Unfinished business

Mark Vaughan-Jackson
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I like the fall. Crisp, sunny days; the faintest smell of winter in the wind — not cold, not truly wintery yet, but just enough to make you feel alive.

I also like the fact that fall is harvest time, in the book world as well as on the farm.

Seems like everyone has new books out, which is a good thing in the sci-fi/fantasy world where all your favourite authors write in threes and fives and 10s.

For me it’s also a time to change gears.

I’m stocking up on new releases, but I’m not about to start them just yet. A little unfinished business, first.

A while back I posed a couple of questions about everyone’s favourite big beard, George R.R. Martin.

Is he one of (if not the) best epic fantasy author currently writing? Which is better — the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series or the slightly misnamed “Game of Thrones” TV series. Or, if not better, which is better known?

When I posed those questions, I had just started watching Season 1 on DVD of the series, while at the same time, starting all over again with Book 1, “Game of Thrones.”

It took me about five or six weeks but I managed to get through Season 1 and 2 of the show and up to Book 5, “A Dance with Dragons.”

Where I could, I tried to pace my reading, at least for the earlier books, to keep in step with the TV series. It was fascinating.

First off, it was quite refreshing how close to the books the show was — particularly in Season 1.

After that, naturally, there was a considerable amount of divergence, with characters switched around and entire chapters and sub-plots left on the editing room floor.

Not surprising, considering how dense and — above all — long the original books are.

But you know, I didn’t mind.

To be honest, the best thing about this entire exercise was the fact that I made myself go back and re-read a series that I had given up on in Book 3.

The TV series is, quite simply, brilliant. Well written, beautifully filmed and populated with a very, very strong cast.

It added a lot to the reading experience, having the faces and voices of the characters from the show as mental references as you read the books — even though, let’s face it, a few of the characters simply didn’t match their initial description in the book.

That was fine.

All in all, reading and watching at the same time made this a particularly enjoyable, rewarding experience. It made a couple of things very, very clear to me.

First, let’s get it out of the way — Martin is, without doubt, one of the finest epic fantasy writers there is. Indeed, probably one of the finest there has ever been.

(Note, I say “one of” — I’m not about to give anyone the title of best ever simply because there are too many, widely diverse but utterly brilliant writers out there, living and dead.)

If nothing else, the sheer breadth of Martin’s world, the detail, the masses of interlocking characters and relationships is enough to earn him the kudos.

I can think of several fantasy worlds that are as rich and detailed; I can think of a few where the cast of characters are as diverse, their interactions as tortuously twisted, where the intrigue runs as deep.

But I can’t think of many who manage to do both with such panache.

Martin is an absolute master at this and watching the shows and reading the books together underscores this.

There simply isn’t a body of work quite like it. (Please also note: I’m not saying there aren’t series out there equally as good, or better, even. But there aren’t any that are quite like this body of work. At what he does, Martin is the best.)

And that brings me to the bits of his work that I don’t like. I really mind that this was a series that I gave up on. I’ve been reading sci-fi fantasy since I was a pre-teen. My library is up in the thousands of books (not including the hundreds of books I lost when I was forced to sell them for pennies when I moved back to Newfoundland 20 years ago.)

These books are a huge part of the fabric of my life and I get upset when I come across a series that grabs me by the soul, that shows such wonderful promise, but then defeats or disappoints me before the conclusion.

Back in the day, I couldn’t get past

Book 3, “A Storm of Swords.” And that rankled.

Now that I have gone back and re-read all of them (and I confess enjoying the TV series as a companion piece aided in this) I now know why I failed the last time.

Martin’s world is so complex, so detailed that it is best served as a single multi-course feast rather than as separate dishes.

And this is where Martin’s own process lets him down

“Game of Thrones” was published in 1996. “A Clash of Kings” followed in 1998 and then “A Storm of Swords” in 2000. Then there was a gap until “A Feast of Crows” in 2005 followed by a huge chasm before “A Dance with Dragons” in 2011.

The narrative is so complex here that unless you go back and re-read the preceding books, there’s no way you can keep track of everyone, of all the plots and twists after a two-year or a five-year or a six-year break.

Back then I didn’t re-read first, I just read the next book in the series. And it didn’t work for me.

So, here we are — 17 years after the first book was published and now, finally, I can fully enjoy the immense richnesss that is “A Song of Ice and Fire.”

But there’s just one catch.

Even as I wait for Season 3 of the TV series, I’m still waiting — along with half the planet — for the next book. It’s taken

17 years to get this far and we still have two books to go.

Kudos to HBO and the production team for getting behind this as a massive mini-series, when, for all intents and purposes, they don’t know how the story ends. A gutsy move that, so far at least, has paid off.

Kudos to George Martin for continuing to churn out some of the finest fantasy I have ever read. I just wish he was a little faster, that’s all.

I know writing something as complex and as polished as this takes time, and I know Martin always seems to be involved in other projects, from other solo books, to collaborations, to editing anthologies and doing the sci-fi convention rounds — not to mention his TV duties with the series.

It’s just that, having gone back and read everything again as a continuous thread and having the wonderful TV images as an extra spice has me so excited, I’m suffering actual depression at the fact that Book 6 isn’t finished yet, let alone Book 7.

Ah well. All good things come to those who wait, I guess. I just wish we sci-fi fantasy fans didn’t have to wait quite so long and quite so often.


Mark Vaughan-Jackson is The Telegram’s features editor and a slightly impatient sci-fi and fantasy addict. he can be reached at mvj@thetelegram. com.

Twitter: @telebookmark

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