I know, I know, I know. You’re tired of hearing about Game of Thrones. Trust me, I am too. Twitter has nothing else to talk about and my Facebook feed has been clogged with review posts and spoiler posts and theory posts. Hostelworld even sent me an email to let me know about the “Game of Thrones locations” that were on sale. It’s reaching Star Wars-esque levels of cultural saturation (I went into a grocery store one time during the Force Awakens madness and, I shit you not, saw a Star Wars themed bag of oranges. I mean, just…what?), and I bet you’d all rather read about something, anything, else.
BUT! Here we are. And despite the super cool dude persona I’ve been cultivating by bucking all the trends, seeing the Game of Thrones-y stuff out there has reminded me of how much I love the Song of Ice and Fire books, and why.
These novels are essentially famous for two things: their extremity and their bleakness (three, I guess, if you count the world building, which is bananas good and in depth). They’re hella violent, chock full of sex (mostly not of the romantic, vanilla variety), and filled to the brim with terrible people doing horrible things. Nothing ever goes right for anybody and whenever it does seem like everything might, finally, work out, somebody does something selfish or terrible and everything falls to pieces again. The thing that people don’t often talk about though, is why these books are so brutal and bleak, and what it means.
Brace yourselves, I’m about to get very mildly controversial: George R.R. Martin has written one of the best long-form anti-war series of all time. The world he built is harsh and unfair, yes, but that’s because it’s a world at war. There’s constant commentary about how badly the common people are used for the personal ambitions of the rich and powerful, how little violence solves, how futile and fleeting and empty conquest or power can be. The countryside of Westeros is cracked and fractured, its people broken and hungry, and for what? The leaders who have used that blood to buy them power rarely hold it for long, and when they do they usually find that it’s not exactly what they were expecting. More often than not they meet an end that’s even more undignified and bloody than the people they stepped on to get to their crowns. The horrors he depicts in his series aren’t just for shock value or to serve as a counter-weight to the lighter, fluffier fantasy fare that was popular when this series first arrived, they’re meant to convey his genuine disgust at warfare and the way it had often been treated in fantasy up until that point.
Which leads me to my next point about this series. There have been some accusations levied against the books and their treatment of women as misogynistic. Now before I embark on the sticky wicket that is trying to explain why I don’t think those accusations are entirely fair (with one notable exception), I’m going to acknowledge straight off the bat that what I think doesn’t really matter. If you’re wounded by something, or offended by something, somebody telling you that it’s neither dangerous nor offensive doesn’t really mean anything. The fact that you pulled it out of the text is evidence enough that it was there, somewhere. You get from a story what you get from it, and I can’t, and wouldn’t really want, to change that. I just have a different interpretation of it, and since this blog is my own personal exercise in self-indulgent word spewage, that’s what you’re about to read. Unless, you know, you don’t want to. You’re an adult and the internet is filled with other places to read things. But, if you do stick around and just disagree, please, counter-interpretations in the comments! I’m interested in hearing about the different ways people see and think about things. Just nothing using scenes from the show as a basis for your arguments please. They’ve made some choices there that are different from the novels, ones that I feel absolutely no desire to defend.
Truly awful, terrible things happen to women in these books. They’re beaten, they’re raped, they’re murdered. They’re caged and kept and traded in marriages for political advantage. And while I agree that the behaviour towards women in the books is misogynistic and gross as hell, I don’t think the books themselves are. Those acts are never framed as a positive or (again with one exception, which I’ll get to at the end) used to titillate. The people who commit the acts are depicted as the monsters that they are, and often meet ends that are as cruel as they deserve. The treatment of women by patriarchal societies in wartime (and, you know, always) is one of vilest parts of human history. It’s not pleasant to read about, and I totally get it if it’s inclusion in the books makes you just not want to bother with them at all, but it does fit with the theme of the novels. He’s shining a light on all the ugly parts of war, even the hardest ones to look at, to strip away the nobility and glory and honor that normally gets heaped on them by the genre. At least, that’s what I think (and hope) he’s trying to do. Do I think he always pulls it off perfectly? Hell, no. Our introduction to Dany in the first novel is a particularly bad example. I read something by him a little while ago pushing back against the criticisms of his books by saying that Dany’s wedding night was handled better in the novels than in the show because Drogo asks permission before they sleep together, sort of, but…no. Dany’s a child, around thirteen years old, and Drogo is a grown ass man, which, no matter how you frame it, is pretty fucking gross. Not to mention that she’s in a strange environment, surrounded by only him and his people, with no friends or support, no idea what would happen if she displeased him. That, in no way shape or form, is a situation which is conducive to consent. Plus, the writing of that scene is really…ooky. It’s a major mistep, but not representative of the books on a whole.
There’s also just a ton of strong, badass ladies in his books that either use the rules of the patriarchal system that they’re trapped in to their advantage, or just disregard them completely. Cersei may be vile and short-sighted, cruel and self-centred, but she’s a force of nature. Arya and Brienne are some of my all-time favourite characters, in any stories, and Sansa gets far less credit than she deserves.
Anywhoodle! Just to wrap this up I’ll say that while I loved all these books, and think they’re all definitely worth reading, the first is still probably my favourite. It was so different from anything that I’d read at the time, so completely new, and the ending of the Ned Stark storyline is still, to this day, one of the most bold, surprising things I’ve read in a fantasy series.
Recommended if you like your fantasies big and sprawling and complex, if don’t mind watching people you’ve grown attached to fail and probably die, and if you’re not put off by whole paragraphs devoted to the description of various types of glazed meats.