Top positive review
Martin is more than just Game of Thrones. Some of the best speculative fiction of the last 40 years.
Reviewed in the United States on December 30, 2017
This is the first half of a retrospective spanning the entirety of George R.R. Martin's career. (Both volumes 1 & 2 were originally published in a single limited edition hardcover.). It spans early stories, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. The stories are extremely imaginative and well-crafted. There might be few missteps along the way, but these are overshadowed by some of the best speculative fiction written over the last 40 years.
Martin also provides autobiographical introductions for each section which tend to be too much of a good thing; they are rather long-winded and only occasionally illuminating.
The individual stories are reviewed below:
“Only Kids Are Afraid of the Dark” – An atmospheric horror story about a demon from another realm who battles a modern-day superhero. Written while Martin was still in high school and published in an amateur fanzine. Very Lovecraftian—overwrought and melodramatic, perhaps—but his talent is evident.
“The Fortress” – While in college, Martin wrote this story about the surrender of the Sveaborg fortress in the Russo-Swedish war of 1808. I really enjoyed this true tale, especially since I have visited Sveaborg in person. This story, along with “Black and White and Red All Over”, showcase how successful Martin might have been as a writer of historical fiction rather than fantasy.
“And Death His Legacy” – Another college story; this one is too obviously tied to the civil rights movements of the 1960’s and telegraphs Martin’s political leanings. Despite its shortcomings, the depiction of an ultra-conservative Prophet who panders to fear and racism is uncomfortably similar to politicians of today.
“Hero” – An amateurish interstellar war story clearly modeled on the Vietnam Conflict.
“The Exit to San Bretis” – An engaging ghost story set on the deserted highways of the future.
"A Second Kind of Loneliness" -- A socially inept man descends into madness in the void of space while guarding the entrance to a wormhole.
"With Morning Comes the Mistfall" -- A journalist visits a haunted world shrouded in mists. This story begins as an effective science fiction horror story, but it becomes instead an elegiac meditation on man's need to seek the truth (science) versus the need for romance and mystery. This reminded me of Kij Johnson's "The Man Who Bridged the Mists".
"A Song for Lya" -- Two psychics travel to an world much older than earth to investigate why humans are being drawn towards an alien religion that always culminates in suicide. This is a strong story, with an outstanding premise built around two questions: "What is true love?" and "Does human individuality create an inherent sense of isolation?" My only complaint is that it drags on a bit too long with too much repetition. Won a 1974 Hugo Award.
"This Tower of Ashes"--A man struggling to get over his divorce leads his ex-wife and her new lover on a hunt through an alien forest where a sentient civilization may have once lived. This story has some narrative shortcomings--it is always a bad sign when I turn the page expecting another scene, only to find the story has already finished. However, I really liked the vivid descriptions of this world, its ecology and especially the dream-spiders.
"And Seven Times Never Kill Man"--An excellent portrait of two cultures at war with one another. One is a group of humanoid settlers who follow a militaristic form of Christianity warped by centuries of intergalactic conflict. The other is a primitive tribe that exalts art and pacifism. The author purposefully leaves many questions unanswered, but this story defies the easy answers and still has enough meat on the bone to satisfy.
"The Stone City"--Martin calls this an important story in his Thousand Worlds cycle. It introduces the basic geography of his universe as well as an inter-dimensional hub that facilitates faster-than-light travel. Unfortunately, the characters are vague and the plot meanders. It is a long, dull tale that I struggled to complete.
"Bitterblooms"--A woman caught in a snowstorm finds rescue in a spaceship. This is an attempt to blend science fiction and fantasy ,but neither the story nor the relationships between the central characters ever really gels.
"The Way of Cross and Dragon"--An imaginative, fun exploration of what the Catholic Church might become after man spreads out among the stars. Won a Hugo Award.
"The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr"--Sharra is a woman who travels between worlds looking for a lost love; Laren Dorr has been exiled on his world for over 200,000 years because he angered the Seven gods. Their lives briefly touch in this excellent tale that hints at a rich, larger mythology.
"The Ice Dragon"--The adventures of a young girl and her dragon made of ice. I read this story back in 1999 and it did not make an impression on me. I appreciated it more this time around . An illustrated edition of this story was also published as a children's book.
"In the Lost Lands"--A well-executed fantasy/horror hybrid story. The opening line grabbed me: 'You can buy anything you might desire from Gray Alys. But it is better not to.'
"Meathouse Man"--This story qualifies as horror because it features gruesome scenes of zombie rape, but the real darkness is its heart-wrenching message about all the many ways love can spoil and go wrong. This may be the truest, most effective story of failed relationships I have ever read.
"Remembering Melody"--A lawyer finds his comfortable life disrupted when Melody, a close college friend, shows up on his doorstep. A story that uses traditional horror elements to examine co-dependent relationships and unhealthy boundaries. Adapted for television by HBO.
"Sandkings"--A man raises a colony of sentient pets, but after he mistreats them, they run amok and nearly destroy his life. This is my favorite Martin story; it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.
"Nightflyers"--A group of scientists are tracking the oldest known alien vessel through deep space. When they begin to die one by one, they blame their enigmatic captain. This is an outstanding character-driven piece with strong science fiction and horror elements. It was made into a forgettable 1980's movie; also currently in development as a television show.
"The Monkey Treatment"--Losing weight is difficult. The monkey treatment guarantees results, but at a horrific price. This reminded me of Stephen King's "Quitters, Inc." only funnier.
"The Pear-Shaped Man"--The author channels his inner Stephen King in this supernatural urban horror story. The writing and characterization are great. It is at times funny, sad, disturbing, and gross. The phallic image of cheese doodles will unfortunately take a long time to fade away. Won a Bram Stoker Award.