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The Stone Dance of Ice and Fire: A Double Review

Posted on Wednesday, March 2, 2011 in Books, Conlanging, World-building

I’ve recently been reading two fantasy series that, on reflection, have both parallels as well as sharp contrasts. The two series are:

  • A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
  • The Stone Dance of the Chameleon by Ricardo Pinto

I’ve read all four extant volumes of Martin's (unfinished) series (beginning with A Game of Thrones) and the first volume of Pinto's work (The Chosen) and just picked up the second.

What I found interesting right away is that both are concerned with what Martin calls "the game of thrones," the intrigue and political maneuvering (not to mention bloodshed) that goes with the choosing of who will have power in a certain time and place. I like both series, so let's take a look at them.

A Song of Ice and Fire is definitely a ripping yarn full of fully-rounded characters, lavish set pieces, and enough detail to provide a reader with page-turning enjoyment. Martin's strength is, without a doubt, his ability to engage the reader emotionally, to make him or her care about the fictional characters. This is one of the reasons, in my opinion, that fans are so passionate about Martin "finishing" the series. They care what happens to Arya, Brandon, Jaime, Cersei, and the rest of them. Did Sandor Clegane survive? Does Daenerys get to ride her dragons? What becomes of Brienne the Beautiful? I’d like to know, too.

On the other hand, as a world-builder, Martin is a little less successful. One person I know described Westeros as the perfect stereotype of what a fantasy world should be. Granted, the idea of winter lasting years is an intriguing fantastical feature, but the idea of why this happens is always nagging at me. No satisfactory (or any) explanation is ever given. It just is. Also, Martin insists on providing measurements for at least two edifices that would be better served by just saying they’re really, really big. First, The Wall is always 700 feet tall. Second, one of the pyramids that Daenerys rules over is 800 feet tall. For comparison, the Arc de Triomphe is 164 feet tall, the Great Pyramid of Giza is 481 feet tall, and Hoover Dam is 726.4 feet tall. Just imagine the sheer volume of structure like the Wall that is 700 feet tall and miles and miles long. From the description in the book, it would appear that The Wall has been extremely tall for ages and ages, and the pyramid Daenerys sits on is even taller than the Hoover Dam? I like my fantasy’s fantastical, but sometimes less detail is more.

Another nitpicky pet peeve (Yes, I realize I'm being nitpicky) is Martin's insistence on detailing many of the meals people eat. For example, "They broke their fast on black bread and boiled goose eggs and fish fried with onions and bacon…" Lampreys seem to be popular fare in Westeros as well. Dany nibbles "tree eggs, locust pie, and green noodles…" In some ways, it appears Martin wants to avoid the clichéd non-descript stew of some fantasy worlds, but, from my perspective, veers a little too far in the opposite direction.

Finally, since this is a conlanging blog, we come to language. Martin himself freely admits that "I suck at foreign languages. Always have. Always will." (Of course, now we can thank David Peterson for breathing life into Dothraki.) So, we really can't fault Martin for not creating an entire Dothraki or Valyrian language and including it in Appendices. He acknowledges that particular shortcoming. However, my beef with him is his sometimes completely random-seeming choice of names for characters and places, even within the same family: Cersei and Jaime; Robert, Stannis, and Renly, etc. Martin also has an annoying habit of combining a first-rate fantasy name with an English-sounding one: Davos Seaworth, Balon Greyjoy, Robert Baratheon, etc. The "almost" names and titles are somewhat annoying as well: Eddard = Edward, Joffrey = Jeffrey, Ser = Sir, Maester = Master, Denys = Dennis, Walder = Walter, Yohn = John, etc. He has somewhat better imagination with the Targaryens and when he gets out of Westeros (although his non-Westerosi names can appear a little unpronounceable): Xaro Xhoan Daxos (I ended up pronouncing x as [S] and xh as [Z] in my head), Jaqen H’ghar, the Dothraki names and words, Illyrio Mopatis, Mirri Maz Duur, etc. Those names sound and look consistently exotic and fantasical.

In the end, I don't have HBO making a TV series of anything I've ever written, and Martin's books have sold millions of copies; so who am I to pass judgement on the above shortcomings. I will say that for all their high-quality entertainment value, A Song of Ice and Fire does exhibit a lot of the tropes of fantasy literature (See the TV Tropes entry for the series here). I'm just sayin&#39.

Martin's series is interesting to see in juxtaposition with Pinto's The Stone Dance of the Chameleon. Where Martin's Seven Kingdoms and beyond are in many ways very familiar with their kings, knights, lords, and ladies, Pinto paints a thoroughly-detailed completely new creation for us: The Three Lands. This is not a thinly-veiled medieval European setting, but a world full of unfamiliar places and cultures where the simple act of forgetting to don one's mask can result in the deaths of scores of people. While Pinto cannot match Martin for sheer page-turning lively action, he does outmatch him for sheer ingenuity and attention to detail in world-building. Where Martin's sers ride horses, Pinto's Chosen mount saurian aquars and ride along horned huimurs. Where cloth-of-gold is popular in Westeros, it's usually cut into a tunic, doublet, or elaborate gown. In the paradisal seclusion of Pinto's Osrakum, the Chosen dress in elaborate court-robes, stilt-like shoes, and utilize slaves whose eyes have been replaced by precious stones. Pinto's website testifies to his detailed world-building when you see images from his notes with captions like "Detail from Notebook 18, Page 22". He even gives credit to someone in the acknowledgments for helping him with "the equations to calculate the lengths and directions of shadows." Whew!

Of course, all this planning and detail sometimes get in the way of telling a good story. Carnelian, the viewpoint character of the novels, is often staring, marveling, being overwhelmed, and having other superlative experiences while we're provided with a litany of detailed descriptions of the wonders Pinto has devised for us. It (usually) stops just short of being tiresome, and then the story resumes.

In one way, Martin and Pinto do have something in common in some of their naming practices: the "almost" names. For Pinto, they're based on gemstones or other precious materials: Osidian = obsidian, Jaspar = jasper, Aurum = gold (Latin), Opalid = opal, Molochite = malachite, etc. I believe I read that Pinto had at first almost used names in Quya but later decided against it.

Quya? What is this Quya? Here is where Pinto and Martin firmly part company. Pinto has an entire language and writing system for his world although, sadly, this does not show up very much in the books themselves. For those interested, he has extensive notes and a grammar on his website. According to the Acknowledgments, he had help with the language from David Adger. The writing system obviously has a debt to pay to the Mayan glyphs but has a beauty all its own and provides chapter heading glyphs from the first two books. There is only one extended text example, so it's a shame we don't see more of the language in the books themselves given Pinto's love of dazzling the reader with details.

Both series have something to offer and are well worth reading. If you like fast-paced storytelling, well-rounded characters, and cliffhanger endings, you can’t go wrong with A Song of Ice and Fire. If you like a more leisurely reading experience, very interesting characters, first-class worldbuilding (with (online) Appendices), try The Stone Dance of the Chameleon. See you in Westeros and Osrakum!

Bring on the comments

  1. Great review/analysis, in my opinion. I had never thought about Martin’s use of measurement in quite that manner.
    And as for Xaro Xhoan Daxos, I had always (in my head) pronounced his name as /xɑɾo χoɑn Dɑxos/ (if the IPA transcription appears properly). The x as a voiceless velar fricative and the xh as a voiceless uvular fricative.
    I am curious now, how Martin would pronounce it.
    Anyhow, thanks for this post and your blog… I am a longtime conlanger, of the past 15 years or so, but just becoming connected with the community online via social networking.

  2. The Conlanging Librarian says:

    Thanks for the comment and glad you liked the review. Welcome to the wider online community. Feel free to check out the numerous community links at http://library.conlang.org/web/oncomm.html.

  3. Thanks! I just realized my above IPA transcription was wrong. the /d/ in /dɑxos/ should be lowercase. Anyhow, really love your blog. It is great. Thank you.

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