A Game of Thrones by GRR Martin

It’s been 20 years since A Game of Thrones hit the bookshelves. It’s had a transformative effect on the world of Fantasy, partly down to the huge success of the HBO Series. But when I first read it, in the late 1990s, it was just another fantasy novel. Few people knew then what it would become.

 

Characters

It’s fair to say that Martin has no better in terms of character creation. That said, the first novel of A Song of Ice and Fire is, to some extent, a different experience to the later books in the series, never mind the TV version. The series is known for many things: its huge scope, including the number of characters; the author’s willingness to kill off many of his characters, at regular intervals, with no sentimentality; the ‘grey’ nature of his characters, with a lack of simple good/evil characterisation; then of course the sex and violence, which is more apparent in the TV series than the original books.

These characteristics had not fully appeared in the first novel, however. Yes, there is already a big cast of characters, but the POV is pretty focused on the Stark family, the only notable exceptions being Tyrion and Daenerys. This makes A Game of Thrones a more tightly written affair than some of its successors, and allows the reader to engage with the storyline. The death toll is not so high. And while the grey areas are already there, from my perspective as a reader, I was soon rooting for the Starks, who were effectively the ‘good guys’. Around them was created a fascinating support cast, but they were the protagonists.

It has been interesting to see how the series has developed. The role of the Stark family has remained important, but it has undoubtedly been watered down. Other characters have barged their way into the story, taking it in new directions, some of which, I think, were not in the author’s original plan.

Worldbuilding

Martin took the classic, medieval-inspired fantasy world, and made it bigger, more densely populated, and more real than anyone had done before. That he was able to provide this scale and still deliver a killer story is perhaps his greatest achievement.

Most of the action takes place in Westeros, a kingdom recently united after a vicious civil war. The cracks in this unity are already beginning to show, however. Meanwhile, the Daenerys storyline reveals that there are many more realms beyond Westeros. Sometimes, there are so many other lands, with so little connection to the events in Westeros, that the scale of the world can seem too big.

At this point, the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is barely fantastical at all. There are no pointy eared elves, or fairies flying about, or wizards with long grey beards. The only dwarf is…well… a real dwarf, not a member of a fantastical race. It’s easy to forget how many of the staples of fantasy fiction were culled by Martin. In so doing, he modernised the genre and opened it to a new group of fans. That’s not to say that wizards, elves and dwarves have had their day—far from it. But it he did, in effect, introduce a new sub-genre, that tends to be called grimdark.

Of course, Martin didn’t do away with magic, not at all. He didn’t do away with an evil menace either, for surely that is the white walkers who live beyond the Wall. But he revelled in flawed characters, making difficult decisions in a cruel world they had no control over, a world not unlike our own.

Plot

Hmm. Where to start? There are so many plot lines. A central one is the political struggle for the Iron Throne. Then there is the supernatural threat to Westeros itself. But in some respects, the series resembles a soap opera, with multiple characters and storylines all interwoven into one whole. Of course, a harsher critic might suggest that Martin has failed to interweave said storylines and somewhat lost control of the project. It has become so complex, that Martin’s original vision of a trilogy is long gone and the series has yet to be completed, some twenty years after the release of the first book. Maybe it never will in the author’s lifetime. This is both a tribute to the scale of the project and a flaw and source of frustration to fans.

Conclusion

A Game of Thrones is a seminal, must-read novel for fantasy fans. I remember reading it all those years ago. I wouldn’t call the book an inspiration: I was in my mid-twenties when I read it. I had already picked up the fantasy bug from earlier novelists and was toying with my own ideas for a fantasy story. But it set a benchmark. It made me rethink my ideas. Not necessarily to create something the same, or as large: trying to do that could send a mere mortal mad. Just to make my own story better. All fantasy writers are now operating in a post A Game of Thrones world. The genre is no longer the same. How many books can you say that about?

Fantasy Maps

Like a lot of fantasy series, especially those set in a secondary world, my books will include a map. It is a map of the continent of Dalriya, where the series is set. Above you can see the full version, designed by Streetlight Graphics. Maps and fantasy series go hand in hand—so much so, that for some it has become a cliché. Joe Abercrombie made something of a punk rock statement by not including maps in his First Law trilogy. You can read his opinion piece on the question of maps on his website, here. For Abercombie, it seems to boil down to maps ‘getting in the way’ of the characters and their immediate story. And it has to be said, Abercrombie does character and story extremely bloody well.

I, however, am in the pro-map camp. Here are my musings on it.

 

Maps and Readers

When I read a fantasy book, I like to have a map to refer to, certainly when the action takes place over a large area. When I read Lord of the Rings, I pored over the pull-out map. I remember vividly, too, the detailed maps in David Eddings’ Belgariad series. They made these worlds more alive and made the experience of reading the book more immersive. If I had got my ruler out and started measuring how far the characters walked each day, tabulating my findings into a spreadsheet, then yeah, maybe that would have been a distraction. But I didn’t do that. Honestly, I didn’t. But I like maps. I like historical maps. If I’m playing a boardgame, and the board is a map, you can be pretty sure I will be sitting there as happy as a pig in muck.

BUT. Some people don’t like maps. They might sneer, or at the very least raise an eyebrow. Thing is, people who think a map is horribly clichéd, probably aren’t going to like my series anyway. It’s a fantasy series, and has a good portion of that genre’s tropes in there somewhere. Ergo, I don’t have to worry about such people. For those who do enjoy the genre, chances are they’ll appreciate a map. And anyway, it comes free. You don’t HAVE to look at the bloody thing, do you?

 

Maps and Writers

Perhaps more important, is the use of a map for a writer. I have no doubt that Joe Abercrombie has a map or two in his draw somewhere, even if he chose not to feature them in his book. Why? Because the secondary world he created was so believable, he must have spent some time thinking about how it all worked. When a writer hasn’t given it much thought, it becomes all too obvious to the reader. That’s when a fantasy fan might sneer, or at least raise an eyebrow.

And that is the connection between fantasy and maps. The fantasy author has had to create a whole new world as a setting for their story. As well as great characters and plot, fantasy fans want to see great worldbuilding. Having a map in front of me, made me ask some questions of the world I had created.

How long will it take my characters to get from A to B? Will they have to cross a river, or go through rough terrain, to get there?

What kind of government does this country have? What kind of religion? How many people live there? How wealthy are they? What do people do for a living?

What kind of relationship does this country have with its neighbour?

What is the history of this continent? Presumably, three hundred years ago, the map would have looked different?

This can give your world the illusion of reality, and allow your reader to enjoy the story. Not that your reader wants to, or should be told ALL of these things. They need to have the sense that there are answers to these questions, without being told all the boring detail. That would certainly get in the way of the story.

 

Cover for Toric’s Dagger

I’m excited to reveal the official front cover for Toric’s Dagger, agreed with Streetlight Graphics.

All the advice I get is that the cover of the book is vitally important to reach the right audience. I like this design because it sends out all the right signals that this is a fantasy series. It ties in well with the title of the book and the series too.

Seeing the cover is an encouraging sign that the project is heading towards completion. There are lots of other jobs to do, and I hope that I will soon have a release date for the book.

February Update

After a brief hiatus, I am back to work on getting Toric’s Dagger published. The script has received a professional line edit from Invisible Ink Editing, resulting in many improvements. Next, I need to get a final edit done and then get it formatted for publication. I will also need to get a book cover done and I think the book needs a map of Dalriya in it.

I have joined Wattpad, a cool site to discover new writers. I intend to put my first chapter there, in instalments. I will post here when it is up!

 

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Tigana is a classic, stand alone fantasy novel by one of the greats of fantasy fiction. It is named after a province in the mythical Peninsula of the Palm.

 

Characters

Kay uses multiple points of view in this story, meaning that we look through the eyes of a number of characters. This allows us to follow events across the Palm, from a number of perspectives. I tend to enjoy this approach to fantasy writing and the author handles it well. Most of the characters we follow are exiles, of one kind or another, from Tigana: Devin, young and green; Catriana, equally young but more mature; Dianora, whose story is largely separate from the other characters; Baerd, her brother, full of anger and purpose. Interestingly, their leader, Prince Alessan, is never used as the POV by Kay, leaving him more mysterious and remote, which I think was a good decision. We are even treated to the POV of one of the main adversaries, Alberico of Barbadior, which Kay seems to enjoy writing. The characters are well drawn, with clear motives and backstory. They are also complex: the heroes make morally dubious decisions to get what they want, and the villains can be sympathetic, too. I found I cared about the characters. Having said that, when the book was finished, I didn’t find myself missing them, which can happen with my favourite books.

Worldbuilding

The story is set in the Palm, which is geographically an upside down Italy. Like medieval Italy, it is divided into different, disunited provinces. At the beginning of the story it has been invaded by two different foreign powers, Ygrath and Barbadior, who have divided the Palm between them. The world feels real, with a history, culture and religion of its own. Each province has its own unique characteristics, which inform much of the plot. All this world-building is done with a light touch, so that it never intrudes too much on the story.

There is magic in the Palm, but no great magicians. This explains how the antagonists, Brandin of Ygrath and Alberico of Barbadior, were able to conquer it in the first place. It also helps the reader to root for those struggling for independence, since they are underdogs for this very reason.

Style

Tigana is an effortless read and Kay writes with a sense of poetry, like the earlier fantasy writers. It is, therefore, different to the more modern trend of gritty writing which can make it feel more dated than it is in some ways (it was published in 1990). This sense of poetry and magic pervades this novel, reminding me of classic Arthurian literature. It means that the world is perhaps not always logical or realistic—that’s OK, though—it’s a fantasy novel.

Plot

The story is centred on the fate of Tigana, one of the provinces of the Palm. It has been cursed by Brandin of Ygrath, as punishment for its resistance to his invasion. We focus, therefore, on the efforts of the heroes, mostly exiles from Tigana, to save their homeland. The themes of duty, of belonging to a place or people, are therefore very strong. None of the heroes are ‘super’ heroes, with extraordinary magic or martial skills to help them. Indeed, many of them are most proficient at making music. Neither do they have an army to help them. This fact is both a strength and a weakness of the book. It means that we root for them, as underdogs. However, in order for them to achieve their goals, we have to swallow a fair amount of dubious plotting. The route to victory, apparently, involves years of wandering around carrying out complicated/pointless acts of rebellion, or, conversely, huge acts of self-sacrifice. There is no conventional rebellion or civil war here; neither is there ever an outright attempt at assassination of the two wizards by the heroes. This is despite the fact that other attempts at assassination make it seem eminently achievable. This lack of realism in the plot was the one thing that made me harrumph while reading. Having said that, this is pretty standard fare in the fantasy genre.

Conclusion

This is a really good book, still loved by many, that has stood the test of time. It doesn’t have the complexity of some fantasy epics, but we are so used now to fantasy stories as trilogies, if not longer, that this is a somewhat unfair criticism. In Tigana, Kay achieves in a single novel what many authors fail to do in a series. If we are to judge it against other single, stand alone fantasy novels, then it is up there as one of the best ever written.

 

Rogue One

As a long time Star Wars fan I was upset that one of 2016’s last victims was the legendary Carrie Fisher. She was such an engaging and honest personality whose contribution to the Star Wars story shouldn’t be underestimated. There was some consolation in the release of another Star Wars film though. Rogue One kept the roster of old characters to a minimum, giving a new generation of stars a chance. I’m sure the ever generous Fisher approved.

Chronologically, the film is set just before the first Star Wars film, A New Hope. The Rebel Alliance learns of the building of the Death Star – a powerful weapon central to the Star Wars movies. This places it in familiar enough territory for even the most conservative-minded fans to accept.

Character wise, however, we have a brand new group. Much of the first part of the film is introduced in setting up the new characters, especially lead character Jyn Erso, played well by Felicity Jones. It’s fair to say it takes a while to get going and is a bit over-complicated at first. I was a bit nervous that my 10 and 9 year olds wouldn’t follow it. They were fine in the end and enjoyed it, though I wouldn’t recommend for younger age groups. It would appear that in the final edit they cut out much of Jyn’s adult backstory, which may have been quite interesting: instead we get the rather predictable tragic opening sequences, which have been done to death by Star Wars, let alone the wider genre. A strong supporting cast is added as the film goes along. Personally, however, I didn’t find these characters quite as engaging as in the original movies or the more recent outing, The Force Awakens. There certainly wasn’t a totally unique character added, although K-2SO, a sarcastic ex-imperial droid with a wiped memory, came the closest.

The plot centres on an attempt to locate a weakness in the Death Star which could be exploited by the Rebel Alliance. Once it gets going, the film moves along at a good pace and has a great climax – the last half an hour or so is the best. It is certainly dark in places, but then this is nothing new. The familiar Star Wars world is recreated effectively, with enough new additions to keep us interested. Quite a number of older characters do return for brief cameos – this is generally well managed and not intrusive. One method I was less keen on was computer generated characters rather than the use of actors – this was too techie for me and ‘broke the spell’ somewhat.

All in all this was a good addition to the Star Wars canon and recommended viewing if you’ve somehow avoided it. If you are allergic to Star Wars, there is nothing here to cure you of your terrible affliction. The film does point the way to future projects. One-off stories such as this are already in the pipeline. Eventually, I hope, film-makers will be able to go off in new directions within the Star Wars universe and this film helped people to see that they can enjoy a Star Wars movie without the Skywalkers and other familiar faces in it. Not that I or many like me will ever forget that first time they fell in love with Star Wars – and the role that a certain princess from Alderaan played in that.

On Writing and On Teaching

I did two weeks full time supply cover before the Xmas holidays. All writing projects had to be put on hold. It is very hard to do a full day’s teaching, plus the work you take home, and then have the creative energy to do anything else.

It reminded me of a reference to this by Stephen King in his book On Writing. If you haven’t come across it, this book is a great read on the writing process by one of the modern masters of fiction. There’s a lot of autobiography in there as well. King was an English teacher for two years before he hit the big time with his first bestseller, Carrie. He already had a family by this time as well. In this passage he captures the sense of self-doubt you can get in this situation. It’s certainly something I can relate to:

 

‘The bigger deal was that, for the first time, writing was hard. The problem was the teaching…by most Friday afternoons I felt as if I’d spent the week with jumper cables clamped to my brain. If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then. I could see myself thirty years on, wearing the same shabby tweed coats with patches on the elbows, potbelly rolling over my Gap khakis from too much beer…And of course I’d lie to myself, telling myself there was still time, it wasn’t too late, there were novelists who didn’t get started until they were fifty, hell, even sixty.’

 

In the end, King got his book deal and never looked back. He went on to write The Shining, The Stand, It, The Green Mile, Misery, The Dark Tower series…and more and more. If you want to know how he did it, On Writing is a good place to look.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Saw this at the pictures this weekend with the family. It is the first of what will be a series of films written by JK Rowling and set in the Harry Potter universe. In the UK the film was rated 12A. It was perfectly fine for my 10 & 9 year olds, who love the Harry Potter films. A younger girl behind us didn’t like it so much and got scared, asking to go home, so parents need to do some research first before they go.

Newt Scamander is the main character, played as a wide eyed innocent by Eddie Redmayne. An ex Hogwarts student, he arrives in 1920s New York with a case full of exotic creatures on a vague mission to release one of them into the wild. He finds himself involved in the US wizarding world, partly because a number of his beasts escape his case and cause trouble. He befriends a female wizarding detective and demoted Auror, Tina Goldstein; and a muggle, or no-maj, aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski. Scamander likes magical creatures but beyond this there’s not a whole lot going on character wise, either with Newt or his friends: the acting is average, so it’s a bit of a shrug of the shoulders character wise.

This is the same for the plot. Parents and kids alike found it hard to follow at times, not helped by the mumbling delivery. There are essentially three plot lines that weave together a bit awkwardly: Newt’s aforementioned missing beasts; a much darker story about a dangerous Obscurus roaming New York; the mysterious dark wizard Grindelwald is also on the loose. It sags in the middle and is a bit too long. The plotlines are resolved in a rather perfunctory way. The parents struggled to maintain their interest in all of this and one of them fell asleep – but the kids enjoyed it.

So, what else is going on? Lots of CGI monsters, of course – this was well done, I suppose, without being memorable. The kids liked the fantastic beasts the most. The 1920s setting, with the addition of magic, was perhaps the highlight for me. There was the usual Rowling humour, enough for the kids to enjoy, but few laugh out loud moments. There is also some love interest thrown in for those who require it.

All in all, it’s a little messy, but does enough to entertain as a family film. Rowling fans won’t be disappointed. My kids felt that it was on a par, in most respects, with the Potter films, which is high praise from them. It’s not, for me, a film for adults alone. One of those films where the kids will want to get the DVD next year and the parents might leave them to it.

Beta Readers and Editors

So, becoming a self-published author is turning into an interesting journey. I am learning about the industry all the time at the moment, largely thanks to the websites of other writers who have been kind enough to share their experiences and give a newbie like myself a leg up.

The ‘traditional’ way of publishing would involve landing a deal with a big publisher, who sees enough in your work to think they might make a profit with it. They would then use their in-house experts, such as editors, cover designers, publicists etc to get your manuscript up to scratch and your book marketed to potential readers. If you are self-publishing, you have to do all this yourself. This can seem quite daunting. Some of it you may need to pay someone else to do. This can be expensive. DIY can be empowering and, of course, cheaper. But if you DIY and produce something crap, you’re not doing yourself or your book any favours.

I am currently embarking on phase one of outside help, which involves improving my novel. To simplify more than a little, there are two ways in which you can do this. One is to ask people to read your manuscript and give you their feedback. The idea here is that you use said feedback to improve what you have written (rather than ignoring it all because actually what you have written is brilliant and perfect and they are idiots, which is my initial response). You can get family and friends to do this: if they are prepared to be honest – if they have the skill set to give helpful feedback – & if they understand the genre you are writing in. If you are not blessed with such people in your life, you can get strangers to do it. These people are often referred to as beta readers – willing to read your work and give constructive feedback. One option is for two writers to read each other’s material and swap critiques.

Method two is to pay a professional editor to look at and improve your work. With the growth of the self-publishing industry, there are plenty of professional editors about. There are a number of things they can do to what you have written, from a proofread correcting your written errors to an analysis of your story elements, such as plot and character. If you are going to spend any money on this, you should carefully research the options before committing to anything.

I am about to try both options and hope that the result will be a better first novel when I come to publish next year. Anyone interested in beta reading my manuscript, please let me know!

 

If you are interested in self-publishing, here is a list of some of those writer websites I mentioned who discuss the ins and outs of the industry.

 

PublishedtoDeath

ADStarrling

JaneFriedman

Creativindie

The Creative Penn