Painting: "Battle of the Scythians with the Slavs" by Viktor Vasnetsov

Game of Moans

A review of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones and the suggestion of a better book.

Painting: "Battle of the Scythians with the Slavs" by Viktor Vasnetsov
Viktor Vasnetsov, Battle of the Scythians with the Slavs

I recently finished reading George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (just the first book, mind you, not the entire series).  First, let me admit:  it was entertaining.  It was not imaginative.  It was not breathtaking.  But it was a page-turner; that much must be admitted by rights.

It was not, however, a good book, and it does not deserve the accolades it has received.  It suffers from many of the problems which the fantasy genre has suffered after the advent of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  Let’s start with a nod to the ladies.

I do not frequently repeat this most shrill of charges, but the author does warrant the accusation of sexism.  He considers, apparently, narrating from the mind of a woman an insufferably uninteresting setting, so he instead resorts to narrating between her legs.  Inevitably, the worst writing takes place in this location.  There are, as far as I can recall, three types of women in Martin’s first book:  those who care about breeding, those who use sex as a tool (and are generally perverted in some way), and those women who are really just men with breasts.  He reminds you about the breasts.  Allow me to share some of the gems.

“Her loins still ached from the urgency of his lovemaking.  It was a good ache… she prayed that [his seed] might quicken there.”  Martin seems to have taken the “loins” euphemism a bit literally, which gives a new meaning to “girding one’s loins”.

“Maester Luwin was shown in. . . . The furs dropped away from her nakedness, forgotten.”  Let me explain the scene:  a letter was brought in, and the noble lady forgot she was naked, apparently.  Also, Martin had not failed to remind us just how very cold it was in the room.  Let the implications of that just take you where they lead.  This leads me to my theory that George R. R. Martin (since one must have two initials in a title to be a serious fantasy author) is actually Kevin from The Office.

“Three quick strokes and it was done.”  This does not refer to a duel, although there is only ever one winner for Martin.

For, you see, sex is power, and the only way to give women power is to give them sex or a sword—penetration of one kind or another.

Such scenes appear often and without much of a point; this is not, however, atypical of most of the prose comprising the book, as Martin absolutely refuses to say in 3 words what he can say in 300.  I cannot help but feel that he thinks length implies seriousness.  On the contrary, the length is absolutely absurd given the content.

His description of banners at a tournament defies even biblical proportion, drawing out a solid page and a half of names and banner images.  And unlike biblical narration of lists, it contains no symbolic or representative meaning—just random names and images with random colors described without imagination or metaphor.  Oh, and every normal name has a “y” in place of a standard vowel without fail.  Or, I should say, fayle.  This is a bad example of world-building.

Illustration: "Kulikov Battle" by Ivan Bilibin, 1935
Ivan Bilibin, Kulikov Battle, 1935

Further, Martin’s entire world lacks civilization:  pleasure consists of “f**king, feasting, and fighting”.  Meat cannot be cooked unless over a spittle, nor eaten unless grease runs down one’s face.  Despite the trappings of knights and banners, real chivalry is absent from the story.  The favorite pastime of knights is skewering peasants and pillaging their land.  All marriage is political.  All entertainment consists of participating in or watching one of the three “f”s.  In short, there is no culture, no civilization, nor any real learning.

Given the medieval trappings, the world of Martin’s series can only be described as a tired caricature of the “middle ages” repeated by the ignorant.  And even the trappings can be annoyingly false every so often, like when an old soldier recommends wearing a sword on one’s back.  (Honestly, who ever thought up the idea of wearing a sword on one’s back?  Stick a yardstick down your shirt and try to draw it; if you do not quickly realize that this is a powerfully stupid idea then something is wrong with you.)

A final charge against Martin (and one that relies on some scanning of the subsequent books):  he is unrealistically pessimistic.  He cannot seem to comprehend a good man; his continuum of shades of grey on the morality scale is not an accurate depiction of the creature that is man.  It is his failure of imagination, not his realism, which does not allow him to comprehend the reality of the good man.  I’d wager that even Martin has met some of them.

But good men are not allowed to be so in Martin’s books; they must be brought down low, or killed, or shown to be naïve.  And while good men often meet cruel ends this side of Fortuna’s Wheel, Martin’s faux-realism implies that men cannot ever persist in virtue:  they must either die or they will live to be exposed for the corrupt men that they are.

“But, Smyth,” you ask, “what shall I read if not Martyn?  You cannot criticize my fantasy novel without giving me a supyeryor alternatyve!  And Y’ve already read The Lord of the Ryngs!”  Fear not, gentle nerd, for I have a suggestion for thee:

The Worm Ouroboros by the neo-pagan aesthete, E.R. Eddison.  Eddison is a now-forgotten scholar in the early 20th century, whose work earned him the respect of men like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.  Eddison, however, was not of the Christian tradition like many of the Inklings were.  His non-fiction offers one of the most compelling, and one of the only believable, resurrections of a pagan aesthetic (the other being Nietzsche’s).  Eddison heretically and powerfully argues for the ultimate subservience of truth and goodness to the category of beauty.

This belief finds incarnation in his most memorable character, the Lord Gro, who is doomed to perpetual betrayal: not against the weaker side, but against the stronger.  In his soliloquy explaining his treason, Gro compares those trying to secure lasting happiness as trying to beat water in a mortar.  Rather, warring nations are like day warring against the tyrant night: the pale pitiful light breaking against the primeval dark.  For its beauty and triumph over the chaos of darkness, he must love the morning.

“But” Gro asks, “because day at her dawning hours hath so bewitched me, must I yet love her when glutted with triumph she settles to garish noon? Rather turn as now I turn to [my enemies], in the sad sunset of her pride. And who dares call me turncoat, who do but follow now as I have followed this rare wisdom all my days: to love the sunrise and the sundown and the morning and the evening star? since there only abideth the soul of nobility, true love, and wonder, and the glory of hope and fear.”

Such glory is exactly what I find lacking in Martin’s book, though at times it hints at it.  Let me summarize by saying that The Worm Ouroboros contains all the best elements of Martin’s Game of Thrones in far better prose:  whereas Martin tries to be original and is cliché, Eddison shamelessly references Roman gods, Norse myth, and Elizabethan poetry, and is refreshing.  Whereas Martin is cruel, Eddison is fatalistic:  in Ouroboros, the depth of the word “doom” is felt, even in victory.  While Martin’s descriptions are crude, Eddison is bright—even gaudily so, at times.  And while Martin is inflated, Eddison is enjoyably long and appropriately dense in his creation.  In short, The Worm Ouroboros is a similar book that is better in every way.
Eddison’s book is, however, far more difficult to read and thus more difficult to enjoy, though the pleasure it offers is far better.  So it shall remain an obscure work for fantastical hipsters, while everyone else reads books like Game of Thrones.


The editors would like to point out that this is a review of the first book in George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series, Game of Thrones. It is not a review of the television program by that name, although the above criticism may very well obtain to that also. We do not have HBO and have not seen the program. Please refrain from condemning the author of this review for sins he has not committed against your favorite screen property.

9 thoughts on “Game of Moans”

  1. I’m going to argue with quite a bit of this.

    A. The sexism point is unjustified. Three of the primary female characters (Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark, Sansa Stark) fall into none of the categories discussed. The article’s theory that the only women in Martin’s universe are either baby-crazy, sexually manipulative, or asexual is unjustifiably reductive. The entire Stark family provides three glaring examples to the contrary.

    B. Those “random names and images” become focal plot points and identifying characteristics of various noble houses throughout the series. The payoff isn’t found in book 1, but develops throughout the series. This article glibly dismisses them without an appreciation of context.

    C. Martin takes too much flak for “pessimism.” Human nature, if anything, offers a rather persuasive justification for some healthy cynicism. The aforementioned Starks are consistent examples of nobility…if that nobility is sometimes exploited by their enemies, it’s an unfortunate yet realistic occurrence. The fantasy genre is characterized by unrealistic blacks and whites – it’s refreshing to see someone who affirms ambiguity. Tyrion Lannister, the series’ antihero, does act nobly from time to time. He also behaves in a corrupt manner. Daenerys Targaryen often does the right thing, but sometimes espouses a utilitarian ethic. Characters are “grey” as in real life – that’s why Martin has received such acclaim.

    No culture, civilization, or real learning? Such is the purpose of the entire order of the maesters, as well as the religious system prevailing throughout Martin’s books. No chivalry? The mythic conception of chivalry existed solely in the minds of poets. For that matter, the entire “Song of Ice and Fire” series was inspired by real-world history. Few would dispute that civilization objectively suffered for a time after the collapse of the Roman Empire – that collapse translates into Martin’s savage world as the “Doom of Valyria.”

    I am forced to conclude that this author did not read the novel particularly carefully.

    1. GoT characters aren’t grey, but always black. The negative aspects and the cynicism are always exaggerated.. Sometimes it looks like the writer just despises humanity

    2. I am forced to conclude that you never read any historical works about middle ages carefully (supposing that you read any at all).

  2. While I don’t agree entirely with the spirited defense of George R.R. Martin’s saga in the comment above*, it’s enough of an overall suvery of the points that needed to be made that I can move on to the most interesting part of the review to me – which is the accusation that Book 1 is not imbued with glory…or that it only hints at glory.

    What the author means by this, I have no idea – though I am intrigued. It seems fair to assume that the author would find the tales of Robert’s Rebellion to be only further evidence of the ragged, false glory of a civilization – or as he puts it, “f***king, feasting and fighting.” There’s not much glory to be found at the Wall, so I guess he wouldn’t have found it there either. I didn’t find a very good analysis of what he meant by that – only a comparison to a novel I had never heard of, which is fine and good, but works best when you have an idea of the principle that’s being described.

    *Really, I have a problem with point B and the second paragraph of Point C. I agree with the author, though not to the degree he takes it, that Martin is just not as good at world-building as other people like to think. The author doesn’t know this because he only read Book 1, but Martin’s lack of brevity actually gets worse with Book 4 and Book 5; to the point that an NYT review stated that he badly needs an editor to cleave some of these words down to size. A great deal of things that are mentioned in Book 1 do pay off, but there are reams of pages and details that add very little of anything to the narrative. And on a more basic level, it’s just not fun to read a description that seems as wearying as reading a chapter in the Book of Numbers.

    I dispute Point C a bit in the end because, as much as I’ve brought in some references to other Books in the series, this is only a review of Book 1. It takes Martin a very long time to unfurl the other cultures of the world in which the characters inhabit outside of King’s Landing and traditional locales introduced in Book 1. This is also one of the reasons why Book 1 is, while still strong, one of the weakest in the series; there’s a lot of investment in the characters and the world but not much payoff until later. What’s odd, though, is that the larger issues that the author notes still exist even in later novels. If he wants more page-turners I would recommend the novels, but I’m not entirely sure he would revise his opinion of the series in the end.

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