Given the recent popularity of the Game of Thrones television series, and my need to balance my abysmal existence with immersion into a fantasy world, I decided a little while back that I would give a go at “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Before attempting the series I enjoyed “The Wheel of Time” and “Sword of Truth” series beyond praise, but with criticism. The former for the author ignoring the main (my favorite) character in favor of others, and the latter for pressing his political agenda that completely contradicts my own. I thought “A Song of Ice and Fire” had merit prior to its televised popularization, since I had seen it on numerous ‘Top Ten’ fantasy series lists. I started reading it, and I was considerably unimpressed. What follows is a brief (because nobody reads anything over 1,000 words) explanation why, with comparisons to Martin’s contemporaries Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind. My three main points are based upon characterization, political intrigue, and literary value.
Hollow. The characters seem empty to me, and perhaps this is the result of each character not actually being tied to a set of complex characteristics drawn from the real humans. The characters rather represent just facets of what makes up actual human beings. There are main characters that Martin tends to embrace more throughout the series, but what comes to lack from not fleshing out characters becomes worse than caricature. At least caricature can become amusing if the reader understands what the author intends. Martin’s characters lack this, being most likely a consequence of over-diversification of characters solely to express multiple character traits. Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind do the opposite. Rarely does a single novel in their respective series go into double-digit characters. This is because the characterizations are more comprehensive, and it is their characters, unlike Martin’s, that serve to drive the story, rather than being tugged about by excessive plot twists and turns.
I hate it. Mystery, intrigue, and even occasionally romance, are all literary devices used to appeal to a mass readership. They are some of the most popular books by quantity, yet rely upon simplistic ‘twists and turns’ to draw the attention of curious readers. Rather than being event-driven or character-driven, Martin’s world is built upon a swarming mass of political behavior. For Americans who suckle the life out of individualism, this becomes a quick sell. “What is this individual doing to that individual and how will it affect those individuals?” I couldn’t care less. Where Martin’s contemporaries exceed him is their understanding of the pacing issues that are inherent to a politically-driven world. It slows actions and events, doesn’t allow characters to grow and develop, and becomes muddied when the reader doesn’t attach or identify with a certain political entity or ideal. Jordan and Goodkind both deviated into p0litically-driven worlds at certain points within their series, but the entire series did not suffer because of it.
I’ve heard the argument that fantasy isn’t literature, and I disagree. My disagreement is partially due to the inconclusive sampling that many anti-fantasy literary snobs have. The other part is because I feel that fantasy often seeks to explain the same moralistic ideals that I believe is the intent of any literary author. Scholars and critics may not share my opinion that the purpose of literature is ultimately to morally inform and spread personal ideology, but that is why I write and therefore what I believe. Martin, however, writes for a mass audience, which severely compromises poetic license. This causes him to rely heavily on cliché and uninspired descriptions. His writing does flow, but it feels as though it was written for an audience first being exposed to literature as a means of entertainment, often categorized as ‘teen’ or ‘young adult’ literature. This self-imposed limitation on his vocabulary and descriptions gives his writing an elementary feel, and I suppose is equivalent to a cheesy science fiction film.
Characters. Robert Jordan created my favorite complex character, Rand al’Thor, a simple man and a character gradually developed through the series to be reconciled with the insane Lews Therin introduced in the very first book. Terry Goodkind created another type of character, Zed, who would normally be cast-type as ‘comic relief’, but actually becomes an intense character himself, perhaps even borrowing the title of ‘main character’ occassionally.
Plot-driven. Rand al’Thor is the (spoiler) Dragon Reborn (/spoiler). The events surrounding him are what affect his world, and characters and their decisions don’t drive the story as much as they are simply affected by their world. Terry Goodkind does a similar job with Richard Rahl, making him the (spoiler) son of his first major enemy (/spoiler), but also allowing events to take over the direction of plot. Political intrigue is limited to character development.
Literary Value. Robert Jordan never preaches to the reader, but he definitely expresses his worldviews through characterizations and immersive descriptions of locations and battles. His writing is uninhibited by genre conventions. Terry Goodkind becomes a political philosopher midway through the series, but scenes early on made my stomach heave and chest pound, especially with the descriptions and background information about the Mord Sith.