Sunday, November 20, 2011

My review of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire: epic meh

So I can't exactly pan his books seeing as I've read the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series in less than three months, but if I could go back in time I'd warn myself, don't do it. Or maybe just read the first book, which is the best, and then watch the HBO Game of Thrones show as it gradually recapitulates the books (disclaimer: haven't seen it, but it gets great reviews).


The series is epic, but it's meh. The level of detail is stunning - I've never read a book with such descriptions of each dish of food at so many meals. The battles and intrigues are epic. And they don't lead to anything. Five books later, and I don't have a sense of a plot line that's really advanced from the beginning. The characters just run around in their clown car of a fantasy world, coming and going to various lands and occasionally getting bumped off. It feels like an alternate history, which is fine, even amazing, but after a while it just all fades into one damn thing after another.

Tolkien could wrap up a story arc in three books. Martin hasn't done it in five - he claims he'll do it in seven, but the last two haven't been written yet, so who knows really, and these aren't quick reads like the Harry Potter books. My suggestion is to just watch the show instead (based on all the rave reviews), it saves a lot of time. Of course, it's too late for me - I'll read the books when they come out.


UPDATE:  I half-expected to either get flamed or ignored, but apparently the rabbits agree that Martin's overrated. They provide alternatives.

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree it's sub-Tolkien, but still I would recommend it as a "rattlin' good read".

Some of the characterisations are one-dimensional, but there are sympathetic characters (mostly the Stark family), and a bit of character development e.g. the Queen's twin brother starts out pretty evil, but seems to be journeying towards the good since he lost his hand (minor spoiler). He even seemed to be falling for the female knight (forget the name!). The Queen herself goes so much in the opposite direction, she borders on a charicature.

The plot contains some surprising twists, but too often the incidents (especially the adventures of the Stark minors) are just one damm thing after another.

The series is good so far, except they have made the sex much more plentiful and much more rancid. Doesn't anyone in the Seven Kingdoms have sexual intercourse in the good old-fashioned missionary position?

Toby

J Bowers said...

Get yourself a copy of The Terror by Dan Simmons.

Anonymous said...

I've never read a book with such descriptions of each dish of food at so many meals.

You obviously didn't read Enid Blyton as a child, then...

;-)



Bernard J. Hyphen-Anonymous XVII, Esq. (with lashings of whipped cream)

Marlowe Johnson said...

For a longer and better read try Steven Erikson's just completed Malazan series. For a shorter, heavier and more thought provoking read try Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series. Martin's work is good but both these Canadians pw0n him :)

Jim Bouldin said...

"The battles and intrigues are epic. And they don't lead to anything. Five books later, and I don't have a sense of a plot line that's really advanced from the beginning. The characters just run around in their clown car of a fantasy world..."

Then I'm sure the climate change deniers would love them.

DeWitt said...

If you don't like A Song of Ice and Fire, avoid Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time like the plague. The author died before he completed the series. The last three(!!!) volumes (of 14), two of which have been published, have been finished by another author based on Jordan's notes and unfinished manuscript. The first five were decent, but the rest were padded beyond belief with inconsequential details.

A Song of Ice and Fire somewhat reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Characters die but don't stay buried.

For dark military fantasy, I liked Glen Cook's The Black Company series. For something completely different, there's P.C.Hodgell's Jame books (Godstalk, et.seq.) They're finally all back in print from Tor books.

Rattus Norvegicus said...

Jim, the deniers probably won't like these books. Too much Gore in them :)

Hank Roberts said...

> Five books later, and I don't have a sense of a
> plot line that's really advanced from the beginning.

I thought that was the point. I read them all too. Can't remember a thing about them a year later.

Here's to the new king, same as the old king.

I figured eventually he'd get around to writing about advancement -- when the revolution came.

Call it "Overthrown" ...

No?

EWI said...

Dear God no, don't go anywhere near the 'Malazan' stuff! Worst prose I'd had to struggle with in some years, and utterly generic one-dimensional fantasy characters.

And the resemblance of GRRM's writing style to RJ's is no coincidence, their being good friends. The Mormon writer now finishing off the books has regrettably stripped out all the bad language and sex (including the subtextual homosexuality and BDSM that RJ incorporated as the series progressed).

Neven said...

If you don't like A Song of Ice and Fire, avoid Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time like the plague. The author died before he completed the series. The last three(!!!) volumes (of 14), two of which have been published, have been finished by another author based on Jordan's notes and unfinished manuscript. The first five were decent, but the rest were padded beyond belief with inconsequential details.

Ha, that's funny. This was exactly what I was thinking of while reading this blog post. :-)

Jordan kept complicating things, just producing loose end after loose end, in an incredibly long-winded way ("The horses snorted as their hooves crunched in the snow that had fallen a week earlier, while X was trying to remain composed, but tugging her braids, blah blah blah...").

I was really wondering how he was going to tie things together in the final book(s), and then he died on me. Sorry for being so harsh, God bless his soul and may he rest in peace and everything, but how I cursed the day I read he died!

I don't think I'm ever going to finish this series. Reading the last (?) three 1000+ page tomes after having to have read summaries of other books to remember who the hell was who... You know, I'm not 16 anymore (when I started reading the The Wheel of Time series 20 years ago).

But at least I got to translate part of one of the books (when the translator died), so I could make a little money to make up for lost time.

Anonymous said...

Whilst we're all recommending/dissing epic fantasy cycles can I put in a plug for Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. Thought provoking 'future fantasy' with a fantastically complex unreliable narrator as its central figure.

Anonyspilopsella

Anonymous said...

If you're looking for suggestions, I really enjoyed Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt quadrology.

I agree with the analysis of Wheel of Time (though I'll point out that Brandon Sanderson, the Mormon author, has written some other good books that are worth reading for fantasy buffs, like the Mistborn trilogy)

I also happily found the PC Hodgell reprints recently - I'd read the first two in the mid-90s, reread the first one when I found it a year ago in a used bookstore, and then found 3+4 on a friend's bookshelf (alas, I'd forgotten many details from book 2), and since PC has apparently retired from her teaching position I have hopes that the series will resolve... (mind you, the books are a little more scattered and strange than I remember them being)

I certainly enjoyed Glen Cook back in the 90s, but wonder if I'd enjoy as much on a re-read... maybe a bit too dark and gritty? But memorable, iconic characters, especially the Taken. (much like Fred Saberhagen's Twelve Swords were memorable and iconic, even if the end of the series was not fully satisfying)

Oddly, I've never heard of Malazan or the Prince of Nothing...

-MMM

Miguelito said...

"Dear God no, don't go anywhere near the 'Malazan' stuff! Worst prose I'd had to struggle with in some years, and utterly generic one-dimensional fantasy characters."

Agreed. And they're so inconsistent. Book one: terrible. Book two: awesome. Book three: meh. Book four: terrible and I couldn't even finish it. Having said all this, they do have many, many fans. But just as many detractors.

I'll also second the R Scott Bakker "Prince of Nothing" books. Given how he focuses on how leaders use religion to warp the perceptions of followers, getting them to do some pretty crazy stuff, it offers some parallels to the anti-science right wing.

David B. Benson said...

Wheel of Time book 13 certainly doesn't read as a Robert Jordan novel. As stated above the first several were good ad then I stopped reading these several books back. But easy to pick up at book 13 (and might as well read it now that I bought it).

Anonymous said...

song fan..I agree, the first books was excellent, and each succeeding book, imo, has been worse, but at least the first 3 were all good. it started really going downhill with a feast for crows. i just think he got lost, and doesn't have any idea how to wrap it up, but meanwhile he's making money so he will fake it.

andrewt said...

I really enjoyed Song of Fire & Ice even though I pretty much agree with what you are saying. I'm not a a huge fantasy fan but I also enjoyed Joe Abercrombie's First Law books which have some of the same flavour as Fire&Ice but less overblown.

Marlowe Johnson said...

To all the Malazan haters out there, consider reading this review.

"After 30 years of reading across genres, I have not come across its equal and I have read just about every Pulitzer Prize winner, Nobel Prize winner and more so-called classics than I can count. Sadly, The Malazan Book of the Fallen won't ever win any awards outside the genre and won't ever have the kind of notoriety associated with the type of books I mentioned above, but I have a feeling awards and fame and fortune had nothing to do with why Steven Erikson wrote The Malazan Book of the Fallen. If he cared about those things, he would have made this series more accessible. Instead he has written a series of books that I would only recommend to most advanced readers out there. Even they will have to make two passes through all ten books to fully comprehend the myriad of plotlines, characters and various settings that Erikson presents to us. It is not my intention to scare readers off. If you decide to read The Malazan Book of the Fallen, make no mistake, you will probably be taking on the most challenging literary trial that you have ever tried in your life. But the payoff is too enormous to ignore and well worth taking on the endeavor. Steven Erikson doesn't spoon feed his readers. He forces you to question and think on a level that very few authors would even dare for fear of finding and perhaps losing an audience. Well... he found it and we're a select group."

IOW you haters are too dumb or too lazy :)

Incidentally, Erikson has said on many occasions that Glen Cook's 'Black Company' was a primary inspiration for his own work.

guthrie said...

I'm more into SF than F, but stuff that i've read that was ok or highly rated includes Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion series, Chralie Stross's Merchant prince series (Which is sort of less like fantasy, involving people who can travel between parallel worlds but naturally many of them have lower tech levels); there's also Chris Bunch whose trilogy I can't recall the title of.

There'll be plenty of others of course. Now if you want to know about SF I can tell you more.

Anonymous said...

"For a longer and better read try Steven Erikson's just completed Malazan series."

Arrggh!! Those novels are like the L.A. of fantasy - they sprawl and sprawl and sprawl. Nowhere near as tightly written as MartinFirst book was good: the second was a slog; I gave up on the third. Eriksen's characters are wooden: I couldn't really give a crap about what happened to them, as opposed to in Martin's books where you're eagerly waiting for the next Jon or Arya chapter.

I don't know if Eriksen is making fun of Extruded Fantasy Product, but it sure felt like Extruded Fantasy Product.

Gene Wolfe or Martin are worth rereading: Martin 'cos the plots are intricate enough, Wolfe because he uses unreliable narrators enough that you have to reread to figure out exactly what's going on.

Also would recommend Joe Abercrombie's books.

Marlowe Johnson said...

"Arrggh!! Those novels are like the L.A. of fantasy - they sprawl and sprawl and sprawl."

One wonders if Homer's editor would have said the same thing back in the day :)

Erikson isn't for those with ADHD or who prefer linear character-driven storylines. It also isn't for prose/grammar snobs who prefer style over substance (some family relations come to mind). If that's what floats your boat try Ursula Leguin.

If you want unparalleled EPIC fantasy that boasts the finest world building and mythmaking ever attempted since Tolkien (and surpassed IMO), then Erikson is your man.

Miguelito said...

Marlowe Johnson said:

"IOW you haters are too dumb or too lazy :)"

It has nothing to do with how accessible his books are. I love challenging reads. And I'll admit that the Malazan books have the best world building I've ever seen.

But, his characters are cardboard and uninteresting except for a lonesome few. And, the way he built his world, it's like having a canvas of gold and painting nothing but stick figures on it.

Miguelito said...

"Erikson isn't for those with ADHD or who prefer linear character-driven storylines. It also isn't for prose/grammar snobs who prefer style over substance (some family relations come to mind). If that's what floats your boat try Ursula Leguin."

You're really coming across as a jerk, do you know that?

Liking prose and liking substance are not mutually exclusive. Chances are, if somebody likes prose, they like substance in the story too, including multi-dimensional storylines. I know I like both.

Frankly, most of Erikson's characters have no substance. And when you're trying to connect with a character and find nothing to connect to, then the story doesn't work for me. I found the characters in the first book flat and uncompelling. I found the characters in the second book complex and intriguing. Then things got flat again in books three and four. And I gave up.

metaclimate.org said...

Big Tolkien geek here and I so agree with you on Song. I read the first couple and found that while I loved parts, there was too much inconsequential detail that bogged down the story and I stopped reading somewhere in the middle of the series. The television series is, in contrast, fabulous! I felt the same about RJ's Wheel series. I bought the first 12 and read a couple but now use the tomes to prop up my bed. Very useful in that sense. :)

Susan

Marlowe Johnson said...

Miguelito,

Take it easy dude. If you think I'm rude, you should stay away from Mosher ;-)

Me: "Erikson...isn't for those who prefer linear character-driven storylines."

You: "when you're trying to connect with a character and find nothing to connect to, then the story doesn't work for me."

Score: Marlowe 1, Miguelito 0.

Me: "Erikson isn't for those with ADHD"

You: "Then things got flat again in books three and four. And I gave up."

The story arc is 10 books long. You gave up after 4.


Score: Marlowe 2, Miguelito 0.

Anonymous said...

"It feels like an alternate history, which is fine, even amazing, but after a while it just all fades into one damn thing after another."

Why settle for AltHist when the real thing is racier? People who enjoy ASOIAF - I am so far - should get a wheeze from medieval English history. Pretty much every one of GRRM's characters, except undead ones, can be found stalking through the 12th (Henry II to John) and 15th (Richard II to Richard III) centuries.

Sharon Penman offers pleasant novelisations of both periods for those who find straight history a little dry.

When it comes to the massively-multi-character POV genre, I preferred Kevin Anderson's Saga of Seven Suns, but nominally thats SciFi rather than Fantasy.

Frank D. Anonny Mouse I

Miguelito said...

Marlowe:

Just because something is character driven doesn't mean it's linear. I like complex. But his characters were, for the most part, BORING. And if I'm not sympathizing with characters, then the story, no matter how complex, ends up being boring too (they're the people we're supposed to live through to experience the story).

And giving up after book 4 doesn't mean I have ADHD. I could see the threads of what Erikson was trying to do, was impressed enough by it to keep trying despite all the other flaws, and it kept me reading until book four, when I just had to give up because his characterizations weren't getting any better and it made reading his stuff agonizing.

Anonymous said...

"One wonders if Homer's editor would have said the same thing back in the day :)"

The Iliad ain't spawling time-wise: it's a few weeks in the last year of the Trojan War, only going from when Achilles pouts off to his tent to when he gives Hector's body to Priam.

And the Odyssey has a single hero (albeit with more redshirts than ever were on all the Star Trek series combined.)

The Mahabharata or the Shahnameh are a bit more sprawling. But the Greco-Roman (Homer, Virgil), Celtic (Book of Invasions or the Cattle Raid of Cooley), and Anglo-Saxon (Beowulf) are pretty terse compared to Extruded Fantasy Product.

"Erikson isn't for those with ADHD or who prefer linear character-driven storylines."

Well, you do have linear character-driven narratives in Eriksen. In the sense that there's a lot of one-dimensional characters walking around his novels.

I've read the entire Black Company series (which lost momentum in the end), the whole Gene Wolfe Book of the New Sun and Book of the Long Sun, and GRRM. Tight non-linear writing is great. Non-linear in urgent need of editing 65% of the text out ain't.

Eriksen gives an epic story based on a kick-ass RPG campaign world. I'd love to play an RPG with Eriksen as DM. But I lost interest in reading about it. And the jarring between the grunt-level Black company type characters and the near-deity level of others just got to me.

Chris Rhetts said...

I mostly agree with the review. The books are studded with absolutely stunning images, plot twists, and well conceived, three dimensional characters which literally leap off the page - but because of the (often repetitive) padding, they are as satisfying as a jigger of 20 year old scotch diluted with 16 ounces of tap water.

Let's not forget that for all his estimable talent, Mr. Martin is also trying to earn a living like the rest of us. And serial novels of epic length have become the gold standard in genre literature.

I have in my F&SF collection, which goes back to the 40's, several brilliant series of 3 to 5 volumes - yet the whole of each series would barely equal the length of one volume of Song of Ice and Fire.

Personally, I think a lot of this has to do with the way we approach print today, in an environment which is exploding with passive media. To many, books have become as much a pastime as a source of wonder and inspiration.

Crude as it may sound, much of the reading public has come to measure the value of a book in terms of cost per pound. Pity, that.

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Kevin O'Neill said...

Too often overlooked is Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos series. Brust, a dedicated Marxist, has been active on the internet since before we had one. I remember him on GEnie back in the late 80's during the run-up to the Iraq War. He now maintains his own site, The Dreamcafe.


The fantasy world he creates, Dragaera, is not your typical sword & sorcerer fare. The main character, Vlad, is by trade an assassin with a Jhereg (mini-dragon) as his familiar with whom he shares a telepathic link. The interplay of voices in his head is often comedic.

There are currently 14 books in the series and a few more are planned. This may seem daunting, but they're not massive tomes, they are very good reads. Brust tells a good story, he writes well, and he usually has a moral or two or three to convey.

I also highly recommend his novels 'To Reign In Hell' and 'Agyar.'

Anonymous said...

When Erikson wrote the book it was originally intended for Dungeons and Dragons as a new campaign setting. Hence the characters being pigeon holed. But I like his prose far more than reading anything GRRM has written after the first book. Atleast stuff happens in Malazan. Martin left lots of low hanging fruit at the end of book one then just watches it rot away by doing NOTHING with it. I got to feast of crows and gave up. I had that same gnawing Jordan sensation of just padding out the books. I could care less about the bannerman of the 2nd house of Dorne. All replesent in green finery. If he isn't doing nothing ever again in the series then strike it out.

Martins contemporary and much better writer IMO is Stephan R Donaldson. His gap series is Sci Fi but impressive and wraps up in 5 books. It also is the first person perspective style that marin borrowed for GOT.