I just finished re-reading A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin’s first volume in his (currently very hot) fantasy series, and I quite enjoyed it. Looking back on my notes from my first read-through ten years ago, I was startled to discover that I found it ho-hum and/or offensive! What gives?
I’m not the only one reading (or re-reading) A Game of Thrones right now. The long-awaited fifth book in the series, A Dance with Dragons, just came out, and sold more copies in its first day than any other work of fiction this year. And in a bump that only a handful of authors will ever get, the HBO show based on Martin’s books just wrapped its first season to wide acclaim (I wrote a bit about it on the Gutter two months back).
Before I start a tangle with my past self (or at least try to decipher what I was thinking way back when), here are a few of the reasons I liked the book this time.
1. Stuff happens!
Something this basic should be a no-brainer for all epic fantasy series; unfortunately, that’s not always the case. What I was struck by this time around was just how serious Martin is about destabilizing the fictional world he spends so much time establishing. Yes, he’s famous for killing major characters, but it’s more than that. I think it might be that the twists and turns of the plot are not slotted in as pale shadows of the inevitable confrontation between pure good and ultimate evil like in, say, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. My current theory on why the Jordan books ran out of steam is precisely this: namely, that only one thing matters, and that’s the conclusion people are waiting for. Everything else is just filler, and that gradually became more and more obvious.
With Martin, there is no Good Guy vs Dark Lord moment that we want to skip ahead to. It’s a world, much like our own medieval one – with some fantastical curlicues of course – and politics of the deadly sort in a medieval setting are a strange and interesting beast, given to many reversals and tragedies. I recommend this recent talk Martin gave at Google; one of the last things he says reveals a lot about where the series is coming from. Roughly, he says that it’s not enough to be smart or to be the good guy to be an effective ruler. “This stuff is hard” and that definitely comes through in the books.
2. A bump from the show
I have to say, the HBO show is exceptionally well-cast, and it really nails the big moments. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, and they definitely pull out all the stops for the ending. It got me excited about the story in a way that I perhaps had not been before.
3. I’m a sucker for world-building
Just before I started re-reading the book, I ran across a handy guide over at Wertzone:
What can I say, I love this stuff. And it’s all a little more believable than, say, Robert Jordan (the irony of which comes around to bite me in the face in the next section – see below for a few notes on historical accuracy).
Seriously, one of the biggest shocks of my twelve-year-old life, upon discovering Tolkien, was to subsequently hear one of my brother’s friends dismissively say he wasn’t into world-building. What??? My poor pre-teen brain could hardly comprehend this, in the face of just having submerged myself in Middle Earth for the first time, and despite my jaded nature all these years later, I still have a bit of that loves-to-be-overwhelmed twelve-year-old in my head.
Switching gears now a bit: I am now going to try to reconstruct where my brain, ten years ago in the misty past, was coming from in its dislike for the series. Just to clarify: I read the first three books back in 2001, so I did like it enough to burn through three rather large volumes. All the same, I still haven’t read the fourth book, and these are the reasons why I wasn’t excited enough to do so earlier.
1. Stuff happens… blah blah blah
There’s a flipside to my first point above, especially with regard to Martin v. Jordan. Jordan fanatics have something to look forward to, while Martin fanatics might, or might not, have to make do with the same dull hum of political infighting all the way through. It’s a story that’s unending in the same way that history is unending, so possessing no true shape. This was definitely one of my big complaints the first time through. So what if Robert Jordan’s books 6 through 11 were total crap? At least there’s something to look forward to! What will Martin end his books with? I’m coming across as slightly facetious here since I think my tastes have changed significantly in the last decade.
2. Historical fiction vs. fantasy
This was a big one for me. I had just come off reading a lot of Tanya Huff. In particular, her Quarter series is really fun pop culture, a fantasy world that uses an imagined history that’s different than ours, and specifically a much more socially and sexually aware one. Women are not constantly fighting a battle for personal liberty, since they simply don’t live in a patriarchal society; ditto for gay and lesbian characters and the absence of homophobia.
Now Martin is definitely basing the construction of his world on historical precedents from real societies around the world. And he’s using that as a tactical advantage to make his world seem credible. To me, The Wheel of Time hovers glibly above how actual social and political interactions take place, grabbing a fascinating gewgaw here and there, but never really touching down in any meaningful way. Martin’s series is approximately 100x more grounded, for that reason.
I think Huff’s book are on a different spectrum than this Martin v Jordan fight, since she is deliberately picking and choosing what to include in a way, with an eye to modernizing fantasy, that Jordan doesn’t seem to. And whyever not? After all, this is fantasy we’re talking about. The escapist genre, a place that’s useful for running away from day-to-day life. Why not imagine a society where there is no pointless patriarchal bullshit pestering the hell out of half the population? Huff delivers that.
I’m not entirely sure that this has fallen off my radar (at least I like to think so), more that I’m happy that Huff is doing her thing and that Martin is doing his. They have two interesting angles, and more power to the field of fantasy for having room for both.
Several times I’ve made the comparison between Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. It looks like we’ll be seeing the conclusion for Jordan’s series first (courtesy of Brandon Sanderson’s hard work – Martin talks a bit in his Google interview about how he’s a slow writer, and I’m with Orson Scott Card in fervently wishing Martin finishes the series). I’m really curious to find out how the two series stack up once they are concluded!