A Study in Heresy II: Five Things That Irritate Me About A Song of Ice and Fire

I genuinely respect George R.R. Martin. I think he’s somewhat mistaken on occasions, but no-one can doubt that he has produced much excellent work over several decades. In particular, he is responsible for some truly gorgeous short stories, not to mention one of the greatest vampire novels of the twentieth century (Fevre Dream, which I still consider his best full-length book). These days, he is best known for A Song of Ice and Fire, the series that birthed Game of Thrones.

And it is A Song of Ice and Fire that I focus on today. Last month, I did a little thought experiment, where I nitpicked some of the elements of The Lord of the Rings – even Homer nods, as the saying goes. Now it’s Martin’s turn – the idea being that I am taking an author I like, and playing a bit of devil’s advocate. One should always think critically, after all, even when dealing with quality material.

So without further ado, my top five issues with A Song of Ice and Fire. Beware spoilers:

5. Essos

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The heart of the story centres on Westeros – whether it be the coming offensive from the Others, or the squabble over the Iron Throne. Essos, the neighbouring continent, is at this point merely serving as a holding pen for Daenerys’ dragons until they are of age to use in her intended conquest. In short, we care about Westeros more than Essos, and so long as Daenerys remains stuck in the latter, the plot is spinning its wheels.

Worse, there is (in my opinion anyway) an orientalist tinge to proceedings. Essos, in particular Slaver’s Bay, is inhabited by one-dimensional buffoons and pantomime villains who not only castrate boys, but then force them to kill puppies. And then there’s the Yunkai army on stilts, Daario’s three-pronged blue beard (mercifully changed in the adaptation), the Ghiscari’s honeyed locusts, alongside other outlandish exoticisms. Now, it might be argued this is a way of showing how alien Essos is to Westerosi eyes – our POV characters are also foreigners to these lands. The problem there is that Martin has already featured an “outsider viewed” society, where the characters aren’t mere stereotypes. I refer to Jon’s experience with the Wildings, though Dorne and the (admittedly one-note) Dothraki arguably count too. Slaver’s Bay, by contrast, is populated by villains as stupid as they are evil – as far as Daenerys’ gambit with the unsullied goes, if I made a living building and selling killer robots, I would at least program the robots to not attack me once I sold them, or at least keep a stockpile for my own protection.

Right now, Martin needs to get his heroine out of Essos, and into Westeros as soon as possible.

4. Cersei Lannister

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If there is one thing I hate when reading, it is the author cheerleading me to hate a character. I make my own judgements, thank you very much, and being pushed too hard in a particular direction will often spark rebellion. It’s why I cheer for the Slytherins in Harry Potter (I nearly threw the book across the room when Dumbledore suggested that Snape had been sorted too soon). It is also why I sympathise with Theon Greyjoy before he encounters Ramsay Bolton, and why I mourn what Martin has done with Cersei Lannister.

In the first three books, Cersei is an interesting villain. She is competent, if not spectacularly so, and can garner some sympathy: she genuinely loves her children, is the victim of domestic abuse from a husband she hates, and has been damaged by Tywin’s terrible parenting. She loathes Tyrion because she tries so hard to impress her father – he hates weakness, thus so must she. No-one can dispute that the incest thing is messed up, but this is a character we can appreciate and recognise as a human being.

A shame then that the second Martin gives her her own POV in A Feast for Crows, she loses this complexity. The Cersei we see there is a giggling destructive maniac, defined entirely by the loss of her son, and by a shoe-horned prophecy. The loss of her son and her father is obviously a blow to Cersei, but the resulting cartoon villainy destroys any remaining positive traits. Similarly, the prophecy destroys all the character-based reasons for her hatred of her little brother, and replaces it with simple reductionism. Martin, clearly, is also trying to get us to hate this character – whereas in the first three books, she may evoke sympathy, in the follow-up, the author makes it impossible.

Whereas Jaime’s POV adds to his character, Cersei’s POV is the reverse. I consider it worse than the Essos situation, because it extinguishes something that I really liked about the series.

3. The Later Books

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Related to the above, I also think A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons are substantially weaker than the first three books of the series. It is not simply a matter of these two books lacking the narrative drive of the earlier volumes (though they do). It is a combination of several problems, both general and specific:

3(a). Pacing: In A Game of Thrones, Catelyn could be in Winterfell one chapter, and in King’s Landing the next. Four books later, in A Dance with Dragons, the book slows to a crawl while Tyrion drifts down a river.

3(b). The Writing: All authors have tics, but in the later books Martin too often falls back on formulaic and repetitive constructions to the point of parody (bread fresh from the oven, the juice ran down his chin, words are wind, et cetera). The faux-archaisms that appear out of nowhere (nuncle, leal), similarly grate.

3(c). Decharacterisation: I have mentioned Cersei earlier, but I think Jon Snow also suffers. Having spent multiple books growing as a character and learning to keep his family separate from his service to the Watch, he then completely throws it all away by deciding to go and rescue “Arya” from Ramsay. All that character development up in smoke.

Don’t get me wrong: there are some excellent bits in the later volumes (I especially like the Theon arc, which avoids the torture porn of the TV adaptation and focuses on the psychological elements). It’s just that taken as a whole, the earlier books are better.

2. Fake Death Syndrome

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J.K. Rowling has Expelliarmus. J.R.R. Tolkien has the Eagles. George R.R. Martin has Fake Death Syndrome. Martin’s is the most problematic.

Why? Simple: Rowling and Tolkien are falling back on their respective devices to get themselves out of a hole. They aren’t trying to fool the reader into expecting something different. Martin on the other hand has become the epitome of the Boy Who Cried Wolf: having played this particular card with Bran, Rickon, Arya, Theon, Davos, Sandor, and Brienne – never mind the resurrections of Beric and Catelyn, it has become extremely hard to take death in Westeros seriously. When Jon Snow gets stabbed, I do not feel what the text clearly wants me to feel, but rather shrug and expect the character to return. Honest question: before last year’s season of Game of Thrones, did anyone actually expect Jon to stay dead?

(Note that it would have been problematic the other way too, had Jon stayed dead. Having Ned as a decoy protagonist in one book is one thing. Having Jon – whom we have spent thousands of pages with – as a decoy protagonist is quite another. In my opinion, there was no good way of resolving this particular plot point).

I will also note that Martin has suggested that Tolkien made a mistake by reviving Gandalf. At least Tolkien was aware of his Eagle problem (referring to it as “a dangerous machine”), and at least Rowling tries to fudge the Expelliarmus use by making it part of Harry’s characterisation (it becomes his signature spell). I worry that Martin isn’t aware of his own personal tic.

1. Worldbuilding

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In one of my Tolkien essays, I took a look at Martin’s critique of Tolkien – “what was Aragorn’s tax policy?” My essential conclusion was that (ignoring the detailed look at Shire governance), Martin is confusing an aspect of worldbuilding with a fault in the text: The Lord of the Rings is about many things, but it is not about tax policy. Returning the favour with A Song of Ice and Fire would involve taking Martin to task for language issues – the structure of High Valyrian, the fact that the Wildings and Dornishmen can understand each other. Et cetera. But I won’t do that, since I would be making the same mistake – taking a negligible niggle and parading it around as though it impacts the story. Rather, I will focus on a genuinely relevant aspect of the worldbuilding that I think gets neglected to the series’ detriment.

Specifically the handling of the seasons and ecology.

The issue here is that I feel Martin has taken an interesting premise – a world with varying, multi-year seasons – but has not fully worked through the implications of that premise. The world we are presented with has somehow ended up replicating (more or less) Medieval Europe. Oak trees (which are creatures of temperate climates) are found north of the Wall, while multi-year winters do not have a noticeable effect on the food-chains and ecosystems – large predators like wolves can still survive. At a human level, rather than mass-migration and coastal living being the norm, we have interior settlements and (more or less) feudalism. To draw an analogy, it would be rather like an Alternate History book hypothesising a timeline where the Second World War never happens, yet Barack Obama still gets elected United States President in 2008 – in reality a change of that magnitude is going to make the modern world a very different place.

I am not asking for a completely thorough and scientific work-through a la Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia series, but I feel Martin could have done a bit more than simply serving us up a Standard Fantasy Setting with the variable seasons as a cool backdrop. I can ignore language stuff (it’s not important to the story), I can ignore the fact that somehow Khal Drogo’s fire is hot enough to melt gold (it’s an alloy!), but when a series makes Winter is Coming one of its iconic mantras, I think it needs to take care about how this Winter would impact on setting beyond an invasion of ice demons.

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