Category Archives: Fantasy

Literature Commentary: A Song of Ice and Fire (Books 1-3)

It’s been a long time since I sat down to read an epic high-fantasy series. Too often, these books end up being blatant Tolkien rip-offs, with a clever variant or two to keep things interesting. With the recent popularity of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” TV show, however, one series has emerged at the forefront of the American cultural consciousness: the “Song of Ice and Fire” series, by George R.R. Martin. After TIME labeled him “the American Tolkien,” I was skeptical…but thought the books were worth a try.

The series (planned to be seven books, five of which have been released) is set on the continent of Westeros – geographically similar to the UK. The lands of Westeros are subdivided into seven kingdoms, each of which is ruled by a “Great House.” Among these Houses are the noble Starks, the cunning Lannisters, and the royal Baratheons.

As the series progresses, two major plotlines emerge: the struggle for ultimate political power between the seven houses, and the constant threat of invasion by the monstrous “Others” of the north. Succinctly summarizing Martin’s story would go far beyond the scope of this review (and necessarily involve heavy spoilers), but suffice it to say that the books remain compelling even after 3,500 pages.

Martin is a brilliant writer. He successfully juggles multiple points of view per book, while simultaneously managing to give each character their own unique voice. By any metric, his prose is far superior to many of his contemporaries in the genre. Accounts of the mythic world unfold with fluid lyricism, without ever lapsing into Tolkienesque descriptive tedium (yes, I know that’s heresy), and a ruthlessly fast-paced plot consistently engages the reader.

Martin is known – and often derided – for his tendency to kill off popular characters. This, however, makes “A Song of Ice and Fire” incredibly gripping: if heroes aren’t genuinely vulnerable, there’s little reason to cheer when they succeed. In Martin’s viscerally lifelike world, no one is safe.

Any discussion of “A Song of Ice and Fire” will inevitably raise questions regarding the TV show, “Game of Thrones.” The HBO adaptation is notorious for its graphic content – and while Martin’s books certainly contain plenty of depravity, the show (from what I’ve seen of it) certainly exaggerates this.

The multiple-viewpoint style employed by Martin results in differing reactions to immoral behavior: a corrupt character may attend a brothel (and engage in what that entails), while a noble man of honor feels disgust and revulsion at the very idea. By unfolding the story through stream-of-consciousness techniques, Martin sheds light on the inner thoughts and emotions of his characters. Just as in life, a character’s response to moral darkness is contingent on their personal convictions. It’s probably fair to say, though, that immorality isn’t objectively glamorized.

This brings up an interesting question: can it be healthy to appreciate a fictional work that, by its very narrative structure, forces one to engage with diseased minds? I think the answer is a qualified “yes.”

In a very real sense, Martin is telling multiple stories within one overarching “meta-plot.” Some of these stories have deep moral flaws, but these flaws stem primarily from the characters telling them. If one were to read the inmost thoughts of several world leaders – say, Barack Obama, David Cameron, Hu Jintao, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – one might very well be exposed to moral darkness. Throughout his opus, Martin leaves the question of ethical judgment up to the reader (which may be a strength or a weakness, depending on one’s perspective).

All that being said, however, this is definitely a series intended for mature readers. Martin’s world – which draws much of its stylistic inspiration from real-world history – contains brutal violence, sexuality, strong language, moral ambiguity, and pervasive cynicism. Many will be turned off by the frank portrayal of these elements (and to be entirely fair, at times these become excessive). The books are excellent reading and remarkably thought-provoking, but certainly feature their share of human vice.

Whether or not “A Song of Ice and Fire” embraces a single overarching worldview is unclear. Martin does, however, address religious issues: the three predominant faiths in Westeros are each patterned after real-world belief systems. The “old gods,” worshiped in tree groves, clearly derive from ancient pagan/animistic traditions. The ritualized faith of the “new gods” – specifically, the worship of a deity that reveals itself in seven aspects, yet exists as one god – is obviously rebadged Catholicism. And finally, the dualistic “Faith of R’hllor, the Lord of Light and Shadow” draws inspiration from Zoroastrianism.

This subtext provides a fascinating backdrop for the events which unfold, but is criminally underutilized. Almost without exception, major plot developments occur because of military victories, acts of treason, or forged alliances…throughout the series, the importance of ideological conflict never truly takes center stage. Given Martin’s propensity for rooting his novels in history, this deficit is somewhat surprising. The Reformation – which initially began as a theological dispute over church doctrine – led to centuries of bloody conflict between states. In Martin’s world, however, all is reducible to raw power (to an almost Machiavellian extent). This makes for pulse-pounding reading, but lacks depth; in reality, ideas – even more than the insatiable lust to dominate – have been shown to catalyze action.

So are the books worth reading?

It depends. Fans of “traditional” fantasy may find Martin’s realistic/historical storytelling dull. Those expecting a “clean” story will be horrified by the vivid depictions of evil on display. On the other hand, those who appreciate political intrigue will find the books eminently compelling…and inquiring minds will appreciate the thorny questions the series raises.

Not everyone will enjoy “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Even critics, however, must cede that it is an outstanding work of prose. On both stylistic and thematic levels, Martin draws on a rich tradition of history, myth, and legend – then makes the story uniquely his own. And that, in an increasingly simplistic and derivative genre, is a remarkable accomplishment.

An intense, dark exploration of humanity through the eyes of a mythmaker. Martin fully deserves the title “American Tolkien.”


Posted by on June 7, 2012 in Fantasy


Movie Review: “Snow White and the Huntsman”

My first thought, upon hearing of this movie, was “Kristen Stewart as the ‘fairest of them all’? You’ve got to be kidding me.” But a series of remarkably intriguing trailers – sporting some spectacular effects and action – were enough to convince me that it might be worth seeing. Besides, I’m a sucker for huge swords-and-horses epics…particularly when a few scary-looking beasties get thrown in.

The verdict? Mixed.

The plot of “Snow White and the Huntsman” isn’t exactly obscure: evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) wants to kill beautiful princess Snow White (Kristen Stewart) to obtain eternal youth. Snow promptly flees to the Dark Forest, where she meets the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and a band of surly dwarves. Large-scale battles result.

So what sets “Snow White and the Huntsman” apart? The answer is surprisingly multifaceted.

For starters, this is a gorgeous film. I don’t mean that in the “Avatar” or “Avengers” sense – if all its digital effects were set aside, “Snow White and the Huntsman” would remain a beautifully rendered cinematic vision. Everything – from shot composition to art design – is spellbinding. I found myself frequently thinking that any still image from this movie could be enlarged and framed like a painting…it’s that good. With the addition of some appropriate, unobtrusive computer graphics, it becomes simply exquisite.

I didn’t expect there to be any heavy worldview elements in this movie. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to discover some interesting undercurrents. Most notably, Snow’s quest is cast in far more messianic terms than in the source material.

At the beginning of the film, Snow recites the Lord’s Prayer in its entirety – a very surprising touch. Not only is this highly anachronistic (since when do fantasy worlds refer explicitly to the real-world Bible?) it doesn’t seem to “fit” at first. Further context, however, sheds light on this inclusion. In a pivotal scene, Snow encounters the glorious White Hart – described reverently as “He” by the dwarves. As she touches the mythical creature, a dwarf whispers breathlessly “She is the one!” The scene is even shot in such a way that Snow appears to be standing on water.

In any other fantasy film, I’d write this off as stereotypical “SHE IS THE FULFILLMENT OF THE PROPHECY!” posturing. But the film takes this a step further: whereas in the source material “true love’s kiss” is the force that resurrects Snow, in “Snow White and the Huntsman” not a single mention is made of “true love’s” supposedly miraculous power. (Ironically, Snow is actually betrayed by a kiss at one point.) Though it’s never explicitly stated, there’s a very real sense that Snow is acting out a much larger, cosmic plan of sorts…that this is a struggle for the ultimate victory of good, not just a squabble over magical Botox.

(Side note for any serious theology buffs: early on in the movie, a much younger Snow helps heal a bird with a broken wing. The “Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” a Gnostic text purporting to describe the childhood of Christ, contains a story in which Jesus shapes birds from clay and then commands them to fly, bringing them to life. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t an intentional inclusion, but if so…it’s a very clever touch.)

All that being said, this semi-messianic theme remains underdeveloped throughout the third act – and this highlights perhaps the most unfortunate problem with “Snow White and the Huntsman”: obvious meddling by studio executives. In their efforts to make a “tentpole” movie that would appeal to all audiences, the top brass evidently succeeded in deleting anything contentious or innovative. The end product, naturally, is rather bland.

The seeds of a really, really good movie are here. The first half-hour is spellbinding, and I’d be surprised if the movie didn’t scoop up a few awards for its gorgeous cinematography throughout. What drags it down is an abysmal script…one that consistently refuses to go in any interesting directions. The evil queen comes closest to being a nuanced character, but there’s no follow-through. In her final confrontation with the queen, Snow declares “You can’t have my heart.” (No, really? I had no idea!) An awkward pause follows, and I hoped there would be some unique follow-up…some forgiveness proffered or redemption foreshadowed. But alas, such was not to be.

(Note to screenwriters: throwing in a tragic Sympathy Scene to try to “humanize” your villain is a cheap move. If “The Silence of the Lambs” featured a flashback of Hannibal Lecter being bullied in high school, would that have improved the movie? There are better ways to create a multidimensional antagonist.)

This, in turn, hamstrings the very talented actors on display. Charlize Theron conjures up cold menace as the queen, but the script requires her to do lots of deranged screaming…which ends up sounding ludicrous. Kristen Stewart comes off as a bit of a prig, and Chris Hemsworth is obviously still stuck in “Thor” mode.

None of this is to say that “Snow White and the Huntsman” is a “bad” movie. It’s not – in fact, when stacked up against “Clash of the Titans,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and others, it’s pretty good. It reminded me a lot of the Narnia films (in a good way)…there’s much more C.S. Lewis than Tim Burton here. As entertainment, I enjoyed it…though I can’t help wondering how much better it could have been.

For all the hype over the “dark” tone of this film, it’s really pretty tame in the content department. There are a few mild sexual elements, and frequent outbreaks of mostly-bloodless violence, but the PG-13 rating is never pushed. (Given the source material, I expected some serious boundary-pushing on all levels…but this doesn’t materialize).

Is it worth watching?

If not in theaters, owners of Blu-ray players need to see this one at some point…the visuals and cinematography are breathtaking. Fans of fantasy action epics could do much worse, and there is some interesting food for thought here. In the end, “Snow White and the Huntsman” is a good film – but one that falls short of greatness by a maddeningly slim margin.

A gorgeously rendered, though tragically substance-less, fantasy epic.


Posted by on June 2, 2012 in Fantasy


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