When I began writing Arts of Dark and Light, I believed that I could do better than Martin did in A Dance With Dragons, which I found extremely disappointing given the earlier books in the series. I was naively optimistic that the decline in quality I perceived in the fifth book of ASOIAF was more the result of a foolish decision on Martin's part to fill in the blanks rather than skipping ahead to when the dragons were grown, as I understand was his original plan.NB: I've read every ASOIAF book to date and consider the last two entries major disappointments. But I couldn't put my finger on exactly why until Vox subjected the series to his incisive editorial analysis. And yes, dwelling on the minutiae of secondary world politics instead of cutting straight to the dragon-led invasion of Westeros smacks of a writer putting what he wants to say ahead of what the readers want to hear.
After all, even though A Storm of Swords was not quite as good as its two predecessors, the introduction of the Ironborn and their religion was a spectacular scene, and it was entirely possible that its deficiencies were more related to middle-book syndrome than any incapacity or lack of imagination on Martin's part. And the problem with A Feast for Crows was obviously mere fat fantasy bloat, a problem easily resolved by stripping things down. But A Dance With Dragons was simply bad, with false characterizations and even the dread river journey; the surefire sign of an author who lacks for better ideas. Even given the signs that the decline was structural in nature, it never once occurred to me that I could write anything equal to the rest of the series.By all accounts, Vox did. The only story I've read in his epic fantasy setting so far is the Hugo-nominated novella Opera Vita Aeterna, but on the strength of that story I plan to pick up A Throne of Bones and its sequel, so I have no reservations against encouraging you to do the same. Plus, Vox promoted my new book and no good deed should go unrewarded.
The ASOIAF postmortem continues:
However, as I struggled with the challenges of deciding how to proceed with all the various options presented by the perspective characters, and prospective new perspective characters in the second book, I began to realize how thoroughly Martin had ruined A Song of Ice and Fire when he expanded it from the original concept of a trilogy. What I realized was that as the story expanded, and as the characters separated, even more discipline and focus was required, not less. In other words, fewer perspective characters, but deeper engagement with their personal story, and therefore letting significant elements of the larger story go without more than tangential attention or description.
Here we have an excellent example of why content editing is so vital to a book's success. GRRM has clearly become one of those name authors that publishing houses don't bother to edit anymore. As Vox points out, knowing what to leave out is just as vital as knowing what to put in.
Martin's error, as I see it, is that he tried to describe too much of the larger story while failing to understand which of his characters are necessary to the larger story. His books increasingly read as if Tolkien had decided to devote as much of The Return of the King to Elrond in Rivendell, and to introducing the travails of a new female character from Bree, as he does to Aragorn and Frodo. Martin's error is compounded by his apparent compulsion to keep trying to shock the reader; the impact of the Red Wedding was considerably less than that of Ned's execution despite the greater quantity of blood shed, because the sophisticated reader can't help but see it coming. Moreover, Martin increasingly relies upon cheating the reader, engaging in increasingly transparent sleight-of-hand, and sabotaging his characters in order to try to achieve the effect he is foolishly seeking.
Vox has Martin dead to rights on the accusation of cheating. One sacred rule of writing fiction is that an author should never break a promise--explicit or otherwise--to the reader. The obvious fact that Martin not only has a penchant for breaking this rule, but, I suspect, derives glee from it, is the main reason I stopped reading him.
There is still a long and arduous road ahead. It is possible that my writing has peaked, it is possible that Martin will somehow manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat and reverse his apparent decline. Only time will tell. But what I can say is that it is no longer my object to write an epic that will be seen as being worthy of comparison to Martin's, but rather, one to which his series compares unfavorably. That may sound arrogant or it may sound insane. Nevertheless, that is my objective.
Setting a goal that you judge to be reasonable based on an honest assessment of your abilities isn't arrogant. It's actually an exercise of humility--something that Vox's more libelous detractors should keep in mind. Having read three of his major works, I'm confident in saying that the dude's got talent. The only people I've seen who dismiss his writing as third-rate hack work either a) haven't read anything he's written and/or b) are nursing personal grudges against his politics.
Can Vox back up his aspirations? You be the judge. A Sea of Skulls, Arts of Dark and Light Book 2, is available now for Kindle.
On a personal note, it looks like I've managed to avoid middle-book syndrome, too.