Ice and Fire and Binge-Reading Ice and Fire

During the last couple weeks, I have been binge reading a very popular series of books that are, currently, incomplete to the consternation of many of the worst people on the internet who, famously, need reminding that George R.R. Martin is not their bitch.

I had mostly forgotten the first book in the series, the only one I had actually read. So, I binged through the whole thing written to date on Kindle – which promotes that style of reading by being imminently scannable and flippable and the lightest way to read such heavy books.

Reviewing the whole thing one book at a time seems unnecessary. I didn’t read it that way. I suspect future readers won’t either. We live in the age of binge-media. Modern tools make it easy to sit down with thousands of pages or hours of film and push through it all. No one will be reading this one book at a time anymore than anyone will be watching the HBO series one episode at a time, very soon. These long, episodic things beg for the treatment of a binger. It is probably part of the reason why I waited as long as I did to even bother finishing the series, to date. I needed to believe that George R.R. Martin will reach the end before I began. In episodic television, I remember the brilliant and exquisite first season of “Carnivale” only to be completely flabbergasted at the decline in quality and story in the adumbrated second season of the series. I was reading along to the Wheel of Time for a long while, in my youth, until I realized I was not reading for enjoyment, but for completion. I wanted to be able to say that I finished what I started. It is a very important lesson that life is short, and lack of enjoyment is a good reason to leave off with a series. Particularly with large, popular series, plenty of spoilers will be available to explain the ending. Relax, and let other people finish it for you. They can answer any questions you may have.

My personal rules for reading this massive series were simple: If I stopped enjoying it, I stopped reading it.

I went all the way through to the end, with only a few hiccups, and mostly enjoyed the experience. Martin is an expert at manipulating reader expectation and emotion. What I find, in fact, is that I will identify strongly with certain characters and care about them in part because I know how horrible it will be for them, having been on social media and paying attention and unafraid of spoilers. It probably ruined my reading experience of the Red Wedding to know it was coming, but it also helped me care more about Catelyn Stark, and her surviving children, when I was reading about them, because I knew the king of the north was doomed, with all his alliances.

Let’s talk world: What a bleak and inhospitable universe. Wow what a bleak world. There is no joy but wedding night and drinking. Even tournaments seem quite dull and tedious and an excuse for the training and equipping of warriors. The musicians presented are often rapists or attempted rapists, weaseling their way into court to make money, and are willing to turn false witness and commit all sorts of blackmail in the name of self-aggrandizement. The common man are often presented as vile and violent masses, again with the rape of Lolly, and the general threat of rape and violence that hangs over every interaction. Prostitution is the great past time of the world, even among nominally celibate orders like the men at the wall. Outside of the Seven Kingdoms, the world remains brutal and bleak. Slavery is rampant, with fighting pits and sexual abuse of women and boys even more rampant. This is a dark and joyless world, where powerful men (always men) have every whim and need met by the servants and lesser nobility all around them. Honor is just an excuse for propping up this terrible system. To the author’s credit, it is this understanding of honor that forms the fundamental breech in society that fomented the revolution that preceded the text, when the last Targaryan king was murdered by Jaime Lannister, a member of the King’s Guard. In fact, all of the “honorable” characters struggle with the realization that their definition of honor is suspicious, at best, and actively evil at worst, with one notable exception: Stanis Baratheon. But, yes, the bleakness of this world, where rape and prostitution and the rape of prostitutes seem to be major forms of entertainment, and whole power systems exist to promote and produce violence and warfare, and no place in the huge world seems to produce any society that even remotely desires social justice and general happiness. This is a world of horror, not fantasy, with a faint sheen of feudalism painted over it, for familiarity’s sake. It is dark. It is misogynistic. It is smart enough to realize it, mostly, but still fails to produce any meaningful redress for women trapped in this rapey, violent hellscape.

Let’s talk women: I think of my binge in two distinct parts. The first part is when Catelyn Stark is alive, a POV character, and an effective, powerful female adviser to her husband and son. The second part is after the wedding when no non-evil female character is powerful and effective in a clear place of authority in the society. Brienne of Stark is a welcome relief, when she appears, but her presence is mitigated by the knowledge that she is an outsider: a freak of nature in her world, and constantly pushing against the sad reality that her job is to go home, marry, and breed, and everyone keeps reminding her of it. Arya Stark, as well, seems to be a self-realized character only because she rejects the role society has placed upon her. Alas, she wanders off to Braavos, alone, abandoning all her friends and community, to lose her identity entirely in a death cult. So, that’s not hopeful for the role of women: They have to completely annihilate themselves in a cult – like the silent sisters who are another known cult of women – to achieve anything resembling self-realization. Cersei Lannister is an evil, manipulative woman, widely described as a bitch. I’d be okay with that if the author permitted her to be a competent leader. Alas, I am disappointed that this woman who begins beautiful and powerful is slowly stripped of all her power, ability, friends, and guile until nothing remains and she must walk naked and bald through the crowded streets in her act of contrition, thoroughly gelding her both as a political power, and as a force for change in the world. Her beauty and sexuality was her tool to power, and she has it all stripped away.

Without the powerful and competent mother of dragons getting ready to BLOW UP THAT MISOGYNISTIC HELLSCAPE, I don’t know if I could keep reading. She becomes the great hope not only for the world hoping for peace, but for the reader hoping to see a world where women get to be more than walking wombs. But, knowing that the dragons are coming, and that the character of Daenerys Targaryen is allowed to be powerful, beautiful, in control, and in control of her sexuality, permits me, as a reader, to push through. One could argue that the books feel disjointed, with the two battlefronts and two separate sets of revolutions that never truly seem to connect. I disagree. I know they will connect. And, without the mother of dragons on the horizon about to come and blow up the terrible seven kingdoms just like she did the terrible slave kingdoms, I don’t think I could keep slogging through the misery and despair. The dragons operate, in some sense, as a kind of fiery hope of justice and vengeance and earth-upending for readers. Their violence and unpredictability also beckon of a moment when they will fulfill the readers’ animalistic desire to light up the world and most of the horrible people inside of it. Without the dragons and Daenerys, I’d feel no need to keep reading much longer than the Red Wedding dashed away all hope of a balanced portrayal of women in Westeros.

Another change in the experience of binge-reading versus regular reading is the character of Jaime Lannister. An important early action that immediately marks him as a sociopathic monster is his casual and flippant tossing of Brandon Stark from a roof for the crime, hoping it will kill him, for the crime of witnessing incestuous adultery. Early on, Jaime Lannister is a very unlikable character. Binge-reading, I never really lose that sense of him as a total monster, even as he attempts to redeem himself and his honor by abandoning the influence of his sister and allying with Lady Brienne of Tarth to recover the lost children of Catelyn Stark. Had I not only recently encountered him in the early chapters tossing a child off a roof as casually as throwing a bone to a dog, I could be forgiven for forgetting that aspect of his personality in the years and span of time and characters that result, in which I might even be tricked into liking the one-handed swordsman who is attempting to recover some semblance of honor for himself and his surviving natural children, storming the remains of the wartorn Riverlands to negotiate peaceful settlements. He is almost likeable at the moment he storms off with Brienne to chase after the Stark daughters. Still, it is hard to forget the flippant, casual toss of a child from a roof. He has never dealt with his sins. He has never truly confessed and sought justice for all the terrible things he has done.

As enjoyable as it was to storm and stomp through this horrific landscape, and journey with Tyrion and Jon Snow and all the other characters that populate this place, there are niggling things that come back and come back. Often times, sidereal characters become little more than a catch phrase. “It is known” for example is often used by the loyal servants of Daenerys, echoing each other every time they are permitted to speak. Famously, Ygritte the Wildling that tempts Jon Snow keeps repeating, occasionally nonsensically, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” It is jarring to see such a skilled writer rely on such cheap tricks, and to see them failing repeatedly to be anything more than an annoyance. The description of fat characters, as well, borders on the comic so repeatedly that is hard to read about the larger men. They aren’t just fat. They are corpulant beyond belief, eating and eating. The peasants are not just peasants, but epic-level peasants who make peasanting seem like something beyond stereotype. Warriors who are not main characters are often described in terms of things like being the one with the pet monkey, or another Frey, or somesuch casual and flippant method of quickly and often comically portraying a character that may or  Anyone who is not a main character is going to be so poorly drawn,

Let’s talk confusion: I was very glad to be binge-reading long after the books have been published. It is very difficult to follow what is going on, sometimes. Particularly when another new character is introduced late in the book, or another quest happening in the complex mosaic of goals and ideals – let’s say the Dornish Prince, for instance, or the Onion Knight – the reader may have to stop and check up on some notes. The presence of copious on-line Wikis is perhaps the only reason one can successfully binge read. It is not a style of reading that promotes close, thoughtful reading. Certainly, the sheer and oppressive size of the individual books, regardless of the binge, makes close, thoughtful reading a challenge regardless. While binge reading, the problem is even worse. Without the presence of copious spoilers and notes available via Google, the reader would be floundering in confusion across more than a few of the complex storylines of the text, while binge-reading.

Binge-reading is the future. People have done it since Harry Potter novels. People will continue to do it. Particularly as large series books remain very popular, and become mainstream media artifacts, readers will come to the party late, and binge to catch up. I thought it was interesting to force the experience upon myself, and see how it differs from other styles of reading, and how it impacts the enjoyment of the text.

There is simply too much to say about the texts, themselves. You’ve heard it all before, I’m sure.

Oh the binge, the glorious binge and should we, as readers and writers, encourage it?

Firstly, one should only do this if the work is popular enough to inspire a lot of on-line discussion and notes, at a minimum, but extensive Wikis are better. It is easy to get lost while binging books. Books are a denser and more-thoughtful medium than television series. Secondly, large portions of the middle will not resonate as deeply or meaningfully as the very beginning books. In many ways, the opening sections not only set the tone, but create the momentum that makes binge-reading possible. Conveying as much critical plot backstory information as possible effectively early on – something Martin is very successful at achieving with Ned Stark and the world of Winterfell and the history of the rebellion – makes it possible for readers to push on like marathon runners into the sea of words. Reading so much so quickly, it can be too easy to lose threads and ideas and characters in the flood, and those early steps will set the reader up for success or not. Third, large casts of characters are very tricky. Constantly introducing new critical characters, as is done with all the new POV characters and important new twists in Martin’s series, is not recommended. For binge readers, it simply becomes a headache trying to hold it all in the head at once.

Have you binge read anything? What was it? Did you enjoy it, or did you mostly push through for the sake of pushing through? What do you look for when you consider binge-reading something?

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