Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, From A Game of Thrones to A Dance with Dragons is a collection of essays that critically examine different aspects and themes of George R.R. Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels. While the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, came out in 1996, it has recently experienced a resurgence in popularity due to the release of the fifth book in the series, A Dance With Dragons–and of course, with HBO’s highly-praised adaptation. With this expanded audience, the time was ripe for some solid critical writing.
I wanted to start off by saying that overall, the essays where I actually learned something new were my favorites. Some tended toward rehashes of plot points from the novels, and while that would be helpful for any ASoIaF newbies reading, I think that the audience for this book is more likely to be veteran fans (especially as there are some spoilers for later books and fan theories in Beyond the Wall!) There could probably have been a bit more editing done, with that audience in mind; each essay tended to start with some quick generalizations of Martin’s work, such as Westeros’s startling brutality, the many crimes committed against women, the serious nature of the text despite being a “genre” work, etc. If each piece were standing alone, those sorts of introductions would have been fine; however, coming one right after another, the repetition was somewhat unnecessary.
I also found that the chapters I enjoyed most were the ones coming from outside writers and critics (rather than writers or other artists within the fandom). A certain distance is helpful when trying to apply a critical lens to a popular series. I certainly don’t begrudge any of the writers their close involvement with different aspects of ASoIaF (such as helping to develop its tabletop gaming incarnations) or their personal friendships with Martin, but I think it makes it that much more difficult to provide deeper criticisms. However, the caliber of the writers assembled for this collection tended to be high, and their pedigrees–as writers, comic book artists, professors, and game creators–were impressive.
Some of the essays deserve special mention. “Art Imitates War,” by Myke Cole, was fantastic: an examination of post-traumatic stress disorder in the series and how it empowers some characters (Arya) and destroys others (Theon), written by a military officer. Learning about Condition Yellow and Condition Black–ways in which we conceptualize the different states of mind of people in combat or crisis situations–was so interesting, and Cole interwove the more scientific issues and ASoIaF character studies impeccably. I’ve already talked about this essay to some friends/fellow fans of Martin, actually.
“A Different Kind of Other,” by Brent Hartinger, was superb, and was probably my favorite essay in the collection. In it, Hartinger discusses the importance of Martin’s choice to not only include, but make well-rounded and critical to the story, the voices and perspectives of “others,” or those who deviate from the thin, white, heteronormative characters exalted by both Westerosi and American society. He uses the characters of Bran, Tyrion, Samwell, Brienne, and Varys–all outsiders, all individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses–as examples. These outsider perspectives are valuable because they have historically been ignored and tend to be rare in fantasy, and because of Martin’s skill in making his outsiders fully-developed characters, neither “noble savages” nor pitiable freaks entirely defined by their difference. The essay itself was written sensitively and with genuine affection toward the characters. Hartinger has earned me as a fan.
In the series, the experience of being a freak or a misfit seems to make a person more sensitive to the plight of others, and more heroic–or at least as “heroic” as one can be in the brutal, complicated lands of Westeros and Essos.
Other highlights include Alyssa Rosenberg’s “Men and Monsters,” Gary Westfahl’s “Back to the Egg,” Caroline Spector’s “Power and Feminism in Westeros,” and Matt Staggs’ “Peter Baelish and the Mask of Sanity.” (I liked the latter because it entirely confirmed my feelings of hatred toward Littlefinger, and gave me some great quotes to use when arguing with friends who like him. He is an unrepentant psychopath.)
The only essay that I skimmed was John Jos Miller’s “Collecting Ice and Fire in the Age of Nook and Kindle,” which was a fairly exhaustive account of the different editions of ASoIaF and what they’re worth. It just wasn’t for me, though I’m sure it will be helpful to aspiring book collectors out there.
It’s always a bit difficult to award stars to a collection of essays, since different people are going to enjoy different chapters, and judging the overall quality of disparate essays is tough. However, in terms of enjoyment and insight, I think Beyond the Wall deserves at least three and a half stars (out of five). Cole, Hartinger, and Spector’s essays alone are worth at least four stars. Fans with any interest in delving deeper into the world of Westeros should definitely consider picking this collection up. (And I would definitely be interested in a sequel–perhaps including analysis of the treatment of people of color in ASoIaF? Or dissecting the genesis of various fan theories?)
Beyond the Wall will be released June 19, 2012 by SmartPop Books. I received a copy free for review through NetGalley.
Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half/four stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “The purposefully contradictory nature of Westeros and its inhabitants, the tension between the chaotic creative process and George R.R. Martin’s controlled, masterful prose, may be messy, may challenge critics and readers alike, but it’s also the stuff from which great literature is born.”