I was thinking today about George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and the fact that I’ve more or less given up on the series after reading the first book. A lot of my friends are rabid-at-the-mouth crazy about it, both the books and the TV miniseries, but I’m just not all that into it.
Don’t get me wrong–I can see why other people like it so much. The story is engaging, the political intrigue is deliciously complex, the world building is wonderful and immersive, and the fantasy tropes are played quite well. I enjoyed a lot of things about the first book, and intended to read the rest of the series after finishing it. After all, it’s one of the most important works of epic fantasy to come out in the last few decades, with people calling George R.R. Martin an American Tolkien.
But the truth is, I just wasn’t all that into it. And the more I think about it now, the more I’ve realized that this isn’t the kind of series I would enjoy at all.
The strange thing is, I’m a HUGE fan of David Gemmell, who writes almost the exact same sort of thing. Immersive fantasy worlds, dark and gritty characters, shades of gray, lots of fighting, lots of sex, lots of brutality, the realization that anyone can die off at any time … the list goes on and on. And yet, there’s something about David Gemmell’s books that turns me rabid-at-the-mouth and has me squeeing like an otaku fangirl, whereas with George R.R. Martin, all I can manage is “meh.”
I think the reason for this is that Martin’s characters basically fall into one or both of two camps: victim or victimizer. There isn’t any middle ground–at least, none that anyone can stand on for long without dying in some horrific and brutal way. The story requires the characters to all become monsters, and anyone who isn’t willing to do that meets a horrible, tragic end.
There were only two characters in A Game of Thrones that I really cared about: Arya and Ned Stark. Ned was the only character who really tried to stand for something, and Arya was just a spunky little girl who resisted all the stupid girly stuff in favor of more practical stuff like street smarts.
The trouble was that Ned was a complete idiot, trusting in the honor of a guy who explicitly said “do not trust me” and making stupid decisions that ended up getting half of House Stark killed or captured. It’s almost as if Martin purposefully set him up to be a straw man character–that he wanted this one character to represent all the goody-goodies of the world, and knocked him off in the most brutal way possible. It’s like Martin killed him off to make a point, and had the story drive the character rather than the character drive his own story.
And Arya … I forget exactly what happened to her, but she basically became a victim in such a horrible, twisted way that I could tell she’d be scarred for the rest of the series. If she didn’t die off herself, she’d probably become a dirty street rat–the slit-your-throat-for-a-copper kind, not the Disney version. So yeah, I pretty much gave up on her.
Jon Snow was okay, but he was so far removed from everything else in the story that I just got bored with him. Tyrion was funny, but he was also a pervert, and all the reasons to sympathize with him basically revolved around “I’m a dwarf, everyone mistreats me”–again, the victim vs. victimizer thing. Lady Catelyn was pretty cool, but I always saw her as more of a supporting character, and while I found myself rooting for Daenerys at the end, it was only out of frustration with all of the other douchebags in Westeros–I just wanted her to come over the sea and claim the throne so that everyone else would die.
It was a pretty good book, I’ll admit–other than the fact that I didn’t really like any of the characters, everything else was quite enjoyable. It certainly held my attention long enough to finish the thing. But I didn’t really feel compelled to read the next one because I frankly didn’t care what happened to any of the characters. You could give me a list of all of the ones who die off, and I would just shrug and say “oh well.”
In contrast, with every David Gemmell book I’ve read, I fall in love with the characters after reading just a paragraph or two in their viewpoint. Drenai or Nadir, civilized or barbarian, I not only like the characters, I fall deeply in love with them. I care about them right from the outset, even the ones with a dark past, like Skilgannon or Waylander. In fact, Waylander is probably my favorite of them all.
The fact that I know that some of these guys are going to die only makes me more invested, because even though Gemmell kills of most of his characters in any given book, the main characters’ deaths almost always mean something. Maybe they have some awful secret that they finally are able to give up, or maybe they’ve been running from a fate that they finally gather the courage to face. Or maybe they just happen to be in a circumstance that requires them to give up their lives, and they rise to meet the occasion. Not every death is cathartic, but Gemmell never kills off a character merely for the sake of killing off a character, whereas with Martin, I get the sense that that’s sometimes the only reason.
But the biggest difference between the two is that with Gemmell, the victim vs. victimizer paradigm just doesn’t exist. Gemmell’s books are all about unlikely heroism–characters in situations that require them to be something more, or do something beyond looking out for just themselves. Anyone can be a hero, because a hero is nothing more than someone who does something heroic. No matter your past, no matter your fears, no matter your weaknesses, when the chips are down, we’re not all that different.
The counter argument I’ve heard is that all of this heroism stuff is superfluous, and Martin is trying to get beyond it, kind of like the 19th and 20th century philosophers who were trying to get beyond morality. The thing is, if that’s the case, then Martin has to have the darkest and most depressing view of human nature of almost any fantasy writer alive. If his point is that there’s nothing intrinsically heroic about anyone, that being a hero is just a matter of rising to a role and becoming a figure in one of the stories that people tell to make sense of the world–if his point is to show that every hero is really just a douchebag, there’s something about the world that he’s really missing.
In Gemmell’s books, there are douchebags who rise to the heroic roles required of them–but in the act of filling that role, something about them changes, and you see that they’re really not as evil as you thought they were. Because in Gemmell’s view, people are essentially good and everyone is redeemable, even the rapists and murderers. One of his darkest characters, Skilgannon the Damned, learns at the end of his story that the difference between salvation and damnation is allowing yourself to receive the light–that the only thing damning you is yourself. Whether or not you agree with that, you have to admit that’s a pretty optimistic way of seeing the world.
In the end, that’s why I love David Gemmell’s books so much–not just because anyone can die, but because anyone can be redeemed too, sometimes at the very same time. From what I’ve read of George R.R. Martin, it seems that he redeems no one–that to the extent I’m rooting for any one character, it’s only because I can’t wait for them to kill or brutalize all the other horrible monsters in the book. And frankly, I find that pointless and tiresome.
There are moments in almost every David Gemmell book I’ve read that stand out to me with great clarity, so that sometimes while I’m standing in line at the grocery store, or walking down the street to the library, they pop into my head completely unbidden. With George R.R. Martin, that has never happened to me, even for the books of his that I’ve enjoyed.
I dunno. Everyone is different. Maybe George R.R. Martin really strikes a chord in you, so that you feel for him like I do for David Gemmell. Maybe you actually like some of the characters whom I’ve dismissed as douchebags. Or maybe you don’t read fantasy for the same things I do. This post isn’t to knock you for that, it’s just to point out and analyze why I don’t like George R.R. Martin’s stuff as much as most other fantasy fans seem to. And if you do feel about this the same way that I do, then my point is to declare that that’s all right. You can still be a fantasy geek and not like A Sword of Ice and Fire or anything else by George R.R. Martin, no matter how much it’s hyped. That’s perfectly okay.
I’m writing an epic fantasy right now, and it’s not going to be anything like A Sword of Ice and Fire. It’s probably not going to be much like any of David Gemmell’s books either, but Gemmell is certainly a bigger influence on me than Martin. We’ll have to see how it turns out.