Game of Thrones - Season 6, Episode 9 (copyright © HBO Studio)

Is “Gritty” Realistic?

In response to a recent post about Ursula K. Le Guin, I was challenged on some of what I’d had to say about George R.R. Martin’s writing — specifically, I was told that Martin’s gritty, brutal fantasy was somehow more realistic than Le Guin’s.

Well, to each their own. If you love A Song of Ice and Fire, then great.

I don’t love the series, though I can see the books’ virtues and appeal. But I object to the idea that gritty somehow equals realistic.

When I started reading Game of Thrones, my youngest was seven years old. I got about seventy pages in when (spoiler)…




Game of Thrones, Seasons 1, episode 1 (copyright © HBO Studio) Game of Thrones, Seasons 1, episode 1 (copyright © HBO Studio)

…a seven-year-old was tossed out a window. Put down the book and didn’t pick it up again for four or five years.

When I did, I appreciated Martin’s ability to pull me in, and especially to make me care about the compelling, complex characters. But I also quickly figured out what his game was: pull me in, make me care about the characters… and then surprise me by treating them horribly. Death. Rape. Torture. Torture. Death. Rape. More rape. More torture. More death.

Now, I’m all for “realistic,” gritty fantasy. I’m a big fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, and The Lord of the Rings is a wonderful, epic response to Tolkien’s own experiences in the trenches during WWI.

But A Song of Ice and Fire’s gleeful leaning into gory, grimdark awfulness eventually struck me as no more interesting — or realistic — than the daisies-and-sunshine you get in a lot of bad children’s fantasy. They reminded me of Stephen Donaldson’s books, which I read with pleasure as a teen — for a while, before getting similarly bored. When the whole point of a series of books seems to be to draw me in, make me care, and then shock me (over and over), boredom is a clear sign for me to put down the series.

Authors like Tolkien and Le Guin — and Rowling and Pratchett and Gaiman and Butcher and Baum and Lackey and Butler and Jemisin and Beagle and many, many more — present worlds of both light and dark, and explore the interplay between the two. Which is why I tend to prefer them.

And it’s that interplay evident in the history of the Sengoku Jidai, the Japanese Civil War Era, that inspired me to write Seasons of the Sword.

Images copyright © HBO Studio

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