OK, so obviously it's faintly absurd for me to describe myself as an epic fantasy virgin. Haven't I, in the twelve years since I first read it, reread J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings every other year? Haven't I made it all the way through The Silmarillion, and understood most of it, and enjoyed it all? Haven't I adored the films, and gotten into ridiculously nitpicky discussions over which changes were justified and what Tolkien meant by this and that? And isn't The Lord of the Rings the great-granddaddy of all epic fantasy, the wellspring from which all endless doorstopper series flow?
Well, maybe, but somehow, in my odd and atypical development as a reader, I managed to skip the Jordan/Brooks/Goodkind phase of a fantasy reader's life-cycle. I liked The Lord of the Rings a hell of a lot, but the dozens of thick tomes with garishly colored covers depicting big-breasted women and dragons failed to appeal to me. I stuck to science fiction, and barely even went near fantasy until a few years ago. Then it was all Pratchett, Gaiman, Miéville, Link, Crowley, VanderMeer, and all those other folks who run away from epic fantasy as fast as their little legs can carry them. I suspect my problem with the Tolkien-clones was precisely that they were copying someone else rather than carving out their own territory as Tolkien did (admittedly, Tolkien did a fair bit of borrowing, but usually from people who were writing centuries before the invention of the novel--a development that, on occasion, it seems that he was unaware of as well). A lot of Tolkien fans want more of the same, and I'm not quite sure why as a younger reader I wasn't one of them, but by the time I was in my twenties I had learned to sneer at the epic fantasy shelves and search for writers who worked in the cracks and crevices that Tolkien had left unexplored.
But George R.R. Martin is supposedly the author of multi-volume, doorstopper-length epic fantasy series that you read if you can't stand multi-volume, doorstopper-length epic fantasy series, and a ringing endorsement from the estimable Carrie A.A. Frye only whetted my curiosity. I picked up a copy of the first volume in the series (titled, as a whole, A Song of Ice and Fire) at the used bookstore, and dug in. The verdict? Not bad, for what it is. Not remotely as good as I had been led to believe, and for the first half (half here being 400 pages) rather pointless and uninteresting. Martin commits the cardinal (and extraordinarily common, these days) sin of fantasy writers--there's no doubt in my mind that a hack-and-slash edit would have left the book tighter and more interesting--but it's one that I had been expecting. What I hadn't expected was to be so thoroughly disappointed in everything I had been led to believe about these books: that Martin is a superb writer, that the series is a sophisticated variant of the epic fantasy story, and that the story I would find within the book's covers would be morally complex.
As a writer, Martin is no more than middling. He writes decent but not particularly stirring battle scenes (the descriptions of battle strategies left me thoroughly confused, but that's happened often enough with other writers that I doubt Martin is at fault) and maintains a brisk narrative flow. His dialogue is passable--not too many quotable lines, but not too many clichés either. Unfortunately, Martin is all-too aware of his antecedents, and every few dozen pages he feels the need to recall Tolkien in his descriptive passages. The result is a sad mockery of Tolkien's high poetic style, and, since Martin lacks Tolkien's wit, is not remotely as humorous (an example of a running gag in Thrones would be a boy who responds with 'I can too!' to 'You can't hear yourself fart!' and other such insults--that's pretty much the level of Martin's humor, when it exists). I'd like to stress that I'm not faulting Martin for not being Tolkien, but rather for trying to be Tolkien when clearly such an achievement is beyond him. This is the root of Thrones' failure--Martin can't decide what kind of book he wants to write. He moves away from the stereotypical forms of epic fantasy, but not far enough to make his book anything more than a sad half-breed, neither one thing nor the other.
The plot of A Game of Thrones recalls the opening moves of England's War of the Roses--two houses, the Starks and the Lannisters, are vying for control of an unstable throne. Martin here has a chance to convey the bleak reality of such political games--that there are no good guys or bad guys, that the monarch's dynasty is only sacrosanct so long as he has men to defend it and gold to pay them with, that for the right reason, even the most honorable man will turn on his king, and that, ultimately, no one 'deserves' the throne--and he does indeed come very close. Martin makes it clear that the current king, a usurper who deposed his mad, bloodthirsty predecessor, is a weak-willed, mercurial man who countenances atrocities for the sake of expediency. Crimes are committed by both parties in the dispute for the crown, and none of the contenders are likely to usher in a golden age and sell beer for a penny a pint any time soon. But when push comes to shove, Martin shies away from true moral ambiguity. The gruff, northern Starks are honorable to a fault--their lord executes criminals himself because he believes that the man who passes the sentence should be made to swing the blade, banishes one of the nobles sworn to his house for dealing in slaves, and refuses even to consider the notion of political assassination. The wealthy and cunning Lannisters, on the other hand, all but buy their way to the throne--they hold all the crown's debts--and are also guilty of committing incest, maiming children, and murdering puppies (literally, on all counts). The division between good and evil is fairly clear-cut, and although, to Martin's credit, there are decent Lannisters and untrustworthy Starks, they exist on the margins and are insufficient to counteract Martin's fundamentally black-and-white approach.
Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with making your good guys as pure as the driven snow and your bad guys so evil that their names can barely be spoken--Tolkien got a lot of mileage out of this kind of dichotomy, and one of the uses he made of it was to make his readers, even the more modern ones, forget about the truth of medieval living--that life was nasty, brutish, and short, and that actual nobility was in short supply. Martin refuses to show us his characters and his world through Tolkien's rose-tinted glasses, and ironically the result is that the gap between what these men believe themselves to be and what they actually are is all the more noticeable. There's no escaping the fact that even the best and most virtuous of Martin's characters sell their women to each other like chattel, and that the true victims of their games of power are the ones who have no power and no voice--the peasants whose villages they trample, whose fields they plunder to feed their armies, whose women they claim when it suits them and throw away when it no longer does. By the time I was 200 pages into the book, I no longer cared which faction would win the throne, since it was obvious that none of them would rule well enough to deserve it. Tolkien gives us a truly fantastic fantasy world--a medieval culture in which peasants are respected and never abused (not by the good guys, at least, although where the Riders of Rohan got their food on the long march to Minas Tirith I have no idea) and where not a single woman is married against her will or to a man she doesn't care for. If we're to accept Martin's more believable take on medieval culture, we have no choice but to accept that even the best among his characters are little better than slave-owners, and that our loyalties should properly lie with whoever will put all their noble heads on a long row of spikes.
I've recently developed a deep personal dislike of books that open with detailed descriptions of the adult characters' childhoods. While good books can and have been written about childhood and the process of growing up, and equally good book can and have been written about adults, hardly any book is improved by a hundred pages of sibling rivalries, petty yet crushing disappointments, and sexual awakening, before the actual plot gets going. So I was deeply disappointed to see that more than half of the characters in A Game of Thrones were juveniles--enough so that I was holding out hope for the Orson Scott Card approach to juvenile characterization, in which children are nothing more than short adults. In all fairness, Martin doesn't spend an excessive amount of time on coming of age stories, and at least one of the youngsters--the deposed princess Daenerys--quickly matures and become the most interesting character in the book. But again, Martin isn't quite willing to leave the foibles of childhood behind. His juvenile characters aren't real children--immature, inadequate and often irrational--but neither are we completely spared their tedious tragedies. Lord Stark's bastard son struggles to find his place in a world in which he's neither a commoner nor a noble. His older daughter is convinced that heroic ballads are a reliable guide to life and experiences a tragic disillusionment. His younger daughter is a tomboy who wants to fight, not sew and look pretty. These boring, familiar clichés cause the pace of the book to drag, especially when compared to the often fascinating adventures of the adult characters.
It's hard to avoid the conclusion that A Game of Thrones is a mass of halfway measures, compromises and mediocrities. Martin can't convey the poetry and grandeur of Tolkien's prose, but neither is he willing to let his narrative voice become completely unobtrusive. He eschews Tolkien's romantic take on medieval living, but he never arrives at a Miéville-ian disdain for the aristocracy. He gives us multifaceted heroes and villains, but still wants to be sure that we know who the good guys and the bad guys are. A significant portion of his characters are neither children nor adults. All of which leads me to wonder: is it possible to write truly sophisticated epic fantasy? Could a better writer than Martin have matched moral relativism with compelling characters, grandeur with a realistic portrayal of medieval politics?
And naturally, when I ask myself questions like these, I turn to John Crowley. Crowley's very first novel, The Deep (now out of print and available in Otherwise, an omnibus edition that collects Crowley's three early novels) puts Martin and all his cohorts to shame. In less than 200 pages, Crowley tells the story that Martin hasn't even begun to finish, about a medieval society in which two factions, the Reds and the Blacks, vie for the throne, and a third group, the Just, seeks the death of all aristocratic rulers. Crowley never forces the readers to choose sides, but instead makes us fall in love with his characters--the old knight and his young wife, the young prince who falls in love with her, the deposed king, locked away in an old mansion and left to his heartrendingly portrayed madness. True, there are very few battles and the plot lacks Martin's intricacy, but what Crowley lacks in scope he makes up for in intensity and beauty. I would read The Deep a thousand times before I picked up the next volume in Martin's series.
It's been suggested to me that a lot of the problems I had with A Game of Thrones are addressed in the series' later volumes, but I fail to see how this should induce me to read them, or make my complaints any less valid. The book is 800 pages long (and doesn't encompass even one complete plot), and I spent four days of my life reading it. To suggest that, in order to have an even marginally improved reading experience, I should slog through hundreds of pages more from a writer whose prose, I already know, I find uninspiring, only suggests to me that Martin should have written a shorter book--a shorter series, in fact. Tolkien has a strangle-hold on the fantasy genre, which is a shame, especially since so many of his inferior imitators seek to emulate him in all the wrong ways, chiefly his verbosity (and let's not pretend that The Lord of the Rings couldn't have used a few judicious cuts here and there), but for the time being, I see no reason to venture back into epic fantasy. Not when there are so many wonderful writers out there whose fantasy truly has a just claim on the word, and who can actually give me what I want in terms of sophistication, moral ambiguity, and beautiful writing.