In my first article on the subject of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, I mentioned that after subjecting my eyes to the ugliest map ever rendered, the first volume began with a prologue. One of the first things you learn about writing a book is that your first paragraph has to entice the reader. The prologue is a book’s first impression; it’s essentially the story putting its best foot forward. After hearing fans expound upon his “gripping prose” and “realistic characters,” I hadn’t expected the writing to be so blatantly inept. In this post, I will go into some detail on what makes the story’s first impression so unbelievably dull.
Martin Puts His Best Foot Forward…
I must say that having read the prologue I am underwhelmed with the writing thus far. It seemed to revolve around several rangers who get attacked by a creature referred to as an “Other.” The narrative is sluggish: slow and bland with tedious dialogue and little story or action to grab my attention. Truthfully, I have little to say about the narrative save that I found it indescribably dull. While reading it, I constantly felt myself wanting to put the book down and read something more compelling.
What makes it near unbearable to read is the grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Having heard fans of his books claiming that his prose was fantastic, I hadn’t expected this. Even were I to ignore such errors, his sentences are brief and flat:
The stars began to come out. A half-moon rose. Will was grateful for the light.
How to Misspell a Three-Letter Word
To make things just that little bit more confusing, George R. R. Martin seems to deliberately misspell words for no apparent reason. For example, his spelling of “Ser Waymar Royce” appears to have no etymological basis from “Sir”; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Sir is a reduced form of the Middle English “Sire.” It will be interesting to see how much care he puts into words in general throughout the book…
The, Horrible, Punctuation
The punctuation and grammar in the prologue is consistently poor. Commas, periods and other punctuation seem interchangeable. For example,
Gared glared at the lordling, the scars around his ear holes flushed red with anger where Maester Aemon had cut the ears away.
Here he uses a comma when he possibly should use a colon or a dash:
All day Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not.
Granted, that one was easily excusable and possibly not incorrect depending on the intended meaning. Unfortunately, it gets to the point where it has the potential to make sentences confusing. In the following two… sentences? (I think they’re supposed to be sentences), he proceeds to use periods in ways I just cannot begin to understand.
Will saw movement from the corner of his eye. Pale shapes gliding through the wood.
Lying dead like that, you saw how young he was. A boy.
I’d usually go with a colon or a dash for clarity’s sake, but I’d easily take a comma over whatever that was. The latter of the two is also a perfect example of how to horribly misuse the second-person. In fact it is strikingly similar to the following line of narration from My Immortal:
Willow was wearing a long gothic blak dress with blood red writing that was all lacy and came up to your thighs and black boots and fishnets.
Did Tara Gilesbie write this?
Talking like Yoda is fine, but the following punctuation corrupts the sentence. In one instance he should have said, “Tall it was, …” but instead he writes:
Tall, it was, and gaunt as old bones, with flesh pale as milk.
This still leaves me wondering if the pale flesh describes the bones (bones often have flesh) or the tall creature itself. Another example is one in which he writes:
He threw the long sable cloak back over his shoulders, to free his arms for battle, and took his sword in both hands.
The first comma in particular is badly placed and completely unnecessary.
Seriously—Tara has to have written this!
And just when I thought the writing couldn’t get any more similar to that of Tara Gilesbie, it becomes almost indistinguishable.
He wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather.
Well, at least now I won’t be surprised when Peter Dinklage’s character bumps into Tom Riddle at the local Hot Topic. In typical “XXXBloodyrists666XXX” fashion, he lists each article of black leather clothing one-by-one. He could have avoided interrupting the pacing by writing it like this: “His boots, pants, gloves, and cloak were all of black leather, and even his coat of mail shared the same colour.”
The Progressive Tense
What irritated me most of all was George R. R. Martin’s blatant overuse of the progressive tense. On almost every page, a sentence leapt out at me which begged to be changed to the simple past form (or should I say, was begging?). The prologue is riddled with them, but here are the three that bothered me the most:
A cold wind was blowing out of the north.
The wind was moving.
Ser Waymar was panting from the effort now.
Generally speaking, the progressive tense should be used sparingly, and only when certain conditions apply. Needless to say, such conditions were far from met in any of these quotes. The progressive tense is like the passive voice (the website, thewritepractice.com, has more information on this); it weakens a sentence, and a narrative can suffer from its overuse. “A cold wind blew out of the north” would have been far more powerful.
As I said at the start of this article, this display of bad prose and sluggish boredom was Martin putting his best foot forward. Perhaps it is too early for the reader to tell, and I won’t judge the rest of the book based solely on the failings of the prologue. Still, having read and watched further, I can confirm that it isn’t going to improve.