Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Game of Thrones: casting aside expectations

About 6 months ago -- inspired by the hype -- I decided to give George R.R. Martin's "epic fantasy" book A Game a Thrones a read. Everyone claimed that Martin is the "American Tolkien," that the series is the "next The Lord of the Rings" and that he has given new life to a "predictable and tiresome" fantasy genre. Of course, I don't believe that the fantasy genre has become predictable or tiresome, but the rest of the hype surrounding the book I swallowed hook line and sinker -- and guess what, I hated the book. I found it tedious, boring, and nothing more than The Sopranos set in the dark ages. In fact, I only managed to get through 100 pages before I put the thing down, disgusted with the whole thing.

That's not to say that Martin is a bad writer. He's not. In fact, he is a superb writer. Technically speaking he is one of the best modern writers which I have ever read. He knows how to craft a sentence and does it better than most fiction authors alive today. He is brilliant, but I felt that he was a poor story teller. Yet, the hype for the series "A Song of Ice and Fire" (of which A Game of Thrones is only the first book) remained in the back of my mind. Did I have something wrong? Maybe the thing was good at it was just me?

Well, after asking myself these questions for the last 6 months, I decided to give A Game a Thrones a second try -- and I must say this time I actually "enjoyed" the book (if one can enjoy something which contains so much violence.) In fact, once I was aware of what I was getting myself into (a story about Byzantine styled politics set in a fantasy world) I found a new appreciation for the story -- which I initially felt was non existent. The story is actually quite compelling. So why did I hate it so much the first go around?

I think the real problem lies with a person's expectations. As I said, everyone kept telling me that this is the next The Lord of the Rings. Well, people should STOP saying that! This is nothing like LOTR and Martin writes nothing like Tolkien. Sorry they just are not the same. This doesn't make one better or worse -- just very, very different. To make such comparisons only gives readers of epic fantasy a certain impression about the book. If you're expecting "High Fantasy" well, this isn't it -- at least not in book one. It is fantasy -- but it's not what most people expect in fantasy.Of course I now realize that this fact has been crafted by Martin quite deliberately and not because he is a poor storyteller. He has a specific purpose in mind and (hopefully) a specific story which he wants to tell. (Though some of his fans have begun to question that with the release of book 5).

The comparisons to Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings however is completely unfounded and I believe turns some readers OFF to a book which they might otherwise enjoy. The fact that it is "gritty and realistic" as so many fans say has nothing to do with my initial dislike of the book. The fact that it is ultra violent and that main characters die had nothing to do with my initial dislike of the book. Yes, some of it is uncomfortable to read, but not any more uncomfortable than some of the violence in Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series. And people seem to forget that main characters  die in The Lord of the Rings too, so that's not the issue.
The real issue, for me anyway, was expectations which were based largely on hype. Once those expectations were cast I said, I found that I really enjoyed the book. I still feel that it does drag in places but I almost wonder if it is not deliberate, who knows?

If you're a fantasy fan, a fan of medieval and byzantine politics, or even a fan of The Sopranos -- I think A Game of Thrones is definitely worth a try. Are Martin's fans right in saying that he is reinventing the fantasy genre? Probably not.The desire and love for true "High Fantasy" will not go away. Will people be taking college classes on Martin the way people today take courses on Tolkien? Highly unlikely. But it IS a very good book with a very compelling story. I don't think it will have the lasting power which Tolkien or even Terry Brooks' novels have had -- but it is none the less a fantastic read and I'm looking forward to book two!