Early this summer, upon the recommendation of several trusted friends, I threw myself into HBO’s TV adaptation of Game of Thrones. I’m not much of a TV follower, but Game of Thrones delighted me; I devoured each episode, finishing all three seasons in as many weeks. It was far more sophisticated than I expected, considering that any fragments I had seen before starting the show consisted mainly of beheadings and a lot of sex, which led me to the condescending conclusion that the show would have little substantiality. Well, while there were still a lot of beheadings and even more sex, the intricacies of plot and the impressively complex characters more than made up for it; I quickly changed my tune. After racing through the television series, I decided I simply hadn’t had enough of the Game of Thrones storyline; obviously it was time to read A Song of Ice and Fire. I’ve always loved the fantasy genre, so I relished the thought of digging into another series. The more I read, though, the more critical I became. The only thing keeping the books going is the plotline; the characters are insufficiently developed, the writing is wholly unexceptional, and there are so many glaring rip offs of other fantasy series that I actually became rather incensed. Also, I’m sorry, but Mr. Martin: your incorrect use of semicolons is not a stylistic innovation. It’s just plain wrong. For a grammar freak like me, it immediately began to discredit your writing abilities. Of course, semicolons are the least of his problems.
When I saw the cover of A Dance with Dragons touting TIME’s praise of George R.R. Martin as the “American Tolkien,” I viewed it as an insult to the fantasy trope. Tolkien established far greater depth of world, plot, and characters in only three books (plus The Hobbit); Martin has taken 5 so far, and he has by no means accomplished such feats as creating a new language or even fully developing his fantasy world. And what about Robert Jordan, the late and great author of the Wheel of Time cycle, one of the most complex works of fantasy to grace this earth? Martin’s vaguely defined Westeros/Essos world simply pales beside Robert Jordan’s complexly crafted world, full of distinct nations with idiosyncratic cultures. Also, is that another pudgy, loyal Sam I see? Are you giving me another man who can run with wolves? Instead of bucking convention, Martin shamelessly pulls directly from other great fantasy writers, to whom he is often shockingly inferior. While each has his shortcomings, Martin fails to measure up on most counts. A good writer he may be; a great writer he is not.
I truly mourn the misguided placement of acclaim on a writer whose books have become famous on the basis of their TV adaptation. Honestly? HBO’s modification of the novels is far more impressive than the novels themselves, a rare phenomenon in book-to-screen adaptations. Its characters display far more depth than the ones Martin writes, especially the women; as a friend of mine so neatly put it, Martin is obviously a fanboy at heart, and he fails to contain that fanboy nature when writing his female characters. Also, while the TV series’ plot sometimes seems to dabble in events for far too long (er…how long is Khaleesi going to be in the Red Waste, exactly?), such dabbling never lasts as long as it would in Martin’s novels. Besides, HBO’s plot divergences from the novel often provide interesting, insightful tangents; for instance, we understand more of Lord Petyr Baelish, the infamous Littlefinger, on the screen than we do on the page. Small additions to Littlefinger’s character work wonders for his development. It has much to do in the way the character is written, with emphasis placed on both his unctuous manipulations and his unsurpassed ambitions. At the end of the episode “The Climb,” Littlefinger’s chilling yet highly compelling monologue on the opportunities to be found in the midst of chaos—“chaos is only a ladder…the climb is all there is”—is certainly a departure from the book, yet it is the perfect embodiment of his character. There are few, if any, such concise moments of character realization in Martin’s novels; instead, they are vaguely drawn out or—at their very worst—painfully one-dimensional.
When I watched the series, I adored Ygritte: strong, sassy, and charismatic, with just a hint of sexy. Our first glimpses of Jon Snow’s interactions with her revealed a many-faceted character, on one level a warrior who resents her captor and taunts him relentlessly, on another level a woman with a clear sense of her own desires and how to satisfy them. In the show, Ygritte practically comes to embody the free folk: rules do not matter and oaths may be broken, because freedom is the only force governing a man. In this sense, Jon Snow truly knows nothing of the savage wildlings, at least not until Ygritte gives him an education in freedom. Our last glimpse of John and Ygritte together on screen was truly heartbreaking yet still so classically Ygritte: she is hurt by his betrayal, weeping as she peppers him with arrows, but her love does not stop her from taking revenge, indicating her powerful reconciliation of warrior and woman. This moment is almost completely passed over in the novel; Jon gallops away from the melee with an arrow in his leg, realizing only hours later that the arrow is Ygritte’s. Martin provides us with no indication of the complexity of Ygritte’s feelings in this moment, which should be a simple feat even through Jon’s perspective. Honestly, Ygritte on the page is far more boring than Ygritte on the screen. After seeing the phrase “You know nothing, Jon Snow” three times on the same page—and the next, and the one after that—it loses its charm as a casual humiliation of a character who thinks he knows more than enough, becoming instead, perhaps, an indication of how little Ygritte herself knows. Doesn’t she have anything else to say? Martin’s Ygritte is a one-dimensional character who only seems to serve to belittle Jon. She might also teach him some things, but Martin discounts the importance of Ygritte as educator by skimming over those moments, preferring to portray Ygritte as little more than contrary-wildling-woman-turned-sex-object. He even denies her the chance to display the simultaneous triumph and heartbreak of her revenge, and she becomes little more than an arrow stuck in Jon’s thigh (which admittedly has some interesting implications—read: penetration, blood, Ygritte’s earlier “lessons” to Jon—but Martin doesn’t investigate those in the least). Martin’s use of Ygritte’s character was one of the most disappointing shortcomings of the written series, as limited and one-dimensional as it was compared to the fascinatingly well-rounded Ygritte of the screen. It’s apparently a common problem; the reader gains only a shallow sense at best of most of the characters, which is frustrating. If so many pages must be spent dragging out the story, I expect some damn good character development. Martin constantly denied me that pleasure, not only with Ygritte but also with many other characters, especially women.
Martin has been regaled as a convention-smasher, an innovative writer who has renovated the fantasy genre. I will not deny that he makes some interesting innovations: the lack of any clearly defined presence of good and evil was somewhat of a surprise, and the sheer amount of plot threads was impressive. But good innovations and good writing are not mutually inclusive. The series begins with what seems to be a distinctive purpose—navigating the treacherous Game of Thrones—but it steadily begins to lose that sense of purpose while Martin drags out the playing of that game and expands his focus beyond the scope of the main players. Yes, the conflict in the Iron Islands is interesting, but do we really need to continually revisit it? Yes, I love the chapters written in Jon Snow’s perspective, but can we save them for when things actually happen, instead of dragging us through tedious episodes with essentially the same story? Martin could certainly spend more words creating deep, well-rounded characters and investigating their respective psyches; instead of droning on about how Arya carries out day after day of her lengthy subterfuge at Harrenhal, or how Tyrion humiliates Joffrey in some small way once again, or how Cersei uses sex to subdue yet another man, he could tell us why they do these things, not simply that these things happen. Martin’s novels are all breadth with little depth. While this may suffice for shallow entertainment, it gets extremely dull over the course of five books; I found myself slogging through page after page, wondering why I bothered but feeling that I might as well finish the job. The books are entertaining enough, but they by no means deserve the massive acclaim they have received. Direct that to the HBO series, which created something truly brilliant from something rather mediocre. Now that I have hauled myself through books four and five, I am eager to see how the show will move into the fourth season; I expect great things, yet I highly doubt that the show will follow the meandering track of the novels. Winter is finally coming, and HBO promises to make it far more interesting than George R.R. Martin did.