Win or Die

So the Game of Thrones TV series premieres tonight. I’m taping it, but I don’t seem to be quite as pumped about it as most people. This is probably because I don’t like the books as much as most people.

Everyone has those works of media which they know are obviously of high quality, but which they can’t get into for whatever reason. A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t quite that for me… I’ve read the whole thing through, after all. It’s more that I recognize the series as doing things with the fantasy genre that precious few authors are doing… but I don’t particularly like those things.

The primary appeal of A Song of Ice and Fire is that it takes medieval European fantasy and rubs it in gritty realism until it bleeds. People say that the series is unlike any other fantasy series, but that’s not quite true; in terms of overarching plot and worldbuilding it’s pretty indistinguishable from any number of fantasy series I could name. The difference lies in tone. Most fantasy series are idealistic at their core — they’re about wistfully remembering “the good old days”. In the real world, remember, the Middle Ages were not a fun time to live in — I doubt that even the most hardcore fantasy fan would choose to live in that time period given a choice. Nonetheless, fantasy likes to portray placid, beautiful, happy medieval societies. Lots of fantasy contains characters who anachronistically speak out against racism or sexism, but you’ll rarely find one who’s anti-monarchy or pro-gunpowder. (Fantasy characters love putting the “rightful” king on his throne and suppressing rebellions that they aren’t in charge of, I’ve noticed.) Fantasy is usually about how authors feel things should be, which is how you get plots where killing the Dark Lord or finding the MacGuffin solves everything. Anything tragic or unhappy about the setting is actively and externally imposed by a malevolent force.

A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t like that, not in the slightest… Westeros is interesting, for sure, but even absent all the conflict in the plot of the books it’s fairly obvious that it’s a place no sane person would willingly live unless they were at the very top. If you’re a peasant you live a life of more or less unremitting horror, constantly at the mercy of lords and knights who don’t know or care who you are, and are all too willing to step on your neck if you make the wrong move. If you’re a noble, you have to suffer constant backbiting and political maneuvering as the great families of the land struggle for incremental advantage. Just a complete shithole — arguably just like real medieval Europe!

ASoIaF‘s got other things, though, things a lot of other fantasy series don’t bother with — like characters whose lives don’t revolve around the grand prophecy or the chosen one and are able to work towards their own goals, a distinct lack of good characters winning just due to their goodness, and a willingness to kill someone who’s served their purpose, whether the audience likes them or not. These are things the fantasy genre could use more of.

They’re also things I don’t particularly like to read about, speaking personally.

See, I read fantasy for escapism. I like reading about heroes who are truly heroic. I like a world that might be unrealistic, but is fun to lose yourself in. I like happy endings and intermediate victories. ASoIaF‘s unrelenting cynicism and negativity becomes oppressive after a while, and while those qualities might make the books good, they don’t make them entertaining, if that makes any sense. I’ve read the Belgariad at least once a year since I discovered it back in high school, but I’ve only read ASoIaF once, and I’m grateful to the TV series for sparing me of any desire to go back and re-read it. I’m glad it exists, but if the whole genre was like it, I wouldn’t be interested on more than a case-by-case basis. There’s room enough in the world for “And they all lived happily ever after”, too.

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