>A Song of Ice and Wire #1: All Prologue

>Aside from an unfortunate-yet-still-awesome Christmas Day marathon of all three Lord of the Rings in HD on TNT, fantasy is one of those things that I pay less attention to as I get older. I’m a big Harry Potter/Neil Gaiman/China Mieville guy, but every time someone recommends a book I might enjoy — among them Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and The Name of the Wind — I tend to pick it up, read a few pages, and then get bored.

Actually, wait. I blitzed through the first of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books a while back, but that’s because, much like “scariest environment imaginable,” all you need to say to get me interested is “dragons in the Napoleonic era.” Which you wouldn’t think would work — but it completely does. Check that one out.

George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first in his Song of Ice and Fire series, is one of those fantasy books that people keep recommending to me, and I’ve actually tried reading the thing a couple of times. Couldn’t get into it. However, I’m pretty excited for HBO’s entry into the fantasy genre, based on the aformentioned book by Martin.

My friend Luca (of Wholly on the Level) is one of the few people on the internet who always makes me laugh, and in addition to running a very funny, insightful blog and being a teacher in Belgium, he’s a big fan of Martin’s books. We’ve wanted to do a collaboration (or, as I’ve currently invented and trademarked, “bloglaboration”) on something for our respective blogs for a while, and I thought a weekly recap of Game of Thrones might be a fun thing for us to do.

What follows is our intial discussion of the series and its prospects. WARNING: We go a little bit into spoilers, but nowhere near as extensive as some of the other places that have reviewed the series or created “primers” for it.

Luca: What makes you interested in it? I can imagine that for someone who hasn’t read the books, it can look a bit… warmed over.

Brendan: Well, I can tell you that I’m less interested in HBO doing for the fantasy genre what Deadwood was for westerns, Sopranos was for mob drama, The Wire for cop shows, Tell Me You Love Me and Six Feet Under and Big Love for the family drama, True Blood for horror/vampires/”paranormal romance”, and John From Cincinatti for esoteric Jesus parables from one of the smartest men on the planet. I’d much rather HBO put their time and energy into reinventing sci-fi, but I’m betting somebody saw Battlestar Galactica and was like “pass.”

I’ve heard it time and time again that this show is The Godfather/The Wire/a political drama that happens to have magic in it.

Luca: Coincidentally, “A Song of Ice and Wire” is exactly how I sold the books to Wire-fans, and The Wire to ASOIAF fans. From what I’ve read, they’ve added some sugar to the pill of mostly-set-up Season 1 (think D’Angelo’s flashback to the trial in the first episode of The Wire, when he stumbles upon William Gant’s body — a technique never again utilized throughout the show, and enforced by HBO because viewers wouldn’t remember the guy from the start of the episode), so I’m hoping it grabs a big audience quickly.

Like The Wire, once you start getting who’s who, and what everyone’s motivation is, the plotting is absolutely relentless. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s as good — it doesn’t have any message about society or the human condition as urgent or specific as The Wire — but the structure is there. You’ll be hooked a few episodes in, if they pull it off. There are some serious sucker punches by the end of the season, and nobody’s safe from an inglorious death in these books.

Brendan: I like the fact that David Benioff, of 25th Hour and Troy fame is co-running the show. I think Benioff is one of these talented writers (and a fantastic novelist) who’s maybe been strangled by the Hollywood system, and hope that TV will give him and his staff an outlet to shine. From what I’ve seen of the trailers, it doesn’t look cheap, so I like that HBO is putting the same money behind it they did something like Boardwalk Empire.

But if I had to pick one reason why I’m interested in Game of Thrones, it’d be Peter Dinklage. The rest of the cast is filled with people I like — Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Aiden “Tommy Carcetti” Gillen –but Dinklage is what draws me to the show. When I was in college, I saw him play Richard III in a very small theater, and he was astonishing. If everything about the show is meant to be very Shakesperian and cunning and filled with whispered conversations in stone castles, I can’t wait to see him bring the same energy he brought to Richard on a weekly basis.

Luca: Well, you’re in for a treat. Dinklage is playing fan-favorite Tyrion Lannister, a little person nobleman starkly contrasting against his Aryan god-siblings. George R.R. Martin often described the books as “vaguely based on the Wars of the Roses”, and Tyrion is the obvious Richard III analogue in that equation.

Brendan: As someone who hasn’t read the books, what should I know going into it? For example, I shouldn’t be expecting Mark Addy to turn to someone and go “lightning bolt, lightning bolt,” should I?

Luca: There may be a bit of a tonal shift between certain plotlines that could possibly be jarring. The books’ chapters are named after characters, which are dubbed POV-characters in fandom. For instance, it’s considered a spoiler knowing which characters might become (or lose their status as) POV-characters in the next book. All but one of these POVs are situated on the continent of Westeros, the story’s sort-of British Isles. One of them, though, is set “Across the Narrow Sea”, and is much more of a Robert E. Howard [creator of Conan The Barbarian – ed.] barbarian story than a Medieval Wire. I found those chapters a refreshing break from all the plotting and intrigue, but your mileage may vary.

The magic conundrum: you won’t hear Mark Addy call for any lightning bolts, because it’s most likely his character doesn’t believe in such. Magic is this vague, eldritch, unknowable thing, the province of village midwives and traveling mummer’s troupes. My favorite example of it is when a bunch of people are cursed, and they start dying off in Omen-esque ways, yet still in circumstances that aren’t too fantastical considering their situations. So, as a reader, you’re left thinking “Wait, what? Were they actually cursed? Was the hexer just a character with good insight and a lucky call?” The books don’t give you a clear-cut answer.

If there’s one thing I’m slightly worried about, it’s the kids they’ve cast. I haven’t seen anything bad from them or anything so far, but since about 60% of the POVs are the kids, I wish I’d gotten some reassuring material. Then again, I suppose HBO wants to sell this with its stars, not some nobody kid actors.

Have you seen anything with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in it? He’s playing Dinklage’s brother, and one of my favorite characters.

Brendan: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau was the lead in this weird FOX series that was on for about four seconds called NEW AMSTERDAM. He played a Danish soldier who was brought back to life by the Native Americans living on Manhattan Island, and told that he would live forever until he found true love. So he lived through all of NYC history, and then became a cop. It was not a good show, but he was charismatic.

Now, you mentioned that the land in which the story takes place is based on the British Isles. Is this one of those stories where it’s a forgotten chapter from human history? Are all the characters “human,” or are they other “races”?

Luca: As far as I can tell, Westeros (the planet is never given a name so let’s just call the setting that) is not some forgotten pre-history like Middle-earth or Hyboria. Further proof of it would be the weird seasons. Summers lasting years, winters lasting decades. I think Sean Bean tells one of the kids in a trailer “You’ve only known summer all your life” as a “You kids don’t know how good ya got it!” lecture. So, unless the series is ending with a straight up apocalyptic cosmological shift, this ain’t Earth.

There are other races, but it’s not like Star Trek where you’ve got humans and Klingons and Vulcans attending meetings together and shit. Like magic, non-humans are the stuff of legends and the dark places of the world.

You could make a case for the Targaryen siblings being non-human. They are the white-haired princelings in Conan Country who are plotting vengeance against Mark Addy, the usurper of their dynasty. The Targaryens’ gimmick is basically that they’re 100% inbred, and instead of retard babies, it’s like the Super Soldier Serum. The reason for this is that they’re like the only bloodline left from “Old Valyria”, which is the world’s equivalent of Atlantis, as I’ve understood it. The reader, in all four books so far, doesn’t know what happened to pseudo-Atlantis ‘cept for knowing something called “the Doom of Old Valyria” happened.

Brendan: I thought the sister fucking was why the last Targaryen king of Westeros went mad like Caligula and that’s how the Starks, Baratheon and Lannisters were able to overthrow him?

There had been mad kings before, but this is the first one they managed to overthrow. The sisterfucking made the bloodline sorta fluctuate between Caligula/Captain America between generations.

Oh but yeah, they say something like “fucking your sister never ends well unless your name is Targaryen.”

Is this already starting to confuse you?

Brendan: Not yet!

The Targaryens “special relationship,” though, reminds me of something I’ve read about the books — they’re apparently pretty graphic, not just in terms of their violence, but in their presentation of sexuality, particularly adolescent sexuality. Given HBO’s willingness to indulge the particular kinks of say, Alan Ball, is there anything that you think might not make it in?

Luca: Nothing as crazy as Bill and Lorena’s necksnap sex. A lot of the stuff that might be controversial has already been nixed by casting a 22-year old as the Targaryen sister. I’m betting she’s to pull off 16 or something (the character in the book is twelve), which is still shocking enough for most audiences. There’s a few orgies that she’s in, but nothing worse than what you’d see in Rome, I think. But again, moot point since the actress nor the TV-version of the character are supposed to be that young.

Brendan: As a fan, what’s your best and worst case scenarios for the show? And how receptive are hardcore fans going to be to deviations from the text?

Luca: Worst case scenario (financially): Bombs after one season cuz people are watching Camelot en masse, cuz it’s got “name recognition”.

Worst case scenario (artistically): The child actors suck. That’s seriously the only worry I have at this point. It looks opulent, there’s some great genre actors, and the writers are of similar pedigree.

I-wouldn’t-mind-this scenario #1: The show makes it to season three. With some creative rewrites, it would be a decent enough stopping point for the series.

I-wouldn-‘t-mind-this scenario #2: Martin dies, leaving the series unfinished. Show writers just make their own ending. Look at Graham Yost and Mad Men‘s Chris Provenzano and their aping of Elmore Leonard on Justified.

The fans I’ve talked to have responded rather positively to the changes that have happened so far. The addition of an introductory scene to Dinklage’s House, the aging of the preteens, … Might change, of course, but for fantasy fans, they’re keeping a remarkably level head.

I feel like I shouldn’t give you too much of an explanation on who’s who (too late!), since that’s something the pilot should explain. I’m really looking forward to seeing your reactions, and how well the writers do their job of getting that fuckload of information across to new viewers.

I am really fucking stoked for this show.

Brendan: I’m actually pretty stoked, too. I missed Boardwalk Empire and while I dug Lights Out, I fell behind on it. And stuff like Justified and Sons of Anarchy are on my “to watch” list. But this looks like so much fun.

Luca: I’m looking forward to seeing you pick up on story threads, and wonder which ones are going to pay off the most/at all.

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