J.G. Keely's Reviews > A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
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's review
May 26, 2007

did not like it
bookshelves: abandoned, fantasy, reviewed

There are plenty of fantasy authors who claim to be doing something different with the genre. Ironically, they often write the most predictable books of all, as evidenced by Goodkind and Paolini. Though I'm not sure why they protest so much--predictability is hardly a death sentence in genre fantasy.

The archetypal story of a hero, a villain, a profound love, and a world to be saved never seems to get old--it's a great story when it's told well. At the best, it's exciting, exotic, and builds to a fulfilling climax. At the worst, it's just a bloodless rehash. Unfortunately, the worst are more common by far.

Perhaps it was this abundance of cliche romances that drove Martin to aim for something different. Unfortunately, you can't just choose to be different, any more than you can choose to be creative. Sure, Moorcock's original concept for Elric was to be the anti-Conan, but at some point, he had to push his limits and move beyond difference for difference's sake--and he did.

In similar gesture, Martin rejects the allegorical romance of epic fantasy, which basically means tearing out the guts of the genre: the wonder, the ideals, the heroism, and with them, the moral purpose. Fine, so he took out the rollicking fun and the social message--what did he replace them with?

Like the post-Moore comics of the nineties, fantasy has already borne witness to a backlash against the upright, moral hero--and then a backlash against the grim antihero who succeeded him. Hell, if all Martin wanted was grim and gritty antiheroes in an amoral world, he didn't have to reject the staples of fantasy, he could have gone to its roots: Howard, Leiber, and Anderson.

Like many authors aiming for realism, he forgets 'truth is stranger than fiction'. The real world is full of unbelievable events, coincidences, and odd characters. When authors remove these elements in an attempt to make their world seem real, they make their fiction duller than reality; after all, unexpected details are the heart of verisimilitude. When Chekhov and Peake eschewed the easy thrill of romance, they replaced it with the odd and absurd--moments strange enough to feel true. In comparison, Martin's world is dull and gray. Instead of innovating new, radical elements, he merely removes familiar staples--and any style defined by lack is going to end up feeling thin.

Yet, despite trying inject the book with history and realism, he does not reject the melodramatic characterization of his fantasy forefathers, as evidenced by his brooding bastard antihero protagonist (with pet albino wolf). Apparently to him, 'grim realism' is 'Draco in Leather Pants'. This produces a conflicted tone: a soap opera cast lost in an existentialist film.

There's also lots of sex and misogyny, and 'wall-to-wall rape'--not that books should shy away from sex, or from any uncomfortable, unpleasant reality of life. The problem is when people who are not comfortable with their own sexuality start writing about it, which seems to plague every mainstream fantasy author. Their pen gets away from them, their own hangups start leaking into the scene, until it's not even about the characters anymore, it's just the author cybering about his favorite fetish--and if I cyber with a fat, bearded stranger, I expect to be paid for it.

I know a lot of fans probably get into it more than I do (like night elf hunters humping away in WOW), but reading Goodkind, Jordan, and Martin--it's like seeing a Playboy at your uncle's where all the pages are wrinkled. That's not to say there isn't serviceable pop fantasy sex out there--it's just written by women.

Though I didn't save any choice examples, I did come across this quote from a later book:
"... she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest . . ."

Imagine the process: Martin sits, hands hovering over the keys, trying to get inside his character's head:

"Okay, I'm a woman. How do I see and feel the world differently? My cultural role is defined by childbirth. I can be bought and sold in marriage by my own--Oh, hey! I've got tits! Man, look at those things go. *whooshing mammary sound effects* Okay, time to write."

Where are the descriptions of variously-sized dongs swinging within the confines of absurdly-detailed clothing? There are a set of manboobs (which perhaps Martin has some personal experience with) but not until book five. Even then, it's not the dude being hyperaware of his own--they're just there to gross out a dwarf. Not really a balanced depiction.

If you're familiar with the show (and its parodies on South Park and SNL) this lack of dongs may surprise you. But as Martin himself explained, when asked why there's no gay sex in his books, despite having gay characters, 'they’re not the viewpoint characters'--as if somehow, the viewpoints he chooses to depict are beyond his control. Apparently, he plots as well as your average NaNoWriMo author: sorry none of my characters chose to be gay, nothing I can do about it.

And balance really is the problem here--if you only depict the dark, gritty stuff that you're into, that's not realism, it's just a fetish. If you depict the grimness of war by having every female character threatened with rape, but the same thing never happens to a male character, despite the fact that more men get raped in the military than women, then your 'gritty realism card' definitely gets revoked.

The books are notorious for the sudden, pointless deaths, which some suggest is another sign of realism--but, of course, nothing is pointless in fiction, because everything that shows up on the page is only there because the author put it there. Sure, in real life, people suddenly die before finishing their life's work (fantasy authors do it all the time), but there's a reason we don't tend to tell stories of people who die unexpectedly in the middle of things: they are boring and pointless. They build up for a while then eventually, lead nowhere.

Novelists often write in isolation, so it's easy to forget the rule to which playwrights adhere: your story is always a fiction. Any time you treat it as if it were real, you are working against yourself. The writing that feels the most natural is never effortless, it is carefully and painstakingly constructed to seem that way.

A staple of Creative Writing 101 is to 'listen to how people really talk', which is terrible advice. A transcript of any conversation will be so full of repetition, half-thoughts, and non-specific words ('stuff', 'thing') as to be incomprehensible--especially without the cues of tone and body language. Written communication has its own rules, so making dialogue feel like speech is a trick writers play. It's the same with sudden character deaths: treat them like a history, and your plot will become choppy and hard to follow.

Not that the deaths are truly unpredictable. Like in an action film, they are a plot convenience: kill off a villain, and you don't have to wrap up his arc. You don't have to defeat him psychologically--the finality of his death is the great equalizer. You skip the hard work of demonstrating that the hero was morally right, because he's the only option left.

Likewise, in Martin's book, death ties up loose threads--namely, plot threads. Often, this is the only ending we get to his plot arcs, which makes them rather predictable: any time a character is about to build up enough influence to make things better, or more stable, he will die. Any character who poses a threat to the continuing chaos which drives the action will first be built up, and then killed off.

I found this interview to be a particularly telling example of how Martin thinks of character deaths:
"I killed (view spoiler) because everybody thinks he’s the hero ... sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing [someone] is going to rise up and avenge his [death] ... So immediately [killing (view spoiler)] became the next thing I had to do.

He's not talking about the characters' motivations, or the ideas they represent, or their role in the story--he isn't laying out a well-structured plot, he's just killing them off for pure shock value.

Yet the only reason we think these characters are important in the first place is because Martin treats them as central heroes, spending time and energy building them. Then it all ends up being a red herring, a cheap twist, the equivalent of a horror movie jump scare. It's like mystery novels in the 70's, after all the good plots had been done, so authors added ghosts or secret twins in the last chapter--it's only surprising because the author has obliterated the story structure.

All plots are made up of arcs that grow and change, building tension and purpose. Normally, when an arc ends, the author must use all his skill to deal with themes and answer questions, providing a satisfying conclusion to a promising idea that his readers watched grow. Or just kill off a character central to the conflict and bury the plot arc with him. Then you don't have to worry about closure, you can just hook your readers by focusing on the mess caused by the previous arc falling apart. Make the reader believe that things might get better, get them to believe in a character, then wave your arms in distraction, point and yell 'look at that terrible thing, over there!', and hope they become so caught up in worrying about the new problem that they forget the old one was never resolved.

Chaining false endings together creates perpetual tension that never requires solution--like in most soap operas--plus, the author never has to do the hard work of finishing what they started. If an author is lucky, they die before reaching the Final Conclusion the readership is clamoring for, and never have to meet the collective expectation which long years of deferral have built up. It's easy to idolize Kurt Cobain, because you never had to see him bald and old and crazy like David Lee Roth.

Unlucky authors live to write the Final Book, breaking the spell of unending tension that kept their readers enthralled. Since the plot isn't resolving into a tight, intertwined conclusion (in fact, it's probably spiraling out of control, with ever more characters and scenes), the author must wrap things up conveniently and suddenly, leaving fans confused and upset. Having thrown out the grand romance of fantasy, Martin cannot even end on the dazzling trick of the vaguely-spiritual transgressive Death Event on which the great majority of fantasy books rely for a handy tacked-on climax (actually, he'll probably do it anyways, with dragons--the longer the series goes on, the more it starts to resemble the cliche monomyth that Martin was praised for eschewing in the first place).

The drawback is that even if a conclusion gets stuck on at the end, the story fundamentally leads nowhere--it winds back and forth without resolving psychological or tonal arcs. But then, doesn't that sound more like real life? Martin tore out the moralistic heart and magic of fantasy, and in doing so, rejected the notion of grandly realized conclusions. Perhaps we shouldn't compare him to works of romance, but to histories.

He asks us to believe in his intrigue, his grimness, and his amoral world of war, power, and death--not the false Europe of Arthur, Robin Hood, and Orlando, but the real Europe of plagues, political struggles, religious wars, witch hunts, and roving companies of soldiery forever ravaging the countryside. Unfortunately, he doesn't compare very well to them, either. His intrigue is not as interesting as Cicero's, Machiavelli's, Enguerrand de Coucy's--or even Sallust's, who was practically writing fiction, anyways. Some might suggest it unfair to compare a piece of fiction to a true history, but these are the same histories that lent Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock their touches of verisimilitude. Martin might have taken a lesson from them and drawn inspiration from further afield: even Tolkien had his Eddas. Despite being fictionalized and dramatized, Martin's take on The War of the Roses is far duller than the original.

More than anything, this book felt like a serial melodrama: the hardships of an ensemble cast who we are meant to watch over and sympathize with, being drawn in by emotional appeals (the hope that things will 'get better' in this dark place, 'tragic' deaths), even if these appeals conflict with the supposed realism, and in the end, there is no grander story to unify the whole. This 'grittiness' is just Martin replacing the standard fantasy theme of 'glory' with one of 'hardship', and despite flipping this switch, it's still just an emotional appeal. 'Heroes always win' is just as blandly predictable as 'heroes always lose'.

It's been suggested that I didn't read enough of Martin to judge him, but if the first four hundred pages aren't good, I don't expect the next thousand will be different. If you combine the three Del Rey collections of Conan The Barbarian stories, you get 1,263 pages (including introductions, end notes, and variant scripts). If you take Martin's first two books in this series, you get 1,504 pages. Already, less than a third of the way into the series, he's written more than Howard's entire Conan output, and all I can do is ask myself: why does he need that extra length?

A few authors use it to their advantage, but for most, it's just sprawling, undifferentiated bloat. Melodrama can be a great way to mint money, as evidenced by the endless 'variations on a theme' of soap operas, pro wrestling, and superhero comics. People get into it, but it's neither revolutionary nor realistic. You also hear the same things from the fans: that it's all carefully planned, all interconnected, all going somewhere. Apparently they didn't learn their lesson from the anticlimactic fizzling out of Twin Peaks, X-Files, Lost, and Battlestar. Then again, you wouldn't keep watching if you didn't think it was going somewhere.

Some say 'at least he isn't as bad as all the drivel that gets published in genre fantasy', but saying he's better than dreck is really not very high praise. Others have intimated that I must not like fantasy at all, pointing to my low-star reviews of Martin, Wolfe, Jordan, and Goodkind, but it is precisely because I am passionate about fantasy that I fall heavily on these authors.

A lover of fine wines winces the more at a corked bottle of vinegar, a ballet enthusiast's love of dance would not leave him breathless at a high school competition--and likewise, having learned to appreciate epics, histories, knightly ballads, fairy tales, and their modern offspring in fantasy, I find Martin woefully lacking. There's plenty of grim fantasy and intrigue out there, from its roots to the dozens of fantasy authors, both old and modern, whom I list in the link at the end of this review

There seems to be a sense that Martin's work is somehow revolutionary, that it represents a 'new direction' for fantasy, but all I see is a reversion. Sure, he's different than Jordan, Goodkind, and their ilk, who simply took the pseudo-medieval high-magic world from Tolkien and the blood-and-guts heroism from Howard. Martin, on the other hand, has more closely followed Tolkien's lead than any other modern high fantasy author--and I don't just mean in terms of racism.

Tolkien wanted to make his story real--not 'realistic', using the dramatic techniques of literature--but actually real, by trying to create all the detail of a pretend world behind the story. Over the span of the first twenty years, he released The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and other works, while in the twenty years after that, he became so obsessed with worldbuilding for its own sake that instead of writing stories, he filled his shed with a bunch of notes (which his son has been trying to make a complete book from ever since).

It's the same thing Martin's trying to do: cover a bland story with a litany of details that don't contribute meaningfully to his characters, plot, or tone. So, if Martin is good because he is different, then it stands to reason that he's not very good, because he's not that different. He may seem different if all someone has read is Tolkien and the authors who ape his style, but that's just one small corner of a very expansive genre. Anyone who thinks Tolkien is the 'father of fantasy' doesn't know enough about the genre to judge what 'originality' means.

So, if Martin neither an homage nor an original, I'm not sure what's left. In his attempt to set himself apart, he tore out the joyful heart of fantasy, but failed replace it with anything. There is no revolutionary voice here, and there is nothing in Martin's book that has not been done better by other authors.

However, there is one thing Martin has done that no other author has been able to do: kill the longrunning High Fantasy series. According to some friends of mine in publishing (and some on-the-nose remarks by Caleb Carr in an NPR interview on his own foray into fantasy), Martin's inability to deliver a book on time, combined with his strained relationship with his publisher means that literary agents are no longer accepting manuscripts for high fantasy series--even from recognized authors. Apparently, Martin is so bad at plot structure that he actually pre-emptively ruined books by other authors. Perhaps it is true what they say about silver linings . . .

Though I declined to finish this book, I'll leave you with a caution compiled from various respectable friends of mine who did continue on:

"If you need some kind of closure, avoid this series. No arcs will ever be completed, nothing will ever really change. The tagline is 'Winter is Coming'--it's not. As the series goes on, there will be more and more characters and diverging plotlines to keep track of, many of them apparently completely unrelated to each other, even as it increasingly becomes just another cliche, fascist 'chosen one' monomyth, like every other fantasy series out there. If you enjoy a grim, excessively long soap opera with lots of deaths and constant unresolved tension, pick up the series--otherwise, maybe check out the show."

My Fantasy Book Suggestions
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Reading Progress

01/30/2016 marked as: abandoned

Comments (showing 201-250 of 1,756) (1756 new)

J.G. Keely Ah, sure. I wouldn't be surprised if the show were good, many stories are improved by receiving a new interpretation from other creative professionals, like actors, directors, and script-writers. Then again, that can also ruin a good story, if done inexpertly. I'll probably check it out if it shows up on Netflix.

Thanks again, see you around the site.

message 202: by Marcel (new)

Marcel Thanks for the review. I just downloaded the first episode of the HBO series and enjoyed myself, and I was checking to see if grabbing the books was a good idea. Your arguments are convincing, though, and I'd hate to invest (yet again) in a series which I am going to get bored with after x thousand pages just because the writer keeps writing long after he's killed the story.

Still, there's a little boy inside my mind eager to be swept away by a well told fantasy story, with all the detail, heroism and magic he's come to expect. I'm not certain if he'll be satisfied with the new translation of the Iliad I recently bought. Maybe I should push him to use his own imagination a bit more.

J.G. Keely Yeah, it can be hard to read little, indulgent epics like Martin's after experiencing the wealth of myths, legends, and histories out there, The Iliad being a prime example. You've got ancient authors whose insightful psychological play and vibrant figurative language are as good as anything since. Ovid was hiding multilayered political satire beneath tales of erotic dalliance fifteen hundred years before the metaphysical poets. Lucien wrote up his fantastical war between Moon Men and Venusians before the ink on the Gospels was even dry.

I'm not one of those who thinks that there is nothing new to be written==no reinterpretation open to us--but an author needs disparate inspiration. If our influences, as authors, are our guiding stars, then we need to learn many constellations if we endeavor to discover new lands. Too many authors set their course by just one, bright star, only to revisit a shore already discovered, as most of Tolkien's followers have done.

But then, it all becomes a Turpentine Problem: how much reading is enough to give an author sufficient depth to work with? Of course, there is no suitable answer, except perhaps 'as much reading as possible, as long as it does not become an excuse for avoiding writing'.

But then, many authors lack depth of inspiration, even if they have surmounted a great volume of pages. It's easy these days to read the same sorts of things over and over: to read hundreds of books, and still barely to have dipped a toe in the vasty waters of possibility.

message 204: by Mark (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mark Swoboda Although our ratings of this book are diametrically opposed, I enjoyed reading your review. Thanks for taking the time to write with such articulateness.

J.G. Keely Glad you were able to find something in it, even though it didn't agree with your sentiments; kudos.

message 206: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Your review was so well written! I hope you are a writer in some form-for a living, that is.

J.G. Keely Aww, thank you, but no, I'm no pro. Writing's just a habit that carried over from college.

John Paul Feehily A very biased review. Well written all the same. I enjoy the series, I also enjoy many of the other fantasy writings you mention. I'm not one of Martin's more overzealous fans leaping to his defense. I just feel your review was not so much a critique as it was a violent bludgeoning.
Must every fantasy writer be revolutionary, original or homage merchant to win your approval? Some people like to read for entertainment, you sound like its a crime.
Pity us ignorant fools, our brows are not as high as yours.

J.G. Keely "Some people like to read for entertainment, you sound like its a crime."

Hmm, I don't think that's true--I specifically address the notion of 'fun reading' throughout my review:

"The archetypal story of the hero, the villain, the great love, and a world to be saved never seems to get old, and there's nothing wrong with this story when it's told well. At the best, it's exciting, exotic, and builds to a fulfilling climax."

"He tore the guts out of fantasy: the fantastical, the epic tone, the heroism, and with them, the moral purpose. That is, he took out the unbridled fun and the social message."

One of my arguments is that Martin removes the things that make fantasy purely entertaining. His desire isn't to compose a guileless pulp story, but a story of 'realistic intrigue'.

Yet he falls back onto writing an emotional melodrama, undercutting his own realism. A melodrama can certainly be entertaining, but only as a means, not as an end, and I felt that his curve-ball plot twists became just a way for him to continue a story without actually producing a meaningful plot arc.

Entertainment value is an important thing, but I often felt that Martin--like The Da Vinci Code, Lost, and Soap Operas--often gave up on entertaining and instead just used emotional appeals to keep people hooked, even if nothing new was happening and the story had ceased progressing.

"Must every fantasy writer be revolutionary, original or homage merchant to win your approval?"

No, I just included those as examples of ways other authors had redeemed books that were otherwise flawed. I wanted to make sure it was clear that I wasn't simply bashing Martin for writing a melodrama, or writing intrigue, or trying to write a different sort of fantasy, but because he didn't do any of these things very well and failed to save his work by some other means, such as originality.

message 210: by John Paul (last edited Aug 03, 2011 11:21AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

John Paul Feehily Thanks for your reply. I guess you get a lot of comments regarding your review. I see your points and agree with them to a degree.

We wonder as to what George's motive were when writing some of his 'plot twists' (read: assassinations) Arguments can me made for both sides. Realists would say no one is invincible and an obvious hero (stereotypical village boy with adoptive parents, blah blah, village attacked, yadda, mysterious old stranger, etc) in a fantasy series makes for a predictable (no matter how well written) tale.
The cynic would wonder if they were set up emotionally for a shock death just to appear unpredictable.

Each reader will make up their own mind. Some will choose an argument, some will say 'both' but setups don't bother them and some won't even stop to think about it and plow on ahead, happy out.

People argue it's realism because it is based in a world more like our own than for example, The Wheel of Time or Lord of the Rings. No other races such as dwarves, elves, etc. The world is 100% human as far as most people know. Monsters are just fables & folklore. No magic powers either, just swords and shields. More in common with Arthurian tales in this regard.

Also adding to realism is the various families duking it out. The history of many powerful royal families are just as vicious and bloody as the Lannisters or Starks. As you said truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction is influenced by truth and designed to be entertaining.

As you know all this and I am probably just reiterating previous comments I'll finish with what it means to me.

I probably read Game of Thrones around 1999. After enjoying Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time, and not enjoying Raymond E Feist & David Eddings.
(It was a small fantasy section)
I moved on to Martin. I loved the idea of The Wall, The Others, The Watch, the various families; most of whom are bastards (literally & metaphorically). This drew me in. I found the toned down fantasy element a nice change from what I had been reading. The books were focused more on the human side, war, politics, subterfuge, intrigue, etc. No magic means less easy plot escapes.
'No! no! no! A little more humanity here!'
It has some of my favorite literary characters from any books, and the great moments make up for Georges shortcomings as a writer. No need to detail. And there are great moments.
There is also a progression that makes sense of character exits. If a person's story is over maybe it is best to kill them off rather than have them hanging around wasting pages doing nothing just to let us know they're still around. Some authors are terrified to kill off even minor characters, perhaps in case they offend someone.
Has any good character died in Wheel of Time? 13 books and they're all still knocking about. Makes you question The Dark One and his uber-cronies. just an example.
But still there is definitely argument for originality. The fantasy genre was becoming incredibly predictable in the 90s and however much you dismiss the fact, these books were, if not new at least a change from the norm.

It all comes down to how it made you feel. I enjoyed it, you did not. One of the greatest feats of literature is its ability to unite & divide opinion.

ps. sorry, that went on longer than I first meant.

J.G. Keely Thanks for the comment and the thoughts about why you appreciate Martin.

I agree that popular fantasy in the nineties was hitting a rut, but it remained an expansive, imaginative genre, even if what happened to sell wasn't always the most inspired. So yeah, if you're just comparing him to the few monomyth epic guys who followed Tolkien, he probably seems different, but in comparison to the fantasy genre as a whole, Martin is more similar to those 'fantasy rut' authors than he is divergent, in terms of style, character, length, use of language, sexual dynamic, &c.

You talk about how less magic makes for fewer plot escapes, but it seemed to me that Martin just replaced those with those 'surprising character deaths', which create a similarly convenient evasion. I do appreciate an author who isn't afraid to kill characters, but not if character deaths become a repetitive motif, themselves.

message 212: by Lauren (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lauren I can appreciate your review. I think that keeping the plot and exactly what happens out of a review can be difficult, though you did so well.

I'm kinda sad that of the books we've both read, we have a compatibility of 69% :/

I enjoyed the idea of this book much more than the actual book. I can devour a book in a day if it is good enough. This book didn't quite measure up. The hype was great and yet the pages and the dryness were against it. I agree that it shouldn't take that long for an 'introduction' to a story.

I felt like maybe Martin just got too engrossed in his story, which I can also understand. There was a lot that could, and maybe should, have been cut.

One of the main reasons why this book appealed to me was because I saw that it was being made into a series and I caught the first episode and thought, this seems interesting enough, mayhaps I'll read the book.

Having read many of the classical greats in their original language, I can share that love and care for them. But sometimes after laboring over primary sources, arguing syntactical relevance, and trying to scan golden lines, I like a pop-corn read.

J.G. Keely Certainly, there's nothing wrong with a purely enjoyable, enticing read. I've never been one to shy away from pulps, adventure stories, and genre fiction.

However, my idea of a fun read hardly includes an overly long, mirthlessly dire, awkwardly written book where every plot thread is terminated by a convenient character death, sidestepping the difficulty of actually crafting a meaningful endpoint for the psychological and tonal arcs set up by the author.

The argument in my review is that Martin rips the fun out of fantasy and doesn't replace it with anything equally satisfying.

"I felt like maybe Martin just got too engrossed in his story, which I can also understand."

Agreed. I didn't feel that he had the self-awareness to look at his own writing with clarity. It didn't feel like an act of purposeful construction, but of an author getting lost in themselves.

That's not always a bad thing, but it really only works when the author has a profoundly idiomatic vision to share, like Kafka or Mervyn Peake. When the author is an average guy with predictable hangups, guilelessness becomes a real liability. That's where editors are supposed to come in, but good editors are no more common than good writers.

"I think that keeping the plot and exactly what happens out of a review can be difficult, though you did so well."

Thanks for noticing. I've never thought that plot summaries added anything to reviews, except spoilers.

"I'm kinda sad that of the books we've both read, we have a compatibility of 69% :/"

Yeah, and the discrepancy is spread over genre fiction, classics, and children's; looks pretty insurmountable.

message 214: by Dr M (new) - rated it 2 stars

Dr M every plot thread is terminated by a convenient character death, sidestepping the difficulty of actually crafting a meaningful endpoint for the psychological and tonal arcs set up by the author.

I agree with quite a bit of your criticism of this book (though I don't find it quite as damning as you apparently do), but I'm not sure where you get the above from. Sure, there are character deaths in A Game of Thrones, and even more of them in the rest of the series, but most of them don't terminate plot threads. In fact, I can't think of one single example from A Game of Thrones. (I could quote an example or two from later books in the series.) Quite to the contrary, they serve to move the plot along.

message 215: by Maskokot (new)

Maskokot Keely, what was your reason to write this review?

J.G. Keely Dr. M said: "Quite to the contrary, they serve to move the plot along."

It's true, I didn't mean to indicate that this technique ends the thrust of the plot itself, but that it allows the author to avoid resolving character and idea arcs, as I say in my review:

"Or you could just kill off the character central to the conflict and bury the plot arc with him. That way, you never have to worry about creating closure, you can just hook your readers by crafting a new arc from the chaos that resulted from the character's death and the dissolution of his arc. By chaining these false endings together, you can create a perpetual state of tension which never requires solution or conclusion."

So it doesn't kill the plot, and in fact allows the plot to keep wending along, but to what end? Sure, a lot of people enjoy hooking into a long melodrama, even if avoids resolution, but I don't find constant deferral to be satisfying, since it never actually 'deals with' the issues brought up in the story.

It's similar to an odd, mysterious story which ends in the grand conclusion that 'it was all a dream'. This is technically an ending, but it ends not by wrapping up plot threads with a satisfying conclusion, but by an act of convenient deferral.

Of course, I could be mistaken; it's been a long time since I tried to read this book, but I have not yet encountered much in the way of promising counter-argument.

Maskokot said: "Keely, what was your reason to write this review?"

'O, reason not the need'--I write reviews to help me keep track of ideas and observations. Eventually, people started to 'follow' me, so I have attempted to contrive a more entertaining tone to satisfy my audience.

This review started out rather brief, but in the wake of a torrent of comments, I have added to it in an attempt to anticipate and answer the most common critiques.

message 217: by Ahmed (new) - added it

Ahmed Labib "Adding 'adult' material to a work without a mature worldview and philosophy behind it merely makes the immaturity of the work stand out all the more, like a penis drawn on the wall of a boys' bathroom."

Wow, very nicely phrased. I am impressed.

J.G. Keely Thanks so much. I figure, you write a long enough review, and some of the sentences are bound to sound nice--it's just pure statistics.

message 219: by Dr M (new) - rated it 2 stars

Dr M WARNING: this comment contains possible major spoilers for A Game of Thrones. I'll try to keep them to a minimum, and as vague as possible, but I need to discuss plot to make my point. You may not want to read what follows below the spoiler tag if you have not read A Game of Thrones.

(view spoiler)

J.G. Keely "If you had written this about some events in later books of the series (I won't be more specific in order to avoid spoilers), I'd be inclined to agree with your point, but in the first book, I just don't see it happening."

That's certainly fair, It's been a long time since I tried to read this and unfortunately, I don't have any concrete examples to give.

"As a way of simply keeping a melodrama going, I agree with your criticism, but surely you will admit that it is a valid way to set up a melodrama . . . "

Well, I'd say it's a somewhat formulaic and uninspired way to set up a melodrama, but I don't begrudge an author their MacGuffin, especially if they're only using it as a tool to get on with the story.

". . . it is true that they created "a new arc from the chaos that resulted", but that is precisely the point."

Yes, and it's useful for the author who just wants to maintain conflict, but I question whether it signifies an interesting story or a well-structured plot. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Lost, where the writers would seem to set up mysteries and constantly give clues, only to defer the conclusion in the end.

Imagine that people in a story keep disappearing in the woods, which is a major plot point--in fact, it is one of the central plot arcs. Eventually, it is discovered that evil trees which were never before referenced have been taking people, but once we discover this, the author moves on to the next conflict.

This author has not actually provided a resolution to the mystery they set up, they have instead hand-waved the mystery away despite the buildup and then asked us to become interested in the next mystery. That is not conscientious, structured plotting, it's a sudden convenience covered by a distraction.

Moving the plot along by such means is thoughtless and it also represents what I mean by 'lack of closure':

"Complaining that closure is not created is a bit like complaining that closure is not created in the first chapter."

I think a first chapter should have an arc with a setup and a conclusion. If it doesn't, then why separate it into a distinct piece?

I'm not just talking about the conclusion of a series, but the conclusion of arcs within the grander story. A plot is made up of many smaller parts, working together, building and breaking tension, moving from concept to concept, character to character.

These smaller arcs are what build the world, develop the characters, and present conflicts in philosophy and idea to the readers. However, many authors end up 'back loading' their stories--they hinge everything upon a single conclusion, continually deferring conclusions (sometimes even small ones) and putting all the payout on a final moment.

There's a quote I often paraphrase, which I've heard attributed to Hitchcock, about how tension cannot be built up ad infinatum; it must be built and broken over and over, lending the story emotional depth and giving the reader a point of reference. Otherwise you just end up with a one-note, formulaic story building up to a conclusion that cannot possibly satisfy all the lead-in.

When an author writes without that dynamic of give and take, those little moments and smaller plots-within-a-plot, they are no longer engaging the reader, but putting on a show of ordered events whose only purpose is their own continuance. It's not surprising that many authors avoid resolution, because developing satisfying explorations of characters and ideas is the Hard Work of writing--especially if an author wants to create satisfying arcs without relying on easy answers and emotional appeals.

"You may then rightfully point out that what is effectively an 800-page introduction to set the scene is somewhat excessive, and I would agree, but that is a different point of criticism."

Actually, I'd say it's the same criticism: if the author does not tell a story within their introduction, that is a failure in plotting--a failure in creating and resolving arcs. To write well is to present information in an engrossing way, and even if a story did need 800 pages of backstory, that information might still be given in a thoughtful, engaging way, which means breaking it up into smaller pieces which illustrate the author's meaning.

message 221: by Archon (new)

Archon Terrible review. A so called professional book reviewer should retain at least retain some trace of objectivity. Reading this, however, made me wonder if the author and I have indeed read the same book. Pointless deaths? Killing off characters just to tie up some loose ends? Really?

Even worse, almost three paragraphs have the sole purpose of insulting GRRM's ... sexual deviance ? I'm sorry to say it, but this is just stupid.

The "review" fails to analyze the plot and fails to talk about how characters evolve throughout the story.
It honestly feels more like a childish attempt to put down an entire genre. Something along the lines of 'I don't like pseudo-medieval fantasy, therefore all works involved are useless'.

J.G. Keely "A so called professional book reviewer . . ."

Wait, wait, who's paying me to do this now?

"Pointless deaths? Killing off characters just to tie up some loose ends? Really?"

A restatement of a few of my points in the form of rhetorical questions followed by 'really?' does not constitute an argument.

"The "review" fails to analyze the plot and fails to talk about how characters evolve throughout the story."

True, this is not an in-depth, textual review, but I found this book poorly-written and dull, so I have not been champing at the bit to reread it. Perhaps, someday, I'll read a thoughtful, inspiring, text-based review of this book that will make me want to give it another chance, but so far, I have not seen a defense of this book that made me feel like I had to up my game to match it. Perhaps you should write a well-researched, carefully written review of this book instead of demanding others do so.

"Something along the lines of 'I don't like pseudo-medieval fantasy, therefore all works involved are useless'."

Except that several paragraphs of my review directly refute that:

[some] have intimated that I must not like fantasy at all, pointing to my low-star reviews of Martin, Wolfe, Jordan, and Goodkind, but it is precisely because I am passionate about fantasy that I fall heavily on these authors.

And I list a number of fantasy authors who I do respect, several of whom worked in the pseudo-medieval vein:

There's plenty of grim fantasy and intrigue out there, from the roots of fantasy in epic poetry to the Thousand and One Nights to the early fantasies of Eddison, Dunsany, Morris, Macdonald, Haggard, and Kipling. Then there are more modern authors: Moorecock, Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Mervyn Peake, China Mieville, Phillip Pullman, Howard, Lovecraft, and Leiber.

You're going to have to come up with some more effective refutations. A condescending tone, rhetorical questions, a few toothless insults, and an inaccurate paraphrase add up to precisely nothing.

message 223: by Ahmed (new) - added it

Ahmed Labib Keely wrote: "Thanks so much. I figure, you write a long enough review, and some of the sentences are bound to sound nice--it's just pure statistics."

Rowling or Martin - who do you think is the better author?

J.G. Keely I guess they are pretty similar: both are writing emotionally-based dramas set loosely around a large, dire political picture. Both have severe problems with length, focus, and plotting--and neither has a gift for either attractive or utilitarian writing.

I was able to finish Rowling's books (though the early and later were mostly disappointing), but I couldn't stand too keep on with Martin's very long, which points to a central difference: Rowling's books are light, with a sense of fun, while Martin's trudge through with joyless pretension.

In that sense, I suppose I judge books in the same way I judge people: they may be unpleasant, or dull, but never both.

message 225: by Rob (last edited Sep 05, 2011 06:09PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rob Very well-expressed review, and an enjoyable thread. I'm more ambivalent about A Game of Thrones and Martin's work (I've read the first two books only).

On the one hand, Martin is a master of the potboiler. He introduces conflicts, gives them compelling stakes and sympathetic characters, and dances effortlessly from one plotline to the other.

Martin is an avowed student of history, and in fact admits he rarely reads fantasy. His conception of a fantastical pseudo-England of the 15th century has its charms. The castles, tournaments, villains, squalor, and landscapes are all larger than life, with strong differentiation between the various feuding houses.

His characteritions, while shallow, are colorful and leave strong impressions. And he knows how to play on suffering and sympathy effectively - with the broad emotional strokes that his readers are accustomed to.

However, I agree with all of your criticisms. There's no great depth or originality here - if you're familiar at all with fantastical fiction from before about 1980, or with history itself. It's remarkable how many of Martin's fans believe that he invented the notion of a great wall guarding against the north, of feuding houses vying for a crown, of mercenary companies, etc. It seems to me that a great deal of the acclaim Martin earns for originality is a consequence of the near-total historical ignorance of his audience.

To understand his acclaim and popularity, you need to understand the state of the fantasy genre over the last 10 or 15 years.

You frequently come across praise for Martin that begins with "I'm a big fan of fantasy, and have read everything from Tolkien to Jordan to Goodkind." The frame of reference for most fans of the genre is extremely narrow, and most of the authors you cite (Leiber, Peake, Dunsany, Moorcock, etc.) are completely off the radar. If you really want to get a sense of how puerile modern fantasy has become, in terms of prose quality, originality, and imagination, then read The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and consider that it is a blockbuster sensation in the genre.

Fantasy has grown to be so popular, that it is now the big tent genre for escapist fiction. Where once readers looking for lurid titilation and adventure would turn to historical fiction and all its sub-genres, there's a whole generation of readers who are repelled by anything historical. If it's based on history, it's boring. Full stop.

So today's fantasy no longer has to take on the romantic or symbolic functions, or even the sheer weirdness, of earlier works in the genre. It's escapist power fantasy, pure and simple. And in that company, the grit and brutality of Martin stands out. And while I find the deft tragedy you cited in Tacitus extremely moving, most of Martin's audience would not. They would need the graphic depiction of Sejanus' daughter's rape and execution in order to feel anything about it.

As for the sexual content of the books, you've dealt with that effectively yourself. Much of it has no value besides titilation. However, don't disregard how much the popularity of Martin's novels owe to the salacious content. The popular HBO mini-series was enjoyed by many of the same people who enjoy The Tudors and True Blood, and for the same reasons.

What I find comical is how many of the Martin's fans can't just admit they like the dirty bits, and have to cite the sex scenes as evidence of Martin's maturity and gravitas. Yes, sex happens in real life. But so does taking a shit. Martin's sex scenes are no more necessary than a five paragraph description of someone grunting over a toilet. They're cheap, badly written, and awkward.

But again, we're often talking about an audience whose frame of reference is encompassed by Tolkien, Rowlings, and Jordan. The very presence of sex scenes in A Game of Thrones is akin to a 13-year-old showing up at the jr high dance with a flask of vodka. Never mind that he winds up vomitting behind the bleachers; to his classmates he's a rugged, edgy rebel.

However, the greatest of Martin's flaws, and one that you only got a mere taste of, is the astonishing character and storyline bloat. For every major character killed off, five or six new ones take the stage. By the second book, the number of characters mentioned by name has become absurd. Hundreds of lords, sailors, men-at-arms, wildlings, knights, councillors, maidens, soldiers, and cooks have been introduced by name, with absolutely no hint of who will become a main character, and who will never be metioned again. A half-dozen kingdoms, each with their own court intrigue and cast of grotesques, branch off of the main stream of the plot. Instead of a surging narrative, any momentum is dissipated in a maze of backwaters; a vast estuary of feudal intrigue.

But again, to a big chunk of the fantasy market, this gigantism has a tremendous appeal. 1,200 pages will not do, not when it could be said in 3,600 pages. It's immersion by narrative overload. And Martin's fans respond to any complaint of bloat with aspersions that the critic 'can't handle' the scope of the work. Well, I've read the Iliad, Thucydides, Gibbons, and Tolstoy. And it seems to me that it's Martin who can't handle a story on the scale he wanted to. Or rather, he just didn't know when to rein things it. And to his credit, Martin has as much as admitted that he's trying to juggle too many balls, and he let the plot get way out of hand.

But writers aren't edited nowadays. And once the first book became a bestseller, nobody was about to tell Martin to rein in his worst excesses.

To end on a positive note, one contemporary fantasy writer absent from your list, who I think you might enjoy, it Patricia McKillip. She's a talented prose stylist, and her fantasies concern themselves with genuinely archetypal and adult matters. And aside from her first works, she restrains herself to a single, slim novel to tell her stories. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a good place to start.

J.G. Keely Wow, thanks so much for the comment. It's been a few years since I started this review, and the comments have been piling up ever since (amplified recently by the TV series, I think), but scanning my memory, I think this is the single best comment I have gotten.

I wish you would make a few minor edits and post it as your own review, since I wouldn't like to think of it sitting in this unending pile of comments, rarely to be read. I agree entirely with your estimation, and I appreciate your adept use of metaphors to illustrate your arguments.

I've heard Rothfuss touted as one of the new revolutionary authors, but having read an excerpt, found nothing of note. If you limp him in with Martin, I think I can safely skip him (I think I'll leave in that Freudian typo). I have never heard of McKillip before, but I shall try to keep her in mind and hopefully, I'll get to her before long.

I did enjoy your comment, and now I wish you had some reviews I could read. It's rare to find someone to pass ideas with who has a background in the geniture of what is now called 'Fantasy'. I hope to see you more around the site in the future.

message 227: by Marie (new) - rated it 2 stars

Marie Well, I can't compete with the previous comment, but I would like to at least say that I liked it almost as much as your review ;). I 'liked' your review I don't know when, but wish I'd managed to not start reading it--though now that I have, I'll probably have to finish.

But I'm not a big reader of fantasy, and my tastes are terribly ecclectic, so I felt rather obliged to at least get AGoT from the library. I think I'm most disappointed by the characters, because already they're just so flat.

I'm disappointed to hear that about Rothfuss, because I did buy that first book. However, having read the first few pages, I think I'll enjoy him as a storyteller far more than Martin. If an author can seduce me with story or with voice (which is what I like so far) I can forgive many of the flaws that have made AGoT so hard for me to read.

I'll definitely look into some of those others you recommend, because while I want to read fantasy, I've heard far too much about the recent failings of the genre. Thanks!

message 228: by Rob (last edited Sep 08, 2011 02:56PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rob Keely, thanks for your encouragement. I'll post my comment as a review when I can find the time. And for the record, I rate The Game of Thrones three stars (two stars for Clash of Kings - that's where the bloat becomes intolerable).

As for Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind doesn't even warrant a review. It's comically overblown wish fullfillment for people who weren't popular in college. That is all. The massive acclaim and popularity it garnered only cements my realization that I have virtually nothing in common with most fans of popular fantasy today.

I have no interest in imagining I'm someone who is stronger, deadlier, smarter, sexier, etc. than myself, living in a milqtoast world little different from modern North America. I read fantasy to immerse myself in strange worlds ripe with danger and conflict. To uncork primal wonders. And there is none of that in Rothfuss' book. His world is about as strange and dangerous as a mashed potato sandwich.

On the subject of weird settings, Jack Vance is notably absent from your list of classic fantasy authors. Surely this omission is a mistake?

message 229: by Christina (new)

Christina Wow there are so many passionate arguments going on here! I want to say first, that I really enjoyed your review. I am a huge fan of the series but I think your criticisms are more spot on than you realize.

Initially what I loved most about the books was the tension. The writing for me was excellent, but I loved being unsure and unable to guess what is going to happen next. So many of my favorite genres have become so predictable that I can't really enjoy them anymore. I really liked that no one was a traditional bad guy/girl either. Even characters whose early behavior was reprehensible, found a kind of reason and passion that make them interesting without actually "redeeming" them in some cheesy way.

That said, if you did read into the later books, you'd find the tension ratcheted higher (as you predicted). With this came a profound frustration on my part, as the writer has given all the foreplay and none of the release. Not a single bit of plot gets resolved. Not even death stops the author from keeping the tension going on some characters. Just when you think something ANYTHING is going to break the taut wire of tension he writes twelve new wires into the story.

With this inability to break the tension and come to an emotional resoloution, you are stuck with a bunch of characters juggling a series of horrible circumstances that they mostly cannot control and seem unlikely to ever get resolved. I spent the last ten minutes trying to think of a single joyful moment for any of the characters and in five very bloated books I can only think of three such moments and they were all followed by either crushing disappointment, crushing despair or literal crushing. Bleak is not a word that can be overused when it comes to A Song of Ice and Fire.

He has also bloated up his cast and added a few more characters to every book, which is very frustrating for me as I like some but not all so I find myself skimming the characters I find boring. Now there are around 24 characters with their own chapters and I'm finding that George seems more likely to add whole chapters for characters who are nothing but plot devices and bring nothing new to the tale except a way to get the writer out of corners that he has backed himself into. There is at least two new characters in A Dance With Dragons that did not need their own chapters. Their parts in the tale could have been added into the chapters of other characters and the book would have lost nothing. The characters were nothing but deus ex machinas (how do you pluralize that?) and I wasted my time reading their dull and disconnected stories that were never going to go anyplace.

Though I have never thought of it before, I was tempted to disagree with your assessment that his sex and rape were indicitive of an unfulfilled sexual fantasy on the part of the author. I didn't get that vibe early in the series and I've certainly read enough of that in other books to know what you are getting at. However, in thinking about it, I will say that the books are increasing in their violence and in the "intimacy" of the rapes. By that I mean at least one main character and I think more, actually commit rape in their own POV chapter. Which was so awful and uncomfortable for me, I had to put the book down. The misogyny is increasing in both frequency and vileness. I understand that in a War of the Roses type world, violence against women was a mean to an end. You could humiliate your enemy by taking what was "his". I get it. But just because it happens in real life, doesn't mean you want to read a novel full of it. It isn't tempered with any feeling of vindication or sense of hope. It's too much violation and hurt and heartbreak.

To say that A Song of Ice and Fire is a "soap opera set in a fantasy world" as you stated in the comments is a pretty good assessment (except that soap operas break their tension for dramatic mini-climaxes). I think that is why I liked it so much initially. Instead of focusing on the world building, he was focusing on the people building but that seems fairly dead ended now.

It's a flawed series but something about it still draws me in. I didn't feel it was as godawful as you felt, but I don't think you are that far off in your criticism.

Thanks for all the food for thought!

J.G. Keely Rob said: "I have no interest in imagining I'm someone who is stronger, deadlier, smarter, sexier, etc. than myself, living in a milqtoast world little different from modern North America."

Amen to that (and don't forget to include that observation in your Rothfus review =P).

"On the subject of weird settings, Jack Vance is notably absent from your list of classic fantasy authors. Surely this omission is a mistake?"

I wish it were. He's on my 'to-read' list, but I haven't made it to him, yet. Partially it's because my to-read list is far too long, but it's also because I mostly heard of Vance as the main inspiration for Gene Wolfe, who I found to be just another bit of grim escapism with lackluster writing (review here). I still mean to get to Vance, but the association pushed him further down the list.

Christina said: "I want to say first, that I really enjoyed your review. I am a huge fan of the series but I think your criticisms are more spot on than you realize."

Thank you kindly, it's always nice to get corroboration from someone who has more experience with the author.

"So many of my favorite genres have become so predictable that I can't really enjoy them anymore."

I guess one of the problems for me was that Martin did feel predictable. He just reverses what other authors do. Instead of central sympathetic characters being assured to survive, it's assured that they will die. Instead of tension and conflicts wrapping up neatly and conveniently, they never wrap up.

If something bad can happen, it will. If something seems like it will release the tension, it will be nipped in the bud. I guess, for me, the only parts that felt unpredictable were the parts that ended up going nowhere. I mean, you can't predict the outcome if, in the end, there is no outcome; and you suggest there is none:

"With this came a profound frustration on my part, as the writer has given all the foreplay and none of the release. Not a single bit of plot gets resolved."

I was worried about that, since there didn't seem to be any small arcs in the individual chapters, which suggests that the author is not constructing purposeful scenes, but writing on a whim. As I've probably mentioned before, it's a big problem for authors who are so focused on the final conclusion that they don't bother with any smaller views.

"I spent the last ten minutes trying to think of a single joyful moment for any of the characters and in five very bloated books I can only think of three such moments and they were all followed by either crushing disappointment, crushing despair or literal crushing."

Yeah, again, something that gets predictable fairly quickly. Though a lot of authors like to have little happy moments right before the Big Letdown (that's often how Rowling telegraphs her 'big twists'--finally get good emotional closure for a character? They're about to die).

Though for most authors, it's often because they want to close the character's arc before the death, whereas with Martin, it just feels like another way to amp up the 'grim'. I'd say much of the sexual inequality serves the same purpose:

"I understand that in a War of the Roses type world, violence against women was a mean to an end. You could humiliate your enemy by taking what was "his". I get it."

It's true, but there's still a lot about how the author presents those issues. I mean, does he explore the harmful psychological effects of violation, does he show two sides to it, or is it just something else unpleasant? Does he spend most of his time describing the act, the details, the physicality--is it more a glorification or a condemnation?

It's not even about whether the author includes things like rape or misogyny, but about how they treat it. Is it the characters who are vicious and dehumanizing, or is it the author? I mean, he might just see rape as a good way to inject some more bleakness, but I think using rape as a way to build mood is an insultingly callous use of such an emotionally fraught and complex issue.

But anyhow, thanks for your comment, I appreciate your thoughts and views on the subject, especially as someone with more experience with the series than I have.

message 231: by Ahmed (new) - added it

Ahmed Labib Keely wrote: "I guess they are pretty similar: both are writing emotionally-based dramas set loosely around a large, dire political picture. Both have severe problems with length, focus, and plotting--and neithe..."

Who do you think can create better characters?

J.G. Keely Well, it's hard to say. I have a lot more experience with Rowling, and since I tired quickly of Martin, I didn't have a chance to really get to know his characters. My first impression is that Rowling's are more vivid, but then, nothing about Martin's series could really be called 'vivid'.

Rowling's character-building is her greatest strength as an author, but her characters can still be weak. Many of them are cliche, they rarely have the depth to surprise the reader, and Rowling spends a lot of time cajoling and convincing to get us to believe in them, which suggests that she does not have a strong enough sense of psychology and scene to let the characters speak for themselves.

In the fifth book of the Potter series, which I regard as the best, Rowling does manage to create a persistent tone and mood of very personal bleakness in Harry, which I found impressive, as it is difficult to create such a mood without turning the story into an exploitative weep-fest, but I couldn't say if Martin's writing gets similarly stronger as the series goes on.

message 233: by Katie (new) - rated it 5 stars

Katie T very articulate review too bad it was garbage

J.G. Keely That's right, whenever you start feeling defensive because someone dislikes your favorite thing, it's time to start slinging invectives. After all, there's nothing more convincing than a brief, angry screed of unsupported opinion. Keep fighting that good fight, and never let punctuation get in your way.

And hey, thanks for noticing my articulation!

message 235: by Kendra (new)

Kendra Thanks for the review! Two of the things I can't stand in books are bleakness and moral bankruptcy solely because they're 'realistic', and when things like rape are treated flippantly as a kind of repressed fantasy for the author.

Do you have any suggestions for an introductory fantasy reader that is like this (castles, politics, intrigue, fighting, etc), but is more character driven and sympathetic? I feel like fantasy is such a big pond to jump into and I don't know where to start! (Have read LOTR though, so not totally hopeless) I would love any help : )

J.G. Keely Thanks, Glad you liked it.

I wish there were a fantasy series I could suggest wholeheartedly, but I still haven't found that perfect combination of exciting adventure and good writing, at least, not in the 'knights and castles' variety.

If you're weirded out by sex repression stuff, avoid Terry Goodkind, who wrote the 'Sword of Truth' series. He's got it bad.

I noticed you have Robert Jordan's 'Eye of the World' on your 'to-read' list, which I didn't really like (review here). It's really long and dull, and the later books in the series start having weird sex stuff (pretty much every female character gets spanked in public at some point).

Some of my favorite fantasy books are kind of weird, like The Gormenghast series, which some of my friends found it too long and talky (review here). I also like Perdido Street Station, which is much more fun and upbeat, but has more of a Victorian feel rather than Medieval (review).

I also really like Lord Dunsany, who wrote British fantasies about people interacting with fairies. I review one of his books here. I would also check out Neal Gaiman, who is a very popular fantasy author and has some great stuff. There's also Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is like a more literary version of Harry Potter.

You could also check out the Lankhmar books by Fritz Lieber, which have a lot of adventure and magic and some good humor, I review one of those books here. As I mention in this review, women authors tend to be a lot less creepy than male authors when it comes to pop fantasy. You could check out Mercedes Lackey. My girlfriend suggests C.J. Cherryh's Arafel Series.

Hope that helps! Thanks again for the comment.

message 237: by Kendra (new)

Kendra Thanks so much for the tips! Jonathan Strange has been sitting on my TBR pile, so I'll give that a go.

Thanks again!

message 238: by Kogiopsis (last edited Sep 17, 2011 06:25PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Kogiopsis So, after taking time over a couple of days to read this entire thread, I have to say that I'm extremely impressed. The review itself is a very nice piece of work, but your responses to some extraordinarily rude people are awe-inspiring. Well done indeed. Textbook troll slaying, the polite way.

I also found it very interesting to read your thoughts on a variety of fantasy series and will make an effort to find some of the ones you've recommended to people when I have the opportunity.

I also have a couple of suggestions that you might be interested in. (This should be prefaced with a disclaimer: I'm of the 'raised on Harry Potter' age group and haven't explored nearly as much pre-Tolkein fantasy as I ought to. I also enjoy the kind of fantasy which has become conventional, though over time I've gotten a little more picky.)
That said, I think you might like Mistborn: The Final Empire, at least in light of it being an interesting half-step or so away from a lot of epic fantasy. It also has the advantage of being the first in a trilogy which, while comprised of rather long books, is complete and not being dragged out. Your standards for writing are different from mine, I think, but hopefully Sanderson's writing will be up to scratch - he strikes me as a very polished writer and while he isn't the most poetic, his prose is very serviceable and makes 600 page books feel much shorter.

The other suggestion I have is a manga series, and I understand completely if that format is not your cup of tea, but I figured I may as well put it out there for consideration because it's an extremely well-crafted work of fantasy: Fullmetal Alchemist, Vol. 1 by Hiromu Arakawa. It was completed last year (coming to a total of 25 volumes) and I found it to be creative, engaging, and well-plotted - superior to a vast majority of fantasies I've read recently in almost all areas.

Anyhow, thank you again for the great review. I'm still going to read the book, since I've already bought it and am just too curious, but you've given me some good things to keep in mind.

J.G. Keely It always surprises me when people read through these threads, but I hope you got some amusement out of it.

Thanks for the suggestion; I have heard of Sanderson before, though I've been wary, since I know he was hired to finish the Wheel of Time series, which makes me rather suspicious of him. However, I may end up giving him a try. Nothing wrong with serviceable prose--beats the alternative.

You know, it's funny that I've never gotten into manga, since I've read my fair share of comics, including international ones. Though I find most anime unwatchable, there have been a few series which captured my attention, and I'm sure I'd find some interesting Manga, if I looked.

Part of the problem is that they just tend to be so long, it can be hard for me to work up the energy necessary to have a go. Though if I do, Lone Wolf and Cub and Akira would probably have to come first. Thanks for the suggestion, I'll keep it in mind. And thanks for the comment.

message 240: by Meggan (last edited Sep 22, 2011 11:28PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meggan I have read all of Martin's ASOIAF series, and enjoyed it to an extent. However it is difficult to defend and easy to criticize. What drives me crazy are readers who think Martin is "breaking fantasy tropes left and right!" without mentioning what he replaces those broken tropes with. He's not writing anti-literature or reinventing the wheel for heaven's sake. So, trope broken - innocent child becomes a cripple. What does he replace that with? Sending him to magic school! Break, rinse, repeat.

Keely, I too love weird fantasy, and Gormenghast is one of my all-time favorites. I'm enamored by Peake's wonderfully vivid characters. They're allowed to shine because of their backdrop: a world that slavishly repeats rituals even though all meaning behind them is lost. That's so unique! Not one in all of Martin's 1,000 characters compares to Peake's power-hungry, mentally impaired, epileptic twin sisters for example. And though similar in temperament, Fushia Groan is far more engaging and brightly-drawn than Sansa Stark. So I cherish Gormenghast for a world where everything seems slightly "off" and quirky. Imagination flourishes when an artist becomes an author in order to create a world for his drawings.

Martin is a fantasy author who creates a world for his favorite history stories. Like you say, we get a collection of "Horrific Tales of Gore in the Name of Romantic Chivalry." Events like the spunky girl maimed by the dashing prince or the beautiful queen walking naked through a mob as punishment for her adultery. He's lauded for trying to fit a square peg (fantasy) in a round hole (history)--and the masses (including me) eat it up. So I agree with your review as to why this is not necessarily the most creative or inventive book on the shelf, but I do feel like I'm learning a thing or two about the sham that was called "chivalry" in medieval Europe. I know I could learn that fact from a medieval historian's dissertation--but will it have DRAGONS?!?! I think not. ;)

I even enjoyed the latest book for Martin's meditation on a theme: "What happens to Aragon in Minas Tirith after Return of the King?" I was mildly interested in the polysci/realpolitik/statecraft questions the book raised. And yet, this is in no way "pure imagination," as most fantasy should be. It's actually dry and pedantic (how a book with DRAGONS?!?! can be pedantic is beyond me). And long - good god was that book a slog. The bloat is really hard to take, and no editor alive will call him out on it.

What's worse is that I'm fully immersed in the fandom. I even play strategy board game (I chortle at the absurdity of playing a game based on a book based on a story about a "Game"). Sometimes I feel like I'm on a soap opera discussion board, trying to guess what happens to a plotline on General Hospital. Yup, it's that mindless/addicting for me. (Rothfuss, however, was bottom-of-the-barrel fantasy that isn't even worth a daytime TV comparison).

Speaking of television, you might appreciate the TV series because it gets to the heart of ASOIAF: the injustice of feudalism. I think that's an important story worth telling, with bland fantasy accessories (dragons! zombies! wargs! greek fire!) thrown in as a proxy for WMD's. Abigail Nussbaum, who had similar criticisms of the book, loved the TV show for its message precision.

Lastly, the most original and "out there" fantasy novel I've read this year was The Last Legends of Earth. Totally weird, totally original, totally underrated. And I should probably mention: short! You might like it :)

J.G. Keely "I know I could learn that fact from a medieval historian's dissertation--but will it have DRAGONS?!?! I think not. ;)"

Actually, you might be surprised. A good historian will tackle myth with the same aplomb with which they relish the rest of their subject. And that doesn't include the classical historians who were writing about real events and included myths because they actually believed in them (or in other cases, were satirizing them).

I found Martin much less magical and mythical than a lot of histories I've read, and at the same time, his politics were less realistic and his 'grittiness' less meaningful or true.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm on a soap opera discussion board, trying to guess what happens to a plotline on General Hospital. Yup, it's that mindless/addicting for me."

Honestly, I find this to be more reasonable and comprehensible than people who take their appreciation of Martin seriously.

"(Rothfuss, however, was bottom-of-the-barrel fantasy that isn't even worth a daytime TV comparison)."

Just read your review--sounds pretty annoying. I was going to ask you what you thought of Gene Wolfe, since I notice you're one of the few fantasy readers who was as unimpressed with him as I was, but your Rothfuss review sounds like it could be a review of Shadow and Claw if you just changed the names.

". . . you might appreciate the TV series . . ."

I wouldn't be surprised if I did, since it would be a complete editing of Martin, removing his dull style and bloat and replacing it with action and more interesting character interpretations by the actors and director. I think a lot of stories are improved by taking the power away from the visionary and letting a hundred other people put a spin on it. After all, look at the difference between the struggling nobody George Lucas of the first trilogy and the all-powerful, unquestionable Lucas of the second three.

Thanks for the book suggestion, I'll have to keep it in mind (at least until another commentator shows up to stomp on it and suggest something else). Thanks for the link to that blog, too, some thoughtful stuff there.

And truly, thanks for the comment.

message 242: by Nate (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nate This has got to be the longest and most interesting thread on Goodreads. I'm about where Meggann is in that I enjoy ASOIAF very much, almost too much, despite its flaws. Though I will say the last book was awful. Martin has written himself into a corner and his editors can't, or won't, intervene. So I really only enjoy the first three books, which comprise, I think, the most enjoyable stock high-fantasy trilogy ever written.

J.G. Keely Thanks for the comment, Cillian. You know, sometimes I wish I got real trolls in my threads, but they're such a rare breed these days. A real troll not only knows what they are doing, but they manage to open up huge conflicts without ever making it overt that they were the ones who started.

Usually I just get naive, angry people whose intentions are all too easy to see and who cast doubt only on themselves. I hardly think I deserve much praise for retaining my calm when every trap is obvious, every insult off-the-mark, and every contrarian lacks even the pretense of refutation.

"This has got to be the longest and most interesting thread on Goodreads."

Not even close--you should see some of the top reviewers' threads.

message 244: by Meggan (last edited Sep 24, 2011 11:47AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meggan Honestly, I find this to be more reasonable and comprehensible than people who take their appreciation of Martin seriously.

Yeah, why can't fans just be up front about its mediocrity? No shame in that. Don't delude yourself into thinking that its a "masterpiece." ASOIAF fandom should avoid that word in describing these books, especially ones that spawn gift shops filled with keychains, beer steins, and letter openers. Maybe a novel that is easily merchandised is a good indicator of vapid writing?

Like most pop culture fluff, it's the fandom that makes the books much more interesting than the actual story. I love weird sf/fantasy, but no weird fantasy author has the kind of fan community that will happily allow me to waste my time speculating on "what's going to happen next." Maybe Neil Gaiman does, but I haven't read enough of him.

the most enjoyable stock high-fantasy trilogy ever written.

yup, that sums up my rambling thoughts in one concise sentence :)

your Rothfuss review sounds like it could be a review of Shadow and Claw if you just changed the names.

Heh, yeah both use the same unreliable narrator device that gets so much praise in fantasy these days. Whats cool about your review of S&C is it gives me a firm toehold to resist such a critically acclaimed book. I didn't review it because I lacked the confidence to eviscerate it. I thought my criticism would be dismissed for my inability to see the book's "hidden mysteries." Your thoughts made me realize "Hey, it's not actually intelligent, it's just boring!"

I can't wait for you to tackle Rothfuss with the same clarity because if there ever was a book that needs to be taken down a peg, this is it. Just prepare yourself for a tsunami of melodrama and Mary Sueness. Oh, and trolls armed with loopy logic like: "the Mary Sueness is proof of a complicated character misleading us about himself!" I just had to respond to that kind of spuriousness in my review.

message 245: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday but Megan, the Mary Sueness is proof of a complicated character misleading us about himself!

J.G. Keely "I didn't review it because I lacked the confidence to eviscerate it."

Yeah, that can be a hard one to overcome, but a part of me really hopes that someone will come along in the comments and post some amazingly insightful analysis that will totally show me what I've been missing. I keep hoping that someone will be able to help me understand why a book I found dull and unoriginal has such a great reputation.

But usually, like in this review, it just ends up confirming my original observations. The ones who buy into the Big Reputation are least capable of defending it, and the most thoughtful comments come from people who, if they like the book, just think of it as a bit of mindless drama.

"I can't wait for you to tackle Rothfuss with the same clarity . . ."

Well, I'm not exactly excited to go find a copy if I'll just end up bashing the book. I'd rather read something good.

But it's funny, I've had people suggest it to me before, some of them clever enough people, in their own way, and I was kind of excited about it. Then I asked my dearest friend if he had read it and he responded:

"Do you remember that Fantasy panel I was invited to speak at when we were in college? The one where the key speaker had a chapter of his book up online and we both read it and I decided to decline the invitation because any panel headed by someone so dull and hidebound could hardly have been worth the time? That was Rothfuss."

I guess I never drew the connection between the talentless nobody who came to my college those years ago and the modern bestselling author.

"the Mary Sueness is proof of a complicated character misleading us about himself!"

That's right, Severian's unpleasant chauvinism is just a send up of the unpleasant chauvinism of fantasy in general, one which is played completely straight. And Jon Snow, the badass anti-hero with an albino wolf, he's just a satire of the badass anti-heroes of fantasy, in that he is just like them. And in Terry Goodkind, the magical psychic blowjob rape is just a light parody of the magical psychic blowjob rape convention of fantasy.


message 247: by Meggan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meggan magical psychic blowjob rape!? I haven't read any Goodkind but that sounds hilarious.

message 248: by Haris (new)

Haris Ansari "
I guess I never drew the connection between the talentless nobody who came to my college those years ago and the modern bestselling author."

So no Rothfuss review...


See what you did? Can you really live with yourself now that I have produce a frowny face emoticon to convey my emotions?

J.G. Keely No, I don't think I can live like that. How I will alleviate my conscience, I cannot say. Perhaps ice cream?

Meggan said: "magical psychic blowjob rape!? I haven't read any Goodkind but that sounds hilarious."

He's also a huge Ayn Rand buff, so it's double the unintentional hilarity. It's like Ron Paul wrote a book in celebration of male masochism.

message 250: by Jakob (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jakob Although I gave the books a higher rating than you did I think I pretty much agree with all or most of your criticisms. These books read like never ending soap opera's except, to me at least, interesting. Still, I haven't found myself compelled to keep reading the series since I already know that there aren't any real resolving of plots on the horizon.

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