It has been a five year wait, and it is not precisely over yet....
Many of us have been addicted to George R.R.Martin's 'Song of Ice and Fire' ever since the first volume, ' A Game of Kings'. For those who have not, imagine an almost completely unprettified mediaeval world where treachery and torture are routine, and chivalry and honour are mostly just words. Virtuous characters do terrible things; less often, villains repent. There is magic in this world, but only once things start to fall apart, and there used to be dragons, and might be again. One of the few rules of genre fantasy Martin obeys is that his book comes in many volumes. Years apart.
'I planned to move forward five years after the end of 'A Storm of Swords', so that my younger characters had a chance to mature into adults. Only that didn't work so well - either people turned out to have spent five years doing nothing, or I had to put everything into flashbacks. And by the time I accepted that this didn't work, I had lost a year on stuff I had to scrap.'
And 'A Feast for Crows' is only half the book we were expecting. Each volume of the sequence has been longer, and this time, rather than cut all of his storylines off at a particular point in time, Martin has put half of his characters in this book and those of us obsessed with the mad empress Daenerys or the sarcastic dwarf Tyrion will have to wait another eighteen months or so. 'There are problems with doing it this way, of course. Ideally, the problems Daenerys has with the empire she holds down by force would be counterpointed with the kingdom Sersei is wrecking with pettiness, madness with folly.'
There is nothing allegorical or satirical about these books. The half-smart doomed gambits of Queen Sersei and their unforeseen consequences are not a reference to the real world, yet ' I live in the same world as that moron George W., and that has to have an impact.' One of the things Martin wanted to point out in these books is a point often neglected in fantasy, which is that ruling is hard work, which is not less true because Bush once said it. 'Tolkien assumes, a little, that because Aragorn is the rightful king, he can rule effectively just by being a good man. It's not enough to be good, or smart, or well-meaning. You have to be lucky, and you have to get taxes in.'
There are obvious historical analogies in these books to actual European history - bits of the Wars of the Roses, or the Hundred Years War, or the Albigensian Crusade. 'It's always a mix-and- match approach, and anyone who thinks that by identifying my source material they can predict my plot is going to be severely misled.' Tyrion, for example, is not Richard III, even if he has, by this point, an even worse reputation. What is most authentically mediaeval is the technology of armour and weapons; Martin does not do combat reconstruction but he has friends in that world who stop him doing anything very stupid. The siege in 'A Feast for Crows' is authentically drawn-out and grubby, though individual combats tend to take more time than they strictly speaking should -' in this sort of combat, the first person to make a mistake is dead, and there's no fun in that.'
Martin works with the practicalities of his world. 'In a world where combat consists of hitting each other with sharpened six foot bars of steel, you can't have a woman warrior who fits any cute stereotype. Brienne, the woman warrior here, cannot fight effectively, and be considered beautiful, because she needs to have upper body strength.' Choices have to be made, and from people's choices within the limits their world allows them, we get large parts of their characters.
Another consequence of working within the mediaeval is the way people talk. If they sound too modern, that's a problem, but anything like the sheer formality of mediaeval speech would alienate most audiences - 'you have to walk a fine line. One of my early editors on these books said that he had a problem with the word 'mayhap' because every time he came across it, he was worried that a 'forsooth' might be lurking nearby. Generally, I use the archaic to characterize my older characters - the older generation might say 'mayhap' and younger people tend to say 'maybe'. I've had to train my copy editors to let me be the judge of all this.'
'A Feast for Crows' is not the best way into Martin's world; that remains 'A Game of Thrones' which sets the rules and introduces characters with whom we find ourselves cheerfully spending hundreds of pages. 'Crows' is another splendid instalment, and one which reminds us that, bleak as the first book was, by the fourth it has got gloomier, with three more volumes to go.
And then a biography of Anthony Burgess
The Real Life of Anthony Burgess
by Andrew Bissell
(Picador 434 pp £20.00)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
There are few titles as double-edged as this. Is this biography of Burgess the 'real life' by contrast with the passionately hostile one by Roger Lewis (Faber £9.99), or by contrast with the childish fabrications with which Burgess constantly decorated his back-story? If for nothing else, Bissell would deserve praise for the good-tempered patience with which he disentangles the truth from the tangle of myths which drove Lewis to blind rage..
One of Burgess's best-known claims is that he wrote himself from talent into genius as the result of a mistaken diagnosis of a brain tumour. This appears to be almost entirely untrue, and the novels of this period, three books in a year, are less good than his earlier straightforward ones about colonial Malaya. There is a similar shakiness about most of Burgess's self-analyses, though the early death of his mother frin the Influenza of 1919 was probably indeed the wound from which he never quite recovered.
Bissell and Lewis agree that Lynne, Burgess' drunken first wife, was a mad and bad woman who inflicted on Burgess psychic wounds from which he never entirely recovered. Both regard her infidelities as somehow worse than Burgess's -the implied moralism of this is sickening. Lynne's alcoholism was in large part a response to a brutal and disabling assault and probable rape by a trio of GIs. This is the attack which Burgess utilized as the central incident of 'A Clockwork Orange'. Whatever damage Lynne caused Burgess, it needs remembering that she had to live with him...
Bissell's biography is written from the standpoint of someone who admires much of Burgess' work; Lewis regards him as a pompous charlatan. What they share is a tendency to skim over the last two decades of the life and work and public appearances; Burgess the public man with staggeringly reactionary views on some subjects is hardly present in either. Bissell's is a sensible and measured life, Lewis's an impassioned diatribe. As someone who met Burgess, and loathed him, I find Lewis's portrait more appealing.
I met Burgess when I did an After Dark with him and Andrea Dworkin, and it remains worth saying that he was so dreadful that Dworkin and I formed an alliance against him...