My parents always were proud of the fact that I was a reader since very young age. From children books on ants and dogs in the pocket, to classic adventure literature of Jules Verne, Conan Doyle or Alfred Szklarski I read and re-read everything I found to be interesting in our home library. And I’ve been doing this as one of my main means of “story kicks” up until about 10 or more years ago when games finally started upping their story quality. BioWare, who feel so pop and simplistic today, Obsidian, new and old projects from western and eastern developers I would discover for the first time with exciting wonderfully told stories. I knew that I’m not a particularly good writer myself, but had a bit more talent with games, so I spent more time with games, and less with books. And, eventually, decided to write about games. Nowadays, I rarely read books and watch movies/shows, having occasional exceptions for something that I feel is especially interesting or just “fitting the mood”. And spend more time with games trying to find my place with them. Now, when games are telling really amazing stories more commonly, I’m glad we’re getting more and more fantastic worlds, characters and stories. Yet, when I read George Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”, I finally noticed something that wasn’t just about that. These books don’t just have amazing world, character and stories, they’re also one of the best examples of storytelling I’ve ever seen.
I’ve actually heard about the series years before I started reading it. Ironically, due to the CAD webcomic I’ve been translating with my best friend (yes, that infamous one) into Russian. Back then, I just checked the quick overview of the series and thought it was closer to the bog standard fantasy, just better written than most, and ignored it. So when one of my best friends, who tends to be one of the most vocal critics of stories I personally know, suggested I read the books, I got curious. Turned out, he had the same experience as I did, but then half-interested checked the first season of “Game of Thrones” TV show based on the books and decided to just read the books. And so I went and read the books as well… I would lie. I didn’t -_-. So about a year later on my birthday, this friend of mine gifted me a Kindle with Game of Thrones books already on it to ensure I read them. And I still didn’t for a while -_-. After I did, however… well, I’ll say that we both now have 2 series we painfully wait for a continuation, in addition to the Berserk manga we’re fans of.
There’re a bunch of misconceptions and, well, memes essentially, about the series due to the (terrible, but on this later) TV show. So, what’s actually making the books and the characters in them different from the “usual” fantasy? Martin emphasizes the reality of the world he created, obviously based on the real world in medieval times. Supernatural, despite hints of them from the very beginning of the first book, is rare and, well, not natural for most people living in the world. People who live normal lives, while nobles play their games of thrones and betrayals. Some are just and try to follow their principles, some are not, but all can make bad calls. And the beauty of the storytelling here is that if something happens suddenly and unexpectedly, it really is something sudden and unexpected. The “plot twists” in Song of Ice and Fire aren’t usually actual plot twists, and are more of sudden but expected conclusions to things set in motion and followed through page after page. The shocking factor of them is usually not in how out of the blue they are (as they are in most of the cases are not), but rather out of the desire of the reader for this not to happen, while fully understanding that this is going to happen and the things are completely irreversible now. We, as readers, hope that bad things won’t happen and good things will, but the story goes its own way, sometimes aligning with the hopes, sometimes not. And that’s the beauty of it – the risk every character faces is there and you can feel it, because no matter how much you, or the author, like the character, if the story set in motion dictates something bad will happen, it will. Which, of course, manifested into a meme that the series are about Martin killing everyone violently, which is amazingly far from truth.
What was the most curious thing, however, is the writing itself. The structure. I’ve always fancied myself being one of the people trying to get “how it works”, deconstructing stories, games, movies and etc. Trying to understand how and why things work, or don’t. Which, by the way, sometimes makes things less enjoyable and is why I tend to “consume” media alone, since otherwise I cannot concentrate -_-. But nonetheless, while reading the books I realized that desire to read on came often not just from the events in the books, but from the composition, the words chosen, the flow. Martin is amazing at phrasing things in a simple, yet extremely descriptive ways, mix up several types of storytelling in one paragraph. For example, you can have a dialogue that casually and naturally has the description of the environment, overview of the characters and their goals and biography, all while never ever breaking the flow of a natural dialogue. Oh, and it can also be an action scene as well at the same time. The storytelling in Song of Ice and Fire is never stale, it always moves, guides you forward. It puts you inside the character and gives you a way to experience the world through their eyes. Like you’re living it, like you’re playing the game, watching the movie on it, like… Like you’re not simply reading the words in a book. It’s like reading a script that triggers your imagination to paint it inside your head, come alive and act out what you’re reading about. But you’re still reading, it’s still a book. And I’ve felt how important that is by doing a simple check – by trying to read a Russian official translation of it. It’s not bad as a translation, as in – it’s not (at least mostly) incorrect. But it feels wrong, it feels like you’re just reading the words, nothing more.
That said, Marting himself struggles with the forth and fifth books. Main issue being that they are essentially one book, but divided into 2 via putting part of the character point of view chapters in one book, and the other half in the other. The reason for it is understandable – even as 2 books they’re long, too long for a usual printed book. But it hurts the flow somewhat, especially in book four. First 3 books flow from character to character perfectly – you’re never too long with one of them, never tired, never want to move on to something else. Book four has a lot of tiring topics and elements, which are, sadly, not countered with chapters from book 5 that would otherwise be there. And it makes it even more frustrating reading now, while book 6 isn’t out yet and you know that a lot of events will end on a cliffhanger, which will not be addressed for a while.
Still, this storytelling is impressive. And it’s something that games sometimes lack – how to use your medium, your tools specifically to tell a good tale, no extra pointless fluff. Although, we are getting closer, thankfully.
Should you get into the books now, while book 6 is not out yet and who knows when the final will be done? Well, yeah, definitely. First three books will be done in no time, I can guarantee it. But if you feel like book four is hard to read, pause. Wait for book 6 and then I bet going through 4, 5 and 6 will be a lot more fun.
The TV show though? What a pathetic sad creature it is. I managed to struggle only through the first 5 seasons and could take more. If you wish to check it before reading the books, watch only season 1, then drop it. Season 1 is more or less close to the books in quality and story and changes are minor and usually justified. But if you continue watching the show, I bet you’d not want to read the books. You’ll think that the story is incredibly stupid and not worth wasting time on.
In short, after the first season, that does get a lot of things right and does a lot of casting well (apart from several ridiculous miscasts for main characters, like Jon Snow), the show takes an instant nose dive into a compost pile. Characters act illogically and out of character, events try to follow the books, but without any of the reasoning from the books and look ridiculous and the storytelling is incredibly bad. Third season is where they try to “fix it”, but with bad results.
And starting with season four the “writers” of the show decide to go completely off rails, which could be good and beneficial, if they could write a damn. They don’t. Where in books you love how each new chapter makes the events, past, present and future, more layered, more exciting, expands on what you know and grows the seeds that were planted long ago, the script in the show just follows “let’s do whatever the fuck we want” logic. There’s no reason to events, character choices, most of the characters from multilayered realistic human beings turn into two-dimensional caricatures of themselves. One good example would be where one character is presented with a choice of betraying his men or suffering a painful death. In the book, he refuses to make a choice explaining that from his side this is not a choice and whatever he chooses will lead to him painfully dying and other characters gaining nothing, otherwise he’d betray without a second thought. In the show the exact same character with exact same lack of duty or loyalty just goes “eh, death please”. End scene. No point, no reason for the event to even exist. As such, the show really feels like a dumb fanfiction about tits and blood, which I couldn’t stomach after the fifth season, which I watched laughing at the stupidity of it all. But, I mean, if you wanna get high or drink beer with snacks and hang out with friends while something, anything, plays in the background, I suppose it can be a good laugh.