Monday, May 21, 2012

swords, sorcery, and quibbles

Over the weekend I finished A Storm of Swords, the third book in George R.R. Martin's "Game of Thrones" series. I don't often read fantasy, but when the "Game of Thrones" HBO series was in the making, two things happened. One is that many people started directing me to pictures of the dogs playing the direwolves, because they look uncannily like Darcy. Darcy, though, is taller; Claudio, who watches the show, says that they make the dogs look huge, but I saw a picture of one with its trainer, standing on its hind legs, and it was barely her height (I assume she was, at most, five foot eight). Darcy on his hind legs is taller than Claudio, who's six three.

(Yes, that was a gratuitous MY DOG IS BIGGER THAN THE ACTOR DOGS boast. There's a slight competitive streak on my mother's side of the family. You should hear me gripe about the annual local dog parade and how "Biggest" is based on weight, so the 200-pound mastiff always wins even though Darcy is both taller and longer. The prize is a blurry photo in the local paper with the owner's name usually misspelled, but it's the principle of the thing.)

The other thing is that I saw many reviews of the books comparing them to "The Wire". Now, I didn't always like "The Wire". In fact, I frequently didn't like it at all, but it was always maddeningly compelling.

And I knew I was going to eventually watch the series, because I'm much more willing to watch fantasy than read it (for heaven's sake, I watched Starz' "Camelot", which set new and amazing standards for terrible), so I decided to pick up the first book.

A hundred pages in, I knew the comparisons to "The Wire" were completely valid, because I got the same sensation of "damn it, now I have to commit to four more seasons five more books of this story that I don't actually like but which has utterly sucked me in". I inhaled that first book, despite my problems with it (mostly to do with the female characters, which I will discuss later). The second book I found pretty disappointing: it was, like all the others, over a thousand pages long, but the plot advanced maybe 300 pages' worth. So I took a long break before reading another.

This was kind of a mistake, since I had forgotten who the roughly five thousand supporting characters were. After a frustrating hour of trying to remember alliances or piece them together from the unhelpful list of characters at the back (it's sorted by house / alliance, not by character, so you have to already know which side someone's on: defeats the purpose entirely), I decided to just go with it, and soon I was back in the flow of things. A Storm of Swords was almost as enthralling, pacing-wise, as A Game of Thrones, and I certainly whipped through it a lot faster than I did A Clash of Kings.

However, I have Issues with these books. Chief among them is the portrayal of women. All the female characters are defined by their relationship to men: wives, mothers, daughters, sisters; and their actions are almost entirely driven by this (e.g., Catelyn Stark is a Mother and acts accordingly). Now, one could argue that Martin's world is centered on royalty and nobility, in which the dynastic usefulness of women is as wives, daughters, and mothers of men. But, crucially, this isn't a historical novel. Martin has written a world in which magic and dragons are real, so why does he need to draw his gender roles directly from fifteenth-century Europe? This is your own world, George! You can do whatever the hell you want! Why not have sons be the pawns in alliances, and have all girls trained in combat as a matter of course? Seriously, why not? There aren't any rules; you made your own world. Why are the gender roles in it the same that we've all seen a thousand times?

(Do not get me started on the female knight Brienne of Tarth; in the chapters featuring her, Martin cannot let two sentences go by without reminding the reader how ugly and unfeminine she is. We're expected to remember characters from two books and 2,000 pages ago, but between paragraphs we might have forgotten Brienne's loathsome appearance. Her shoulders are wider than Jaime Lannister's! Do you hear that, reader? Do you know how disgusting that makes her? Even when she's kicking some man's ass, let's mock her, because if she were a proper woman, she wouldn't be able to do that! And of course we have to eventually contrive a situation in which a man has to rescue her, because this ass-kicking cannot be allowed to go on. I made extremely frowny faces during these chapters.)

Another issue is that Martin is killing off his major characters without replacing them. There continue to be minor characters introduced in manner and number like unto the Catalogue of Ships, but none of them have been elevated to deserving their own chapters. Martin flits back and forth between chapters from different major characters' point of view, which are each titled with the name of said character. So we get CATELYN; JON; TYRION; JAIME (noticeably, not BRIENNE; she is a supporting player in Jaime's chapters); etc. Martin's gift as a writer, which is considerable, lies in ending each chapter with a cliffhanger and keeping you invested in each character's story. But by the end, he's killed off many characters whom I personally found more interesting than several of the ones he's left alive, and the points of view are narrowing. Instead of Characters 1-6 alternating chapters, you get just CHARACTER 1; CHARACTER 2; CHARACTER 1; and so on. And if you find CHARACTER 1 kind of a self-righteous bore, as I do, this isn't a great thing.

But of course Martin's shtick is Don't Get Too Attached, as the internet puts it. He'll kill off anyone, or any wolf. This is another cause of serious frowns chez Beatrice. Near the end of Storm of Swords the direwolf count (of six) stands at two dead, three missing, and one wounded. George R.R. Martin, you are not welcome around my dogs.  

Also, there is the sex. Because to be edgy (and worth HBO's time), fantasy must include lots of sex. And bad words about it. Now, I am not a prude*, but language matters. And by page seventy of this book the words "cock", "prick", and "cunt" had stopped meaning anything to me. "Cunt" is the most vile word I know - I often literally flinch when I encounter it, unless the context is something like Irishmen using it as a comma, à la "In Bruges" - and if you desensitize me to it, then you are using it too often. (I think Mantel used it once in Bring Up the Bodies. It rocked me back on my heels, as it was intended to.) At a certain point it seems childish: SEX! Did I mention SEX? Did I mention it's INCEST SEX? You know, George, I think you did.

I'll be waiting some before reading the next one, though that does create the risk of forgetting all the minor characters again. I'm okay with that. I find, for all my inability to put one of the books down while I'm reading them and the way they all end with cliffhangers, that I don't need to plunge right into the next one. It's still going to be there when I feel like it, and the fifth one is getting stink-tacular reviews (sounds like it has the Clash of Kings problem re: not advancing the plot), so no hurry to reach that one.

In conclusion:

*This is a lie.

1 comment:

  1. I read the first one and HATED it, though I also finished it because it was fairly compelling and a friend had given it to me (I finished The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo for similar reasons but hate it more). I don't read a great deal of fantasy, largely because of the overdone tropes, especially involving gender roles, that show up over and over, and Martin is one more idjit trotting them out in heaving breasts beneath emerald velvet. However, I appreciate that my spouse is still reading the series, because I can test my theories as to which characters have now been killed off, and hear what the direwolves and dragons are up to.