When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.
George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire has been hailed by many critics as one of the best fantasies ever to be published in our generation. In fact, some have gone so far as to call him the American Tolkien. His latest installment, A Dance With Dragons, sold more than 170,000 copies on its first day, according to the New York Times, and the number of people reading the series has skyrocketed since the HBO adaption, which is named after the first book, A Game of Thrones.
It depends on what you’re looking for in a fantasy. If you’re looking for a clean cut noble hero who has to rescue a cookie-cutter princess, save the world from a generic Dark Lord, go on a quest for a hackneyed sacred object, or fulfill yet another prophecy, this probably isn’t the series for you. Martin’s books are dark, grim, violent, and absolutely no one is wholly good, safe, noble, or easy to label. His books are populated with very human characters, many of them fascinating and many of them absolutely horrible. As someone who loves difficult characters and plots (Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite books), I should love this series and revel in its grittiness.
But I don’t. At least not any more.
I enjoyed the first three books. Really enjoyed them. I didn’t think they were the greatest books I’d read- the writing was passable, but hardly spectacular, and there was a lot of sex and violence, but there were some amazing characters about whom I really enjoyed reading and whose stories I really wanted know. I was intrigued by the political machinations and difficulties brought about the ugly mess that was the history of Westeros and I really liked discovering the layers of the world Martin had arranged.
Then I hit the fourth book, A Feast For Crows, and felt like I’d walked around a blind corner only to slam into a brick wall. There was a slew of new characters that made the already convoluted plot nearly impossible to follow, and I didn’t find any of them interesting. Not to mention my favorite character was freaking nowhere to be found. And there were some really teeth-grindingly bad sex scenes. And I read fanfic, so I know my bad sex scenes. The scenes with Sam- and Cersei and blargh Martin, I demand you pay for my brain bleach. Anyway! Long story short, I couldn’t finish this book. And I still haven’t gotten the courage to go back.
The series is touted for its realism and trueness to life, and Martin certainly seems to enjoy showing that Murphy’s Law applies in Westeros just as much as it does in our world. It works for the first three books. The downside of the medieval style violence and nothing ever going right is that they drag down the story and makes it difficult to follow. Tolkien’s plots, for all his description, were nowhere near as hard to understand as this series. And this series seems to be expanding- it was originally planned as a trilogy and Martin originally had planned for there to be a five year time skip after A Storm of Swords. I honestly believe this would have been a better choice for the story, mostly because it is just so convoluted. We know from hints dropped throughout the first three books that there are major events coming, and it’s really not smart to dangle those events and then drop them entirely in favor of constant travel across Westeros. And I’m being so harsh on Martin for this because in the first three books he did a good job employing his many viewpoints to good effect in showing different facets of Westeros. I don’t know what happened in the long wait between A Storm of Swords and A Feast For Crows, but I feel like he lost his touch a bit between those books.
My other problem with the series that really came to a head in the fourth book was the sex, as I mentioned. Throughout the entire series I’d had problems with the sex- I really don’t like having anatomically detailed descriptions of the sexual act and I especially hate it when it’s told in a way demeaning to women (Theon Greyjoy, from the moment you had a viewpoint chapter, I hated your guts for this). I know demeaning things like that happen in real life, but I don’t enjoy reading about them. It pulls me out of the story and I end up gagging at the page for a good minute or so. There are more effective ways of telling a sexual scene than minute descriptions of someone’s ‘manhood.’ There really are. One of the best examples I can think of is in Dostoyevsky’s story “Notes From Underground” in which the main narrator has a long conversation with a prostitute after he wakes up next to her. It’s fairly obvious what they’ve been doing, but Dostoyevsky conveys it more subtly than by merely describing the pair of them naked. The only real physical description we get is a bare arm on a pillow and the narrator’s memory of stumbling drunk into the brothel. This scene is easily one of the most powerful ones in the entire story, but it’s memorable for the words and the sheer tension between the narrator and the prostitute. It’s about infinitely more than the sex, though sex is a part of what the narrator tells.
One could argue that Martin’s not gunning for philosophy with his books, which is certainly a valid point. But when his story is heralded as one of the greatest fantasy works of our time, and when he is described as the next Tolkien, I do hold him to a certain standard. I expect above-average storytelling and hope for some thought-provoking moments. I expect beautiful language, I expect some deeper meaning. And I’ve not gotten nearly enough of that from Martin’s fantasy for him to gain the respect from me that the hype expects me to give him.
I probably will finish the series at some point, but I’ve yet to feel any deep urge to back to Westeros, not even for the sake of characters like Tyrion Lannister and creatures like dragons. I will probably go back at some point. But I have such limited time for reading that I’ll don’t want to waste it on something that will be both difficult and frustrating. It’s not like the books are going anywhere, not with their popularity. They can wait.