Thursday, December 29, 2011

The First Law

No, this isn't a posting about thermodynamics. I've been on a fantasy reading streak in 2011. It started when I went to my local library one Saturday morning and saw a copy of George R. R. Martin's "Game of Thrones" on the shelf. I don't subscribe to HBO, so I've never seen the series. I'd heard enough about it to kindle a spark of book lust in my heart. When I went back to work, I found out that some friends were already deeply into it. was selling a four-book boxed set for cheap. Soon I was off and running.

"Game of Thrones" was great fun to read - think "Lord of the Rings" with lots of sex and violence. The characters are memorable. The plot lines are tangled and convoluted. There are bogeymen still waiting behind the wall to jump out and scare all of us in future books. I was very happy when the fifth book, "A Dance with Dragons", came out just as I was finishing the fourth book. The first book was published in 1996. Long-suffering fans had to wait six whole years between the fourth and fifth books; my wait was as long as finishing the last page of "A Feast For Crows" and then downloading the newly-minted book onto my Kindle.

But I found that there were problems with the series.

Each book is a daunting task - they average 800-1000 pages each. That means a lot of characters to keep track of, a lot of balls for the juggler to keep in the air, and a lot of filler material. There were times when some of my favorite characters (Jon Snow and his sister Arya) got short shrift, while others that I cared about less dominated the story line.

Repetition has been with us since Homer's Iliad : it's wasn't enough for Odysseus to go sailing; he had to do it on the "wine-dark sea". Homer knew that repetition would help lengthen the story and make it easier for the poet to memorize all those lines. George Martin knows it, too. It's always "Myrrish lace" and "Valyrian steel".

There's more than a passing nod to J.R.R. Tolkien and his "Lord of the Rings" - still the greatest fantasy work I've read. Tolkien made up maps, history, languages, and whole alphabets to flesh out his stories. You're a true fan if you've read his "Silmarillion", the detailed pre-history to the trilogy. He's famous for stopping the story to tell you about people, places, and events that seem to be well-known to all his characters, but you haven't a clue. George R. R. Martin - are those initials real or an affectation? - takes this to another level. He's obviously a Grateful Dead fan: "Too much of everything is just enough".

Most of all, there were several times when I thought Mr. Martin could have used an editor. The books would have benefited from having a detached, objective adviser to tighten things up. I felt like the odd numbered books were all excellent. The even numbered books dragged a bit by comparison. There's a lot of set-up material that pays off eventually, but it's a long time coming.

Joe Abercrombie obviously had an editor when he wrote his "First Law" trilogy: "The Blade Itself", "Before They Are Hanged", and "The Last Argument Of Kings". The books are more manageable in size - 500-800 pages - but the characters are equally vivid as Mr. Martin's. I had some trouble getting started with the first book, because I had some distractions that kept me from focusing. But once it grabbed me I was hooked.

The thing that I liked best about Joe Abercrombie's writing is that he takes timeless elements and gives them a twist. There are standbys like a small group that journeys to a remote location in search of a precious artifact. The group faces dangers that alter characters for better or worse, that bind or split them apart. There's conflict and war and long odds to be overcome. But there's always a perturbation that sets his take apart. For example, there's a wizard named Bayaz who may appear to be Gandalf-like at first, but there's deep, dark water underneath.

I've finished my non-technical backlog. It's time to jump back on my technical stack. I received John K. Kruschke's "Doing Bayesian Data Analysis". I'll be writing about it as soon as I manage to make some headway.

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