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Game of Thrones season four begins with no end in sight for book series

Are you tired of waiting for the rest of George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire?

HBO’s Game of Thrones is the Jägerbomb to Tolkien’s ginger beer. How else to describe a fantasy series in which a moment of interrupted incest leads to civil war and the threat of human extinction at the hands of spectral frost monsters? It’s bloody, political and raunchy, populated by a well-drawn cast of sociopaths and misfits. And whilst it pales against the character-driven dramas like Breaking Bad and House of Cards to which we’ve recently been treated, Walter White’s shenanigans never involved dragons and full-frontal nudity.

Season four of the show premieres today. That’s exciting news for aficionados. But another sad milestone for fans of the cycle of novels from which Game of Thrones is adapted – A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin – which remains incomplete after eighteen years of prevarication and delay.

Frank Underwood never ate a raw horse heart. Image: HBO

Here’s the timeline. Game of Thrones (the book) was released in 1996. A Clash of Kings followed in 1999, as did A Storm of Swords a year later. Then things started to go wrong, probably when Martin’s editors stopped speaking truth to power – the man is known to hold a grudge against their tribe. Fans waited five years for A Feast for Crows. Then six years for A Dance with Dragons. Three years on and The Winds of Winter still lacks a publication date. Fragments of the manuscript are occasionally leaked to Martin’s website, but like Chinese water torture this irregular trickle has driven readers to despair. They are desperate to know whether Martin is capable of redeeming himself after Crows and Dragons, which were by most accounts poorly paced and occasionally dull. Don't ask about A Dream of Spring, which will complete the heptalogy in some ineffably distant future.

The more impatient members of Martin’s entourage call themselves “GRRuMblers”. They are an entitled and obnoxious lot, given to venting their frustrations in whinging blog pieces and message board posts. But Martin also has defenders amongst those who argue that buying a book does not create an implicit contract for the delivery of future services. In the words of Neil Gaiman, “George R R Martin is not your bitch”.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. Image: HBO

One assumes that Martin has good reason to avoid a J K Rowling-paced publication schedule. The pressure to satisfy a fan base Vulture calls the most devoted in pop culture must be nerve-shattering. He certainly does not seem hurried by a fear of looming mortality, unlike those readers who like comparing Martin’s age (65) to that of fellow fantasy novelist Robert Jordan (58), who died in 2007 midway through concluding his epic Wheel of Time series. (Why must we be so fearful of Martin shuffling off anyway? Many unfinished works are considerably better than hurriedly completed ones. Compare Kafka’s The Trial to the autobiography of Jade Goody etc.)

Martin's great error was appending a note to the back of A Feast For Crows which assured readers that a sequel would be along the next year. That surely created some kind of obligation. As it happened, A Dance with Dragons took Martin longer to complete than the ministry of Jesus, Magellan’s circumnavigation, Paradise Lost and the Manhattan Project.

Giants and dragons and direwolves, oh my! Image: HBO

Game of Thrones season four will be thrilling. But it will also remind fans of the books they are missing. HBO executives will no doubt push hard for A Song of Ice and Fire to be completed now their series has caught up with Martin’s pen (here's speculation as to what might happen if they fail to crack the whip). For readers who have inhabited the world of Westeros since the first Clinton administration, a long wait for resolution may soon be approaching the beginning of the end. 

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood