Friday, 27 July 2012

How to turn a great fantasy series into an exercise in boredom?

There are great works of fantasy, mediocre works of fantasy and bad works of fantasy. The great naturally include authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Howard and Guy Gavriel Kay, while the mediocre include worthwhile authors the likes of Dave Duncan and Raymond E. Feist. The bad (but still published) authors are many and I will not name them here for fear of detracting the reader from the topic of this short article. But even worse than being bad are the authors who start well, but drop the ball somewhere along the way, just like Robert Jordan did with "The Wheel of Fire" series that came to a screeching halt after about the third novel and only recovered after the death of the author when another author finished the story for him (from about novel ten onwards).

And as I was reading the latest (fifth) novel in the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series by George R. R. Martin, I was disappointed to see him going down the same path as Robert Jordan. Yes, I'm talking about the same series that is also the basis of the successful "Game of Thrones" TV series and I'm going to be somewhat harsh to it here.

Basically, I'm wondering how GRRM, who began his series so well with the three first novels in his series, managed to suddenly halt almost all plot progression for two entire novels (totalling in over 2000 pages) and basically attempts to entertain the readers by giving them page-long lists of foodstuffs that can be found in the cellar of the Wall, descriptions of dinners and foodstuffs that people eat and several pages of description of people marching through a gate as well as eternally long descriptions of people travelling along various paths with various means and having meaningless discussions with people whom the reader really doesn't care to know.

I certainly know that both of these novels were painful for George R. R. Martin to write and that he ended up writing them only because he realised that he could not jump over several years in the story without having to rely on way too many flashbacks in the next novel. In short, novels 4 and 5 are basically filler books containing what would have been flashbacks if the author had not changed his mind.

And, no, the entirety of the 2000 pages is certainly not worth even the status of a flashback. Instead, the important bits are few and far between and hidden in the midst of such important events as Tyrion Lannister learning to ride a pig, observing the shoreline while travelling on boat and suffering through at least two storms at sea while nothing worthwhile happens. Similarly Jon Snow mostly ponders about the oncoming winter and the foodstores as well as the Night's Watch's emotional problems when faced with Wildlings whom they are not allowed to kill. Oh, and Daenerys really seems to have nothing to do in this book at all, but still more than half of the chapters are about her or people close to her. And the explanation why she's not getting on with her conquest of Westeros? There isn't any. She's just stalling and waiting for the next novel, it seems.

In addition to making these once-interesting characters boring, the author also writes endlessly long chapters about minor characters, or the family members of minor characters, or just some suitor (Quentyn Martell) on his way to the woman he is going to ask to marry him (that one is probably the most pointless of them all, given what happens to him). Overall, the reader really does not care about most characters and is left wondering what the plot of the saga was supposed to be and whether these books actually belong to the series at all.

The main problem for me is that I still want to know what happens in the story. That means that I will still risk reading the next novel when it comes out (hopefully sooner than 5-6 years from now). And I dearly hope that Daenerys, Tyrion, Jon and Arya will somehow become interesting again and that the story will actually start progressing where we left off at the end of the third novel in the series.

George R. R. Martin needs a new editor for the next novel, though, so that instead of 1200 page novel of meaningless descriptions we get a 600 page novel where something finally happens.