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Beyond the Wall:
Exploring George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire

edited by James Lowder
BenBella Press, 218 pages

Beyond the Wall
James Lowder
Anthologist James Lowder has helmed other short fiction collections, including Realms of Valor and Realms of Infamy, and edited dozens of novels as a former series editor for TSR. He is currently the executive director of Green Knight Publishing's fiction line and a freelance author with a half-dozen fantasy and dark fantasy novels to his credit, including Prince of Lies and The Ring of Winter, as well as short fiction, essays, and book reviews for such diverse publications as Amazing Stories and The New England Journal of History.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Path of the Bold
SF Site Review: Path of the Just
SF Site Review: The Doom of Camelot

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Hank Luttrell

This book is a collection of essays: "Exploring George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire." A good idea. I became a fan of the Ice and Fire series late, well after everyone else in the world, and after HBO created their most successful series ever, based on Martin's books. It isn't that I'm not a fan of Martin's! His Fevre Dream is one of my favorite books. It was published, you know, way back before everyone was creating a series about vampires, and certainly this book deserves a new generation of readers now that vampires are so popular.

Anyway, I don't have cable TV, so while I heard a lot about The Game of Thrones TV series, I never had a chance to see it, and frankly, I'm a bit dubious about Long Commercial Fantasies to begin with, and Martin's books seemed like they would require a huge investment of my time. So even though I have enjoyed Martin's other books, I was reluctant to start A Song of Ice and Fire. Then came the moment when some of the younger readers involved with our campus fantasy/science fiction book discussion group suggested the The Game of Thrones as a meeting topic, and suddenly I decided I'd been putting off the books too long. As you might suspect, I found the books engrossing and involving, and it was some time before I came up for air. The Game of Thrones was a great topic at our discussion group! Which leads me back to the book at hand, and why I thought it would be a good idea for a collection of essays. This series has a lot going on, a lot of interesting topics for discussion, and obviously a lot of possible topics for interesting essays. I should have had a copy on hand for our discussion!

"The Palace of Love, The Palace of Sorrow" by Linda Antonsson and Elio M. Garcia, Jr. deal with might at first seem a conflict between Martin's dark outlook, on one hand, and the overall romanticism of the narrative. Two essays deal with sexual politics: Alyssa Rosenberg's "Men and Monsters" details and analyses the numerous examples of sexual assaults and violence. Caroline Spector's "Power and Feminism in Westeros," considers the important woman characters one at a time.

Daniel Abraham's essay "Same Song in a Different Key" is a first hand account of his work adapting the books for a successful comic book series being published by Dynamite. A very hands-on account, it gives details of the process unique to this project, and also provides interesting suggestions about how comic book adaptations can be approached in general.

"An Unreliable World" by Adam Whitehead summaries some of the 'historical' content of the Ice and Fire series -- the back story of Martin's world as it is revealed in sometimes conflicting history and myth. As in our world, history is written with various agendas by different cultures. The history we read in Ice and Fire gives a extra dimension to the use of unreliable character viewpoints in fiction narrative.

"Back to The Egg" by Gary Westfahl is an interesting guide and gloss of the prequels that Martin has written to his series. Because these prequel stories are shorter, I had actually read one before I ever considered starting the main series. I'll write that while I enjoyed it, it didn't prepare me for the scope and energy of longer books. Westfahl considers Martin's series with the well known critical ideas of Northrop Frye: the two page schematic is fascinating.

Myke Cole stresses in his "Art Imitates War" that he has no professional background in mental health care, but he does have the practical experience of a war veteran, and it seems to him that many of Martin's characters show various symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a pertinent and interesting observation. "The Brutal Cost of Redemption in Westeros" by Susan Vaught examines the moral ambiguity of Ice and Fire, which is in stark contrast to many other fantasy epics with well defined good and evil.

"Of Direwolves and Gods" by Andrew Zimmerman Jones enumerates and annotates the many religions of Martin's world, and examines the various attitudes towards faith and religion, which is diverse, while "A Sword Without a Hilt" by Jesse Soble considers the Ice and Fire nature of magic, and again, the diverse attitudes. Matt Staggs' "Peter Baelish and the Mask of Sanity" considers the Littlefinger character, and defines him as a psychopath. "A Different Kind of Other" by Brent Hartinger considers the many roles of outsiders in Ice and Fire, social rejects and freaks such as gender-nonconformists, the disabled, over weight, gay, and of course the dwarf. "Beyond the Ghetto" by Ned Vizzini considers the ancient but continuing history of conflict between realistic and imaginative literature for popularity and critical acceptance, and of course Martin's place in that saga.

I have a longer reaction to an essay which the editor must have also considered important, since he placed it near the end of his book, "Collecting Ice and Fire in the Age of Nook and Kindle" by John Jos. Miller. This essay is as good an introduction to book collecting as any, especially in such a compact space. Miller concisely outlines what factors might influence the value of a particular book, and in which qualities collectors might be interested. Other fantasy books have been lauded as gateways for young people into a larger world of reading. When I was very young, Robert A. Heinlein, Andre Norton, Arthur C. Clarke, and even Hugh Lofting were my gateways. Martin's books seem to have achieved a popularity which might, in some instances, reintroduce adults to recreational reading, and even collecting printed, bound paper artifacts: books. As Miller stipulates, collecting books today is a different sort of game, since readers might never touch a paper book if they preferred to read data files displayed on devices. And yet they do. Paper books have become less a necessary, convenient media for information storage and retrieval, and more art objects with intrinsic aesthetic value. Are books becoming obsolete? I always answer: of course, just as obsolete as oil paintings.

Miller's details about editions and printings, publishers and autographs, condition, dust jackets, points and on and on may seem a bit overwhelming to readers who haven't started their own study of book collecting. In fact, it is just an outline of a course of study that would take years for individuals who want to become expert collectors. But the important truth here, which I don't think is stated clearly enough, is that people who love physical books create their own interests as collectors. A reader who wants to line up a row of identically sized mass market paperbacks is as much a collector as the individual who wants immaculate world first printing hardcovers. Certainly they will be able to enjoy their collections in a similar manner, even if their heirs won't be able to sell the books for similar amounts.

I think it is clear from various notes and clues that many of the contributors and essays in this book have some sort of roots in a large Internet community devoted to discussion about the Ice and Fire series. In fact, I felt like the intensity of those discussion groups inform and contributed to the quality of these essays. For those of us who aren't inclined to pursue the larger world of Ice and Fire-related chat, this is a high quality distillation. It also needs to be noted that this book was written and published after A Dance With Dragons appeared, and has many plot spoilers through the course of the first four books. Hey, I've only read through A Feast of Crows -- I collect the trade paperbacks, and the Dragons trade won't be out for months yet! But I don't mind spoilers.

Copyright © 2012 Hank Luttrell

Hank Luttrell has reviewed science fiction for newspapers, magazines and web sites. He was nominated for the Best Fanzine Hugo Award and is currently a bookseller in Madison, Wisconsin.

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