A Song of Ice and Fire is one of my favorite series of all time and one of only four or five that I’ve read in the Fantasy genre. (The others were LOTR and Harry Potter, so I’m a fame fan at best.)
I’ve never heard anybody say anything bad about the A Song of Ice and Fire series but I came across a bunch of negative reviews lately on Goodreads that I thought were quite interesting. Here is an example of one and I’d love to hear thoughts from anybody who’s read the series. (Warning: this review is LONG)
From J.G. Keely on Goodreads 1-star review
There are plenty of fantasy authors who claim to be doing something different with the genre. Ironically, they often write the most predictable books of all, as evidenced by Goodkind and Paolini. Though I’m not sure why they protest so much–predictability is rarely a death sentence in genre fantasy.
The archetypal story of the hero, the villain, the great love, and a world to be saved never seems to get old–and there’s nothing wrong with this story when it’s told well. At the best, it’s exciting, exotic, and builds to a fulfilling climax. At the worst, it’s just a bloodless rehash, and the worst are more common by far.
Perhaps it was this wealth of predictable, cliche romances that drove Martin to aim for something ‘different’. Unfortunately, being different isn’t something you can choose to do, any more than you can choose to be creative. Sure, Moorcock wrote Elric to be the anti-Conan, but at some point, he had to stretch out and find a core for his series that was more than just that–and he did.
In similar gesture, Martin rejects moralistic romance, tearing the guts out of epic fantasy: the wonder, the ideals, the heroism, and with them, the moral purpose. Fine, so he took out the rollicking fun and the social message–what did he replace them with?
Like the post-Moore comics of the nineties, fantasy has borne witness to a backlash against the moral hero, and then a backlash against the grim antihero who succeeded him. Hell, if all Martin wanted was grim and gritty antiheroes, he didn’t have to reject the staples of fantasy, he could have gone to its roots: Howard, Leiber, and Anderson.
Like many authors aiming at realism, he forgets that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. The real world is full unbelievable events, coincidences, and odd characters. When authors remove these elements in an attempt to make their world seem real, they make their fiction duller than reality; after all, unexpected details are the heart of verisimilitude.
When Chekhov and Peake eschewed the easy thrill of romance, they replaced it with odd and exciting characters–things strange enough to feel true. In comparison, Martin’s world is dull and gray. Instead of innovating new, radical elements, he merely removes familiar staples–and any world defined by lack is going to end up feeling thin.
Despite trying inject the book with history and realism, he does not reject the melodramatic characterization of his fantasy forefathers, as evidenced by his brooding bastard antihero protagonist (with pet albino wolf). Apparently to him, ‘grim realism’ is ‘Draco in Leather Pants’. This produces a conflicted tone–a soap opera cast for an existentialist film.
There’s also lots of sex and misogyny, and ‘wall-to-wall rape’–not that books should shy away from sex–or from any uncomfortable, unpleasant reality of life. The problem is when people who are not comfortable with their own sexuality start writing about it, and it seems to plague every mainstream fantasy author.
Their pen gets away from them, their own hangups start leaking into the scene. It’s not about the characters anymore, it’s the author cybering about his favorite fetish–and if I cyber with a fat, bearded stranger, I expect to be paid for it.
I know a lot of fans probably get into it more than I do (like night elf hunters humping away in WOW), but reading Goodkind, Jordan, and Martin–it’s like seeing a Playboy at your uncle’s where all the pages are wrinkled. That’s not to say there isn’t serviceable pop fantasy sex out there–it’s just written by women.
Though I didn’t save any choice examples, I did come across this quote from a later book:
“… she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest . . .”
Imagine the process: Martin sits, hands hovering over the keys, trying to get inside his character’s head:
“Okay, I’m a woman. How do I see and feel the world differently? My cultural role is defined by childbirth. I can be bought and sold in marriage by my own–Oh, hey! I’ve got tits! Man, look at those things go. *whooshing mammary sound effects* Okay, time to write.”
Where are the descriptions of variously-sized dongs swinging within the confines of absurdly-detailed clothing? There are a set of manboobs–which perhaps Martin has some personal experience with–but not until book five. Even then, it’s not the dude being hyperaware of his own–they’re just there to gross out a dwarf. Not really a balanced depiction.
If you’re familiar with the show–and its parodies on South Park and SNL–this lack of dongs may surprise you. But as Martin himself explained, when asked why there’s no gay sex in his books, though there are gay characters,‘they’re not the viewpoint characters’–as if somehow, the viewpoints he chooses to depict are beyond his control. Apparently, he plots as well as your average NaNoWriMo author: sorry none of my characters chose to be gay, nothing I can do about it.
And balance is really the problem here–if only depict the dark, gritty stuff that you’re into, that’s not realism, it’s just trying to hide a fetish. If you depict the grimness of war by having every female character threatened with rape, but the same thing never happens to a male character, despite the fact that more men get raped in the military than women, then your ‘gritty realism card’ definitely gets revoked.
The books are also notorious for sudden, pointless deaths, which some suggest is another sign of realism–but, of course, nothing is pointless in fiction, because everything that shows up on the page is there because the author put it there. Sure, in real life, people suddenly die before finishing their life’s work (fantasy authors do it all the time), but there’s a reason we don’t tend to tell stories of people who die unexpectedly in the middle of things: they are boring and pointless. They build up for a while then eventually, lead nowhere.
Novelists often write in isolation, so it’s easy to forget the rule to which playwrights adhere: your story is always a fiction. Any time you treat it as if it were real, you are working against yourself. The writing feels the most natural is never effortless, it is carefully and painstakingly constructed to seem that way.
A staple of Creative Writing 101 is to ‘listen to how people really talk’, which is terrible advice. A transcript of any conversation will be so full of repetition, half-thoughts, and non-specific words (‘stuff’, ‘thing’) as to be incomprehensible–especially without the cues of tone and body language. Written communication has its own rules, so making dialogue feel like speech is a trick writers play. It’s the same with sudden character deaths: treat them like a history, and your plot will become choppy and hard to follow.
Not that the deaths are truly unpredictable. Like in an action film, they are a plot convenience: kill off a villain, and you don’t have to wrap up his arc. You don’t have to defeat him psychologically–the finality of his death is the great equalizer. You skip the hard work of demonstrating that the hero was morally right, because he’s the only option left.
Likewise, in Martin’s book, death ties up loose threads–namely, plot threads. Often, this is the only ending we get to his plot arcs, which makes them rather predictable: any time a character is about to get enough influence to make things better, or more stable, he will die. Any character who poses a threat to the continuing chaos which drives the plot will first be built up, and then killed off.
I found this interview to be a particularly telling example of how Martin thinks of character deaths:
“I killed [Ned (hide spoiler)] because everybody thinks he’s the hero … sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing [someone] is going to rise up and avenge his [death] … So immediately [killing [Robb] (hide spoiler)] became the next thing I had to do.
He’s not talking about the internal motivations of the characters, or the ideas the characters represent–he isn’t laying out a well-structured plot–he’s just building up a character then killing them to defy expectation. But the only reason we think these characters are important and expect them to succeed is because of how Martin sets them up.
He treats them as central heroes, spending time and energy on them, but it all ends up being a red herring so he can get rid of them for a cheap twist. It’s like the mystery novels of the 70’s, when all the good plots had already been done, so authors added ghosts or secret twins in the last chapter–it’s only surprising because the author has torn up the structure of their own book, and with it the relationship between author and reader.
All authors begin by writing plot arcs that grow and change, building tension and purpose. Normally, when such arcs end, the author must use all the force of his skill to deal with themes and answer questions, providing a satisfying conclusion to a promising idea that his readers have watched grow.
Or you could just kill off a character central to the conflict and bury the plot arc with him. That way, you never have to worry about closure, you can just hook your readers by crafting a new arc from the chaos caused by the dissolution of the previous one. Start to make the reader believe that things might get better, to believe in a character, then wave your arms in distraction, yell and point, ‘look at that terrible thing, over there!’, and hope your audience becomes so caught up in worrying about this new problem that they forget that the old one never actually resolved.
By chaining false endings together, you can create a perpetual tension that never requires solution–like in most soap operas–plus, the author never has to do the hard work of finishing what they started. If an author is lucky, they die before reaching the Final Conclusion the readership is clamoring for, and never have to meet the collective expectation which long years of deferral have built up. It’s easy to idolize Kurt Cobain, because you never had to see him bald and old and crazy like David Lee Roth.
Unlucky authors live to write the Final Book, breaking the spell of continual tension and expectation that kept their readers enthralled. Since the plot has not been resolving into a tight, intertwined conclusion (in fact, it’s probably been spiraling out of control), the author must wrap things up conveniently and suddenly, leaving fans confused and upset. Having thrown out the grand romance of fantasy, Martin cannot even end on the dazzling trick of thevaguely-spiritual transgressive Death Event on which the great majority of fantasy books rely for a handy tacked-on climax (actually, he’ll probably do it anyways, with dragons).
The drawback is that, even if a conclusion gets stuck on at the end, the story fundamentally leads nowhere–it winds back and forth without resolving psychological or tonal arcs. But then, doesn’t that sound more like real life? Martin tore out the moralistic heart and magic of fantasy, and in doing so, rejected the notion of grandly realized conclusions. Perhaps we shouldn’t compare him to other writers of romance, but to Histories.
He asks us to believe in his intrigue, his grimness, and his amoral world of war, power, and death–not the false Europe of Arthur, Robin Hood, and Orlando, but the real Europe of plagues, power struggles, religious wars, witch hunts, and roving companies of soldiery forever ravaging the countryside.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t compare very well to them, either. His intrigue is not as interesting as Cicero’s, Machiavelli’s, Enguerrand de Coucy’s–or even Sallust’s, who was practically writing fiction, anyways. Some might suggest it unfair to compare a piece of fiction to a true history, but those are the same histories that lent Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock their touches of verisimilitude. Martin might have taken a lesson from them and drawn inspiration from further afield: even Tolkien had his Eddas.
More than anything, this book felt like a serial melodrama: the hardships of an ensemble cast who we are meant to watch over and sympathize with, being drawn in by emotional appeals (the hope that things will ‘get better’ in this dark place, ‘tragic’ deaths), even if these appeals conflict with the supposed realism, and in the end, there is no grander story to unify the whole. This ‘grittiness’ is just Martin replacing the standard fantasy theme of ‘glory’ with one of ‘hardship’, and despite flipping this switch, it’s still just an emotional appeal. ‘Heroes always win’ is just as boring and predictable as ‘heroes always lose’.
It’s been suggested that I didn’t read enough of Martin to judge him, but if the first four hundred pages aren’t good, I don’t expect the next thousand will be different. If you combine the three Del Rey collections of Conan The Barbarian stories, you get 1,263 pages (including introductions, end notes, and variant scripts). If you take Martin’s first two books in this series, you get 1,504 pages. Already, less than halfway through the series, he’s written more than Howard’s entire Conan output, and all I can do is ask myself: why does he need that extra length?
A few authors use it to their advantage, but for most, it’s just sprawling, undifferentiated bloat. Melodrama can be a great way to mint money, as evidenced by the endless ‘variations on a theme’ of Soap Operas, Pro Wrestling, Lost, and mainstream superhero comics. Plenty of people enjoy it, but it’s neither revolutionary nor realistic.
Some have tried to defend this book by saying “at least Martin isn’t as bad as all the drivel that gets published in genre fantasy”, but saying “he’s better than dreck” is really not very high praise. Others have intimated that I must not like fantasy at all, pointing to my low-star reviews of Martin,Wolfe, Jordan, and Goodkind, but it is precisely because I am passionate about fantasy that I fall heavily on these authors.
A lover of fine wines winces the more when he is given a corked bottle of vinegar, a ballet enthusiast’s love of dance would not leave him breathless at a high school competition, and likewise, having learned to appreciate Epics, Histories, the Matter of Europe, Fairy Tales, and their modern offspring, the fantasy genre, I find Martin woefully lacking.
There’s plenty of grim fantasy and intrigue out there, from its roots in epic poetry to the Thousand and One Nights to the early fantasies of Eddison, Dunsany, Morris, Macdonald, Haggard, and Kipling. Then there are more modern authors: Poul Anderson, Moorcock, M.John Harrison, Vance, Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, China Mieville, Phillip Pullman, Howard, Lovecraft, and Leiber.
There seems to be a sense that Martin’s work is somehow revolutionary, that it represents a ‘new direction’ for fantasy, but all I see is a reversion. Sure, he’s different than Jordan, Goodkind, and their ilk, who simply took the pseudo-medieval high-magic world from Tolkien and the blood-and-guts heroism from Howard. Martin, on the other hand, has more closely followed Tolkien’s lead than any other modern high fantasy author–and I don’t just mean in terms of racism.
Tolkien wanted to make his story ‘real’–not ‘realistic’, using the dramatic techniques of literature–but actually real, by trying to create all the detail of a pretend world behind the story. Over the span of the first twenty years, he released The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and other works, while in the twenty years after that, he became so obsessed with worldbuilding for its own sake that instead of writing stories, he filled his shed with a bunch of notes (which his son has been trying unsuccessfully to make a complete book from ever since).
It’s the same thing Martin’s trying to do: cover a bland story with a litany of details that don’t contribute meaningfully to his characters, plot, or tone. So, if Martin is good because he is different, then it stands to reason that he’s not very good, because he’s not that different. He may seem different if all someone has read is Tolkien and the authors who ape his style, but that’s just one small corner of a very expansive genre. Anyone who thinks Tolkien is the ‘father of fantasy’ doesn’t know enough about the genre to judge what ‘originality’ means.
So, if Martin neither an homage nor an original, I’m not sure what’s left. In his attempt to set himself apart, he tore out the joyful heart of fantasy, but failed replace it with anything worthwhile. There is no revolutionary voice here, and there is nothing in Martin’s book that has not been done better by other authors.
However, there is one thing Martin has done that no other author has been able to do: kill the longrunning High Fantasy series. According to some friends of mine in publishing (and some amusingly on-the-nose remarks by Caleb Carr in an NPR interview), Martin’s inability to deliver a book on time, combined with his awful relationship with his publisher means that literary agents are no longer accepting manuscripts for high fantasy series–even from recognized authors. Apparently, Martin is so bad at structuring that he actually pre-emptively ruined books by other authors. Perhaps it is true what they say about silver linings . . .
Though I declined to finish this book, I’ll leave you with a caution compiled from various respectable friends of mine who did continue on:
“If you need some kind of closure, avoid this series. No arcs will ever be completed, nothing will ever really change. The tagline is ‘Winter is Coming’–it’s not. As the series goes on, there will be more and more characters and diverging plotlines to keep track of, many of them apparently completely unrelated to each other, even as it increasingly becomes just another cliche, fascist ‘chosen one’ monomyth, like every other fantasy series out there. If you enjoy a grim, really long soap opera with lots of deaths and constant unresolved tension, pick up the series–otherwise, maybe check out the show.”