Game Of Thrones And The Problem With Fantasy Sagas

Game of Thrones. Nothing like betrayal and incest to spice up a fantasy saga.

Game of Thrones. Nothing like betrayal and incest to spice up a fantasy saga.

I’ve been watching the Game of Thrones TV series and reading the latest book, A Dance with Dragons, recently and originally was going to post some thoughts I’d be having about it all on Google+ but then decided to write it up as a blog post instead as a more in-depth article. Aside from being the perfect setting for a politically motivated MMORPG (hopefully one day), Game of Thrones is the type of gritty, dark fantasy that I really enjoy, a welcome change from the happy-clappy hobbit and elven filled crap that usually plagues the genre. Suffice to say the first few books were hugely enjoyable and the TV show is rather excellent. However the latest book isn’t stimulating me in nearly the same way as the first three did (I found A Feast For Crows rather lackluster too) and, the more I read it, the more I not only grow weary of the whole setting but the more I worry about the future of the TV show too. Unfortunately the entire saga is starting to suffer from something I like to refer to as ‘Robert Jordan Syndrome’.

I have two fundamental problems with fantasy sagas: one, they tend to never end and two, the authors tend to so wrapped up their own little worlds that they keep introducing new characters and story threads, ultimately serving no purpose whatsoever, that it becomes impossible to actually follow what the heck is going on. The latter also contributes to the former and neither are helped by the slow pace that most authors write at (there’s something to be said for Stephen King’s prolific writing style). The saga of A Song of Ice and Fire is a perfect example of this as, after releasing three consecutive books at two years apart each (a perfectly valid time frame), the fourth book followed after a five year gap and the fifth, the latest, after a tremendous six years. I have no clue what the heck is going on any more.

Even after reading a fabulous recap shared by Longasc about seven times, I’m still quite bewildered about who most people in the books are and find myself referring back to it constantly. Not only is this due to the fact that it’s been many years since I read the previous novel but also because George R. R. Martin made a rather large blunder (in my opinion) of focusing on only half the characters in it, effectively meaning it’s been something like 11 years since I last read about the characters in A Dance With Dragons. Honestly I was tempted to re-read the entire saga from the beginning before getting the latest book, as I’m doing with A Wheel of Time, and maybe I should’ve bit the bullet and done it. I suppose though, deep down, I resent the need to do it.

Maybe I’m just a vacuous reader or growing more impatient as I get older but I like my books to have a decent pace and strong, identifiable characters. Contrary to the first three of Martin’s books, I found both A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons (so far) to be rather slow and dull and becoming convoluted with its characters. Indeed watching the TV series has made me appreciate how excellent the first book is not only due to its subject material, plot and grit but how well paced it is and how iconic and noticeable the characters are. Unfortunately though as they keep getting killed off and more people pop up to replace them, the whole story becomes less and less focused and more and more tangled.

Maybe I’m not appreciating the complexity of George R. R. Martin’s grand plan here and maybe I’m underestimating him but I can’t help but shake the feeling he’s as lost as we are, caught up in a world he’s created with no idea of an overarching story. It was exactly the same thing that happened to Robert Jordan and the Wheel of Time books would have been a lot better had he simply been able to reign things in a little and keep everything moving forward rather than going around in pointless, plotless circles.

So how does this fit into the TV series? Well, it makes me worry because the first series was so damn good mainly because the first book was reasonably concise and focused. I guess I just worry how the TV writers will be able to re-interpret Martin’s later books and then how on Earth the audience is going to be able to follow the comings and goings of so many characters. I suppose I like my fantasy dark and gritty but succinct and to the point.

Not that I’m trying to put anyone off the series. I really do like the books, the first three tremendously so, and they’re certainly worth reading. I just felt like sharing my thoughts on the subject.

-Gordon

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32 Comments

  1. Chris says:

    I had much of the same problems with the latest Martin book that you did. The books were well-written as always but essentially, little happened beyond the last 100 pages and I feel that he is perhaps adding a bit too much to the story. I am also a little suspicious of the latest turn of the storys with Lord Griffith and his ‘ward’. Seems kinda like a Deus Ex Machina to me. A Link to my review (http://night-misfit-toys.typepad.com/blog/2011/07/review-dance-with-dragons.html).

  2. Carson says:

    Having watched the Game of Thrones TV series, I decided a neat course of action would be to re-read books 2 to 4 whilst waiting for the release of “A Dance With Dragons.” So I wasn’t suffering from any wtf’s as I tried to remember what was going on.

    But doing this re-read did make it clear that there was a very noticeable dropoff in – well, in “stuff happening” – after book 3. Seriously, the density of “A Storm Of Swords”, the number of massive events that happened in that (admittedly very long) book was incredible! And it’s very hard to disagree with what you said about the continuous introduction of new characters and threads, with very little wrapping up of anything.

    Look, I still really enjoyed “A Dance With Dragons.” It was my most anticipated book of the last few years, and it was a pleasure to read. Just a little sad that the earlier books were so much more pleasurable. Indeed it might have even been more enjoyable reading “A Storm Of Swords” for the third or fourth time than “A Dance With Dragons” for the first.

  3. Azuriel says:

    Although I am sure there are different directors, screenplay guys, etc, I think the True Blood series sort of proves that book-to-show translations are able to become more than their source material. Unlike books, TV shows (even cable ones) have to maintain a consistent narrative else they tend to get canceled.

    That aside, as a general rule, I refuse to start a series that has not already finished. I did this with both The Dark Tower and Harry Potter to great effect, bypassing the whole “agonizing wait + forgetting what happened” part. You end up missing being a part of the fandom as a result, but… that is almost a bonus, depending. I am about on Book 8 of Wheel of Time myself, and I could not imagine keeping track of all the miscellaneous sub-plots introduced in the prologues that are rarely even applicable in the story that follows.

  4. james says:

    I try to stay positive with all of the Game of Throne books and tv series. I see the tv series (of which I’ve only watched the first episode so far… fabulous) as an opportunity for GRRM + series writers to fix all of the things that went wrong with the books. Like the entire fourth book full of less favored characters, slow pacing, etc…

    After the fourth book, I defended the series in my head as GRRM writing it all more as an endless television series. Stories keep spinning out and out and out…. like a… daytime soap opera! The other comparison I came up with was with manga where endless streams of minor characters with cool names and cooler designs pop up and then disappear after a few issues.

    I’m about 300 pages into Dance With Dragons though, and I will admit to being weary. I don’t care. Seriously, there are little background stories that absolutely should’ve died in a notebook somewhere. I’ve found myself skimming pages and pages. Going back to my ideas about tv series and/or manga, the thing with those is that there continued to be a thrust of story that kept it all going. In TV, there is what is known as the grander series arc. (I always think of the X-files when I think of that probably because that was my first experience with it.) The same in manga, the minor characters come and go, but the main story arc continues on. Sure there are twists and turns, but the arc… she continued. I’m wondering WTF is going on here in GoThrones… if anything at all.

    The other thing I loved about GRRM was his total disregard of convention. He KILLS ANYONE AND EVERYONE. That was grand. Now… well, as mentioned — I’m just kind of tired. I’m going to keep going though. I *think* I might’ve just run into little Arya Stark so I’m pleased.

    As to the TV series, they have the option of rewriting all of this. They have the benefit of that which perhaps GRRM does not — strong editorial voices that says “no, we’re not going to follow fat whiny Sam north of the Wall for 5 episodes” because people are NOT going to dig that AND because we only have X number of episodes this season. (Not to pick on Sam of course :D )

    As to Game of Thrones as an MMO — I imagine it would be better suited to be something like EVE online swapping out corporations with kingdoms. Gold, power, alliances, betrayals…

    (One big recommendation for epic fantasy series: Steven Erikson Mazalan Book of the Fallen series. Incredible stuff. It really hits its stride at book 3.)

  5. Wolfshead says:

    The human brain can only process a finite number of new characters and new information. It’s also hard to “care” about new characters if they are being introduced too fast.

    I wish Martin had done a better job explaining the history of the world of “A Game of Thrones”. The TV series barely touched that history as it sped through the book at a breakneck pace.

    • Nils says:

      I agree. 10 Episodes for so much content was almost a waste. And I haven’t even read the books. I don’t want to spoil the series ;)

      • Everblue says:

        There’s a lot more of the history in the later books. He’s also writing a set of “prequel” short stories which take you through some of the Targaryen history.

        The problem with the later books, which GRRM has I believe admitted himself, is that he doesn’t plan his books. He sits down to write them and sees how it turns out. If he finds one aspect particularly interesting then he expands that. This has created what he referred to as “the Meerenese knot” – a plot centred around the city of Meereen (no spoilers for you TV only types!) which was so nightmarishly complex that he just couldn’t solve it.

        He actually said that he was intending to just draw a line and write “5 years later”, and come back when everyone has grown up. What we now have as book 5 was his attempt to sort it all out without having to do that.

        For me, book 5 was the worst of the books. There were some horrifying plot arcs (Reek), some fascinating arcs (Davos and the Manderleys), but the big three of Jon, Tyrion and Dany were just dull dull dull. Dany in particular was awful.

        Apparently when he started to write the books GRRM had nothing more than the Red Wedding scene (again – no spoilers!) in his head. The first three books are basically leading up to that. I don’t know if even he knows how to finish the sequence from here. Contrast that with Jordan who apparently left 1500 pages of manuscript notes after his death, comprehensively plotting the whole series up to the last battle.

        • Gordon says:

          GRRM does seem to be very scatter-brained (I mean that in a nice way) when it comes to his approach to writing which, unfortunately, is starting to become a tad frustrating for me as a reader. I want books that are a bit tighter and don’t just meander everywhere needlessly.

    • Gordon says:

      The TV series had to go quickly in order to keep the audience interested. I thought it was a pretty good pace actually.

  6. Nils says:

    These fantasy books require you to be interested in the world and not so much in the characters. From experience I know that most people are more interested in characters, so I worry, too, about the future of the series.

    Also, it’s a very good idea to re-read the entire series whenever a new book comes out. Several years between them make the story much less enjoyable.

  7. Longasc says:

    GRRM hates that Jordan comparison. Probably mostly because it is about his dead friend. He also doesn’t take the “5-6 years” criticisms particularly well and this created the usual fan vs fan forum mudslinging about entitlement of readers etc..

    The TV series probably not only reinvigorated me, but also Martin. “A Feast for Crows” got totally bogged down. “A Dance with Dragons” spends most of its time unraveling the Meereenese knot. Aka getting Dany and her Dragons out of Essos and away from the slaves nobody gives a damn about. While I really enjoyed reading it you are right, the many characters make for small short-story like chapters while the story itself gets slowed down by many characters and many locations. But I think this book did a great job on getting the series back on track. I hope he doesn’t need 5-6 years for each of the next two books. Neither he nor we are immortal, after all.

    Benioff and Weiss will have to rewrite almost all of book four and five if the TV series ever makes it that far.

    A Game of Thrones – August 1996
    A Clash of Kings – November 1998
    A Storm of Swords – August 2000

    Now Martin runs out of steam and gets mired in his own imagination:

    A Feast for Crows – October 2005
    A Dance with Dragons – July 2011

    5-6 years for less and less progress. Blame his editors? A lesser known author could not have dared to do that. Benioff and Weiss might be his blessing, they will have to reduce, reimagine and stay focused as their budget and the patience of their viewers isn’t unlimited.

    If you are interested I can add you to a ADWD recap thread on Google+. It’s a small circle of people who read the book already and it might point out some interesting things you might have missed.

    • Everblue says:

      He won’t start on book 6 until next year apparently. We are looking at 2014 at the earliest for the next book, and maybe 2017 for the last one (if he can finish it off in 2 books from here).

      It’s also by no means certain that this hugely expensive TV series will be picked up all the way through. HBO are not renowned for their charity (*cough* *firefly* *cough*). Can you imagine how much the Battle of the Blackwater will cost to do justice to?

    • Gordon says:

      Maybe I’m just being sour but I do think authors owe it to their audiences to produce books at a reasonable pace, especially when they’re part of a huge series. It really sucks having to wait six years…

  8. Longasc says:

    P.S. Good luck to all the people trying to avoid spoilers about the series for the next 5-10 years…

  9. Isidro says:

    I’m with you, whell of time had the same problems as Song of Ice and Fire. They want to get too much stuff on the main story.

    IMHO both should have chosen about 20% of the characters and made a shot series with the main storyline and the best fluff to flesh out the world. THEN they’d have 20y to do aditional trilogies based on whatver they had not explored yet.

    Instead we have too many characters, a story that doesn’t and only the last 100 pages of any given book match up to the initial books written by both authors.

  10. bhagpuss says:

    It’s astounding how much difference a high-profile television adaptation can make to the sales of a book. I’ve been working as a bookseller for around 15 years now, the last decade in one of the country’s largest bookshops. In most of that time sale and promotion of adult fantasy and science fiction has been almost entirely within genre. I can barely remember any titles that have received front of store promotion or out-of-genre marketing campaigns, and of the few that have, sales and interest outside the genre market have been unspectacular to say the least.

    Suddenly, on the back of the TV series, we’ve had a full table of George RR Martin titles right in the front of store area. The Game of Thrones titles have sold very well indeed, and very much to mainstream, non-genre customers. The rest of GRR Martin’s books, sitting beside them, don’t even get looked at, let alone bought.

    Not every big TV series generates high-volume book sales, but a lot do. Cranford, for example, led to us shifting large numbers of a book that, from comments I heard later from customers who bought it, probably went unread after the first few pages. Every time the BBC does a Dickens adaptation, that title flies out. But just that title, as a rule. The rest of the author’s works might trickle out as the odd reader gets hooked on his style. Related authors seem to benefit very little.

    It’s different in children’s and young adult fiction, where one big success can jump-start a major trend, the high tide of a Rowling or Pulman raising all fantasy boats, for example. The only recent corresponding adult trend that comes to mind is the vogue for Scandinavian crime fiction, but even there it’s only the titles getting high-profile film or TV adaptations that are really selling.

    • Gordon says:

      Very interesting insight, Bhagpuss. I always wondered about how TV shows affected books, especially when I saw True Blood being marketed in books shows everywhere suddenly as the TV show came out :P I guess it’s hard to beat TV publicity.

  11. Rob says:

    I have to admit that much as I loved the first few books I got confused by the time I picked up A Feast For Crows and had to backtrack and re-read the previous one to have any idea what was happening; and even then I was not entirely up to speed!

  12. hordemaster says:

    Holy crap Gordon, you mean you have time to do something outside the realm of mmorpg gaming? Like reading! Suddenly I feel a bit on the illiterate side just a tad.

  13. Bronte says:

    Four chapter into the fifth book, I decided to start from scratch. i just finished Clash of Kings and now I am on a Storm of Swords, and things are finally beginning to make sense. The fifth book, even in the introduction, establishes that it will deal with the other half of the characters that were not heard from in book four, and it runs parallel to the events in book four. Except it doesn’t because it goes beyond them. But it more or less does.

    Goddamn you Robert Jordan.

    I hope you read the i09 article, in which George R. R. Martin said it may in fact be 8 or 9 books in all, not 7. Someone find me a shotgun.

  14. UnSub says:

    I feel similarly about Raymond E. Feist. I loved Magician, then the Rift War, then the next few books, but past a certain point I no longer cared about the second nephew to the footman of a third aunt’s friend that seemed to take over as main characters.

  15. Fane says:

    George R.R. Martin does a huge breakthrough with this greatly written, immediately engrossing, and incredibly intricate tale that keeps you hooked all the way through. Martin steps out on a limb as he writes a fantasy novel whose “good” characters are not invincible and sometimes bad things can and do happen. Most fantasy I’ve read involves the main characters in impossible situations that resolve themselves by dumb luck or the characters own super-human abilities. Martin goes above and beyond and writes a story that allows for inexperience in a characters fighting ability, both on the battle field and in the political arena. The protagonist does not always make the right decisions, and the good guy doesn’t always win.

    The lines between good & evil are blurred as Martin uses his really impressive command of characters to present situations from different points of view. “Good” isn’t always good, and “Evil” isn’t always evil. Characters are given diverse personalities and therefore open up the possibility of role-reversal. It’s like these are real people making real decisions, and as in life, anything is possible.

    If your looking for a story that follows a one-dimensional track and is easily predictable, this is not the story for you.. On the other hand, if you want a mature story that is filled with intricate characters and engrossing story lines that leave you guessing and begging for more, you’ve come to the right place. Hats off to this incredible author and the story that he has created.

    Have a lovely day,
    Fane

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