things I am remembering while watching Game of Thrones

It’s been a long time since I read the books. I think I’ve been through each one twice, except for A Feast for Crows, which I read when it came out, and that was the last I touched the series. And I decided — just before they announced the No Really We Mean It This Time publication date for book five — that I’m going to hold off until the end is in sight, so that means I’m fuzzy on a lot of things.

But watching the TV series, I remember why I like the books. It isn’t because Martin’s writing is Gritty! Epic! Fantasy! Grit for grit’s sake is not pleasing to me. I’ve picked up, and then put down, several other series in that vein. But Martin manages some things that his fellows in the sub-sub-genre don’t, and they are why I hooked onto him and bounced off the others.

Example: characters. There are many unpleasant people in this series . . . and yet, they’re unpleasant people I want to know more about. The absolute bastards are generally intelligent bastards, and I’m keen to see what they do next. The bitter assholes have understandable motivations for their bitterness and assholitude, and some of them preserve a weird core of decency underneath it (which is not the same as a Heart of Gold). People have loyalties instead of Chronic Backstabbing Disorder. I am a reader who generally prefers sympathetic characters; what Martin manages, and many other authors do not, is making me sympathize with people who aren’t very nice. (Exhibit A: Jaime Lannister.)

Also the world. I loves me a good world, whether it’s secondary or built off the real world. I don’t just mean the setting detail, though that’s part of it; the wall of ice and the regional surnames for bastards and Dany eating the stallion’s heart, all that stuff pleases my little anthropological heart. But there’s also the history underpinning it, that makes it feel real instead of a set built just for this story — and the history is both In Ye Olden Days stuff and the intricate network of kinship and alliances that sets up the present moment. Catelyn calling out to the armsmen in the tavern, and Jory reminding Jaime that they fought at each other’s sides once. (I especially love how many of those details the TV show is managing to preserve.)

And, partially underlying those world details, the fact that Martin makes me believe — as so many of his compatriots don’t — that he understands how medieval society worked. How politics work. Money and favors and people passing along tidbits of information; the importance of kinship and ideals, and pragmatism ramming up hard against those ideals. My friends and I are catching up on past episodes, and the conversation between Robert and Cersei just made me so happy, because of the richness it managed to convey. “What’s holding this kingdom together?” “Our marriage.” The trade in daughters isn’t a side note to the important stuff; it’s one of the central posts holding that society up. And Robert’s a shitty king, but he understands war — really understands it, not “the author tells me he does” — so you suddenly see that he isn’t an idiot, just very ill-suited to his current challenges, and it took both him and Cersei to screw up their marriage. That whole scene felt real, because it was based on real understanding, rather than the pale fictional shadow so many authors fall back on.

I know there’s a lot of shocking stuff in his story, and it isn’t to everybody’s taste. But for my own part, I don’t ever feel like I’m being shocked gratuitously — which is not true for many of the other Gritty! Epic! Fantasy! authors I’ve tried. (Note: I speak here of the books, and not HBO, which continues to give me uncomfortable-looking sex scenes I could really do without.) And Martin gives me things to care about, too, even when they’re broken and ugly things and I don’t understand why I care. If I had to put it in simple terms, I might say I feel a sense of empathy in his story, that I don’t feel in his imitators’ work.

Which is a long-winded way of saying I’m really enjoying the TV series, and it’s reminding me of why I enjoy the books, too. I haven’t given up on them; I’m just going to wait until I can enjoy them on my own, more timely schedule.

0 Responses to “things I am remembering while watching Game of Thrones”

  1. greybar

    I agree with, including the “Why is this here?” scene with the whores in Littlefinger’s establishment. The ability to get us to be intrigued by characters from Tyrion to Arya is part of the magic.

    This morning I was musing on the screen adaptation and my concerns that they won’t be able to keep this up. Arya has had precious little screentime for us to get to know her, for instance. We started the show being able to spend 45min in Winterfell and 15min across the Narrow Sea. They’ve subdivided and subdivided that time now over and over. They can’t keep that up or we’re soon only going to have an unsatisfying 5min in a dozen places. 🙂 We’re starting to miss a lot of subtlety and politics, unless they cut back to pick those up.

    • Marie Brennan

      Hmmm. I haven’t felt like anything is missing — but as I said, it’s been a long time since I read the books, so whatever details are falling by the wayside have also fallen out of my head.

      Perhaps more tellingly, one member of our watching group hasn’t ever read the books, and she’s still finding it very nuanced. So while flattening is inevitable, I don’t think it’s become a problem yet — at least for us.

  2. la_marquise_de_

    Martin is, as you note, not gritty for grit’s sake. There’s nothing gratuitous, which is why it works.

    • Marie Brennan

      I doubt most of the authors who are all “lookit me I’m gritty!” think what they’re doing is gratuitous. But from my point of view as a reader, those guys fail, while Martin succeeds.

      • Anonymous

        Another author who succeeds writing rough and tough characters that are appealing, and possibly sympathetic, is Joe Abercrombie and his FIRST LAW books. A trilogy and two stand-alone novels. He created characters such as Logen Ninefingers, Dog Man, Shivers, Curden Craw, Glokta, and Bayaz.

        I recommend his books, but they may not be for everyone. BEST SERVED COLD, a stand-alone novel, is about revenge and some scenes are fairly graphic.

        • Marie Brennan

          Abercrombie is one of the ones I bounced off completely. His characters came across as simply unpleasant; I had no desire to know more about them.

  3. nojojojo

    Hmm. It’s because of endorsements like this that I tried again recently to give this series a real effort. But I’m not as enamored of seeing how real medieval Europe worked, because I’ve seen too much of it and I’m bored by it. I prefer real medieval Europe (history) to fantasy medieval Europe. I’m interested in the whole “winter is coming” thing and what it means, but since there wasn’t a lot of that in the first book, the suspense kind of frittered away. The dragon lore and actual reappearance of the dragons was interesting too, but again — took the whole book to get there. And while the characters did interest me — he’s great at that, I really engaged with some of them — it’s just so goddamned slow. It’s all slow, far too slow for my tastes. I want to see what they do and what happens to them, but I’m not willing to invest years in waiting to see it happen. I want a book, not a soap opera.

    ::sigh:: I’ll probably try again eventually. Took me forever to get interested in LotR. Maybe this just requires the same amount of patience… but patience has never been my strong suit.

    • Marie Brennan

      The slowness is undeniable. For me, I didn’t find it a problem until about book four, which is where the pacing of the story as a whole went decidedly pear-shaped; that was the point at which I got sick of being teased with hints of weirdness with winter and the dragons and all the rest of it, and started really wishing we could get some payoff. I don’t mind that the numinous side of this world is much, much more understated than in most epic fantasy, but eventually I do want it to come busting through, and that hasn’t really happened yet in this series.

      As for the medieval thing — yeah, I hear you. I picked up the series in high school, when I hadn’t yet burned out on that type of setting as thoroughly, and I remain capable of being interested by stories that do it right. But if I were to come across it now, not having formed my connection to it earlier, I might bounce off.

  4. Anonymous

    so I’m currently reading the series for the first time in prep for our panel (is that embarrassing? that I’ve never read it? my father and brother were going to plotz if I didn’t get to it soon anyway, so multiple birds here).

    anyway, I’m enjoying it, too. I was skeptical at first–so many wolves! Perrin is my least favorite WoT character! etc–but then I started getting to the sex scenes and I was like, oh, ok. Sex! What I was missing in WoT.

    (These are the academic thoughts I’m having on comparing the two series so far.)

    (Just kidding. Sort of.)

    • Marie Brennan

      Heh. You aren’t wrong about sex being absent from the WoT (even when it’s actually happening). HBO cranks up its presence in this story rather higher than I recall it being, but it’s HBO; they do that.

  5. moonandserpent

    I used to sum it up as “he doesn’t write villains, just people occasionally driven to do bad things for what seem like good reasons”.

    • Marie Brennan

      Which is very apt.

      My problem with other Gritty! authors might be that their characters do bad things for bad reasons — chiefest among which is “because the author wants them to,” or so it often seems.

  6. marumae

    I agree with you actually in a lot of ways, the parts you’ve listed here, his ability to create realistic, sometimes spiteful and sympathetic characters is one thing I enjoyed the most about his series and writing. While I got to book three and gave up there because I wasn’t fond of where he was taking it (mainly killing off characters I was actively following), the series has restarted my love of it and I want to start an active reread. It’s making me pick up things I never noticed before on the first round. And now that book five finally, FINALLY has a release date I’m hoping the series can win me back.

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