Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Reading George R. R. Martin

With the fifth season of HBO's Game of Thrones upon us, I decided last year to finish reading the rest of the books so far published in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  As it turns out that was more tedious than I imagined and apparently not the best use of my time.  The TV series is likely to swerve away from the published story line to forge new ground while George R. R. Martin finishes the sixth novel at a painfully glacial pace. 

I read the first three novels in the series before HBO launched its TV adaptation. I stopped reading for several years and enjoyed the Game of Thrones' visual depiction through season four as it became available on DVD.  I kept up with what was happening as each television season aired through the plethora of online content available in news sources, fan websites, and its own wikipedia-type reference site.  Later, as I watched the DVD sets, I went back to the novels from time to time to pick up on subtleties I missed in my initial reading and to broaden my understanding of the 10 episodes presented each season. The first three books lasted most of four seasons - with some material from the fourth and fifth novels creeping in last year, which was part of my motivation to catch-up. 

Last summer at Dreamlake, I was about half way through A Feast for Crows, the fourth volume of Martin's highly successful series. I finished the 980 page fantasy novel late last fall.  It was a chore. There were all sorts of minor characters introduced for the first time, the pace of the story slowed to a crawl, the narrative scope, already enormous, exploded into something even bigger, and my favorite two major characters did not even appear in the book.  While Cersei and Brienne deservedly received, for the first time in the long series, chapters told from their perspective, it wasn't enough for me and I lost interest about 2/3 of the way in.  But I eventually trudged on through to the next, and most recent, novel around the Thanksgiving season.

A Dance With Dragons was more enjoyable simply because the two characters I was most invested in, Tyrion and Daenerys, were back.  I was intrigued and entertained by the latter's troubles and dealings with her three baby dragons, now grown unruly - so to speak.  Tyrion, a dwarf, probably the most intellectual character in the series, with a cynical sense of humor, and part of Westeros Royalty became a disguised vagabond riding a pig in a carnival act of a foreign land. It was humorous stuff and I did not stop caring for Tyrion or Dany. For me they were the best thread tying everything back to the first volume. And they both were facing immense challenges as characters. But the rest of the novel, the story of Jon Snow and Bran Stark and Samwell Tarly and all the many others was slow and dull with only flashes of the former brilliance of the series.  It seemed Martin was getting lost in the course of fleshing out his ever-winding story arc with larger events moving along at a crawl in order to deal with all these often pointless new characters.

Martin's narrative method is to tell each chapter in the, by now, 5,000 page story from a different character's point of view.  So you read their intimate thoughts (usually presented in italics), understand their private motivations that other characters don't know about and see how they percieve or misunderstand the actions of other characters around them. It is a great technique along the literary order of, say, William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and similar works by many other authors. Martin writes these chapters expertly and they are chocked full of unexpected shocks, adventure, spectacle, passion, and intricate human entanglements.  The problem with the whole thing does not lie with the way specific chapters are written.

After several thousand pages of this I am not interested in a lot of new characters being introduced, nor do I find the slow pace of the significant action appealing.  I want some satisfying character progressions to all this instead of Martin's now infamous technique of unexpectedly killing off major characters, sometimes in droves.  I want some of the living characters to be articulated meaningfully instead of an ever-opening plot complexity where they become somewhat muted by the introduction of still more characters.

Martin is hyped as "an American Tolkien."  Well, that is overstating  the case.  Martin is like J. R. R. Tolkien in that his vast story is an interesting, surprising, sophisticated narrative.  But, he has far more grit and blood and sex and other taboo themes than Tolkien.  Comparatively, Tolkien offers far more depth, with more philosophic and metaphorical content, while simultaneously maintaining himself as a more comfortable read.

Martin also suffers from something Tolkien does not.  Martin struggles with the economy of voice in his narrative. Martin is excessive where Tolkien is erudite. While Martin is racier, more modern in his tale, sexy, twisted, impressively sophisticated, Martin makes me yawn at all his bulk.  I am satiated by him.  Tolkien never satiates, he always leaves his readers wanting more.  Martin's readers want more too, but they are already bloated on these thick books.  Tolkien leaves you satisfied yet curious for more rather than desperate for it.

But this is not the case with Martin's first three novels.  Years ago when I read A Game of Thrones I was enraptured with Westeros, Martin's fantasy world.  His writing style is blunt, sometimes harsh, yet poetic and it appealed to me. The story that unfolds is rich, the world complex and believable and yet, the fantastic elements of the novel are accessible and feel integrated, not there just to be flashy.  I read the book on the recommendation of a friend, unknowingly, unaware of spoilers and I gasped not once but several times. It was not innovative writing but there were several audacious, wonderfully written "Oh My God!" moments and I wanted more.

A Clash of Kings did not disappoint.  I read it with vigor and excitement.  This was a rich tapestry as several new major characters were introduced to replace the narrative space once inhabited by major and minor characters that had died in the first book of this expansive tale.  The second novel was highlighted by events leading up to and including the fantastic Battle of Blackwater in which Tyrion distinguished himself in military strategy and battle bravery though his nose was cut off.  Well, they didn't cut off his nose in the HBO series - one of many differences between the novels and the hit TV series. Instead, he wears a scar on his face. This is just one of many minor differences in detail that began to emerge between the written word and the visual presentation.

A Storm of Swords was the best novel so far in the series.  I found myself rereading much of it, especially referring back to sections of it as I became exposed to the DVDs of the fourth TV season.  The departure from Martin's narrative remained minor but nevertheless greater than in the first two novels. The fourth season even ventured beyond A Storm of Swords into the volumes I have just completed in the past year.  At any rate, it's 1,100 pages seemed to breeze by, Martin was the master of his story and in full command of his craft.

Not so with these more recent two novels, which were often slow, dreary slugs through a perpetually opening narrative. Both volumes were disappointments for me, as apparently they were for many other fans more into Westeros than I am. The introduction of numerous minor characters and the meandering nature of the plot hopelessly dissipated the energy and drive that Martin had in the first three novels. As a reader, I no longer felt the story was progressing, the main characters became frozen in their development.  We had action without purpose beyond forcing me to accept more narrative weight.

Martin chose to split his narrative much as Tolkien did in The Two Towers.  Only where Tolkien used the technique to create special dramatic tension, Martin seemed to just stagger along accumulating more characters without powerful effect. 1000-plus pages is a lot to read of a story in which your favorite characters are not around and nothing of significance happens. There were no "Oh my God!" moments. Ugh. When my favorites returned in A Dance With Dragons I found the story was lacking action or, rather, seeping energy into minutia. It was entertaining in places and there was certainly plenty happening but I was a bit frustrated with his world and what he was doing, or rather doing in slow motion, to it.

Still, I am now caught up with what is obviously a major force in fantasy fiction today, with millions of books sold and one of the most prestigious shows HBO offers, garnering awards and critical acclaim along with a huge and devoted TV following.  It is popular, mostly well-told (at least in the first three novels), tough and sexy in places, epic and sad and filled with treachery in other aspects.  And there are dragons. Three babies are growing up and doing things beyond their "master's" control.  Dragons might make the best fantasy stories we have, dating back to the Epic of Gilgamesh.

So now, with much anticipation, the TV series named after the first novel premieres for its fifth season.  It is widely expected that, seeing how Martin is taking forever to write the next volume(s) for Ice and Fire, the TV narrative will drift away from the novels.  It makes me wonder how much of the two novels I struggled to finish will even be used in the TV series. I wish them well, I enjoy the TV series. And I hope Martin's next installment actually lives up to the promise of its earlier volumes. Perhaps he will find his stride again following his 2,000 page stumble, fully focus on the primary characters, beef-up the action, and tie together some of these many loose ends he has created instead of just killing characters off.  Be that as it may, he is one of the few fantasy authors I consider worth reading as a "break" from Tolkien, though certainly there is no substitute for Middle Earth to be found in the mighty audaciousness of Westeros.

Late Note: The Atlantic reports that Season Five "transcends the failings of the books."  Seems their assessment agrees with my experience of reading the last two novels. 

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