A Game of Thrones and Many-Layered Backstory

I’ve been reading George R.R. Martin’s famous Song of Ice and Fire series (aka, Game of Thrones), after much prompting by Sailor Boy and all my other SFF-loving friends, and loving the first two seasons of the HBO show, and I will say this: if you liked the show, you will like the books. There are some changes, of course, but the main things with the books is you get a much deeper perspective on all the things you love — the characters, the intrigues, and of course, the world. (Like I love being in Sansa* and Cersei’s heads — it’s fascinating!).

One of my favorite things about the world Martin has created is that there are so many layers of history built up, one after another after another, that it really does seem like our world, where empires rise and fall and things change over time, perspectives change, peoples change. One complaint I have with a lot of the less satisfying of the current “YA dystopia” trend is that, too often, there doesn’t seem to be any real history. They are stories in a bottle. Like whatever the change was that happened to create the dystopia, it lived on, unchanged, until the moment the protagonist walks onto the page.

And of course, that’s not the way it works in real life. Societies change. They don’t even need a whole generation to do it. I look at something like Mad Men, that took place while my parents were coming of age, and I see how much things have changed.

So when you start in on the first book (or the first season), you’re introduced to these two old war buddies, Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon, who were younger siblings, each, and, in their youth, got angry, got uppity, and overthrew a king. And that’s the backstory of these two guys and their relationship. Ned was not born to be the head of the Stark household or of the North, and Robert Baratheon was hella not born to be the king of all Westeros. Ned’s doing well, because he’s a great man and a dutiful leader and so very Stark, through and through, and Robert — well, he’d rather be a conqueror than a king.

But the old king sucked too, and in a much more violent, torturous way. In fact, Robert hates that old king and his family, the Targaryens, so much that he’s made it his mission in life to make sure every single member of that family is dead. Wives, babies, the whole nine yards. The only ones left are these two little teenagers who, as babies, were spirited off to a distant land, and this old blind dude who lives on the Wall (which I suppose Robert has forgotten about, because it seems that everyone else has, to the extent that when Jon Snow figures out the dude is a Targaryen, he’s, like, SHOCKED).

And then you meet the one Targaryen teenager, Viserys, who thinks it’s his mission in life to get back to Westeros and reclaim it and he’s a right little prick who basically sells his little sister into marriage with this savage brute to buy himself an army and you’re like, “Okay, King Robert, I see your point.”

Except then you learn more about the history of Westeros and how yeah, maybe the latest Targaryen king wasn’t so great, but most of the people liked the old ones (Arya, for example, is particularly enamored of the sister-wives of the original Targaryen conqueror), and even try to emulate them (Cersei’s whole justification for her actions can be boiled down to, “Well, the Targaryens do it”) and in general, there is an argument to be made that maybe Daenerys would be a better ruler of Westeros than the people mucking the place up now.

So that’s the more distant backstory. That long before the Targaryen kings were awful, they were awesome. They built King’s Landing, and Dragonstone, and they united the kingdoms, and people like the Tyrells, for example, were able to create beautiful and prosperous lands after the Targaryens came to power.

And before that, the Targaryens were conquerors**, and they had dragons, and they came to Westeros from across the sea and were like, “oh, pretty land, mine now” and burned and melted the faces off anyone who said otherwise (hence you have these half-ruined keeps like Harrenhall that stand as a testament to how badass they were). But though they were outsiders, and they married amongst themselves, they weren’t evil, and they wanted the best for their subjects, and they sent their own people to the Wall to show they supported the old school protections of the land. And, speaking of the Wall…

Before that, long long before, there was a terrible disaster, and a long winter, and horrific beasts came out of the north and ravaged the land, and the people living on Westeros then (including the Starks, who have been around the block a few times) joined with these magical “First People” who were still around at the time and they made a giant Wall to keep that kind of shit from ever going down again. And it was so, so long ago that the people in the south don’t really believe it anymore, but the people in the north do — the Starks do– and through all that history, through all the rebellions and the dragons and the conquering and rebuilding and such– they remember that part. They remember that “Winter is Coming.”

And that right there? That is some history. Some of it remains, and some of it gets lost, and some parts are more important to some people than others. To Americans, the Revolutionary War is right up there in terms of importance. To the British, who we were fighting, it wasn’t even their most important war of the century (possibly the decade). Oh well, a couple of colonies lost. Who cares? We’ve got France to fight!

In the World of the Reduction, the setting for For Darkness Shows the Stars and Across a Star-Swept Sea, the characters didn’t time warp into this world from our own. It wasn’t just “something happened to our world and then hundreds of years of nothing and now this.” When Elliot and Persis read old books, it’s like us reading about the Black Death, or Dante’s Inferno. Things have happened since then. The world has fallen and be remade. Histories have been written, rulers have been overthrown, horrible disease have sprung into being and been vanquished.

When people ask why Elliot doesn’t look more like a Maori or have more Maori culture, I feel like it’s asking me why I don’t look or act like a Renaissance Italian, because that’s where some of my ancestors were four hundred years ago. When I was working on revising Star-Swept, my editor kept coming back to the point that readers would wonder why Persis’s people weren’t Luddites, and I’m not sure they really will, past the point that they recognize this is not the same place as where Elliot is from.*** It was like asking why people in Sri Lanka weren’t Puritans. Different people, especially living in different places, under different circumstances, with different backgrounds, react to history in different ways.

And stuff changes.

In Elliot’s world, that means her ancestors hid in caves for years, then emerged into a land they barely recognized. They felt a deep, abiding need to be caretakers of the world they’d been left. For generations, they tried, the best they knew how, but they were ignorant and hidebound by their religion and their beliefs. And as power became consolidated, it also became corrupted, and people who were once considered wards became little more than serfs. But things keep changing. The Posts appear, not held captive by backward religion, not privileged by the society to want to believe in that religion. And things change more, but there are still going to be the people who never forget that first battle, and the fear of technology that saved them.

In Persis’s world, the changes have been accelerated. Not limited by a religion or culture that shuns technology, her people have created an entire continent for themselves, have advanced the field of genetic engineering so far that the type of experiments that caused the Reduction in the first place seem to them the way trepanning or humor-balancing or other insanely backwards medical procedures might seem to us. And aside from the backstory of the Reduction and the wars she shares with Elliot, there is more history: a history of two countries, alone and counting on each other but always at odds. A history of a cure that changed the face of their society and made a celebrity out of its inventor and her whole family. A history of a bad queen and a revolution and a whole new struggle.

It’s not as simple as “Once there was the Reduction and now there’s the world as it is now.” If hundreds of years pass, then hundreds of years have to pass, good stuff, bad stuff, stuff that sticks and stuff that is forgotten. And some look to the ancient Kings in the North and remember that winter is always coming, and some look at the Red Keep and remember the King and Queens who built it, and some only see as far back as the most recent struggle, the most recent rebellion, and remember their grudges and their desires. but it’s all history, and it’s all a part of them.


* In passing, WHY THE HELL do fans hate Sansa so much? I love Sansa on the show and the more I read in her perspective, the more I love Sansa. I don’t know if she does something terrible in Book Three or whatever, but I’ll say for a twelve year old girl who was raised with some pretty f-ed up fairytales, you can’t blame her for any of the stupid decisions she makes early on, and for you know, trying to SURVIVE in the Red Keep while her dad’s head rots on a post outside… but I digress.

**And you can’t even blame them for that, really, because their land had been destroyed and they had to go somewhere!

*** Though occasionally I see a reader who thinks that the Reduction really was a punishment of God’s rather than that being what the Luddites say, and I kind of wonder what they thought of the rest of the book, then, if they really believe that. Because it kind of makes the book into some sort of fantasy novel or religious tract, with gods bestowing rewards or punishments, and does that mean they think that Kai and Elliot are in some sort of open rebellion against an actual god by the end of it all?

Posted in other writers, PAP, series, star-swept, story, writing life, YA

2 Responses to A Game of Thrones and Many-Layered Backstory

  1. Alexa Y. says:

    I started reading the books fairly recently, though I’m still stuck in the middle of the second one! I didn’t like Sansa very much in the first one, but I’ve sort of gotten a chance to get to know her a little better. Understanding her situation definitely helps lessen my general dislike of her. I am curious to see where her story goes though, since she’s trapped in less than ideal circumstances!

    This post is fascinating, by the way. As a newly minted Game of Thrones fan (who only read book 1 and is reading book 2 right now, and hasn’t watched the show at all yet), I liked reading your thoughts on the history behind the books.

    Plus, I liked seeing you share more about the world in FDSTS!

  2. People definitely do hate Sansa. I think she’s fine. Personally, I got less and less enamored of all the children as the books went on, because nothing ever seemed to _happen_ in their stories. But _no one_ comes in for as much hate from fandom as Brienne. Man, the fans hate Brienne and you can take that to the bank.