Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Song of Ice and fire book review

Game of ThronesTo say I’ve arrived late to the George R R Martin party would be an understatement. At their height, I think it’s fair to say these books were as popular as it’s possible to be without crossing out of the genre audience like Harry Potter or (eventually) Ender’s Game did. Fourteen years after the first book, A Game of Thrones, and almost five years since the most recent volume A Feast for Crows was published these are still very popular books. This is really a two-for-one epic, in that by reading it you experience not only the epic storyline, but also participate (albeit as a bit player) in Martin’s epic struggle to actually complete the series. The series is well over a million words in length already, but even more words have been written about it online, so I will dispense with both the plot summary and the recap of Martin’s authorial adventure and instead relate my experience coming to these books in 2010.
I’ll begin by answering the most obvious question: given that I obviously read a fair amount of fantasy, why haven’t I read these before? Some people who had read a lot of my reviews will know that I almost always wait until series are finished before starting them. Although this was prompted in part by lapsed series that never paid off (Chtorr for example), the main concern was time. Whenever a series tells a continuous story, I don’t feel like I’m getting the full effect of the later books unless the preceding stories are fresh on my mind. This led to me reading the first book in a series, then the first book again before the second, then the first two before the third, and so forth. For trilogies this was barely acceptable but as I only have a limited time for reading it becomes quite inefficient for longer series. So I swore off incomplete series right about the time that A Game of Thrones was soaring in popularity.
Clash of KingsBut I’m sure this only raises a further question: why read them now? There are again a couple reasons. The first came when HBO greenlit a TV adaptation of A Game of Thrones. I’m one of those people who goes out of their way to read a novel before its screen adaptation, and I was definitely interested in the HBO series, which struck me as at last the appropriate way to adapt a complicated novel: spending a whole season on it instead of cramming into a movie or even miniseries. Then there was the increasing chance that the series would never in any case be finished. It has grown in projected books faster than Martin has written them, and cruelly Martin himself ages at the same rate as the rest of us regardless of how quickly the series moves forward. Who knows whether he will live to finish it? Even if he does, while I’m considerably younger than Martin, nothing is certain in life and I might not make it that long either. Tolkien founded the modern fantasy genre with a trilogy he said was about death, so I guess it’s only fitting that series like this one and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time have themselves unwittingly become grim memento mori for authors and fans alike.
But the final straw was the feeling that I had already read A Song of Ice and Fire by reading other books. Just as Tolkien spawned countless imitators, Martin is widely credited with sparking a flood of hard-edged, cynical fantasy, and I’ve read my fair share of it. For instance, Wikipedia cites no less than four prominent authors as being heavily influenced and although I wouldn’t call myself extremely well-read I’ve already read all four (Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, and R Scott Bakker). I’ve also read Glen Cook, whose Black Company books are thought to have influenced Martin, and indeed this influence was probably the reason Cook has remained prominent enough for me to seek out his work. I even make comparisons to Martin’s work when reviewing fantasy on this site. Well, not his work itself, but to perceptions of it at least. This is starting to get ridiculous, I told myself. My first real contact with epic fantasy was reading Lord of the Rings, after all. Wasn’t I grateful that I hadn’t first waded through imitators like David Eddings, Robert Jordan, and Tad Williams that, whatever their actual quality, fall short of Tolkien’s masterpiece?
A Storm of SwordsSo I started reading A Game of Thrones for the first time in the position of someone who had never read the series before but thought he had a pretty good idea what it was like. I knew nothing about the plot or characters for I had avoided all such details knowing I would eventually read the books, but from countless asides in conversations with friends and reviews of other books, I primarily associated two attributes with Martin’s work: First, an unromantic approach to fantasy that emphasized intrigue and realism over magic and elevated prose. Second, the implacable and ruthless slaughter of major characters. Beyond that, while I’d heard some criticisms of Martin’s prose and the decision to split the fourth book into A Feast for Crows and an as-yet unpublished fifth book, the overall extremely positive reception of the series made me expect an exciting, even addicting, set of books.
Having now finished the extant series, I can say that despite this apparently detailed foreknowledge, the series Martin wrote was quite a bit different than the one I had expected to read.
Let’s start with the gritty realism. It’s not Martin’s fault, but here my exposure to later writers has probably completely changed my reaction from what it would have been had I read the series as it came out. Plenty of authors have tried to imitate Tolkien’s archaic yet evocative style, yet no one has come close to equaling it. It was reasonable for me to suppose that Martin’s realistic style would work the same way. Reasonable, but wrong, and obviously so in hindsight. Tolkien’s work hasn’t been matched because he was uniquely suited both in temperament and profession to write the way he did. Throwing out the excesses of epic fantasy in favor of gritty realism is not nearly so challenging. In fact, it’s easier than trying to stay the course. It’s no surprise then that Martin’s work was not the apogee of this trend but just another stop along the way. Compared to Joe Abercrombie, just to pick one name out of probably a dozen, Martin seems like a hopeless romantic. It’s interesting that these days the people impressed with Martin’s grit and realism are the people writing about the HBO series (“It’s like the Sopranos in Middle-earth”), since when it comes to epic fantasy in television and movies Lord of the Rings is still very recent and the natural benchmark.
Feast for CrowsThen there’s the character slaughter. For me, the textbook case of this is in the film Serenity. Before that film I have to admit I thought of killing characters as cool and subversive, but afterward I started thinking about how a work of fiction has an unwritten contract with the audience. In some modes, I decided, killing a character might be an effective move while in others it is a betrayal of audience expectations. The fact is, A Song of Ice and Fire does indeed kill off characters, a great deal of them. But contrary to my expectations, I argue that it does not, in fact, kill off major characters. Rather, the reader is understandably mistaken about who is a major character and who is not, for reasons I will get into at length in a moment. So while it’s true there’s a lot more death in Martin’s series than in most fantasy (including many, like Tolkien’s, where theoretically lots of blood is shed yet almost no named characters die), it didn’t nearly live up to its reputation in this respect either, although that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
This leaves the most important issue. Is this the masterpiece of modern fantasy literature that it’s made out to be? No, not even close. I’m genuinely disappointed about this. Like anyone, I sometimes start reading a book or watching a film with some bias one direction or another (for instance, all the hype made me go into The Matrix looking for a fight, so while I didn’t think it was very good, a lot of that reaction is probably my fault), but in this case I was definitely hoping to love these books. For years I’ve checked up on Martin’s progress hoping he’d hurry up and finish so I could find out what the fuss was about. I thought there was a great chance I’d love it, along with certainly some fairly small chance that I’d hate it, or at least strongly dislike it.
I never expected to end up saying: Well, I guess it’s not bad. It’s okay.
The highlight is probably the worldbuilding. Tolkien and his imitators have emphasized the landscapes of their fantasy worlds. Even the Thomas Convenant series, which seemed at first glance like a rejection of everything Tolkien brought to the genre, spent a lot of its time (and won a lot of its fans, I suspect) on landscapes. Although there are some maps to be found of Westeros and its surrounding countries, Martin’s efforts in geographical construction and detail are merely adequate. Instead, more than any author I can recall, he has constructed a social landscape. Looking now at a map of Westeros, the names of cities, rivers, and castles bring to mind the characters who live in or near them. I can’t really tell you anything about what Casterly Rock looks like, for example, but just mentioning it evokes the wealth of detail that Martin has invested in the Lannister family and the twists and turns of their fortunes. The Lannisters are perhaps the series’ most prominent family, but by the end of the fourth book well over a dozen noble families have been sketched out in impressive detail. The variety in personality, character, and history is impressive and gives Martin’s Westeros a different and possibly greater sense of solidity than the traditional naturalistic approach.
The other aspects of the world are considerably weaker. The society seems reasonable enough, but various references to the ancient past ask us to believe that technology levels have been roughly unchanged for thousands of years, and further that not just one but almost every society is historically self-aware of their progression throughout this time. Each of the four seasons lasts for years, but after the first book it is hardly mentioned and I frankly almost forgot about it. Agriculture and economic planning don’t seem to be any different from generic feudal despite this massive climatological difference.
Although initially confined to a few children, the series rapidly expands to encompass a large set of viewpoint characters, and this works better than in most pluralistic narratives, probably because Martin is more willing to kill off minor characters and thus prevent his cast from becoming too unwieldy at least until the fourth book. After a seemingly good guy/bad guy approach, Martin shades in a surprising degree of nuance as the series progresses. That Tyrion would be a fan favorite character was obvious from the start, but I was particularly impressed by the handling of Jaime Lannister. Not every character is a success, to be sure (if I never read anything more from Cersei’s viewpoint I won’t complain) but I don’t have many complaints with the characterization. Except for the youngest, the Stark children all act about five years older than they actually are, but that’s par for the course (I’m looking at you, Ender’s Game).
Then there’s the plot. Ah, the plot. Goodness. Where to begin?
I think most of the series’ fans would point at the plot as being its strength. I can see why they might like it, but I’m going to call it a disaster. Oh, it’s not an unmitigated failure, but a tragic one, for there’s a good story somewhere in all this quicksand trying to claw its way out. It pulls the reader in, keeps them going through the four massive books that have been published so far, and amounts to nothing. To understand this, think about just what it is this series is about.
You see, in the prologue of A Game of Thrones, some throwaway characters venture past a great wall to patrol the wilderness of the far north. For millennia, we learn, the Night’s Watch has manned this wall against evil, but for long centuries this threat has been dormant, the people shielded by the wall have become decadent, and the Watch is now too weak to reliably stand against bandits, much less a terrifying supernatural evil. But now there are signs that evil might be stirring! Kill the throwaways and bam, cut to chapter one. I think it’s safe to call this an extremely conventional way to begin a fantasy novel. The ur-epic fantasy, Lord of the Rings begins with the shadow of the past stirring once more, and its Mordor was once carefully guarded before its watchers became lax. Since then thousands of fantasy books have begun this way, and I have read dozens of them, as have most of Martin’s audience. But I don’t think any of those books took Martin’s approach to developing this story in the rest of the first book: never mention it again in any way.
All right, that’s a slight exaggeration, but not by much. He spends more time on Daenerys, a young princess in exile who must overcome all manner of obstacles both internal and external before she can start walking down the road toward reclaiming her throne, but this well-worn storyline is also strictly a sideline item. The second book, A Clash of Kings, even spends a little time on a King who is increasingly led down dark paths by a foreign sorceress, but this too gets only a little space in the ongoing story. Any one of these stories, properly developed, would be enough for a fantasy novel and probably an entire trilogy. Incorporating them all would definitely make for a lively fantasy series. Mind you, anyone who has read a reasonable amount of fantasy can sketch out roughly how these stories will evolve. For example, although a few people sound the alarm most deny the existence of the ancient evil despite increasingly clear evidence, then it sweeps down and everyone is very sorry they didn’t listen earlier, and it seems like it is too late and all civilization will perish, but just at the bleakest moment some enterprising individuals manage to win an unlikely victory. Despite his reputation as an innovator, Martin doesn’t appear to be deviating from the standard storyline here. Yet by the end of the fourth book, after 1.3 million words and nine years, the ancient evil has only just begun to sweep anywhere, and the other plotlines are even further behind. And no wonder: I don’t know how much of all those words went into developing them but I think fifteen percent would be a very generous guess.
Instead, most of the series has been devoted to the titular game of thrones as countless nobles struggle for power in Westeros. Unlike the plotlines I just described, this main thread does not follow normal conventions. It is almost completely without structure. Events happen one after another without any kind of cohesion. It’s not that they don’t make sense…everything seems fairly logical and Martin proves to be a very inventive spinner of intrigue and conspiracy. Yet this all proceeds outside of the narrative structure that has characterized western literature for centuries. There is no development, there is no sense of progression of any kind, there is no climax. It’s the plot equivalent of someone banging an endless series of chords, each unrelated to the next, on a piano. Now I readily admit to being far more interested in the way stories are constructed than the average reader, but I think this has many important downsides even for those who aren’t consciously aware of the dissonance.
What was immediately noticeable to readers of the first book in 1996 was the way they had no idea what was coming next. Why should they? Long experience has taught us how plots work in almost all fiction, but here was a book that was resolute in ignoring these conventions. To be sure, the immediate result is a fairly refreshing feeling of suspense. But these narrative conventions exist for a reason. Although A Feast for Crows has other shortcomings, I think one of the biggest reasons it wasn’t as well received as the first three books was that without a sense of where the narrative is going, the reader doesn’t feel any momentum. Since there’s no plotline developing and advancing towards a climax, the reader realizes there’s no reason why the intrigue surrounding the throne of Westeros can’t go on indefinitely. And if the plot goes on indefinitely, then the individual events are completely deprived of meaning. In particular, one realizes that the characters can’t win any victory that won’t just be undone by further events two hundred pages later, so why bother rooting for them at all? When all is said and done, whoever is left standing in the ruins of Westeros will be swept aside by Daenerys and Jon Snow as they confront the evil out of the north, so isn’t this something of a waste of time?
Incidentally, I believe this was also how Martin got the reputation as a killer of main characters. Floating in a vacuum of story, readers latched on to what they assumed were main characters only to have them unexpectedly swept aside. Initially, Eddard Stark and his son Robb seemed like central characters, yet with the benefit of hindsight even from a position only halfway through the series, it’s obvious they are bit players. In a typically sized fantasy novel, they’d have a page or two of screen time. In fact, the actual main characters of the story, like Daenerys, are just as bulletproof as any normal story’s protagonists.
The unpredictable and unstructured nature of the central plotline has a literal realism to it and I’m tempted to see it as a bold artistic statement on Martin’s part, but alas all the evidence points to this being an unintended effect. This was originally supposed to be a trilogy, after all, but has defied every prediction its own author made regarding its eventual length and publication schedule. Martin surely was writing a conventional fantasy novel about an ancient evil and an exiled princess but somehow got distracted by what probably was summed up in some original one page outline in about one sentence (“Westeros monarchy weakened by infighting and succession problems”). Having fallen in love with what was supposed to be a bit of window dressing, he has continually expanded its role within the series even though it threatens to completely drown out what the series was supposed to be about in the first place. Is it any wonder that he has suffered from the contemporary genre’s most famous case of writer’s block? I’m sure that long ago he planned what would happen to Daenerys and the Night’s Watch, but now he feels obligated to give equal time to characters like Brienne who are likable yet serve little purpose to the central narrative and are instead dragged through increasingly arbitrary make-work scenes to keep them available for some later bit of relevance.
Although I’ve been critical, I will defend Martin of one charge frequently lobbed at fantasy authors. I don’t think he’s stretching things out to make more money. The typical pattern for fantasy series is to start out with an exciting and action packed first book and then to become ever more bogged down in extra viewpoint characters and minutiae. Although it’s true A Feast for Crows is somewhat bogged down like this, really Martin deeply invests himself in the minutiae right from the start, and even the fourth book moves at a faster clip than typical doorstop fantasy. Likewise, where typical slow fantasy seems to get stuck always approaching but never reaching some critical point, Martin blasts through critical points all the time. The central plotline is a meat grinder that constantly chews up minor characters, spits them out, then pulls in more. If there’s a record for the fictional work that kills the most named characters then this series is right up there with the Iliad.
I’m glad I read A Song of Ice and Fire but less because of the story itself and more because I find it interesting how unbalanced the story is. On one hand, it’s probably a testament to how a work that does one or two things really well can become extremely popular even if it does other things very poorly. Writing about Wheel of Time, Adam Roberts attributed some of its popularity to “fans who want to know every atom of the imagined world” and I think something similar is at work here. On the other hand, I think that the series’ weaknesses get magnified as the story goes on even if the quality of the books remains constant, leading me to suspect the series will never be again be as popular as it was when A Storm of Swords came out. Unfortunately for Martin, I think the series will only get harder and harder for him to write as he tries to provide some sort of climax and closure that justifies the endless profusion of aimless detail he’s provided so far. I’m even a lot more skeptical that HBO can successfully translate it into an effective television show, although being forced to provide an abridged version might end up being beneficial.
Hopefully I’m wrong and Martin eventually manages to both finish the series and somehow produce a satisfying second half in the process, but I won’t be holding my breath. Fortunately, looking back at the writers bearing Martin’s influence who I mentioned before, it seems like they have each taken something good about the series, amplified it, and then coupled that with a more conventional narrative structure (“conventional narrative” sure sounds like an insult, but that’s why reading Martin has been so helpful…breaking convention is a risky thing). Even if I never read any more of this series (the most likely possibility I’m afraid) I will at least be able to read other books that continue down the trail Martin blazed.

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