One of the signs of a pop culture success is the ‘jumping on the band-wagon’ to capitalize on that success. I don’t mean this to be as negative as it sounds. Take, for instance, a book of essays like this – Beyond the Wall – which has a number of people examining different aspects of the popular book and television series A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin. This book certainly wouldn’t exist if the series weren’t extremely popular (where are the books like this on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber or Louis L’Amour’s Sackett series, or Jan Karon’s Mitford books? And honestly, they may exist, I can’t say I’ve looked for them, but it’s more likely that they haven’t seen the pop culture success that Martin’s books have seen.
The up-side to this is that for those of us who enjoying digging a little deeper into a series, or who appreciate new viewpoints or learning something new, we have that opportunity through books like this.
I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of Martin’s books (mostly because I’ve only read the first one and only seen the first season of the HBO hit series), but I’m certainly more interested in exploring both based on some of the essays in this collection (and because I’ve waited long enough to read this book and write this review, there’s a new television series set in this world, which should renew interest in a book such as this).
First, I’ll note that I appreciated Linda Antonsson and Elio M. Garcia, Jr.’s comment in their article, “The Palace of Love, the Palace of Sorrow,” that “readers identify with characters, not socioeconomic trends, so it’s natural to position protagonists and antagonists as the primary instigators of events.” Readers of my reviews will note that I comment on this quite often.
One of my favorite essays in the collection is Myke Cole’s “Art Imitates War” in which, early on, he writes:
If there’s one specific area I like to hone in on, it’s Martin’s facility with character. Martin routinely steps into the mindsets of a wide range of characters who are nothing like him. … Each one fully realized. Each one authentic. And each one suffering from intense trauma. Martin’s not very nice to his characters. Westeros is a rough place to grow up. Every single major character in the saga is horribly traumatized at some point, and that trauma is exacerbated as their stories evolve. It’s in that trauma, and how his characters react to it, that I see Martin at his best.
That Cole has been to war multiple times, and responded to domestic disasters makes him keenly aware of what emotional trauma does to people.
I thought that the piece by Matt Staggs, “Petyr Baelish and the Mask of Sanity” was quite well written, with observations such as:
One of the great charms of Martin’s epic is that the author avoids the good versus evil dichotomy present in much of fantasy fiction, instead opting to present a more textured, realistic human tableau. Just exactly who the heroes and villains are depends on one’s perspective, and even then neither designation is necessarily static: the despised monster of one book may be the hero of another, or vice versa.
Martin doesn’t introduce an external source of evil in his work because it isn’t required. There is corruption and depravity and sin in A Song of Ice and Fire, but it can all be ascribed to human fallibility. Supernatural evil is exceptionally rare, and when it appears, it is almost uniformly alien.
Caroline Spector’s essay, “Power and Feminism in Westeros” was also a powerful and well-written piece and John Jos. Miller’s article “Collecting Ice and Fire in the Age of Nook and Kindle” was as much a fascinating and informative look at book publishing and collecting as it was a connection to the Martin saga.
Fans of the Song of Fire and Ice books and series will definitely want to get some extra insight into these books.
This book contains the following:
Foreword • Stories for the Nights to Come by R.A. Salvatore
Introduction • In Praise of Living History by James Lowder
“The Palace of Love, the Palace of Sorrow • Romanticism in A Song of Ice and Fire” by Linda Antonsson and Elio M. García, Jr.
“Men and Monsters • Rape, Myth-Making, and the Rise and Fall of Nations in A Song of Ice and Fire” by Alyssa Rosenberg
“Same Song in a Different Key • Adapting A Game of Thrones as a Graphic Novel” by Daniel Abraham
“An Unreliable World • History and Timekeeping in Westeros” by Adam Whitehead
“Back to the Egg • The Prequels to A Song of Ice and Fire” by Gary Westfahl
“Art Imitates War • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in A Song of Ice and Fire” by Myke Cole
“The Brutal Cost of Redemption in Westeros • Or, What Moral Ambiguity?” by Susan Vaught
“Of Direwolves and Gods” by Andrew Zimmerman Jones
“A Sword Without a Hilt • The Dangers of Magic in (and to) Westeros” by Jesse Scoble
“Petyr Baelish and the Mask of Sanity” by Matt Staggs
“A Different Kind of Other • The Role of Freaks and Outcasts in A Song of Ice and Fire” by Brent Hartinger
“Power and Feminism in Westeros” by Caroline Spector
“Collecting Ice and Fire in the Age of Nook and Kindle” by John Jos. Miller
“Beyond the Ghetto • How George R.R. Martin Fights the Genre Wars” by Ned Vizzini
Looking for a good book? Beyond the Wall is a collection of essays about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series (both books and television), edited by James Lowder. There are some definite gems among the collection that will have you looking at the series in some new light.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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Beyond the Wall
editor: James Lowder
publisher: BenBella Books, Inc.
paperback, 220 pages