Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review - A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Short review: In the game of thrones you win or you die. Mostly people die. Oh yeah, winter is coming too, but no one really seems to care.

An iron throne, Stark,
Lannister, Baratheon,
And a lot of death

Full review: Once upon a time there was a writer who was tired of stories that began with "once upon a time" and had a heroic farm boy take up his destiny to save the world from an ancient and dark menace while he rescued the ingenue, restored the rightful heir to the throne, and basically kept everyone interesting alive until at least the final pages of the story, in which case a colorful secondary character might get killed in a glorious manner giving his life for a meaningful purpose. Instead, he decided to look to English history and decided that the War of the Roses was pretty brutal, and had a fairly interesting set of characters. So he came up with a fantasy kingdom called Westeros, threw in some scary winter themes and set out to write a fantasy story that was inspired by history. To make sure the parallel was obvious, he named one of the noble families the Lannisters, to remind them of the House of Lancaster, and the family that dominated the north the Starks, which seemed pretty close to the Yorks, who dominated northern England. Hadrian's Wall was made really large, and the Scots were transformed into dangerous barbarians that had to be kept at bay by a monastic order of warriors. The writer came up with a cast of interesting characters and systematically began having them kill each other off in bloody and nasty ways. And thus A Game of Thrones was born.

Although the book is told from a rotating viewpoint, with each chapter told from the perspective of a different character, generally the primary protagonist for much of the book is Eddard Stark, the Lord of the North and best friend of the reigning King Robert Baratheon. As the novel unfolds it is revealed that Eddard and Robert were instrumental in a rebellion against the "Mad King" Aerys Targaryen which resulted in Robert being crowned king after which all but two of the Targaryen family were killed. Robert was in love with Eddard's sister, but she was killed by the Mad King and instead he entered a political marriage with Cersei Lannister of the powerful Lannister family. The book kicks off with Robert journeying to visit Eddard in his ancestral fortress of Winterfell because his previous "Hand" (which seems to be a title that describes a job we would recognize as "Prime Minister"), their mutual friend John Arryn, died suddenly and Robert can trust no one except Eddard to take the job. And this is more or less simply the introductory back story to the 800 pages of back and forth intrigue and backstabbing that makes up the bulk of the book.

And the reason for the rotating viewpoint that that the book quickly splits into a number of separate stories. In some sense, A Game of Thrones is not really one book, but rather four different books melded together into one volume. In one story Eddard Stark leaves Winterfell to become the Hand of the King in King's Landing and pursue a rather clumsy investigation into the death of John Arryn. In another, Catelyn Stark leaves Winterfell to pursue a second investigation into the attempt on the life of her son, and then clumsily makes some rather foolish political blunders that start a war. In a third, Viserys Targaryen clumsily plots to raise an army on the entirely wrong continent and reclaim the throne of Westeros by marrying his sister off to a war leader among the fantasy equivalent of the Mongols. In yet a fourth, Eddard Stark's bastard son joins the Night Watch who guard the northern wall of Westeros against the eternal winter that lies beyond and discovers his new brotherhood is made up of bastards, thieves, rapists, and other criminals. The Night Watch is also the nicest and most honorable collection of characters in the novel. And even though numerous characters in the book all express how terrible the coming winter will be - in Westeros summers last for years, and winters do too, and, we are told, the snows pile up a hundred feet deep - and how awful the denizens beyond the northern wall are, no one seems to really care, and the Night Watch is under strength, under supplied, and under trained.

One element for which the book gets a lot of praise that I was not overly impressed with was the extensive detail. This is not to say that there isn't a lot of detail, but rather that a lot of the detail is not particularly interesting. At several points in the novel the book seems to devolve into little more than a list of the names of various knights or lords, or an extended description of what everyone is having for dinner. The first is what I would call false depth - it seems like the reader is being introduced to a bunch of characters, but really there is nothing other than a list with no content. And because most of these names are not actually attached to a character that the reader can get to know, the reader simply doesn't care about them. When it is reported that Jaime Lannister killed the Karstark brothers in battle, It seems that we are supposed to be angry with him, but since the Karstark brothers were little more than a pair of names tossed into a list earlier in the book, all I felt was apathy. The second is just tedious when overused, and Martin overuses it. It seems like every couple of pages someone spends a couple sentences describing the dinner they are being served. After a while describing how the characters are eating ribs crusted in garlic and herbs or a suckling pig with crispy flesh and a different kind of fruit in its mouth stops being interesting detail and just becomes clutter.

But these are relatively small complaints, and the worst they do is serve to make the book longer. Because a book that is really at least four books needs some padding. But when one peels away the chaff, what is left is a strong story about powerful but ultimately horribly flawed people doing terrible things to one another, sometimes even intentionally. And it becomes clear that even the central characters in the book are afflicted with numerous failings. The "good king" Robert who replaced the mad king Aerys turns out to be a fundamentally weak and profligate king, dreaming of glories past and undergoing the medieval version of a mid-life crisis in an effort to repeatedly prove just how manly he is. And this leads him to being easily manipulated by his duplicitous wife into engaging in some fairly reprehensible actions, as well as some fairly foolish ones that ultimately lead to his death. In fact, one wonders how he managed to live as long as he had given that when he knew that people had been plotting to kill him in a tournament, he decided to go out and engage in some other highly dangerous play a few weeks later.

Eddard, despite being fundamentally honest and honorable, seems to be fairly slow on the uptake, and his investigative efforts are pretty flimsy. To be fair, his wife Catelyn is pretty much just as sloppy with her parallel investigation concerning the assassin who threatened her son's life, accepting a fairly implausible explanation possible apparently without even verifying if the story she and Eddard are told is actually true before she sets out and starts a war with the father of Queen Cersei. Eddard, for his part, follows an almost invisibly thin trail to a conclusion of politically explosive import. The problem is that the trail of evidence is so invisibly thin that no one in their right mind would be convinced by it, but Eddard is then conveniently helped out when his supposedly crafty political opponent simply confesses the truth when he confronts her. Of course, Eddard is too dopey to make sure he has witnesses when the confession takes place, but that seems about par for the course for him. The Starks are so honorable and so clumsy at intrigue, that one wonders how they managed to hold on to their position in the North against the scheming of their opponents before the events in the book.

And the Stark dopiness extends to the most improbably dumb character in the book, Eddard's daughter Sansa who seems to have been transplanted from another book into this one. One wonders how a child in a noble house could have grown up as insipidly naive as she is throughout the events of the story. Even when it is obvious that events are not transpiring like in the romantic tales she adores, she continues to cling to the idea that they will. But one has to wonder how she got this notion to begin with. Certainly none of her siblings harbor these inane ideas, and even her mother, as as honorably impulsive as she is, is at least not blind to the realities of the world. So how Sansa came to harbor the delusions she does is a complete mystery. One might think that Eddard had simply neglected the education of his daughters, but Arya does not share her sister's moronic outlook. Sansa is selectively not alone in this to a certain extent: while the various knightly warriors in the book are shown to be mostly practical fighting men, in one pivotal scene everyone is taken aback when a mere mercenary is able to best a knight, and the implausible basis for this shock is that a noble knight was defeated by his social inferior. That such supposedly hard-bitten and pragmatic war captains would find this to be an impossibility simply strains credulity.

And this is one of the things that I think people overlook in their rush to heap effusive praise on Martin for the book: in many ways A Game of Thrones is terribly conventional. Yes, no character is safe from getting killed or maimed or tortured in some horrific way, but when he needs an out of place girl with an improbably naive outlook on life to move the story along, he throws her in. When he needs characters to improbably put together the threads of a mystery necessary to keep the story moving, they have an inexplicable "a ha" moment and the story moves forward. When he needs knights who have been ruthlessly practical to become deluded about the fighting capabilities of members of other social classes, they do. In short, the characters in the story are weirdly inconsistent because in broad strokes Martin is telling a fantasy story and he does bow to a variety of fantasy conventions, and the weird compromises he makes to do so stick out like sore thumbs in the book.

This is not to say that the book is bad. It does, however, have many commonalities with most other fantasy stories. The only real difference between A Game of Thrones and standard fantasy stories is the high body count and the fact that pretty much every character in the book is fairly unheroic most of the time. But the deaths come so fast and furious that with only a few exceptions you don't get to know the characters in question before they get stabbed in the gut, or have their arm taken off at the elbow, or their head cloven in two, or whatever other colorfully descriptive way in which they die, and as a result you just stop caring about most of them. And since any character who begins to behave heroically is almost always killed shortly thereafter as a result of their foolishness in thinking they should do something other than the purely self-interested skulduggery, there are few characters to root for. While it certainly makes for bland and predictable fantasy to have characters who are obviously heroes who overcome improbable odds without a scratch, Martin has lurched so far in the other direction that his book becomes tedious at times in the other direction. In short: a book in which everyone is a backstabbing jerk who is liable to get killed a chapter after he is introduced is just as predictable in its own way as the standard fantasy tale.

In the end, Martin has given us a very good fantasy story, albeit a fairly bloated one. Though it is not nearly as stunningly original as many of its most hardcore proponents aver, it is still a compelling and enjoyable book. With a collection of well-drawn (albeit in many cases very short-lived) characters and a collection of mostly independent stories concerning somewhat related events, A Game of Thrones delivers a good fantasy story of brutal political intrigue, shifting family alliances, and creepy walking dead men of ice, all which is wrapped up in a bloody package made of the broken and twisted bodies of characters that in another story would be living happily ever after. So if you and want your fantasy with lots of random death and no heroic farm boys fated to save the world, then this book will be sure to please your reading palate.

Subsequent book in the series: A Clash of Kings.

1996 Locus Best Fantasy Novel Winner: Alvin Journeyman by Orson Scott Card
1998 Locus Best Fantasy Novel Winner: Earthquake Weather by Tim Powers

1997 Locus Award Nominees
1997 World Fantasy Award Nominees

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  1. I love the series, flaws and all. Sansa reminds me of my star-struck daughter, so yes, I know that a girl like this can exist despite her upbringing.

  2. @Julia; I figure it is possible someone might harbor the delusions Sansa has, but she holds to them so stubbornly. Joffrey and Cersei had her wolf killed and she still didn't figure out they were bad guys. The Lannisters killed dozens of her father's men in front of her, and she still didn't figure it out. She is delusional on this subject well past the point of believability unless you posit that she may actually be brain damaged.

  3. Well, yes, I'll grant you that - through every book Sansa acts as if she either has brain damage or is mentally ill....I'm hoping one day she'll wake up and kill Cersei.

  4. I was happy to read your review of the book. After what I'd heard about it, all the raves. I was really thinking I had missed something. I was disappointed in many of the characters, but found them difficult to keep separate due to the sheer numbers.

  5. @Randolph: Thank you. A Game of Thrones is good, but I don't think it is the revolution in fantasy fiction that some people claim it is.