Friday, March 4, 2011

My Song of Ice and Fire

It's a good time to be a Song of Ice and Fire fan. Not only does the HBO series based on the books premiere next month, but yesterday the estimable Jordan Pedersen kindly informed me today that the fifth volume in George R.R. Martin's epic saga will be released on July 12th of this year. I, for one, am stoked. 

For those of you who are not nerdy enough to know what I'm talking about, A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the more successful fantasy series of the past ten years. George R.R. Martin is a former television screenwriter who wanted to rebel against the strict time issues of the boob tube by writing a good, old-fashioned multi-volume saga featuring a cast of thousands. There have been four installments, each one widened the scope and sweep of the story. 

A visit to any bookstore will reveal that there are far too many multi-volume fantasy sagas currently in the works. But A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the better ones for a large number of reasons: Martin's history as a screenwriter gives him a knack for good dialogue, the cast of characters is large but each personality remains vividly distinct, even the "evil" characters are humans that invite empathy and, most importantly, the high body count keeps things interesting. No character is immune to a possible early demise, and while gruesome, the violent nature of the plot keeps the reader on his toes. Any one of these characters could die at any moment with little warning, and often many of them do. 

You have probably gathered that I like the series quite a bit. It's not my favorite set of fantasy books out there - I don't know if a writer can ever top the poetic prose of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (or the mythic scope of the even better Silmarillion). But A Song of Ice and Fire is a series that is mine in a way Tolkien - an author dead before I was born - will never be. I grew up with these books. I read the first two in ninth grade, I checked the third out of the library when it came out and I couldn't afford to buy the hardback. I read them and reread them, I eagerly awaited the next installments, I sent nerdy teenage fanmail to the author (he wrote back!), I followed websites and message boards to read the theories and speculation about what was going to happen next in the series. I forced them upon unsuspecting friends. During a short but important time in ninth grade, these books were my favorite things to read.

They're not perfect, which I figured out as I got older. Martin's old screenwriting career gives him a lot of skills, but it also gave him an over-reliance on melodrama and cliffhangers. Also, like Robert Jordan before him, the prospect of plotting a multi-volume series has caused him to make a few chronological missteps that he's had to work hard to untangle. A change in plans meant that the fourth book took  five years to write, and ended up being awkwardly paced, only featured only half of the major cast, and was generally perceived to be not of the stellar quality of the first three.

And then, silence. Even though Martin had promised the next book was already half-complete and would be finished within a year, the year became two, then three, then five. At this point, Martin has published only one book and two short stories in the past decade. The ongoing joke was that Robert Jordan (with two posthumous novels in the past two years) was more productive dead than Martin was alive. 

I lost interest for several reasons. I grew up and started reading other things. I realized that even the first three books were not as flawless as I had originally perceived. I read the fourth book in college, and enjoyed it, but there was something missing that kept me from devoting myself to marathon reading sessions in order to find out what happened next. I suspected that Martin's continual promise of the book coming out "next year" were increasingly delusional. At a certain point, I stopped caring. A Song of Ice and Fire was one of those gems from my high school days that I felt a certain amount of affection for, but I no longer considered one of my current interests. Jaded and disappointed, I even stopped recommending the books to friends.

But this year, apparently, is the year that A Song of Ice and Fire is born anew. I'm both anticipating and dreading the new TV series. I'm excited that they're making a show based on my once favorite books, but the sixteen-year old nerd inside of me just knows that they're going to mess it up and get the official colors of House Martell all wrong and mix up the physical features of the Andals and the Rhoynar and other such minutiae. In my head, I know I can't hold television to the exacting standard of detail of a sixteen-year old nerd, but in my heart it's what I'll be expecting.

And now, in addition to the TV series, a new book this July. Again, I'm worried that it won't live up the incredible thrill I got when reading this series as a teenager. I'm not sure how it could. But I am hoping that they can make me feel, even if just for a minute, like I did when I was fifteen years old and reading these books for the first time, staying up until four in the morning to find out what happens, resisting the urge to page ahead and spoil the ending. After all, I may have drifted apart from A Song of Ice and Fire, but these are still my books and I am still under their spell as much as a religious apostate carries germs of his former faith inside of him. 

When I read that email from Jordan that the new book was going out, all my gripes about the series, worries about the television adaptation, disappointments with Martin as a writer, boredom with the books' corny cliffhangers and often juvenile sex scenes, all of that flew out of my head. I felt nothing but an honest surge of excitement that a new book was coming out. I felt like that sixteen-year old kid who finally got to check A Storm of Swords out of the public library after being on the wait list for two months. 

And that is why these books will always be my books, the books I read during those formative early high school years that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Because my first thought upon hearing the news was not, "Finally," not "I hope it's good," not "About time, it's been almost six years," not "I'm currently reading Dostoevksy, why should I go back to this?" not even "He's totally planning the release date around the HBO series to make more money." It was, "I'm excited and can't wait." It's increasingly rare that I feel this kind of unencumbered anticipation and glee for anything. Because beneath all my cynical pop-culture blogger sensibilities, I'm really just an unabashed A Song of Ice and Fire fanboy, and no amount of age, maturity or critical taste is going to fix that. 

So I'll see you on July 13th. Don't call me on July 12th, because I won't answer my phone. I'll be reading.