A Song of Ice and Fire is a terrible series. There, I said it. I’ve been planning an article on this topic for quite some time now; I was going to wait until I had finished more of my “how to” series, but in light of the recent uproar of Sansa Stark’s rape scene on last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, now seems as good a time as any.
Why am taking the position that one of the best selling series of novels in the last ten years is actually terribly written? Well, first and foremost, being a best-seller doesn’t guarantee quality writing. Fifty Shades of Grey topped the best-seller list in many different countries, but is generally considered to be substandard writing by both critics and casual readers. Twilight: same thing. No, I am not writing this just to piss off fans of Song of Ice and Fire. If you like that series, that is your prerogative; you have every right to enjoy whatever you like, and I’m not going to tell you’re wrong to feel that way.
This is a writing school blog.
When a bad book somehow makes to the best-seller list, it can have the unfortunate side-effect of convincing novice writers to use it as an example of how they should structure their own novels. Don’t write like George R.R. Martin. His books are rife with problems, and we’re going to explore just a few of them together.
Number 1: The Tone.
There are some people who complain that A Song of Ice and Fire is too dark, but that’s not entirely accurate. It would be more accurate to say that the series is too consistently dark. Tone needs to vary from one chapter to the next to keep the story fresh. Now, there are limits of course; in a grim series like Song of Ice and Fire, it would be completely inappropriate to throw in a fairytale love story. The shift in tone would be too jarring. But that doesn’t mean you want flat monotone either. Or worse yet, you definitely don’t want to take Martin’s approach, which is an attempt to constantly outdo himself in terms of how dark and edgy the series gets. “You thought I was hardcore when I killed the main character at the end of the first book? Well check out this scene where a guy rapes his sister over the corpse of their bastard son!” “Oh wait, you thought that was bad-ass? How about this sub-plot where a guy is tortured to the point where his captors remove his fingers and rip out his teeth.” There comes a point where it just becomes ludicrous.
Let me give you an example that might help put this in perspective. Think back to the Matrix. When the first film in the Matrix trilogy hit theatres, the Watchowskis were hailed as pioneers of new filming techniques, and they were praised for their brilliantly choreographed action scenes. So what did they do in response? They released two sequels with action scenes that were so over the top and corny, people actually laughed instead of getting excited. The Watchowskis forgot that action is a tool for telling a story; it’s not an end in and of itself.
Similarly, George R.R. Martin has forgotten that dark and gritty plot twists are a tool for telling a story; they aren’t an end unto themselves. Watching someone endure torture and mutilation in the absence of a story that gives those events meaning isn’t interesting; it’s just grotesque. Bear in mind that I am not opposed to depictions of violence or abuse in fiction; what I object to is violence and abuse without a purpose. Let me contrast this with an example of torture used effectively as a story point. Ironically, I’m going back to the Watchowskis for this.
V for Vendetta.
In that movie, Evey is a young television producer who meets the dark anti-hero V. Evey is terrified of her totalitarian government and finds herself making excuses for the administration’s rampant disregard for human rights. She doesn’t want to fight, so she justifies the atrocities she sees by claiming things are not that bad.
Then one day, Evey is captured.
She is subjected to scalding hot showers, beaten with stick, denied food and forced to sleep on the floor. Her clothing is burned, her head shaved, and she is forced live out her days in a cramped little cell with nothing but a burlap sack for clothing. While in her cell, Evey finds the journal of another prisoner written on scraps of toilet paper. Finally, she is offered a choice: she can either tell her captors everything she knows about the terrorist V, or she can die alone from a bullet to the head. Evey decides that she would rather die.
In that moment, she realizes that survival alone is not enough. Life is not worth living without dignity. Evey’s refusal to cooperate is more than just an act of defiance; it is an act of empowerment. Evey has reclaimed her dignity by demonstrating unequivocally that no matter what they do to her body, her spirit remains unbroken. She escapes the prison with a new moral purpose, an understanding that you cannot rationalize the actions of a despot, you cannot turn a blind eye to injustice. Each citizen bears some small responsibility for the actions of her society. Evey is ready to shoulder that burden. The torture furthers not only her individual character arc but also the overall plot of the film. You’ll find nothing similar in A Song of Ice and Fire. Torture there exists for shock value and nothing else.
The thing about this series is that there are so many things wrong with it, I could honestly do a dozen blog posts on Song of Ice and Fire alone. I’m debating just how deeply I want to delve into this – I don’t like to spend too much time discussing other people’s writing – but I can say for certain that this will not be the last article on this subject. We still have to discuss pacing and predictability. So, for now, let’s just leave it here, and I’ll see you all next week.
Hey, looking for some great fiction? Check out Symbiosis, the book reviewers have called the illegitimate love child of Star Trek and Buffy.
Now available on Kindle
And Kobo http://bit.ly/1Jb7NAo
It’s had some great reviews!