Monday, November 20, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Lost Lands"



“In the Lost Lands”
Amazons! edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, 1979

“You can buy anything you might desire from Gray Alys. But it is better not to.”

In this story, Martin takes on the theme of “be careful what you wish for” but approaches it with a slight twist. No cackling evil fairy or cranky genie making things appear out of thin air here; rather, Gray Alys is a woods witch who has to put in some actual work to make things happen.

The story is also unusual in Martin’s choice of main character—Gray Alys herself. Why exactly Grey Alys serves as a procurer of favors, magical objects, etc. isn’t clear in the story, but it doesn’t seem that she particularly enjoys doing so. This creates almost a chicken-egg dichotomy: does she dislike selling her magical favor because things always turn out bad, or do things always turn out bad because she dislikes selling her magical favor? Martin doesn’t tell us, and that’s fine.
 


In the particular wish-granting incident of “Lost Lands,” Gray Alys is approached by a knight, Jerais, in service to the Lady Melange (ha). Melange wants to learn to shape-shift, and Jerais wants her to not learn to shape-shift, so Jerais pays Alys for Melange’s favor, then for his own—that Alys fail to help Melange. The lady seems to think that sending Jerais will prevent the inevitable blowback that Alys’ wishes always cause; she’s very wrong. Alys recognizes that what Jerais is asking for isn’t what he really wants, and when he asks if he’ll “have what [he] ask[s],” she replies, “You shall have what you want.” That’s not the same thing, and should have been a warning bell for Jerais, but Jerais isn’t particularly bright, and he’s arrogant, to boot.

Jerais—and the other male character, Boyce—is an interesting study in stereotypical maleness. Jerais doesn’t want Melange to learn to shape-shift because “I know what is good for her, better than she knows herself.” He’s smug, he’s full of himself, and he’s condescending regarding his lady, a woman he claims to be in love with. Alys recognizes immediately that what he really wants isn’t to protect Melange from herself, it’s to be the only one she loves: “You have been one lover among many, but you wanted more. You wanted all. You knew you stood second in her affections. I have changed that.” So Jerais is in the “friendzone” and seeks magical help to make Melange love him and only him because that’s not gross in any way. Alys giving him what he actually wants instead of what he verbally asked for is an interesting way of turning the tables; Alys knows what he wants better than he knows himself and gives him what he wants, and it turns out to be horrifying.

In order to give Melange what she wants, Alys has to find a werewolf and steal his skin. She sends out word that she’s seeking a werewolf, and a few weeks later, Boyce shows up at her door, telling her he knows where she can find a werewolf. Boyce is a different kind of stereotypical; if Jerais is the friendzoned protector who knows better than you, Boyce is the sexy predator. He is the werewolf he promises Alys, and he has every intention of taking her out into the lost lands and killing her. Alys isn’t dumb, of course, and uses her own magical artifacts to shape-shift into a silver-taloned bird and half kill him. Only half, because she needs him to be whole and a wolf when she skins him for his pelt.

~*~
“You wereama beautiful, Gray Alys. I watched you fly for a long time before I realized what it meant and began to run. It was hard to tear my eyes from you. I knew you were the doom of me, but still I could not look away. So beautiful. All smoke and silver, with fire in your eyes. The last time, as I watched you swoop toward me, I was almost glad. Better to perish at the hands of she who is so terrible and fine, I thought, than by some dirty little swordsman with his sharpened silver stick.”
~*~

When Boyce realizes what’s about to happen to him, he switches from smooth, self-assured predator to “you’re not like other girls.” He tries to convince Alys not to kill him by promising not to kill her because she’s a shape-shifter and thus the only one who can really understand him. He even throws in a bit of “too pretty to die.” He talks about the other women he’s been with and says that they meant nothing because they didn’t truly understand him the way Alys understands him. He wants her to run away with him so they can be predators together. Like Jerais, he’s hoist on his own petard; he lived as a predator with no concern for human life and every intention of murdering Alys for the fun of it, and he dies at the hand of another shape-shifter, pleading for his life as those he’s murdered likely did.

Martin works in quite a bit of humanity into Alys, as well. She doesn’t want to hurt people, but she gives them what they ask for, and they ask for stupid, harmful things. She tries to talk Jerais out of his and Melange’s bargain. She has sex with Boyce to try to ease the pain of what she has to do (her pain, not his pain), and then hides in her wagon while she waits for him to change into a wolf for the second time rather than facing his fear and rage.

There’s one last warning in the last two paragraphs of “In the Lost Lands.” Jerais brings Melange the wolfskin, and she’s upset because she’s aware of what it is and the limitations it places on her shapeshifting, but she uses it anyway. She has the chance to refuse, to turn away from her wish, to recognize that this is a really bad idea. There’s also some implication that Melange had been sleeping with Boyce, that she knows he was a werewolf and recognizes the pelt when it’s brought to her. If that’s the case, it makes her choice to bind the skin to her and wear it even more horrifying. And Jerais gets his wish, as well; Melange marries him, but he “sits beside a madwoman in the great hall by day, and locks his doors by night in terror of his wife’s hot red eyes, and does not hunt anymore, or laugh, or lust.”

Next week I’m taking a short break, but I’ll be back the week after with Dreamsongs Vol. 2. The last chunk of volume one is horror, and while I enjoy reading horror, I’m not particularly good with analyzing it.

Happy American Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Ice Dragon"



“The Ice Dragon”
Orson Scott Card’s Dragons of Light, 1980

“The Ice Dragon” is frequently mistaken for an A Song of Ice and Fire story, and the reasons for that mistake are clear. The setting and thematic material are very similar to A Song of Ice and Fire, even if closer reading reveals that this is not Westeros and these are not the Targaryen dragons.

In this unnamed land, two kings—one north, one south—are at war, and appear to have been for years, if not decades. Both sides have dragons as well as ground-based armies, and Adara’s uncle, Hal, is a dragonrider in service of the southern king. Adara has a special relationship with winter; she was born in the dead of the worst winter in living memory, her skin is cold to the touch, and she’s friends with the ice dragon that accompanies winter every year. This isn’t the Game of Thrones wight-dragon that breathes fire/ice that Viserion turns into, but a true dragon made of ice that breathes cold and chills everything around it. There are also ice lizards, which only Adara can play with because her hands aren’t as hot as everyone else’s, so she doesn’t kill them just by handling them.

~*~

Ice formed when it breathed. Warmth fled. Fires guttered and went out, shriven by the chill. Trees froze through to their slow secret souls, and their limbs turned brittle and cracked from their own weight. Animals turned blue and whimpered and died, their eyes bulging and their skin covered with frost.

~*~

“The Ice Dragon” reads very much like practice for A Song of Ice and Fire, with not-insignificant thematic similarities: dragons, winters, war, rape, and ice vs. fire. As in ASOIAF, the dragons are weapons of mass destruction, forces of nature barely controlled by their riders, not really characters in their own right. Even the ice dragon is more of a prop for Adara’s story than a character in it, a representation of winter and the thing that allows Adara to be a hero at the end of the story. It represents her difference from everyone else, as well, and the change she undergoes at the end of the story—becoming warm-blooded, losing her affinity with cold and winter and growing closer to her family—is a physical representation of her growing up after the traumatic experience just before the end of the story. Adara’s affinity with cold also represents her loss—her mother died when she was born, so unlike everyone else in the story who love summer and had Beth in their lives, even if only for a little while, Adara grows up cold, a loner, different than everyone else.


This story also sees Martin developing his ideas about medieval warfare and the plight of the common folk who just want to farm their land and live their lives. Hal brings them news of how the war is going, urging them to leave when it turns bad. At the beginning of winter, he warns them that in the spring, the opposing king is going to break through their lines and they won’t be able to stop him. Then the retreat begins, right past the farm, a steadily degenerating stream of men that lasts a month; one of the last groups through robs a neighboring farm and rapes the woman who lives there. Martin makes a point of remarking on the color of the rapist’s uniform, which marks him as one of “their” people, not the enemy. The enemy, when they arrive, also perpetrates horrors, nailing John to the wall and forcing him to watch them rape Teri. Martin has a slightly disturbing habit of assuming that rape is inevitable, that given the chance and the excuse and the low likelihood of punishment, men will assault women. I understand that he uses it as one of the many horrors of war and believes that depiction of war without rape would be dishonest, but it shows up in too many other contexts in his writing to ignore.

Adara bears striking similarities to both Arya and Sansa. She’s young, different than everyone else, a loner, and a bit selfish in the way little kids can be selfish. This is most evident toward the end of the story, when John decides he’s not leaving the farm, but he can at least save Adara by sending her with Hal. Adara refuses to go with Hal, instead running away into the forest. Her refusal to leave costs Hal his life. She tries to run away with the ice dragon—in the heat of summer—but chooses to go back to save her family. The ice dragon helps, killing the enemy dragons and riders, but it dies, too, both because it’s summer and because it’s fighting fire-dragons. So there are really two ways of looking at the climax of the story: Adara’s a hero, or Adara’s a thoughtless little kid who gets her uncle and a majestic and innocent beast killed because of her thoughtlessness. Not to mention her father’s injuries and her sister’s rape, though it’s doubtful she would have been able to stop that even if she hadn’t run away.

~*~

When the first frost came, all the ice lizards came out, just as they had always done. Adara watched them with a little smile on her face, remembering the way it had been. But she did not try to touch them. They were cold and fragile little things, and the warmth of her hands would hurt them.

~*~

The ending, in true Martin fashion, is bittersweet. The family leaves their farm behind but finds somewhere else to live for three years while the war rages on. It’s eventually won and they get to go home, but Adara has lost her coldness and can’t play with the ice lizards anymore. She also seems happier and closer to her family instead of her only companion being an ice dragon. Her family recovers from their ordeal and goes on to be happy.

Ice and fire, hard winters, war, family—is it any wonder this story is frequently mistaken for part of the Song of Ice and Fire universe? I don’t think so.

Next week, Martin takes on be-careful-what-you-wish-for in “In the Lost Lands.”

Monday, November 6, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr"



“The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr”
Fantastic, 1976

“Laren Dorr” was the first of what was meant to be a series of short stories about Sharra, the girl who goes between the worlds, but Martin never managed to write any more of them. As he mentions in the preface to this section, however, he rarely abandons an idea, and some of the worldbuilding in “Laren Dorr” shows up in later stories and books—even A Song of Ice and Fire.

Plotwise, there’s not much to talk about here; it’s one incident in the larger adventures of Sharra as she seeks her lover, who was stolen from her by the mysterious Seven, the gods of the universe. She stumbles into Laren’s world, where she stays for a while, then moves on. There is a minor plot twist—each gate between worlds has a guardian that will try to stop Sharra from crossing, usually violently, but it turns out that Laren is the guardian of this gate and he’s tried to stop her with love. Ultimately, however, Sharra moves on, continuing her search for Kaydar in other worlds.


Thematically and artistically, though, there’s a lot to admire about “Laren Dorr.” The writing is lovely. The worldbuilding in fantasy relies heavily on the author’s ability to describe the magical landscapes the characters are seeing, and as anyone who’s fussed about the “food porn” in A Song of Ice and Fire can tell you, Martin loves description. Early-ish in the story, Laren shows his power by either moving Sharra around the world or creating illusions to show her different places (which one isn’t clear and doesn’t really matter). Here’s an excerpt of that bit:

~*~

He set the castle flying over restless churning seas, where long black serpent-heads peered up out of the water to watch them pass. He moved them to a vast echoing cavern under the earth, all aglow with a soft green light, where dripping stalactites brushed down against the towers and herds of blind white goats moaned outside the battlements. He clapped his hands and smiled, and steam-thick jungle rose around them; trees that climbed each other in rubber ladders to the sky, giant flowers of a dozen different colors, fanged monkeys chittered from the walls. He clapped again, and the walls were swept clean, and suddenly the courtyard dirt was sand and they were on an endless beach by the shore of a bleak grey ocean, and above the slow wheeling of a great blue bird with tissue-paper wings was the only movement to be seen.

~*~

His description of the images created by Laren’s songs is equally lovely, capturing powerful images in relatively few words.

There’s a lot of unrealized potential (given that this is the only story) in the worldbuilding. I always appreciate it when it’s clear the author has far more in their head about how the world works and what’s in it than we get to see on the page; it gives the story a sense of depth that you don’t get when world elements are introduced just because the writer needs them and not because they’re organic to the story. In this case, there’s an entire universe/multiverse full of worlds that Sharra travels between using “gates” to go from one to the next. She wears a crown that protects her—somehow—against the gate guardians and other dangers and also seems to help facilitate travel between worlds. The Seven are mysterious, clearly all-powerful and hostile to Sharra and Laren, but the exact reasons for this hostility are unclear. So are the reasons the Seven might kidnap and imprison Sharra’s lover, Kaydar. Specifics aren’t necessary for this particular story—all we really need for the atmosphere of this story is what we get—but it would have been really interesting to watch the worldbuilding unfold and expand if Martin had managed to do more of these stories.

~*~

There are some [guardians] who try to claw you to pieces, and some who try to get you lost, and some who try to trick you into taking the wrong gate. There are some who hold you with weapons, some with chains, some with lies. And there is one, at least, who tried to stop you with love. Yet he was true for all that, and he never sang you false.

~*~

Like his protagonist in “The Second Kind of Loneliness,” Laren is deeply lonely, but in this case with the first kind of loneliness—the Seven have trapped him here, alone, taken away most of his power, and every time he goes mad, they cure him. Also like the “Loneliness” protagonist, he treats Sharra with respect, not going all stalker on her or trying to guilt-trip her into staying when it’s clear she needs to move on. He loves her, but he recognizes that she’s also the first person he’s seen in literally eons and she’s in love with someone else. Rather than trying to trap her or otherwise keep her from leaving, he lets her go—rather, he takes her to the gate and shoves her through.

Next week I’ll tackle Martin’s famous children’s story “The Ice Dragon,” a clear precursor to A Song of Ice and Fire.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Martin Re-read: "Bitterblooms"



“Bitterblooms”
Cosmos 1977

“Bitterblooms” is another story in which Martin mixes his genres, this time all three—scifi, fantasy, and horror—in an otherwise fairly traditional fairy story. Shawn gets lost in the woods in deep winter, comes across a weird quirk of nature (not a fairy circle, but flowers blooming where they shouldn’t), is taken into a place where time passes differently and reality itself is suspect, then returns to real life some time later, forever changed.

Obviously, because it’s Martin, it isn’t as simple as all that. Shawn isn’t just lost; she’s under threat from vampires, windwolves, and the planet itself. Much like Westeros, the season cycle in this story is extreme, with winter—“deepwinter”—lasting years, even decades. Shawn is sixteen and says deepwinter has lasted eight years so far. When her companion dies from wounds sustained in a vampire attack, Shawn has to fend for herself in the deep cold, not even daring to light a fire because it might draw more vampires. She’s in serious danger of starving, freezing, or being attacked when she comes upon the first flower, a tiny blue plant that shouldn’t exist in this weather. Then she finds the spaceship, covered in flowers, just before she’s attacked by a vampire.

~*~

“Kilmeny, Kilmeny, where have you been?
Lang hae we sought baith holt and den;
By linn, by ford, and green-wood tree,
Yet you are halesome and fair to see.
Where gat you that joup o’ the lily scheen?
That bonnie snood of the birk sae green?
And these roses, the fairest that ever were seen?
Kilmeny, Kilmeny, where have you been?”
--“Kilmeny,” James Hogg, 1813

~*~

Morgan rescues Shawn from the vampire and takes her into the spaceship, and this is where the story appears to shift entirely to science fiction, albeit still with some echoes of Celtic fairy mythology. Morgan tells Shawn she came from the sky, that she is made of magic, that she is related to Lilith and a slew of other mythological heroes from Martin’s thousand worlds stories (which includes “Mistfall”). But Shawn remembers a story from her childhood of an entire family who encountered Morgan and thought they were safe and warm and well-fed, but were found later frozen and starved to death, because of course fairy food is an illusion. Morgan convinces Shawn that the food and warmth aren’t illusions, then takes her on a whirlwind tour of the galaxy.

But of course Shawn isn’t allowed to leave the ship because, as she discovers when Morgan makes a mistake, they’ve never left the planet. The “window” is a viewing screen through which Morgan has shown Shawn the universe, but they haven’t moved. So while the story appears to go hard sci-fi for a bit, complete with space travel, it’s still not quite there. Even the science fiction elements that still exist are covered with a veneer of fantasy because Shawn doesn’t understand how any of this works, so it all looks like magic to her, not to mention that Morgan keeps telling her it’s magic. As far as Shawn knows, Morgan can change the time of day, the weather, and the time of year, besides taking her to other planets. All of this combines to keep her disoriented and trapped.

Shawn learns that the space travel has been a lie when Morgan brings her some of the blue flowers when the ship is ostensibly in a different system. She leaves and goes back home, where they tell her she’s been gone for a year. Martin summarizes the rest of her life, emphasizing the differences in her—before, she was considered young and irresponsible; now she’s respected and becomes one of the most influential members of the family. But she wanders, traveling the planet to contribute to the family rather than staying put; she’s offered the role of Voice when she’s older, but refuses it. Finally, during a bad winter, she understands that she’s too old to contribute anymore and goes back to the ship. Morgan doesn’t open up for her, but she discovers that the ship itself is named the Morgan Le Fay, registered to a planet called Avalon.

~*~

Kilmeny had been where the cock never crew,
Where the rain never fell, and the wind never blew.
But it seem’d as the harp of the sky had rung,
And the airs of heaven play’d round her tongue,
When she spake of the lovely forms she had seen,
And a land where sin had never been;
A land of love and a land of light,
Withouten sun, or moon, or night;
Where the river swa’d a living stream,
And the light a pure celestial beam;
The land of vision, it would seem,
A still, an everlasting dream.

~*~

Martin leaves a lot open to interpretation and question. Who is Morgan? Does she even exist? She seems to be ageless and shares a name with the ship; is she like Anne McCaffrey’s brainships, the physical representation of the AI that runs the ship? A hologram? A hallucination? The literal Morgan le Faye, adapting to the space age? If the space travel were real, her agelessness could be explained by that whole time-space distortion thing that happens in interstellar travel, but it’s not.

One of Martin’s greatest strengths as a writer is this ability to pull together genres and make something new and interesting. A traditional underhill journey made over as a sci-fi story with elements of horror and fantasy isn’t something you see very often, and Martin does it very well.

I’ll be skipping over “The Way of Cross and Dragon,” but it’s worth a read; it’s essentially the Spanish Inquisition in space, with some really interesting philosophical and religious discussions. Instead, next week, I’m moving on to “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr,” which kicks of a section of Dreamsongs that’s primarily fantasy rather than merged genres.

Bonus: