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Raising the Stakes

Note: from here on in, there will be minor spoilers for A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, medium-sized spoilers for Breaking Dawn, and MAJOR spoilers for A Game of Thrones.

This summer I read two books that featured a similar plot line. A a seemingly young man who for various reasons is really older than his appearance/years meets a pretty sweet young woman* who is socially several rungs below him. Circumstances bring them together and they fall in love. The young woman is a virgin. The young man has strong notions about marriage and honor, believing that when you sleep with a woman and take her virginity, you should marry her. Preferably, the marriage comes before the sex. However, this story of young love unfolds against a chaotic backdrop featuring old conflicts and uneasy truces between rival factions. The union of the young lovers threatens the stability of the world around them. Those around them who who better understand current circumstances realize this and brace themselves for potential disaster.

* Whether we as readers actually believe the girl is pretty and sweet is besides the point. The point is that this is what the author wants us to think and how she comes across in universe.

One of these books was Breaking Dawn. The other: A Storm of Swords.

Without giving away too many spoilers, lets just say that in one of the stories, everything ends happily, but in the other the happy ending is not forthcoming.** Unsurprisingly, the latter was a far better story.

** Understatement of the century I know, but work with me.

I had seen the first Twilight movie a while back, which was bearable thanks to pretty scenery and Rifftrax. However, morbid curiosity prompted me to borrow Breaking Dawn from the library to see if there was something, anything in the alleged climactic final chapter that would explain why people fell in love with these books.*** The book disappointed me, but reading it alongside the literary crack that was A Song of Ice and Fire helped to not only understand my disappointment, but why others find the books so appealing. It’s actually the same reason–there are no stakes.

***And the love was for the books as Twilight-mania predated the movies and lust for Robert Pattinson/Taylor Lautner by a good couple of years.

Don’t get me wrong, Breaking Dawn is full of “conflict” and “angst.” Edward’s fear for Bella’s life during pregnancy, Bella having to completely sever ties with her human life to become a vampire, the Cullens being angsty about what they are, the uneasy peace with the werewolves that threatens to break out into open war. There’s even a potentially creepy intrigue involving a dark chapter of vampire history with toddlers (trapped in the terrible twos no less) being turned into vampires and wreaking havoc. However, every one of these things resolved in such a way that Bella does not lose anything she values or have to make any painful choices. There is an appearance of suspense, but how can a reader invest in any of the conflicts or ever truly worry about the characters if you know the universe will find a way to warp itself to Bella’s wishes no matter what. If Bella is meant to be an audience surrogate, then those who inhabit her get the pleasing thrill that comes from the illusion of stakes without the messy reality of having to deal with the consequences of her actions that would be inevitable in a universe that does not warp itself to one’s will. I can see that being addictive to a teenage girl (or maybe even those older Twi-Moms), but it makes for an unsatisfying story.****

**** And, if you happen to be one of the many who thinks Bella is a whiny, sociopathic, narcissistic twit, it makes the stories downright infuriating.  

Now, anyone who reads the A Song of Ice and Fire books, (or has watched the HBO adaptation of the first book, A Game of Thrones) knows that George R.R. Martin has absolutely no qualms about following his plotlines to their natural, albeit traumatic ends. Ned Stark’s execution was painful and shocking, but in retrospect was inevitable. Ned not only did not know how to navigate the intrigues of Kings Landing, but also he refused to learn. Until the bitter end, he always chose the “honorable” option over the best option, which won him few allies and countless enemies.

When one spends as much time as Martin describing what a viper pit Kings Landing is, it is inevitable and dramatically necessary that someone get bit by the snakes. And it can’t be just random guardsman number 3 or even better, a Lannister. This is a treacherous world and in treacherous worlds, characters the audience cares about are going to suffer–it isn’t just the bad guys who get hurt.

Is there a risk of going too far the other way, i.e. inducing audience apathy by making things unbearably bleak and having NOTHING work out for the people we care about? Martin sometimes dances at that precipice, and the resolution to his “young lovers” plotline is probably the most traumatic and brutal denouements to a story I’ve ever read,***** but I understand why it had to be. Martin stated repeatedly that, considering the context, the young man’s romantic side would lead to dire consequences. Even if you could argue that the consequences were too harsh, it was clear that a price had to be paid. To walk away from the mess with deus ex machina characters and events making things alright for the happily ever after would have been insulting to the readers who have invested so much in this story.

***** When my friend recommended the books to me, I was warned in particular about that scene and how it almost made him walk away from the series. At Comic-con, Martin himself stated that should Game of Thrones last long enough to reach that scene, he’ll be sure to be out of the country when it airs. Those of you who were shattered by Ned Stark’s death–you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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