A Dance with Dragons by George R R Martin

August 10, 2011 at 12:26 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 16 Comments

A Dance with Dragons coverIf you’re wondering whether you should read A Dance with Dragons, it’s an unusually simple call. If you’re one of the many who love the series, not only should you read A Dance with Dragons, you presumably already have. If you thought the series was too sprawling or wasn’t moving fast enough, my prediction is that nothing in this book will change your mind. If you’ve never read the series and want to know what the fuss is about, feel free to give Game of Thrones a try (or its excellent HBO adaptation), but be aware this is a story that won’t be finished until 2015 at the very minimum (2020 or even later would probably be a safer bet).

Having dispensed with the easy part, let’s turn to specifics that the spoiler-averse will want to avoid. Looking around online, there are plenty of fans who are very pleased with the book, but among those less positive the main criticism seems to be that “not enough happens”. It’s true that some characters spend a very long part of the book traveling, but I would revise this complaint to: “The important things don’t happen.” To really understand why some people, and I am one of them, feel this way we have to go back to something I talked about in my commentary on the first four books and split the series into two stories, the fantasy story and the political story.

“When dead men come hunting in the night, do you think it matters who sits the Iron Throne?”  — Lord Commander Mormont, Game of Thrones

The prologue of Game of Thrones suggests we are reading a narrative that is based on a struggle with an adversary. In this case, that adversary is the supernatural evil represented by the Others. This is a very traditional story in fantasy, going back at least to Lord of the Rings, and it has a very familiar outline:

  • Evil rises in a remote corner of the world
  • Many refuse to believe evil has returned, or indeed that it was anything more than a legend to begin with
  • But our heroes are wiser, and do their best to prepare and oppose it
  • Though at first the evil acts principally in secret, but it becomes stronger and then bolder
  • Finally evil declares itself in earnest, and those who scoffed now beg the heroes for help
  • But it’s (nearly) too late as the seemingly unstoppable forces of evil crush all who oppose them
  • At the very brink of defeat, the heroes achieve an unlikely victory at great cost

After reading A Feast for Crows I commented that somehow after four books Martin had only managed to get through the second bullet. Well, thanks to the Jon Snow section of A Dance with Dragons, we have now reached the third bullet. Perhaps even the fourth. That’s progress, I suppose. Despite Martin’s reputation for unpredictability, Jon Snow’s desperate preparations throughout Dance are clearly leading to some sort of disaster, and sure enough that’s what happens. There’s nothing wrong with these scenes, and indeed Jon’s execution of Slynt was one of the novel’s high points. But surely no one reading the book thinks that the Night’s Watch has a prayer of actually holding the Wall against the Others? The logic of these stories demands that the Wall, and therefore the Night’s Watch, must be broken, and the wights and Others must march south to teach those who didn’t listen to Jon and Mormont before him to be sorry. Since the biggest culprits are some of the farthest away, the white walkers have a lot of walking ahead of them. Meanwhile, by this point it’s obvious that Martin wants to emphasize the way squabbling over the Iron Throne is dooming Westeros, so it’s fitting that squabbling among the Night’s Watch will doom them in particular.

I admit that I didn’t expect things to start coming apart quite how they did, but frankly I don’t understand why Jon thought it was a good idea to stand up and announce he was breaking his vows. He spent hours planning with Tormund before that speech, so it wasn’t in the heat of the moment. And while maybe, maybe, Jon “We must stop the Others at all costs” Snow might be baited into going south because of Arya, why would the Night’s Watch want to help him? Why not send some wildlings who’ve sworn no vows? They seem quite loyal to Mance. Oh well. I assume this oathbreaking was the cause of the Ides of March business, and I have to say I can see exactly where Marsh was coming from.

The author is certainly very much on Jon’s side. Marsh is portrayed as a bigot too close-minded to see the existential threat posed by the Others even though it’s staring him in the face, unlike the wise Jon Snow (who, incidentally, is only, what, sixteen?). It was only after I finished the novel that I realized there are much better arguments for Marsh’s position than he makes. The Wall wasn’t built to keep out wildlings, Jon says, and in so doing he implies that by defending the Wall against them for Marsh’s lifetime and the thousand years or more before that (Other-free years, by the way) the Night’s Watch was just passing time. Who’s to say that the Others are going to march south? Jon assumes that the dead will rise in ever greater numbers, forming an army that only a perfectly disciplined and prepared Night’s Watch can hold back, but what is his evidence? His best source on this is Melisandre’s apocalypticism, but he doesn’t believe anything she says for much of the book, time he spends desperately preparing. The wildlings, far more knowledgeable about the Others and certainly plenty scared, seem to think that if they can just get far enough south to be able to find something to eat, they’ll be fine. Back when it was thought Mance really did have the Horn of Winter, Jon might have had a good argument that by not using it, Mance proved he knew the Others were coming, but in Dance Tormund says they would have blown it if they could. But no matter what anyone says, as readers we know this is a fantasy story, so Jon is right, and Bowen Marsh is wrong. And until we get closer to the ending, the Bowen Marshes of the story must carry the day.

There’s not much else to say about the fantasy story because not much else happens. When I first read Clash of Kings I was surprised that Melisandre, whose fire religion seemed to make her a natural enemy of the ancient evil in the far north, seemed thoroughly evil herself. That turns out to have been something of a feint, however, and she’s been steadily more sympathetic ever since, culminating in the Dance chapter told from her perspective. She seems to have been strictly on the side of good all along, she’s just got a ruthless pragmatism and some confusion about the meaning of her prophecies. That makes her a more interesting character than the evil sorceress of Clash of Kings, but it makes the overall story somewhat less interesting. The religions all seem to be wrong, which is a bit of a twist, but otherwise things seem very traditional: good guys, ancient evil, prophecies of heroes, and so forth. Personally, I’m not fond of prophecies, but I guess they come part and parcel with the increasing prominence of fantasy elements in the story. This has been a slow build throughout the series, but the fantasy story’s other thread, the Bran chapters, have are now indistinguishable from normal genre fantasy. I have no idea what HBO will do with this material if they ever get to this point. On the page it seems like a pretty standard take on animal links, elves, and nature magic. All right, but a little bland by genre standards. On screen, even with HBO’s budget, I suspect it will look ridiculous. Apparently people who read Martin’s Dunk and Egg novellas found the identity of the three eyed crow to be interesting, but I hadn’t read them, so it meant nothing. Making matters worse, as I’ve mentioned in the past I have an allergy to magical training scenes, so for me Bran’s chapters were a complete dud.

So much for the fantasy story, but as many people told me last year, it’s the political story that keeps them reading the series. This story has the virtue of actually being told, even though Dance has done nothing to dissuade me from my belief that Mormont is correct in the above quote and it’s the fantasy story that matters. But for all its byzantine complexity and endless detail, I was just as impatient with the pace of the narrative in Dance as I was reading A Feast for Crows.

To try to explain this reaction, I’ll have to go back to the series’ structure. At first, the political story is another adversarial narrative in which the Starks and others loyal to the king must stop the conniving Lannisters. The presence of a sympathetic Daenerys who regards the Starks and their king as traitors and usurpers complicates this from the start, and by the climax of Clash of Kings it’s basically out the window as the reader simultaneously roots for Tyrion and Davos on opposite sides of a battle to decide who controls the Iron Throne while Robb Stark is hundreds of miles away doing something or other off screen. If there was any doubt, the Red Wedding ended it.

When I was writing last year, I said the main characters were Daenerys, Tyrion, and Jon Snow, and that the shocking twists and character deaths weren’t so shocking when viewed through this lens. What I was getting at, but not quite putting my finger on, was that although the political side of Game of Thrones seems to be about fighting the Lannister’s usurpation of the throne, the series is actually about restoring the Targaryen dynasty. In such a story, obviously it’s the Targaryens (Daenerys and Jon Snow) who are the protagonists. To this was added Tyrion, because he is cool. I thought the way Dance positions Tyrion as a dragon expert was a little convenient, but I guess this was adequately set up in the previous books, and if short people make the best jockeys it’s reasonable to assume they make the best dragon riders as well. There’s an argument to be made for Tyrion being a Targaryen bastard, incidentally, but this would be such a misstep I refuse to believe it (it explains Tywin’s hostility, but it also cheapens it enormously, and there’s already way too many crypto-bastards in this series).

However, any Targaryen restoration must wait until near the end of the series. In the meantime, the story creates tension principally through the separation of characters. Daenerys is separated from Westeros, of course, but also the Stark children are separated from their mother and each other. The Starks all want to reunite, and because we like them we want to see them do it, so we feel tension until it happens. Well, it still hasn’t happened, and that in turn contributes to the feeling that the series is wandering aimlessly. This brings us back to the series’ unpredictability. The reader is waiting for these things to happen, yet other things happen instead. When the series works, it’s because these other things also capture our interest. When they don’t, the cost on the reading experience can be high. One of Feast for Crows‘ problems was that it introduced a separation between Brienne and Sansa that was only minimally justified in terms of Brienne’s motivation, seemed unlikely in the extreme to resolve just based on what Breinne’s information (Brienne actually finding Sansa by randomly asking people would have been absurd), and worst of all, with the reader’s superior knowledge it was evident it could not resolve because Brienne was never even remotely close to the right place. Even on a first reading, it was obviously a pointless exercise. Now, strictly speaking there was a point, but one outside the narrative: Brienne, like Arya before her, was unknowingly giving readers a tour of the ruined countryside so we could see how both the warfare and the resulting anarchy was devastating the common people. Without a good enough in-narrative justification, this ended up being a lifeless and academic exercise.

I believe this tension issue is the big reason why I enjoyed rereading the series, even Feast for Crows, more than when I read it the first time. Knowing ahead of time that none of the natural tensions were going to resolve, I was able to focus on what does resolve, movement along arcs that are only evident in hindsight: Tyrion toward his confrontation with his father, Cersei toward her arrest, Catelyn and Robb toward the Red Wedding, etc. However, it’s important to emphasize that Martin hasn’t truly subverted reader expectations, he’s merely delayed their gratification. Daenerys will go to Westeros and the Stark children will reunite (except poor Robb, anyway). This is difficult because our minds are accustomed to resolutions that happen in about a hundred thousand words, not two million (and series that end in a couple years, not decades). This is an example of how the huge length of the series distorts the reading experience.

A Dance with Dragons suffers greatly from this distortion. It continues the separations of Bran and Arya while also introducing more as various characters try to reach Daenerys and Stannis goes to fight Bolton. That none of these separations (except the ill-fated Quentin’s attempt to reach Daenerys) end within the confines of the novel has caused a lot of complaints. With Daenerys literally out in the wilderness away from everyone else, the book ends having introduced still more tension than it resolved. Apparently it was coordinating the approach of these various characters that gave Martin problems over the past ten years, but we’ll have to wait for the next book to really see what it is he’s trying to do. I wanted Tyrion, Quentin, Victarion, and Aegon to all arrive, meet Daenerys at the same time, and get to play off each other, but perhaps Martin has a better idea.

Beyond the characters moving slowly around Slaver’s Bay, A Dance with Dragons also sets up two key questions: what should Daenerys do about Meereen, and what should she do about her dragons? The first question is repeatedly posed and never answered, for nothing gets resolved about Meereen despite a huge number of scenes set there. Meereen, it must be said, is not nearly as impressive a creation as Westeros. Martin apparently wanted to tell a story about knights, so I suppose it’s not surprising that the city which is probably the series’ furthest point geographically, culturally, and narratively from Westeros seems the least inspired. But beyond the confusing names of characters and a political situation told in summary rather than the series’ characteristic detail, the actual story struck me as far less convincing than the degeneration of Westeros that Martin has spent so much time portraying. Daenerys spends the novel helpless in the face of what seemed like the anachronistic insurgency of the Sons of the Harpy. Not only does this sort of guerrilla warfare seem difficult to do properly without guns and explosives available to kill from distance, it’s carried out by the wealthy, which goes against everything I know about how this sort of thing works. I’m not an expert, but in these circumstances the wealthy are easy to defeat because they have something to lose: property, trade, and other assets. Daenerys has the backing of the common people, so even if she doesn’t have the stomach to storm the enclaves of the rich, the insurgents shouldn’t be able to operate among a hostile population. Toward the end of the book, it’s claimed that the untamed dragons have turned the common people against her, but I find this hard to credit, and even if it’s true, it doesn’t happen until the Sons of the Harpy have already forced significant concessions (i.e. her marriage). As for the other major question, how to deal with the dragons, Drogon’s arrival at the arena is my pick for the novel’s best scene, but it proves only a further complication. At the end of the novel, the dragons are anything but settled and Daenerys seems farther than ever from achieving her goals in Meereen or Westeros.

Back when the TV show Lost was airing, fans contemptuously referred to this practice as asking questions without answering the ones already posed. I say this by way of analogy, because most fans engaged with Lost in terms of the knowledge it withheld, not the action of the plot (the hermeneutic code, not the the proairetic code, to use the technical terms). A Song of Ice and Fire has some actual questions of this kind (Jon Snow’s parentage, the identity of Coldhands, the prophecies, and so forth) but they are on the sidelines for hardcore fans to debate while they wait for more books to be written. I think it’s a useful analogy, though, because as a six season TV series with a continuous story, Lost had to face many of the same structural challenges that A Song of Ice and Fire faces now, challenges comparatively shorter works like Lord of the Rings did not. It’s worth noting that like A Song of Ice and Fire, Lost built most of its tension of action out of the separation of characters, to the point it was criticized with some justification for being a show whose characters were continually journeying between the same five or ten destinations. Many people have observed that watching Lost episodes as they aired was a very different experience than blowing through the episodes on DVD, and I think it’s clear why: each time an episode of Lost ended, viewers had a week or more to reflect on how the show hadn’t yet answered the questions they cared about. Many readers who finish A Dance with Dragons today will think about how most of what they hoped to see happen still lies in the future, and they’ll have to think about that not for a week or even a year, but however long it takes for Martin to write the next book. I don’t want to make too much of this analogy, because part of the agony of watching Lost was enduring the suspicion that the answers to its many questions were being withheld because there were no answers (and, indeed, this proved to be the case). I have never doubted that there is an ending out there to A Song of Ice and Fire, so this is a case merely of (very) delayed gratification (unless Martin dies, that is).

In light of this caveat, it would be easy to dismiss these criticisms as the inevitable result of reviewing a piece of a story rather than the whole thing, and as my usual policy of reviewing a series all at once should indicate, I’m largely sympathetic to this view. It was something Martin himself said that made me reconsider.

You know, one of the things you learn when you are working for network television, the importance of the act to break because unlike HBO, network TV requires people to come back after the commercial. So you know, you always want to have an act break that it’s a moment of revelation, a twist, a moment of tension, a cliff hanger what it is, but each act has to go out on something, you know.  — George R. R. Martin, in a recent interview with Time Magazine

What Martin seems to be saying is that a storyteller should take the medium into account. If A Song of Ice and Fire were all one book, none of this would matter. But it’s not all one book, even though in 2030 people may read it as though it were. Certainly few authors can be more conscious of reader expectations than Martin after the reception of Feast for Crows. Once again, the Lost analogy is instructive, because despite its many faults, it always had extremely strong season finales (the season finale being the equivalent of the end of a novel). They raised plenty of questions and served as enormous cliffhangers, but in terms of their action they always felt like climaxes that paid off the narrative weight of the preceding season. The concluding chapters of A Dance with Dragons don’t have anything like this effect. Aegon lands on Westeros, Jon is betrayed, Selmy betrays the King, and Tyrion signs up with the Second Sons. But these events, important though they may be, aren’t sufficiently weighty to be satisfying. We’ve never met Aegon before this book and his rapid trip to Westeros just rubs in how long Daenerys is taking, that Jon Snow would fail to control the Night’s Watch was obvious throughout the book, Selmy is a very likable guy but Daenerys’ husband doesn’t matter, and while Tyrion getting in a position to make a difference again was nice, what I wanted was for him to meet Daenerys. Considering that unlike Lost this is a story based on action, not revelation, and especially given that Martin has considerable leeway on the length of the novels, I don’t think asking for a better climax is unreasonable. Perhaps the story he’s telling simply cannot be parceled out into satisfying chunks anywhere between one and four hundred thousand words without grossly weakening it. It’s impossible to say until the series is finished, but I’m skeptical.

Having ventured this criticism, it’s worth spending a moment to think about how the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones restructured the storyline. Abigail Nussbaum thinks rather less of Game of Thrones the novel than I do, but she makes an interesting point when she says the novel is a YA story about the Stark children whereas the HBO show is an adult story about Ned Stark. I’m not totally convinced about the novel, since taken together Ned Stark’s viewpoint chapters are longer than any other character’s (18.5% of the novel) and, together with Catelyn, the Stark parents have a third of the novel, only slightly less than the children. But statistics aside, the HBO show necessarily marginalizes the children, especially Bran and Arya, and Ned Stark is the beneficiary of the extra attention. The result is a fairly straightforward story: Ned Stark goes against the Lannisters and loses. The climax comes at the very end of the ninth episode while the last episode serves as a coda to set up the second season, even to the point of including a few scenes from Clash of Kings. By comparison, Daenerys’ story, almost completely independent from Ned Stark’s, has its climax at the very end as it does in the novel.

I never read Game of Thrones on its own so I can’t say how different it felt to read just that novel, but I think the HBO show has a more satisfying structure. What the show will do with the later books, I have no idea. Clash of Kings features Tyrion even more prominently than Game of Thrones features Ned Stark, and has the battle at King’s Landing as a grand climax to Tyrion’s efforts to defend the city, but from there the scope broadens the climaxes get harder to find.

In a novel this large, there’s inevitably a lot more going on than what I’ve mentioned so far. I thought that Dance would have a big leg up on its predecessor just because it had those I allege to be the three main characters (who are also the most sympathetic, generally), but Tyrion, Daenerys, and Jon turned out to have some of the least effective chapters. Tyrion is mostly passive, Daenerys is mostly passive and in the throes of an inexplicable crush on the deeply unlikeable Daario, and while Jon at least works diligently, it’s in service to what is clearly a lost cause. Thankfully the new characters punched above their weight. Barristan Selmy and Jon Connington had interesting perspectives, and watching Wyman Manderly, a previously insignificant character, scheme against the preposterously evil Boltons was more fun than it had any right to be. I could have done with less of all the Reek business, it’s true. All right, I could have done with a lot less, but that’s mostly down to taste. I’m rarely impressed by psychologically damaged characters in fiction unless I have some reason to think the author is especially qualified to understand mental dysfunction. If I have to trudge through page after page of a depraved viewpoint, it seems to me I ought to at least be able to learn something from it. I feel the same way about Arya’s assassin training. That is, unconvinced there’s any psychological fire under all this smoke. But in a story otherwise full of ambiguity, having the Boltons as Gregor Clegane-style monsters to root against was surprisingly refreshing, no matter how the material was presented.

That’s how it goes with sprawling stories like this: which characters and subplots interest you inevitably comes down at least in part to personal taste. Once the series is complete, readers will have the luxury of skimming through chapters they’re not as interested in to get back to whatever they consider “the good parts”, but for now the speed at which the story moves is up to Martin. It’s easy to wish for more editing, but the Manderly subplot is an example of something that is surely completely extraneous to the overall story being told and thus a strong candidate for removal. I suppose the main difference between myself and the series’ big fans may just be where we draw the line in terms of interest.

To the people who have spent years fighting in the trenches of Internet forums over the merits of this series, I’m sure that sounds like a pretty mealy-mouthed way to conclude, but I really do think a lot of this is subjective. It’s great that some people like every part of these books, but I don’t…and yet, I like enough of them to keep reading, and I’ll get in line whenever the next book is released. In the meantime, I’ll keep wondering if this wouldn’t be a lot more effective if it were shorter, and thanks to HBO we may even find out the answer.

Cliffs Notes: HBO’s Game of Thrones

July 19, 2011 at 2:32 am | Posted in Television | 15 Comments
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I have gotten letters over the years from readers who don’t like the sex, they say it’s “gratuitous.” I think that word gets thrown around and what it seems to mean is “I didn’t like it.” This person didn’t want to read it, so it’s gratuitous to that person. And if I’m guilty of having gratuitous sex, then I’m also guilty of having gratuitous violence, and gratuitous feasting, and gratuitous description of clothes, and gratuitous heraldry, because very little of this is necessary to advance the plot. But my philosophy is that plot advancement is not what the experience of reading fiction is about. If all we care about is advancing the plot, why read novels? We can just read Cliffs Notes. — George R. R. Martin, in an interview with The Atlantic

In the above quote Martin saved me a lot of effort by eloquently summing up his approach to A Song of Ice and Fire, though he might have mentioned that with Game of Thrones, at least, we can watch Cliffs Notes instead of just read them. Rereading the novel a few days ago took me just over twelve hours. I read fast, if not extraordinarily so, and I’m comfortable saying based on my experience that for the vast majority of people, the experience of spending ten hours or so to watch the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones will be faster and easier than reading the book. As is inevitable with this sort of adaptation, there’s quite a bit of material from the novel that doesn’t make it into the show. I’m not sure if there’s any less sex on balance, but there’s somewhat less violence and considerably less feasting, clothes, and heraldry. In fact, one might fairly accuse the show of, well, cutting out everything that doesn’t advance the plot.  Is Martin arguing here that the show is inevitably bad?

Obviously not. I don’t think it will be news to anyone reading this that HBO’s first season has been very well received by both the avid fans of the books and those completely unfamiliar with the source material. I was somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, having read the first four books of the series last year and come away with some reservations, but I found myself enjoying the show far more than I expected. So much so that, rather than read Adam Whitehead’s summaries to refresh my memory before reading A Dance With Dragons as I had originally planned, I decided to actually go back and revisit at least the novel Game of Thrones to better compare it with the show.  Having liked the show better than my first reading, I found I actually liked my second reading of the novel better than watching the show. A surprising but pleasing turn of events, except that now I have to try to explain this.

Martin provides a clue in the quote above. “If all we care about is advancing the plot, why read novels?” he asks. Well, is plot the only reason we watch television shows? As I’ve already noted, HBO’s adaptation necessarily subtracts the novel’s “gratuitous” feasting, clothes, and heraldry, leaving just the plot.  But adaptation is not merely subtractive. The show adds acting, set design, and music (to name just three of many things) to the plot it takes from the novels. Being a lavish HBO production, and what’s on screen is all the more lavish because the show saves money by omitting some things we’ve come to expect from fantasy adaptations (I’ll get to that in a second), all these are excellent. Seen in this light, my experience makes more sense. Having read the novel already helped me enjoy the show more, since it saved me from having to learn the characters in the first few episodes and dignified the smaller players with backstories the show didn’t have time to cover, and having seen the show helped me enjoy the book more, as my imagination incorporated the show’s excellent performances and visual design.

This view of two different versions of a work as mutually reinforcing, by the way, helps explain why some prefer one medium or another to be their first experience.  Over the past decade of Harry Potter films, I had friends who set out to read the books before seeing the films as well as other friends who did the precise opposite. This is partly explainable in terms of which heightening effects each preferred, though a complete explanation would also have to say something about the different forms of suspense that come from encountering a story for the first time in prose or visual media.

HBO had already greenlit the first season when I first read Game of Thrones (indeed, that was one of my reasons for doing so) and while reading it I was trying to keep a figurative eye out for particularly visual scenes. I was surprised to find the story rather lacking in this regard, and I wondered whether this would hurt the adaptation. To briefly explain what I mean by “particularly visual scene”, in the run-up to the Lord of the Rings movies there were a number of scenes I was really excited to see realized in live action, scenes like the flight to the ford and the bridge of Khazad-dum, for instance. I thought Peter Jackson did a good job with some of these moments and a disappointing or even disastrous job with others, but he never lacked for effort.  His worst failures, in fact, were usually through overdoing it.  It’s not enough that Sam joins Frodo at the end of Fellowship of the Ring, he has to almost drown trying to do it. It’s not enough that Gandalf advances on Theoden and cures him, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli have to beat up a bunch of extras while he does so.

It was these crescendos I was looking for while reading Game of Thrones, but I didn’t find them. Partly this may be explained by diminished investment: I loved Lord of the Rings, I only liked Game of Thrones. But despite my best efforts at objectivity, the only scene that struck me as one that would play with intensity on the screen was the flashback to the investment of King’s Landing, when Eddard Stark lead his men into the throne room on horseback and found Jaime Lannister on the Iron Throne. The HBO series didn’t even bother filming this scene…so much for my directorial eye! (Although, in my defense, I contend they would have shown it if the limitations of de-aging effects hadn’t made them eschew flashbacks entirely.) But given I enjoyed the series anyway, was I wrong? Peter Jackson dug up some genuinely effective dramatic moments of Lord of the Rings I hadn’t noticed in many rereads, after all. Did the show do the same for Game of Thrones?

Well, not really.  There’s a case to be made for some of the scenes that end the episodes, like Bran at the window or the final moment with Daenerys, but I would argue that the show really doesn’t have these moments. The thing is, it works just fine without them.  Hollywood in general and the Lord of the Rings movies in particular have trained me to expect that kind of heightened (detractors would say melodramatic) visual punctuation, but Game of Thrones isn’t that kind of story. The action of politics is in conversation, not epic showdowns, and (for now at least) this is a political story first and a fantasy story second. Rather than try to inject drama into scenes that didn’t previously have it, the show is confident enough to stick to a straightforward depiction in almost every case. One imagines that Peter Jackson would have filmed Jon Snow’s brief departure from the Night’s Watch as involving a five minute chase scene on horseback ending with Samwell making a horse-to-horse diving tackle of Jon, then one or both of them temporarily appearing to have died from the ensuing fall. Jamie Lannister’s swordfight with Ned Stark, which adds a bit more action at the cost of making the entire sequence of events incomprehensible, is probably the one exception. This confidence in the characters and the plot pays off handsomely, thanks in large part to the actors.

While the cadence of the show is derived from the story it’s telling, I suspect other elements from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings visual toolbox are missing more because of budget. Swooping helicopter shots of castles and traveling groups of people, even if overused in Jackson’s trilogy, would given the sense of scale and landscape that the show’s credits sequence could not, no matter how beautiful it was. The show was also plainly unable to muster the extra or effects for large crowd shots and battle scenes, and the visual and narrative tricks used to sidestep these limitations only go so far. That said, if helicopter shots and battle scenes are the price of getting ten hours instead of the three or so we’d get from a big budget movie, that’s a bargain.

As successful as the first season is, I do have some concerns for future seasons (which I will discuss generally so as not to spoil anyone). Any time you telescope a story from the novel format (and Game of Thrones is about three times as long as the typical novel) character nuances are going to be lost. The television show’s Tyrion, for example, is something of a caricature of the novel’s. Tyrion is witty, and with relatively few lines to work with, everything that comes out of his mouth in the show must be a joke of some sort, save one or two Character Revealing Scenes. In this Tyrion gets off easy compared to Littlefinger, whose true motives in the novel are revealed slowly and in parsimonious little details, but on the show these get lost in the background, so he must completely depart from character to monologue everything about his inner self to two strangers. But far more troubling are the characters who are going to be important in the second and third seasons but who get inadequate emphasis in the first. The huge abbreviation of the Hand’s tournament means the Clegane brothers and Loras Tyrell remain ciphers, for example. Most worryingly, almost no information is provided about Jaime Lannister except his relationship with his sister. There’s no sense he’s particularly talented in combat, nor is it clear what he gave up by joining the Kingsguard. I suppose it’s really the third book where this becomes important, so there’s still time, but the story in Clash of Kings doesn’t give Jaime very much to do.

Perhaps I’m overestimating the importance of this sort of setting up, even if it’s one of the things the novel does very well. We don’t learn much more about Beric Dondarrion in the novel than we do in the television show and that wasn’t a huge problem, I suppose. Perhaps all that is just more so-called gratuitous detail from the novel, like the clothes, feasting, and heraldry. We’ll find out in a year, but in the meantime I’m off to see if A Dance With Dragons will live up to my suddenly increased expectations.

A Song of Ice and Fire: Further Thoughts

August 18, 2010 at 5:16 am | Posted in Essays | 37 Comments

Recently Charlie Jane Anders on io9 linked to my thoughts about the first four books in A Song of Ice and Fire, pairing them with a Martin fan’s discussion of Martin’s writing issues. There’s been a pretty vigorous discussion there as well some interesting comments here, and since I don’t have time to reply to everything individually I thought I’d make a follow up post here. Before I get into the objections some people have raised, I want to make sure a few things are clear.

Unlike some I’m not criticizing Martin for the series’ delays. Writing fiction is hard enough and writing series fiction may be the hardest kind because no one lives long enough to get a lot of experience at doing it. JRR Tolkien, to take just one example, had enormous difficulties writing Lord of the Rings and spent fifteen years in a failed effort to finish the Silmarillion. I wouldn’t dream of second guessing him, or Martin either. By the same token I also am not criticizing his many fans. Unfortunately it didn’t quite come together for me and my post was an attempt at thinking about why that was. I think that with a tighter plot this series would be even more popular, but who knows? Finally, and maybe most importantly, I don’t have any more access to Martin’s mind than anyone else. Maybe less…my guesses about the origins of his work are based almost entirely on the text itself and his Wikipedia article, although over the years I’ve read the odd interview and some (but not nearly all) of his blog.

One more note: I stuck to fairly general observations in my previous article but this time there will be more spoilers, so if you haven’t read these books, you should probably go do that first. While I’m obviously not crazy about the series, there’s an excellent chance you’ll love them and in any case you can do far, far worse when it comes to fantasy.

Now, finally, let’s talk more about some of the responses people had to what I wrote.

An air of realism was the intended effect of the plot structure – I’m definitely willing to say I may have not given him enough credit here. I reasoned that since the standard elements of fantasy were present, just relegated to being second-class citizens to the realistic political story, that he wasn’t intentionally going for realism. But a few people have said he wanted to meld the two together and that could well be right. If so, I don’t think it was very successful. I think the problem is that the fantasy elements are relegated to the geographic sidelines. Almost all of the story (my guess was 85% but I think the io9 piece gave it more credit than a completely wild guess deserved) is set in Westeros, but the fantasy is where Daenerys and Jon Snow are, outside the borders.

The later books are going to tie all this together. – Some will object (have already objected actually) that I’m jumping the gun here. And I totally agree that all this is going to come to a head within the borders of Westeros before the end. But I don’t think it’s correct to say a series that, when complete, will probably be well over two million words can be structured the same way as an eighty thousand word novel, and more than a short story should have the same pacing as a novel. There are limits to the amount of material a reader can internalize. Fans who have reread the extant series ten times can probably speak comfortably about every narrative thread, but for the vast majority the disproportionate detail of the Westeros material is an obstacle to appreciating Martin’s project.

It’s wrong to write off the politics as “window dressing” because all of this will become important in later books. – Well, I disagree. Yes, a unified Westeros seems like it would be able to fend off the evil from the North as well as defeat Daenerys on the beaches when she arrives. But after reading the four books, is it anyone’s impression that but for some small chance this would have happened? The impression I got was that there were absolutely massive fault lines under the surface of King Robert’s nation that would inevitably rip it apart once it was put under the slightest stress. And once apart, all the King’s men are patently unable to put it back together. If Sansa hadn’t told Cersei about Ned Stark’s plans, perhaps Stark would have gotten an advantage for a short time, but would Tywin Lannister have given up his ambitions for his family? I think not. That’s just one example, but for me the takeaway was that Westeros is hopeless without some foreign overlord like the Targaryens to impose order.

But if efforts to staunch the bleeding in Westeros are futile, then why are we subjected to such endless detail of people trying? If a point is being made about power and ambition, why do we need the explicit fantasy sections at all? Why cloud the picture with the evil and the princess when you’re actually talking about mundane human government? And if the point is that in the face of these existential threats the government still cannot function, well, this would be more persuasive if more time was devoted to the existential threats. I think before the fourth book there were, what, ten or twenty people in Westeros who know anything about Daenerys? And if most of the Night’s Watch doesn’t believe they are facing a supernatural evil, or even remember how to fight it, it seems unreasonable to expect the rest of the country to take it more seriously.

Robb and Ned Stark are definitely main characters – Oh, I agree they are absolutely main characters of A Game of Thrones. I just don’t think they are main characters in A Song of Ice and Fire since, as I discussed above, no matter what they did they were going to be ground up in the mill of Westeros before the Ice and Fire parts of the story actually get moving. This is the heart of my concerns. The series is called A Song of Ice and Fire and most would agree that’s a reference to Daenerys and Jon Snow’s stories, but the individual books spend all of their time on Westeros politics. Notice that despite the series title, the titles of the books that have been released (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows) all refer to events in Westeros. The unreleased book titles (A Dance With Dragons, The Winds of Winter, A Dream of Spring) all seem to be referring to the fantasy side of the story.

(Incidentally, apparently Daniel Abraham is a good friend of Martin’s…if so it’s humorous that he swooped in and got to the season-based titles with his Long Price Quartet after Martin had announced the last two book titles but before either were written.)

The story is really about the Stark children – My guess is the story is about Daenerys and Jon Snow (and that Snow is not, in fact, a Stark child) but I could be wrong about that. However if it’s true that Sansa, Arya, and Bran are more central than they appear (without a doubt they’ll ultimately have a significant role, the question is how central they’ll be) then I have a different complaint: why have the main characters been stuck being passive for such an excruciatingly long time? Robb was hugely active but was killed off for his trouble. Sansa, Arya, and Bran have changed due to their experiences, but have spent most of their viewpoint scenes being carted around by other people (and are totally absent from all other viewpoints). It’s nice that Sansa isn’t quite such an idiot any more and Bran has gone about two feet down a two mile spirit journey, but if this is so important why haven’t they been given more to do? Arya does get a lot of screen time in Feast for Crows but unfortunately it was mostly spent on what seems like it’s going to be end up being ninja training, probably the most generic part of the entire series. If the series’ realistic tone is such an asset (and I do agree that, while I’d like more structure, it’s an asset) is it helpful to turn a main character into a ninja? I’m all for strong female characters but I’m anti-ninja (male and female alike) in fiction which aspires to even a passing relationship with reality. Oh well.

This gets back to what, if anything, is “window dressing” in the series. It matters that Robb Stark was killed, in that he won’t be around later, and it matters that Arya has been forced to kill people and become a ninja. But given the number of pieces likely to be left on the board when we start approaching the final act (i.e. way, way less than the number of dead characters) was all the endless detail necessary for the story that was told? I think the answer is no. I know the fans liked that detail, and I certainly liked some of it as well. But surely most people would agree that there’s a point where it gets to be too much. We all draw the line at a different point. Maybe some fans could spend a hundred books of this size on Westeros politics and the characters caught up in it. I felt like my point was somewhere in Feast for Crows. Other people (including the io9 writer I think) didn’t make it that far.

Martin wasn’t “distracted” by the political side of the series, he was focused on it from the beginning – Apparently he’s talked about how he was inspired by the Wars of the Roses, he grew up fascinated by knights, and so forth. I’ll cop to being flippant when I said he got distracted by the politics. Whether or not he intended it from the beginning, certainly neither Martin nor his editor could fail to see it was the focus of Game of Thrones once there was an actual draft. But looking at the first four books together (since that’s how I read them) I still say that it is trying to be a fantasy story. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, except that the fantasy structure has been distorted by the narrative emphasis given to the unstructured politics. Being realistic doesn’t mean you have to give up on an orderly plot…I’d point to The Wire as the best recent example of a story that feels real despite keeping tight control over the plot at all times. I think, and I emphasize it’s my opinion, that the series would have worked better with me and probably a lot of other readers if it was written both with a better sense of narrative direction and momentum.

When I was in high school English class we got in groups of about eight and each group performed a Shakespeare play for the rest of the class. For time reasons, we had to abridge the plays, and if I recall part of the grade was based on how well we boiled the play down to its essentials. It felt like sacrilege (and I had the misfortune to be given the role of Macbeth…it turns out that when you boil down Macbeth the best way is to cut out everyone else’s lines and Macbeth just talks to himself and mostly silent people around him for the whole play). I don’t think anyone would ever come away thinking our butchered versions were even close to as good as the original texts. I think it’s a rule of thumb in writing circles that less is more. Less fluff, that is. The most effective stories are lean stories. I couldn’t tell you how true that is but if you’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire you can now decide for yourself. Are there scenes that can be removed without damaging the story? No doubt you’ll consider some of these scenes too good to cut. But remember other people are going to want to cut the scenes you liked and keep the ones you didn’t. I think this is why writers are told to “kill their darlings” and cut everything that isn’t needed regardless of how neat it might be. If that was done to A Song of Ice and Fire what would it look like?

We’ll find out one answer when the HBO series airs. I certainly don’t know the right answer. This question is hard, and having to answer it is yet another reason why writing is hard. Fortunately for us, backseat driving on the Internet is a lot easier.

A Song of Ice and Fire 1 – 4 by George R R Martin

August 14, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 61 Comments

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.

Update: This review has prompted a fair amount of discussion. I’ve written a follow-up post to answer some of the objections people have raised.

July 2011: I’ve written some thoughts on the HBO Game of Thrones first season, including some brief notes on how it’s made me re-examine the series’ first novel. A more comprehensive revisiting of this discussion will have to wait until I’ve read A Dance With Dragons (probably a week or two).

August 2011: I did finish Dance in a week or two, but actually writing a review of it took two more.

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