The writing in George R. R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones ranges from pretty good to indifferent to pretty bad to silly: it’s filled with cliches, the characters all sound the same, and I can’t figure out why we should care if one bunch of schemers rules the realm instead of another bunch of schemers. In the end, the peasants are still covered in shit. The politics are complex, but they’re complex in the way of corruption everywhere, with people mostly out for their own interest. This sort of thing led to the U.N. and democracy in the West and Japan.
Presumably the world of A Game of Thrones will head in that direction if it hits an industrial revolution, and you could have a lot of fun grafting contemporary parallels on the world. As this description shows, it’s somewhat hard to take this sort of feudalism seriously.
Corruption can be fun to read about, but the prose doesn’t work in A Game of Thrones. The book can’t decide on a faux medievalism or a relatively current register, so it goes for both. With most sentences, you could remove a sword, drop in a gun, and still have the same basic idea. The language remains modern while the nominal concerns are medieval; this is the problem so many fantasy novels have that Tolkien doesn’t. These problems start early; on the second page, “Will could sense something else in the older man. You could taste it; a nervous tension that came perilous close to fear.” Using “perilous” instead of “perilously” is the kind of thing that might could for style, but the sentence itself is still cliche. How many times has something been so close or immanent that a character could taste it?
The inverted word order is also evident early: “All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not.” The last few words are equivalent do “didn’t love him,” and they’re okay on their own, I suppose, but such inversions are as far as style goes. You don’t have to be Martin Amis to find this tedious after a while (Another example, this time in dialogue: ” ‘Direwolves loose in the realm, after so many years,’ muttered Hullen, the master of horse. ‘I like it not.’ “). A few pages later, we skip to the point of view of Bran, who “rode among them, nervous with excitement,” another description that I’ve never seen in a novel before. There are repeated appeals to honor throughout, as on page 4: “The order had been given, and honor bound them to obey.” Honor appears to bind them to do things so stupid that they die for them.
Then there are “as you know, captain” speeches: “The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks, and we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Blood the first man might have been original before the numerous references to the blood of Numenor in Tolkien. By now, appeals to genetic similarity dictating present behavior grow tiresome, along with anger flashing in eyes, “I was born a Tully and wed to a Stark [. . .] I do not frighten easily,” and so on.
Viserys Targaryen gets introduced early too, and in case you didn’t really know he was the bad guy, tells his sister than he’d let a 40,000-man barbarian horde rape her to regain his throne, and he also gives her a terrible “titty twister,” (also known as “purple nurple“) which is a term I don’t think I’ve heard or thought about since middle school. Are these phrases insanely juvenile? Absolutely, but a book like A Game of Thrones calls them forth. The dialogue is precisely what Francine Prose described in Reading Like a Writer:
This notion of dialogue as a pure expression of character that (like character itself) transcends the specifics of time and place may be partly why the conversations in the works of writers such as Austen and Brontë often sound fresh and astonishingly contemporary, and quite unlike the stiff, mannered, archaic speech we find in bad historical novels and in those medieval fantasies in which young men always seem to be saying things like, ‘Have I passed the solemn and sacred initiation test, venerable hunt master?’ “
Prose is parodying bad fantasy novels, but the parody is hardly a parody: most fantasy writers haven’t figured out how to make their characters’ speech work on multiple levels or how people vary their listening and speaking according to status. People assume a great deal; as Prose shows elsewhere, they assume a great deal about their audience, speak obliquely, are riven by multiple desires, and so on. When we read the ponderous speechifying so popular in fantasy, it breaks the very fantasy it’s trying to accomplish for anyone who knows how people actually speak.
There are some good sections but they’re intermittent and relatively simple changes could lead to tremendous improvements.
One thing I like about The Magicians is that it doesn’t succumb to this kind of speechifying: the characters often talk past one another, and they are constantly interrogating themselves. Quentin’s major flaw is his narcissism: he’s so wrapped up in his own misery, and then his own relationship with Alice, and then the consequences of the his-and-her cheating set, that he sets himself up for the pain that follows. Too bad. If you like standard sword-n-sorcery fantasy, you’ll like A Game of Thrones. If you’re looking for something different, like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, you’ll be disappointed. Martin might admire Tolkien, but he doesn’t have Tolkien’s consistent command of language to make his work comparable.
Since people can’t be reading Martin for the writing itself, what are they reading him for? The most obvious answer is plot, since it’s fun and fast-paced. The novel demands careful reading if you’re going to follow who’s killing whom and why, if not for the quality of its prose. Even if you are following the reasons for murder, expect to be confused at points (in this respect, and only this respect, does A Game of Thrones resemble John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor). It’s surprising: in the fist novel, a seemingly major character dies. There are three more published. Maybe other characters will get the unexpected axe too. According to “Just Write It!: A fantasy author and his impatient fans” in The New Yorker, “Martin transgressed the conventions of his genre—and most popular entertainment—by making it clear that none of his characters were guaranteed to survive to the next book, or even to the next chapter.” This is refreshing and a major improvement.
So are the other virtues mentioned:
Martin’s characters indulge in all the usual vices associated with the Middle Ages, and some of them engage in behavior—most notably, incest—that would shock people of any historical period. Characters who initially seem likable commit reprehensible acts, and apparent villains become sympathetic over time. [. . . ] “When Indiana Jones goes up against that convoy of forty Nazis, it’s a lot of fun, but it’s not ‘Schindler’s List,’ ” he explained. He wants readers to feel that “they love the characters and they’re afraid for the characters.”
They’re true, but the article wisely avoids focusing on the sentence-level of each story. The big difference between Martin and a lot of fantasy writers is his relatively realistic depiction of sex: lots of powerful royals aren’t particularly nice to their partners and use their positions to further their sexual agendas, a bit like they did (and do) in real life. Not everyone views life in a realpolitik fashion, of course, and the Starks form the moral center of the show, which is especially important in large-scale works where most people are simple schemers. After all, in tit-for-tat style encounters, people who behave honorably consistently will tend to eventually win out over those who don’t.
There’s not a lot of humor in A Game of Thrones, and what there is is mostly courtesy of the martini-dry Tyrion, a dwarf in a world without the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, who cares who sits on the throne? In The Lord of the Rings, the return of the true king symbolizes a wide array of both restoration and advancement. In A Game of Thrones the game is supposed to be a metaphor, since nothing real is at stake in most games. Instead, it feels real, in the sense that a game has no important consequences once it terminates. Does it matter whether one set of schemers or another sits on the throne? Not to this contemporary reader: they have far fewer substantial policy differences between them than, say, Republicans and Democrats.
Still, this doesn’t necessarily bode ill for the much-advertised HBO series; the first two seasons of True Blood rose above their source period through their tongue-in-cheek campiness. One doesn’t often get to say, “The movie was way better than the book,” but for True Blood it was true. I’m hoping for the same in A Game of Thrones. At the very least, it’s unlikely to be worse than Camelot.
Slate’s Nina Rastogi does like A Game of Thrones, although he doesn’t talk a lot about sentences. Here’s the most amusing comment so far in a review of the TV show: “One scene, luxuriantly offensive, involves what is either a gladiatorial rape tournament or a Jersey Shore homage.”