk, grimdark, Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, or Game of Thrones, I think you’ll like Karthanas the Lesser.

Karth took the seat at Louvhena’s right, next to Kornu and across the table from a man and a woman he didn’t know. The fact that they had not risen and their dress made them Peers, but not from neighboring fees. He supposed he should have acknowledged them before now, but between the confidence-sucking sight of Louvhena and the buttery spectacle that Kornu made at table, he hadn’t truly laid eyes on them yet.

The man was tall, almost of a height with Karth, with thinning gray hair and an impressive lantern jaw. He wore a thin circlet on his shiny pate, an affectation most Lanthean highlords had done away with decades ago, and a ribbed tunic in crushed velvet that looked stifling even in the relative cool of a spring night. The neckcloth tied at his throat was the color of old piss, and completely at odds with the rest of his attire.

His wife, or the woman Karth took to be his wife, was at least twenty suns his junior—hardly uncommon—but what was uncommon was the fact that she had the red hair of the barbarian tribes that peopled the northeastern part of Yora. Karth arched an eyebrow at that, but took in the sparkling green eyes and freckled bosom with undisguised interest. There’s something would be nice covered in butter.

Louvhena cleared her throat delicately, her glance like a quick cut with a rusty blade.

“Since you are late for dinner,” she said, smiling her most inviting, maternal smile at her strange guests, “allow me to introduce Lord Pevenish, Peer of Carobdown, and his lovely consort, the Lady Abraun.” No titles for the little lamb, Karth noticed. He’d pegged that one right. Louvhena seemed to realize it, too.

“Where was it that you were born, my dear?” Pevenish frowned slightly at this, taking the opportunity to cough a gob of phlegm into his linen napkin, but said nothing. The lack of titles was indication enough of her breeding, but asking after her birthplace so frankly was one step above inquiring whether the whore who’d pushed her into the world even knew the identity of her sire.

Abraun blushed, which only made her more delicious, and looked down at her folded hands.

“Carway, my lady,” she said. “I’m of the Cullisht tribe.” She answered like a young girl speaking to her governess.

“How lovely,” said Louvhena, cocking her head as if the girl had said she was heir to the Empyrean Throne and not a nameless whelp from a lawless territory unendowed with so much as Lanthean citizenship. Karth supposed she had gained that upon marrying Pevenish, but still….

“My lord,” Karth intoned, nodding his greeting. “It is my pleasure. And my lady.”

“My lord Karthanas,” Pevenish grumbled, as if Karth had kept him waiting. “I was just telling your lady mother how…pleased we are to be her guests.” He didn’t look pleased. Karth couldn’t blame him. An invitation of any kind from Louvhena was like pickled herring: you either loved it or saw it for the odorous bait that it was.

“Carobdown is in the southeast, is it not?” Karth had never heard of it, which meant it was one of the Scraps, the two dozen or so tiny fees in the southeast left after the last scion of the House of Kestren died without an heir and set every cousin, vassal, and country squire squabbling for their share of a suddenly untended feast of land. Kestren had been a great House in its day, with an eponymous fee in the form of a huge swath of arable land east of Lansium. After a couple of adjacent, powerful Houses took the opportunity to assert old claims over pieces of it, the lesser lords tore up the rest. Thus the Scraps, though the new “Houses” that grew out of the whole business hated the name.

“Yes,” said Pevenish, “one of the descendant fees of Kestren, of course.” He was phlegmatic enough about it for Karth to pin him as one of the less prickly of the Scraplords, whose sensitivity over the youth and inconsequentiality of their titles had led to more than a few border disputes that had threatened to become a region-wide problem.  But the Senat had stamped them down, as it always did; open contention among the Peerage was not tolerated. Not the kind with swords, at least.

Pevenish was clearly used to having to explain the location and history of his lands, and as he didn’t seem terribly put out by doing so, Karth went on.

“Carobdown,” he said. “Named for…?”

“Its chief trade good,” Pevenish responded.

Karth raised his eyebrows.

“Carob,” Pevenish explained, his patience wavering. “We grow carob.”

“Ahh,” said Karth. “A worthy nomenclature, my lord. A personal favorite of mine.” Karth despised the stuff. Vinerran’s head cook called it poor man’s chocolate, as the peasantry used it as substitute for that delicacy, which was beyond the means of many middling Peers. Chalky and sweet, peasants stuffed the pulp from the tree’s seedpods into pastries and breads. He couldn’t think of anything else to talk about with the man, so he determined to get him talking about his bread and butter.

“Indeed,” said Pevenish, more lively now, “a most wonderful plant. So many uses! The obvious ones of course, as flour and flavoring for pastry, but also the farmers make of it a sweet liquor….”

Karth stopped listening. It was enough to get the man talking, make him feel like he was at all interested in anything he had to say. Part of a host’s duties, and all that. He looked at Louvhena and found her watching him with wry approval. She knew what he was doing, and liked it. Damn woman. Whatever stratagem she had in mind for this bumpkin lord had nothing to do with the internal trade of foul-tasting commodities. Karth almost pitied the man: Louvhena collected sycophants, and most of them eventually realized that a gilded collar was still a collar.

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.