Thursday, 25 October 2012

'Sandkings' - George R.R. Martin

“Quiet,” said Wo. “Listen to me. This is your own doing. Keep your Sandkings well, and they are courtly ritual warriors. You turned yours into something else, with starvation and torture. You were their god. You made them what they are. That maw in your cellar is sick, still suffering from the wound that you gave it. It is probably insane. Its behaviour is… unusual. You have to get out of there quickly…”

‘Sandkings’ was one of those stories that I’d heard loads about (I think it was even made into a TV show or something?) but never got round to reading until the ‘Dreamsongs’ collection came out a few years ago. With the US paperback release of ‘Dreamsongs’ (I don’t know what the fascination is with trade paperbacks but that’s another post…) I thought it might be time to revisit this tale and see what I got out of it second time round.

The premise is simple. Simon Kress is an animal collector always looking for new pleasures in what his pets can do to each other,

‘The piranhas could always eat one another if he were detained longer than expected. They’d done it before. It amused him.'

Kress’ latest acquisition (a tank of insectile ‘Sandkings’) offers him new opportunities to visit cruelty on a species that literally worships him as a god. What will happen though when Kress’ actions clearly mark him as a devil…?

‘Sandkings’ is a science fiction/horror crossover that does more to showcase GRRM’s flair for the latter than it does the former. The story takes place on an alien world but we never find out much about it or its technology. Making up for this is a very detailed examination of specific xeno-biology that gives the reader a very thorough grounding for what is to come.

This is a tale of horror, first and foremost, both in Kress’ ability to torture his animal charges (and what this ultimately drives him to) along with just how the Sandkings eventually strike back. Martin ramps up the tension superbly with lots of unspoken warnings and the ‘faces’, in the Sandking castle letting us know that something horrible is looming on the horizon. Martin is very good at this, drawing the reader in and leaving them hanging until just the right moment. Just when you think you can’t hold your breath (metaphorically speaking) any longer, Martin not only hits you with a moment of violent terror but then lets you know that it wasn’t the climax at all. Things are going to get even worse…

‘Sandkings’ operates along these lines up until the end and that is the beauty of this tale. Martin spends so much time convincing you that things are going to get worse that the brief ray of hope that he offers is enough for you to grab it. That’s just what he was after, the ending was always inevitable but that slight change in pace means that you won’t see it coming until it hits you.

The only thing that slightly grated for me was that while Kress is portrayed as very intelligent (almost psychotically so) he does have a nasty habit of getting incredibly drunk at precisely the wrong times. You know, the times when he could just get out and leave the house far behind him. Or call for the one person who could help to come and help him. It felt like Martin had written a character who was far too clever for his own good and needed some way to keep him in the house until what needed to happen happened. A little bit contrived then.

Apart from that, ‘Sandkings’ was a gripping read that I had to finish, even though I’d read it before and knew what happened. GRRM isn’t just an excellent writer of fantasy; he’s a dab hand at the horror as well.

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