A Shortage of Dragons

2011 is my year for reading epic fantasy. I don’t finish all of the books I start, but I’m making an earnest effort not to rush to conclusions. When the first volume is 800 pages long and there are several more volumes after that, I figure I need to give the story at least 250 pages before I form a definite opinion.

I’m now 340 pages into A Game of Thrones, the first volume of George R. R. Martin’s mammoth epic, A Song of Ice and Fire. Only the first five volumes of this projected seven-volume series have been published, but those five books total around 4,000 pages. At some point I have to ask myself, “Is this good enough that I’m willing to wade through 4,000 pages … and then wait for the final volumes to appear?”

Maybe, maybe not.

Martin’s great strengths are plot and character. The plot of A Game of Thrones is intricate. Intrigue lurks around every corner as various forces and factions jostle and back-stab one another in the corridors of King Robert Baratheon’s great castle. The characters are passionate and memorable. Innocent children are put in grave peril. Every chapter brings a new revelation or a new complication. I can almost (almost) see him keeping up the pace for 4,000 pages.

The weakness of the story is that it’s not very imaginative. The world in which it is set is almost entirely chivalric and Medieval. Knights in armor swinging two-handed broadswords, jousting tournaments, squires, apprentices, oaths of fealty, cloaks of various colors sewn with heraldic emblems, rashers of roast meat, daggers, double-bladed battle axes, a dwarf, a eunuch, a simpleton, an innkeeper with bad teeth, incest, sadism, an ancient crypt … it just goes on and on and on. After 340 pages, I’ve seen very little indication that magic of any sort plays a significant role in the saga. There are no spells, no amulets, and no curses. The roster of prophetic visions of the future is limited to one direwolf pup who starts howling a minute or two before his young master is thrown out a window. Certainly the king has no resident wizard, and in a world where magic played a role, one would expect the king to have an expert in magic on his staff. But no, it’s all knights swinging broadswords.

Okay, one of the characters has received three dragon eggs as a wedding present. The prevailing theory among the populace is that there are no dragons anymore, so these eggs are petrified or something … but they seem oddly warm to the touch. So maybe at some point they’ll hatch. Maybe there will be dragons. But dragons aren’t really magic either, are they? They’re just big flying lizards that belch flame — a useful sort of aircraft, in a world so passionately devoted to the not-so-delicate arts of Medieval warfare, but, well, dragons have been done before. And anyway, as I near the halfway point in the first volume, there are, so far, no dragons.

I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel. Martin has given himself a big, big, big canvas on which to render his vision. But so have a lot of other authors of fantasy epics. As much as I enjoy Martin’s plotting and his characters, I’m missing the wow! factor.

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