Trying to figure out fiction I like – Game of Thrones semi-fail

So I just read the first book of the Fire and Ice series (Game of Thrones), and am not going to read any more. In fact, I pulled a “24” on it. This is a reference to what I did with the series “24” – a series I liked, in many ways. At the time of watching “24”, I got stressed out with the kid-kidnapping scenes (as a parent, this sort of thing bothers me way more than when I wasn’t), and the entire scenario was just too stressful! I felt I couldn’t continue, but I also couldn’t not continue because I needed closure.  So, I decided to watch the last episode of that season, ruining all of the surprises, and then I had closure and could put it down.

With Game of Thrones, I liked the narrative, but the world wasn’t compelling to me.  I thought there was too much going on at once, so there seemed like too little direction.  I don’t really care about this king overthrowing that king, etc…  I like a personal story, or message.  I want the story to be going somewhere, and after 600+ pages it just wasn’t.  I could imagine the story in Game of Thrones just going on and on, and not caring much for the outcome (especially when the only people you care about in the story seem to have a short shelf life).  So, realizing this, I didn’t want to put the effort in to read through all of the rest of the novels, but I also wanted closure.  So, I decided to read all the plot summaries for the other four books – summaries which actually supported my initial assessment of the story not really going anywhere in particular, but a lot of stuff happening.

I am trying to think of what I like, and why.  So I liked Lord of the Rings, which if you recall you get the big story arc within the first couple chapters, and then add to it as you go along.  However, the characters are always trying to accomplish something.  Win or lose, at least it is clear what the outcomes could be.  Babylon 5, the big story arc is introduced mid-season 1, and then added to from the end of season 1 to the peak in the middle-to-late season 3.  There were a number of compelling mini-arcs here, and mysteries, which allowed you to get into the characters in the beginning, and also to tie the seasons together.  Battlestar Gallactica only had mini-arcs, and no big arc.  Within each mini-arc it was very good.  Overall, it fell a bit flat because there wasn’t anything tying it together.  Harry Potter was excellent, much of which due to an interesting world.

So, Game of Thrones didn’t fit the type of fiction I like, even though the narrative itself was quite interesting and well written.  What would I like?  Not sure.  Not sure what the pattern is with what I like, and what I don’t.  This is probably why I generally read non-fiction.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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7 Responses to Trying to figure out fiction I like – Game of Thrones semi-fail

  1. Steven Winsor says:

    Brian, if you liked The Lord of the Rings, you need to read ‘The Silmarilion’, Tolkien’s great work that covers the 1st two ages of the Earth (while Lord of the Rings takes place in the 3rd age). The Silmarilion answers some questions that the Lord of the Rings didn’t…like, who were the wizards? It answers the question: where did the evil come from?…and how was the Earth formed?…and who are the Elves?
    Hard to believe Tolkien wrote the two books with a word processor…not much opportunity to edit.

    • brianblais says:

      I tried many years ago, and it reminded me too much of reading Genesis. It’s ok to get some back story, but it doesn’t really motivate me to finish it.

      • Tim says:

        I don’t know if you listen to audiobooks, but the audiobook version of The Silmarillion (read by Martin Shaw) is fantastic. I agree that reading The Silmarillion is like reading the Old Testament, but listening to a really good reader read The Silmarillion is a wonderful experience! There are a lot of great stories in there, and if you ever visit Tolkien’s grave, you’ll want to know who Beren and Luthien are.

  2. Tim says:

    I totally agree with your assessment of Game of Thrones. Being a huge LOTR fan, I’ve tried and tried to get into those books, but have never made it even halfway through Game of Thrones.

    I’m sitting here trying to think of other book *series* that I could recommend to you, and there just aren’t very many, especially in the fantasy genre. There are oodles out there, of course, but most of them are no good.

    In the children’s market there’s Narnia, of course. Lloyd Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” is great if you haven’t read them. They’re skewed a little older than Narnia, and without the heavy religious themes.

    In the sci-fi world, there’s Arthur C. Clarke’s “Time Odyssey”. This is a series he wrote with Stephen Baxter that I liked enough to stay interested through all three books (can’t say the same for his Space Odyssey, much less the awful “Rama” sequels).

    I also loved Jack McDevitt’s long series, beginning with “The Engines of God”. If you’ve never read Jack McDevitt, and you end up liking “The Engines of God”, you’ve got a months of great reading ahead. The best in the series is “Chindi”, which compares favorably with Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama”, if you liked that. They’re all kind of standalone stories with a couple of major arcs that span them all.

    I’m an avid reader, and there are a lot of great standalone books I could recommend.

    • brianblais says:

      Yes, Game of Throne (though written well) seems to be set in a pretty drab universe. It reminded me of reading medieval history…this king took over that king, this person betrayed that person, etc… No real magic, no direction, no structure to the story.

      I’ll try to check out the references you gave. Now that the semester is starting again, I probably will get sucked back into non-fiction, course-related, materials. 🙂

    • Bob says:

      Hey Tim,

      Let me preface by saying that I am a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASIF), but also Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion (but not the Hobbit!). Although being a fan of both series, I still find it difficult to compare the two. If you expected ASIF to be another Tolkein-esque sword and sorcery series, then yes you will be disappointed. The overall theme of LOTR is “antitheses;” good vs. evil, life vs. death, hope vs. despair, etc. This highly successful method of storytelling has been used in multiple genera and mediums because it clearly defines heroes and villains, characters’ motives, plot direction, etc. With LOTR, the central plot revolves around Frodo’s choice to carry the Ring to Mt. Doom and Aragorn’s journey to become the King. We know who the heroes and villains are and what defines their motives.

      George R.R. Martin deliberately challenged this method as he felt Tolkein imitators oversimplified the struggle between good and evil into stereotypical clichés. He wants to showcase the internal struggle of his characters whether or not the reader considers them “good” or “evil” because, as stated in an interview with Time Magazine, he follows a Faulkner paradigm where only the human heart in conflict with itself is worth writing about (yes he includes battles between different factions, but these are still shown through the eyes of individual characters and their interpretation of the events). This allows him to write about character choices and development based off of such things as their family background, their social status, politics, or for POV characters, the factors shaping their external environment during the events of the books (other characters, war, religion, sex, etc.). Martin wants his readers to identify with his characters on a more personal level so that if something bad were to happen to a character, there would be a greater emotional impact on the reader.

      If you are not compelled about the world in which these characters are “living” in, like Brian said, then it would be hard to care about what is going on internally with many characters. I for one love the world these characters inhabit, including its history, mythology, geography, and realism, and often find myself sympathizing with characters that I dislike or consider “evil” (this also has a lot to do with Martin’s storytelling). Now perhaps I am a little biased, because Martin often talks about his love of history and stories of fallen civilizations and lost empire, and I too share a similar passion.

      In no way am I trying to convince you the reconsider reading the series, I just felt like discussing some of the reasons why I enjoy the series so much. I am however, going to reread the series with Brian’s review in mind to try and get a different perspective on the events that occur.

      • Tim says:

        Oh, I’ll try again. So many of my fellow Tolkien-lovers tell me how great it is. I have the entire series (except the latest one that I think just came out) in audiobook form read by Roy Dotrice, and they sound amazing. One of the problems for me was the sheer number of characters and ideas he introduces in the first few chapters of the first book. Having watched several episodes from the first season of the series I feel I’m comfortable enough with them that I might not be put off if I start again.

        One thing though: I’m almost ashamed to admit that the main thing that caused me to try to read GOT when I first saw it at a bookstore was the “R. R.” in his name. It seemed to me that anyone who published a fantasy novel and signed his name “something R. R. something” was almost contractually obligated to give the reader something to satisfy his appetite for more Tolkien-style fantasy. I maintained for a long time (until the Internet came along to set me straight) that the “R. R.” was too coincidental and must be a stage name. I still can’t help but believe that the decision to present his middle initials in just that way must have been intentional.

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