Mild spoilers for HBO’s Game of Thrones and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire lie ahead.
Is George R. R. Martin a good writer?
‘What!’ You scoff. ‘How can you even ask that question, when the TV show based on his books is arguably the most popular drama in the English speaking world, when his plot twists and turns so much that you have to consult websites to keep track of who’s where, and his books have sold millions of copies all over the world?’
All that this goes to show is that he’s a successful writer, whose books have intricate plots, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a good one in every person’s (haha) book. Sales have nothing to do with it, really, nor do convoluted plots. If the letter were the case, The Iliad is the least successful story ever. Its plot is notoriously straightforward.
Spoiler alert: There’s a big battle and pretty much everyone dies.
Personally, I consider various fantasy writers good for widely differing reasons. For instance, Tolkien is great in my eyes because he did something few people had done before him, and made it popular. Rowling because she managed to, along with building such an alluring world, pull readers of all ages into it and alongside her hero, making her books ‘grow up’ as much as her protagonist did. Jordan because his writing can be incredibly poetic, almost enough to make up for the needless skirt adjusting and posturing that bogs his books down in the middle. And Martin because, well, his characters.
I don’t think Martin is stylistically amazing. When I picked up A Game of Thrones I wasn’t wowed by the writing. I remember finding it clumsy, especially in comparison to the weighty, immediately epic quality of Jordan and Tolkien, which I was, at that time, more familiar with. What kept me reading was the plot, and the characters, all of whom I could immediately ‘side’ with. Martin plays his cards incredibly close to the chest, so that the first characters whose heads you inhabit to any great length are the Starks: Bran, Arya, Sansa, Jon. Ned and Cat. In fact, the only non-Stark characters whose heads we enter are Dany and Tyrion, and a brief prologue with Will, the unfortunate Night’s Watch member.
This goes towards Martin’s establishment of the Starks as our ‘guides’ to this world. Their ethics and morals become ours, easy enough since (as I outlined in this post), they are the closest to a ‘normal’ family (what we by and large understand as one in the mainstream) we have. Therefore, their enemies become our enemies, and their friends, ours. Sadly the latter are few and far between.
This also means we see a lot of the characters through the Starks’ eyes, particularly one who becomes super important (and POV character on his own) later on: Jaime Lannister. And he fares particularly badly: Bran’s chapter shows him callously pushing a young child off a tower, and Ned’s are littered with memories of a man who not only ‘dishonourably’ killed his king, but also might have been trying to steal the Iron Throne for himself, until Ned stormed in and interrupted his private party. Sure, Tyrion has good things to say about him, but even then Jaime comes across as extremely privileged and therefore, not exactly ‘likeable’. Besides, we only have the word of his doting little brother to prove that he’s a good man, and that’s not exactly an unbiased opinion, certainly not enough to balance out the other things we’ve seen him do.
But then Martin does something incredible: he gives us Jaime’s point of view, but only after we’re sure he’s a horrible person. Jaime is the first person he pulls this switcheroo with; until A Storm of Swords, we’re pretty much dealing with the same POVs—mostly the Starks, Tyrion, Dany, with the addition of Davos. All of them are ‘good’ people (even if Tyrion is from the ‘enemy’ family, he’s smart and sympathetic enough that we overlook his Lannister roots), none of whom have previously been painted in a bad light. Martin doesn’t have to work too hard to get us on their side, not even Davos who, though Stannis’s man and a smuggler, seems to have a sense of loyalty that grounds him.
When Storm opens, right after a prologue, you’re sucked straight into Jaime’s head, watching as he cruises snarkily along a river, happy to be getting back to his sister. ‘Hang on, this is the same sister he has had three children with,’ you think, ‘what a sicko,’ but that impression doesn’t last long. Instead, Jaime’s ‘love’ for Cersei, revealed in his memories of her, and concerning her, doesn’t strike you as ‘sick’; it’s twisted, true, but I at least believe, and even maybe root a little for him when he declares (as he did so dramatically in a recent episode) that he would do whatever it took to get to her side.
‘Okay, creepy love for Cersei is no longer so creepy. But he’s still a Kingslayer!’ you tell yourself, slightly discomfited by this surprising about-turn. And then Martin whips out another surprise: Jaime didn’t kill Aerys because he lacked loyalty and wanted to grab power, or because he was ‘switching sides’. No, he killed him because that was, he thought, the only way to save the rest of the city. It was done for the greater good. And he’s been living with the knowledge of what he did, knowing what people think of him, trying not to let it affect him.
Oh, the angst.
Jaime’s seemingly carefree attitude is exposed much more early on in the show for what it is: an overcompensation. Tywin reminds him that he ‘cares too much about what people think’, and this contributes a good deal to his anxiety, his inability to do what his father might see as ‘needing’ to be done. But increasingly, he appears to lose this weakness, instead employing what people ‘think’ of him to his advantage. He’s a cruel, horrible Lannister who doesn’t shy away from killing babies to get what he wants—at least, that’s what he uses to convince Edmure Tully to get off his high horse, and thus, with minimal bloodshed, retake Riverrun. With this, Jaime shows us that he’s grown enough to understand what must be done, and do it without posturing; but he also manages to employ his smarts enough to get it done in a way that suits his conscience.
A Song of Ice and Fire is driven by many of the things that define epic fantasy: star-crossed lovers, dethroned, ‘rightful’ rulers, a conflict that threatens to end the world as the characters know it. It is also built on subverting many of the expectations that come with the genre, with Martin refusing to shy away from killing ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ alike, and playing havoc with readers’ feelings for them. Jaime Lannister is a smarmy, horrible man in A Game of Thrones, but by the end of A Storm of Swords, he had become one of my favourite characters, consistently among the most fascinating people n a series chockfull of them. He does horrible things for a twisted love, and is driven to commit acts that cross the boundary of decency and honour in a land considerably lacking in either of the two qualities, but still, I can’t help rooting for his eventual happiness.
And that’s how I know Martin is not a good writer. He’s a great one.