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Trash Fantasy Week (Book 7)

I decided, somewhere towards the end of the thesis, that what I was going to do was read some trash fantasy once I finished. I couldn't really explain the logic to you even now.

Still, I have been doing this.

Book 7, in the 52 books in a year challenge, is George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. It's eight hundred odd pages, and I think, really, that I ought to be able to view it as two books. Maybe three. In the time that it took me I could have read two books, surely, but mostly I think it's worth three books because, for reasons I can't explain, Martin appears to be writing three different books in one.

Up front, I should say that I did like the book. It's a well written thing, the characterisation is clean and solid, and the multiple character view points are used nicely. I especially liked how Martin would change the perceptions of minor character in different view points. If you're perhaps wondering what the plot is, well, you know, it's your basic kind of stuff: evil is brewing in the form of undead, while the King has become useless, and others plot his death, and he brings his old war friend Lord Eddard Stark in to serve as the King's Hand, after the last Hand died under what is quite clearly a case of poisoning. Still, it's not for the overall plot that you read trash fantasy--you go for the soap opera elements, the epic scope, and the world that you can immerse yourself in for a while without worrying about the world outside. Martin does all that quite well, even if, around page four hundred, I felt that I was drowning in the book.

There is that saying, in writing, that you should kill your darlings. By this, most people mean the sentences, the turns of phrase that are stylistically excessive, or which don't serve the plot, and so on and so forth. Personally, I've always thought that as a bit of advice, it left a lot to be desired, and too many people latched onto it as if it were an undeniable truth. In some ways, I think that piece of advice can be used to strip out anything of interest, anything of style, from a piece, and render it just another bland and forgettable piece of writing in an ocean of already existing bland and forgettable pieces of writing. Still, at the same time, it has some truth.

So, understand, when I tell you that Martin's biggest problem is that he's not killing his darlings, that I'm not repeating it just because I think it solves everything.

With Martin, his darlings are not in his prose, or his sentence structures, which are all quite clear and well constructed. No, his darlings are the plots, and the characters. There are three different plots taking place in this book, with about eight main characters who narrate portions of the book. A lot of it is just unnecessary, especially the plot concerning Eddard Stark's bastard son, Jon Snow, and his narrative involving the rise of the undead beyond the Wall, and his taking of his vows in the Night Watch. I actually liked this strand of the book quite a lot, as I liked the towering ice wall, the brotherhood, and Snow himself, but it's just unnecessary to the book. I mean, is the undead necessary at all? There are full scale battles taking place between armies, men fighting duels, and so on and so forth, all of this circling the main plot of the death of the previous Hand and what this has to do with the King. The undead don't touch this, and it seems to me that Martin could have made more use of Snow as a character by taking him to the city, and having him mistreated due to his bastardness.

One of the other plots involves the daughter of the previous King, Daenerys, and her brother selling her off to be married to a tribal warlord at the age of thirteen. It's more difficult to say that you could remove this plot from the book, but it strikes me that Martin could have told her story off stage, thus cutting down on the size of the book, and also bringing in the viewpoints of the first book to small scale, before widening them in later books (where, by all accounts, Martin brings in new characters and narratives, I imagine).

And that doesn't even begin to address the problem of the main characters, who could have been shrunk by two quite easily, I thought.

What I'm trying to say here is that this book didn't need to be so large.

Especially, by the end of the book, I felt as if I'd just read eight hundred pages of set up for the rest of the series. Now, I don't mind set up, but I feel--and maybe I'm alone here--that if I've just gone through eight hundred pages, that I deserve to have a stronger sense of closure. I don't require a huge one, but the small one I got at the end of this book, with births and the King of the North, where really quite weak conclusions, when you consider that that is two characters, and much of the others were left, mid stride, to be carried over to the book, where we'll see Jon go beyond the wall, Tyrion go to court*, Arya simply disappear, and so on and so forth.

Still, despite these complaints, I did enjoy it, and I'm pretty sure that trash fantasy week will continue, and I'll pick up the next one and see what happens. The book is filled with lots of good things such as little boys thrown from windows and incest and bloody dueling and betrayal and twists and a thread of underage sex that runs through the entire book that just fascinates me. Historically speaking, twelve and thirteen year olds have been fucking and pumping out kids since the dawn of time (and the teenager is only a recent creation, so marriages between those in their teens was common in the middle ages and such--I mean, Romeo and Juliet are only, what, fourteen and fifteen?) but given the hysteria that exists around teen girls having sex, with older men no less, I thought it was pretty gutsy to have your thirteen year old protagonist married off to a warlord who likes young women and fucking before page one hundred, but Martin doesn't stop there, and the thread just keeps popping up as the book goes along.

I'm sure there's an essay called "Underage Sex and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire" in that somewhere.

* Tyrion is my favourite of the characters, it must be said.


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Mar. 28th, 2006 11:55 pm (UTC)
(mild spoiler warning)
Most people seem to enjoy this series although after book five I was liking it a bit less.

This is partly because the size of things got out of Martin's control and he had to split the most recent book along story lines instead of chronological lines. Most of the best plotlines have been moved to book six. For example, there is nothing concerning pretty much everyone's favourite character in book five.

"I mean, is the undead necessary at all?"

Good question. I'll let you find out for yourself whether it's been answered after five books. About all I can say after reading that far is that Martin has to finish things at some stage, and he has to start moving some of the disparate plotlines together fairly soon if he plans to do that in a satisfying manner.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 29th, 2006 01:01 am (UTC)
Re: (mild spoiler warning)
I think of it as book five since in my edition book four was split in two - and each of the split volumes was as long as any of the previous - sorry to disappoint :-(
Mar. 29th, 2006 01:13 am (UTC)
Re: (mild spoiler warning)
i had heard that about book four (or five, as it is, i guess). i must admit i'm a little daunted by the fact that book three neded to be split into two for a paperback, and that book four is so big it's got to be book five and six.what kind of crazy excessiveness is going on, i wonder. (and people tell me there are new characters in the next book...)

my worry is that he's just going to use the undead as a common enemy epople can unit over. blah.
Mar. 29th, 2006 02:58 am (UTC)
Re: (mild spoiler warning)
The excess about it is what makes it interesting. The setting, plotlines and the characters are fairly cookie-cutter. However the logistics alone of managing that many characters, off-stage events, timelines and plot points keep it all churning along. It also lends a great deal of unpredictability - since no one is central, every device for plot momentum, let alone character, is expendable. You'll see what I mean as you go through it anyway.

A Feast for Crows has one of those dramatis personae appendices that writers and publishers like to stick on leg-o-ham fantasy (as you put it) to give you the warm cockle glow of "authentic worldbuilding". I think it's about a hundred pages long by itself ...

No comment on the fear you express in the last sentence.
Mar. 29th, 2006 04:06 am (UTC)
Re: (mild spoiler warning)
These books are one of the few cases where the dramatic personae has proved to be practically necessary, rather than indulgent. By Feast of Crows I found myself referring to the damn thing quite often (who is his brother now? He was on what side then? Hes married to who?)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 29th, 2006 01:15 am (UTC)
i get the feeling that you don't have to worry about the reread. i suspect a lot is repeated--A GAME OF THRONES repeated heaps of events, really. besides, what is there to remember? couple of people die, couple of armies, so on, so forth :)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 29th, 2006 01:29 am (UTC)
heh. i grew up reading this stuff, you know? for a bit of relaxing i can go back to it easily. kinda like how i can still watch and enjoy star wars.
Mar. 29th, 2006 02:31 am (UTC)
Huh. While for me one of the pleasures in something like this is getting to go back and reread. Which I'll be doing again when the publication date for the fifth book approaches -- but then again, I love to reread.
Mar. 29th, 2006 01:01 am (UTC)
Problem with most fantasy series is that book one just serves as a full length prologue. "Game of Thrones" is guilty of this big time, but it's enticing enough for you to invest into the following installments.

That's why I loved Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series so much: by the end of the first book, he's laid down the cards telling you straight up what the hero has to do, no messing around.

And yeah, go Tyrion. He gets better by the book. Gotta love a pissed off dwarf...
Mar. 29th, 2006 01:18 am (UTC)
i never got into the dark tower series. i tried the first book, but just couldn't finish it--which is on par for me with stephen king. there's just something in his stuff that feels hollow to me.

i do admit, i am kinda keen to see what tyrion will be like in court. that ought to be fun, i think.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 29th, 2006 04:43 am (UTC)
And hey, I gotta disagree with you -- he's not afraid to killing his darlings. I really admire how he murders, maims and kills his characters. I mean, c'mon, look at what happens to Ned Stark, the main character in the book! I think that counts.

that's not what i meant, though. sure, he's happy to kill and maim, and that's all fine and dandy, but the whole killing your darlings should happen before they get to print. he should have taken a knife to them and cut them back, or out. the main plot involving the crown and kings is more than fine.

stark's death kind of annoyed me, actually. not because it happened. i was fine with that, but because he told it from the wrong point of view. that should have been stark's point of view, that.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - benpeek - Mar. 29th, 2006 05:01 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - benpeek - Mar. 29th, 2006 05:41 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 29th, 2006 06:12 am (UTC)
Ah ha. This leads me to my radical theory:


Each of the main characters have their own point of views. Each of these characters are still alive. So is Ned really dead?

Now you say Ned certainly has to be dead, because his poor daughter Arya (or was it Sansa) saw the execution. But did she? If you go back and review that scene, you see that she closes her eyes and turns away as the sword falls, she hears the crowd grasp and that's it. Sansa gets shown a head that supposedly Ned's but its all decomposed beyond recognition. And his body gets shipped out too quietly by the sisters.

So yeah I hear you say, "Ned's still dead, ya fool!" But if he can pull of the ending of "Storm of Swords", then you gotta give this wacky theory some thought...

I'll go back to talking to those voices...
(no subject) - benpeek - Mar. 29th, 2006 08:05 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - benpeek - Mar. 29th, 2006 08:06 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 29th, 2006 04:02 am (UTC)
There is a sort of endemic problem with the series that is still largely unresolved, which is that his main plot driver, the battle for the throne, massively dominates the books, but is almost irrelevant to what he obviously intends as the major plot resolution of the main series.

I disagree that the main plot is typical fantasy stuff - its too morally complex, too political, rather more vicious than the average, and almost entirely devoid of fantasy elements. What it is is basically the Wars of the Roses (and a few other historically similar struggles) thrown into a generic fantasy world. But two other big plot strands, the undead in the north and the Daenarys strand, have almost no interaction with the main plot, and the extent to which they interact with the main plot is STILL fairly minimal even after the current volume, several books on. A dramatic flaw, forgiven only because the main plot is done so well.

I agree with his reluctance to cut his characters. I mean, he is quite happy to kill them if the plot demands, but he is definitely reluctant to have his favourite live ones shut up and get on with their lives undocumented. And I'm sorry to tell you this problem gets worse over the series. The last one seriously suffered from chapters and chapters of certain characters whining on and on. And likewise plots - if he sees and opportunity to reactivate a few dormant characters in a side plot, he tends to take it even though it might advance the main story only minimally (or even complicate it without much reason).

Mar. 29th, 2006 04:35 am (UTC)
Maybe it's been too long since I read the really awful stuff, but it didn't strike me as more morally complex than (say) Robin Hobb. It is a little more cynical and full of fairly horrible goings on (the amount of torture is notable), but not really more shaded.

GRRM said himself at some point that his main inspiration for the series was readings in European history, and that he explicitly wanted to write a fairly low-fantasy setting.

Maybe it could've been better if he'd just written out the dragons and the evil ice-zombies. I tend to enjoy the Daenerys part of the plot less, partly because I find his "exotic cultures" to be slim pickings aesthetically and also a little bit racist. The dragons, on the other hand, just feel a bit bolted on.
Mar. 29th, 2006 04:51 am (UTC)
i was with the daenerys plot right up until the end of the first book. once the blood magic stuff went on (i don't know why i'm not just saying it, this whole comment thing is spoilerriffic, heh) i just knew it was going to take fucking books for her to get back to being an invading threat.
(no subject) - ataxi - Mar. 29th, 2006 05:05 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 29th, 2006 04:48 am (UTC)
i don't think it's that morally complex, but i do agree that it's a bit more than the general fantasy stuff. he's not afraid to do what he has to do to a character if the plot demands it, and that's nice for a change. another book would've left stark down in cell. or freed him. so, yeah, maybe i'll retract the general stuff a bit. but the morals i've seen played out in other fantasy books, and it doesn't help that he has this pure evil zombie thing going on, either. that common enemy thing (if he plays it that way) i've seen often.

i sort of knew as i was reading that the character thing would only get worse. it's good that what he does well is enough to look past that, however. i wonder if i will feel this way by book four?
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 29th, 2006 05:27 am (UTC)
That sums up my thoughts too - although, I would say that the conclusion(s) of A Storm of Swords are probably the best part of the series yet. We can hope that the followup to AFfC will start to tie things off a bit. My guess is that even though it will mostly run in parallel it'll have a bit of setup for the book after that at the end, maybe including moving some of the plot arcs together a little.
Mar. 29th, 2006 05:43 am (UTC)
i had the same thing happen to me with david wingrove's chung kuo series. i had so much invested, was waiting for it all to come together and then--then he wrote books seven and eight and it was alllll bad man. all bad.
Mar. 29th, 2006 06:22 am (UTC)
I loved the book and the three that followed it (counting A Storm of Swords as one book) and yes, Tyrion is the best character by far!

A friend of mine borrowed the books and complained about the amount of rapes and the underage sex and I pointed out the thing you mentioned about the time it was set. I like that aspect of the book that characters act like you would expect medieval characters to act.
Mar. 29th, 2006 08:07 am (UTC)
i think, given all the sex and rape, what i'd like to see are ye old dental hygenie, and toilet habits, and so on and so forth. give the smell and the stink. everything is a bit clean for my liking.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - benpeek - Mar. 29th, 2006 09:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 29th, 2006 01:42 pm (UTC)
I think they get a bit dirtier later on, although maybe not grim enough to satisfy your wish-list! ;-)
Apr. 2nd, 2006 05:14 am (UTC)
Apr. 2nd, 2006 08:55 am (UTC)
um, what?
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