|‘A Game of Thrones’ by George R.R. Martin|
|Summary of my review:|
|It has some minor flaws, but it is a refreshingly awesome medieval-style political tale with excellent characterization.|
|ISBN: 978-0553386790, Pages: 720|
I know, I know, 1996 called (on its comically large car phone, no less) and wants its book review back. For a blog that mainly sticks to aggregating reviews of the latest (and greatest?) of today’s books, it is a little odd that I picked a book that’s been out for 16 years to do my very first book review on. The relevance of Game of Thrones (GoT) is interesting, as it is fairly long and complex fantasy that everyone seems to be into. Since I finished it recently, I figured I would throw my thoughts out there.
The characters are the second best thing about the “Game of Thrones” series (actually it is the “Song of Ice and Fire” series, but it is much better identified as the “Game of Thrones” series, so consider them synonymous for the duration of this review). The story is broken up between numerous reflectors (characters through whom the story is told, but do not realize they are telling a story, so they are not necessarily narrators) who experience different things from different sides of the various conflicts throughout the novels.The upside of this is a richer experience of the conflict and politics (the best thing about GoT), as characters are nearly always fighting each other. The downside is if you like a character, once you get through his or her chapter and see the next one is from a notoriously slow character (I’m looking at you, Sansa and Jon) then it is really hard to push through that to the more plot-central characters.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I think it is awesome George R.R. Martin (GRRM) killed off Ned Stark. I loved the character, but it was the best (and most obvious) thing for the story trajectory he was on, and the author did it, and for that I commend him. That being said, it is a lot of pressure on him as a writer. He killed off his de facto protagonist, and though he has Tyrion to pick up the slack, it does kind of feel like the show Mad Men without Don Draper (who, by the way, is the polar opposite of Ned Stark). Not as catastrophic as Seinfeld without Seinfeld, but the lack of narrative momentum is definitely felt in the second book.
GRRM is not one for lightning-fast plotting, though this moves along well enough. In terms of plot content, it is fantastic. He has created an extremely complex world, and one that I later learned is modeled on The Wars of the Roses, and, more generally, Medieval England. Yes, I am very slow to realize “the wall” with the northern wildlings (Hadrian’s Wall) was separating Westros (England) with its capital, Kings Landing (London) from the great white north (Scotland of late antiquity?). Mix in sea-faring raiders from the Iron Islands (Vikings?), the First Men (pre-Roman Celts), the narrow sea (the English Channel), and much more, and you have some pretty exciting parallels for (an initially dense) history nerd like me.
Moving on, the politics of GoT series are what originally sucked me into these books and remains the best thing about them – at least through the second book. Unlike nearly all other fantasy I’ve tried to read, these books are focused on people being people. Some of the time they are being unspeakably awful people, but the Middle Ages were violent times where, oftentimes, violent people ruled. It’s not ideal, but also not unrealistic. It is fantastic how no one is completely good or completely bad, and one army doesn’t ride into battle decked out in nothing but shiny honor and chivalry against a horde of ugly oily creatures covered in earwax.
The only real issue I have with the books is some of the writing. I know it is supposed to be period-specific, but the “m’lords” and the garbled syntax of some sentences get to me at times. It is only with certain characters, and I get that GRRM is using it to demonstrate their station in the world, but it really does get to feel ridiculous after a while, especially since the other dialogue could fit well in current everyday speech.
Also, while he reins it in more in this book than the later ones, it does get a bit annoying when, in an 800+ page book, he takes paragraphs describing food, nature, etc. Once again, I understand, he is doing debatably crucial worldbuilding, but it gets tiresome.
Also, some of the sexual scenes are awkward – really awkward. At times I feel like GRRM just wants to show that yes, people have sex and that can mean a lot of different things for the character is specific and the society in general, but he doesn’t feel comfortable doing it. The book is rarely explicit on the mechanics of it all, and it rarely dominates more than a sentence or two, but it does exist, and when he tries to describe what is going on, that is where his writing is at its weakest. I got to the point where I just rolled my eyes and glossed over those passages.
There are almost as many themes as there are characters. With Ned Stark there is the place of honor and honesty in a political world, and whether or not the honorable thing is always the best. Due to the loss of his head and the resulting civil war, it would seem he needs to take a bit more of a nuanced view.
With King Robert, you have the whole warrior/king division, and questions of what makes for a fit ruler. Sure, he can gain enough popular support to overthrow the previous king and gain power himself, but he is obviously an unfit ruler. Also, you have the question of how drunk is too drunk for boar hunting. I would argue any level of drunkenness is too much for chasing dangerous animals around their natural habitat – and I think the text supports that reading – but I’m not a king.
There is also the presentation of those in the lower rungs of society, i.e. eunuchs, dwarves, children, and women being far more cunning and capable (and in Cercei’s case, dangerous) than those specifically chosen to rule.
Like I said, there are a lot of themes in this book, and seeing as none of them were so obvious they slapped me in the face, I think they were executed pretty well. This was just a small sampling of them, and one could write a blog post per theme, so if you have any you want to talk about, leave them in the comments!
I just finished the second book, and, sadly, I have absolutely no desire to see this on screen. Both of the books were good (the first much stronger than the second, but I’ll write a review for the second in time), but after having read almost 2000 pages, I would rather keep moving in the series than watch the same story over again for hours. Once again, this is not a reflection on the book or story at all, just the time and effort that goes into reading that much of one story.
Taking this book as a whole, it does very well. Admittedly, I don’t read a great deal of fantasy, but what I like about GoT is that instead of being a strictly fantasy story, it is a great story that happens to be fantasy. I was a little scared for the series when, at the end, the dragons hatched from the funeral pyre. Here is a clear fantasy element when all the others had been, well, the Others, and vague mentions of magic throughout. I was a little wary that the book would start to focus on that and while, in the second book/season there are a few more supernatural elements (wargs, more of the dragons, and murderous shadow babies), it keeps the focus on the relationships between the characters – almost to a fault.
I’m digressing, though, on the whole, this book is very good, and GRRM does a great job of weaving all the story lines together in a way where it tells many sides of the same complex story.
In lieu of dissecting what I liked and disliked, quantifying it, and coming up with an average rating (I do enough of that, thank you), I’ll just look at the book as a whole and give it a percentage that reflects what I’m feeling about it.
Overall, I would put this book at 86% – Some minor flaws, but a refreshingly awesome medieval political tale with excellent characterization. It is fantasy for people who don’t usually like fantasy.
All right, so that is it for the first review post. Thanks for reading, and if you agreed, disagreed, or loved Sansa chapters, let me know in the comments!
Full disclosure: I borrowed this book from the library and received no compensation, financial or otherwise, for this review. I also didn’t create the images above. The map was found on Wikimedia commons and the pictures are promotional materials from HBO.