Fifteen years or so late to the party, and just in time to hop aboard the HBO bandwagon, this past Monday saw me finishing George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I’m no stranger to fantasy fiction, but since my adolescent years, I don’t think I’ve read much of it beyond a few nostalgic returns to Tolkien and some enjoyable evenings with Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. It’s fairly easy to find science fiction writers who bend towards the literary and adventurous, but fantasy (to the outside observer at least) is sci-fi’s pimply stepchild, seemingly still locked in the bargain bin basement along with a few Rush records, a pad of graph paper, the Monster Manual and a 12-sided die.
This is partly due to the ambitious nature of a fantasy setting, and it seems to me Tolkien and Howard both present vastly different ways of succeeding at the endeavor. Tolkien built Middle Earth from the language up—a world constructed with the express purpose of providing a living myth for the Anglo Saxon culture that had absorbed by conquerors and the tide of history. Like The Faerie Queene before it, Tolkien’s Middle Earth is imbued with a sense of loss and longing for the fears and wonders of the great forests primeval.
Howard, on the other hand, succeeds by not trying too hard with his world. Only the most basic of backdrops is provided for his wandering hero—the loose geography and uncharted history of Hypoborea lets Conan rule an Italian-esque city-state, battle Native Americans, or command a pirate’s galley as the whims of story (and Howard’s pulp editors) required. It’s a boyhood’s dream of adventure, overflowing with hacked limbs, bloody beasts, and scantily-clad nymphs.
Martin’s creation takes an entirely different approach, one that is a bit modern in its calculations (as befitting a former Hollywood screenwriter), but that succeeds in creating an immensely satisfying epic tale.
Game of Thrones is simply stuffed with plot. Seven kingdoms and two continents worth of lords, lieges, brigands, traitors, usurpers and scheming underlings, all with shifting and veiled motives, pushing armies across a map, moving from one location to another, double-crossing, impaling, beheading, taking vows, breaking vows, getting married, murdering one another, and so on and forever and anon. In service to this perpetually rolling storyline, Martin’s writing is dependably (and properly) artless–it’s a delivery system for plot. Could it have been a sleeker delivery system? Perhaps. Shifting his point of view from character to character over each chapter, Martin rarely lets a scene speak for itself: “Ned could feel the unease in the hall, as high lords and servants alike strained to listen. He could not pretend to surprise.” Is Martin not trusting his readers to sense the “unease in the hall,” or is he not trusting his writing?
The book would be incredibly more effective if it was at least a third shorter. As it is, we have a sufficient delivery of an imaginative and well-conceived plot. It’s mass market fantasy, innumerable steps above Tom Clancy, and maybe a step or two behind a Ken Follett potboiler. Imagine if Martin had channeled Elmore Leonard and let his characters talk and act without acres and acres of excess writerly verbiage, imagine a brisker pace, and Game of Thrones would be a masterpiece.
Which is why I’m quite excited for the HBO series, premiering this Sunday. If the series achieves its intent, like Greene’s The Third Man, it will surpass its source material. While all the press around the adaptation seems to be focusing on the fact that there will be plenty of HBO-style boobs onscreen, my hope is that the backdrop Martin has crafted will shine on screen without too much heavy-lifting–letting the soap operatic elements rise to the surface. The veiled motives and shifting alliances of Martin’s web-like narrative can only be served by the pacing constraints of episodic television. Or they could totally blow it.