Eccentric Flower:201107/A Song of Blood and Pain

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A Song of Blood and Pain

Repost of this. No, this will not be a regular habit, just making sure I have an archive copy of the longer stuff.


I'm a few segments into the third Ice and Fire book now and I find myself beginning to lose patience with George Martin.

I've been reading a fair bit of critical writing about these books in the last few days, some good, some stupid, and I notice a trend among people who Write Verrah Seriously About Books to be shitheels about fantasy. One of the most common pejoratives being thrown at fantasy by such types is "regressive," which I take to mean that they find fantasy to be empty escapism, like the kind of "and then I became the princess of everything and lived in a golden castle" stories we make up in our heads as kids.

I guess I will never be a good receiver of this insight, because not only do I approve wholeheartedly of escapism, but I construct those kinds of fantasies even now, as an adult.

Oh, they're more complex and more realistic than the ones I had as a kid. For one thing, I am not Sansa - I don't believe in princesses and knights who are squeaky-clean and uniformly good, any more than I believe in people who are uniformly evil (nope, not even lawyers). Most of us do good things and bad things, and act out of reasonably messy sets of motives which we may not completely understand ourselves. But the thing is, putting in realistically complex characters does not kill escapism, nor should it. You can have absolutely realistic characters and still be an escapist book. All you need to do is make sure that the people who, on balance, are good and sympathetic characters who are at least trying to do the right thing end up persevering and getting some form of good outcome, or at least a good death. And you need to make sure that all the basically bad characters get punished according to their sins.

That's all I ask in a book - I ask that the good guys come out okay and the bad guys don't. I gather that for many people, that alone is enough to make the book unacceptable (they mutter as they denounce it through clinched teeth). Their unacceptable is my minimal requirement.

If I want to see good people having nothing but bad things happen to them because of the dice-rolling of an indifferent fate, if I want to see people giving themselves over to the full spectrum of cruelties and evils that humanity has available to them, if I want to see nothing but a steady diet of monstrosities, I have the real world for that. And I don't read fiction for the real world. I read fiction to get away from the real world. That's the point.

These people who decry "escapism," who would dearly love to drive all books out of existence that do not paint the world as unremittingly horrific and unfair as it actually is, they already have a genre. It's called "literary fiction," and I wish to god they'd stay there and stop trying to invade genres I love.

Which comes back to Martin. Martin has complex characters and muddy moral situations galore, and after all his books are set in a time of war, so I've been willing to cut him some slack. But it's getting so I can set my watch by his rhythms of Bad Things. Nothing is ever allowed to go well. If any character in these books manages to claw out a moment of happiness or even a moment of relative serenity, you can safely bet as much money as you like that the next time that character's turn at the narration rolls around, it will all be shot to hell and s/he'll end up in a situation which was even worse than the one they were in before.

When you combine that with the fact that there are only two major characters in the books who are basically good and have any kind of brains whatsoever - Arya and Jon (Sansa and Bran are basically good but idiots, Dani is kind of an idiot and also way too motivated by the wrong things, and all the other good people are ancillary or dead), it means the books are turning into long stretches of watching bad people do bad things to other bad people and a couple of all-too-brief turns of good people watching their universe increasingly go to hell with utterly no signs of bottoming out. I understand he wants to stress strength of character under adversity, but jesus, must there be so much adversity?

I think Martin is trying too hard to prove that "this is not like other fantasy." I think he's so determined to appease the books-must-be-as-hard-as-life crowd - who are, I feel, unworthy of appeasement or even any brain time, fit only to be spat upon and consigned to their horrible realist novels - that he overcompensates. At the rate he's going, the only possible ending to this series - assuming he lives to end it, which I am betting he does not, based on his age and health and the exponential growth of both the books and the gaps between them - is "rocks fall and everyone dies." He's come dangerously close to it a couple of times so far already.

I'm not waiting for that. I will only swim so far upstream against this growing revelation, that this will not end happily or well for any of his characters, that there is no happy ending for anyone. I read for pleasure, not to be punished. I'll probably try to make it through the first four books because I've already bought them and I hate to waste money, but if this trend continues, I see no reason why I should bother with a fifth.

If I thought he was doing all this to build something new - if I thought that all this fire and death and pain was so he could wipe away an old, thoroughly corrupt structure for which cleansing-by-total-destruction was the only option, and that eventually some new and better phoenix would rise - then I might stick with it. But, one, even if that's what he has in mind, I don't think he'll live to show it to us, and two, I don't think that's what he has in mind. Right now, I mostly think he just gets off on hurting and torturing his characters, and I don't need that.


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Mrissa:

One of the things that you touch on here is what baffles me about people's reactions to these books: I keep hearing that they are unpredictable, that anything can happen, that no one is safe. And this is absolutely the opposite of my experience of reading them. The fact that nothing is ever allowed to go well means that the series is immensely predictable to me, including the deaths. I stopped after the second one.

-- 22:50, 27 July 2011 (BST)


Columbina:

I had been wondering what you thought of these books - if you've written anywhere public about them, I don't remember seeing it.

(I'm also impressed that you managed to somehow see notification of this entry, since I haven't been able to get to LJ at all for the better part of two days!)

I bought the four books as a Kindle bundle, so I'm probably going to persevere a bit. But at this point I am keeping expectations strategically low.

-- 23:15, 27 July 2011 (BST)


Mrissa:

SPOILERS IN THIS COMMENT KTHX

The thing I have most often said of these books in public--but possibly on panels at conventions rather than on the internet--is that the death of Ned Stark struck me apparently completely differently than it struck every other human being who read them. Because to me, Ned was doomed the minute his children got POV. People go on and on about how he is the classic fantasy hero and his death convinced them that GRRM was willing to kill really anybody! anybody at all! But if anyone can name for me a classic fantasy hero in this mold who is also a parent--and whose children get perspective of their own as characters--I will point out that whatever example they have come up with is *extremely rare*. For the most part, the heroes and heroines we see are not parents, and if they become parents, their kids take over the adventures. So the "great shocking twist"? Meh. Meh, I say!

-- 03:14, 28 July 2011 (BST)


Columbina:

Same spoiler warning applies!

While it's true I knew Ned was going to die well before I began the books (C'mon! He's played by Sean Bean!), when I did read the first book, I was startled by how THOROUGHLY Ned's death was telegraphed pretty much from the beginning. I'm still surprised that anyone was surprised, but apparently a lot of people were. I think GRRM is practically shouting HE IS GOING TO DIE as loud as he can. Also, frankly, if Ned doesn't die then we don't have a plot.

-- 03:34, 28 July 2011 (BST)


Mrissa:

Exactly! What is the plot if Ned is alive? I mean, I suppose he could do something plotworthy, but *I doubt it*.

-- 16:30, 28 July 2011 (BST)

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