Thursday, December 22, 2016

Review: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The crucial difference between Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings is that George R.R. Martin overthrows the fundamental order of Tolkien’s work. Middle Earth was always a place torn between good and evil; you had Sauron and the Nazgul as pure bad guys, and Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn as unquestionably good. There were a few who found themselves somewhere in the middle – to different degrees, Boromir, Gollum, and Saruman – but there’s never a question about the bedrock showdown of right versus wrong.

Martin’s great innovation in fantasy – even beyond his often wonderful capacity to create and people an epic landscape – is his evocation of an amoral universe. No one in Westeros (or Essos) is anointed as good or even evil. Ned Stark, as noble as anyone we know, is too stern and wedded to ‘stark’ justice to be all good. And Cersei, the conniving and arrogant queen who stands as our likeliest most evil personage, has an abiding love for her children which, coupled with her frustration at the imposed limits of a woman in her world, buys her some forgiveness.

The various Song of Ice and Fire books range from the best in the genre (the first, Game of Thrones) to just well above average (the last two), but the saga as a whole has legitimately reinvigorated epic fantasy. If you’ve ever suffered through The Wheel of Time or The Sword of Truth, you have an idea how bad some of what passes for good fantasy can be. Martin, even bad Martin, is in a whole different league.

In that context, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is a funny work. On the one hand, it extends the epic nature of The Song of Ice and Fire back a full century. That’s good not just for giving us more detail but also for the way it implies that, apocalyptic as the saga is, it isn’t the only flash point in the history of the world. It tempers the idea that, but for Daenerys, John Snow, and Tyrion, the world would end. It’s an amoral universe, and its characters of every age confront serious threats to the order they know. Tolkien is apocalyptic; the trilogy ends with the beginning of what amounts to a messianic age. (Yes, I know Tolkien reflected on that point and, in some of his letters, gave us a sense of the diminished, human nature of the fourth age. But the books themselves end with the returned king anointed as a savior of the world. So, yeah, it’s messianic.) His story could not have happened at any other moment just as its characters are all either good or evil. This book shows Martin imagining a world as much in the balance in every generation as in the one we see most fully.

On the other hand, this book undermines some of the amoral nature of the world. Dunk is a good guy. A really good guy. Sure, he may have been a bit of a wild child, and, true, he may defy some of the lords at the end, but he is committed to a code of chivalry that others recognize as nonsense. Our friend the Hound would have a field day with him.

We get told over and over again that the forces of the red dragon and the forces of the black both had good people among them. As it plays out, though, the red Targaryens are simply better than the black. True, it’s not as existential a difference as in Tolkien, but it follows pretty consistently that the people behind the “true-born” claimant are more decent the people behind the bastard. (This, by the way, is a Shakespearean distinction, one we see most clearly between Edgar and Edmund in King Lear.)

That diminishment of Martin’s signature move – that mapping of Westeros onto a traditional good/evil axis – makes this less ambitious than the beautifully amoral seven-book saga. It also, more even than the old-school illustrations or the centrality of the child Egg, makes this a children’s book. That’s not to say this is appropriate for children (it does get a little ribald at times) but that it doesn’t push us to ask the fundamental questions about the nature of goodness. It’s a story and, as such, it’s comforting where A Song of Ice and Fire is fundamentally disturbing.

All that said, this book does have its charms. The illustrations have a magic to them, and the three linked stories in them work to give a gentle hint about the nature and scope of this world. The digressions about Targaryen succession and civil war eventually pay off in the final plot here – and they serve as scraps to people hungry for more of the saga – but they drag a bit along the way.

We’re all waiting for the next book in the series. Until then, if you’re really impatient and you tamp down your expectations, this will tide you over for a time.

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