Game of Thrones review

I started to read GoT for two simple reasons. First, I watched the television series, but found the constant cutting between scenes made it really hard to follow the story. I suspect my constant “Which one is he trying to murder/trap/skin?” became somewhat annoying. Second, my teenage sons raved about them, and in the past their judgment has been pretty reliable, at least when it comes to this genre. So I dutifully made my way through the several thousand pages across the – how many novels is it now, five but several are divided into different segments and published as separate books, so approximately eight – without finding it a particular effort. Short chapters and constant switching of scene help drive the narrative along nicely.

Having looked it up across the five books there are well over 3000 pages of text, as follows:

A Game of Thrones 704

A Clash of Kings 768

A Storm of Swords 992

A Feast for Crows 753

A Dance with Dragons 1056

I know this is not really relevant to the content of the novels itself, but I can’t avoid mentioning this fact – it has taken Martin nearly 20 years to write the five novels, the last being published in 2011 i.e. four years ago. The chances of the series being finished (by Martin) seems slim – although I have no doubt his estate will continue to allow novels set in this fictional world for many decades to come – in fact his output is likely to accelerate after his death.

Because the novels, and the television series, have been such huge successes, it is as usual (I always seem to say this) going to be hard to find something original in this review. So as a different approach, I wanted to summarises some of the debates about the series, and perhaps take some sides.

Martin is following in some well-trodden footsteps in these novels. This ground has been covered extensively before, pillaging medieval England for characters, themes, incident and drama, with an overlaid patina of magic. It is all informed by a very late 20th century perspective – the people don’t really sound or behave like pre-industrial warlords, knights, peasants and so on – they could easily be translated into numerous other settings. If you’ve only seen the television series then you might be surprised that the incidence of rape and sexual abuse is much lower in the novels – for instance the attack on Cersei by Jaime is consensual in the novel, but clearly rape on screen. (Martin’s subsequent justification for the “sexing up” of the television series, that there is plenty of sexual violence in war, doesn’t really make sense when the attack is brother on sister.) There are also plenty of strong female characters, unlike in Tolkien for example,

My main reaction to all this however is a growing conviction that Martin has quite literally lost the plot. He has lost control of his material, pulling out so many random threads that he has no chance whatsoever of drawing them back together again. Sure he will do it, but only at the expense of any credibility or coherence, most of which has already been lost anyway. Plot development were set up three or four books ago but left hanging for hundreds of chapters. Whenever you think he is going to turn to tying something together he then introduces a whole cast of new characters, (the Sand Snakes anyone) only to then throw them away and not return to them again. The whole thing shows a complete lack of control in a way that almost every other series of this kind does not. My diagnosis is JK Rowling syndrome – the phenomenon where an author becomes so successful they start to ignore or over-ride their editors. (Philosopher’s Stone is an almost perfect children’s novel – Harry Potter goes Camping aka Deathly Hallows is a bloated mess).

My other reaction to A Song of Ice and Fire is that despite the efforts to make the world of Westeros believable, it is all actually hugely incredible.  Very few if any of Martin’s characters behave in a rational or realistic manner. They make bizarre, life threatening decisions. They put themselves in danger for no sensible reason. Stannis for example has the power to kill people using magic – which he then seems to completely forget about after he kills his brother Renly. The northmen are panicking for the whole of the duration of the novels about the rise of mysterious undead creatures north of the Wall, when all the signs are that they just need to close their gates and forget about them. Wherever you look people say and do stupid, unlikely things constantly. No wonder they all die so frequently. Would the huge tribes of wildlings be able to survive north of the wall given the weather (what do they eat?) and predation by the undead. Why has it taken Daenerys five novels to even start to return to Westeros, when she now has an army of ninja berserkers? (the unsullied). Why would the Black Watch recruit from the dregs of society and then expect them to behave like virtuous monks? It’s just daftness wherever you look. The suspension of critical scrutiny will only take you so far, and there comes a point when you just have to say “I’m not buying this.” How does he get away with this? Mainly because there is so much going on, and it happens so quickly, the reader isn’t given time to consider just how stupidly most of the characters are behaving. Secondly the characters are quite well realised, despite their irrational behaviour. Varys the eunuch master spy, or Littlefinger the brothel owner and master politician with the, er, little finger, are memorable characters, reinforced by their portrayal on screen.
I’ll carry on reading when and if Martin brings out 6 and 7, and may even watch the television series as it spins off on its own axis, but this will never be anything other than expensive nonsense.