Dreamsongs: Volume 1 (2006) by George R. R. Martin

A fantastic collection of George R. R. Martin’s short fiction. It’s split into thematic sections, instead of being structured purely chronologically, which I think was a good choice. Before each section, there’s an introduction by Martin where he describes his mindset and position in life when he wrote the forthcoming stories. These introductions are really fascinating, contextualise the stories in such a manner so as to make them a lot more understandable and enjoyable, and feature a lovely conversational tone as Martin relays all sorts of interesting anecdotes from his long life.

Before even the first of such introductions though, there’s a foreword by Martin’s long-time friend and collaborator Gardner Dozois, who writes a statement about Martin I really agree with and I think sums him up very well: “For one thing, George has always been a richly romantic writer. Dry minimalism or the coolly ironic games of postmodernism so beloved by many modern writers and critics are not what you’re going to get when you open something by George R. R. Martin. What you’re going to get instead is a strongly-plotted story driven by emotional conflict and crafted by someone who’s a natural-born storyteller, a story that grabs you on the first page and refuses to let go”.

Below I have individual reviews for every story in the collection, but as for the book overall, I’d call it a fantastic anthology, bridging the many genres Martin is skilled in (science-fiction, horror, fantasy, even some historical fiction). “A Song for Lya” and “Sandkings” are great enough to justify the collection alone, but other stories such as “Meathouse Man”, “The Monkey Treatment”, “And Seven Times Never Kill Man!”, and “This Tower of Ashes” also really stand out. Overall, I give “Dreamsongs: Volume 1” four meatminds, and a sandcastle.

Individual reviews for each story in “Dreamsongs: Volume 1”:

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ONLY KIDS ARE AFRAID OF THE DARK:

A very pulpy, amateur short story – more of an extended villain’s monologue really – that I believe is the chronologically earliest published work of George R. R. Martin.

It feels more suited towards a comic book rather than just prose, but alas, there’s only one accompanying illustration in this edition. Apparently there is an actual comic edition, illustrated by Jim Starlin, which I imagine would be a more entertaining read.

It’s worth reading for the Martin completionists, and its very short length ensures it doesn’t overstay long enough to really waste anyone’s time, but anyone expecting the depth of Martin’s later work will be disappointed. Martin wrote this while he was in high school; he had decades to become the accomplished and successful writer he is today.

I give it two astral avengers, and a demonic prince.

THE FORTRESS

An interesting little historical story about the Siege of Sveaborg, a short siege in 1808 during the Finnish War, where the fortress of Sveaborg was surrendered to the Russians mysteriously. Martin creates a work of historical fiction suggesting a series of events and interactions leading to the surrender.

Martin wrote it as a history paper for college, and while written only three years after the pulpy “Only Kids Are Afraid Of The Dark”, it shows immense improvement. Martin’s prose and characterisation developed a lot in those years it seems.

It’s not the most captivating of short stories, but it’s certainly not incompetently written, and it covers an interesting historical event. Still, the characters blur together a tad; not enough distinctions between them come out in the writing. I also struggled a tad with a sense of place, some scene transitions left me confused where things were happening. I give the story two stores of powder, and a frigate.

AND DEATH HIS LEGACY

A short story written by George R. R. Martin while he was in college. While you can see his writing developing from earlier stories, this one lacks any of the nuance he would eventually learn to employ. It’s very on-the-nose, very clear about its very political message, and very heavy in exposition.

Martin deals with politics, and his own political leanings, much better in his novel “The Armageddon Rag”, but that’s decades later in his career.

Compared to the other writings from his youth, it’s more readable than “Only Kids Are Afraid Of The Dark”, but not as well-written or compelling as “The Fortress”. I give it two oiled guns, and a microphone.

THE HERO

A short but sweet story from the early writing days of George R. R. Martin. Martin shows his gift for quick, effective, yet deep characterisation here, and the story is also really neat conceptually. Has a lot of the interesting, tricky moral situations he’d later be known for too.

I give it three hrangans, and a thousand worlds.

THE EXIT TO SAN BRETA

A neat little science-fiction ghost story. This is 1970s Martin, when he’d developed into a strong writer, so there’s few of the growing pains his very early stories exhibited.

Conceptually, the story is really neat, and while Martin’s no master of prose, his actual writing chops don’t let his ideas down as much as they did with some of his earlier stories. It’s an interesting ghost story concept that feels a little underdeveloped with how the short story ends, but I feel like Martin was aiming more for an atmospheric story here than a proper plotted-out short story with twists and turns and anything like that.

Definitely a good little read. I give it three Edsels, and a Jag.

THE SECOND KIND OF LONELINESS

A science-fiction story in the vein of Martin’s later work “A Song for Lya” and “Dying of the Light”; one where what seems to be some of Martin’s personal relationship experiences are worked through as emotional inspiration for stories.

The story is told in a diary format (first-person, past tense), which I’m not a big fan of, but does situate the reader in the character’s head more directly than just thinking from a third-person perspective might.

The concepts of different types of loneliness (distance and fear being the differentiator as described here) is interesting, and feels born out of Martin’s own personal thoughts and development.

The science-fiction worldbuilding was neat and appropriately scaled for the story – no big infodumps or complicated concepts, but some nice touches.

It was an enjoyable, very introspective science-fiction story, that didn’t overstay its welcome, and focused on emotions over plot. I give it three vortexes, and a bottle of scotch.

WITH MORNING COMES MISTFALL

A very atmospheric short story of Martin’s. Like “The Exit to San Breta”, there isn’t much of a plot here, or even much of a character focus. It’s mainly just a very atmospheric exploration of a setting Martin thought up. Enjoyable to read, but there’s not much in the way of a story to stick with you.

If there’s any sort of message to the story, I’d say it would be Martin’s belief that some mystery in life is better than having absolutely everything completely known and analysed.

The main failing of the story, if I had to pick one, would be that the relationship between the chief characters never really goes anywhere. It feels like there’s some conflict set up in the first half of the story, but then it just deflates as Martin just delves into worldbuilding and wistful ruminations on mystery.

It’s a good enough read, but very inconsequential. I give it two glasses of mistwine, and a wraith.

A SONG FOR LYA

A deeply haunting novella. I imagine people’s reactions to this story depend heavily upon their own life circumstances, and what characters they relate to more, but I found the story painfully realistic, disquieting, unsettling, and tragic.

Martin’s first novel, “Dying of the Light”, shares many of the same concerns as “A Song for Lya”, but the latter is the stronger story, all the more impressive for its relative brevity. Speaking of Martin’s other works, there are very clear connections to “A Song of Ice and Fire” here. Not just the names (the protagonist couple are Robb and the titular Lyanna), but the worldbuilding and concepts as well. The Children of the Forest recall the Skheen, and the greenseer weirwood network (especially as presented in “A Dance with Dragons”) recalls the Greeshk and their parasitic hivemind. Both Lyannas also have impulsivity and a romantic nature in common.

Martin speaks to deeply relatable human themes here – love, what it means to love a person, what it means to be alone or otherwise, ambition to progress vs contentedness in stagnation. His skills in characterisation and speaking to human nature transcend genre.

I give this novella five distant stars, and an empty universe.

THIS TOWER OF ASHES

This short story reads like a proto-attempt at what would become Martin’s much more accomplished novel, Dying of the Light. Clearly, both stories (as well as Meathouse Man) are drawing from a personal experience that affected Martin deeply. For better or worse, I can relate deeply with that experience, especially at this time of my life. While I felt Dying of the Light was a more nuanced and mature examination of such an experience, a rejection (and Meathouse Man a more juvenile and ugly one, although I think that was intentional), This Tower of Ashes is still a compelling exploration of the emotional state one might feel after a semi-amicable but unexpected break-up.

Martin’s greatest strength is his characterisation, and it’s on great display here. The characters are painfully real. The worldbuilding is also quite fascinating. Unfortunately, towards the end, I feel the story regressed into typical science-fiction short-story “what a twist!” focus, with the emphasis on ambiguity and surprise overriding the story’s actual strengths; the characterisation and exploration of the protagonist’s mental state following his wife leaving him.

Still, it’s a strong story, and very lean (Martin once had a gift for brevity, believe it or not!). It resonated strongly with me. I give it four spiderwebs, and an eight-legged “cat”.

AND SEVEN TIMES NEVER KILL MAN!

Another dark, fascinating story in George R. R. Martin’s “The Thousands Worlds” setting. It’s interesting reading the story in 2016 because there are two aspects of it that are quite fun to see retrospectively; the first appearance of the term “winter is coming” in Martin’s writing, and the inspiration for the wookie (Chewbacca’s race) in Star Wars.

As for the story itself, it’s a melancholy look at human nature and faith. The worldbuilding is fascinating. I’m glad I’m reading these Thousand Worlds stories in sequence because, even though they’re not really a “series”, it’s enjoyable to see Martin steadily build up his setting with more and more detail and nuance.

This story covers a band of religious zealots claiming large amounts of alien land in true colonial style. Like in “A Song for Lya”, one could see some of the seeds for the Children of the Forest in “A Song of Ice and Fire” sewn in the aliens of this story, the Jaenshi. Their connection with nature, their golden eyes, and their reverence to wood and carving faces into wood are the elements I’m thinking of here. The religious cult of the story, the Steel Angels, would fall into the role of the First Men (or later Andal) invaders that destroy much of the Children’s environment and population, although they more immediately resemble the red priests of R’hllor in their zealousness and aggression.

The story also features murky prophecies being misinterpreted by various people, also a running idea in “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Martin clearly has an interest in the idea of prophecies and religious foretellings as inherently flawed because they incentivise humans, ever the seeker of patterns, to find evidence after-the-fact for themselves, now with an inset bias that warps their observation skills.

I found the ending of the story hard to understand at first, but found it deeply satisfying when I felt I had successfully parsed it. It speaks to how religions mesh and merge, and how colonial invasions sometimes feature cultural exchanges both ways, not always to the immediate pleasure of the invaders.

I very much enjoyed this story. There’s a lot of meat on this bone, so to speak. I give it four carved idols, and a planted vision.

THE STONE CITY

One of the stronger “Thousands Worlds” short stories. The worldbuilding is really strong here; Martin builds up a very strong sense of place and implied history very effectively.

It’s an eerie, Lovecraftian story, quiet and lowkey where many of the other stories in the series are more bombastic, leaning heavier on genre crutches.

As always with Martin, the characterisation is excellent here. The protagonist’s realisations about “collecting” memories and experiences through travelling rather than really having fulfilling experiences for their own right felt like a very real, honest, and relatable revelation.

The ending is fascinating, almost uncharacteristically abstract for Martin.

Certainly one of the better “Thousand Worlds” short stories. I give it four maps, and a crossworld.

BITTERBLOOMS

A melancholy, genre-bending tale, with the science-fiction elements seeping out under the fantasy veneer as the story progresses.

There’s a strong emotional core at the centre of the story, but it lacks the creativity of stories like “In the House of the Worm” or “The Way of Cross and Dragon”, or the emotional impact of stories like “Meathouse Man” and “This Tower of Ashes”. It’s not a lesser story in the way of “Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg” or “Starlady” though…I’d call this the standard, the average “Thousand Worlds” story. Pretty strong character writing and emotional core. Interesting science-fiction twist. Well worth the read. Nothing hugely special, but definitely a good piece of genre writing.

“A Song of Ice and Fire” fans will probably find this story notable for the fantasy genre conventions, inclusion of incest, and for the seasons of unusual length, similar to the ones Westeros is beset with.

I give it three Ice Wagons, and a frostflower vine.

THE WAY OF CROSS AND DRAGON

A fantastic short story, definitely one of the best in Martin’s “Thousand Worlds” setting. Full of fascinating worldbuilding, strong character writing, interesting plot movements, and great lines like “freedom is cold and empty and frightening, and lies can often be warm and beautiful”.

I don’t personally share the same sort of atheist ideology the story examines, but the story works excellently as an examination of faith, truth, deception, and human nature regardless of one’s personal beliefs, at least in my experience.

The way the themes of the story are interwoven through multiple levels is impressive – the ideas of heresy and self-deception resonate from the personal level, the Inquisitor’s inner monologue speaking plainly to this, the institutional, with the various Christian denominations all believing themselves sole arbiters of the truth when there are more than seven-hundred of them at that point in time, to a cosmic, species-spanning level, with nearly all sentient beings sustaining themselves off various lies and, if one subscribes to an atheist worldview, an ultimate lie that is religious faith.

A fascinating, and deeply enjoyable story. I give it four new denominations, and a heretical text.

THE LONELY SONGS OF LAREN DORR

An fantasy short story of George R. R. Martin’s, light on plot but heavy on atmosphere. Very melancholy.

Martin does a pretty good job building up an interesting setting and backstory in few words here, a lot of it eventually regurgitated in some form in later works (Bakalon, the name of a group of deities being “the Seven”, etc.).

The characters aren’t hugely interesting as people, but the fantasy story woven around them isn’t bad.

Unlike a lot of Martin’s other short stories focused on romance, I didn’t feel much personal emotional experiences Martin has been through here; this felt purely like a fantasy invention. It never really clicked with me because I didn’t find anything compelling to grasp onto. The characters were ciphers. The worldbuilding was interesting enough, but why invest in just a pretty good setting when it’s never used again? There was little plot.

I wouldn’t really call it a bad story, and Martin’s writing has clearly improved significantly by this point in his career, but it didn’t really do anything for me. I give it two songs, and a prophecy.

THE ICE DRAGON

[Note: This review, for “The Ice Dragon”, is of the illustrated edition, not the purely textual version that features in this collection.]

A charming short story from George R. R. Martin. Though sometimes touted as a story connected to Westeros and Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga, it decidedly isn’t. It’s a children’s story in its own self-contained world, as he’s maintained consistently. It was also written sixteen years before even the kernel of the idea that developed into “A Game of Thrones” developed.

The story itself is very slight, but enjoyable, and certainly suitable for children. It’s a quick, breezy read, not really whimsical, but not dark in the way Martin’s adult work often is either.

The real draw of the book, to me at least, were the impressive illustrations by artist Luis Royo. This is actually a second edition of the book, as the first published edition had a different artist and this is a reprint I assume to capitalise on Martin’s renewed fame from “Game of Thrones”. Nearly every page has an illustration, and they’re all gorgeous. They’re full of detail and depth, and at times haunting in a very beautiful way. The book is worth reading purely for them.

I give “The Ice Dragon” three ice lizards, and a dragonrider.

IN THE LOST LANDS

An interesting supernatural fantasy short story by George R. R. Martin.

Plenty of twists and turns, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The characters and well-sketched given the brevity of the story, and the worldbuilding is of appropriate scope – no ungainly infodumps here, nor a complete lack of a creative setting either.

I liked the aspects of the story that were more supernatural horror than classic fantasy. Martin is good at blending genres, and I always like seeing him mesh his skills in fantasy, horror, science-fiction, and historical type writing.

I give it three wolf pelts, and an engraved blade.

MEATHOUSE MAN

This is an ugly, off-putting story, clearly drawing from the same emotional experience that drove “This Tower of Ashes”and “Dying of the Light”, but in a much more repulsive way. The characterisation and worldbuilding is in as fine form as ever, notably better than many of the other “Thousand Worlds” short stories. Martin also has a clearer grasp of his strengths here; there’s no huge emphasis on plot twists or mechanically clever endings. Instead, the story speaks for itself, as a primarily character and theme focused work.

Anyone who’s had difficulties with love will find things to relate to in this story, but where “Dying of the Light” described the ensuing pain, clumsy attempts to deal with, and eventual emotional resolve in a way I found eminently relatable, “Meathouse Man” takes a much uglier, cynical turn. Honestly, it was quite sickening. This is not a criticism in the slightest; it’s very clearly what Martin was going for, and he very much succeeded.

I’ve heard criticism of how Martin writes sex scenes, but have always found it an odd, somewhat unfounded criticism. His prose tends to reflect the character’s thoughts and worldview. It makes sense to me that a clumsy, awkward, insecure scholar in “A Song of Ice and Fire” would use the clumsy, awkward, insecure term “fat pink mast” to describe his penis. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in “Meathouse Man”. The sex scenes are so clearly designed to reflect the protagnist’s sad and ugly views on texts (this actually goes from subtext to text, in an inspired bit of science-fiction mechanics), that I have no idea how someone could criticise them as unpleasant to read, as if that wasn’t the intention.

I’m somewhat divided on the ending of the story. It works for the story itself, but I feel like it’s fundamentally juvenile in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I certainly hope Martin himself didn’t subscribe to the worldview the character espouses in the last few pages, but even if he did at the time, “Dying of the Light” came out a year later and shows a much progressed worldview on love and rejection, and it’s now decades later and Martin seems happily married, and has described quite a few healthy romantic relationships in later works.

This is not an “enjoyable” short story in the strictest sense of the term, but it’s very much a strong one. I give it four trips to the meathouse, and a bout in the arena.

REMEMBERING MELODY

A captivating, effective psychological horror short story.

Martin delivers a sharp, disturbing take on the idea of imbalanced friendships, and the discomfort that comes from friends stuck in an earlier stage of their lives when one has moved on. Broken promises also play a big part, as do the different levels of seriousness different people ascribe to promises.

The horror elements don’t come to the fore until late in the story, which I like, as it leaves plenty of room for Martin to be in his element with just characterisation.

The ending isn’t one of Martin’s best, and he’s done plenty scarier, but it’s still a good ending to the story. My favourite parts were the earlier bits though, when Martin was just doing strong work setting up the characters and their connections. It felt very real. I give the story three broken promises, and a plate of Chinese food.

SANDKINGS

One of the best, and most creative, “Thousand Worlds” stories. It’s a cynical, entertaining, scary look into the mind of a man who’d drive his pets to slaughter each other for amusement, and push them to worship him as divine. It has a very “Twilight Zone” feel to the way the story unfolds and is presented, and very much begs to be read in one sitting.

It’s a fiendish story written well, very viscerally. The story never overstays its welcome, and constantly develops  until it reaches a very memorable ending. One of those stories that drives you to start reading quicker and quicker as the plot amps up.

A devilishly written story about a devilish man. I give it four sandcastles, and a maw.

NIGHTFLYERS

An enjoyably creepy novella, leaning more on the horror side of Martin’s writing rather than the science-fiction side. Feels very much like “Alien” in that sense (although since this novella came out only a year after the film’s release, it’s entirely possible Martin wrote the novella before seeing the film).

I felt like it was a bit busy with all the characters, with only the protagonist (who I only really identified as the protagonist halfway through) making much of a mark – everyone else has their individual traits, sure, but there’s so many of them, and the point of views switch so often, that it’s hard for many of them to land. Curiously, this story seems to lean more on atmosphere than characterisation, which is unusual for Martin.

Still, all the horror elements are executed very well, and the novella has a delightfully creepy ending. I give it three whisperjewels, and a wrist computer.

THE MONKEY TREATMENT

A fantastic, very creepy short horror story by George R. R. Martin.

It features one of Martin’s most creative and freakiest ideas for a story, and some of Martin’s finest actual writing, in terms of prose. Here, his penchant for excessive food descriptions is the entire point of the story, as it revolves around an obese man, his obsessions, and his unorthodox attempt to lose weight.

The story never lets up, always escalating, and always getting eerier. It’s a twisted, sickening story at times, but also quite funny at points. It really is a remarkably enjoyable read. I give it four slices of pizza, and a banana pudding.

THE PEAR-SHAPED MAN

A disturbing, sickening psychological horror story. Just utterly nauseating. It won Martin the Bram Stoker Award for Best Long Fiction back in 1987, and it’s easy to see why, as it’s a very memorable and fascinating story.

Martin imbibes the story with such a strong sense of dread and repulsion, he’s so good at bringing up feelings of disgust and paranoia. None of the characters in the story are particularly likable, but the protagonist is certainly relatable, and her descent as the story goes on is horrifying but thrilling to read.

The ending works well enough for the story, but it’s the first 90% that I enjoy the most, the steady escalation of the repulsive writing, rather than the plot progression and resolution that’s mostly crammed into the last few pages.

I give it three cheese doodles, and a bottle of coke.

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