George R. R. Martin is best known for his epic work, A Song of Ice and Fire, aka A Game of Thrones. In the last couple of years I’ve enjoyed exploring his earlier work, which I give an overview of here. Reading his earlier work has made me significantly up my (already high) evaluation of him as a writer: not only his variety, but the vividness of his descriptions and imagination stand out at bringing stories, worlds and characters to life.
Very mild spoilers, but nothing that should impinge your enjoyment of reading the books and stories concerned.
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I first read A Game of Thrones as a teenager and stopped part-way into the second book, as I couldn’t get to grips with an epic fantasy series that didn’t have clearly defined heroes (at least, ones that survived). I read it again in my twenties and largely enjoyed it: although there are a few things I’m not keen on (notably, that it’s been a decade since he wrote the last book, but also the level of gratuitous sex and violence(1)), overall the complexity of the world-building, the in-depth Mediaeval-esque politics, the vibrancy of the characters and the overall interest of the plot means it’s very much a series I’d recommend.
I then didn’t read anything else by him for years – in fact, I wasn’t even really aware of much else he’d written. That changed when I was given Fevre Dream, an earlier novel, a couple of years ago and since then I’ve been exploring his rich, prolific and varied back catalogue. These have made me appreciate his skill as a writer even more: he’s written across the boundaries of science fiction, fantasy and horror and the vividness of his descriptions and imagination stand out at bringing stories, worlds and characters to life.
Fevre Dream (1982) is both a richly rendered depiction of the golden age of Mississippi river boat era and the best vampire story I’ve ever read(2). The lushness of the description is piled on like the opulence of the river boats themselves and gradually reveals the corruption within, as the truth about the vampires is gradually revealed. Abner Marsh, the bluff riverboat captain from whose viewpoint the story is told, is a likeable and admirable character, who does his best, often to little avail, and their are twists and turns aplenty, as well as action – though much more is done through suspense. There is an effective analogy drawn between vampirism and the evils of slavery that existed in real life – at one point, one of the vampires accuses Marsh, saying something on the lines of why do you care so much about the humans that we take and kill, while on the docks over there thousands are being bought and sold, flogged and worked to death. I will not spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that, while much often seems dark, it has a satisfactory conclusion.
Windhaven is effectively three novellas in a single book, all centred on a world of islands and inhospitable seas, in which the only way to safely travel between island is in wings of ultra light weight material salvaged from the spaceship the travellers arrived on. Who gets to use the wings is determined by ancestry. The first of the three is a straightforward (though very well done) tale of ‘Person who wants to do X is not permitted to, so overcomes obstacles to achieve it.’ The second and third, however, become much more interesting as they explore the impact on the society of the social change that the main character in the first book fought for. The reader’s assumptions and principles are tested in a way which really makes you think (and often without obvious right answers) – and it also never stops being an excellent character-driven story.
Tuf Voyaging is completely different; a humorous, light-hearted and character driven set of science-fiction episodes following an eccentric character, Haviland Tuf, who happens to have come into possession of an immensely powerful ecological space-ship, capable of creating seemingly arbitrarily large quantities of any animal or plant species known across the galaxy. Possessed of a strong moral code, he travels from planet to planet, solving their problems in his own idiosyncratic way (often not in the way they expected) and dealing with those who would thwart him. Martin says that his intention was to create a character with the same compelling nature as Sherlock Holmes or other, similar characters; while he has not quite succeeded, Tuf’s voyages are still well worth the read.
Many of the best of his other short stories can be found in the mammoth compilation Dreamsongs, Volume 1 and Volume 2, which together run to almost 1500 pages. Many, though not all, take place in his ‘Thousand Worlds’ universe, a loosely connected science-fiction setting. To give just some of the highlights:
Unsound Variations is the best chess story I’ve ever read that isn’t The Queen’s Gambit(3). Set in the present day, like almost all good chess stories it’s essentially a detailed psychological analysis of the main characters, in which their flaws and strengths are laid bare, while also keeping you riveted in the actual game(s) of chess. The supernatural elements are exceptionally well done and don’t detract – indeed, enhance – both the characterisation and the chess.
Nightflyers is a suspenseful, sci-fi/horror novella in which the crew of a spaceship die, one by one, in increasingly more sinister ways, while the central mystery remains increasingly perplexing. The story is a bit slow to start, and I wasn’t drawn in to the world as much as in some of the others, but the denoument is excellent and it is an excellent story.
The Skin Trade is an excellent werewolf story, set in a rust-belt city reminiscent of Detroit or Chicago. It is a solid supernatural mystery, featuring some interesting twists – one of the main characters is a wheezing asthmatic, who becomes much fitter in werewolf form – including an unusual take on the private detective / buddy duo who are solving the mystery. Like a lot of Martin’s works, the real strength comes from both the characterisation, and the fact that the supernatural elements are overlaid and intertwined with what feels like a deeply realistic depiction of wealth, power and envy in a setting which is uniquely and immediately recognisably the American rust-belt. It is pretty grizzly though.
A Song for Lya and, to a lesser extent, With Morning Comes Mistfall are both evocative, haunting and beautiful, which touches of horror and loss. Both throw up ethical quandaries and do not give definitive answers. A Song for Lya is rightly more famous, but I enjoyed both.
Sandkings was evidently his most famous and successful work prior to A Song of Ice and Fire took off. I liked it, but wasn’t blown away by it as much as, say, A Song for Lya or Unsound Variations. The best way of describing it as somewhat reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Tales from the White Hart’, but more dramatic, vivider and more grizzly!
Doorways is the screenplay for a major TV sci-fi series he was commissioned to write, which evidently got quite a long way through development before being canned. I wish it would be made some day!
Under Siege is, mildly hilariously, a time-travel story centred upon the Siege of Sveaborg (1808), a battle about which the youthful Martin evidently got mildly obsessed. He repeatedly tried and failed to sell a historical short story about the siege, before adding a time-travel element and selling it. The original story is also in the compilation (and the time-travel does indeed make it better).
And Seven Times Never Kill Man contains similar themes to A Song for Lya – wonder, exploration, hope, cruelty and a touch of horror. I found it evocative and haunting; the bad guys get their come-uppance but it is almost (though not quite) worse when they do.
Many of the other stories in the compilation are well worth reading, but these stand out.
If you want to explore more – or perhaps have wanted to see what the fuss is about but have been daunted by the size of Game of Thrones – there’s much in the above. Tuf Voyaging is the lightest, most humorous and easiest to read, but perhaps objectively the least strong; Fevre Dream is in my view the best, but perhaps the least typical (being firmly set in the 19th century, with supernatural but no fantasy or sci-fi elements). The short stories require, individually, the least commitment and are most varied!
(1) For this reason I’ve never enjoyed, and have watched very little of, the TV series – I find that sort of stuff much easier to take (i.e. skim over) in book form.
(2) Caveat: I’ve not read all that many vampire stories.
(3) Which, incidentally, I read over two decades before the TV series came out.