Note: I am not flinching from Game of Thrones spoilers in this post. The spoilers range from the start of the series to the end, and cover both books and television.
I finished the book A Game of Thrones between calls while working in an insurance company’s call center. It was 1999. When Eddard was betrayed, I logged out of the phone without talking to my boss and shot, wild-eyed, to my feet. I had to walk. I had to move. I had to punch the air and curse and marvel. I could have lost my job over it, but I didn’t give that any thought. I stood up and walked out until I calmed down enough to come back to work.
That was the second and final time I have ever been so moved by a book. (The first was near the climax of Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Power That Preserves, during Lord Mhoram’s final scene. That time I had been alone in my room at home, enrapt at 3:30 in the morning, and had leapt to my feet shouting. We lived in an apartment building, but I’m sure the downstairs neighbors shared my enthusiasm.)
The death of GoT‘s main protagonist wasn’t a typical twist ending sucker punch. It didn’t just leave me laughing and shaking my head, going, Wow, never saw that coming.
It was dizzying.
It yanked the rug out from beneath me and landed me flat on my back. It knocked the wind out of me. And it rocketed the stakes skyward. No one was safe in this story—not in the first book, nor in any of the books to follow.
That was a lesson I never forgot. It formed a new lens through which every book I read afterward had to pass. It informed my own writing. And obviously I always kept it at the forefront when reading GoT‘s sequels, which I devoured. But despite how certain I was that I had learned the lesson, Martin caught me by surprise again and again—when Joffrey died, when Robb died, when Daenerys ordered the Unsullied to kill their former masters. Sometimes these hits left me in ruins. Sometimes they left me elated. Every time, though, they deepened my love for the series and my appreciation for the quality of Martin’s work.
When HBO launched the series, my wife and I (and sometimes, when we were lucky, a very good friend or two) watched each new episode the day it aired, without fail. When the series finally, finally, overtook the books and started playing out the story beyond book 5, I was enrapt all over again. I was one of the original fans who had been waiting over a decade for the next chapter of this story. And it did not disappoint.
If you follow Game of Thrones, especially if you feel like the last two seasons have been terrible verging on worthless, what I’m about to say is going to be controversial and may even piss you off. I’m going to say it anyway, because I feel like I owe it to this beautiful, flawed, epic work of art that has been living rent-free in my mind for two decades.
Game of Thrones stayed true to itself to the end.
It finished how it started. It kept the punches coming. The main beats, the broad strokes of the story itself, and, yes, the characterization, were all strong through the finish.
Was it perfect? Of course not. I can acknowledge the warts. There were far too many death fake-outs of late. Tyrion falling off the ship and getting (apparently) knocked out by a falling mast, only to appear later on shore as if nothing happened. Euron miraculously being the sole survivor of his torched fleet, showing up just in time for a fairly pointless duel to the death with Jaime. The sheer volume of main characters who survived the Long Night. And yeah, the big mozza ball, Arya slipping unnoticed through a literal army of the Others to deliver the Night King’s death blow out of nowhere. I recognize these issues. I know they were there. They bugged me. They didn’t destroy the series, or do more than drag it down from an A+++ to an A+ at worst.
But the anti-GoT voices got loudest when Daenerys chose to raze King’s Landing. Screams of “bad writing” and “bad characterization” and “too rushed” echoed all over the internet last week. I don’t think any of that stuff was really true, though. I think Dany’s choice was in character and well foreshadowed.
The kneejerk contempt for it, I think, is because watching it hurt like hell.
Dany’s decision was no less shocking or painful than Eddard’s death. I saw a lot of parallels in it: Dany was a primary protagonist, one everybody loved. She was the underdog. We were sure she was going to win out in the end. But that was exactly our mistake: we forgot the lesson of Eddard’s death. GoT pulled one last throat punch on us, we walked right into it, and it was particularly brutal because the character didn’t just die. She didn’t just betray Tyrion or Jon or even herself.
She betrayed us.
In 5th grade I made a friend—let’s call him Bob. Bob and I hung out after school and all day every summer. We played the same video games. We got into tabletop gaming and D&D together. We played Magic the Gathering over the phone. After high school we got our first real, salaried jobs at the same company. He was my best friend. I loved the guy.
Over the years, though, I watched him turn on people. Snipe them behind their backs, shut them out, decide he was too good for them. In retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised when he did the same thing to me, shortly before I got married. But I was. Even though I knew that’s the kind of person he was, even though he had done it a million times.
Losing Dany felt a lot like losing Bob. It was like getting my heart ripped out. And it was a brilliant writing decision—a long-game payoff that started in the first book of the series. I feel pretty sure that in ten years, people will be talking about the end of Game of Thrones with the same reverence and awe they now talk about its beginning.
What about the ending itself? What about Bran becoming King, the North seceding peacefully (!) under Sansa’s rule, and Jon slinking away into the north?
I loved it. All of it. Every little piece.
An epic as sprawling and intricate as Game of Thrones has to be among the most difficult works of art to create. The sheer volume of characters and plot threads would overwhelm anyone but an absolute master of their craft. Was it too much for Weiss and Benioff to handle? Yeah, probably.
I’m writing a 6-book epic fantasy series with maybe, generously, one-third to one-half the characters and plot threads of Game of Thrones. I need to keep a thirty-page notes document that I refer back to constantly, and I am always referencing the books I’ve written before to keep everything on track. It is immensely difficult.
Losing the source material 2/3 of the way through the project, as W&B did, would be like someone burning my notes document and taking away all my reference text. I imagine it felt as though they’d lost half the engines on a jet mid-flight. They brought that jet to a safe landing. A bit wobbly, sure, but considering the jet was missing half its engines I think all the passengers should be grateful just to be alive, let alone landing without so much as a bump on the head.
I’ve read people complaining that the wrong person ended up on the throne, maligning Bran because he didn’t do more to affect the outcome and making him out to be some kind of malicious mastermind. I’ve read complaints that Dany was robbed, of course, or that Tyrion was robbed or Jon was robbed—or even that Sansa was robbed, which is patently ridiculous since she got precisely what she wanted without shedding a drop of blood to get it, which is a flawless victory in this setting.
The point is that there was no ending which would have made everyone happy. If Dany or Jon had won, it would have been too predictable. If Tyrion had won, it wouldn’t have done enough to uplift women. If democracy had won, it would have been too unbelievable. If Sansa had won, it would have been out of character.
Accepting for the moment that Bran did the best he could with what he had (this is a whole ‘nother claim I could write another 2,000 words defending), seeing him end up as king was surprising, gratifying, and a welcome happy ending.
Best of all, though, I am 100% confident that the ending we saw was the ending (in broad strokes) GRRM envisioned.
I finally got to finish the series I started in that call center cubicle twenty years ago, and it was worth every second.
Did you watch the Democratic Town Halls on CNN earlier this week? As I thought might happen after seeing some of these candidates on a stage, I’ve got an early favorite.
No idea who I’ll be voting for next year yet, but my faith in Elizabeth Warren is renewed.
Warren has a fantastic mix of charisma, passion, and wonkishness that you just can’t get anywhere else. Her ideas are bold, detailed, and she is good at explaining and justifying them. I feel like we need really forceful action on climate and the economy, and she is right there with me. She’s been walking the walk for years now. My only reservation about Warren is her age. All other things equal, I’d prefer someone a bit younger. But all other things aren’t equal. She is an outstanding candidate, and her age doesn’t seem to hamper her perspective at all. She is tuned in to what’s going in this country. If I were voting today, I’d be voting for her.
Close second is Kamala Harris. She is more centrist and punts on questions a little more than I like, but she’s a really powerful presence on stage and I can tell she cares deeply. Her proposals are well-delivered and well-reasoned, and she seems very open to discussion. I’d be happy to vote for her in the primary.
I liked Sanders more than I expected to. If he picks up the nomination I’ll vote for him in a heartbeat, and if it comes down to it (it’s still early days), I’ll *probably* pick him over Biden. That said, his temper and attitude concern me. He’s gotten better at managing both but he’s a hair too brash to be my top choice.
Mayor Pete had a really strong showing. He has this amazing gift to deliver nuanced, well-considered answers off the cuff, and I like him a lot. I don’t remember anything he said that I disagreed with. That said, I do worry he’s too young. He talked a lot about his mayoral experience, but the White House is a very different ballgame, especially in the current political environment. I really wish he had more experience on the national stage. He was also a bit too even-keeled for me, like the opposite extreme in attitude from Bernie. I would like to hear more passion and more compassion from him in addition to the perfectly clean, perfectly delivered answers. He reminded me a lot of Barack Obama, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. In retrospect these days, I find myself wishing Obama had been a little forceful, and I get the same sense about Pete.
I have to admit I was a bit disappointed in Amy on Monday night. I haven’t ruled her out, but she came off a little snipey and angry to me. She had a tendency to throw “All right?” and “Okay?” at the end of her statements in a way that felt condescending, especially in a room full of Millennials (and I hate to say this, but it reminded me a bit of the way Trump talks). Hopefully someone on her staff talks to her about it before her next appearance. I was also disappointed in her answers on climate change. The Paris agreement was insufficient to begin with; rejoining it on day one is a prerequisite, not a solution. I am glad she supports the GND but she has also said that she wouldn’t support every measure in it, such as attempting to reduce air travel by building high-speed rail. I don’t get why a cheaper alternative to carbon-spewing air travel would be a bad thing. All that said, I love Amy, I’ve voted for her every time I’ve seen her name on a ballot, and there’s no telling what’ll happen between now and next year.
Do you have an early favorite? Did the Town Halls move the needle for you at all?
I became an atheist in 2011 while writing my first novel, Alex. I went through the “angry atheist” phase, wherein I realized precisely how much of my life I wasted believing bullshit and how many opportunities I had passed on because I feared they were “sinful.” For awhile, I was having a new revelation about how contorted my religious life had been on a near-weekly basis. I remembered destroying my D&D books because they were evil. I remembered seeing a paper cutter at school and fighting the urge to cut my hand off (because I had masturbated with it, and of course, if your hand offends you, you should cut it off). I remembered believing for several years that I was demon-possessed because there was “lust” in my heart (in the heart of a normal 16-year-old? Say it ain’t so!).
The hardest part, though, has been realizing the lost opportunities. Coming to the realization that returning some of the advances I had gotten from girls while growing up would not have damned my soul to hell, for example, or that enjoying anything that wasn’t primarily concerned with the worship of Jesus was okay.
If you didn’t have this experience and can’t really comprehend it, just chew on that last phrase for a second. Any game, any book or movie, literally any form of entertainment that didn’t have Jesus in it was impossible for me to fully enjoy. I felt guilty and ashamed, on some level, the entire time I experienced it, because I wasn’t giving sufficient glory to God.
The breaking moment for me—the instant I decided to admit I didn’t believe in gods any more—was triggered by my children. After that, my love for them and my desire to spare them the hell I went through as a child has fueled a lot of my decisions on what to teach them and how to interact with them. I feel very protective of them, and I don’t want them to experience the things I did. But as is often the case with kids, they surprise me.
In trying to spare them from harm, I find them healing me in the process.
I love music. It is a secret language that speaks in emotion, a unique expression of the human soul that has the power to transcend culture and experience. So deep is its power to communicate that we included it—along with speech samples, mathematics demonstrations, and the sound of a human baby’s cry—as proof of our intelligence to prospective alien life.
Good music can create a sense of euphoria or melancholy; it can trigger the imagination; it can color your mood for an entire day or week. I listen to something catchy in the morning in lieu of drinking coffee—I call it “aural caffeine”—and whenever I have a long drive I relish the opportunity to let my inner 8-year-old run wild in the back of my head to whatever music will stimulate him the most. Music is one of the absolute greatest things about my life, a drug without peer.
So it should be no shock that Christianity nearly ruined it for me.
Dancing was fine, but only if done at church to church hymns. Singing was fine, but only if done to worship or spread the word of God. You weren’t allowed to love music. You were allowed to love God, and use music as a tool to that end and only that end.
Understand, it was a zero-sum game. A given activity was either glorifying God or insulting him. There was no neutral. You didn’t have to be rapping along with Dr. Dre about bitches and hos—you could merely be singing Madonna’s Material Girl and it was as good as blasphemy. (Like a Virgin was right out.) I skirted this restriction by seeking out the closest thing I could find to subversive Christian music—I was such a rebel. (In fairness to Steve Taylor, I actually still enjoy a lot of his music. Apparently he got a new band together in 2013, and the video for the kickstarter was pretty funny—he’s still a talented guy.)
One of the clearest examples of this dichotomy was the raising of hands. I was taught that you raised your hands to give worship. What you were worshiping was the only open question. It was a-okay (and even expected; indeed, nearly mandatory) to raise one’s hands at church while singing worship songs. Your intent was clear, there: you were giving praise unto God. To raise your hands pretty much anywhere else, at any time, to any piece of music, was essentially worshiping the devil.
I remember going to a Def Leppard concert (I know, I know, I heard some of the band members were Christian so that made it okay), seeing the audience with their hands up, and being utterly appalled. I was surrounded by people that were either ignorant of what they were doing, or worse, willfully offering praise to either the band or the devil. There was no possibility that they were simply exulting in the music. Like I mentioned in an older post about the movie Woodlawn, the Christian mindset I was raised in was that non-Christians couldn’t possibly be making their own decisions for their own, valid reasons, and that mindset was the only one I had.
I never felt the urge to raise my hands while listening to secular music, and I never wanted to raise my hands while listening to Christian music, because it felt conspicuous. Any time I listened to music, there was a section of my mind completely devoted to managing what my body did during the experience. As you can probably imagine, I was a great dancer and really comfortable at parties. (Yes, that was sarcasm.)
This automatic self-monitoring didn’t stop when I became an atheist. Weirdly, it intensified in some ways. After cutting faith out of my life, I started to feel the urge sometimes to raise my hands to music—something that had never happened to me before, in or outside of church. I stifled it, because it was a leftover product of my religion. Some weird template that said I had to lift my hands while listening to music, that there was no other way to properly enjoy it. It made me severely uncomfortable.
At the same time I tried to make a point of playing music around my children, especially when we were in the car. Different styles, different genres. I wanted to foster a love of it in them, the pure love that I was never allowed as a kid, the love of music for music’s sake.
Flash forward to 2014 or so. My daughter Rydia was 6 years old. We were in the grocery store parking lot, with Florence and the Machine on the iPod. The song was Shake It Out. Only as I write this do I realize how apropos the song itself was for the moment. It has elements of a hymnal. The lyrics are about overcoming the chains of the past. Florence’s voice is beautiful and fierce, filled with longing.
I loved watching and hearing my daughter sing to music like this, to see it move her like it moved me. But that day she surprised me. Around the three minute mark, Florence launches into this held note—not an ostentatious, look-at-how-long-I-can-hold-this-note kind of thing, but a soaring, gorgeous cry that interweaves beautifully with the rest of the music and elevates all of it. Listening to it feels like flying. It is my favorite part of the song, possibly my favorite fifteen seconds of Florence and the Machine’s entire library.
And when it came on, my daughter closed her eyes and raised her hands.
Not because anyone told her to. Not because she had something to prove or something to hide. Not for any reason at all other than the sheer joy of the music, the spiritual connection to another human being’s art.
It brought me to tears. It’s bringing me to tears writing about it now.
In that instant I realized that Christianity had never owned the concept of raising one’s hands to music. It had co-opted that, just like it had co-opted every piece of entertainment I had ever enjoyed, just like it had co-opted my own private thoughts when I’d found a girl pretty in high school. I could raise my hands if I felt moved to. God had nothing to do with it.
My 6-year-old girl had shown me how.
This is a thank you post, so I’m going to say that first.
To everyone who has ever left me a good Amazon review, who has ever emailed or messaged me to say how much they loved my work. Even if “all” you’ve done is purchase a book of mine or read it under Kindle Unlimited so I could see the pages flying by—those pages are uncontrovertible proof that someone was hooked enough to keep turning them, and you have no idea how valuable that is to me. How necessary.
I’m talking to my mom and my aunt, of course, my wife and friends and family, but I’m especially talking to the folks I’ve never met in person. The Marcia Sommerkamps and Elinor Bragas and Gwen Peters of the world. The people who will never see this post because they don’t follow me on FB or read my blog, but have reached out to make sure I knew how much they liked my stuff regardless. Thank you. This business is constantly punching me in the gut. You give me the power to keep my feet.
So what’s with the sudden outpouring of gratitude?
Critics, of course.
I got my review back from Publisher’s Weekly on ALEX. My first novel, my bestselling novel, my baby, the one I’m proudest of because it’s had the most “success.” The one that more than a thousand readers have gushed over publicly, the one that has moved so many to tears and literally left them thinking about it for years.
Yeah. PW was unimpressed. “Lack of suspense.” “The buildup of suspense is overwrought.” “Predictable twists.” “It is established too early that ghosts dictate the course of the plot.” (That one is particularly brutal to me, since I as the author never made a final decision whether the “ghosts” in the book were real and never intended to communicate one. Apparently PW thought it was pretty obvious that this was a vanilla ghost story from the word go, and were way too smart of all my tapdancing shenanigans.)
So I opened my email this morning and got hit with this particular gut punch. Good morning.
My immediate reaction: devastation, of course. These are the REAL reviewers. These are the PROS. If they say my book sucks they must know what they’re talking about.
But . . .
Because of you, I can hardly even write those words with a straight face. I *know* people loved the book. They’ve *told* me.
Leading in to my second reaction: smug superiority. So the traditional publishing industry hates my work—that’s not a surprise. I knew that yesterday. I’m self-published and they hate that. All these efforts to give out reviews to the little people are obviously just a ploy to put us in our place and remind us that THEY decide who lives and who dies. I don’t have to listen to them. I don’t have to give a rat’s ass about them. I have my own reviewers who like me. So there.
But . . .
It passes. I don’t want to be that guy. Stars help me if I become *that guy*. I never want to deny criticism on face just because of its source (with certain exceptions; some sources prove their unworthiness, but this isn’t that). I want to be open to legitimate critiques, no matter how they sting. And I agree with some of it—predictable twists? Sure, some people saw the twists coming. Professional reviewers are the most likely to see those, aren’t they? It’s hard to bullshit a bullshitter. “Suspense is overwrought” and “lack of suspense” sort of seem to contradict each other . . . but I know what they’re driving at: the book sags a bit in the middle. Enough people have told me this that I believe them.
But . . .
Try as I might, I just can’t be super-cool, above-the-fray guy. I pour my heart and soul into this stuff. I leave myself wide open—that’s what artists do. We beg people to shiv us in the stomach all day long.
So the reeling starts. You know, the self-pitying, self-destructive thoughts. Maybe I could just take a day off to recoup. Maybe I should go home and rethink my life—
—and it bumps into this weird bedrock. “No. People like my stuff.” The same thought as before, but in a different form. Not a scream of defiance, not a petulant denial . . . just a fact. People like my stuff. I’m not making it up. Shit, I know some of their *names*.
It doesn’t mean PW is wrong. It doesn’t mean I should never get criticized. It doesn’t mean I’m some tragic, hipster writing god, doomed by the artist’s curse to roam the earth with my genius unrecognized for all my life.
It just means I’ve got readers. I’ve got people who are picking up what I’m putting down—even if PW isn’t. And isn’t that the whole goddamn ballgame?
So thank you. *THANK YOU*. You saved my psyche today.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go write my ass off.