Review: A Game of Thrones

At the behest of several friends (you know who you are) I decided to delve into the George R.R. Martin fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.  Of course this meant beginning with the first book A Game of Thrones as I am not the kind of girl who starts in the middle (and since the end of it is not written yet there was no option to really cheat- which I wouldn’t have done anyway).

The plot is what I would consider to be typical fantasy in a similar vein of Tolkien.  Although, to call Martin “The American Tolkien” is completely ridiculous and does no favors to Tolkien and his mastery.  So, the qualifier is that this is medieval with fantastic elements and in a different world whose general rules of scenery and physics seems to be the similar to our own.

Each chapter is from a different character’s point of view, the hero of the work being Eddard Stark who hales from the cold lands in the north.  A judicious and honest ruler who takes matters of punishment directly into hand, including that of death when appropriate, he lives and dies by his honor.  A family he has as well; three sons, the oldest 15, two daughters, and a bastard son.  The honor of Eddard is such that he brings his bastard to his keep to be raised, despite the upset of his wife (the child was conceived shortly after their marriage while he was at war).  There are no games he plays in order to rule and so his existence, and those he fosters in his children, are that of integrity and not subversion.

Unfortunately, Eddard’s world shifts as he is offered the role of “Hand of the King” by his friend Robert – the king.  It necessitates him leaving his home in the North, his sons – one of whom is in a coma due to a fall off one of the keep’s buildings, and his wife; the two daughters he brings to court with him, one of whom is promised in marriage to the prince.  And into the world of betrayals, distrust, dishonesty, and the veritable pit of vipers he travels.

Some of the other points of view are Eddard Stark’s children:  Rob- the heir who has to become Lord of Winterfell in truth and action after his father, then mother, leave; Sansa – the oldest daughter in awe of glitter and propriety; Arya- the warrior daughter; Bran – the poor child who takes a great fall; Jon Snow – the bastard child assigned to The Wall where honor is your duty, to escape it means death; Catelyn – Eddard’s wife as she journeys through the land to find the why of her child’s accident.

There are two more besides for pov characters and they are worthy of note:  Tyrion Lannister, brother in law to the King; Daenerys, survivor of the overthrown king living in a sort of exile.  Tyrion Lannister is a member of a conniving family painted as the villains in the story and a dwarf with a seeming great capacity for cunning and compassion.  He is the only Lannister whose point of view we get in this 674 page book and his motivations are no clearer in the end than in the beginning.  Of all the characters in this book I think his psychology is the most complex and, therefor, he is the most intriguing (next to Jon Snow).

Daenerys was daughter to the murdered king once referred to as “The Dragon”.  At the age of 13 she has never seen her homeland, her father murdered by one of his guards (a Kingsguard by the name of Jaime Lannister dubbed “The Kingslayer” after his betrayal – yes, that Lannister; he is brother in law to King Robert) she is in the care of a rather insane and power hungry brother.  Married off to a man thought of as a barbarian in the land across the sea from her “home” to secure her brother the army he needs, she journeys into love and pregnancy as an exiled man of the realm provides intel to the King.  Her role, I am sure, will become more readily apparent in the tale as the series unfolds.

There are a few difficulties I have with this work.  The beginning unfolds well, a few stumbles as I got to know the characters (and why, WHY did Martin feel compelled to give a few people a couple completely different names?!)*, but the read is steady and pretty engrossing.  In truth, I only paused in my reading of it when I reached the point of the eight year old falling from a roof because I was traumatized.  Then Eddard and his girls make it to King’s Landing for his political role to begin and the writing, while it didn’t fall apart, it didn’t remain as constant as it should.  Despite it having so many points of view (these were not excruciatingly kept to, although this is a point of anal retention for me so it likely won’t bug many) each word felt necessary and justified.  The writing even seemed to suit the vague time stamp of “sometime before life as we truly know it existed”.  Then I get to Sansa’s point of view (a character I did not and still do not like, although she’s ALMOST redeemable to me at this point) at a tourney had in her father’s honor.

They watched the heroes of a hundred songs rid forth, each ore fabulous than the last.

Fabulous?  Fabulous?!?! Um, no.  Completely and totally not in the period and tone the author established.

Then, we get to describing those in the tourney.

Other riders Sansa did not know; hedge knights from the Fingers and Highgarden and the ountains of Dorne, unsung freeriders and new-made squires, the younger sons of high lords ad the heirs of lesser houses.  Younger men, most had done no great deeds as yet, but Sansa and Jeyne agreed that one day the Seven Kingdoms would resound to the sound of their names.  Ser Balon Swann.  Lord Bryce Caron of the Marches.  Bronze Yoh’s heir, Ser Andar Royce, and his younger brother Ser Robar, their silvered steel plate filigreed in bronze with the same ancient runes that warded their father. [There’s more.  I decided to spare you.]

A lot of these guys you’ll see later on, some I don’t remember if you see them again, but none of that matters.  This is an info dump that is completely unnecessary and, for me, after a couple hundred pages in, the last thing I want to see is the editor not bothering and the author not being critical of his own work enough to assess what the story absolutely needs.  I understand that some people might want the imagery of the armor Martin takes pains in describing, the idea of EVERYTHING being described an attractive feature, but for me…  Not so much.  It has to matter for me to care, and if a book is almost 700 pages long (I’ve heard the third in the series is longer) then I need to know the time I’m spending reading it is being taken seriously by the author and that everything is of great importance.

But for moments like this, told from the pov of Bran Stark, I still have a great fondness for the work:

Hodor lifted Bran as easy as if he were a bale of hay, and cradled him against his massive chest.  He always smelled faintly of horses, but it was not a bad smell.  His arms were thick with muscle and matted with brown hair.  “Hodor,” he said again.  Theon Greyjoy had once commented that Hodor did not know much, but no one could doubt that he knew his name.  Old Nan had cackled like a hen when Bran told her that, and confessed that Hodor’s real name was Walder.  No one knew where “Hodor” had come from, she said, but when he started saying it, they started calling him by it.

I forgive Martin for not understanding a bale of hay can be really heavy.

Overall, it’s a fun read and, despite not being as enthralled at the end of the book as I was even halfway through, I have the second already out from my library and ready to be read.  I can not help but be intrigued by the issues of honor that are raised.  I find myself wondering how Martin will resolve them and what stance he’ll take.  Truth be told, this feels as though it tackles similar notions Franzen’s Freedom did but in a more philosophically succinct, logical, and appropriate manner (and despite the language snafus the thought process is far more complete and sophisticated here than that other work).  Some of the characters are complex and, truly, none of them are one dimensional.  If you have a want of reading modern fantasy I quite enthusiastically recommend this series.

And in case you didn’t know, it will be a miniseries on HBO starring Sean Bean.

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2 responses to “Review: A Game of Thrones

  • Jaime

    I would agree, but some of your issues were why I enjoyed it. I cannot read a hardcore fantasy book. I have never been able to really get into them, save Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I was able to get into these because it feels familiar.

    I don’t think it was deep reading (aka not McCarthy) but did it keep me intrigued enough to want to keep reading.

    I love that you enjoyed Jon and Tyrion. They were also the characters I liked the most 🙂

  • Anne

    Kimberly, did you ever read (or have I already told you about) Kristin Cashore’s “Hotdog, Katniss!” article in Horn Book last year? (I think last year). I know you weren’t a huge fan of Graceling but I think you’d enjoy her article about fantasy world building, writing, and the complexities of using language appropriate to the historical period, genre, etc. I think you can find it on the Horn Book website.

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