I’m talking about the George R.R. Martin novels, not the terrible campy TV show that hipsters watch in soccer bars. That’s just Deathstalker the 100 million dollar TV show with a better class of actors, slightly less nudity and more gay references than a season of South Park.
I liked Game of Thrones. I liked Clash of Kings. By Storm of Swords, I was having my doubts. By Feast of Crows, the problems were too obvious to ignore.
1. A Song of Fire and Ice depends on soap opera gimmicks, not consistent plotting
Think of 24. The show’s plot was incoherent but it kept you watching by constantly throwing in twists and turns. An entire season made no sense but it didn’t matter because you were watching for the suspense and the shocking turn. The Following does the same thing now.
The Game of Thrones novels are a novelistic version of 24.
George R.R. Martin depends on gimmicks to make up for what he lacks in plotting. His original novels, Dying of the Light, Armageddon Rag, were big on atmosphere, but their plots made no sense. That’s still true in Game of Thrones, but Martin spent enough time working in television to borrow its plot gimmicks.
Characters are killed unexpectedly. Characters seem like they’ve been killed off, but they’re actually alive. (Martin has at least twice shown the body of a character only to reveal that he’s alive. Or is that three times?)
Some characters rise unexpectedly and then fall equally unexpectedly. There’s a name for this. Soap opera.
And just like on a soap opera, the gimmicks worked for a while until they became repetitive.
How many times have you seen this one? A character with no real battlefield experience, Robb, Daenerys, Tyrion, suddenly turns out to be Napoleon until they suffer an unexpected setback and lose everything.
All this furious activity disguises the fact that the novels are going nowhere and readers have figured it out. A lot of the frustration isn’t just because Martin isn’t writing novels, it’s because he isn’t moving the story forward. He knows he can’t move it forward. All he has is a bag of tricks. And he’s repeating them too often.
George R.R. Martin’s final trick is to sell the lack of forward motion and consistent plotting as gritty and realistic. Peel away all the gritty medievalism and it’s as gritty and realistic as Days of Our Lives.
2. Martin is good at Character, Bad at Endings
Do you know what Martin’s early novels all had in common? Botched endings. If you’re waiting for A Song of Fire and Ice sequel that gives you what you want, don’t wait. Martin isn’t capable of it. He’s a good writer, but a bad novelist.
Think of Lost. The show was great at telling the stories of individual characters. It just couldn’t do anything with them in a story. The character sketches were compelling. The story went nowhere. The ending was a disaster.
After five novels, Daenerys is the only character with a meaningful arc whose story has been advanced. Tyrion has a meaningful arc but his only job is going in circles. The less said of the rest of the crew, the better.
In Game of Thrones and Clash of Kings, Martin builds the equivalent of Lost’s early seasons. But once that’s done, like the show, he has nowhere to go. He’s bad at plot and he doesn’t care about it. Like the Lost writers, he just wants to play with character sketches. He doesn’t want to do anything more with them.
Like Lost, Martin randomly kills off characters. He brings in new compelling characters. But the real goal is a status quo in which the setting continues and nothing gets resolved.
Lost wasn’t a mystery about a secret island. Viewers just thought that. It was a way of letting the writers play with a bunch of characters. A Song of Fire and Ice is about letting Martin play with characters. It’s not about big battles or figuring out the mystery of what lies beyond the wall or how the dead can walk again. Readers just think it is.
They’ve been wrong all along.
3. George R.R. Martin isn’t Tolkien
The Game of Thrones novels are promoted by claiming that George R.R. Martin is the American Tolkien. There are writers who might deserve that honor, probably Robert E. Howard, but Martin isn’t one of them.
There’s very little original worldbuilding in Game of Thrones. Most readers never realize that because the books are told intensely through first person immersion that create a sense of unearned reality. The world seems like it exists, even though it’s very thinly sketched.
Also most of them have never read Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series. The similarities are so heavy that if Williams had the guts he could put “The Series that Inspired Game of Thrones” on the reprints and dare Martin to do anything about it. And while Williams isn’t as good at the characters or the intrigue, his world is more realized than Martin’s poor copy of it.
The pseudo-medieval European religion and history are far more realized in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Martin just tosses them out there inconsistently. He doesn’t create a compelling fantasy universe the way that Williams does. George R.R. Martin creates compelling characters. That’s a lot, but it’s not great fantasy.
Martin’s early novels and stories did do some compelling worldbuilding with the Manrealm. It could have been one of Science Fiction’s great universes. But Martin dropped it and did a lot of television. And television is the only thing he can do.
The HBO series Game of Thrones bastardized Martin’s novels, but before it did that, Martin bastardized other people’s work to create A Song of Fire and Ice.
4. Martin is a good writer, but he never learned to write novels
George R.R. Martin has written some amazing short stories and novellas, but he never learned to write novels. Instead he gave up and went into television. He still doesn’t know how to write a novel.
A Song of Fire and Ice is popular because he used television writing gimmicks to disguise that fact. But the novels stretch on indefinitely because it’s all gimmicks and filler.
Martin can’t end the series because he’s never successfully ended a novel before. Each new novel in the Fire and Ice series just drags on even more. By Dance with Dragons, Martin wasn’t even bothering to pretend that he was ending a novel. And he didn’t. It’s just a chapter in a serial. And the serial can go on forever if the audience doesn’t notice that it’s going nowhere.
Kill a character. Bring him back to life. Up. Down. It’s all an attempt to avoid another failed ending.
If Martin really wants to do right by his audience, he needs to take a break from the universe, which he’s been doing anyway, and write a separate unrelated novel, and not one of the Cards universe collections, plot it out and end it successfully. Then he can take what he learned and apply it to the series.
Not that he will. The HBO cash and all the associated merchandising money keeps flowing in. Martin has become ridiculously famous. He can keep cashing in without delivering. By the time the HBO series ends, he can copy whatever it did with the elements he laid out or he can drag it out for another ten years.
But whatever he does, A Song of Fire and Ice will be mostly forgotten in a generation. The novels are not going to stick around because Martin can’t deliver and soap operas have limited rereadability.
I wouldn’t be too surprised if Martin, like David Gerrold, never releases a final chapter, but just basks in the fame until it goes away.