About a half-mile from where I left you

It’s been a busy month of writing.

You don’t always get to type that sentence. If you do, generally you breathe a sigh of relief, maybe mouth thank fuck or something like that, and hope that the next month is gonna be the same. It rarely is.

I’ve been doing a lot of these “think out loud” pieces lately (find them all here if you’re curious), mostly because they’re enjoyable to write. A part of me also likes the feedback I get, and if anything, most of that comes from within. Sometimes, when the compass doesn’t make sense anymore, you just have to stop, twirl about for a second, and realise exactly where you’re going. I guess you could say these posts provide something similar. After all, thoughts only survive as long as they’re in your head. They’re thoughts; you think them. But sometimes they need to be more than that. They need to be ideas. That means getting them outside, and for me nothing does that like an hour or so on in front of my blog.

As the title of this post hopefully implies, I’m writing this to give a sort of snapshot of where a month hard at it has brought me to.

The first thing I noticed going into June was that I didn’t really know whether the writing goal I was setting myself was realistic. Was it too little? Was it too much? I decided I wanted another 10,000 words by June 30th, along with at least some other work elsewhere. That could have been a blog, a short story, a poem-it didn’t matter. It just needed to be there. You have to understand, for me working on one project alone for any great length of time is terrifying. Without somewhere else to direct my attention, everything just becomes muddled, like TV static or the dwarves in the Hobbit movies. Worse again, the project begins to feel like a chore or a day-job. Even if it’s just one night off to write a blog, or a couple hours put into another story, it makes the whole project feel fresh when I re-visit it. It’s much like taking a shower after lying on the couch for a few hours. You step out your bathroom door and whooosh, when did the world get so fresh? When did it get so cold and energetic and alive and other words commonly used on men’s shower gels? Returning to a project like that is like going IV caffeine before the big race (well, that would see you disqualified so it’s actually a terrible example and a serious risk to your health, but you get my point). Devoting yourself to other work besides your main projects has a lot of other benefits too.

Perhaps the number one has been consistency. For years, I felt like my writing was Tottenham Hotspur. Bare with me. Much like Tottenham, I would have long periods of nothing, where my output on a word processor was about as good as their performances in the premier league. The odd day, without reasonable explanation, I would play a blinder. I’d smash 5,000 words out in a day, and make it look easy. In the background, Tottenham would rage to a 4-0 win over a top side, despite their record having more draws than a Mexican stand off. By and large though, for several years both myself and the London club would trundle to a respectable finish in the table, pat ourselves on the back, and then roll out the following year to do it all over again. What this month has given me, if anything, is an ability to say things when I didn’t feel there was anything left to say. Before, if the going got tough like that, I’d slam down the lid of my laptop, beg the Gods of Amateur Writing for inspiration, and hope that in maybe a week or two I’d do better. Hmm, I’m sure Tottenham used to do something similar. If you want to be a champion though, that just won’t cut it. If history has taught us anything, it’s that a champion’s worst day might actually be their best. When you’re lying on the canvas and cameras are flashing, those ten seconds might be the difference between who you want to be, and who you’re going to be. It may be a little hard to see, but writing is similar. If you can’t drag the words out of you when you’re at your worst, then do you even really deserve to have them flow out of you at your best? I’d wager that if you’re going to build characters, best start with your own.

This June has been exactly three years since I sat down, wrote one sentence on Microsoft Word, and quietly resolved to myself I was gonna write a novel. How hard can it be, I must have thought. The ideas are all there; I’ll just tip away on the weekends after college. Looking back now though, it’s embarrassingly obvious it was never going to get finished like that. I had a passion, but I didn’t have drive. I poured all my grit into college. By the time I got around to writing, I didn’t have a sharp tooth left to bite with. Now that there’s a bit of consistency to work with, the heart of this journey has suddenly quickened. The 10,000 word goal I had set (which works out to maybe 300 words a day after work) has been wiped away in favour of something much larger. It might just be a good month, as I alluded to earlier, but a part of me wants to believe it’s something more than that.

However, before you think I’m going to ride off into the sunset, you have to understand that June has been as full of setbacks as it has been surges forward. Perhaps the biggest of them was rejection. Rejection, or simply, No, is one of the hardest things a writer has to face, even if it’s one of the more common. Perhaps writer’s block outdoes it in terms of which shows up more often, but while you can dismiss that as a passing, silent frustration, rejection is the ghost that’s never banished. If anyone who submits their work anywhere was being honest, they’d say the sting hurts less every time, but it’s still called a sting for a reason. Rejection is like a ship sinking far from port without lifeboats. You just have to wait and go down with it, and hope that the next time you brave the waters you’ll get to the promised land. What makes rejection worse in a lot of cases is knowing it was completely valid. Again, I digress to Tottenham. I’m sure those players had many occasions where they could have said “Oi Ref, yous are bang out of order” or such, but by and large they probably had to hold their hands up, admit the other side was better and wonder how on earth they were ever going to compete.

I mentioned the idea of laying on the canvas, and if rejection is anything, it’s like being a boxer waiting for the count and watching your opponent already celebrating around you. Getting knocked down is bad; not being able to get back up is worse. And so, I suppose getting emails back saying that your piece won’t be considered is all part of those ten seconds. And with writing, it’s a very long twelve rounds, and chances are you’ll be knocked down a thousand times before you even land a punch on that fucker in front of you. That’s the nature of it though, and if you didn’t want it so bad, you wouldn’t be in the ring in the first place.

At the end of it all, June has been a 17K turn around on the project. That’s far better than I could have ever imagined. I doubt Tottenham could have foreseen actually playing well this year, but there they are battling it out with the best of them. And so I think I will continue being them, even if just because they’re no champions yet.

Even if just because they’re still dreaming.

 

A Post has no name

Before I begin a post like this, let me just start my paraphrasing House Stark: Spoilers are coming.

I’m writing this post to be friendly to both book-readers as well as TV viewers, as a lot of the theories dabble between both. That being said, if you don’t want to read something that discusses everything that is out there, now is your chance to run!

Last week, the penultimate episode of season 6 of Game of Thrones, entitled “Battle of the Bastards”, treated us to the kind of action we’d been baying for since the show started. It will no doubt go down as one of the series’ best episodes alongside fan favourites such as “Hardhome” and “The Rains of Castamere”. It brought a final, dramatic conclusion to the Northern story arc that had been building for years. Of course, if you’re a book reader, you know that we’re still waiting for the same action in the novel, which will be featured in “The Winds of Winter” if and when we should get it. The book’s version of events is far more complex of course, and if you are excited to see how George handles the whole affair considering the show has pipped him to it, I’d highly recommend you check out “The Grand Northern Conspiracy.” It’s available as a cluster of entries here. It’s a great way to see how all the little bits fit together since the death of Robb Stark!

Now, onto why you are here!

Who are Jon’s parents?

In either format of the story, Jon’s parents are suggested to be Eddard Stark and a non-noble woman who he met during Robert’s rebellion. One is a fisherman’s daughter, but this is widely doubted. From an email from the author himself, we can see the relevant birth dates of some of the major characters around the time in question. While this confirms nothing in itself, it does allow us to speculate as to where Jon could have come from. When we look at the timeline of Robert’s rebellion that we can piece together from the books, we see one major candidate as Jon’s mother is Wylla, who was a servant of House Dayne. Eddard confirms the name as Jon’s mother in both the show and books to Robert on their way down the Kingsroad, but says no more about her.

However, Jon’s mother might also be Ashara Dayne, who was lady-in-waiting to Elia Martell and the sister of the legendary Kingsguard knight Ser Arthur Dayne. Show-watchers will remember Sir Arthur from one of Bran’s flashbacks, where guarding Ned’s sister for Rhaegar he is killed in combat. After this, Ned returns his sword to House Dayne in his honour, and there it is suggested he may have brought home the child of Ashara Dayne, who committed suicide shortly after hearing the news of her brother’s death (and was known to be with child around the time). It was rumoured Ned and Ashara conceived Jon at the tournament of Harrenhal which preceded the war (which is also suggested by Ser Barristan Selmy), where they were seen dancing together. The time between the tournament and Ned bringing news of Ser Arthur’s death is within the window of a pregnancy. As a theory, it is perhaps second only to the big, infamous R+L=J.

This theory suggests Jon’s parents are Lyanna Stark (Ned’s sister) and Rhaegar Targaryen, who was believed to have abducted Lyanna sometime after the Harrenhal tournament. This is after all, one of the major instigators of Robert’s rebellion. Many believe Lyanna actually went willingly with Rhaeger, but regardless she was held at the Tower of Joy during the war, guarded by three knights of the Kingsguard (two in the show). Ned brings five of his northern bannermen to rescue her, with only himself and Howland Reed surviving the combat. It is widely believed the presence of no less than 3 of the 7 Kingsguard at the Tower of Joy, and not at major battles such as the Trident where Rhaegar was killed suggests they were guarding his heir. In the book, Ned recalls her lying “in a pool of blood” asking him to make “a promise” repeatedly which isn’t expanded on. As well as this, it is often noted Jon does not have the “Tully” appearances ascribed to Sansa, Rickon, Robb and Bran, but instead him and Arya look more like Lyanna. While Ned contemplates Robert’s bastards in Season 1/Book One, he also drifts towards Jon and his sister in the thought process. When Daenerys visits the House of the Undying, one of her visions is one a winter rose (noted to be liked by Lyanna) growing from a wall of ice, which would indicate Jon, a relative of Dany in this theory.

The show also plays with this theory at times. In Season One, one very smart viewer caught the initials RL edged into a a piece of wood propped directly behind Jon.

r=

We were tragically cut off during Bran’s flashback to the Tower of Joy, but it’s only a matter of time until we get the rest of that story. If it is as we expect, then it will point to the long held belief that the title of the series: ” A song of ice and fire” referes to Jon himself, who would have both the blood of the wolf and the dragon.

The only living person, of course, who could confirm this theory is Howland Reed, as he was with Ned Stark when they found Lyanna. Ned would never have revealed Jon’s parentage while Robert was alive, for fear his friend would kill the Targaryen heir (as was seen with Dany). In both books and the show, Howland is alive, and so is his daughter Meera….

Is Meera Reed Jon’s sister?

Meera is described as of an age with Jon, and they both share similar features. If Meera was to have been born in a set of twins to Lyanna Stark, then it’s plausible Ned allowed him take Meera, as it may have hid the truth better. It’s a sort of Luke Skywalker/Leia style theory, and definitely far out there in terms of what happens. After all, if R+L=J+M, then another fan-favourite theory is corrupted, and that’s that the dragon has three heads.

Who are the three heads of the Targaryen dragon?

This theory has widespread support. Rhaegar was known to be obsessed with the idea of the dragon having three heads, so much so that people say he got Lyanna pregnant as he could no longer father children by his own wife, Elia Martell.

See this passage from the book itself

The fifth room, finally, shows a man very much alike her brother Viserys, except that he is taller and has eyes of dark indigo rather than lilac. He is speaking to a woman who is nursing a newborn babe, telling her that the child’s name should be Aegon and saying that “What better name for a king?”. The woman asks him if he will make a song for the child, and he replies that he has a song and that “He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire.”. He appears to look at Dany then, as if seeing her, and then he adds that “There must be one more,” and “The dragon has three heads.”.

The Targaryens who came across the sea were three siblings led by Aegon the Conqueror, each riding a dragon, and they took all of Westeros. Safe to say it’s iconic there are three dragons again.

Daenerys will of course be one of the dragons, as a daughter of Aerys. It is also said the Mad King had a daughter by Joanna Lannister, the wife of Tywin Lannister. It has been noted throughout the past that Targaryen’s have been known to breed  what they call “monstrosities”, and as a dwarf Tyrion certainly fits the bill.

The similarities between the three supposed relatives of Dany, Jon anf Tyrion are striking. Just consider:

  1. All three belong to a different group in Westeros history: Andal, First Man, Valyrian
  2. All three are outcasts in their own right
  3. All three are third children
  4. All their mothers died in childbirth
  5. All three have dead fathers
  6. All three have a tragic lovestory (in some way each of them actually murdered their love)

There are other candidates of course, such as Aegon (book only), but these three have stood out the most.

targar.png

What’s going on with Bran’s visions?

To see Bran’s visions slowed down, just look here. They’re slo-mo’d and commentary is added from his flashback splurge in the forest beyond the wall. Another question commonly asked about Bran’s visions is what effect he is able to have on the past? After all, there was a definite interplay with Hodor in the past and present, and at one point during the Tower of Joy scene Ned Stark of the past seems to hear his as yet unborn son.

If you want to gain an understanding of this, check out this video. It goes through the time travel mechanics and gives some handy examples of other works such as Back to the Future!

Will Cersei’s prophecy be fulfilled?

It’s fair to say of late Cersei’s luck has turned. It seems the words of the prophecy she received from “Maggy the Frog” as a child are coming to fruition. Already, two of her children are dead, as was predicted. One of the biggest parts of the prophecy was that she would be killed by what Maggy called “the Valonqar”, which translates to “little brother” in High Valyrian. Now, given the plot, you wouldn’t even blame Cersei for believing this referred to her brother Tyrion.

The next candidate would be Ser Jaime, her own lover and brother. Though they are twins, it is noted that Cersei was born first. Importantly, in Bran’s flashbacks we see the Mad King Aerys and his plot to burn the city and the Lannister forces. This was stopped by Jaime, the “Kingslayer” and the theory suggests he will have to do it again to stop his sister. It should be noted it was mentioned some of the Wildfire was stored beneath the Sept of Baelor, which is where Cersei’s trial would be.

It should be remembered in a wider sense that Valonqar, as with many Valyrian words, may be gender neutral and non-specific.

Could it refer to one of the Stark children?

Could it refer to Dany?

Could it refer to Loras Tyrell, the sand snakes or the Hound (all can fit in some way)

Most interestingly, could it be Tommen Baratheon, the little brother of her own children?

tommen.jpg

 

Rise of Empire-Fantasy made economic once more

It’s been an interesting week in reading.

Just 3 days ago, I published a review of The Three Musketeers, which if you read, detailed how the book was a long, tedious and overall underwhelming read. And so it is funny, that just 72 hours later, I get to write a review that claims exactly the opposite.

It took me just one long weekend to rip through “Rise of Empire”, which comes as Sullivan’s sequel to his successful debut fantasy novel “A Theft of Swords”. Both these books were originally self published, and are each split into two parts. However here, for simplicity’s sake, I will consider them in their commercial format only.

Theft of Swords was actually the novel I dubbed my “book of the year” in 2015, when after receiving it as a gift, I was pleasantly surprised by the simple yet gripping fantasy tale I found within. Sullivan is a master of what I call “Economic Fantasy” (a term I believe I’ve invented). It’s not a ubiquitous skill by any means. Many well-regarded fantasy authors get caught up in complex plot devices, sprawling countries and a list of characters that runs right off the page. Sullivan circumvents this; pushing his plot forward so fast that it is impossible for it to gather dust. He trims everywhere, and keeps only the characters and locations that are absolutely necessary.

And now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say his worldbuilding is simple. Quite the opposite actually. The world laid out before us seems minute in his first installment, where literally one half of the book takes place on what you could call “one set”. But where Theft of Swords is condensed, Rise of Empire is like an explosion. Whole sections of the realm Sullivan creates become focal to the plot. What is perhaps more impressive again is how they are accessed. Travel in any fantasy novel that can stagnate a plot if it is not dealt with carefully. Here, Sullivan wisely blends the plot and the travel seemlessly, so much so that our protagonists Royce and Hadrian cross half the known world without it feeling laborious or drawn out.

These two characters, who form “Riyria”, after which the series takes its name, are perhaps the most enjoyable part of the tale. Characterisation can often be undercooked in plot-driven novels, but Sullivan refuses to let this be an issue. Instead, his main duo almost leap off the page, so much so that a master swordsman and an elven thief can almost be related to. Sullivan leaned his first novel heavily on the quick wit, action sequences and fascinating adventures of his protagonist pair, but in Rise of Empire his cast of characters begins to flush out. Added to the foreground are Princess Arista (given far more scope than the first novel), Modina (originally Thrace in the first installment) and Amilia, who only appears in this book. I’m not often one to point such nuances out, but it is key that each of these characters are female. Up until the last decade, nearly all fantasy novels revolved solely around men. Significant steps have been made since then, but a large amount of these belong to the Katniss Everdeens of the urban fantasy world. High fantasy is still awash with male characters, and so having three well-written female characters is a breath of fresh air. In fantasy, women are often painted as either damsels in distress or super killers without any faults. It is hard to understand how so many great fantasy writers can create whole worlds out of nothing, but find the notion of creating a believable female character impossible. Sullivan shoulders this responsibility well. Arista is endearing, strong, learned and brave, and it is clear the author has moulded her with as much care as he has Hadrian and Royce.

Sullivan treats romance with similar deftness. He achieves a fine balance between the non-existent and the overdone, and has the motivations of love and friendship cleverly intertwined with the traits of his characters.

Action is rife in the series, and where Theft of Swords was brimming, Rise of Empire is drowning. Some may argue it swamps the characters, but with the story driving onwards at such a high pace, the action always dances to the beat and never feels out of place. It is wild at times, but so too are our characters, and though they always seem to escape danger with relative ease, a shadow still hangs over the cast that feels very Game of Thrones-esque. Characters seem safe, but every so often we get the subtle reminder they are not, and as the story progresses this threat only ever looms larger.

The plot centres on the kingdom of Melengar, of which Arista is Princess and our main characters royal protectors, fighting against the newly formed empire. This takes us to the south, where Nationalists are battling the same foe, but not yet in one alliance. Arista’s goal is to unite their forces, but even as they do so, the world at large seems to shrink and more enemies come into play.

It’s intrigue at it’s best, and with so many revelations popping up as the story progresses, the stage is set for the climactic “Heir of Novron”, which should finish this trilogy with the storm it deserves!

 

The Three Musketeers: When “All for one” just doesn’t cut it

My first book review of 2016 comes in the form of a classic. It’s sad really to find myself half way through the year and only now just finishing a book I first picked up on a trip to Berlin in January. Naturally my final year of college kept me busy, while on top of that the scales of writing vs. reading have been stacked heavily against the latter of late. Perhaps what makes this minor problem feel all the more heavy to me is this long venture in reading has ultimately turned up very little at all.

I had high aspirations for The Three Musketeers. Growing up, the many film adaptations were firm favourites of mine. It’s hard as a young boy not to be enamoured with tales of dashing bravery or unwavering loyalty in the face of overwhelming odds. The musketeers symbolised everything we come to associate with the age old concept of the “gentleman”, and though this persona is now rather dated, there’s still parts of it you can admire.

Reading the first few chapters on a bus to Shannon airport, I was immediately struck by the shaky translation of Alexandre Dumas’ original French text. The sentences were stilted, the dialogue was jarring, and by God more than once I had to shake my head at the use of the word “ejaculated” in the place of “said”. I brushed by this though, and determined that for the sake of the story I knew, I would persevere. And to be fair, for the first 100-150 pages, this paid off. D’Artagnan, a young gascon, travels to the French capital pursuing his dream of joining the ranks of the musketeers. Paris is rife with conspiracy, as the powerful cardinal makes plays against the Queen, Anne of Austria. She is rumoured to have an intimate engagement with the Duke of Buckingham, and with France and England on the brink of war, this makes such secrets all the more deadly.

D’Artagnan becomes embroiled with all of this, and alongside his new acquaintances Athos, Portos and Aramis, fight to protect their monarchy. It’s a romantic tale, where the comradery among friends is as much revered as the love D’Artagnan has for his leading lady.

The first half of the book uses all these strengths well, and at that point I would have been writing a very different review. But I can’t write that review, and the further I pushed myself into this book, the clearer that became.

The death of Alexandre Dumas’ crowning jewel is multi-factorial. Firstly, his obsession with the most mundane detail is distracting. Far too much of the novel is spent discussing the financial state of the main characters. It almost felt like the author had some unresolved financial woes himself and just had to channel them into something. I should be leaving this novel with a fine appreciation of his literature, not a working understanding of 17th century French coinage.

Secondly, the characterisation often misses the mark. I was led to believe the musketeers would embody that fabled chivalry that is often renowned in Medieval lore. Instead the main characters often come off as little more than a gang of juvenile drunks with little regard for anything around them. Dumas may be one of France’s most celebrated writers, but he didn’t exactly paint women or foreign nationals in a pretty light by any stretch of the imagination. What made all this characterisation worse was how Dumas seemed so blissfully unaware of the people he’d created. He often would remark how “D’Artagnan knew better than to be rash”, even though his protagonist spent much of the novel picking fights and carrying out what many would call straight up murder.

The classic also failed to deliver any decisive moves in relation to the plot. The first fifty pages seemed punchy and to the point. The next hundred achieved what I considered “the story”, and then having managed that, Dumas spent a couple hundred pages just faffing about really. The characters spent as much time choosing wine as they did defending the realm, while characters who’d received the “fleshing out” procedure during the first act, if I may call it that, just seemed to vanish into thin air.

I would later read Dumas released the novel as a series of news comics, which makes perfect sense considering how broken the overall narrative is and how the characters never seem to really grow at all. Athos, who receives a dark backstory about page 400, is perhaps the only character worth reading the novel for. Aramis started off the story with a lot of promise, but he was largely confined to the background as D’Artagnan took centre stage. The same can be said of Porthos, though whatever brief glimpses we did get of him suggested that might not have been a bad thing.

And yet the overall conclusion is the same.

I was promised “All for one”, and though I’ll have fond memories of buying this book on the other side of the world, for me the Musketeers might be better off hanging up their hats.