Review: A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

November 6, 2013 in General Topics

A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

I’ve always been leery of the time investment asked by epic fantasy series authors. There is just something about being propositioned to sign on for, say, fifteen books, that asks more of my gut than any wandering knight or misbegotten king ever could. “Here there be a dragons,” they say. “Come with us on our epic quest.” My heroic response: “Here there be Bo. She is on the go!”

I have kids. Expecting to complete an epic fantasy series requiring such so much free time–to put it mildly–requires more than a little hopeful optimism.

So A Game of Thrones had me skeptical from the first crack of its pages, and I fully thought I might not make it through. This first book in George R.R. Martin’s series isn’t much smaller than that most-mammoth example of fiction I’ve read, Stephen King’s unabridged version of The Stand. And there are four other books in line behind this one, with a slated two more to still be written. Egad.

But I’d been gifted my copy, and if there is one thing I love in my fiction, it’s intrigue (which the series has a reputation for), so I thought: why not? And we were off to the joust.

A Game of Thrones introduces us to the affairs of various ruling houses in the fictional kingdom of Westeros. We’re also shown the lives of other important characters, many of whom are exiles. The tale starts with those that might be considered the closest thing to “good guys” in this novel–House Stark, and its ruler Eddard, a man that will spend the book being reluctantly drawn into the escalating events surrounding his long-time friend (and now King), Robert of House Baratheon. “Ned” Stark has five children, a shrewd and somewhat begrudging wife named Catelyn, and a host of servants, knights, administrators, and men-at-arms.

If you’re looking for a tome rich in fantastic creatures and sorcery, much of this novel might disappoint you. With the exception of a few interlopers, such as the soon-discovered and endlessly loyal direwolves, Martin’s world-building has confined everything wondrous well to the north of civilization, and out of the tale’s limelight. There’s an ongoing narrative that the ancient “Kings of the North” were much more comfortable with these elements, but as the arrival of other powers came to pass and Eddard’s ancestors submitted to them, these old ways and old beasts were largely subsummed and replaced. As such, it’s possible to become disheartened, and imagine this is a post-fantasy landscape, a place imparting much reflection of creatures in years past and saving precious room for them in the present. A reader might be tempted to put the book down. I encourage them not to.

Because, as the book’s catch-phrase goes, “winter is coming”. Forces of human ambition and political maneuvering are at work behind the scenes, and no one will be spared from the fallout as the various powers assert their gambits. Not all those powers are human, either, and I’ll leave it at that.

On the human side of things, there’s a burst of events at the beginning, then we slip into Eddard’s appointment as Hand, made quickly after the death of the recent holder of the title. Through a somewhat-plodding investigation, he attempts to ascertain the true story behind his recent promotion, while the kindgom’s financial and moral woes are laid bare. All this happens while the novel introduces us to more and more characters, and this is actually where the book runs its greatest chance of losing readers. It’s not like this second act of the book is written badly, but it’s a bit like watching a wargame getting setup–yeah, the pieces are interesting, and the scene is tense, but there isn’t a ton really happening yet.

Further, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, and to start forgetting who swears fealty to whom. This isn’t made easier by the fact that some of the characters go by multiple nicknames and titles. For example, take Petyr Baelish. He’s also called Littlefinger. He’s also called the Master of Coin. He’s also on the Small Council. So many characters and titles are introduced, back to back to back, that the book even acknowledges potential confusion with a series of cheat-sheet guides to the various Houses.

Nevertheless, the greatest tool in Martin’s arsenal for dealing with this potential malady is straight-up excellent character development. Martin relishes in exploring the dual nature of many of his characters, and the list of those that aren’t at least somewhat-sympathetic runs very small, indeed. I could probably count, on one hand, the characters that are completely irredeemable. Were Martin a painter, his world would be cast in battleship gray. Nothing is ever as noble as it seems, or as twisted as it seems.

This, in time, produces characters that win over a reader who had started the book hating them. Some of the book’s most prominent examples are the Hound–an at-first twisted, sadistic knight–and the King of the Dothraki (a powerful, nomadic race of Horse Archers), named Khal Drogo.

Taking his approach further, Martin’s characters behave like real-world people. Self-sacrifice is rare. Usually, characters act as most of us would when faced with death–we bribe, barter, and shift allegiances. The ability of some characters to think on their feet save many that would have died otherwise. For some characters, holding to what is right or noble leads to severe consequences. Cheaters often win, sadly, and that’s completely appropriate to dynastic power struggles.

A Game of Thrones is a book of favorite characters: everyone’s got a few. In my reading, Tyrion got a nod, but I also appreciated Bran, Daenerys, Sandor Clegane (the Hound), and Jorah Mormont.

So, how does the plot progress? Well, it’s hard to say without giving someone spoilers, but I think the best way to describe the action is this: you get the impression that if one could just get all the warring powers in one room, early enough in the tale, peace could be made–and events prevented from spiraling out of control. Unfortunately (but not for the reader), human ambition and revenge define the worst villains in this first installment, leading to uncertain paths for those caught up by the wars.

Outside of the plot itself, Martin has to be commended for his attention to detail. The world is wholly and completely alive and vibrant, down to details that sometimes seen worth mentioning. I don’t find the approach as necessary at every turn, as Martin seems to think it is–do I really care what color that man’s doublet was today?–but it’s a trait of this genre itself, and I know many fantasy readers will find it endearing.

While there were times that I found myself bored by sections of the book, the shining moments in the tale made these areas completely worth reading through. Martin many perfect intersections of character growth and artful description, and they’re worth every minute spent getting to them.

A Game of Thrones is not an easy read, but I don’t think it’d be quite as special if it was. It is epic in every sense of the word, right down to what it requires of the reader. And despite my complaints, I’m so won over that–sorry kids–I’ve already picked up the sequel.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Check out the rest of my reviews here.

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