Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review: A Game of Thrones (Book 1 of A Song of Ice and Fire)


A Game of Thrones (1996), George R. R. Martin. Paperback, 720 pages.

Awards: Locus Award. Nominated for Nebula and World Fantasy Awards.

Summary: In a magical world reminiscent of Medieval Britain and its close neighbors, noble families make and break alliances in a quest for powerFor a more detailed summary, click here.

Excerpt:
     His father peeled off his gloves and handed them to Jory Cassel, the captain of his household guard. He took hold of Ice with both hands and said, "In the name of Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by the word of Eddard of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, I do sentence you to die." He lifted the greatsword high above his head.
     Bran's bastard brother Jon Snow moved closer. "Keep the pony well in hand," he whispered. "And don't look away. Father will know if you do."
     Bran kept his pony well in hand, and did not look away.
    His father took off the man's head with a single sure stroke. Blood sprayed out across the snow, as red as summerwine. One of the horses reared and had to be restrained to keep from bolting. Bran could not take his eyes off the blood. The snows around the stump drank it eagerly, reddening as he watched.
     The head bounced off a thick root and rolled. It came up near Greyjoy's feet. Theon was a lean, dark youth of nineteen who found everything amusing. He laughed, put his boot on the head, and kicked it away.
     "Ass," Jon muttered, low enough so Greyjoy did not hear. He put a hand on Bran's shoulder, and Bran looked over at his bastard brother. "You did well," Jon told him solemnly. Jon was fourteen, an old hand at Justice.
STATS

Writing Quality: 6/10

Depth of Concept: 6/10

Rounded Characters: 6/10

Well-Developed World: 7/10

Page Turner: 9/10

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10
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Overall Recommendation: 6/10 


DETAILS

Writing Quality: 6/10. Martin is a fine writer. Not great, but his prose doesn't have most of the really egregious mistakes that a lot of other bestselling fantasy writers have, whether we're talking about Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, or worst of all, Terry Goodkind. At the same time, I don't think a single phrase in the book struck me as anything worth remembering, and that's something I usually look for. Tolkien, by comparison, doesn't have much more ability as a wordsmith, except that every once in a while he used a turn of phrase that stuck tenaciously in his readers' heads, after years or even decades ("All who wander are not lost," for instance). I almost scored Martin a 5 (which would put him a point lower than Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring), but then I decided he employed a really exceptional ability to weave together varied character story lines so that they all felt connected and driving towards a common end (which Tolkien struggled with, I think). Some might compare his different character points of view to what Robert Jordan did in his Wheel of Time books, but frankly I found Jordan's perspective switches mostly distracting and frustrating. With Martin, I was pretty engaged by every character's point of view within the first paragraph or so.

Depth of Concept: 6/10. I debated whether this was a 6 or a 7, and ultimately chose a 6 even though Martin clearly is exploring original concepts and making a legitimate bid for breaking out of the typical fantasy formula, which so few of his bestselling peers bother to do. This is a detailed world with complex themes involved, feeling as though it's lifted straight from the power struggles of the War of the Roses. In any given character you'll find competing impulses of ambition, loyalty, love, selfishness, nobility, and cowardice. Nevertheless, it's still not a very subtle work. The competing values are worthy of thought but they're presented matter-of-factly, with little question of ambiguity or multi-layered meanings. To me, a 6 means that Martin is intelligent and his story presents issues that are worthy of stopping for a minute to think about.

Rounded Characters: 6/10. Martin's character development is a cut above most writing in the fantasy genre, especially those hitting the bestseller lists. Most of the comments in the above category could apply here as well. Still, you don't find characters really learning or changing in particularly insightful ways, only adapting logistically as situations arise. You don't have a Gollum character to carry the nuanced weight of tragedy and redemption, or an Ishmael/Ahab binary to explore the metaphysically ambiguous limits of devil and savior, or a character like the Man in Cormac McCarthy's The Road who experiences with heartbreaking tenderness, pain, sacrifice, and love in the context of a hellish world. Martin's characters are respectably rounded, but rarely exceptional. There are also A LOT of characters, which might be hard for some readers to remember or contextualize. I'll admit to being confused about who was who during the first 50 or 75 pages, but the learning curve was actually much shorter than I feared it would be, and it didn't take me too long to settle into the detailed world of warring families and dynasties.

Well-Developed World: 7/10. Although Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series unabashedly uses the British Isles and surrounding lands as its model, it does so in just the right amount to help us situate our understanding of the world, and then adds in many delightful analogs and divergences. It's almost an alternate history, but without relying excessively on the real-world source as a crutch. It's an appreciable re-imagining that allows us to incorporate our historical understanding of the land with more fantastic elements, and it's a really engaging setting that uses the geographical and climate differences of different regions to justifiably forward the plot. Certainly, these are not the generic landscapes of the many fantasy hacks who unfortunately find their way into the hands of the public. And that's before we even start talking about the political intrigues that Martin sets up for us. This is a world that hints at the reality of magic and otherworldly elements, but that lives or dies by its political intrigue and power shifts, some through back-room machinations and some through direct confrontations. 

Page Turner: 9/10. This is unarguably where Martin's works stand out the most. I can't think of any other author I've read who switches points of view so frequently (Martin does it every chapter), and can keep my interest so consistently through the conclusion of one point of view and into the next. There's a really smooth flow from one setting to the next, such that you never feel like you're reading about unrelated events or stories. Martin manages to infuse back-room dealings with at least the intensity and pacing that you find in the battle scenes. And while his characters may not do a lot of growing (with the exception of some nice scenes between adolescent boys training for military service on the "Wall," and an exiled princess who comes into her own as a queen) during the novel, their actions are frequently as unpredictable as any real-life character, happily without becoming unbelievable. You'll frequently find yourself uncertain whether a character will be alive or dead by the end of the chapter, and Martin does in fact kill off charismatic characters from time to time. There are those who are turned off by protagonists who are not always pure and good; but if you are engaged by morally grey scenarios in which people of all types struggle to abide by their own value systems, this novel will keep you on the edge of your seat. Here are a few comparison points: David Eddings writes very formulaic characters, both good and evil (although I admit that I still enjoy his novels, and I loved them as a kid). Robert Jordan hints at more Machiavellian characters, but there are still very clear lines drawn between characters on the "good" spectrum and those on the "bad" spectrum. Terry Goodkind is perhaps the greatest abuser of the perfectly good protagonist, the most brave, sacrificing, honest, and "pure" character. If you're ready for more realistic characters who struggle to do the right thing (and often don't), who believe in codes and creeds but don't always follow them, who make decisions that inadvertently harm themselves or their families, then Martin's story will do something for you that these other authors simply don't aspire to, or aren't capable of presenting.

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10. Some might argue that a real page turner is inevitably balanced by being less of a thinking book, or vice versa, but I think that's a cop-out. When I read anything by Cormac McCarthy, I find it almost impossible to tear myself away, and yet The Road (or All the Pretty Horses, or anything else he's written) is just brimming with material that'll keep your heart and intellect preoccupied long after putting the thing down. Martin's isn't terrible for a thinking person . . . but I think of it as engaging entertainment that you won't feel guilty about even if it's not being used as airport reading material.
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Overall Recommendation: 6/10. This is a tricky one to recommend for the following reason: Martin uses sex (and violence, but violence bothers far fewer people) in his novels just the way you'd expect a studio to use sex in rated-R movies. I wouldn't say the scenes are mere filth, but you wonder at times if Martin throws it in there because he thinks it is necessary for the story, or because he thinks it will help sell his books, or because he just likes to think graphically about sex and he's not shy about admitting it. I've read other reviews where people claim that he's merely describing a gritty world, but Martin's descriptions go beyond realism and into a kind of sleazy territory. It's not just that there is an actual or remembered rape in every chapter, including gang rapes and incest and rape involving children. Raping and pillaging is a historical fact, and I respect that those things deserve some acknowledgement. McCarthy's The Road, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and even Nabokov's Lolita treat difficult subjects involving violence and sexuality with thoughtful and complicated narratives. But Martin spends an inordinate amount of time describing genitalia, bodily fluids, and sex sounds, all to a kind of creepy extent. Perhaps even more troubling is the pervasive theme of rape and prostitution as a status quo in all walks of life, discussed by most characters with something approaching glee. I can respect that the status of women in the time period Martin seeks to describe was legitimately troubled; and yet Martin's descriptions seem to objectify women with little effort to complicate the debasement he describes. Now, if you're the kind of person who prefers HBO shows because of the extra skin and blood they flaunt, or if you aren't particularly sensitive to rape everywhere you look, you'll have no problems here. If you're a little less comfortable with the woman as sex object, you might want to think twice about this series, despite its other commendable qualities. At the least, these concerns are something every reader should think about, and to the extent that you indict or exonerate Martin on this topic, the overall recommendation for this book should drop or rise at least a point from what I've listed here.

Books To Compare: In some ways it bothers me to find people comparing Martin's epic with T. H. White's The Once and Future King, but in terms of communicating a sense of sweeping history and rising stakes using a real-world analog as inspiration, the two probably compare favorably. If you were ever intrigued by descriptions of knights, their armor, their mottos and lineages, which you'd find both in White's work but also much earlier in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then this might be a fun book to pick up (although Sir Gawain offers allegorical and symbolical perspectives that you'd be hard pressed to find in A Game of Thrones). Elements of heraldry also play a substantial role in the novel. As I think about it now, though, there are elements of sexuality present in Sir Gawain, The Canterbury Tales, etc., that might not be a bad comparison to what Martin does in his work. They're just so old that most of us fail to recognize just how irreverent they could be. I think I read somewhere that Martin also found inspiration in Ivanhoe, though I've not read Walter Scott (considered to be the creator of the "historical" novel) myself. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out A Game of Thrones on Amazon. 

6 comments:

  1. I had a hard time getting into this story. This has nothing to do with this particular story, just that I have a book I couldn't put down. It's a 3 book series, with only 2 out at the moment. It's by Patrick Rothfuss, called The Kingkiller Chronicles. I think he's a very good writer, with a good story to tell.

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    1. It took me about 50-60 pages to really get into it, with all the random names and places flying around. I prefer books that don't have such a high learning curve at the beginning, but it actually took me a lot longer to get really interested in Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker, for instance. By page 100, I wasn't having that hard of a time following the different characters and plot lines, and I really zoomed through it after that. I've not read Rothfuss yet...

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  2. These books are excellent, especially as far as world building and suspense. The worst thing about them is how LONG it takes Martin to put out a new one. The most recent in the series was like seven years late. Plus, during the time while we were waiting (granted, Martin owes us nothing but still, some sort of schedule would be nice) he never shut up about the TV show and casting and all of that. I'd vastly prefer that he shut up, sit down and finish the series. Of course, I also am getting the feeling that he's painted himself into a corner and isn't sure where to go next.

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    1. I found this first book really gripping. There were parts that made me uncomfortable, but Martin's ability really sets him apart from just about all of the other best-selling fantasy authors I can think of. Still, I'm wary of venturing further into the series when his later books have been less well received. If he finishes up the series really strong, I might return to it. But if people don't love the way it wraps up, I figure it's not worth the effort. I may have to wait ten years for the answer, anyway.

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  3. I was a big fan of Games of Thrones when I first read the book on 2001. Nevertheless, I would agree with some of your points especially Martin's writing quality. Nice & detailed review Neal!

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    1. Thanks for the visit. I agree, I had a hard time putting the thing down. But even superior products have their flaws.

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