Tag Archives: Game of Thrones

Continuum 2019

*Blows dust off keys*
This thing on? It’s been a while.

Hey folks,

This weekend Continuum 15 gets underway, and this year Melbourne’s premier Spec-Fic con is also the NatCon with International Guests of Honour Kate Elliot and Ken Liu.

Once again, I’ll be attending and looking forward to a big weekend recharging the creative batteries. Unfortunately, only the Friday and Sunday this year.

I’m on a few panels, so if you’re keen we’d love to have you come along and hear what I and others have to say about automation, space dystopias, fantasy languages, or Game of Thrones, or concepts of personal identity in SFF, and the various tangents and diversions those topics will inevitably lead to.

Here’s my panel schedule:

C15 schedule.jpg

I’ll also be around the convention generally, so if you want to come up for a chat, please do. If it’s your first con and you’re looking for someone safe to approach, say hi and I’ll do what I can to help make the con experience a good one.


Weddings, Beheadings and narrative risk

(Warning that the following post contains spoilers for the Game of Thrones TV series up to episode 9 of Season 3, and for the Song of Ice and Fire novels up to the equivalent events)

The HBO, Benioff/Weiss, adaptation of George Martin’s books reached the pivotal moment known to readers of the series as The Red Wedding… and the internet went into meltdown.

In my house I approached the ‘Rains of Castermere’ episode with anticipation, which unfortunately gave my wife (a viewer who has not read the books) the misapprehension that this would be a joyful episode. That only compounded her reaction.

“How could you have been so excited?” she asked. “How could I have wanted so much to watch that episode, to have been looking forward to that wedding?”

They are legitimate, and difficult questions.

Most tellingly she asked why I didn’t warn her. But of course I couldn’t… could I? That would have been spoiling, and in truth part of what I was looking forward to was seeing her experience the Red Wedding for the first time. I wanted to see her reaction, unspoiled, to the twist. I wanted to re-live, vicariously, that moment of shock that I experienced as a reader several years ago.

In attempting to explain to her why I approached the episode as I did it occurred to me that, as a writer, I wanted to see how an unsuspecting audience reacted. I wanted to see just how George Martin’s narrative hand-grenade would go off in this adaptation. I wanted to watch as the writers brought to a close the stories they had set up, cut short the character development they had so invested in. I wanted to see  how they used Robb’s proposed march on Casterley Rock itself as the hide, from behind which they would fire the shots. Three quarters of the way through the episode, and knowing what was to come, I doubted anyone could have made the prediction of what would follow. That, of course, is its strength. That the audience is aware that some betrayal is possible, even that Frey might do something untoward, but that the totality of that betrayal was so unexpected.

The immediately available comparison is of course to the death of Ned in the first book (and season 1). I could not parse that moment in my first reading. All my knowledge of narrative, all my familiarity with genre, was attuned to imagining how Ned may be spared that fate, even how he might return even after that fate was enacted upon him. That beheading was a bold stroke (pun intended – sorry) and one which set Martin’s writing apart from his contemporaries long before people had started to throw ‘grimdark‘ around as either perjorative or descriptor. The Red Wedding re-establishes the brutal fact of Westerosi life – that anyone can die. Ned, Hand to the King, Warden of the North, betrayed and beheaded. His son Robb, King in the North, betrayed and beheaded. Who then is safe?

Other comparisons present themselves, most notably Janet Leigh’s demise in Psycho. Hitchcock murders the top-billed actress, a shining star of her generation of Hollywood, the protagonist of the narrative until the point of her fateful shower. Indeed, with her, he ends that narrative entirely, and shifts to the story of a damaged boy and his ‘mother’. These are not so much twists in a narrative, as they are narrative derailments. The story is not changed by these events, stories are ended, and new stories begun.

Compare this with other ‘shock’ deaths – Samuel L Jackson in that shark movie Deep Blue Sea, Marvin in Pulp Fiction, Sonny in Godfather. As much as these were unexpected twists, they didn’t alter the very fabric of the narrative in the way Martin has twice done. These deaths significantly alter the stories being told, they are essential plot events and disruptive, but Deep Blue Sea continues to be a story about people trying to avoid a killer shark (or something), Pulp Fiction remains a story about Jules and Vic, Godfather remains the tale of Don Corelone.
But when Marion Crane dies, the story of a woman embezzling from her boss dies with her. When Ned dies the story of an honest man investigating a mystery dies too. The new story that begins is of a civil war in which there are several claimants to the throne: ‘The War of the Five Kings’. Now, largely due to the Red Wedding, this story has ended, and a new one will begin which is not about rivals who all claim to be kings. That war is finished, the Starks have lost, and without them the result is an inevitability… or so it would seem.

The risk in this narrative technique is that you lose your audience. Martin has suggested that he had that response from some readers. My sister has spoken of throwing the book across the room, and not picking it up for a week. Twitter and Tumblr has shown that the risk is very real, perhaps more so, from a TV audience. But the reward for taking the risk is that the reader can never be certain, the threats the author levels at his characters are very real, and thus the narrative tension in the text remains effective.
Next time Joffrey raises his bow at Sansa… she really could die.
Next time Arya threatens the Hound… she might really go through with it.
Next time Tyrion goes into battle… he may end up with worse than a scar.
Is Varys safe? Is Cersei? Jon? Sam? Bran? Could even Dany be killed? If the King of the North and all his plans can be bled out on the Frey’s floor, we cannot assume anything.

And that is a great place for a writer to have his audience.

On Cover Art and the Judging of Books Thereby…

At last year’s Genrecon one of the undoubted highlights was a snark presentation of covers given by Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Of course her particular focus was the Romance novels, an easy target perhaps for snarking, what with Fabio and man-titties (as opposed to man-boobs) and various other such tropes. It came to me though that Fantasy was as easily lampooned, the Hooded man, the enthroned King, the busty and poorly armoured warrior woman.

Covers are vitally important, despite the old adage that does not bear repeating. Perhaps in the ebook market this is less true, as opening a new ebook usually will take you to page one rather than to a cover, but with the flood of product a good cover is still an effective way to draw clicks to your Goodreads, or Amazon, or Kindle store presence.

I was surprised to hear from published authors how little control they had over the covers with which their novels appeared. I did here some anecdotes of cover artists communicating with the author, or perhaps even reading the book, but these were told as exceptions, remarkable precisely because they were not the rule. In some cases the author hated the cover which the publishers used.

Some years ago my sister recommended a book to me:


This is (I think) the 1997 edition.

On the back cover, below the blurb, there’s an image of a white wolf running through the snow.

Here, I thought, is everything I hated about Fantasy.

The swordsman in black, the black warhorse, the snowy castle, the raven…

Could these images look more hackneyed and clichéd?

It looked terrible.

I read a chapter or so in case she asked me about it, then it was shelved.

Some years later I found this book in a book store:


This is the 2003 edition under the Voyager imprint.

There’s a few extra endorsements, as over the intervening years and sequels Mr. Martin’s work had gathered a following and some rave reviews, but they’re mostly the same.

The blurb is much better on this than on the original, and I’m certain that that played a role in my selecting it too.

I bought it and began reading it without ever making the connection to the book my sister had given me.

It was only when I was several chapters into the book, and hooked, that I started to make connections with the earlier book I had shelved (or in fact, by that time, boxed-up and stored under the stairs).

For five years I had ignored a great Fantasy novel because of its cover.

Another example of a cover leading me to great fiction is Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes


I had a voucher to a bookstore sent to me as a Christmas gift, and I went in to buy China Mieville’s collection of short stories “Looking for Jake”, but I had some money left over and no real plan so I browsed the shelves.

Abercrombie’s views on maps have been well explained, and he included none in his First Law trilogy (which also have great covers), but this cover (as with the covers for “Best Served Cold” and “Red Country”) manages to convey I think a very real sense of Abercrombie’s world and the style of Fantasy he writes.

I like them far more than the hyper-real close-ups of the US covers.)

I bought it, loved it, and went back through the First Law and “Best Served Cold” in a matter of weeks.

Here’s the jacket of Heroes in all its glory (click the image to enlarge):


Recently the author Mark Lawrence responded to some suggestions comparing his cover for King of Thorns to GRRM’s Game of Thrones (specifically the Sean Bean cover that was released to tie-in with the success of the television series)


Lawrence’s response was to refer to similar covers back through the history of genre and still being released:

His point of course is well made. The mere similarity of having your protagonist (if Ned is the protagonist) sitting a throne is as much a part of Fantasy as the heroine swooning in the strong arms of her hunk is a part of Romance.

It’s always tempting of course to judge these covers. Whether they are examples of the best the genre has to offer, or some of the worst covers in the history of literature, there’s no denying their effect. It was suggested that the success of Fifty Shades of Grey in breaking beyond the Erotic Fiction market and into the mainstream was (in part) because it didn’t look like a typical Erotica cover.

It’s also worth acknowledging that the covers do not always reflect or represent the novel in the way the author would wish though, so in the interest of dispelling that hoary old cliche and admitting that of course we all do judge books in this way I invite you in the comments to nominate others.

What covers have made you pick up a book you went on to love?

What covers have drawn you to a book that you hated?

What covers have chased you screaming away swearing never to inflict such rubbish upon yourself… at least until they repackage it?