I'm nonplussed by GoT, what now?
June 30, 2012 4:39 AM   Subscribe

How to phrase my feelings about Game of Thrones?

So this is really two questions bundled into one.

I have this awesome friend who keeps harassing me (in a friendly way) with the idea that my cultural life would be incomplete without reading Game of Thrones.

Things he used to sell me the read:

- the unexpectedness of all the twists (him: "so many other authors are boringly predictable"),
- the intricacy of the plot (him: "at last, a challenge"),
- the details in the descriptions (him: "so much as to give an atmosphere, not enough to be boring like Tolkien"),
- the realism as to violence and the condition of women in the middle ages (him: "most of the rest of fantasy is non-realistic as to human interactions")

So I got a copy of the first book and I started reading. After two days (and about 100 pages) I feel extremely uncomfortable:

- it really sucks to be a woman in that world. I am annoyed at the lack of self-determination, by the depiction of woman life defined by child-bearing romance and being objects of lust, etc. it just gets on my nerves.
- it really sucks to be anyone in that world. Characters are constrained by duty and all kinds of miserable stuff happening to them, and have all kinds of traumatic emotional scars with more piling on at every page. I'm not in a happy phase myself these days, and this piles on my unhappiness to the point of nearly making me depressed.

To me these feelings are strong enough that I want to drop the book and not go further. However when I hear my friend I have the feeling I am missing something great. Given he himself is not misogynistic, non-violent, sensitive, etc, that thing must be so great that he is able to balance it against the darker sides of GoT.

Hence my first question: what makes it worth reading despite all the unhappiness?

We both read a lot (lots, LOTS!) and like fantasy; however while he mostly reads fiction I spend most of my time reading news, blogs, technical stuff, etc. This guy is extremely nerdy but also extremely bright.

So maybe a factor is that while I am quite flexible and I am quite happy with the style of authors this friend calls "boring" (Robin Hobb, Mercedes Lackey, Christopher Paolini, etc.) he reads LOTS of fantasy and has become more critical, so he may have higher expectations.

Hence my second question: are there other works of fiction/fantasy that exhibit a similar level of reading challenge and intricacy as GoT, but skip the depressing bits?

I'd like to try some stuff out and then explain to that friend that all the unhappiness is not a requirement to get good fantasy literature. (if that's possible)
posted by knz to Writing & Language (51 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
GoT can be pretty bleak. That being said there are glimmers of light that shine through. Many characters undergo significant changes as the series goes on. And it does get better, or at least more interesting for a number of the female characters. I love this series, but you certainly don't have to. If its not your bag, then put it down. If you think you can handle it I would suggest trying to finish the first book, just to be sure.
posted by brevator at 5:01 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

George R. R. Martin drew inspiration for GoT from various wars of succession for the English throne, particularly the War of the Roses, an actual, historical event during which it sucked to be a woman or, indeed, anyone. It's a rich, complex story with engaging (if not sympathetic) characters, but it's not for everyone. If you don't like it, don't read it (not snark). I don't have an answer for your second question. Even Harry Potter has depressing bits. This post on the blue notwithstanding, I believe conflict is essential to effective storytelling.
posted by zanni at 5:03 AM on June 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

I found the books terribly boring. I was sort of on board with the first one, but could hardly get through the second, and from everyone I've talked to, his wandering style only gets worse in later books. Just tell your friend to back off and they're not your kind of thing; not everyone agrees that these books are fantastic and it's perfectly reasonable that you just don't like them. The misogyny is pretty widely recognized, especially since the television show became popular, so that reason alone should be enough if you feel like you need to explain yourself.

I don't feel like the books are particularly challenging or intricate compared with most other highly regarded fantasy.
posted by something something at 5:07 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, it certainly sucks to be a woman in the Song of Fire and Ice world, but there are number of strong female characters who have agency and who do a lot within the constraints of their lot. And I think that's one of the things that makes it worth reading. Actually there are a lot of characters (male and female) that are in circumstances not of their choosing (mostly through accident of birth) and seeing how they work in the world despite that is, IMO, one of the interesting aspects of the books.

And I think also what makes it worth reading is that it's a good, interesting story. And a pretty well-written one, I think. And he gets better at writing it as it goes along. If you've only read a bit of the first book you haven't actually been exposed to very much at all yet. And yes, it's bleak, but I haven't found it irredeemably so. There are plenty of characters to like (and some of them don't even get killed straight away).

As to whether there are any other similarly challenging but less depressing stories, I'm afraid I'm a bit too out of touch with what's out there in contemporary fantasy to say. Of complex, intricate stories there is no lack, but I think the GRRM books are particularly well written for fantasy.
posted by damonism at 5:17 AM on June 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

"I don't know. I gave the first book a shot. It's too depressing for my taste."

You don't need permission to not like the series. Personally, I love it. It's got realism and character development in a way that fantasy rarely does. It's saying a lot that my wife, who is very much not a fantasy-lit person, finished the series about 6 months before I did. I got sidetracked because the series bogged down for me in Book 3. I had to go back and work forward again. Once I did, something clicked and I'm hooked too.

But you're right. The gender politics are realistically shitty and the class politics are horrifying. At least the weddings are nice, though.
posted by R. Schlock at 5:19 AM on June 30, 2012 [16 favorites]

Stop letting your friend make you feel guilty for not liking it. Ditch the book. Maybe some day when you're in the mood for a book you find moody and depressing, you'll go back to it. But you're not going to enjoy reading it out of a sense of duty.

I had a similar issue with a coworker who wanted me to read ALL the Twilight novels, which just aren't to my taste. I've also had issues with several series of books that all happen to start with a rape, even if they're by authors I otherwise love -- the book may be awesome, but if it starts with a rape, it's just not something I'm going to be able to get past. Not my bag. I have other things that are.

I think the most you're obligated to do is give it a try, which you've done. Now you can, in good conscience, explain these just aren't your bag.

And if you want to read something awesome, that treats women as fully agency-having humans and still has an intricate plot with unexpected twists and loads of realism/details, I suggest Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet, which is terrific.
posted by pie ninja at 5:26 AM on June 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, and when you explain this to him, you don't need to justify yourself. You justifying your dislike is both counterproductive (because he then argues you shouldn't feel that way, which I'm guessing makes you feel shitty) and unnecessary (because you don't need to justify how you feel about a work of art!).

Think of this as like Miss Manners' rules for not attending an event -- "I'm sorry, that won't be possible."

Him: Why haven't you read GoT yet?!
You: I tried, but they're just not my thing.
Him: But they're the only valid fantasy out there! They're so much better than crap like Eragon! I can't believe you don't like them!
You: Sorry, just not my thing. Hey, have you seen [other thing]?
Him: But you can't hate GoT!
You: Sorry, just not my thing. Hey, have you seen [other thing]?

And et cetera.

Other suggestions for challenging, interesting science fiction/fantasy that is at least somewhat less depressing than GoT and has women in roles with agency:

Kage Baker's The Company series
Jo Walton, anything really, but I think Tooth & Claw is awesome and it would weird your friend out the most
Connie Willis; if you're OK with harrowing, start with Doomsday Book; if you're in the mood for more upbeat (with cats in), start with To Say Nothing of the Dog
posted by pie ninja at 5:37 AM on June 30, 2012 [7 favorites]

I came here to say exactly what something something said. The first book was merely ok (and annoying at times), and I actually threw the second across the room less than halfway through.

So yeah, my vote is tell your friend it's not your bag. If you really feel you're missing out, there's always wikipedia for plot and character summaries.
posted by namewithoutwords at 5:39 AM on June 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Martin's series has been the subject of a bunch of FPPs on MetaFilter. One, just the other day, was discussing pretty much exactly your question: "How can something so rapey be so good?" The discussion there has both strong pros and cons, as well as links to critical essays on the series.

But as has been said, there's no reason to trudge through something you don't enjoy just because someone else likes it. You gave it a decent try, it didn't work for you, and you can always try it again later if you feel inspired. Thank your friend for suggesting it and move on.
posted by Forktine at 5:41 AM on June 30, 2012

I'm going to lay it straight for you. What I'm about to say is pretty unpopular with fans of the series, and will probably make me sound like a pompous jerk.

The Song of Ice and Fire series is not that good.

It's a series of fantasy novels. That's it. That's really all it is.

It's an incredibly popular series, and it's been adapted into an even more popular TV series (which is pretty good as such things go).

But honestly? It's pulp fantasy. It's not very well written, and there's very little about it that is compelling to people who aren't already fans of pulp fantasy. I frankly don't find it all that "challenging" to read except for the fact that there are just so many damn characters and plot threads to keep track of (all of which are well within the wheelhouse of modern day pop cultural tropes, anyway). The plot twists are shocking in the first book or two, and then they become quite predictable, actually.

Full disclosure? I stopped being surprised by anything anyone said or did, or any character Martin killed off, in the middle of the second book. Maybe after book three he just totally switches it up, but once you've got a sense of the first few Big Plot Twists, you pretty much know what Martin's stock choices are going to be. In my experience of reading the first three books and giving up out of boredom.

There's no special reason that you, a person who is most likely not especially into pulp fantasy, need to read these books.
posted by Sara C. at 5:59 AM on June 30, 2012 [31 favorites]

Hence my second question: are there other works of fiction/fantasy that exhibit a similar level of reading challenge and intricacy as GoT, but skip the depressing bits?

Oh, god. The Iliad, the Odyssey? Ovid's Metamorphoses? They're not as long as GoT-- very few things are-- but they have whole worlds in them. You could also spend the amount of time it would take to read GoT and read a few epic novels, either classic or modern. I have also tried but failed to read GoT, but I refuse to believe it's less complex and multi-dimensional than Nabokov's Ada or Joyce's Ulysses or War and Peace.

*Skipping the depressing bits: all the works I've named can be terribly sad but it's a matter of values and priorities. Simone Weil, in her essay "The Poem of Force," contrasts the Iliad with the Aeneid and and basically finds the Iliad genuine while she thinks the Aeneid is "full of frigidity, pomposity, bombast and bad taste." (Approximate quotation.) I don't fully agree with her about the Aeneid-- it's propaganda, as she says, but it's more than that-- but I agree with a lot of the essay. Point being, there are some books that put you through the wringer but take you somewhere higher. Others just put you through it. I am sure that Martin's fans feel the effort of his books is worth it and I am sure there are people who feel the Iliad isn't worth it. No book speaks to everyone at every moment.
posted by BibiRose at 6:04 AM on June 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

You say "I am annoyed at the lack of self-determination" so realize you have the choice not to read or like these books.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:07 AM on June 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

I enjoyed books 1-3, maybe even about half of book 4, and bits of book 5 here and there. I enjoyed them despite my own discomfort at what a crapsack world it was, because I think I am trusting the author to make it worth my while somehow. I think Martin is a hell of a storyteller and that the complexity (or sustained illusion of same) of his world is fascinating.

That's me though. You don't have to enjoy what I enjoy. To quote cortex in a different context: "The thing about fun is that not everybody has it the same way. And that is okay! It's okay to just not have fun with something and go do something else that is fun."

And yeah, I was going to recommend that you read some of the Classical Epics, too. They're actually a lot of fun if you can find a translation you like, and, since you'll be reading some of the ur-texts for all of written literature, maybe your friend will stop giving you shit about reading stuff that's not "good enough" (whatever that might mean).
posted by gauche at 6:15 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

My thought is that the really uncomfortable part of all this is that he's not giving you room to dislike the series without being somehow inferior to him, like you're just not clever enough to "get it". In a strange way, he's complimenting you because he wants you to join the club of clever people who "get it".

Welcome to fandom everywhere.

It doesn't matter if it's a band, a style of clothing, or a book -- this is about Distinction.

The way I see it, your options are to one up him or one down him. One up him is --"it's just not well-written enough for my tastes. I mean, how much creativity does it take to go back to some period in history and add in magic? And he didn't even make the world better. He seems to expect readers to take delight in the subjugation of women and children. I want to read something that can reimagine the world as better than it was -- surprise me with some new ways that people relate to each other when collectivity is valued, for example."

Or, you can one down him. "I guess I'm just not clever enough to really appreciate it."

I'm sure, actually, there are some other options -- like a middle path where you just keep putting him off until he gives up. Or where you keep making him mix CDs of music you really love and try to get him hooked on and "oh! They're so awesome! Have you listened to it yet?!"
posted by vitabellosi at 6:40 AM on June 30, 2012 [11 favorites]

are there other works of fiction/fantasy that exhibit a similar level of reading challenge and intricacy as GoT, but skip the depressing bits?

You will like this question from the other day!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 6:45 AM on June 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

So maybe a factor is that while I am quite flexible and I am quite happy with the style of authors this friend calls "boring" (Robin Hobb, Mercedes Lackey, Christopher Paolini, etc.) he reads LOTS of fantasy and has become more critical, so he may have higher expectations.

You are giving this guy way too much credit. He doesn't have higher expectations, he just has different tastes. And apparently describes everything he doesn't like as boring. Martin is not on some higher literary plane than Hobb or Lackey. He writes pretty well for fantasy, but you are not missing out on anything exceptional.

Nothing makes it worth reading if you aren't enjoying it.

Less grimdark, but good fantasy:
Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist
Susanna Clark's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell (though your friend might have a case that this one is a little slow at times)
posted by pseudonick at 7:01 AM on June 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

SNL did a sketch that I think answers your question. Although it was in reference to the television series, I'm betting it applies to the books also. In it, it showed the 13 year old, sex-obsessed boy who was directing it.

That's my impression of it. The plot is filler for the sex scenes.
posted by gjc at 7:08 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm coming in to suggest Guy Gavriel Kay as an alternative for you (I suggested something else in the other thread). I also read a lot of fantasy and like some of the really long, interesting, convoluted items suggested elsewhere but GRRM's Wild Cards stuff was hacky enough that it convinced me not to bother with his Wars of the Roses pastiche when it first came out--well before the rapeyness of it was an issue. It's OK not to like it.
posted by immlass at 7:18 AM on June 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

You might enjoy the Steerswoman books by Rosemary Kirstein - interesting, complex, and with wonderfully written female characters (including the protagonist).
posted by 168 at 7:21 AM on June 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I haven't seen the TV show, but I love the books. What I love about them is the political plotting, the moral ambiguity, the lack of defined "good guys" and "bad guys," and the multitude of different ways the female characters secure their own agency in a world that is absolutely hellbent on denying them exactly that. I like the fact that the society is described vertically, throughout all social strata and without presenting a rosy-cheeked Potemkin vision; you get a real sense that a good day for the peasantry is any day where you don't starve to death or get murdered on a whim. I love the descriptions of the food. I love the grim setting.

If all that isn't stuff that makes you like a series, you're not going to like ASoIaF. That's fine. You don't have to like everything that everyone else likes. It doesn't make you lowbrow or uneducated, it means you have different tastes.
posted by KathrynT at 7:42 AM on June 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

For world-building, intricate plotting, and politicking, give Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy a shot (it's scifi, not fantasy, if that matters). For a more here-and-now-20-minutes-into-the-future feeling, read his Capital trilogy - it takes place as climate change smacks us but good. And for "what if" speculative fiction, read his Years of Rice and Salt, which posits that pretty much all of Europe has died of the plague. There are sad moments in all of them, but they're not overwhelmingly depressing.

I have tried GoT several times now and just. can't. get into it. Oh well. Life is too short to read things you don't like.
posted by rtha at 8:15 AM on June 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

100 pages are just not enough to appreciate A Game of Thrones. Give it more time. The odds are good that it will suddenly click with you, and that you will find all of the virtues your friend cites about it with the pages.

If you find yourself becoming confused by the cast of thousands and have access to HBO GO or have a friend with the first season of the HBO show, try watching it first or reading along with it. The adaptation is remarkably faithful to the book.
posted by ylee at 8:36 AM on June 30, 2012

War and Peace. Have him read War in Peace. Or read it yourself! It's a fraction of the length of the combined SoIaF. It's got detailed descriptions of a fairly alien society with complex relationships and social structures. There are numerous characters that relate and develop in complex ways. There is a strong narrative, and also incredible period detail.

That should be a good indicator of whether your friend likes SoIaF because it's so different and challenging, or because it's pretty standard mainstream fantasy.

Seconding the answer from Sara C.
posted by Nomyte at 8:45 AM on June 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Tell him you're just not interested in a work so nasty, brutish, and long.
posted by jamjam at 8:54 AM on June 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

100 pages is where I gave up, it is just too dull. Oddly, my SO picked it up and devoured book 1 then the next 3, and she usually goes for chick-lit. Your friend is deluding himself if he thinks it is intellectually challenging. Don't spare his feelings in making this clear.
posted by biffa at 9:14 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I said something like, "seriously dude, your fanboy is showing. I gave it a shot and I didn't like it, so how about we move on?"

I read farther than the OP did and just couldn't get into it, so I gave up. I'm one of those people who hates to not finish a book but I just can't see myself giving it another chance. Honestly I get all his good points about GoT from reading Russian history, but maybe that's just me.
posted by sm1tten at 9:24 AM on June 30, 2012

I haven't tried the books yet, but I sat through the first episode of the series and never looked back. If the show is indicative of the atmosphere of the world in the books, then no thank you very much. My guy loves them though. He's watched every show and read all of the books.

Here's the thing. Just because he loves them doesn't mean I have to love them. How did I say it to him? "Not my cup o' tea." I love, love, love urban fantasy (don't judge), but he won't go near the stuff, his love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer notwithstanding.

Not having the same taste as our friends and loved ones is what makes the world an interesting place. If your friend thinks less of you because you didn't fall into his world with him, then he's not much of a friend. Just tell him you tried it and didn't like it. No justification needed.
posted by patheral at 9:27 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the good suggestions.

To make things clear answers of the form "not my cup o' tea" are out of the picture for me. I always qualify my tastes with explanations, because I am a firm believer of explaining why things work or don't so that I can get more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff in my next experiences.

The reason I asked is that this guy and I tend to like very similar stuff otherwise. GoT seems to stand out as an unexpected non-match; hence my feeling that either I'm missing something out, or that there is something to learn to explain what's going on. Some of the answers above are pretty great in that direction, eg "the plot is filler for the sex scenes" from gjc and "I want to read something that can reimagine the world as better than it was" from vitabellosi. These words resonate with my feelings and I may able to reuse them to explain what's going on indeed.

Otherwise I've read most of War and Peace and I think it's both good and pretty bleak too. Not less depressing than GoT for that matter. Russia in those times was not a nice place.
posted by knz at 9:37 AM on June 30, 2012

I had a near identical experience with reading Game of Thrones as namewithoutwords did = got halfway through the second book and it felt to me like Martin was just writing to milk a series a far as possible just to keep getting published. It was vapid to me and I threw the book out with the garbage. I watched an episode of the HBO series and it struck me as equally lifeless.

What hits home on this thread to me is pronouncing it as pulp fantasy. So true. It seems to me that ever since Lord of the Rings was adapted to film fantasy has become hugely popular and has lost a lot quality.

From an old school fantasy nerd I'd say try Zelazney's Amber series. Most folks I recommend it to dont get it but for me it does the magic royal family all trying to kill each other genre much much better.
posted by No Shmoobles at 9:45 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

To make things clear answers of the form "not my cup o' tea" are out of the picture for me. I always qualify my tastes with explanations, because I am a firm believer of explaining why things work or don't so that I can get more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff in my next experiences.

I'm a real genuine medieval history person (MA in the subject, thesis on British legal history in the period up to 1346, serious amateur interest in the Wars of the Roses) and I personally have found the claims of "historically accurate" laughable based on author interviews. This was the number one off-putting thing about the books for me when the first one came out. One of my pet peeves about "medieval fantasy" books is when the people in them live in fake medieval societies but have modern morality. Having said that, there are a lot of ways to miss the point about getting inside the heads of medieval people and nothing I've heard about the books has convinced me they're "accurate" in that way. Every interview I've read with the author convinces me he's done a very light reading of some historians I disagree with about what medieval people are like and taken that as his starting ground to go some places I'm not interested in going. YMMV.
posted by immlass at 10:10 AM on June 30, 2012 [8 favorites]

To make things clear answers of the form "not my cup o' tea" are out of the picture for me. I always qualify my tastes with explanations, because I am a firm believer of explaining why things work or don't so that I can get more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff in my next experiences.

Well, there's no reason you can't just tell your friend what you've told us. Make it clear that you're not criticizing him or his own enjoyment of the books, but that you just don't enjoy reading them. It does sound like he might take it personally anyway since it's clear he's personally invested, but there's not much you can do about that.

FWIW, I loved the books and yet your reasons for not wanting to read them make perfect sense to me. They are depressing as hell and things really do suck for most characters, especially the female characters. I found them redeeming because it's a lot of fun to watch people (especially the women) work these oppressive situations and extract some good, but you have to slog through a lot of bad to get those moments of brightness. These are not happy books. In fact, I had to take frequent breaks from the books because of the grimness.

And I'd echo those who say these aren't towering literary achievements. They can be extremely clever, but they're essentially very intricate soap operas.
posted by lunasol at 11:46 AM on June 30, 2012

Your friend's fanatic about GoT. People who are fanatic about the Twilight series will say the same things. His arguments for GoT are the exact arguments I use to get people to read Fullmetal Alchemist (except for the women thing....some truly kick-ass and real women in FMA)

It's all in the eye of the beholder, and if your eyes aren't seeing it, drop it.

I've read the entire series and in each book I've liked less than the last.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 11:47 AM on June 30, 2012

Maybe read Orlando Furioso instead. It's far more intricate and better writing, as well as being of actual historic and literary importance while being a work of epic fiction set in a similar setting to most fantasy.
posted by The World Famous at 12:12 PM on June 30, 2012

I mentioned this in another thread a while back, but my fundamental problem with GoT is that Martin simply seems incapable of or maybe just uninterested in portraying warm human emotions and connections. All his relationships are about cold and calculating manipulations, with perhaps a minor exception here or there. I need something more than that for me to emotionally connect with the characters, especially over the course of such a long series. For me, it really boils down to this - if no one cares about each other, why should I care about them?
posted by platinum at 12:14 PM on June 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Emphatically seconding the recommendation for Guy Gavriel Kay. He's eloquent, he's exciting, he's funny, he can do sexy just fine, and even the sad stuff isn't depressing (unless you're reading it in the wake of a break-up or something like that).

As for GoT: I got through the first book several years ago. I appreciated all the world-building and such, but yeah, I don't need to read stuff about women being abused and I really didn't care for the character deaths he chose to run with. After the climax, I said to myself, "Huh, I think I can see where this is going," and I went on Wikipedia, read some spoilers, and decided I was done.

I did this, mind you, whilst being SURROUNDED by well-read GoT fanatics, who all sneered at me for dropping the series and figuring that it just wasn't "shiny and happy" enough for me. Thing is, it's not the constant misery (although that's not appealing). Martin's use of brutality and tragedy just seem gimmicky to me.

I felt, finishing that first book, that Martin said, "Hey, I know how to keep my readers biting their nails and coming back for more! I'll just kill off a main PoV character and then make a habit of killing off the other likable characters!" And then it worked.

I hesitate to criticize the guy. He's way more successful than I am, and likely will ever be, and he's got his talents. But yeah. All those genuine talents aside, I just felt like I was being taken for a ride. And I don't need to waste my time on that when there are so many other things I appreciate more.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:18 PM on June 30, 2012

I always qualify my tastes with explanations, because I am a firm believer of explaining why things work or don't so that I can get more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff in my next experiences.

Internal consistency: GoT (which I'll use because it's easier than aSoFaI) seems to lack internal consistency....it's been a while since I've read it, so I might be a little off, but.... the Wall is supposed to be an awesome place for a defense, so they send rapists and murderers there? And then are surprised when ....bad things continually happen there? Also they send rapists and murderers there because they don't believe in the "spooks" anymore, but meanwhile there's wildfire and evidence of "spooks" and stuff. Later a character is to do, essentially, a "walk of shame" to prove innocence (which is written in explicit and misogynistic detail) but then it's revealed they have to be tried anyway? It's just not consistent enough for me.

Characters: In line with the above, many of the characters are not fully developed. "What does this character want? Why do they want it? What will they do to get it? What will they do when faced with an impediment?" If a character is fully formed, you should be able to answer these questions easily (the last question might be difficult to answer out of the blue, but when you see a character's response to an impediment, it should make sense). In GoT it's very difficult to answer these questions in any real detail, or in a way that separates them from other characters. How many people want the throne just cause they "should" have it? There's not really enough differentiation to make some characters "pop" for me. I don't want to go into many spoilers, but many of the characters go, "I want this, no I want that, no I want this first thing again, no...." The characters always seem secondary to the plot, and that's not how it should be. Sansa, for example, is barely a character. She's sweet, but really she is just there as a sounding board for other characters. In five books she's undergone zero development (of her own driving).

Tyrion stands around moaning about how women don't love him and, for the majority of the books he treats women terribly! Why doesn't his whore love him? Maybe because every time she tries honestly talking to him he reminds her she's just a whore and has better things to do. I don't know if this is a character design (and he will one day learn that to earn love he has to show respect) but I honestly doubt it - I think it's plot before character.

I've found that whenever I dislike a series, these two things come into play the most.

Usually the third thing - misogyny - doesn't come up as much because most shows, books that I'm exposed to aren't stupid enough to do it so overtly. But feel free to tell your friend that. I often wonder at the people who don't see the misogyny in these books. Saying you don't see the misogyny in these books is akin to saying you don't see the violence. I can certainly understand people not minding the misogyny (and women can enjoy/endorse misogyny just as much as men - don't mind the people who say, "well you're wrong for finding it misogynistic because I don't and I have a vagina therefore it CAN'T BE"). I think some people don't understand the misogynistic aspect of the book because they don't understand the misogyny many women face on a daily basis. If your friend claims that the misogyny is not that bad because "it's realistic!" tell him that even if something is "realistic" that doesn't mean you have to accept it as enjoyable reading. Just because the violence in the book is "realistic", would you tell torture victims that they should get over their qualms and just try to enjoy the book for its intricate plot?

But honestly, whatever you say, chances are your friend will counter that with something. Fanatics have an answer for everything.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 12:21 PM on June 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Regarding platinum's comment about human warmth: As much as I dig military shoot-'em-ups, I had that issue with Clancy. There's one point in one of his books (won't tell you which so it's not such a spoiler) where after lots of cold-blooded decisions, intrigue and violence, a serviceman lay dying from a plainly fatal gunshot wound, and he says something about his kids, and Jack Ryan just blurts out, "I'll pay for them to go to college" (I forget the exact phrase). I cried. But that's the only real warmth I can think of from any of his stuff that I read... and so yeah, I eventually dropped Clancy, too.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:21 PM on June 30, 2012

Or maybe read Martin's own Fevre Dream. It's about weird emotional tension between a vampire and a Mississippi steamboat captain.
posted by Nomyte at 12:46 PM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Count me in as another person who slogged through the first two books and then just didn't feel like reading any further.

No reasonable person believes that you have to like a particular thing. You can just say, "sorry, I didn't get on with it". You don't have to explain why and you don't have to justify yourself. Just refuse to engage: consider it good practice for asserting yourself in other areas of your life in the future :)
posted by pharm at 12:48 PM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

GRRM.... kinda cheats in his writing. I know he does a lot of television work, and I think he kinda writes with that in mind. This does not always transfer well to the written word. Regardless, his books will get more bloodsoaked, more rapey, more EVERYONE DIES, and spend pages and pages and pages on new people who may or may not live through their own chapters. Dump it, save your sanity, and go read Jordan or Hobb or Rothfuss or Cs Friedman or any of a dozen other authors.
posted by Jacen at 5:27 PM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Song of Ice and Fire series is not that good.

It's a series of fantasy novels. That's it. That's really all it is.

Indeed. The appeal is that by the standards of pulp fantasy the characters are complex and are able to develop. In a lot of pulp fantasy, the good guys are really, really good at everything and special and noble and all that. In GoT, they aren't and the "bad" characters mostly have fairly believable motivations as well.
posted by atrazine at 5:39 PM on June 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

You are not alone! I have a personal limit on the number of times I want to hear breasts described, and GoT exceeded that limit. (Even more egregious: Female characters considering how their breasts feel under clothing. You get maybe one mention of that.) "Swollen"? "Loose"? "Heavy"? Tell me more!

Just kidding, please stop telling me. The misogyny of the characters and their society is one thing — or a bunch of things, even — but the male gaze in the prose itself is so over-present that I found it completely off-putting. It's better than a lot of other pulp fantasy, but that hardly means you have to enjoy or even appreciate it.
posted by Charity Garfein at 5:52 PM on June 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't like GoT either and basically ALL my fantasy-reading friends have devoured it. Even when our tastes are otherwise exactly the same. And, like you, I find it really depressing, even though I read some really depressing books on purpose. I guess because the depressingness and darkness isn't really there for any reason except to depress you. It's not some deeper commentary on humanity (like A Handmaid's Tale) ... it's really there just to stand out from what most pulp fantasy was doing at the time (though now depressing and dark is super-popular), and to be dark for dark's sake.

Anyway, I have some friends that just keep pushing and pushing and pushing me to read the rest of it (and to LIKE IT DAMMIT), and what I've found makes the fanboys among my friends drop it is when I say, "You know, I really don't like books that change point-of-view all the time, or that have more than a couple major points-of-view. I find that very hard to follow and it constantly breaks up my reading rhythm and throws me out of the story." (Which is true. It aggravates me unless it's really subtle and skillful and even then I can only stand it when it cliffhangs between POVs in particular ways, even in great literature.) People are always like, "Oh, yeah, of course you won't like it then, never mind." Because the multiple POVs are one of the great strengths of GoT for people who like that kind of thing.

I don't know why "it's too rapey" isn't a reason not to want to read it, but "too many POVs" is totally acceptable, but that turns out to be how life works.

FWIW, I read reviews and (brief) recaps of the new books, and I keep up with the general outlines of the HBO series, so I don't totally drop out of the conversation when GoT comes up. I'll say, "Oh, yeah, I saw people were saying they really liked X in Dances/Dragons, what did you think?" or "I read that they cast so-and-so in this role, he's supposed to be fantastic in it." or "Oh my gosh, I heard about that plot twist, that sounds crazy!" I'm totally interested in what people THINK about it, I just don't want to have to READ it. (And I think some of my fanboy friends like talking to me about it because they get to EXPLAIN details to tell me why something was awesome or terrible, since I only know the broad outlines.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:53 PM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

The SOIAF books are probably fascinating if:

- you don't mind long descriptions of interiors, clothing, armaments, etc., to the point that they make the baby Balzac weep;

- you don't mind millions of point-of-view characters (sometimes I feel like everyone in the world is going to get a point of view passage before the book ends);

- you don't mind long and vaguely creeperish descriptions of women's appearances, particularly their breasts as mentioned above;

- you don't mind lots of slavishly described gory battle scenes;

- you don't mind rape after rape after rape. And no, that's not "accurate to the corresponding Earth century"--when wealthy commoners, let alone noblewomen, were raped in England in the 15th century, it was a big fucking deal. (For fairly icky reasons, mind you, because it was damage to their father's or husband's property, but still.) If you read an actual history of the Wars of the Roses, I guarantee you you will be shocked by how much rapier ASOIAF is.

In any case, even if there were the same per-capita number of rapes in the actual Wars of the Roses, why is that a valid argument? ASOIAF has dragons in it. If you're already up and putting in dragons, why not dial the rapiness of 15th century DOWN, George, instead of way up? I mean, DRAGONS. Who's going to be "Oh, I find this book not historically accurate because there aren't enough rapes" when there are DRAGONS?

For me, the biggest reason I haven't enjoyed them (apart from the rapiness and the constant boob shots) is that I already knew a lot about the Wars of the Roses, and honestly most of the interesting plot stuff comes from the actual history. Except the throne of swords, which is pretty awesome. And I admire some of Martin's characterizations of the male characters--Tyrion Lannister is a fantastically live character, for example, and so is Jorah Mormont (though he's basically Roger Mortimer grafted onto Stanislas Poniatowski).

Anyway, I've read them all (mostly for work) and I think that they may be great reads for someone who isn't me, but they're not particularly enjoyable given my own preferences as a reader. I would honestly infinitely rather read about Plantagenet Palliser's efforts to decimalise the currency in spite of the opposition of the Duke of St. Bungay, if I'm going to read a multi-volume series about people who don't have flush toilets.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:31 PM on June 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

Martin is not on some higher literary plane than Hobb or Lackey.

He's on the MAN-PLANE! And Christopher Paolini, though male, was young enough not to have constant boob descriptions and rapes in his fantasy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:33 PM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I very much enjoyed the first HBO series, so I sought out the second book in the series. I found it somewhat enjoyable, if a little plodding and underwhelming compared to the show, but about half way through the writer picked up a weird persistent tic where he used the phrases "in truth", "truth be told" and "truth be known" about 7 times each within the space of 12 pages, sometimes in adjacent sentences. I would have thrown the book across the room, but it was on my kindle. I stopped reading. I did enjoy the second HBO series as much as the first, in truth. Truth be told, the writer is not the best prose stylist. If that is important to you, the books are best avoided.

I asked a friend who has read all the books if they get any better from a prose point of view - she said,sometimes, but there are also sections where he describes almost everything as being "a mummer's farce", for some reason.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 9:32 PM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read the first four books and liked them a lot... Then bounced right of the fifth. It's solid averagely well-written genre fiction with some love/hate aspects, so feel comfortable in your dislike. Though the TV series is worth a look.

Try CJ Cherryh's Morgaine books for gritty but noble fantasy. Cherryh's chronically underrated and all her stuff is pretty ace.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:05 AM on July 1, 2012

To like a book I find that I have to identify with the characters. At least with one, just a little bit. Reading the first book again after a many-year rest, my main thought was "I STILL just don't care if they live or die."

It's not that the pacing is wrong for me or the boobage, or that writing is trite, hackneyed, terrible mush (it IS terrible, but I can like badly written books if there's something else in there for me), it's just that there's no real reason for me to suffer through it. I just can't bring myself to care what happens.

So tell your friend what you think. It's your opinion and you're entitled to it. Agree to disagree. Ask him for another suggestion and move right along.
posted by ninazer0 at 4:48 AM on July 1, 2012

Looking at the fantasy he finds boring, and contrasting it with GoT, some thoughts.

(disclosure: I am a female GoT fan)

Game of Thrones can be read on two levels. The first is at face value. The second is indeed incredibly intricate. Some things people are referencing above as negatives (long descriptions, multiple point-of-view) are things that can be used to piece together the thousand tiny pieces of small angles of plot. These are things that don't /have/ to be pieced together, but /can/ be for a richer experience. (One of the most well-known puzzles is "Who is Jon Snow's Mother, and how was he conceived?" but there are a lot more.) It goes far above and beyond any fantasy series I have ever read in this regard. It includes threads of prophecy, descriptions of individuals, pieces of folksongs, ownership of properties, stories of perceptions of out-of-sight characters, the emotional reactions and vague memories of POV characters...all of these, if you are into solving intricate puzzles, can be incredibly fascinating and exciting. It provides for endless re-reads of the books, as once you get new information, it requires re-interpretation of all of the hundreds of clues scattered throughout the books.

The thing is, if you're skimming the books and not particularly interested, you will never notice or care about most of these mysteries, so it may be hard to understand.

The twists are indeed very unexpected - but the truth of the twists is not "what character will die." The political twists and geneological twists and alliance twists and history twists are also exciting.

Your friend also probably enjoys dark, gritty fantasy (as do I). The "realism as to violence and the condition of women in the middle ages" most likely isn't meant to be literally exact realism. It's probably mostly the tenor of it. We tend to see a lot of high fantasy or epic fantasy (at least published these days) that has a lot of modern mores around sexuality, an idealized structure, and equality. Many think that this is a good thing, but many others also think that this is not so awesome - because it replicates a feudal, patriarchal structure without the negative conditions that went along with it. It replicates idealized violence, without including the random brutality of medieval life. The amount of good people that are killed simply by virtue of not being valuable enough not to kill. Or by living in a violent society.

Now, your criticisms are very valid. It definitely does suck to be a woman in that world. I think that the criticisms about lack of self-determination would be answered if you read further in that series. But the thing is - that is actually fairly accurate. It has sucked to be a woman during many different time periods. Whether or not the individual details are correct, the overall miasma of the sexism is.

Now, feeling that it sucks to be anyone in that world are absolutely accurate, and I can completely understand why you don't want to read any further. But that is a situation that I think is very specific to you. For many people, the fact that a world is depressing is not sufficient reason to put the book down. Many people simply don't get depressed by immersing themselves in a brutal world with a lot of pain. You ask: what makes it worth reading despite all the unhappiness? But I think it's important to consider that for some people, the unhappiness isn't something to overcome - it's a part of the story, and sometimes, the part of the story that you're seeking.

The difference between the style of authors that your friend calls "boring" and GRRM, is primarily that those authors look for happy endings, and have a lot of more modern mores in them. Mercedes Lackey writes primarily about colorblind, non-sexist, non-homophobic worlds that end up with happy endings. Robin Hobb and Christopher Paolini also. The good guys win. They may have some faint tragedies, but the good guys win.

I think the real problem is that you have incompatible desires in fiction, but also, maybe that you're afraid to talk about your actual desires out of fiction with your friend, knowing that he thinks less of fantasy written to fulfill those desires.
posted by corb at 11:44 AM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

@corb: thanks for your thoughtful comments, and I think you nailed the crux of the issue. So you know, I did talk about my expectations lately with said guy, although we did not really consider whether "other styles of fantasy is written to fulfill those desires."

For example I do not consider that Lackey's endings are particularly happy and thus I don't believe she caters for expectations of rosy feelings, but I still like the books because the unhappiness is properly compensated by the other improvements you named (color blindness, non-sexism, non-homophobic worlds).
posted by knz at 7:43 AM on July 2, 2012

I'm so glad to see that the GOT bubble has popped it seems. A point, I "read" the first 3 books on audiotape at the gym, so sometimes hearing the squick descriptions made me a little uncomfortable, but that's just as true for people reading the actual books in public. The point is that they're much easier to plow through on audiotape while doing something else, and you're not missing much that way because the writing isn't that good. To call the books "challenging reading" is totally incorrect. Maybe they're challenging if Harry Potter youth lit is your normal fair, but anyway.

For actual high quality fantasy I would suggest "The Iron Dragon's Daughter" by Swanwick. Its not a very happy fantasy novel at first, the main character begins life in the fantasy equivalent of a Dickensian workhouse, but it ends on a happy note, so there's that.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:34 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

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