Thoughts on A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin

* note added 18/03/15: As there is some interest in this post, I will send a free paperback copy of our fantasy novel The Best Weapon to the person I deem to have posted the most interesting comment, even if they disagree with me and curse me for a filthy cur. Which I am.*

Firstly, this is not a review, it is more a summary of my thoughts on George RR Martin’s fantasy series on a personal level and in relation to the fantasy genre in general. The books have had such a big impact on the genre, it is hard to discuss fantasy fiction without A Game of Thrones and its sequels being mentioned. If you are a fan of fantasy/speculative fiction, whatever your opinion of Martin’s defining work, it is impossible to ignore it.

Secondly, I should say that I have read all the books in the series that have so far been released, and I have enjoyed them. This post is not intended either to recommend the books or to dissuade anyone from reading them, it is just my thoughts and opinions having read all the books so far released. I haven’t seen the HBO series, this entire post relates to the books.

Thirdly, this post is meant for the eyes of those who have read A Song of Ice and Fire (all of it so far, I mean) so that they can discuss/respond/tell me I’m talking out of my arse, all of which they are welcome to do. If you haven’t read it yet, be warned, this post will have spoilers and may well ruin your enjoyment of it, so don’t read any further!

I am a big fantasy fan and this series was recommended to me by many people, some of whom were of the opinion that this is the thing to read if you want good fantasy. While I enjoyed the books, I am inclined to disagree with that assertion. There are several fantasy books/series I would recommend ahead of A Song of Ice and Fire, if someone asked me to, but I suppose it depends on the individual’s tastes.

Having finished book five of A Song of Ice and Fire (A Dance with Dragons: Part 2 After the Feast), and looked back over all five books (two of which were actually two books, so that’s really seven) I found myself with mixed emotions. To be blunt, I found these books hard going. While Martin creates good, multi-faceted characters and builds atmosphere well, I found the narrative far too dense and the story lines too long and rambling. Endless descriptions of food and clothes make it feel like a cross between a far-fetched cookery programme and some sort of medieval fashion show, making every scene drag on until I just want it to get to the point. If I’m honest, I think the editing needs a lot of work. Or, more to the point, the books need to be edited, because there is too much pointless narrative. Not only that, but I think this gets worse as the books go on, until the last two books (or rather four as they’re split) are like wading through treacle with lead shoes on.

As for the story lines, while some of them kept me interested, such as Cersei’s attempts to manipulate people for her own gain spectacularly backfiring, others seem to go on and on without any real direction. Daenerys, for instance, has an interesting story as she develops into a strong, single-minded woman and overcomes many obstacles to achieve everything required to carry out her ambition of invading Westeros. She has a massive army, she has dragons, she has loads of cash, and then she just sits there while I read scene after scene about her doing nothing very much at all but getting busy with some mercenary. What’s baffling is that no real reason is given for her not seeing out her plans. It feels like indecision on the part of the author, or delaying tactics while he brings the rest of the story in line. Either way it is dull and it goes on too long.

As I said, it really depends the individual’s tastes, but one of the main reasons I enjoy fantasy so much is the way an author can play with extremes. But one extreme is pointless without its equal and opposite. You can’t have darkness without light. What is the point in having bad people doing bad things without there being some redeemable characters somewhere. I’m not saying there has to be a clear definition between good and bad, or totally good or evil characters. People by their nature are never entirely one or the other, I’m saying there has to be a balance. I found A Song of Ice and Fire to be a relentless series of harrowing acts of sadism and violence without relief. By the time “the red wedding” happened, I just wasn’t surprised. I just didn’t care any more. Why? Because if there is only darkness, with no light for contrast, I stop caring about the darkness.

I’ve said Martin creates good, multi-faceted characters, and he does, but what’s the point if I’ve stopped giving a shit what happens to any of them? Okay, there are some more noble characters, but they all get killed off pretty quickly. The only ones left are children, which is fine, but they’ve done nothing after seven books and the rest of the story hasn’t been written yet so I can only comment on what I can actually read.

This leads me neatly to my final point (for now), and that is that Martin’s writing lacks something which I think is essential in fantasy, and this is my biggest disappointment with this series. I’m not saying Martin lacks a sense of humour, but he has obviously not seen fit to include it in his books. Not once, in all seven of these long, long books, did I laugh. Sure, Tyrion makes the odd dry quip, and he is the closest thing to funny in the whole thing, but an occasional one liner is not enough amongst this much gloom. A fantasy should be full of ups and downs, like the voice of a good narrator. I’m afraid A Song of Ice and Fire is distinctly monotone.

Despite all this, I did like these books, but in my opinion they are vastly overrated. Good fantasy? Yes. Essential fantasy reading? No. Someone recently asked me to recommend some fantasy books as they hadn’t read much and wanted to get into it. I happily gave them a list of my favourites. A Song of Ice and Fire wasn’t on it.

This is one of many subjects David Pilling and I have been debating in the pub. You can see his response to this post on his blog on Thursday 19 March.

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Two young men, born on the same day on opposite ends of the world and into two vastly different cultures, are inexorably drawn together by forces outside their control or understanding.

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