Despite having his work on my to-read list for over a decade, HBO’s Game of Thrones is probably the only reason I actually picked up anything by George R.R. Martin. I’ll always be grateful for that. As cliche as it sounds now, A Game of Thrones was high fantasy that expertly subverted the ideals and aesthetics of high fantasy, a genre that had driven me away with too much florid prose and Tolkien imitation. Its general excellence is enough to make me feel bad about wishing the series — in all its forms — had died a long time ago.
A Game of Thrones explored what fantasy’s nostalgia-tinged conventions might actually produce in a world full of ordinary humans instead of mythic heroes. Dragons weren’t wondrous creatures, they were terrifying super-weapons — a friend at the time called them the ICBMs of the fantasy world. Courtly love and chivalry were the product of a rigid, bigoted hierarchy. Living as royalty in a feudal system meant accepting that all relationships, romantic ones especially, were transactional. And serving an ideal, instead of whoever happened to be in power, could get you killed. It wasn’t that the book was "dark," or even revolutionary, it just shook up a set of tropes that I had spent years rolling my eyes at.
Game of Thrones shook up a genre I generally hated
After finishing it, I knew that I wanted more. I burned through A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, which included some of my favorite sections of the series. It doesn’t come through quite as well in the show, but George R.R. Martin does a great job of conveying the sheer foreignness of Westeros, a world effectively run by children and old men following an archaic moral code. Like many people, though, I quickly internalized the golden rule of A Song of Ice and Fire: if you enjoy reading about a character, their days are probably numbered.
For a while, this risk genuinely made the series more interesting. But as I neared the end of the third book, it started to feel more like a required Song of Ice and Fire flourish than a useful narrative tool. Ironically, the tipping point was George R.R. Martin killing off perhaps the books’ most loathsome character. In a stand-alone story, it would have been shocking and satisfying. But all I could think about was the fact that I wasn’t even halfway through the series, and one of its biggest personalities was gone.
George R.R. Martin killed off my least favorite character, and it was terrible
One of my least favorite high fantasy conventions is what would charitably be known as the genre's epic scale. I don’t like knowing everything about a place, or everything that happens to a person. It makes it too easy for plots and characters to become vehicles for world-building, instead of compelling things in their own right. A Game of Thrones reinvented the overused mythos of medieval-tinged fantasy, but after enough time, the extensive family trees and the fight for the Iron Throne became constraints in their own right. When new characters showed up to replace the old ones, they ended up fitting awkwardly into stories that had been built around someone else.
After a while, I realized that I was more invested in A Song of Ice and Fire’s lore than in the actual books. I continued because I needed to know what happened, but I didn’t really enjoy finding out. Following A Feast for Crows was a chore. I read Wikipedia instead of A Dance with Dragons. I stuck with the TV series for a while longer, but the same tipping point happened somewhere around the third season: for every moment I genuinely enjoyed, there was another that I only watched to check how it compared to the books. HBO wasn’t a TV network, it was a vending machine for my Westeros fix.
HBO was a vending machine for my Westeros fix
At some point around my initial Song of Ice and Fire binge, I started Martin’s The Armageddon Rag. In a way, it’s another weird, original take on Tolkien — a murder mystery about a journalist who uncovers the sinister plot behind a Led Zeppelin-esque fantasy-rock band. If Game of Thrones is what happens when noble myth meets human cruelty, Armageddon Rag is about 1960s idealism meeting 1980s cynicism. It’s great. When I finished it, I wondered for a moment what would happen next. I would probably have read a sequel. A sequel might even have been good. But I’m incredibly glad there wasn’t one.
The longer A Song of Ice and Fire goes, the more I feel like I’m missing out on other interesting fictional experiments — especially ones from Martin himself. But every time someone mentions a character, I end up spending 20 minutes clicking through A Wiki of Ice and Fire, trying to figure out what’s going on in a series I’ve all but abandoned. George R.R. Martin has managed to do what Tolkien never did: turn me into a desperate lore-hound for a world I’m fundamentally tired of visiting.
Please. Someone. Make it stop.