I first read A Game of Thrones in 2003. I didn’t like it much at first, but by the end I was gripped, and I raced through the next two books. I read them again in 2006, when I also read the fourth. Since then, I haven’t touched them. But now I’ve watched the TV series, and the fifth book has just come out, so reading them again seemed appropriate. Perhaps that wasn’t the best idea. In any case, having once liked them, I now approached them with a sense of trepidation.
And… not, it seems, without cause. There are good things and bad things about A Game of Thrones. I’m going to start off with the bad things, because frankly they’re what I discovered first. So I’m going to have to be critical – but do bear in mind that later on, I’ve got some nicer things to say as well.
So. Problems. Problem one: the writing. In particular the dialogue. Much of it is very ripe indeed – ripe enough that in 2003 I, as a fantasy fan who had read a thousand TSR novels, found the high ground to disdain it. The quality is variable, and certainly not all of it is bad – but much of it is cheesy, clichéd, and lacks character, by which I mean that most of the dialogue sounds fairly robotic and identical, displaying little of the nature of the people uttering it. What’s more, Martin’s fabled more-contemporary dialogue feel is applied unevenly – the most ridiculous renn-faire fauxdieval juts up against the most jarring anachronisms of speech, and the mangled juxtaposition makes both styles seem even more conspicuous and objectionable. Ugly writing is not a massive problem by itself, but it’s a problem that the reader is confronted with again, and again, and again.
What’s more, the robotic dialogue is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of characterisation flaws. The plain fact is, Martin seemingly has no talent at all at showing us character – not only the inner nature of his characters, which might be hidden strategically, but even their superficial feel. Even reading it with the voices and appearance of the HBO actors in mind, it felt like painting-over a black-and-white photograph. When I saw the series I was struck by how greatly some characters differed from how I had imagined them, and reading the book I now see why that is: there is so little indication of character on the page that a wide range of interpretations are possible. Even Tyrion, perhaps the most distinct of the inhabitants of the novel, is played wholly differently from how I had imagined – but the book allows this, as it doesn’t come down off the fence. It leaves us to join the dots for ourselves. Worse, characters often do not feel wholly consistent (Tyrion particularly springs to mind), and many lack clear character progressions. I’m disappointed to discover, for instance, that the clear progression I remembered Danaerys having in this book simply isn’t there – it ought to be there because that’s what the plot demands, and HBO thoughtfully inserted it, but it isn’t. Until very near the end, she vacillates between imperious self-control and naive submission and self-doubt without any apparent rhythm or rationale.
Even more disappointingly, the potentially interesting multiple-POV system is criminally wasted throughout the book. Rather than distinct, identifiable streams of thought, we just get the same narrator telling us about what different characters can see – for some events, I can’t even remember which character was the POV, because it just doesn’t matter that much. In a single-POV novel, this lack of intimate, personal timbre in the narrative would be a minor objection, but in a book that explicitly, ambitiously flaunts its multiple-POV structure, it becomes painfully obvious that the author lacks the talent, or the knowledge, or the feel for his characters, that would enable him to carry out his plans as they deserve.
(It should be mentioned here that a partial exception to this problem is the POV of Sansa, more overtly different mentally from the other characters and therefore easier to portray distinctively. Unfortunately, she’s distinctively annoying, which rather detracts from the accomplishment here).
Some writers can sketch out a believable, sympathetic and unique human being in a few paragraphs of observation. Martin gives us 800 pages of dense point-of-view exposition, and by the end, I still have less feel for his characters than I get from some short stories. As for the background characters, he doesn’t even try to do them justice, and all we get are a procession of stock clichés enlivened by occasional ludicrous grotesques, who feel as though they belong in a children’s book and not in the dark, adult, gritty fantasy that this purports to be. (I also felt distinctly uneasy when this was applied to entire groups and races: the sub-Klingon Dothraki most obviously, but even more extremely to the hill tribes, who came across the way Africans were sometimes written by Victorian writers).
While I’m talking about problems: criticisms must also be made of the worldbuilding and of the plot. The former is all but entirely unremarkable and uninteresting, almost lazy in its easy adoption of familiar tropes of the genre. Most parts of the world being a close analogue of our own medieval era, they have neither the verisimilitude of real-world painstaking research, as one might want from a historical novel, nor the vivid imagination, the defiance of the pedestrian, that we might hope for from fantasy – and what fantasy elements there are are largely derivative and familiar. The plot, meanwhile, particularly early on, feels continually rushed and gratuitous – by which I mean that the author seems to have decided that a number of things have to happen and has tried to get them all out of the way as soon as possible, and the result is less a rollercoaster than an uncomfortable ride over a series of small potholes – brief moments of manufactured, melodramatic tension interrupting periods of otherwise tedious meandering.
Oh, and it’s also continually irritating how Martin chooses to begin almost every chapter in media res, or more accurately in media nihil, and then not even flashing back bodily but simply narrating in the pluperfect. We get a paragraph or two of nothing happening, and then we’re told what has recently happened. It’s a fair enough technique for variation, but its constant repetition means that we’re rarely shown anything, we’re just constantly told about things.
So: you might well assume that my reaction to A Game of Thrones was negative. Well, it was – until I got halfway through, when a number of interesting things happen. Above all, the turning point of the novel is the Tower of Joy scene that begins Chapter 40 – insignificant in itself, but the point from which everything changes.
Why was the second half more impressive? Well, some elements improve over time – the prose becomes more confident, and the pacing and the plot settle down and start to pull together. In part, I put this down to a writer working in an unfamiliar genre – at first he seems to be trying too hard to write as he imagines epic fantasy writers must write, and it takes him a while to find his voice. In part also, his original intention for a trilogy was extended into a planned sextet – and there is an unpleasant tension between these two conceptions. The trilogy idea forces an unwarranted speed, while the sextet idea slows everything down. Later in the novel, when it seems the author has definitively realised that this cannot all be dealt with in three books, the narrative seems to become more assured, deeper, more nuanced.
The big change, however, is not that the problems go away but that the virtues become more obvious, and the reader finally gets a sense of why he is reading the book, why he is bothering to give Martin the benefit of the doubt. And the answer is: Martin isn’t here for his prose. He’s here to be (in Lev Grossman’s description) a “crafter of narrative”. That’s the phrase that makes sense of this novel. It’s not the form, it’s the content. And what’s more, it’s not the small scale, the little incidents – it’s the big things.
Think of this novel as an immense oil painting with broad brush strokes, or a little pointilist impression. If you look at it closely it doesn’t look like anything much – it looks like a bad painting. It’s only when you stand back and look at it as a whole that its virtues become apparent. It’s as though Martin is taken the stuff of the genre and forming it with his hands into a giant sculpture. If you look at it with a microscope, you see how coarse and rough the fabric is, but you have to stand back to see what shape it’s been given.
In this case, the chief virtue is the plot, which stands out from that of lesser imitators through its utter ruthlessness, its refusal to stay within the bounds of traditional expectations, and its sheer audacious expanse. Of course, the criticisms I gave above about the plot still apply – it still feels rushed, and the particular incidents still feel manufactured and unnatural – but as we pan out and see the broader scope of the greater narrative arc, those moment-by-moment objections become less important.
Perhaps even more stunning is how this broader perspective changes the characterisation. I stand by what I wrote above: Martin just doesn’t have the skill (or perhaps the desire, to be charitable) to make living characters with simple strokes of the pen. So instead, he constructs them impressionistically, over great expanses of time. We compile our concepts of the characters not through searing insights into their souls, but through the aggregation of action after action, response after response. And yes, the result is still something a little left-to-the-imagination, a little fill-in-the-gaps: but that is not necessarily a defect. Once enough colour has been added, the lingering element of ambiguity, of mystery, only makes the characters more compelling. Most striking in this respect is the central character of Ned himself – at first he seems bland, uninteresting, barely alive, and to be honest, if we look only at his words and his thoughts this remains true all through the novel. But against that wooden backdrop we have the bright colours added through his sometimes perplexing and contradictory actions, through the reports we gain from others, through his own enigmatic memories. By the end, we’re left convinced that all the pieces fit together somehow, but not quite able to complete the puzzle – a sure recipe for addiction. We are left with the impression of three-dimensional complexity, even though none of that is there in the individual brushstrokes. The same, I suppose, is true of the narrative – by the end of the first novel, there is surprisingly little in place of a conventional epic plotline, but the ingredients are all there, and we can almost see what the recipe is for… almost…
In a way, A Game of Thrones is not epic fantasy at all: it has the soul of a mystery novel. Who are the mysterious and dangerous Others in the icy North – what do they want, and how can they be stopped? How did Jon Arryn die – and why? Why are the exiled Targaryens being supported by the wealthy Illyrio? But above all there are the mysteries of the past. Who is Jon Snow’s mother? Who was Rhaegar Targaryen, really? What happened to Lyanna, and what was Ned’s last promise to her? The present tells us about the past – and we have to know about the past, because with such ambiguous characterisation, the past seems like our key to open the present. We hope that if we learn, for instance, whether Rhaegar was a good man or a villain we will learn something about Viserys and Danaerys, about Robert and Ned. We will perhaps know who these people are. But to know about the past, we can only learn about the present. What may have started as a flaw – Martin’s bland characterisation – becomes central to the whole project of the series. It becomes ideological: we cannot know who anybody really is, because the facts alone are meaningless and contradictory. Ned Stark, for instance, is a man of unquestionable loyalty who, it seems, will never disobey his duty or the law – but he is also the man who rebelled against his lawful king. He is the man who is kind and gentle, but also the man who remembers the bodies of dead children murdered by his allies. He is the man who is devoted to his wife and his children and rigid in his opposition to all vice – but he is also the man who fathered a bastard, demanded that he be raised in the house of his wife, and who refuses to tell either his wife or his bastard child the name of the child’s mother – a name that he readily and casually reveals to his friend. Who is this man? We see what another character thinks of him:
How dare you play the noble lord with me? What do you take me for? You’ve a bastard of your own, I’ve seen him. Who was the mother I wonder? Some Dornish peasant you raped while her holdfast burned? A whore? Or was it the grieving sister, the Lady Ashara? She threw herself into the sea, I’m tod. Why was that? For the brother you slew, or the child you stole? Tell me, my honorable Lord Eddard, how are you any different from [me]?
We want to believe that Ned is different. Ned is ours, Ned is the hero. But as we become confronted with the past, we cannot be certain any more. Ned will not tell us what really happened in the past, or why – and we cannot be certain that he really is as pure as he appears. He wants to be, that is clear – but is that enough?
Beside this slow-gestating monster of a narrative, and the great oil-portraiture of the characters, and the honest intellectual ambition of the cycle, its commitment to subvert and examine the assumptions we have about fantasy, and more importantly about stories in general, and most importantly about how we apply our fantasies, our stories, in interpreting events in our own world, the final ingredient is a thoroughgoing cleverness and mastery of events, exhibited through his control of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is common in fantasy, but here it is not relegated to prophecies – indeed, the prophecies are often false – but is woven into the fabric of the novel. Reading the novel again I am astounded by how much Martin has planned out in advance, by how clear he makes some things so that they become obvious in hindsight. He seems to almost be mocking the reader – on several occasions, one character will be tormentedly mulling over a difficult question, while a seemingly unimportant conversation in the background, or a minor detail overlooked, reveals the answer… but only to those who know where to look. The technique isn’t flawless – sometimes it feels a little precious, or a little overdone – but it’s impressively ambitious, and commendably organised, compared to the apparent make-it-up-as-you-go approach of some fantasy novelists.
[Again, however, the original trilogy idea bites the author in an uncomfortable place. Several strands are laid down in A Game of Thrones that I now know to be picked up in the fifth installment, or that I believe will be picked up in the sixth – but by now such a long time has passed and so many other things have happened, that I had forgotten all about them. Reading the first book again, it feels as though several narrative arcs that originally were to take place quite quickly have now been surreptitiously been placed on hold for several thousand pages]
That’s probably enough talk for now. How have I scored it?
Adrenaline: 3/5. Charitable. It was really a 2, but I’m marking it up because I suspect that having read it twice before and literally only just having watched the adaptation has dulled the tension and excitement somewhat.
Emotion: 2/5. Never really connected with any of the characters, and nothing particularly interesting happens to them (with one exception) anyway. Only in the last quarter of the book or so did I start to care.
Thought: 3/5. Again, being charitable on account of reading it at the wrong time. If the plot isn’t fresh in your memory, this would probably keep you guessing a fair bit, although the first half or two thirds is a bit familiar.
Beauty: 2/5. Only thing worth mentioning here is the ungainly prose. Some nice images, I suppose.
Craft: 3/5. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, because offsetting the nervousness he seems to have about tone and voice he has clearly put a lot of care and attention into it, and as we get to the end of the book its larger-scale craftsmanship comes to the fore.
Endearingness: 2/5. Surprising myself a bit here, but I just didn’t find much reason to love it. The first time I read it, I didn’t like it much, but the latter sections hooked me with anticipation for the next instalments; this time, I already know what happens next. Relying so much on plot twists does impact the re-readability, I’m afraid.
Originality: 2/5. It’s plain, straightforward, nearly-by-the-book epic fantasy. There are deviations from the normal tropes – one big deviation in particular – and hints that later novels will be more original, but if we’re honest this is innovative only by the standards of a genre long since grown sadly stale, not from a broader perspective.
Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. I’m genuinely surprised by how little I liked it, and it only scrapes into ‘not bad’ by virtue of that surprise, and the feeling that I should have found some reason to rate it higher. On the other hand, the end of the book does have promise, and I remember the second and third volumes being rather better –in fact, I remember them being very good indeed. I was going to go on and read them at once, but this book took so long to read and was so wearisome that I decided not to – and then I heard good things about the fifth book, and remembered how much I wanted to know what happened next, so I’ve decided to skip straight through to reading A Dance With Dragons. I may come back to the other three volumes later…