Normally, if someone handed me a book and told me before I read it that some of its key components included gratuitous sex, adult language, a fantasy/mythical world, more characters than I’d care to count, a narrative that employs not one, not two, but actually eight alternating points of view, an excess of violence, gross misogynistic treatment of women, and a plot the main thread of which follows a bunch of testosterone-filled Arthurian wannabes fighting for control of a kingdom… Well, I’d probably throw that book back in the person’s face and walk away muttering about how said person does not know me at all.
So you might be surprised to hear that, at the end of a whirlwind seven-day reading period, during which I averaged the consumption of approximately one hundred pages per day to finish this monstrous book, the following words are some of the descriptors I choose to sum up A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire:
Suspenseful. Edgy. Thrilling. Complex. Realistically fantastical. Gripping. Moving. Heartbreaking. Page-turning. Hilarious. Surprising. A classic waiting to be crowned.
The main reason I can provide these unqualified descriptions is that A Game of Thrones, as a book of mechanics, would appear to have a lot of obstacles to overcome. Everything I list in the first paragraph is true, so the fact that Martin manages to yank me into the story anyway, beginning with chapter one (which is not the very beginning, since the book begins with yet another unnecessary prologue), is a feat unto itself.
This is the kind of book that separates the men from the boys when it comes to authorial talent. I have edited some truly awful books that included everything listed in the first paragraph, all of which subsequently became targets for editorial revision suggestions. But Martin proves that these techniques can be utilized well, when done with the ink of a good writer’s pen. Martin crafts a tale so pregnant with the third-paragraph traits that the issues in the first paragraph either become non-issues altogether or actually become strengths of the narrative.
Our world does not want for fantasy literature, but it is lacking in quality fantasy writing and stories, perhaps because of the nature of the limitations of the genre itself. It’s weird to think that a genre called fantasy – which, by definition, should be the opposite of limited – would have restraints, and yet it does. There are only so many mythical creatures one can dream up, only so many magical qualities a world can have before it’s overkill, or before the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is unwillingly suspended.
That’s why we see so many of the same types of creatures over and over again in fantasy: dragons, goblins, trolls, wizards, giants, birds that carry mail, and – of course – a “normal-world” creature that becomes otherworldly and mythical simply due to its monstrous size. In Lord of the Rings, we see this with spiders; in Harry Potter, with spiders, snakes, and dogs; we even see it in the parody fantasy story The Princess Bride, with rodents. George R.R. Martin’s rendition of the oversized normal animal is a wolf, called – in his book, to differentiate it from the regular wolf – the direwolf.
So what, exactly, does Martin’s writing possess that makes it so devourable, even when the bare components are stripped down and it appears to be a fairly run-of-the-mill fantasy story, if a little (or maybe a whole lot) on the adult side? Honestly, the element that kept me turning pages was the characters. The diversity and complexity of each character simply astounded me. I mentioned that the story is told in alternating fashion from eight different characters’ points of view. But these are not the only eight characters we come to know intimately, nor can these eight characters all necessarily be called the heroes or, to oversimplify it, the good guys. There are also the minor characters, as well as the villains – none of whom, so far, have been given POV rights – to get to know, and the narrative weaves in their motivations and characteristics and personalities seamlessly alongside the principal characters whose POVs we are actually treated to.
The strength of the alternating POV tactic (which is also a huge risk, if an author doesn’t know how to do it right) is the third-person-limited perspective. With each character, the reader is privy only to information which that particular character would have access to. The advantage of being the omniscient reader, of course, is that we get to see how all the limited perspectives work together to create the bigger picture of the unfolding story, but of course the kicker is that we do not have the power to change the course of events, or warn any of the characters of what’s coming. (This is probably as close as any of us will ever get to understanding what it’s like to be God, with the exception that the God I believe in does have the power to change the course of events; he just rarely does it in ways we would see fit; but, of course, that goes back to the big picture and limited perspective issue.) On the whole, these characters feel alive and real, and so do their actions and the consequences of their actions. Martin employs no deus ex machina here. The characters reap the consequences of their decisions; bad things happen to good people; ordinary people make terrible decisions; and nobody is safe or exempt from the forces and obstacles of the natural world, which makes this genuinely fantastical world feel eerily like the world we know and live in ourselves.
The unexpected plot twists are probably the aspects of this book that left me the most frustrated as a reader. I got so settled into the everyday features of the world itself that I had trouble acclimating to the twists and turns the characters have to follow. In remedial writing classes, one of the very first things students learn is that the basic arc of a story involves a character pursuing a specific goal and encountering obstacles that must be overcome on the way to that goal. I hope even the most under-qualified writing instructor would tell students that characters must experience conflict; otherwise, there’s no story. What do TV shows do when their ratings drop? Introduce new and dramatic conflicts. The idea is, nobody is allowed to live happy, peaceful lives if you want your story to be consumed and enjoyed.
The reason I had a problem with this basic rule in GoT was that I liked the characters and the details of the world itself so much that all I wanted to do was follow the Stark family around their castle and the woods and be a fly on the wall in their everyday lives. That’s how well these characters and this world are written. Every time there is a hope of one or more of the characters going back to settle at the family’s castle, I got excited and hopeful that life would resume as it began at the start of the book, and every time a plot twist thwarts this goal, I got disappointed and frustrated. My frustration lasted only momentarily, though, because each diversion and plot tangent is more interesting and exciting than the last, all leading up to a wrenching and emotional climax that I wouldn’t have seen coming if it had not been spoiled for me beforehand. (That didn’t make the event any less emotional for me, though; only less surprising.)
A Game of Thrones was first published in 1996, so you might be wondering why it is just now on my radar. There are a few reasons, the most obvious (and most wrong) being that HBO has started serializing the books in television form. The advent of the HBO series did remind me that the books were on my to-read list, but they were on my to-read list long before HBO took it over. I have a solid group of (mostly) trusted reading friends in Oklahoma who have all torn through the series and pledge loyalty to George R.R. Martin until the end of time, so it has been on my radar since about 2008.
I guess the only reason I decided to pick it up now, allowing it to usurp the numerous other books in line and patiently waiting, is the same reason I picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last January: It’s a new year, and I wanted to give my reading life a jump start with something I wouldn’t be able to put down, so why not start with a series people can’t seem to stop talking about? Obviously I didn’t know for sure that I would like either book at all, but luckily both times I did, and luckily – just like last year – it will lead me into a series and a world that will occupy me for the next few weeks, at least.
As with GWTDT, I likely won’t post follow-up reviews about the subsequent books in the series, but you should take my word for it that at least A Game of Thrones is worth reading, and then you can decide from there whether you want to continue. As for me, I will most certainly be moving on to the second book, A Clash of Kings.
As I continue, I hope to find that some of the characters I intensely dislike in the first book will be redeemed later on; I hope that some of the most despicable characters will meet poetic justice, whether in death or torture or slavery or exile; and, lastly, I hope that some of my favorite and most heroic characters will be rewarded with peace and happiness, or, at the very least, fewer tragedies.
As for Martin’s misogynistic characterizations, he’s not off the hook, and I do find it offensive and appalling that the women are so far either one of two extremes: weak or completely evil, with almost nothing in between, but for now, I’m letting him get away with the excuse that the world he’s created is an ancient one, and everyone knows that the ancient worlds did not appreciate or revere women as they should have.
Overall, though, I am pleased with this book, and if you have recently found yourself in need of something to occupy your reading hours, I suggest trying this one, if all the adult aspects of it won’t bother you. It may not be for everyone, and I’m certainly no fantasy expert, but of the fantasies I have read, GoT is certainly the cream of the crop.