I received George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones as a gift, and gave it a shot after many of you encouraged me to do so, even though I am generally not a fan of the sword-and-sorcery genre. Unfortunately, the book met my expectations, and while I finished its bloated length, I won’t be sticking around for book two.
The plot appears complex, but at heart is quite simple: two main factions are competing for control of the Seven Kingdoms, jockeying for position under the current King, the slightly naïve Robert, and preparing for an eventual succession. There are two separate plots only loosely integrated in this novel with that main strand – one leading to the possible birth of an heir to the previous king, the “mad king” Aerys II, the other set on the ice Wall that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the unknown denizens of the North. Martin based some of the plot on the English Wars of the Roses, which pitted the Houses of Lancaster and York against each other over a thirty-year period that ended with the rise of the House of Tudor.
The false complexity of the plot was not my main objection to A Game of Thrones, but it is one of the book’s three major flaws. Martin populates the book with far too many people, even requiring an appendix to list most of them by the houses to which they belong or have sworn fealty, and as a result almost no characters receive any kind of depth or development, and most of those outside of the central core are utterly disposable. Martin separates the book into numberless chapters, each of which revolves around one of the main characters, of which there are at least eight: Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell; his wife, Catelyn; four of their five children; Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf who belongs to the rival house of Lannister; and Daenaerys, the daughter of the mad king. King Robert, Tyrion’s sister Cersei, his brother Jaime (“the Kingslayer”), Daenaerys’ brother Viserys, her eventual husband Khal Drogo, Catelyn’s sister Lysa, and Robert and Cersei’s son Joffrey are all significant characters in terms of ink received, yet all are one-dimentionsal and their presence quickly becomes tiresome. The result is that Martin can weave lengthy plot strands, yet never has to do much more than set the swords in motion to advance any of the storylines, because he’s got so many people running around and never chooses to (or needs to) develop any of the characters.
The quality of the writing is also extremely poor, which I was warned about ahead of time; Martin spends much of the book forcing awkward middle-English phrasing on the reader, or altering spellings the way that bad bars and stores like to include “Olde” in their names to make them seem authentically crappy. His syntax is clumsy, and he spells far too much out for the reader in little details, both scene-setting – his descriptions of food are embarrassing if you’ve read any Murakami, and the made-up foods thing is just annoying – and emotions, where he explains far too much of what characters are thinking or feeling, which ends up leading the reader around by the nose. And I have no explanation for the line where he said a character was behaving like he had a “dagger up his butt.”
But nothing in the book was as awful as Martin’s obsessions with sex, violence, and especially sexual violence; it is the most rape-y book I have ever read, treating its women as objects and reveling in degrading them, especially female side characters, Martin’s equivalent of the red shirts of Star Trek. Women are raped, often, quite violently (not that rape is ever nonviolent, but Martin chooses to make it more violent), both in the present of the novel and in descriptions of the past. Victors in war in Martin’s universe engage in gang-rape, and it is accepted. Forced prostitution is rampant, and it is accepted. And when he describes rape, or even semi-consensual sex, Martin chooses to describe it in detail to further the degradation of the woman. (The idea that a woman might enjoy sex, or even assume an equal or dominant role in it, is completely foreign to him.) Martin’s women are props, and the only woman of clear strength in the book is a sociopath. That doesn’t even get at the incest in the book, made explicit in one scene but hinted at many other times.
On top of his loathing of women, Martin absolutely loves to devote ink to the carving up of the human body by knives, swords, and even weapons found along the way. Characters are cleaved, dismembered, burst open, disembowed, and eviscerated, and one can almost hear Martin panting at the keyboard as he describes these acts of violence. Given that he takes the rascal’s escape from a plot he can’t untangle – he sends everyone to war and kills a bunch of people off – there’s a lot of cleaving and disemboweling going on, and copious quantities of blood spilled, enough that you’ll need to wash your hands to get the damned spots out before you’re through.
When I commented on Twitter the other day that A Game of Thrones was one of the most misogynistic books I’d ever read, a few of you said that I needed to stick with the series to see some of the female characters develop. That may be true – the situation might improve in later books – but I should not have to read beyond the first 670 pages to see a female character with any kind of depth. That’s not to say that his male characters are much better developed, but they might reach two dimensions while his women are limited to one.
I’ve never seen the HBO series, so I have no idea how that compares or if it addresses any of the book’s flaws. A thin plot in a novel can often seem rich on screen with the right adaptation. All I can say is that I won’t be moving on to book two of the series.
Next up: Jim Thompson’s grim, darkly funny novel Pop. 1280.