Last Christmas holiday I published a post on the Harry Potter series which has led to my teaching next academic year an elective subject on Rowling’s dark yarn. Having enjoyed season one of TV series A Game of Thrones, I told myself that perhaps soon it should be the turn for George R. R. Martin’s dark saga, A Song of Ice and Fire. This consists of seven volumes: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1998), A Storm of Swords (2000), A Feast for Crows (2005), A Dance with Dragons (2011) and the still unwritten The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. This will amount to between 9,000 and 10,000 pages, maybe more. So far I have read volume one, seen season 2 of the TV series –and decided to stop until Martin is done.

I was among the fortunate few to see Martin when he visited Barcelona back in July 2007. I knew about his very high reputation among fantasy fans and so queued patiently with them. The house (library Jaume Fuster) was packed, the interview was highly enjoyable. I did not start reading the saga then, though, simply because I find pseudo-medieval fantasy too suspiciously patriarchal. Then, there’s the matter of the dragons, which I, an SF reader, don’t much appreciate. I did grasp, however, the very clear impression that Martin is delivering an exciting story that might eventually become the next Lord of the Rings. When he’s done.

The TV series, a mere summary of the novels, is a good aid to navigate the densely populated feudal universe that American Martin has imagined (he is the chronicler that an imaginary medieval USA would have needed). The girl Daenerys is the one that (logically) got me hooked, as she starts off as a princess sold by her brother to a tribal warlord but soon becomes an ambitious contender for Westeros much disputed throne. I even enjoy her role as the ‘mother’ of three cute little dragons. Then, there’s the spunky Arya Stark, her patient bastard brother Jon Snow and, surely, the best character: the cynical but humane dwarf Tyrion Lannister, played by that immense actor, Peter Dinklage. Reading the first novel, however, was not the enriching experience I expected.

Martin writes soap opera, very easy to digest once the reader gets over the hurdle of remembering who is who (the actors’ faces do help…). Yet it’s nothing but soap opera. An Amazon reader described his fiction as fast food and I share that impression. It’s not fast food of the Da Vinci Code denomination, as Martin has, at least, made the impressive effort of imagining a myriad characters and subplots. Still, beyond the platitude that people will do appalling things to access power, there not much else. When this is narrated against a historical background (think The Tudors, or The Godfather trilogy) we gain a deeper insight into human psychology but when narrated against a fantasy background, we just get a gigantic cliché.

The other main problem, or perhaps merit, is that Martin has the habit of killing off his main and second-tier characters at an alarming speed. This is indeed how History functions but makes me wary (and weary) as a reader of investing too much emotional energy on his characters. His saga also has in common with History the fact that he has no real protagonist. I have told myself that A Song… will turn out to be the story of how Daenerys finally becomes the Queen… but I worry it might well be Ned Stark’s ‘lost’ dream before dying. Or even worse: that it is as pointless as History.

And something else: Martin is an unhealthy-looking 64-year-old individual too fond of writing overlong books with too little discipline. The man does not even know whether the saga will really stop at book seven and although he has written a basic summary for his TV producers just in case his ticker collapses too soon, once more, I’d rather he finishes before I continue reading/seeing the saga.

I may be totally missing the point and failing to see that Martin is the real post-post modern writer, offering not so much a well-crafted story with a sense of closure but a storyline that must be enjoyed at particular points, or scenes, with no expectations about where all this is going. Once more: this is exactly how soap opera works, imitating life’s entrances and exits (or History’s). The problem, for me, is that I grow increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of investing so much time on an ongoing series (TV or print), particularly after the Lost fiasco. So, yes, I’ll wait until he’s done and then we’ll see. Or read.

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  1. I agree wholesale. And I’m a keen viewer of documentaries, on many subjects, on YouTube. Just as it has transformed the experience of listening to music, leading you to all kinds of related material, cover versions, suggestions, etc., one can follow the thread from link to link on YouTube and never lack something interesting to watch. Which makes me wonder that not many people seem to do this—at least practically nobody I know. It’s a great resource for our students, too, and we should direct them to this practice in case they miss it. Oh well, most will miss it anyway.

  2. Opos. The previous comment was obviously meant for the previous post. System error, not mine… Anyway. I would suggest that unless you are ready to enjoy the dynamics of the ongoing and unending soap, you should not devote much time to A GAME OF THRONES, because you nailed its aesthetic in your last paragraph. But don’t worry too much about GRR Martin’s health, if the series is successful enough, whivh it seems to be, there will be no lack of competent screenwriters to deliver the right kind of material.

  3. Yes, I know the story will end sooner or later, in Martin’s hands or in other hands (whether they are competent, that’s another matter). What baffles me is how in our fast-running times, people enjoy these long-winded, never-ending yarns…

  4. I am seeing now quite a handful of excellents documentaries on the Victorian age in preparation for my subject, and wondering why we don’t include them as bibliography (at least, I don’t). I’ll recommend some but I am not sure students will welcome that. I’ll have to ask them…

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