(Summer is Coming tee from Busted Tees.)
Sometimes, book reviews are hard, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the book. Sometimes, when it comes to writing a book review or vacuuming the apartment, I choose vacuuming. Sometimes, I have a hard time coming up with something more than, "this is good."
I'm having one of those times now.
I received an advanced review copy of Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, edited by James Lowder, published by Smart Pop, an imprint of BenBella Books, the awesome folks who hooked us up with The Girl Who Was on Fire. Beyond the Wall is the same sort of deal - a series of essays examining different themes in Martin's Song of Ice and Fire universe. I did really enjoy a lot of the essays in this book. Martin's world is prime analysis material and his characters are painfully real.
But I'm having a difficult time getting beyond the "I liked it" analysis. While this collection is good, it's not on par with the essays in the Hunger Games collection. There's a lot of repetition in this volume, particularly in regard to magic and religion, which are very closely tied together in Martin's world. I felt that many of the essays that covered either topic were going over the same ground. I would have liked to see a little diversity there.
I did like this collection, and there were a few standout essays that deserve particular attention. Linda Antonsson and Elio M. Garcia, Jr. (creators of the most comprehensive ASoIaF wiki out there, Westeros.org,) discuss Romanticism (note the capital R there) in Martin's world in "The Palace of Love, the Palace of Sorrow: Romanticism in A Song of Ice and Fire." Martin himself is fascinated by the idea of the Byronic Hero, and both of the Lannister brothers, in addition to Rhaegar Targaryan, fit the description: "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." I'm personally obsessed with the mystery of Rhaegar Targaryan and Lyanna Stark, so I enjoyed Antonsson and Garcia's Romantic take on their story. Note: I think Rhaegar and Lyanna were in love and Robert Baratheon was full of crap.
Adam Whitehead writes a very interesting analysis of time in Westeros in his essay, "An Unreliable World: History and Timekeeping in Westeros." Several times throughout the story, Martin indicates that time does not pass in quite the way the inhabitants of Westeros think it does. In a world where seasons last for years, is there really an accurate way to mark the passing of weeks and months? Samwell Tarly brings this up within the actual narrative when he comes across several conflicting accounts of Night Watch history. Whitehead deftly analyzes this discrepency and indicates that Martin has an explanation for why the seasons are so out of whack.
Another stand out essay comes from Myke Cole: "Art Imitates War: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in A Song of Ice and Fire." Cole discusses the reality of PTSD and how PTSD applies to two specific characters: Arya Stark and Theon Greyjoy. Cole expertly compares the two in relation to the different types of PTSD. I especially enjoyed learning more about PTSD in Cole's essay. Being able to associate a real condition to fictional characters (that we really get to know very intimately over the course of the series) makes that condition easier to understand.
Finally, my favorite essay of the collection focuses on my favorite character. Matt Staggs, whose name I recognize from Suvudu, discusses sociopathy in A Song of Ice and Fire in his essay, "Petyr Baelish and the Mask of Sanity." Oh man... how I do love Littlefinger. Petyr Baelish is the Benjamin Linus of Westeros, or should I say that Benjamin Linus is the Petyr Baelish of Lost, since Westeros came first? Either way, Baelish is a master manipulator who plays the game of thrones simply for the sake of playing - and winning.
Staggs puts Baelish under the microscope of psychology and comes to the conclusion that Littlefinger is fucked up, but especially fucked up because he's so good at pretending to be normal. While every other character (even Cersei) has their reasons for doing the awful things they do, Baelish does things on a whim. Martin gives Baelish some back story - he suffered great humiliation and unrequited love as a young man - but the adult Baelish doesn't behave in accordance with the story of his past. Petyr Baelish does what Petyr Baelish wants. I think that's why I like him so much.
So, this collection was good and some of the essays are great. If you're a hardcore fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, this is a must read/must own. For the casual fan, not so much. Beyond the Wall comes out today (June 26th.)