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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Global Warming: Why The Winds of Winter May Never Come

This morning, I found myself penning a feisty screed about sequels, and I've been meaning to write an article about them for some time. Apparently, the moment has come. 

I have a theory about why ASOIAF's main storyline is screwed up beyond repair. It's not unrelated to the issues of the Kingkiller Chronicles, which have also been all but abandoned by Patrick Rothfuss.

As much as authors don't owe their fans instant gratification or satisfaction of every whim, offering a finishing date and moving that is a breach of etiquette and trust, especially since it's been going on for so many years. 

I'm no stranger to setting up sequels and struggling to finish them. No author is. But these books have gotten somewhat out of control, and after a few years of trying to discuss it, I think I can summarize the reasons why, both quickly and simply.

The what now? (No, really.)

If you've somehow been living under a rock or in a windowless void in some alternate dimension, A Song of Ice and Fire is the series by George R R Martin that's been adapted to a big-budget tv show by HBO. It's been a smash hit, especially for its controversy-courting topics and often blunt, insensitive approach to issues. It's basically historical fanfiction combining The War of the Roses (mostly as presented by Shakespeare), the Borgias of Renaissance Italy, Mongolian Huns circa Ghenghis Khan's reign, and Vikings, with protagonists plucked from other works of classic literature for spice, and absolutely shameless borrowing from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn's plots and themes (a series by author Tad Williams that features a fire priest, coming winter, undead creatures, nasty political conflict, and the reawakening of magic). 

(If you don't know those names, I recommend a wander through Wikipedia for the basics, because the history stuff is really cool. There's also somewhat inaccurate but entertaining and lush series about the Borgias, Vikings, and Mongolian rulers on Netflix. Shakespeare covered the whole War of the Roses, so you can listen to or watch readings of the plays on Youtube if you're wondering what those were about. There's no shame in reading notes for Shakespeare, and hearing all that intricate speech is easier than reading it sometimes. So now you know!)

Oh, and there's some dragons, intriguing bits of Lovecraft/Robert E. Howard fanfiction that doesn't go anywhere, and nods to Celtic myth cycles that also don't really get used that much. Everyone else and their dog has covered the feminist and representation issues in the series, but this should give you a rough idea of what it's about or what it's like. He also kills way too many peasants in the series, which did not happen in mediaeval Europe, because a) they were civilians and b) peasants are an important resource in a non-industrial country, but I guess that's what it takes for an adequately upsetting body count. 

It has some strong points, like the way Martin manages to subvert tropes by exploring them very fully, and the disability representation is pretty good, in my opinion. It has tons of worldbuilding porn and description porn, but long-term readers of fantasy and pulp aren't going to find anything truly challenging here. Basically, it's fine. But it's not perfect, and it could be better - as I'll explain in a second.

SO - be aware of the SPOILERS SPOILER SPOILERS referred to herein.

Why should we care? 

The thing is, A Song of Ice and Fire about the Starks. There are other characters, but we meet them first, we are given cues to care about them, and we connect with them. We explore more of their perspectives than those of any other family, including the Targaryens and Lannisters. Ned Stark died in the first book, as we probably all know. However, that wasn't a dealbreaker - as his family got scattered to the winds, readers and Martin had a strong motivation to see them reunited.

The reuniting a family theme is actually underused, but it worked in Fivel Goes West and it worked here. Eagerly devouring the books, we all hoped to see the Starks come back together, surviving their harsh circumstances (which are historically inaccurate as heck, by the way). 

BUT - in book 3, when the Red Wedding happened (killing eldest son Rob Stark, his mother, and his new wife - even though his mother returned as a scary undead lady), it all fell apart. Sure, it was a brilliantly unpredicted plot twist - but it messed up the emotional throughline. 

Who do we care about, and why?

A land is made up of people. The history of a world is meaningless if it doesn't include individuals. By killing off so many Starks one by one - and by killing their direwolves, too - GRRM completely nuked his own emotional throughline. That's why books 4 and 5 start focusing on Noble #5 and Suitor #3, characters that we don't care about, and why they're such a mess. The books would benefit from focusing on non-noble characters, but classism fetishization is an important problem in fantasy as it is, and GRRM does little to remedy it.

All the other families could be torn apart, but by killing too many of his real protagonists, he made the emotional throughline of the book completely collapse. I don't know if it can be fixed, and I think that's why The Winds of Winter just keeps failing to come out. He's trying to write his way out of a hole, but the fact remains that he killed the characters who gave us a reason to give a shit about the story.

Someone might say "but the story is bigger than the Starks!" But that's the point - it isn't. They symbolise so many other families torn apart. There is no real hope in the series. It's equivalent to a romance novel where one of the protagonists gets killed halfway through (in a contemporary setting without magic or tech to bring them back) or a mystery where there's no solution.

What's wrong with that? 

Artistic works usually set up an emotional contract with the reader, albeit an unspoken one: "I will create people and a journey for you to care about, and you will spend your hours reading my work--and in exchange, I will provide you some kind of satisfying conclusion, or at least finish what I set up."

ASOIAF has broken its most important throughline, and the author has inadvertently sabotaged himself. Between that and the pressure of living up to what he's set up - because The Big Fight That Changes Everything is a risky creative choice at the best of times, actually - Martin has to fight himself to get it out. Hence the years of delay. But if an editor had been allowed to cut all those stupid and unemotionally interesting attempts (far too late in the series, I might add) to hook us into someone else to care about, and to mess with his stupid murder-fetish earlier, maybe the series could have been saved.

Of course, I might be wrong, and we might see The Winds of Winter come out any month now. But it sure is hard, as a former fan, to watch the deadlines keep getting pushed. Because it's not just "the book isn't done yet" - it's that he's mentioned release dates, and they fall through over and over. Even if that's his right, it does suck to deal with.

And personally, I just don't care anymore. In such times as these, I've gotten weary of endless dark and gritty tales with few redeeming features. Having outgrown Can Lit and the fetishes of literary fiction - more on that in my next post - I need more than chronically depressed murder-hobo protagonists. 

I need hope, and life, and a world outside the muggy, stifling confines of imaginary Western Europe.

Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime, housemate, and their cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and nightmares, as well as social justice issues. She is currently working on the next books in her series, other people's manuscripts, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.

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