If you haven’t read at least the first four books in George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones series, close this window and get back to reading the books, for this review will spoil the series for you.
In a glowing review in 2005, Time magazine referred to George R. R. Martin as “an American Tolkien”. That got my attention. Every once in a while someone will refer to someone as the new Jimi Hendrix or the new Michael Jordan, and while I tend to take a very dim view of comparisons to such singular legends, I’ll still take a look — which is all the publicity agents want anyway, right? I’ve since read the first four books of Martin’s Thrones series, and while I do consider it a great series, even a ‘must read’, well, read on until the end of this review.
The Good: George R.R. Martin sets the standard in several ways; indeed, his skill in certain areas are frankly intimidating:
Character Development: This is perhaps Martin’s greatest strength. He is able to present such a wide range of distinct personalities, from the Starks for whom honor is paramount, to the Lannisters who are driven by greed and ambition, to the Targaryens who are driven by vengeance. Martin’s skills shine greatest when his characters face decisions where none of their choices easily fit their personal moralities. As time goes on these choices become ever more difficult to make, the characters are often forced to make decisions between the unthinkable and the too terrible to contemplate. What’s more, the author takes obvious delight in the interactions between the characters.
World Detail: The author takes great pains in his descriptions of a stunning array of distinctly different environments and the people therein, from the wildlings of the far north to the people of the Summer Isles. He takes just as much effort to allot cultural traditions and characteristics to the extent that they are totally believable; the reader finds himself saying, “Hey, I know some people just like that!”
Expectation of the Reader’s Comprehension: The story and dialogue in the series is never ‘dumbed down’ for the reader, who must either keep up or soon become lost and subsequently drowned in the sheer complexity of the plot. The twists of fate and human caprice are brutal; the naive and soft-hearted reader need not turn the first page. This is a series written for the adult who has a substantial level of understanding not only of the vagaries of history and culture through the ages, but particularly of the evil that desperate men and women do.
The Bad: But the author isn’t perfect. He has his faults as well:
Sheer Size of the Cast of Characters: It is one thing for a writer to present a vast, varied world with a grand cast of characters, but it is another thing altogether to expect the reader to keep up with what’s happening with most or all of those characters. It doesn’t help that many of these characters were introduced with little introduction. Martin must have the classic steel-trap memory to juggle and keep straight all the many different storylines in the books, but he tosses so many personalities into the mix that the reader loses track of some of the sub-plots therein.
Description of Battles: By the end of the third book, there have been two large battles: King’s Landing and at the Wall. While the author’s description of the fear and violence of individual melee actions was superior, at no point does he give the reader much more than a cursory overall view of position, strategy, or tactical maneuver of the armies involved. Compare this to sweeping overviews that Tolkien gave of the battles of Helms Deep and the Pelennor Fields. Martin’s omissions of this type lead one to suspect that perhaps he does not feel comfortable with providing descriptions of war beyond what we would today call the squad level.
The Ugly: Sex, Sex, and More Sex — and almost never for the right romantic reasons.
It seems that many authors today feel pressured to include scenes of gratuitous sex, and not just romantic missionary-position sex, either, if the wild success of Fifty Shades of Gray is any indication. But Martin goes beyond the pale with descriptions that border on outright pedophilia. To be fair, as in much of the rest of the series, he’s drawing many of the cultural and societal mores from our own medieval history, and it was not unusual for preteens to be betrothed in many — or perhaps most — cultures throughout the world at the time. But were titillating descriptions of such preteens really necessary to the story?
What’s more, romantic sex is the very rare exception to the rule in the series. Much more common is violent rape in the most sickeningly descriptive sense. Again, Martin’s descriptions match what has been recorded only too many times in our own history, from incest in the Bible to the horror of the Mongol horde, from the Rape of Nanking to the mass rapes in the final days of Nazi Germany. I can understand the writer’s motivation to shock the reader with brutal rape and frequent incest, but again, is it really necessary to include descriptions in such detail?
In my opinion as someone who will never — ever — sell as many books as Martin has, he could have followed the example of, say, James Clavell and referred to such acts without describing them, thus leving the events up to the reader’s imagination. At the very least, he should have kept somewhere close to equal the proportion of brutal sex to romantic sex.
So does the Game of Thrones series compare to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings epic? Certainly not! Tolkien had his faults to be sure, the most obvious of which was his reluctance to include more female characters in his stories. But Tolkien’s gift for believable world-building remains unparalleled. While it would be rightly said that Martin’s fault-ridden characters are more human, it would be just as true to say that there are no real heroes in Martin’s world which seems to be filled only with villains and survivors, and that Tolkien’s Middle-Earth has at least as many heroes than villains. By the end of the Rings trilogy, one feels that even in humanity’s darkest hours there is reason to hope (and England’s experience in the bleakest days of WWII when they stood alone against Nazi Germany had to have influenced Tolkien’s writing); but in Martin’s Westeros, one does not feel that hope, that certainty that good will prevail or that truth will out.
George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series is a great series, and I eagerly look forward to the sixth volume. But Time magazine’s reference to Martin as “an American Tolkien” was misplaced, nothing more than a byproduct of all-too-common American hubris.