Beyond the Wall
is a series of essays about A Song of Ice & Fire, edited by anthology editor and writer James Lowder — who has done a lot of work in the RPG industry. I've given my opinions on each of the 14 essays herein, then offered some conclusions. While working on this review, I never read two essays on the same day, so that I could approach each with a clear mind and really look at it on its own.
Before I go further, I want to comment a bit on spoilers. This book is full of them, and I think is the most damaging for the first three books, particularly A Game of Thrones (book 1) and A Storm of Swords (book 3). If you've only seen the HBO series (which currently has only adapted books 1 and 2) or only read the first couple of books, I would actively and ardently suggest that you not read this anthology until you've read at least through Book 3 (and preferably Book 5, due out in paperback very shortly). With that said, there shouldn't be any spoilers in this review beyond the first book.
And now let's get on to the essays …
"The Palace of Love, the Palace of Sorrow", by Linda Antonsson and Elio M. García, Jr.
Serious spoilers through Book 3, A Storm of Swords
This is very much a lit-crit (literary criticism) piece that looks at A Song of Ice and Fire through the lens of the Romanticism movement. It makes a case for the books being romantic by looking at how much the past is idealized in the books.
Generally, it's a strong piece because it manages to evoke the same feeling of nostalgia that you get from the books, and it puts that in the context of our own world. When the essay moves on to the topic of Byronic heroes, however, it doesn't manage to ground itself in the same way, and that will probably be of less interest unless you're an English Lit major yourself.
On the strength of the more general Romanticism discussion, this is a good essay.
"Men and Monsters", by Alyssa Rosenberg
Serious spoilers through Book 3, A Storm of Swords, references through Book 5, A Dance with Dragons
This essay takes on the somewhat controversial topic of rape and sexual violence in A Song of Ice and Fire. It recounts its usage throughout the story — from the historical stories of Rhaegar and Lyanna to the modern-day monstrosity of Ramsay Bolton.
The majority of the article summarizes these various threads of sexual violence that can be found throughout the books. There's some attempt to place them in perspective and explain why Martin might have included these incidents, but this feels insufficient to really explore the topic.
Because so much of this felt expository, I though it was just an ok essay.
"Same Song in a Different Key", by Daniel Abraham
Little in the way of spoilers
Abraham is currently in the process of adapting Martin's A Song of Ice & Fire to the comic book page for Dynamite Entertainment. Thus far, he's a good ways into A Game of Thrones. This essay outlines the challenges of adapting the novel to comics and some of the solutions he's come upon.
Generally, Abraham outlines several problems, such as: how to convey exposition into a book; the issues of Daenerys being underage, given censorship laws that have appeared in the US in recent years; and the fact that he can't correctly foreshadow a story that isn't actually finished. He also notes the problems of a comic-book adaptation when there are so many other adaptations of the work out there (most notably the TV series).
Abraham provides interesting insight into the artistry behind a work related to A Song of Ice & Fire, and the result is a good essay.
"An Unreliable World", by Adam Whitehead
Some spoilers through Book 3, a Storm of Swords, minor spoilers through Book 5, A Dance with Dragons
Whitehead talks about the unreliability of the history and myths that underlie Westeros, then expands that basic premise by talking about the unreliability of recent history, particularly focusing on the question of Jon Snow's parentage.
This essay does a good job of bringing together a lot of disparate elements and showing off how they all point to the same thing — a history that isn't truly known by the participants of the book. As such, it's enlightening and will give readers a little something extra to look for in Martin's work.
Because this article does a good job of illuminating something not entirely obvious, I thought it was good.
"Back to the Egg", by Gary Westfahl
Spoilers for Book 1, A Game of Thrones, and the three Dunk & Egg stories
This article takes on the issue of Martin's prequel short stories, about Dunk & Egg. Unfortunately, Westfahl spends most of his article talking about a forced & tiresome theory of literary classification authored by one Northrop Frye, then trying to jam the Dunk & Egg stories into the boxes that Frye provides. The result is dull and not that insightful, except when Westfahl suggests that the Dunk & Egg stories may be changing their focus and their style as they go on.
Of all the articles in Beyond the Wall, this is the one I thought was meh.
"Art Imitates War", by Myke Cole
Spoilers through Book 5, A Dance with Dragons
Cole looks at Martin's character building, and particularly how two characters — Arya Stark and Theon Greyjoy — react to the trauma directed their way in the books. He does so using the prism of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Via this method, Cole does a good job of differentiating the two characters and showing how they've gone in exact opposite directions following their trauma. Personally, I find the thesis itself — that Arya and Theon are experiencing PTSD — a bit of a stretch. It's nonetheless explained and argued carefully.
Because I found this article's argument unconvincing, it was just ok.
"The Brutal Cost of Redemption in Westeros", by Susan Vaught
Serious spoilers through Book 4, A Feast for Crows, references through Book 5, A Dance with Dragons.
This articles pushes the theory that there is moral absolutism in Westeros, but that it centers not on good vs. evil, but instead on unity vs. selfishness. To support this theory, Vaught looks at the story of six characters: Catelyn, Davos, Jamie, Joffrey, Robb, and Sansa.
I'm not entirely convinced by the argument; like the previous essay it sometimes seems to mold the characters to fit the theory rather than vice-versa. However, it certainly does a good job of helping the reader to examine the good and bad morality of various characters — irrespective of whether they're "likeable".
This article is definitely a good one for its insight into these characters.
"Of Direwolves and Gods", by Andrew Zimmerman Jones
Serious spoilers through Book 3, A Storm of Swords, spoilers through Book 5, A Dance with Dragons.
In this article, Jones talks about three main elements: the importance of the direwolves, the role of prophecy, and the part played by the gods of Westeros. Through all of this, he provides some nice summaries of what we know about the gods of A Song of Ice and Fire.
There isn't a whole lot of conclusion in this article, other than to say that the direwolves don't seem as important as we thought, that prophecy doesn't turn out as people would think, and that the gods don't actually seem present other than R'hllor. Nonetheless, the summations are all interesting, as are Jones' questions about the nature of R'hllor.
Because of its good summations of an interesting topic combined with some analysis, I found this article good.
"A Sword without a Hilt", by Jesse Scoble
Serious spoilers through Book 3, A Storm of Swords, spoilers through Book 5, A Dance with Dragons.
Jesse Scoble takes on an adjacent topic to Andrew Jones, talking specifically about magic. He outlines most of the major uses of magic in the books, from that first omen of the direwolves through dragons and the magic of R'hllor.
There's (again) little in the way of analysis, but Scoble does do a good job of reminding readers of what's come before and that we've always seen that magic in A Song of Ice and Fire has a price. He's also managed to track down a few quotes by Martin which illuminate the topic and the essay.
The summation is all fine, and the analysis occasionally lifts the essay up to a higher level, resulting in an article that's ok to good.
"Peter Baelish and the Mask of Sanity", by Matt Staggs
Serious spoilers through Book 3, A Storm of Swords, references through some(?) later books.
Matt Staggs appears to have drawn the long straw, because he gets to approach one of the most intriguing and least understandable characters in the books: Littlefingers. He examines him by laying out the classic psychiatric definition of psychopathy and then explaining how Baelish fits it.
Overall, Staggs' arguments seemed stronger to me than those found in the earlier psychological article on PTSD. He lays out a believable case. Along the way he also touches upon Littlefingers' roles in some of the more opaque events of A Game of Thrones and generally suggests what may be going on behind the man's eyes. It's a strong essay that I wish could have been expanded.
As such, it's the one essay in this book that moves beyond good and tends toward great (though I think it would have needed more length to get there entirely).
"A Different Kind of Other", by Brent Hartinger
Spoilers through Book 3, A Storm of Swords, and minor spoilers through Book 5, A Dance with Dragons
Hartinger sugggests that A Song of Ice and Fire breaks new ground by including major characters that are true outsiders — bastards, cripples, dwarves, and the rest. He also states that these outsiders are often more admirable than their insider brethren.
On a first read I found the essay interesting, but I think it's also somewhat shallow. I'm further not convinced that "true" outsiders are that uncommon in the literature as Hartinger says, even if Martin uses them to a more extensive degree. (Just off the top of my head: Bilbo was an outsider to both the hobbit community, because of his Tookish nature, and to the dwarves, because of his hobbit nature; Severian was an outsider because he was a torturer and because he had compassion; Miles Vorkosigan was a dwarf; Fitz Chivalry was a bastard; Thomas Covenant was a leper; and the entire romantic fantasy genre is about outsiders seeking acceptance.) I also think that you could redefine some of Martin's "insider" characters as outsiders (says, because you're in a incestuous relationship with your brother), which further undercuts the theory (if you can define everyone as an outsider). So, personally, I find a lot of this article a stretch.
Nonetheless, it does provoke some interesting though and does underline how different Martin's cast as a whole is, so it's still ok.
"Power & Feminism in Westeros", by Caroline Spector
Spoilers for Book 1, A Game of Thrones, and one spoiler for Book 4, A Feast for Crows
In her essay, Spector attacks the idea that A Song of Ice & Fire is anti-feminist, and in fact turns that totally on its head. Instead, she states there's a feminist core to the books, and supports that by outlining the characters of Sansa, Arya, Brienne, Cersei, and Daenerys.
The fact that Spector actually makes an argument against other readings of the book is nice, because it stands out amidst the relatively staid (and non-argumentive) essays of the book. She also does quite a good job of supporting it. Though her essay occasionally drifts too far into lit-crit land, it's nonetheless a strong one.
Besides on its argumentative style and its strong support for its thesis, I thought this was definitely a good essay.
"Collecting Ice and Fire in the Age of Nook and Kindle", by John Jos. Miller
Much of Miller's essay is a pretty general look at how books may be changing with e-publication and how book collecting works. He does offer some specifics on which are the most sought after Ice and Fire books (though I wish he'd laid out some easy-to-read tables) and he does give some specific pricing for collectible Ice and Fire books (though I'm unconvinced that his survey of Abebooks, which essentially provides listings of books that haven't sold &mdahs; many of them priced outrageously high by 'bots, —is a particularly useful one).
In any case, this was an ok essay that had a few points of interest for folks generally wanting to know about the publication history of Martin's books.
"Beyond the Ghetto", by Ned Vizzini
Spoilers for Book 1, A Game of Thrones, and Book 5, A Dance with Dragons
Vizzini closes out the book by placing A Song of Ice and Fire in its larger context, as a genre novel. He lightly sketches out the history of genre novels — and the criticism they've received — but also suggests how A Song of Ice and Fire might be not just rising above the classification, but also lifting other books up with it.
Overall, the article is as much about the fantasy & science fiction genre as it is about A Song of Ice and Fire specifically. However, it's enlightening in its views of how the genre has changed over the years and also interesting in its discussion of what exactly Martin has done to break down genre barriers.
With an interesting topic and good writing, this final essay is a good one.
I must admit to being a bit disappointed by Beyond the Wall.
I know I showed bias against some of the more literary criticism articles — the sort of thing that might have shown up as papers in an English class. Frankly, I just don't find the idea of trying to make A Song of Ice & Fire conform to this literary theory or that to be that interesting. Some of the psychological articles felt similar. Your mileage may vary as to the usefulness of this sort of article.
Nonetheless, I thought that more than half of the articles were good. A few analyses made me think more about some of the issues in the books and a few summaries helped me to put things in perspective. Unfortunately, there was no article in this book that felt like a bolt from the blue — that made me think, "Oh yeah!" about some hypothesis that had been presented. There were no brilliant insights nor any insightful brilliance.
Despite that, the sum was greater than the parts. As I continued to read through the articles, some themes repeated themselves from author to author — such as the lack of good and evil in the book; and the apparent destiny implied by those dire wolf cubs in Book I. More than anything, it was these big ideas which are most likely to improve my experience in reading A Song of Ice & Fire, now and in the future.
RPGnet's Style & Substance ratings are somewhat imperfect for rating a book of this sort. I thought it was slightly above average, but that it didn't rise to any great heights. On a 5-point scale, I'd give it a 3.5 and on a ten-point scale I'd give it a 6. Here, I'll say that the Style was a pretty average 3, with the occasional very readable piece like Daniel Abraham's on adapting the books to comic balanced by the more diadatic essays. The Susbtance was a 4, with the deepest pieces probably being the summaries and analyses that didn't try to link up A Song of Ice & Fire with this theory or that.