I was a massive fantasy fan as a youngster; my tenth and eleventh year were more or less spent entirely in the pages of the Deltora Quest books and Garth Nix’s Sabriel trilogy, and the obsession continued to The Edge Chronicles and Catherine Webb’s novels until I ended up reading every single one of beloved Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Having not picked up a fantasy book since, I thought I’d give George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones a whirl. Since being made into a hit TV show, people have been raving about it. I have to say, as a re-entry into the fantasy world after a long hiatus, it disappoints.
The book does some things well. Martin exposes the reader to a vast world with a rich history without overwhelming, whilst paying enough attention to detail to allow complete absorption. Certain characters (Eddard Stark and Tyrion Lannister) are intriguing and well-drawn, and the novel certainly had pace. However, I couldn’t help being annoyed by certain aspects of Martin's world. This is because since following Sabriel and Lirael on their kick-ass journies through Garth Nix’s world, I have become what some might term a raging feminist. So here are the problems I have with A Game of Thrones:
Who uses the word ‘wenches?’
I know that if you set your fantasy novel in a vaguely medieval-Britain-esque era, there will be certain linguistic quirks your characters might display. Doesn’t mean you, the author, have to do. There’s a reason why the fantasy genre is so often parodied – saying things like ‘on the morrow’ sets you up like a prick. So, yeah, one of your Winterfell knights might call women ‘wenches,’ but I’ll get pretty pissed off if you keep calling them that.
Why is it always medieval-Britain-esque?
It’s a given that most fantasy novels of A Game’s type are set in a time without electricity, but with lots of castles, swords and battles. But…well, I’d like something new. Thanks.
The old gender problem
So, here’s the thing. If I were to create my own new, fantastically detailed world in which anything could happen, I would GET RID OF OUR GENDER STEREOTYPES. I mean, JESUS, it’s not actually medieval Britain. You could have done anything with your world, Mr. Martin, you could have had kick-ass warrior princesses and relationships in which people respected one another; hell, you could have created androgynous super-queers who fight each other then fuck each others’ brains out afterwards.
My point is, it’s so boring to just revert to gender roles like the ones evident in A Game. Despite the fact that there are some decent female characters, and they don't conform to gender roles so restrictively that they just cook, clean and fuck, the pickings aren't great. The existence of brothels and prostitutes is far too often remarked on, and even the loyal Eddard is unfaithful to his wife. As for the sex, I actually yelled out “Oh come ON” when Dany fucked the guy who had just essentially bought her, and repeatedly had sex with her until she was in pain. Oh and she’s THIRTEEN. Christ. And the only girl who displays any sort of kick-ass attitude is Arya, who spends half the novel being told she needs to do needlework instead of learning to defend herself. Yes, she eventually gets her way. But it's hardly a gender revolution. And don’t get me STARTED on the stupid harpist guy who is so weak and unmasculine because he carries a harp rather than a sword. Gimme a break.
The concept of the Other
Again, a massive missed opportunity to transcend prejudice here. The Dothrakis are the Other to the Seven Kingdom-dwellers’ Self, the barbarian cousins of the civilised west (sound familiar?) Yes, Martins allows us an insight into their culture through Dany, a culture she embraces. But why make them so barbarious? Eating horse-meat (gasp!), selling each others’ women, raping each others’ women…they are not presented in the same empathetic way as the (let’s name it) white folks are. And that pisses me off.
I guess these are all minor annoyances in an otherwise decent fantasy novel. At the same time, they ruined my reading experience. Why can’t fantasy novels like this engage in a more experimental way with the ‘otherworld’ challenge of creating a new world that is familiar yet utterly foreign to its readers? Good fantasy not only does that, but comments on our own world in a subtle, thought-provoking way. Unfortunately, A Game of Thrones falls into the trap of all material marketed at straight white men – it’s too straight, too white, and just doesn’t appease the feminist inside me.