Influences, Ideas, and A Game of Thrones

Posted on February 16th, 2008 in influences, news

You lucky people! There’s a positive onslaught of content here at the moment. There’s an article by me in the latest SFX (no. 167, I think, with that cheerleader from Heroes looking sensitive yet spunky on the front) about George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones, a book which I daresay needs little introduction for the majority of you. It’s one of their book club pieces, in which a well-respected author of today looks back on a classic of the distant (or in this case pretty current) past. Clearly they’d run out of well-respected authors, because they asked me if I’d like to do it.

I can’t quote the piece here, obviously, since I sold it to SFX for an embarrasingly massive quantity of money that may have approached 10,000 pence. But in essence I talk about the book’s great importance in the dark and seedy side of epic fantasy, leading on from stuff like Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and Elric, and how Martin’s work seems to have spawned a whole subsection of ‘gritty’, realistic epic fantasy. What I didn’t really talk about in the article was the book’s (and the series’) importance to ME, and the development of my own work. Of course I didn’t talk about that. That would’ve been arrogant and self-indulgent, and you all know I’m just not like that.

That’s why I’m doing it here.

A little background. As a kid I was very into the Lord of the Rings, and read it every year for a while. Wizard of Earthsea also had a strong effect on me. So did Michael Moorcock (particularly Corum and all the crazy names). I watched Conan the Barbarian many times more than is healthy for a teenage boy (there’s boobs in it, and I’m not just talking about Schwarzenegger’s). I started playing an awful lot of roleplaying games around this time, and with supplements from that, early fantasy-styled computer games such as Dungeon Master, Bloodwych, and Legend, cracking through a load of Dragonlance, and David Eddings first two series (or are they the same series with different covers?) I probably glutted myself on the cheesier end of the fantasy spectrum. Nothing wrong with cheese, you understand, as long as you get some fibre in your diet at the same time. But it did appear (and apologies to any of the glaring exceptions, because I lay no claim to being immensely well read in the genre) there wasn’t a lot of fibre to be had in epic fantasy as the eighties turned into the nineties.

So I more or less stopped reading it in my late teens. No grand decision to fling it aside in dismay, just I went to college and got into other things. You know. Luge. International money-laundering. Semi-professional knife throwing. Russian roulette. And Street Fighter II, of course. During long walks after midnight at around this time, I was still thinking about some of the ideas I’d had earlier, as a reader and a gamer, for world and storyline of an epic fantasy, and characters like Bayaz and Logen Ninefingers were named and gradually taking shape in my mind. In the summer after finishing college (so about 13 years ago, now), with time on my hands, I started writing a book very similar to the one that would finally become The Blade Itself as an exercise to improve my touch-typing. I say similar, because it lacked key elements of the later approach. It was a much more straight-up epic fantasy, cheesier effort, without the sideways, world-weary self-awareness, or most of the laughs. Without Inquisitor Glokta at all, incidentally, who was much the most recent character to emerge. It was, in short, not very good. I’m sure if I read any of it now I would vomit with embarrasment. In fact, I may have vomited a little bit just now thinking about it.

Anyway, I moved to London (summer of ’94?) and had other things on my mind – cokroaches, flatmates on the borders of sanity, and so forth, started working and pretty much shelved any plans to write. I started reading a lot of history around this time – Shelby Foote, John Keegan, Alan Clark etc. and had more or less no interest in fantasy. Then someone prevailed upon me to give Game of Thrones a go. Yeah, yeah, I thought, whatever. It blew my doors off.

A Game of Thrones, and its sequels, seemed to bring to epic fantasy a huge amount of what I felt it had been desperately missing. There was relatively little debt to Tolkein (not that there’s anything wrong with debt to Tolkein, it’s just there’s a shit-load of it around already). Martin’s world was low on magic, low on romanticism, high on realism, very high on ruthlessness. There was no lame-ass, two-dimensional battle of good and evil. There were no lame-ass, two-dimensional characters. It was an (more or less) entirely human world, with man-made evils, very much like ours. The series was recognisably fantasy, it had enough that was familiar, but it was groundbreaking (at least for me) in all kinds of ways. Above all, the books were extremely unpredictable, especially in a genre where readers have come to expect the intensely predictable. Suddenly, from knowing what was going to happen from the first page and always being right, you found yourself with no idea who’d die next. Sudden main character deaths have become almost de rigeur in the genre since then, or at least in the grittier corners of it, but A Game of Thrones was profoundly shocking when I first read it, and fundamentally changed my notions about what could be done with epic fantasy.

It was also interesting from a technical standpoint – Martin uses the third person limited approach, as it’s called, with the events always narrated from “inside the head”, if you like, of one of the main characters. All the action is seen powerfully close up, coloured by the personality of the narrator. For me, fantasy went suddenly from being all about the huge, the spectacular, the sweeping wide shot (following on from Tolkein’s approach) to being about the experience of individuals. You feel the sweat, the pain, the fear, the blood, you understand the motivations. You see how no-one is a villain in their own mind, even if they are in everyone else’s. The great achievement of Martin’s books, for me, is that they cover vast, epic, immense events, but never lose that sense of tight involvement with the characters. It wasn’t a new approach in wider fiction – I guess Tolstoy was doing something similar in War and Peace – but it was the first time I’d seen it applied so rigorously and effectively in fantasy, and it seems now to have become pretty much the standard method of narration in the genre.

I must confess I haven’t read A Feast for Crows yet. I’m waiting on the next and will probably read them both together. Though there was still a load of brilliant stuff in the third book, A Storm of Swords, it seemed more spread out than A Game of Thrones had been. I know a lot of readers love that sense of scale, but I was frustrated by the apparent loss of focus – the adding and divergence of the points of view, the steady increase in the simple spine size of the books without a matching growth in overall narrative movement. The books seemed to get fatter, if you like, but not taller. The story expanded sideways but shrunk lengthways. Maybe I’d been expecting a trilogy, or maybe I was just disappointed as it became clearer and clearer there’d be no final resolution any time soon. Probably there was an element of diminishing returns, in that the first book was, for me, so smack-mouth amazing that it was near impossible to turn me upside down in the same way afterwards. They were great, don’t get me wrong, just not as great. I imagine I’m not the only one who’s keen to see whether Martin can pull it all together in the long run…

Looking at my own (insignificant) development as a writer, if I may be pretentious enough to do so (mmmmmm … yeah, I think I can be that pretentious). Between that earlier, suckier effort at writing an epic fantasy, back in ’93, and the much m
ore successful effort (at least in my opinion) in ’02, what changed? Well, I grew up considerably, for one thing, experienced working life and broader horizons, and learned to take everything a bit less seriously. I read a lot of history, which I think gives the books a much more convincing texture, if you like, than they otherwise would have had. I read a fair bit of heavyweight literature – the sort of thing one boasts about at dinner parties – Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Bulgakov, Dickens, Trollope and Sterne and blah, blah, blah which definitely improved my technical reach (as pathetic as I’m sure some people think it remains). I read quite a bit of noir and crime, particularly James Elroy, which taught me some good lessons about hard-hitting prose and twisty plotting. I worked as a documentary editor which gave me some understanding of how to construct a narrative, of how to streamline and cut down (says the writer of enormous 200,000 word books, but hey, I like to think they’re pretty tight). I watched a lot of interesting films, including Tarantino’s stuff (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had strong effects on me), John Woo and manga, the list is endless (well, not actually endless, but bloody long). TV changed, I think, in this period, starting to throw up some really interesting series which were shifting media in general in a more realistic, complicated, ruthless direction – stuff like the Sopranos, the Shield, 24 (at least to begin with), Band of Brothers, and later Deadwood, Nip/Tuck and the Wire (man I love the Wire) – a movement that seems to be creeping into SF TV now with shows like Heroes and Battlestar Galactica. All of that settled on me as well, I’m sure, and I think my approach to action writing probably owes more to what I’ve watched than what I’ve read.

So there’s an awful lot of different stuff in the pot, as I’m sure there is for every author, and most of it from outside the genre. But in terms of influences from written fantasy, between ’93 and ’02, Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire in general) is definitely the outstanding (if not the only significant) one. I doubt The First Law would look quite the way it does without my having read those books. Hell, maybe I wouldn’t even have written it at all.

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  1. Thanks for being “pretentious” with us! Though if you thought your post pretentious you might need a better dictionary. Or was that just another strike for the Common Man? :)

    Anyway. You gave us a much better insight into they whys of what got you writing (the books we see) than the standard cop-out of “I get ideas from all over the place…inflences? too many to name.” So, very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Also. I think the drifting away from fantasy and then coming back when the genre has opened a new door isn’t that uncommon. Certainly that happened with my brother and I. Growing up in the 80s and early 90s reading everything we could find, classic or new, and then we both just sort of…stopped. Maybe discovering sex and beer is incompatible with fantasy??? It’s only been in the last year or two that I’ve started reading actual fantasy again (like epic fantasy rather than the romance crossovers like Shinn). And (this will really stroke your ego) writers like you are the reason why. I’ll have to hit Martin through the backdoor. Maybe things in epic fantasy were really sucking there for awhile, or maybe it was just everyone growing up and then coming back to it as an adult. But certainly the experience was not unique to you.

  3. Thanks Joe, that was very interesting!

    Anyway, I don’t have much to say, except that I pretty much agree with what you said. The trend in fantasy (and in genre fiction as a whole, I’d say) has definitively been toward dark, gritty, morally ambiguous novels in the last few years – toward a desire for realism, in other words.

    It is true that if we want to single out one author who initiated this phenomenon, it certainly is George R. R. Martin. However, it also seems to that the current trend is at least in part a response to what was much very much the norm in the nineties: an emphasis on magic, prophecies, chosen one, and an overall YA fell. The pendulum swings, and it currently is at the one end of the spectrum. I sometimes wonder if that means it’ll swing back eventually. I hope not, though, since I largely prefer the more realistic approach of the writers of today (GRRM, Steven Erickson, Scott Lynch, and that guy called Abercrombie) to the black and white approach of the writers of the nineties (Jordan, Brooks, Goodkind).

    (On a side note: you consistently misspell Tolkien — tsk-tsk).

  4. Excellent blog. I have been thinking about reading GRR Martin for a while, it’s nudged a bit further up the list thanks to you.

    I like the third person limited POV. I like that when it’s say Dogman, the writing is in his language, rough and ready, then you go to Glokta and it’s all sarcastic. If that makes sense?

    Anyway it makes me chuckle :-)

  5. Good post, Joe. It’s interesting to hear that you are not as keen on the later books, as personally I think that not only is A Storm of Swords the best book so far in the series, but it’s actually the best fantasy novel I’ve ever read (yep, better than The Lord of the Rings).

    A Game of Thrones is great though. I actually rate the prologue as the best opening to a fantasy novel ever. With just the first sentence, he immediately causes the reader to ask questions.

    Personally A Feast for Crows didn’t quite do it for me. I wasn’t a fan of the split Martin had to do with the story, and I know I’m not alone. I think however that the next book will get the series firmly back on track.

    Martin is a great bloke as well, I had the fortune to meet him in Manchester a couple of years back. Really, really nice guy with a great sense of humour.

  6. What a great way to kill some time at work, Joe. Great read.

    It was really interesting to me to listen to you confirm how much Martin, and his ability to effectively use 3rd limited POV, had an affect on you, your writing and The First Law in particular. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I made a post at my other blog – a bit of shamless self promotion and ass kissing coming up – Mightier than the Sword about the subject of how an author can use different narrators, and the language they use to relay information to the reader, to great effect. It’s one of the things I most enjoy about your novels, and something I appreciate taking a larger role in Fantasy novels these days.

    I know how much you like to read about yourself (especially the praise) so it might be worth checking out what I had to say.

    I have a hard time believing you think A Storm of Swords is a step down from A Game of Thrones. That’s just a bit of crazy talk, if you ask me!

    Thanks again for the interview, Joe.

    ~Aidan
    A Dribble of Ink

  7. It’s very interesting to read about what has appealed to you, and in some way influenced you as an emerging author, over the years.

    To me it seems a good thing that the fantasy genre in large part became rather unoriginal – hence unstimulating – in the post-Tolkien and Wizard of Earthsea years, since that falling off apparently led to many of us looking for more varied and fulfilling ways of dodging schoolwork.

    It’s amusing and ironic for anyone who was bored to tears by grammar-school exposure in the area, that history turned out to be quite fascinating in the hands of gifted writers. I’m gratified to read your thoughts on how a knowledge of the subject has been of benefit to your work. Also, it makes good sense that a sizeable intake of whatever is thought-provoking in any medium would wind up fueling your drive to craft a damn good tale.

    As another fan of the “third-person limited” narrative style – and having seen just how proficient you’ve become with writing it – I’ll be keen to read more of the same in any genre that gives insight re: a wide variety of human or even alien beings. That said, I need to heed everyone’s advice and start on Martin’s books, all ready and waiting on top of my bookcase. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary that gives another good reason to dive in, even for those who’ve felt somewhat burnt out by the “fatter but not taller” Wheel of Time series.

  8. Elena,
    Ah, I dream of writing fantasy that is compatible with sex and beer.

    Anon,
    The pendulum swings to a degree, but I don’t think ‘less gritty’ stuff has ever gone out of fasion. Jordan still sells pretty good (as does Tolkien). I wonder if people would consider Rothfuss to be more in the lyrical/romantic camp than the dark and gritty one. Perhaps his success marks a bit of a swing the other way?

    And misspelling Tolkien. Oops. That don’t look too good.

    Disrepdog & Aidan,
    I make a big effort to try and write in a different style with each character, which hopefully makes the experience of reading them different, and gives a flavour of the personality of the person involved. All about trying to get into their head as much as possible. Might talk about that at greater length some other time, as I’m just still evolving methods for writing the various characters in Best Served Cold…

    Taching up,
    You might find Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers interesting. It’s written in the first person, in fact, but from several different viewpoints, and he uses the method brilliantly to contrast the characters own obsessions with how they’re perceived by others. Great book.

    J.G.,
    It’s a long time since I read Storm of Swords, so I’m not sure how I’d feel about it now. At the time I can only remember feeling worried as the number of pages left began to dwindle and the number of threads just kept exponentially increasing. Not only were POVs added at quite a rate, they also split up more and more to cover wider and wider and apparently less and less relevant areas.

    My own taste is for stories kept under tight control, and while I certainly think Storm of Swords contains some fantastic sequences, they felt more spread out to me, and I had a real problem with the constant adding of more and more POVs, especially when a lot of them had been around since the start as non-POV characters. If you start off telling the story of a certain group of people, then you add loads and loads more people, what story are you then telling?

    I may get many of the details wrong, cause it’s a while since I read the books, but if you want to tell the story of the fall of Winterfell, for example – you have Bran as a your eyes there already, do you really need to add Theon? Or you have Jon on the wall, do you really need to add Samwell? It just seemed less disciplined than the first book, and that diluted the effect.

    I guess Tolkien could have had a load of stuff with Faramir covering what he was doing in Fellowship of the Ring. Or he could have had some set of geezers appear down in South Gondor, fighting the corsairs. Or some dwarves up in the iron hills. He could have made the books all twice as long as a result, but he keeps the story pretty focused on the fellowship and what they go on to do, and I think it’s better for it. Questions of taste, of course, and I’m by no means saying it’s a bad book, quite the reverse.

  9. Aaaargh. Thought left slightly unfinished due to child-minding responsibilities.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, for me, I would have preferred it if A Song of Ice and Fire had been a more tightly focused three or four books of about the same size, rather than the much wider and more sprawling series that it’s become, and I liked Storm of Swords less than the first book because I started to see that it wasn’t going to resolve any time soon. Obviously I very much hope, as I’m sure we all do, that in the course of the next three books, he’ll pull all those strands together and deliver a fantastic ending that matches the fantastic start.

  10. Thanks for recommending English Passengers, which is now on my short list of must-read books. It sounds like something I’ll enjoy very much.

  11. Joe, I definitely see where you’re coming from. While I didn’t have a problem with the new POVs that were introduced in Storm, I did take issue with some of those in Feast.

    Although in Swords the story expands considerably in terms of plotlines, I felt that they were interesting and worth exploring. Some of those in Feast however just didn’t seem to be as important and added some unecessary bulk.

    I sincerely hope Martin doesn’t let his series get bogged down in a multitude of meaningless plotlines. From the sounds of it, J.V. Jones’ excellent Sword of Shadows series (originally intended as a trilogy) has now fallen victim to bloated-plot syndrome, with the latest volume apparently falling short of the standard set by its two predecessors.

    I really hope Martin doesn’t let the same affliction take hold of A Song of Ice and Fire.

  12. Huh. I’m actually not a big fan of the GRRM series. Although I am a huge fan of GRRM – his earlier books (Windhaven, Fevre Dream especially) were great. And the Wild Cards series is just terrifically good fun.

    But the Song of Ice and Fire? It actually reads like another shared-world series, with a lot of fast cuts to make up for the fact that all the characters were a) thin and b) interchangable. (With the possible exception of Tyrion, who towers above the others. Pun intended.)

    Anyway, the phenomenon makes more sense to me after reading your point about the way that it picked up some of the best traits of the other media at the time. As much as I’m lukewarm to the series, it is a legitimate Tarantino/HBO Original/etc. take on the traditional fantasy epic, and deserves credit for it.

    For the sake of being really annoying, I think it is worth pointing out that crime fiction had made the leap long before this – Ed McBain, John MacDonald and John Creasey had hopped on the ‘ensemble’ cast idea in the 1950′s and 1960′s. It is a shame that the fantasy/sci fi was still stuck in the traditional epic rut for so long (as er, Anonymous said already).

    Er. That’s it. Sorry. Great post!

  13. I have to agree with Disrepdog – thanks to this post, GRRM has jumped higher up my “to read” list.

    It would appear that a shift from fantasy is quite common – the same thing happened to me; even though everything I write has been a little influenced by Terry Pratchett (for some time – about a decade – the only fantasy I read), my shelves are covered with crime thrillers, US political thrillers, Bernard Cornwell’s book, and history books.

    Thanks to you, Mr Scott Lynch and Mr Alan Campbell, my shelf is starting to lose its grip on reality. So yes, thanks for that!

    Interesting post, too.

  14. And you like GRRM! Awesome. ;)

    I envy you for having decided to wait for A dance with dragons. When I finished A feast for crows I had the hardest time realising how long I was going to have to wait for the next one. Because the story in the 4th book follows only one group of characters*, I constantly felt I was only reading half the book. Which, it turns out, I was. Hard work, all this waiting!

    * Of course, with GRRM, that’s still, like, 20 storylines. :)

  15. I like A Storm of Swords a great deal, but I’d say you could see the story becoming much more detailed than before. I doubt GRRM would have spent several chapters on a boat in the river with Brienne and Jaime in AGoT, for example. There was no room for it. However, scenes such as this added to the richness of the world and made it deeper and more believable than it had, even in AGoT and ACoK.

    I’d say the strength of AFFC was showing the depth of the world much more strongly than before and in tying together important narrative threads that pave the way for the end of the series. However, a certain amount of the dynamism and urgency of the first three books is missing, and the novel suffers for that. However, the prologue of ADWD is possibly the best individual chapter of the entire series to date, which gives me hope that the new book will set things back on track.

  16. if you want to tell the story of the fall of Winterfell, for example – you have Bran as a your eyes there already, do you really need to add Theon? Or you have Jon on the wall, do you really need to add Samwell? It just seemed less disciplined than the first book, and that diluted the effect.

    I think he added them as Samwell and Theon will eventually be significant characters in the story.

    And you’ve read manga! Awesome. I was wondering what manga you’ve read. :)

  17. Jared,
    Point well made about the crime writing, I’m a big fan of Elroy’s approach myself and regard him as quite a big influence. But I think a lot of these ideas go back a lot further in general fiction. If I remember at all correctly, Tolstoy uses a similar-ish approach in War and Peace. In fact the experience of reading Martin is probably closer to Tolstoy than Tolkien. Innovation is generally about applying old ideas in new ways and to new situations – using techniques of industrial architecture in house-building, for example? I think that’s what Martin did very successfully with A Game of Thrones – mixed a new recipe, if you like.

    Adam,
    I thought Martin’s worldbuilding in Game of Thrones was some of the best I’ve seen, because he does it unselfconsciously. It happens parallel with the characters, and the exposure of their histories. Glad the prologue for the next one looks good.

    TwistedSheets,
    My argument would be they can be important characters without being POV characters. Indeed both Theon and Samwell are relatively important characters in Game of Thrones, but not POVs. Robb is a key character but is never a POV. The problem with always adding more is that you then have to keep coming back to them as POVs, and unless you keep the many plots under very tight control and keep a lot of your sets of eyes together (as they often were in groups in the first book) you end up with a mass of storylines, and huge gaps in the telling of each one, then there’s just no way they can all be kept equally compelling. For me, by Storm of Swords, I felt as if there were too many POVs, and some were ‘treading water’ a bit while the key action was being covered by new ones. Which meant the overall length was expanding exponentially. A problem I’m slightly having with my current book, I must admit…

  18. Joe, you big tease. You can’t say “A problem I’m slightly having with my current book, I must admit…” and then completely fail to elaborate!

    Come on, spill the beans!

    Seriously, from the sounds of it Best Served Cold has a less-epic focus and a smaller cast of characters than the First Law trilogy. It’s therefore interesting to hear that the plot is growing more detailed than you allegedly expected.

    From my own writing experience I know full well that what can start out as a straight-forward plot can quickly grow into an epic of behemoth-like proportions.

    Why do you think it has happened to Best Served Cold? Too many new characters demanding a voice? New ideas popping up that are just to cool to leave out?

  19. This was an enjoyable article to say the least. The fact that you mentioned Woo, Tarantino and–of course–Martin in one article is great, and sums up why I have such a depressing social life. Anyway, this was a fun read and it was interesting to see how a story and its writer can change.

  20. JG,
    Ah, you’ll have to wait, I’m afraid. I’ll speak more about my current project in due course…

    Anthony,
    Any life that includes Tarantino, Woo and Martin is far from a depressing one.

  21. Hi Joe!

    This is a brilliant article that really gives us an honest insight in to your development as a great fantasy novelist.

    However, if you don’t mind my being pedantic, I need to ask one question!

    Here is what you wrote:

    “Anyway, I moved to London (summer of ’94?) and had other things on my mind … Then someone prevailed upon me to give Game of Thrones a go. Yeah, yeah, I thought, whatever. It blew my doors off.”

    Did you get the dates wrong? As you know, ‘Game of Thrones’ was published in the UK (and USA) in 1996.

    Do you keep a diary or a journal about your life as a reader and writer? If you did back in the 1990s, we would know exactly the level of influence of George R R Martin on you. Your prospective biographers will need these bits of information.

    What is impressive is that you only needed the first three books in the ‘Song of Fire And Ice’ series to fuel you up to write your first novel. Did you read and reread these three books as you did with ‘The Lord of the Rings’?

    Finally, I hope you don’t mind my questions. This is a way to understand your development. Once again, thank you for your amazing novels.

    Best wishes
    Julia

  22. Julia,
    Dunno about the dates, think it was 95 I moved to london, thinking about it, but I wasn’t intending to say I read Game of Thrones as soon as I moved to London, just some time thereafter. Fair to say I read it after it was published, and as I recall I read the first three pretty much back to back, so it must have been 2000ish, I imagine. Only read it once, and no doubt a very important influence on me, but among quite a lot of other stuff. Probably the thing that stimulated me to try again at the project I’d started those years before with a new attitude.

  23. @ Joe Abercrombie

    Hi Joe!

    And thanks for that response.

    You are sometimes described as England’s George R.R Martin. So, it would be interesting to see the literary influence.

    You haven’t said whether you keep a diary or not!

    Question: in a recent interview, George R.R Martin cited you as one the three best fantasy writers in the world. How did you feel when he first said that? Also, back in the year 2000, did you dream of George R.R Martin being one of your great fans?

    Thanks for your time in answering these questions.

    Best wishes
    Julia

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