When one speaks of “guilty pleasures” in reading, it usually means one is reading trash, but one is enjoying the hell out of it anyway. I wouldn’t call George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series trash exactly, but it is fantasy, and fantasy has long been the preferred genre of dorks and misfits and fellow travelers who like to dress up for Renaissance Faires. So even though I now admit reading it, I’d prefer word didn’t get around. And I wouldn’t say I’ve been enjoying the hell out of it either.
While I like the series, I’m having a tough time with it. Even though Martin’s central yarn is absorbing enough to keep me going through three of the books and halfway through the fourth, I’m often exasperated. His style is to devote a chapter to each character in turn. Not a bad device, but not all his characters are equally compelling. The boring, minor ones get just as much ink as the prime movers. There’s a 14-year-old princess named Daenerys who has almost nothing to do with the main story for the first three books, but Martin keeps interrupting his narrative to tell us all about her, in prose so florid you feel like you’ve stumbled into a harlequin romance. I finally learned that when a Daenerys chapter comes along, it’s only necessary to read every fifth or sixth sentence. Or, even better, every fifth or sixth page. Trust me: you won’t miss anything important.
The other main annoyance is Martin’s penchant for useless digression. He is constantly veering off point to discuss some tedious family tree involving this minor lord or that one, who begat whom and what the coat of arms looked like. That’s one reason each of these volumes is more than 800 pages. When the story resumes, you tend to forget where you were. I know he’s trying to convey the impression of a rich and complex society thousands of years old, but it shouldn’t take that long to read about it.
Speaking of that, shouldn’t a society with such long history have evolved somewhat? Since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, there seems to be an unwritten rule that all fantasy worlds must closely resemble Medieval Europe — no weapons beyond blades and catapults, no clothing beyond ornate cloaks and chain mail, no transportation beyond foot, horse and sail. Well, fine; I guess every genre has its defining conventions. But like so many of those fictional worlds, Martin’s is suspiciously static. Consider: All these centuries of swordplay and bursting bodices, and yet in that time there has been no progress in art, science, medicine, or any sort of technology. No one’s even curious. Maybe it’s something in the wine.