The problem with a lot of fantasy fiction, especially Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones) by George R.R. Martin

One thing most of my geeky friends have in common is that most of them read heroic or epic fantasy books. I love a good fantasy as well, but I also have a bit of a pedantic problem where I also want them well written, which in my opinion is rare to find in the genre… although in recent years standards have been elevated with really great new authors like Patrick Rothfuss (Name of the Wind) and Susannah Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) coming onto the scene. Fantasy books are all very much descendent from Tolkien or Conan the Barbarian and there is a trend with these books that annoys me to no end which I really want to comment on: They are too long and long winded! This is even true for the grand master of fantasy himself..Have you read Lord of the Rings recently? It’s a wonderful and amazing book of course but one that is badly in need of an editor. It’s so obvious that Tolkien didn’t know where it was heading while writing it. First book is a slow prod through the countryside with the same adventurous lightweight feeling of The Hobbit, while Return of the King is a condensed tale of cold epic battles and a [spoiler] quite ridiculous second to last chapter where Saruman is a weak idiot attacking the Shire. The Lord of the Rings book ends with a whimper and on a silly chapter that any editor would’ve cut [end spoiler]. Tolkien tends to ramble as well. Granted he rambles on better than most but some of his characters are terribly developed, especially his female characters who mostly have roles in the appendix. Aragorn is really a shadow of his movie counterpart as well. In short, The Lord of the Rings sorely needed an editor and one can argue that that’s what Peter Jackson actually did with his movie trilogy.
This brings me to a personal favorite beef of mine. When I was growing up the main successor to Tolkien was touted as Robert Jordan. His books were however so laughably slow and badly written I almost wrote the whole epic fantasy genre off then and there after picking them up. In a sad, but predictable turn of events Jordan never came close to finishing his epic, even though he probably wrote 10.000 pages of that story. Cut to 10 years later and on a whim I picked up George R.R. Martins a Game of Thrones. Today this has become the biggest fantasy epic since Tolkien and the main reason is in my opinion that Martin is a great character and world creator, unlike for instance Jordan, who doesn’t really have any redeemable literary qualities like Martin. That first book (A Game of Thrones) is nothing short of amazing. It’s frighteningly real and the plot moves fast. The characters are well developed and the style of jumping between them really works. It’s a great book and one of the best the genre has to offer. Sadly it was just the beginning of one of the most spectacular downfalls seen in fiction writing. 2000 pages into his epic, around the middle of the 3rd book, it had become quite apparent to me that Martin has no intention to even move his plot along. What he seems to love is to create new characters and then proceed to drag them through hell, while not resolve any of the plots that he created for his old characters. This is the same issue the TV show Lost had as well. By the end of book 3 in this series I just gave up and I’ve heard from everyone I know who ventured further that things just get slower and worse in the next books. I am quite sure Martin will never finish his series. It will sadly never happen based on his current release schedule. It’s a cold hard fact just looking at the numbers.
Since I like proving my arguments with data (it’s my job) here’s a handy list of how many POV (Point of view) characters are in the series by book:
Book 1 – A Game of Thrones: 8 POV Characters ( 694 pages)
Book 2 – A Clash of Kings: 10 POV Characters, 3 new (768 pages)
Book 3 – A Storm of Swords: 12 POV Characters, 3 new(973 pages)
Book 4 – A Feast For Crows: 12 POV Characters, 8 new ?!? (784 pages)
Book 5 – A Dance with Dragons: 18 POV Characters, 7 new ?!? (1040 pages)
And 4500 pages or so into this epic *spoiler* Daenerys hasn’t even crossed the sea?!? *spoiler*. I really feel sorry for the people adapting this for HBO. By the end of the third season I expect crysis meetings in the writers room. This plot simply doesn’t move and it doesn’t really feel that the middle chapter of the story has even started. It’s still in the build up phase.
It may seem like I’m being overly cynical here, but ultimately when I sit down to read an epic that’s 800 pages or more I really just want it to be epic and awesome and I always start out with the greatest of hopes and intentions for it After giving up on Song of Ice and Fire I was lucky enough to find the perfect antithesis. I read a book called Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s one of the more famous fantasy epics and it’s actually very similar to Game of Thrones in many ways, which is why I bring it up in this post. It’s a very epic story in a very real world that has dark magic undertones and it’s told from the point of view of several main characters, just like Martin’s epic. Guy Gavriel Kay also has an obvious talent for creating worlds and characters like Martin. There are a few difference though that make Tigana stand out over Song of Ice and Fire. Firstly the point of view characters are about the same as Game of Thrones (book 1) but Kay sticks to the major characters longer each time than Martin with a clear arc starting and ending most times. He digs about as deep into their minds, but focuses on major events that drive the plot. There are very few filler musings about hillsides or boats like Martin loves to write about. These kind of musings exist in Tigana as well, but only to colour the world and not to delay the plot. Also Tigana has a very clear beginning, middle and end for all the characters as well the story as a whole. Nothing is left hanging and in the end I even felt I knew these characters better than most of Martin’s characters. In short…annoyed by Martin? …go read Tigana! I word of warning…it has one flaw and that is that it takes it about 100-150 pages to really get going. This is the only point where Martin is the clear winner. Any other good suggestions? 🙂

5 responses

  1. I am now reading The Name Of The Wind and quite enjoying it after having read all of the Ice And Fire crap. How is the rest of the series? I hope I’m not setting myself up for another disappointment.

    1. Nope the 2 books so far are perfect 🙂 and apparently there will only be 3 in total. I hope Martin is taking notes!

  2. I just had to dig this thing out, wrote it back in 2005.

    A Feast for Crows by George R.R Martin
    “for Stephen Boucher
    wizard of Windows, dragon of DOS
    without whom this book would have
    been written in crayon”

    That’s the dedication.

    Short review: It might have been better if written in crayon.

    Longer review:
    The previous three books were massive. A Song of Ice and Fire, the collective name of the books, is a gritty fantasy saga with a large element of plots and intrigue and a very small element of fantasy. The amount of plot threads is only dwarfed by the immense dramatis personae. Despite this, the story have in the three previous books moved forward and kept me riveted. In this, the first half of the fourth book (or whatever you call something that’s published separately in two – umm – books), the whole thing grinds to a halt.

    It’s still good craft; there are excellent sections; there’s nothing wrong with the writing per se, but it just does not move forward. We follow the storylines of some of the main characters of the whole story in very elaborate detail. There are entire chapters that could have been cut down to a few paragraphs and still told the story quite well. This is where the advantage of crayons comes in. Crayons would have forced mr Martin to keep it short. Unfortunately, he’s armed with a word processor.

    Part of my dissapointment comes from the quality of the previous books. In them, he managed the massive chronicle style without bogging down. I just hope whoever reviews his works grows some balls and tells him “get on with it” in the next book. I will still read that bok, the story in itself is that good.

    1. Yes! Exactly. Get on with it Martin.

      I’ll watch the show at some point just to finish the story. Unless books 6 and 7 are amazing I won’t probably read the books.

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