With the prevalence of book-turned-motion-picture phenomena, it’s often difficult for the casual observer to distinguish between book chatter and screen chatter, especially when a story is portrayed in pop culture dialogue as an amorphous series of iconically conventional moments. With the Game of Thrones series in particular, only the most sub-rock inhabitant will be unaware of its signature moves: the shocking deaths, the shocking rapes, the shocking betrayals, all amid the doom of impending seasonal transition.
But with the production of books and TV episodes overlapping one another, who can tell which pop culture response pertains to which format?
I’m not completely clueless. Although I have not yet felt inclined to watch the series, my exposure to GoT is above minimal: I read the first book maybe a decade ago, I am a semi-regular peruser of the internet, and I work in an office in which there is a watercooler. I am aware enough to know that Jon Snow is a big deal, Tyrion is a big deal, Hodor is a big deal– especially this week, apparently– and the portrayal of women is problematic, but only for people who write on the internet. I usually know enough to know that I don’t know enough, my one major lapse in judgement resulting in conversational sudden death when I jumped in with: “Are you talking about Game of Thrones? I’m reading one of those right now!” “Are you a fan? I had no idea!” “Oh, gosh no! I’ve never seen the show, I didn’t really like the first book, and I’m not really sure why I’m reading this one. I’m not even sure what number I’m on, haha!”
(I’d like to think I’m usually more small-talk savvy than this. Perhaps it was just an off day.)
Coworker fannishness aside, certain criticisms pervade, the most memorable being Nina Allan’s critique in last summer’s Interzone 259, in which she most quotably states:
Martin speaks out strongly against the “Disneyland Middle Ages” as portrayed in earlier fantasy epics. A pity then that Game of Thrones, far from showing the complex reality of mediaeval society, comprises the same regurgitated mess of stereotypes based loosely upon the authorised version of that reality as set down by the men of the time, whose interests were entirely vested in validating the status quo.
…The idea that it is dishonest or in some measure unrealistic to portray a world in which the power struggles, the conflict, to use GRRM’s word, are not based around the rape, objectification, or subjugation of women is just bollocks, frankly. More than that, it is an abnegation of what fantasy – the exercise of the imagination – is all about.
In these quotes, Allan sharply speaks to two of the most common, yet contradictory, defenses against GoT criticism: “It’s just being realistic!” and “It’s just fantasy!” and cuts to what it really feels like is going on:
I mean, it’s almost as if some writers find it easier, more enjoyable even, to write fantasy set in a thinly fantasised version of an earlier era because everyone agrees that women were second class citizens back then, so it’s OK to show that, roll around in it a little bit (Mad Men, anyone?).
“Roll around in it a little bit.” Thank smartdogs for Nina Allan, who nails my never-could-articulate, queasy reaction to Mad Men and the like. Now I get it: it’s a prurient portrayal of sexism.
Anyway, this is all to say that I don’t have much to say about A Feast for Crows (2005), book four of the GoT series, though, because of the combination of criticism and promo ads, I did go into it expecting nothing more than a concatenation of violent psychic onslaught– so much so, that I considered BINGO-ing my way through the ordeal. I even made a new BINGO card:
Not nearly so traumatizing as that– perhaps it’s the TV show that’s most guilty of these tricks– but instructive just the same. While this particular installment doesn’t drip in blood and maidenheads as I’d expected, it does drip in pseudo-feminist girl power and inconsequential harumphing at the second-class status of women that doesn’t serve anything other than to rally cheers from an uncritical middle class fanbase. Repeating the same message over and over again doesn’t go anywhere: story shows women treated badly → women characters respond: “Oh, it sucks that women are treated so badly when we are rational humans deserving of equal treatment!” → audience cheers and pats author on the back → author pats self on the back → move on to next scene in which women are treated badly → repeat cycle. Retire it already.
But there are books that can do annoying things like that and still be interesting. Perhaps it’s rude to off-road read a series, but the truth is, A Feast for Crows is a bland and bloated piece of writing, and jumping from the first book to the middle book of the series only accentuates the feeling that the series is just a dialogue-driven effort to move imaginary people from one place to another. A Feast for Crows gives the sense of a story in limbo, in which characters have been nudged into unstable states: removed from their comfortable habitats, separated from family and friends, grouped with unlikely allies, forced to interact with hostile enemies. Perhaps every GoT book is like that: a gameboard diorama ending with the next check, with the next book exploring the consequences of that last check. We shall see.
The flaw here is that A Feast for Crows, much like the first novel in the series, never transcends itself, and it never applies to the real world in any salient way. It remains imaginary in thought, a toy, a secondary plot for a secondary world, this time with a sheen of soft feminist pandering.
*That’s not to say that I think ill of people who enjoy this book or this series, or even GRRM, himself. I enjoy vintage science fiction, so I am in no position to judge.
*And I know the book series is actually called A Song of Ice and Fire, not Game of Thrones, but at some point you just have to recognize that popular culture reclaims and reshapes things and that your pedantry is futile.
*I also keep calling this book A Feast OF Crows, and I also I keep defaulting to Spanish phonetics for Jaime’s name. Perhaps, despite all my grandstanding, it’s mostly the lack of these things that explains my dissatisfaction.
*And if you enjoy Nina Allan’s commentary as much I do, you should visit her likely-to-be-legendary blog and read her haunting, evocative books, where her voice rises above the noise of fandom and cardboard genre.