The Path of Sorrow

Monday, 25 May 2015

Mount Silverback

Among the desolate flats of the Western Province, a particularly bleak region of the Winter Realm, rises a single spire of rock. This lone mountain is known as Mount Silverback, after the permanent caps of white ice gleaming on its lofty heights.

Seen from the plains below, it looks like a castle of sorts built into the side of the mountain. Seven round towers are visible near the summit, built on a series of uneven precipices linked by steep wooden staircases and paths hacked out of the rock. From the highest peak flies a great banner, rippling forever in the freezing winds that sweep across the plains and buffet the mountain. The banner displays a black sword against a stark white field, symbol of the priest-knights that dwell inside Silverback.  

This is the outward face of the Temple of Occido, a grim warrior-cult dedicated to the worship of Occido, the God of War. The Templars that reside in this remote and inhospitable spot chose it for precisely those qualities. Here, far away from the other settlements of the Winter Realm, they are free to commune with their savage deity and pursue their secretive, ritualised existence. 

The Templars play an important role in The Best Weapon, the first of the epic fantasy novels I am co-writing with Martin Bolton. One of the central characters, Fulk the No-Man's Son, was adopted by the Templars as an orphan, and raised to follow their grim code and grimmer religion. He is privy to some - not all - of their secrets, and knows what many outsiders don't: the core of Mount Silverback is essentially hollow, with hundreds of halls and winding passages carved out of the living rock by long-dead hands. 

The first Templars discovered these deep chambers, bare and apparently deserted, when they first came to explore Silverback. They wasted no time in occupying the place, and in hiding or rubbing out the peculiar symbols and diagrams carved onto the walls. The existence of these, as well as certain passages that led down down into unexplored catacombs deep under the mountain, were carefully hushed up. So far as the knights of Occido are concerned, what they don't know (probably) won't hurt them. 

I took my inspiration for the Temple, and its reclusive inhabitants, from various cells of my fractured mind. The Temple itself, perched on a high mountain far away from the rest of civilisation, was inspired by dramatic images of Buddhist temples in Nepal and Tibet, such as the one to the right. 

Occido, the belligerent God of War, was inspired by Mars, the Roman God of War, though he has a slightly cruder, more shamanic quality. The Templars envisage him as a gigantic warrior, clad in armour of steaming, red-hot iron, faceless behind the stern visage of his helm. All that can be seen of his face is a pair of red eyes that glow like twin fires. As befits a god of war, Occido is pitiless, heartless, and entirely fixated on death and slaughter and military glory. These are the things prized by the Templars, making them a fairly joyless bunch to deal with, though very good at fighting. 

The Templars themselves are obviously inspired by the historical Templars, though unlike their real-life counterparts they play little to no part in politics, and do not allow themselves to become corrupted or softened by worldly riches. Hidden away on their mountain, reliant on mysterious resources to survive, they resemble the inmates of a prison who have chosen not to escape.  

Still, this brotherhood of strange and rather unpleasant men - they are almost all men - have played an important part in the history of the Winter Realm, and are fated to do so again in The Best Weapon and its sequels. The black sword of the Temple will once again fly over stricken battlefields, and the war-shout of the knights of Occido will cause the enemies of the realm to quake in their boots...

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The World Apparent, Part One...

Following the release of The Path of Sorrow, the second full-length novel in our fantasy series co-written with Martin Bolton, I want to post a series of articles about the universe we have created, and the characters that populate it.

World-building is a fascinating process, as well as a challenge: unlike historical fiction, where everything is set up and ready to go, you have to create the backdrop before writing the story. To that end we spent many evenings - usually in various central London pubs - ranting at each other about the geography of our fantasy planet, the names of the countries, oceans and cities etc, and whose turn it was to stagger to the bar.

Thus The World Apparent was born on a series of damp beermats and notepads, first as a barely decipherable squiggle (drawing is not my strong point) and then as something rather more impressive and easy on the eye, courtesy of Martin Bolton, who is a talented artist as well as an insufferable clown. Below is the world map we eventually agreed on.

To avoid arguments spilling over into bloodshed, we decided to carve up the world between us: I chose the northern half of the map, developing the history and layout of the Winter Realm and the Old Kingdom, while Martin took the lands south of the Girdle Sea. Temeria, the big continent to the west, was more or less a blank space until we fleshed it out for The Path of Sorrow. Other parts of the map will be explored as and when we invent them.

I had great fun shaping The Winter Realm, the teardrop-shaped northern island at the top of the map. Since this was fantasy, I was able to slap together lots of different elements to create a land of snow and ice, ringed on all sides by impassable mountains, and with only one entrance/exit. This is the Iron Gate, an enormous man-made barrier on the southern tip of the island, raised and lowered by a complex mechanism of chains and winches. The sentries on the rampart have absolute control over who can sail in or out, making the Iron Gate the most important fortress on the island. 

The Winter Realm is populated by the descendants of refugees from The Old Kingdom, the continent immediately to the south, who fled when that ancient realm was devastated by civil war and a series of earthquakes. Harsh conditions - the land is covered by snow for all but three months of the year - mean that the population remains low, no more than half a million souls thinly spread over the rocky, inhospitable plains and mountains. 
Cardinal Flambard, by Zennor Matthews

The culture of the Winter Realm is (naturally) medieval, vaguely 11th-12th century Western Europe, and with few refinements. There is only one real city, founded by the first refugees on one of the few patches of fertile land, and home to a few thousand people. The city is named Hope, and from here the Winter Realm is ruled by a series of kings who claim direct descent from the leader of the refugees. By the time of The Best Weapon, the last king has died, leaving only an infant daughter to succeed him. Until she comes of age, the land is governed by a regent, Cardinal Flambard. Flambard is a grotesque, corrupt, cynical, hugely intelligent and politically able man, a mixture of Baron Vladmir Harkoonen (from the Dune series by Frank Herbert) Cardinal Wolsey, Narses and various other svengali figures culled from fantasy, history and my imagination. 

The rest of the Winter Realm is bare and desolate. Much of it is howling wasteland, with lots of scattered baronies and strongholds. One of the larger of the ugly stone bastions dotted about the land is Clifford's Mount, an imposing pile of grey rock on a mound, known as Evil Hold by the local peasants due to the brutal nature of the lords who reside there. 

Fulk, by Zennor Matthews
The only major settlement in the western part of the island is Mount Silverback. This enormous spire of rock rises from the windswept flatlands that surround it, like a great finger pointing at the sky, and is home to the Temple of Occido. Occido is the War God, the most bellicose of the pantheon of gods that dwell in the Celestial Sphere. His worshippers on the mountain are a reclusive cadre of Templar Knights, the best fighters in the Winter Realm - possibly in the whole world - and semi-independent from the Kings at Hope. 

One of the two main characters of The Best Weapon, Fulk the No-Man's Son, begins the story as a young recruit at the Temple. Orphaned while still a baby (hence his name) he was adopted by the Templars and raised amid the strict martial temple-fortress of Mount Silverback. Fulk, however, is destined to become much more than just another priest-knight of Occido...

More on the Winter Realm, and The World Apparent in general, to follow!

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Two books for one...sort of...

I have a double announcement to make - two 'new' books have been released at the same time on Kindle and paperback. One, The Path of Sorrow, is co-written with Martin Bolton and forms a sequel to our first effort, The Best Weapon. The other is the third and last episode (for now) in The White Hawk series, set during the turbulent civil wars between Lancaster and York.

There will be all sorts of freebie competitions and prizes happening in the next few weeks for both novels, so keep your eyes peeled! I will post something more detailed in the near future...

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Battle of Dunbar

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Dunbar, one of the lesser-known battles of the Scottish Wars of Independence. It was also the first pitched encounter between the English and Scottish forces, and the only battle to be fought in Edward I's invasion of 1296. It's a while since I 'celebrated' an anniversary on this blog, so thought I would give my take on it.

Clang, hack, slay...
First, some context. Edward's invasion of Scotland was the end result of years of haggling to and fro over the rightful claimant to the vacant Scottish throne, which ended in John Balliol being installed as King of Scots in return for acknowledging Edward as his feudal overlord. Balliol's own countrymen considered him something of a nonentity, and nicknamed him 'Toom Tabard' or the Empty Coat, mocking him for being a spineless puppet of the English king.

In fact Balliol seems to have been used by both sides: when Edward started demanding Scottish troops to aid him in his war against France, a council of twelve Scottish nobles took the decision out of Balliol's hands, refused to supply Edward with soldiers, and instead signed a treaty of mutual aid with the French.

Edward's reaction was predictably furious. Having ordered a huge army to assemble at Newcastle, he led his host up to the castle of Wark on the Tweed, where news reached him that the Scots were getting their retaliation in first: on Easter Monday a Scottish force made an unsuccessful attack on Carlisle, while bands of outriders ravaged the border with fire and sword. One English chronicler claimed that the Scots committed a particularly heinous act of savagery at Hexham, rounding up a hundred schoolboys and burning them alive in a church. The tale might have been exaggerated or plain invented as useful propaganda, but on the other hand such incidents were by no means uncommon in medieval warfare.

John Balliol or 'Toom Tabard
Edward didn't seem worried by these events. When he received a message from Balliol, in which the Scottish king formally renounced his homage, he smiled and remarked: "What folly he commits. He shall have no need to come to me, for I shall go to him."

Any Scottish atrocities were soon eclipsed by the horrors of Edward's sack of the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Seven hundred years on, this incident is still clouded by contemporary propaganda and modern nationalist sentiment - much like the later sacks of Drogheda and Wexford in Ireland. Trying to see through these mists is difficult, but what seems to have happened is that Edward initially offered the town terms of surrender. These were scornfully rejected, and a number of his sailors were killed by the people of Berwick when his ships ran aground near the harbour.

Edward, who from boyhood onward had displayed a streak of cruelty when roused, lost control of himself.  He unleashed his shock troops on the town and personally led the cavalry charge on his war-horse, Bayard: it says something for Berwick's pitiful defences that his horse was able to leap the dyke and gallop into the streets.

Three days of bloody massacre followed. It's unclear whether Edward ordered the general extermination of the citizens, or of the men of the garrison. Either way, many thousands of innocents died, and Berwick was reduced to a gory, reeking shambles. Accounts vary of what finally persuaded Edward to put an end to the bloodshed: one story claims that a group of priests appeared before him, bearing the Host and begging on their knees for him to show mercy. Another says that Edward was violently sick after witnessing a soldier run his sword through the belly of a pregnant woman, and cried out 'Laissez! Laissez' - "Let be, let be!" as the signal to halt.
Arms of John de Warenne

Whatever the state of Berwick after this orgy of destruction, the crucial port town on the Tweed was now in Edward's hands. He followed up by sending his lieutenant and drinking crony, the Earl of Surrey, to secure the castle of Dunbar, a few miles up the Tweed. Surrey, a typically hard-faced baronial ruffian who had once waved a rusty sword under the noses of Edward's lawyers when they started asking difficult questions about his ancestral rights, duly sped off with a strong body of mounted knights and men-at-arms.

A note on warfare in this era. Descriptions of medieval campaigns can sometimes come across as a bland recitation of dry facts - King Wotsit marched over here and took this castle, then this town, and then marched back again. It's difficult for us modern, civilised, 21st-century types to imagine the smell and the stench of it, the hardship and the suffering of soldiers and civilians as oversized, indisciplined feudal hosts straggled up and down the country, often in appalling weather and over bad roads, all the while losing men to guerilla attacks, disease and desertion.

Desertion in particular was a serious problem for Edward I in his Welsh and Scottish campaigns. The majority of his infantry were made up of badly armed and trained feudal levies - conscripts, essentially, townsmen and peasants, often armed with little more than knives. To counter the problem, Edward supplemented his forces with large numbers of Basque and Gascon mercenaries, and after the conquest of Wales was able to call upon the services of thousands of tough Welsh archers and spearmen. Rather than starve in their own lands and be treated as second-class citizens by English immigrants, many of the Welsh chose to enlist in the armies of their conqueror.

By 1296, then, Edward's army was a pretty formidable beast, hardened by years of campaigning in Wales and France. The king's grasp of logistics could be pretty tenuous - he once sent out orders for 60,000 infantry to be raised, when there was perhaps a third of that number of able-bodied men in the whole of England - but he knew how to lead and direct an army. The same went for Surrey, another veteran of the Baronial wars and Welsh campaigns.

The Scots, by contrast, had nothing like the same degree of warlike experience to call upon. Scotland had largely been at peace for the past century, bar a couple of minor battles against the Norwegians and the Manx, and poor old Toom Tabard wasn't blessed with military genius. Balliol was camped at Haddington with the main body of the Scottish feudal host when urgent messages reached him from the garrison at Dunbar, warning that the English were on the move.

Balliol despatched his own knights, probably led by the Comyns, to meet Surrey. The two forces came in sight of each other near the castle, and for a while engaged in a staring contest. The Scots held the high ground, and may have expected Surrey's men to withdraw rather than risking attacking such a strong position. Instead he led his men down into a gulley and across a river called the Spott Burn.
Dunbar Castle today

As they struggled across the river, the ranks of English knights started to break up. Seeing the enemy host apparently dissolve into chaos, the Scots launched an all-out charge. It must have been a pretty rare and glorious spectacle, hundreds of mounted knights streaming downhill, pennons waving, lances couched as the earth quaked under the racing hoofs of their destriers.

Alas, they were deceived. Old Surrey was something of a general as well as a hooligan, and had deliberately ordered his men to feign indiscipline when they crossed the burn. As the disorderly horde of Scots thundered down towards them, the English knights suddenly closed up again and launched a counter-charge, a difficult manoeuvre that Napoleon's cavalry might have been proud of.

It was all over in minutes. After a brief fight the Scots panicked and fled westwards to the refuge of Ettrick Forest. They probably didn't suffer many casualties: one English source boasted that ten thousand of them died, but in reality only one minor Lothian knight, Sir Patrick Graham, was slain, and a hundred Scottish lords, knights and men-at-arms taken prisoner.

The blow to Scottish arms, however brief and bloodless the actual fighting, was devastating. Berwick and Dunbar knocked the fighting spirit out of the Scots, at least for a time, and the remainder of the campaign was little more than a promenade. Edward swaggered about the country, taking castles, towns and prisoners as the fancy took him, and sent hundreds of Scottish nobles south to England as captives.

Toom Tabard, needless to say, was one of them. After having the royal arms of Scotland torn from his body in a humiliating ritual at Stracathro near Montrose, he was packed off to the Tower of London for safe keeping. Edward eventually let him go to France, where he ended his days on his family's ancestral estates in Picardy: a far more pleasant fate than most of Edward's enemies.

In the long run, Dunbar was not the decisive blow it may ave appeared at the time: a year later Surrey was embarrassed by William Wallace and Sir Andrew de Moray at Stirling Bridge, and Edward spent the rest of his life leading one army after another across the border, determined to hammer them into submission. Eventually the hammer ran out of steam, and it was left to Edward II, he of Piers Gaveston and red-hot poker fame, to finish the job of conquering Scotland. Let's just say it didn't turn out too well for him...

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Uhtred, Schmutred

This is the second of the arguments/debates with my friend and co-author Martin Bolton. Last time we raved at each other about Game of Thrones, the world-conquering fantasy series by George R.R. Martin. Now we're going to cross swords - or axes - over an almost equally popular series, the Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. My task is to tear the series to bits, Martin's is to stick it back together again. Any comments and opinions by readers are welcome!

So. Uhtred of Bebbanburg. It all started so well, didn't it? The first book in the series, The Last Kingdom, brilliantly depicted the muddy, bloody, rainy world of ninth-century Britain, where crazed psychopathic killers were hailed as heroes, and ramming a knife into someone's guts was regarded as career advancement. Cornwell did an equally brilliant job describing Dark Age Britain in his Warlord series, based on the legend of King Arthur.

Sadly, for all Cornwell's skill at capturing past worlds, he isn't so good as depicting past lives. My problem with the series started the moment Uhtred encountered the young Prince Alfred, later to become Alfred the Great.
Get stuffed, Uhtred. I'm the man, not you.

This version of Alfred is all but unrecognisable from the stubborn warrior-king of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, who fights the Danes 'like a wild boar' at Ashdown and is later hailed as 'England's shepherd, England's darling'. Alfred in this version is a long-nosed, watery-eyed, insufferably tedious little man who stinks of faeces, is devout to the point of insanity, and putty in the hands of the evil black-robed priests who cluster about him, dripping poison into his ears.

The ludicrous nature of Christian piety, and the essential nastiness of the Christian church, are themes that crop up over and again in Cornwell's work. It's especially overdone in the Saxon series, though to sweeten the pill Cornwell introduces a nice priest, Pyrlig, who rejects the standard teachings of the church and is a sort of Welsh Friar Tuck: fat, jovial, good at breaking heads. Uhtred, for his part, is especially talented at humiliating and beating up corrupt priests, something Cornwell clearly enjoys writing about. Which is why he writes it again. And again. And again. After a while you start to wonder if the author has got some personal grudge against the church.

As it happens, he might well do. As a child, Cornwell was raised by a particularly strange sect of Christian fundamentalists, and this experience seems to have affected his attitude towards Christianity in general. I mention this, not so much to have a personal dig at the author, but because it is clearly relevant to his writing. Alfred was a devout Christian, so Cornwell portrays him as a sickly weirdo who has to get a pagan to fight his battles for him. He also depicts priests, with few exceptions, as rapists and liars and villains. Some of them end up being righteously murdered by Uhtred - and of course, they always thoroughly deserve their comeuppance. It's dull and repetitive and slightly disturbing, and speaks volumes for the writer's own prejudices - however understandable they may be - rather than any kind of historical reality.

Cornwall is not only a talented writer, but a shrewd one who knows how to appeal to a mass market. Uhtred, who on the surface appears to be a rough, tough man of his time, is really a fantasy Alpha Male figure for a modern secular age: unbeatable in a fight or an argument, attractive to women, poetic, intelligent, and inclined to laugh at the mores and values of his day. I could just about take three books of Uhtred the Indestructible, though my gorge rose when it became clear that Cornwell was going to give all the credit for the Saxon victory at Ethandun - one of the most vital battles fought on English soil - to his fictional Rambo instead of Alfred, who really led the line against the Danes on that day.
An evil priest, probably off to stamp on some puppies. Booooo!!!
I think my breaking point came near the end of the third book in the series, Lords of the North, when a witch manages to calm some angry dogs by singing at them. Coupled with an earlier episode, in which Alfred's son Edward is cured of an illness by being dragged through a hole in the ground, it became apparent that Cornwell is pushing yet another agenda: not only is Christianity false, but paganism is real, and actually works.  Having mocked the rituals of the Christian religion, he now gives us singing witches and magic tunnels.

Now, I can just about accept an anti-religious stance, so long as it is consistent, but to be told that one faith is somehow 'better' than another - sorry, Bernard, no. That's not right. It's not particularly brave either. The Christian church is fair game these days, but would fiction writers like Cornwell dare to present Islam in the same light? Can anyone imagine a series of novels in which a tough, charismatic, no-bullshit Christian warrior mocks imams for their piety, and makes a fool of some famous Islamic historical figure - Mehmed the Conqueror, perhaps? I very much doubt it.

A Viking. Just because I needed a picture here
Speaking of Alfred's children, Cornwell fails spectacularly in his portrayal of Edward and Aethelflaed. For some reason he shows Edward as a callow teenager when he becomes King of Wessex, though in reality he was thirty years old and a veteran of several battles. Uhtred acts as a sort of unofficial tutor to Edward, and at one point hurls him into a ditch as a lesson in kingship. The idea of anyone hurling Edward the Elder, a hard-faced warlord who killed more Danes than the plague, into a ditch or anywhere else is frankly absurd.

Then we come to Aethelflaed, the famous Lady of the Mercians. Cornwell is a bit uncomfortable with female characters, and generally has them falling into bed with his heroes for lack of anything else to do. He does the same with Aethelflaed, who has an affair with Uhtred in an entirely pointless sub-plot. She also gets kidnapped by the Danes at one point, and is abused by her savage husband Aethelred. There's no evidence whatsoever for either incident, though Cornwell does at least admit that his treatment of Aethelred is extremely unfair.

There seems little sign of the Saxon series coming to an end any time soon: it's far too lucrative and Cornwell has said he wants to take the story all the way up to the Battle of Brunanburh, by which time Uhtred will be in his mid-80s or thereabouts. No doubt our hero will still be fully capable of tearing apart umpteen Viking warriors without breaking a sweat, while at the same urinating on a dead monk.

The case for the prosecution rests. In a few days Mr Bolton will take up the cudgels for the defence....

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Thoughts on A Song of Ice and Fire 

 By David Pilling 

Some free advertising

Right, then. This is my counter-argument to Martin Bolton’s thoughtful deconstruction of A Song of Ice and Fire, which I’m sure needs little introduction as the best-selling fantasy series by George R.R. Martin. The screen version by HBO, retitled Game of Thrones, is of course a monster hit and about to enter its fifth season.

 For those who haven’t read the books, I would advise looking away now, as it’s impossible to have an argument/debate like this without giving away spoilers.

To anyone who hasn’t yet read Martin’s piece, here is the link again:

Martin's thoughts

Firstly, let me say that Martin Bolton is a decent guy. A solid citizen, goes to work every day, not a bad cook, likes a few ales. Basically harmless. There’s just one tiny problem. He tends to suffer from multiple brainwrongs that lead him to express inaccurate opinions. Without me around to point him onto the true path, he would probably be living up a tree somewhere by now, worshipping rocks.

He’s done it again with A Song of Ice and Fire. Don’t believe all that guff he wrote about not wanting to dissuade anyone from reading the books, or about it being a matter of ‘personal taste’. That’s just a smokescreen. He hates George R.R. Martin and all his works with a terrifying passion, and it’s my Christian duty to word-slap some sense into him.

Martin claims that the books are too rambling, and feature lengthy and unnecessary descriptions of food and clothes. Well, there may be a kernel of truth in that, but what you have to understand is that George - I’m going to refer to the author as George, to avoid talking about Martin and Martin - cares about us. He really does. By taking up a whole five pages describing a meal, or the colour of the flagstones in a back alley, he’s trying to paint a vivid picture of his fantasy universe, and pull us readers out of humdrum reality for a couple of hours.

Also, he likes to make us hungry. Reading about his characters eat - shortly before they get an axe in the head, or engage in lesbian/dwarf/animal coitus - makes me want to eat. Otherwise I would probably forget, and fade away to nothing. So in that sense, I owe George my life. Maybe.

Granted, George could probably do with a good editor or three. If you were to comb all the extraneous detail from the last two books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, and just keep the essential plot, you would probably end up with a small pamphlet. And you can’t sell pamphlets in hardcover at £25 each, so it’s essential George keeps writing reams and reams of irrelevant pap about comedy Vikings, 16-course buffets and the interesting fauna and flora on a made-up island. Otherwise he might go bankrupt, and I would forget to eat. Do I want that? No.

To be serious for a moment, the first four volumes in the series were, in this one’s humble opinion, riveting, fast-paced, unpredictable fantasy fiction, dark and bloody and harrowing and utterly compulsive. They were the literary equivalent of crack, and deprived me of sleep for weeks on end as I sat up all night, thinking ‘I’ll just read the next chapter and then go to bed...”- before I knew it, the sun was rising and I was only halfway through. Only one other series, the Jack Aubrey novels by Patrick O’Brien, has had that effect on me.

The trouble is, and here I can’t really disagree with Martin’s analysis, George wrote himself into a corner. He grew too fond of killing off likeable characters in various nasty and unexpected ways, a shock tactic that served him well in the first book but just got silly by the time of The Red Wedding. This scene, in which pretty much anyone you could possibly care about in Westeros gets massacred, is one of the most horrifying and darkly powerful passages I’ve ever read. Few authors would have the guts to attempt such a thing, but I was left with the sense that George had shot his bolt. Thereafter the books decline in focus and quality, and many readers are left hanging on solely to find out what happens in the end. Something similar happened with the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, which started off as a compelling read and then got bogged down until the narrative virtually ground to a halt.

George’s initial idea, to create a fantasy tale inspired by the real Middle Ages, specifically the Baron’s Wars and the Wars of the Roses in England, was genius. He was by no means the first to try it, but no other fantasy author (with the exception of Frank Herbert) manages to convey the savage warfare and intrigue between rival Houses with such panache. The Wars of the Roses is his most obvious reference point, though he also draws on the history of various noble families such as the Percies of Northumberland and throws them into the melting pot along with the House of Lancaster (Lannister) and Stark (York). Some of his characters draw cleverly on historical figures in a general sort of way - for instance, the supremely ruthless Tywin Lannister is a blend of several Plantagenet kings, mainly Edward I or Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots. So George clearly knows his history, and how to effectively weave reality into fiction.

Martin makes the point that there is far too much darkness in the series, and the few chinks of light quickly get smothered in the general mayhem. I would agree to a point, but the slaughter of the ‘good’ characters, while it does become excessive, merely reflects the sadness of reality. The cold, hard fact is that nice guys rarely come out on top, especially when competing for power, which is why our world is governed by Killer Bastards from the Planet Sly. Ned Stark’s demise, while tragic and shocking, could have been avoided if he had laid aside his precious honour and got out of King’s Landing while there was still time. George was making the - entirely valid - point that those who refuse to compromise inevitably come to bad ends.

In a way, Ned Stark’s version of honour is exposed as selfish: by getting himself captured and killed, he left his family to endure the storm that followed. Hence, The Red Wedding was the direct consequence of Ned’s folly in refusing to tell a few lies in order to save his bacon. He left his son Robb to make one mistake after another, ending in the wholesale slaughter of the Starks and their bannermen at the hands of the dreadful Freys.

BUT...George does leave room for hope. Most of Ned’s children are still alive, though scattered, and I confidently expect them to get revenge for their father in due time. Whether there will be anyone left to avenge themselves on - the Lannisters have been going down like ninepins as well - remains to be seen. It could be that the whole cycle of honour and revenge turns out to be a massive waste of time, which is again a valid lesson. You need only glance at history to see that blood-feuds only result in more blood, generation after generation, until someone has the courage to forget about revenge and draw a line under it all.

In the end, I don’t think the series needs to be about ‘balance’, as Martin puts it. There is no balance of light and darkness in the real world, only shades of grey and people trying to get through the day as best they can. This is reflected in Westeros, where knightly virtues of chivalry and honour turn out to be either delusional or sheer hypocrisy.

I can’t disagree too much with Martin’s final comment, that the series lacks a sense of humour. There isn’t much laughter in Westeros, and sometimes you do wonder why anyone bothers to get out of bed, since they only have another weary round of mud and violence and treachery to look forward to. In that sense it doesn’t mirror our reality at all: few of us would care to struggle through life without a joke or two.

There’s always the hot lesbian sex, of course. George is very fond of hot lesbian sex.

So, that’s my take on A Song of Ice and Fire. What do YOU all think? Don’t hold back, now....and remember, points (might) mean prizes...