Did you hear Game of Thrones season 8 came out on Sunday? If you say no, I’m going to either call you a liar or assume you live in a cabin in the woods without any internet because otherwise, I have no idea how you could escape it.
Wait, wait. Hold on. I know you read the title and those opening two sentences and thought “oh God, here’s someone trying to score clicks off a ‘hot take’ that Game of Thrones is actually bad.” That’s not what I’m doing. Game of Thrones is a damn good show, even if it’s not to my liking. I’m giving it another try just because I want to find out how the story ends and have a conversation at work again sometime in the next two months, and I’m enjoying it more this time around. I’m not going to claim Game of Thrones is bad.
Even if I don’t enjoy the show this time around, I’m still excited. The most popular show on television is based on the kind of book I used to get mocked for reading. Seriously – I’m old enough to remember when Fantasy and Science Fiction shows and movie were niche and considered weird, as opposed to being the dominant cultural force.
However, I do have a problem with Game of Thrones, and it’s not anything in the book or show itself. It’s what happened to the fantasy genre in its wake.
Prior to Game of Thrones, epic fantasy as a genre was dominated by the work of J.R.R. Tolkien for decades. There were attempts to break away from the Tolkienian model, some of which were successful or influential, but nothing really ‘broke out’ in the cultural zeitgeist up until Game of Thrones. Just like Star Wars shaped galaxy-spanning science fiction for decades, or The Matrix shaped philosophical science fiction, or The Dark Knight and Death of Superman reshaped superhero comics, Game of Thrones has gripped the collective consciousness of fantasy authors worldwide.
In its wake, like any popular work of fiction, it inspired scores of imitators. I’m not going to name any right now because I’m about to slag off on them for the remainder of this blog post, but if you read a lot of fantasy I’m sure you’ve come across books like that. Books by authors that read A Song of Ice and Fire, or just watched Game of Thrones, and saw it was popular, so decided to make their own version of it.
When that happened with Tolkien, those imitators peppered their work with Elves, Dwarves, Dark Lords, and old Wizards in robes. When it happened with Star Wars, those imitators stuffed in roguish smugglers, evil empires, Dark Lords, and space wizards in robes. When it happened with The Dark Knight, those imitators filled their comics with bulging muscles, pouches, angry men growling grimly, and Rob Liefeld. And now, with Game of Thrones, trend-chasing fantasy authors are overloading their books with sex, blood, whores, and death.
Yeah, you’re probably thinking of your personal ‘favorite’ example of a fantasy series that tried to cash in on the Game of Thrones craze while missing why Game of Thrones is popular. These books head straight into grimdark territory, full of creative dismemberments, characters dying randomly, graphic sexual encounters that the authors never seem to realize are creepy on so many levels.
The thing is, those elements aren’t what makes Game of Thrones good. The sex, the brutality, the death – they all play into key ideas that happen within the series. They aren’t just there for the shock value. They’re what people talk about the most because they are the most visceral and attention-grabbing elements, but they are the fancy clothes the series is wearing. That’s not what sticks. The meat of the series, the flesh and bone and blood that gives it life, that is built around complex medieval politics, characters that you can root for even though they’re assholes, intriguing mystery, and a world so meticulously built that it feels as alive as our own.
That’s what makes the series so good. When you hear people talking about the series, they might start off talking about the visceral detail, but as my co-workers have proven this week time and time again, the thing they really want to discuss is who is going to end up on the Iron Throne. That’s right – the series has sex scenes worthy of softcore porn, death around every corner, and giant fire breathing dragons, and the part people are most interested in is…the lines of succession of a fantasy kingdom.
Yet the imitators miss that point. Or if they get that point, they realize that pulling it off would be really, really hard. So instead, they focus on the grime and the grit and the titillation so when they go to publish, they can put “fans of Game of Thrones are sure to love it!” in their marketing blurb without realizing that phrase has become toxic – and I say that as someone who still considers himself a fan of the books.
Now, let’s be clear – not every book that comes from the Game of Thrones school of fantasy is bad. The Gentleman Bastards by Scott Lynch is definitely of the Martin school of fantasy – magic is rare and disturbing, giant structures older than memory loom over the landscape, humans are the only intelligent bipeds walking around, complex politics are a huge influence on the world, and the worldbuilding is top-notch. I’d highly suggest it to fans Game of Thrones, with the caveat that Scott Lynch seems to have the same problem as Mr. Martin and book 4 has been indefinitely delayed.
…that’s a whole different problem with fantasy that’s worth talking about at some point.
Those are the kind of things you should focus on if you want to chase the popularity of George R. R. Martin. Build a world. Tell a good story in it. If your story is enhanced by blood and death and sex, then by all means add them if. If your story is not? Don’t feel an obligation to shove them in because you’re trying to chase a trend.
Oh, and for my money? I don’t much care who sits on the Iron Throne. I just want Arya to stab everyone that deserves a stabbing.
Stick ’em with the pointy end.
If you want to see how much I put my money where my mouth is, check out Weird Theology. I definitely wasn’t chasing any trends when I wrote a book so hard to categorize normally, Amazon tried to classify it as a textbook.