A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms: Review

The following post was taken from my Goodreads review:

The fastest way to make someone understand the Game of Thrones book series is to tell them that it upends the expectations of the traditional fantasy novel, creating a world that continually subverts the narrative of the “chosen hero” taken from Tolkien, Lewis, and the medieval quest romances from which they receive much of their inspiration. George R.R. Martin’s novels even go so far as to have songs and legends within the fictional world that resemble the Arthurian tales; these appear most frequently when Martin needs a brooding medieval-realpolitik expert to furrow his brow and reflect on how these songs are sanitized and unrealistic ideas of what being a lord, lady, or knight is really like.

This makes Martin’s Dunk and Egg novellas seem like a unique authorial challenge: after creating an entire world to upend and subvert the conventions of the conventional fantasy story, he has decided to make a series of short tales within this world that resemble, more than anything else, conventional fantasy stories. And these aren’t stories-within-a-story like the songs and tales he’s made in the world of the novels: they are written as a historically-accurate narrative of events that happened approximately 100 years before the events of A Game of Thrones. Characters from the original novels like Maester Aemon and Walder Frey make brief cameos as younger versions of themselves. Martin seems to be using these stories to explore whether the tropes of high fantasy are strong enough to survive in a fictional world that is built to destroy them.

The results are mixed, if still consistently entertaining. As much as people love to talk and write about all the clever subversions Martin employs in his novels, they are still recognizably fantasy tales, and use the rules of the genre at least as often as they break them. The novellas follow the adventures of the hedge knight Ser Duncan the Tall and his unlikely squire, Aegon Targaryen (who disguises himself as a commoner named “Egg” for most of the time). And if they lean into the tropes of traditional fantasy a little harder than the novels do, with short, discrete quests, strokes of unlikely luck, and a protagonist who does not receive a bloody, protracted death for the unforgivable sin of not anticipating absolutely every one of the 28 secret agendas occurring around him, they still take place in what is recognizably the same world. Nobles have legal impunity when dealing with commoners, prideful men make foolish decisions that doom them and others, political backstabbing and opportunism is still rampant.

There are echoes of the longer books in this shorter narrative that takes place in its recent past, too. Many fan theories of A Song of Ice and Fire posit that the whole story is a battle between Varys and Littlefinger, waged exclusively with proxies. Likewise, events near the end of the final novella in this collection suggest that the events surrounding the Blackfyre Rebellions are primarily driven by the machinations of two masterminds (and half-brothers), Bloodraven and Bittersteel, neither of whom are as interested in taking the throne so much as being the power behind it.

Martin even manages to incorporate some of the hoarier tropes of fantasy into the stories in a way that made me smile. My favorite example is how he handles the problem of the “magic artifact.” In fantasy stories like these, it’s common for the heroes to have some magic artifact that, when all hope is lost and all other options are out of reach, will come out of nowhere to save the day, often powered by an act of sacrifice/internal purity from the hero. There is no such artifact in these stories—the existence of one would likely be world-breaking—but, almost without fail, when the cards are down and everything seems hopeless, Martin reminds us that Ser Duncan is a knight who, while relatively untrained, has the physical dimensions of a young Shaquille O’Neal in a world largely composed of underfed peasants, and can generally take any problem in front of him and batter it into submission. It subverts the trope while still honoring its function: after all, being seven feet tall with a big fucking sword may not seem like much of a superpower in traditional fantasy, but in Martin’s world, it’s often enough.

That said, Ser Duncan as a character is probably the limitation that’s the hardest for Martin to overcome. Most people who read the Song of Ice and Fire novels will conclude that Tyrion Lannister is the character with whom Martin is the most immediately comfortable. In Ser Duncan, he has created a character who is almost the exact opposite. Tyrion is unnaturally short, Duncan is unnaturally huge. Tyrion is a highborn member of the richest family in Westeros, at the center of a whirlwind of intrigue that he frequently directs. Duncan is a poor, illiterate hedge knight with no family or connections, who is too far out of the loop to identify intrigue as such, even when he literally stumbles over it. Tyrion believes chivalry to be a sham, Duncan is willing to die if that is the noble thing to do. Tyrion is painfully aware of his physical handicaps, and has to solve problems with his wits, Duncan thinks of himself as “thick as a castle wall” and is frequently confounded by any problem that he can’t hit with his sword until it stops being a problem.

It’s not that one of these character types is necessarily richer than the other, it’s just that Tyrion’s position aligns more naturally with Martin’s obvious interest in political subterfuge and Machiavellian gamesmanship within medieval systems of government. Writing from Duncan’s perspective would seem to offer the opportunity to look at the world of Westeros from a foot-soldier’s view that the books rarely provide, but while Martin does occasionally attempt this, he’s still attracted to his intrigue and plots, and generally invites his readers to play a game of figure-out-the-secret-plot-before-someone-explains-it-to-Duncan through the middle of the stories. I felt like I could feel him lunging against the constraints created by the character of Duncan, rather than embracing the opportunities such a character provides. The most disappointing part of the stories is that Martin doesn’t seem to think that a group of knights talking around a fire by themselves is all that different from a group of knights talking around a fire with Jaime Lannister in attendance, nor does he seem to think that a lowborn knight might notice different things than would Jaime Lannister.

For that matter, Egg is a little too ancillary to the plots much of the time. I hate to talk in TV-writing-speak, but it feels as though Egg is missing a character arc in the last two stories—rather than have him learn something about the peasants through his own mistakes with them, Martin basically just has Dunk tell Egg some things about life for the poor that Egg doesn’t understand. It’s character-building through didacticism rather than showing Egg coming to terms with his new view of the world. I wish there was a character-based moment half as clever as the pun suggested by Egg’s nickname and lineage.

But a lack of imagination regarding the interior lives of his characters doesn’t outweigh the excellent touch Martin brings to describing the realm of Westeros in the middle of the Blackfyre rebellions, the nation slowly healing after a bloody and protracted civil war that previously split it in two. The details of the war, the plague, and its aftermath make this Westeros feel different from the realm currently riven by the War of the Five Kings. It is still a relatively prosperous and stable land, and some of the strongest moments in these stories come in the delicate conversations between strangers, each trying to feel out which side the other supported, and how they feel now. Such conversations might feel particularly relevant to those of you who visited your families this Thanksgiving.

Interested in reading this? I’m an Amazon Affiliate, meaning that I link products from Amazon, and if anyone clicks those links to buy the product, they pay me a commission. If you’re interested in purchasing A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, just follow the link below:

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (A Song of Ice and Fire)

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This entry was posted on 21 September 2019 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , .
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