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bane of tomes

I have rediscovered reading! thank heavens, I was beginning to be afraid this job doomed me to fluffy comfort reading for the rest of my existence. I shall anon tell you all about Moxyland and Tooth and Claw, both of which I read recently, but for now, I need input. I am, for the second time, attempting to flog myself through A Song of Ice and Fire, which I tried a couple of years ago and gave up on in disgust. I'm about a third of the way through the first book for the second time, and I'm making extremely heavy weather of it - I have to read it in short bursts between distractions. I know it's an extremely well-loved, highly celebrated series which a number of people whose taste I esteem have embraced with fervour; the recent announcement of the latest book's publication date has caused frenzies of delight all over the internet. The miniseries version has a kick-butt cast and the trailers seem to promise well. All this being the case, why the hell can't I enjoy the damned thing?

I'm going to vaguely rant about the things which annoy me, and hopefully fans of the series can offer counter-arguments which may give me fresh insight. For a start, it's gritty fantasy, as real-world and political as possible. Politics in fantasy for me somehow always runs the danger of invoking the Le Guin article "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", in which she surgically deconstructs the failure of tone and language in fantasy; I can't read about political machinations without imagining senators clattering down the stairs into the garden. But, while I don't by and large enjoy gritty political fantasy, this is not invariable; I really loved the darkness and nastiness of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains, for example, and something like Tamora Pierce or the Furies of Calderon series offers large-scale politics, venality and warfare without alienating me one whit. I can't simply say "aargh political fantasy not for me" and have done with it, and I cannot in any way accuse GRRM of a failure of tone, the writing is admirably incisive and atmospheric - there's more going on here.

I suspect that, bearing in mind I'm still slogging through the first third of the first book and am thus not responding to the series as a whole, my lack of enjoyment stems from two things. On the one hand the whole thing takes itself too damned seriously, which is problematical for me for actually quite complicated reasons. The lack of humour is wearying after a while; these are Serious! People! in a Serious! Demanding! Brutal! World! and I want them to damned well lighten up, already, but it's really not just that I prefer some fluff to my fantasy.

The thing is, to me if you're writing Gritty Realistic Fantasy you're trying to treat fantasy like the real world, and it's not. It's a symbolic genre. Its operation is emblematic. If you are writing a brutal political story in a world which happens to have dragons and mysterious icy undead, this says to me that you want to be in a world which has dragons and mysterious icy undead, which no-one in their right mind wants. What they want to be in is a story which has dragons and mysterious icy undead. Ice and Fire is so busy being grittily political that it's lost sight of story shape, quest, heroism, all the narrative aspects of fantasy which even something like The Steel Remains is aware of, if only because it's gleefully kicking the conventions in the nads. GRRM doesn't seem to be trying to do much which allows him to engage self-consciously with the conventions, he's instead trying to write dragons like War and Peace. I don't think dragons should be written like War and Peace. I don't think you can write fantasy without being aware of its generic structures and expectations, at least not without making me throw the book across the room and mutter about political realism and how I'd go and look for it if I wanted to read it, which I don't. Phooey.

But again, this isn't enough. There's some pretty darned nasty fantasy out there which conforms bloodily and bloody-mindedly to realist tropes, and a lot of it I read with a great deal more pleasure than I'm getting from Ice and Fire. I suspect that at base my problems are quite simple - ye gods and scary dire-wolves, these are horrible people. The Lannisters are unrelieved psychopaths, the Starks are tough and grim and honourable and sadly naive and are busy being horribly rolled over. Children die, innocents die, most of the leaders, current or deposed, are narcissistic or sociopathic or both, and I really can't imagine GRRM pulling any sort of final upbeat resolution out of the whole mess without things getting very much worse first. It's unpleasant to watch. I'm not identifying with anyone - they don't inspire empathy or anything other than a wincing fascination with their eventual fates. It's all so doomed.

So I suppose what I'm asking for, oh ye fans of Ice and Fire, is for reasons to keep on reading. Does it keep up this tone throughout? Am I right in thinking that there's going to be a lot more blood and despair and loss before we see any of these complete bastards get theirs? Do we ever see these complete bastards get theirs? Does GRRM have something up his sleeve that justifies all this bleak? I don't want to google for spoilers in case I decide to carry on reading, but I want reassurance that there's some actual reason to do so. Meep!
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Part of my elaborate preparations for travel to South Africa this weekend was to purchase the "Moxieland" and "Zoo City" ebooks (one was on special at the Angry Robot Store). Turns out I needed to use Calibre to convert them from .epub to .mobi for the kindle, but it seems to have worked.

I look forward to reading them on the way over, or when I'm over there. Other suggestions for what to read are welcome. I may fall back to the usual "Enormous book of year's best SF short stories" genre, which I find very good for fitful travel reading.

Edited at 2011-03-06 10:33 am (UTC)
Short stories are good for plane trips, I find sustained concentration difficult in that environment. Mostly I watch movies if I possibly can. Stupid movies.

Have you read China Mieville's Kraken? I also recommend the Jo Walton I blogged about a week or so ago, but it may strike you as unduly girly.
Ack. I hated The Steel Remains with the burning passion of a thousand suns. Also, I love A Song of Ice and Fire -- but then, I love realism in my fantasy. I consider it to be just another unreal setting with certain genre conventions -- but writing style isn't one of them. I don't think realism makes fantasy into not-fantasy; the term has just become as broad as the equally misnamed "science fiction".

I'm afraid that as of A Feast For Crows there hasn't really been very much comeuppance for the Bad Guys. There has been a little bit of it, but overall the Good Guys keep having increasingly grim things happen to them. If you think halfway through the first book is bleak, you will probably not enjoy the third book. :/
>there hasn't really been very much comeuppance for the Bad Guys. There has been a little >bit of it, but overall the Good Guys keep having increasingly grim things happen to them
Have not read Ice and Fire, at all, am just jolted herewith into memories of (utterly political/historical/realist Literary Fiction) A Fine Balance. Which was awesome. But bleak, and horrible, and traumatic. But awesome. Still not what I'd want from any book involving dragons, though.
I tend to stay away from Horrible Trauma in my reading, I still don't know why I enjoyed The Road as much as I did - probably because of the writing, actually. But, yes. I think the problem here is one of expectation. Whatever broad and complex constellation of expectations I have about fantasy, GRRM doesn't really seem to fall into them with any great success. I am inclining more and more to write this off, with a respectful tip of the hat to the author concerned, as a Bad Fit, and have done with it.
I am not encouraged by your reports of this uniform tone, but I can't say I'm surprised, it does seem to be a narrative with a strong enough identity to be set in its ways.

What didn't you like about Steel Remains? Interesting, given your known proclivities for the gritty :>. Fascinates me endlessly how personal a reader/book match can be.
I found The Steel Remains to be obnoxious in its handling of women. I felt very strongly that Morgan had transposed modern misogyny to a completely ahistorical past -- one in which women are continually victims of sexual abuse or domination, and *never do anything else*. Even the female protagonist, a person who ostensibly possesses some kind of power, is bound (for no logical reason I could find) to stick around in a court environment in which she is constantly threatened and abused, and to serve a psychotic monarch who personally threatens and abuses her.

I bounced really hard off R. Scott Bakker for the same reason -- but he was even worse. Not only were the only female characters prostitutes, courtesans or sex slaves, but I could just about count the women who appeared in the book on the fingers of one hand. An entire gender was utterly absent from the story -- it could have taken place on Athos.

I have encountered other writers who do this (to a greater or lesser extent) and apparently think it's "gritty" and "historically realistic" (and if anyone actually calls them on it, claim that to portray historical women in any other way would be "PC revisionism"). I find it ludicrous; it instantly destroys my suspension of disbelief. This is why I no longer read fantasy books on recommendation unless I specifically find a review online which addresses this issue. I have been bitten one time too many.

ASoIaF doesn't bother me in that way at all. Many of the female characters are clearly disadvantaged because of their gender, in what I would call historically realistic ways, but they are well-realised characters with motivations, who *do things*. And they exist, in large numbers.

(I started going off Morgan after reading Black Man, and getting the distinct impression that he's a real life fan of evolutionary psychology. I don't know whether his earlier books don't have this kind of stuff in them, or I just didn't notice -- I will preserve my fond memories and not re-read them to find out.)
Ah, interesting. I'm usually very alert to this, but it didn't bother me in Steel Remains because, I think, I assumed that the bleak/blackness of the setting was being as condemnatory of the treatment of women as it was about anything else in the story, i.e. very. I found that it rather powerfully deconstructed gender tropes and power relations and the assumptions of the heroic archetypes to have the hero configured as a marginalised gay character. But I have to agree, not a book about women, by and large.
The gay protagonist was what initially attracted me to the book. But the end, I was wondering if Morgan was just avoiding writing a well-rounded female love interest, but maybe I'm being overly harsh. :P
I asked a similar question, although without as much prior analysis as you have done, when I first started reading the series in December. The answers I received are here. I don't know if they'll make up your mind one way or another, but at least there's what another group of people think.

I had never perceived it as "This is real world written with a fantasy airbrush layer over it," though now that you've cast it that way I can see it. Still, I think I will keep reading. There are still enough moments of SensaWunda (TM leighdb), especially within Daenerys Targaryen's storyline, to keep me in.
Ooh, that was a very useful discussion, thank you - exactly what I need. I am now seesawing madly between "I don't think I'll carry on reading, then" and "maybe I'll carry on reading, then", depending on which comment I've read most recently. So possibly not that useful ;>.

Did you keep reading? was it worth it?
Yes, I did read until the end of the third book, then stopped to reread before I move on to the fourth book. I'm about to finish rereading the first book now.

I find that I am taken in---there are several characters which are favourites, and what is completely new to me is that these characters are not necessarily the "good guys", as it were. (In fact, as you probably noticed already, there are very few true "good guys", and most of them are under 16 years old at that.) There are a lot of political machinations, true, but there are also a lot of military machinations and even more interpersonal machinations than those two. You're dead on with your "this is political fantasy" assessment, in fact. But like I said, I can still find enough Sense of Wonder to make it worth my while, and the way I like several characters make up for the rest and keep me reading.

(In a not-very-spoilery bit, the heaviest-hitting events in the later books get almost all their power from the reader getting to know the characters.)

But to warn you: At least until the end of the third book, which is as far as I have personal experience in, you will be seriously catharsis-deprived. A friend of mine recommended, either in that thread you read or somewhere similar, to interlace reading Martin with something else, maybe the early Jordan books, maybe Bujold books---I would even recommend the end of the Return of the King. I found the experience worth it, but these are seriously not deserted-island books.
(So, um, I guess I didn't help either. Once upon a time I said on my journal, "Go not to the Internet for advice, for they will say both yes and no and try to sell you g3ner1c V1agr4.")