Monday, June 27, 2011

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

A Game of Thrones(A Song of Ice and Fire #1)
by George R. R. Martin

Published: 1996

Synopsis (via Goodreads): Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister forces are massing beyond the kingdom's protective wall. To the south, the King's powers are failing, and his enemies are emerging from the shadows of the throne. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the frozen land they were born to. Now Lord Eddard Stark is reluctantly summoned to serve as the King's new Hand, an appointment that threatens to sunder not only his family but also the kingdom itself.

I think you'd have to be living under a pretty big rock to not have heard about the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin's fantasy series, because the waves have been felt so hard here in Brisbane, Australia (where it 'legally' isn't available for viewing yet)  that all the bookstores have sold out of the first couple of books in the series, and the libraries have waiting lists that roll out the door. I enjoy fantasy, but I hadn't heard of this series before it began flooding the internet pre-season one and thanks to the absolute awesomeness of the series I couldn't help but read the book that inspired it all.

As with many fantasy books A Game of Thrones is set in a world that is both like ours (historically speaking) and completely unlike ours. While dragons, 'white walkers,' direwolves and spell-forged steel is a natural and accepted aspect of life for those living in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros (except the dragons are now long extinct) it isn't the focus of the tale. Instead we witness how something as simple as the request by a king (and long time friend) asks a northern lord to be his Hand (an advisor of sorts) can cause not only a family, but an entire kingdom to unravel.

At least that's what King Robert's demands that Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark journey south to King's Landing initiates. Factor into that a queen's secret that she's desperate to remain so, family rivalry, bastards, a drunk for a king, the previously deposed king's heir coming of age and marrying, the threat that 'winter' and the white walkers (wights) are coming, insanity, distrust, watching eyes and the attempted murder (twice) of a boy who knows too much and you can gleam a bit of understanding as to why the story isn't all sunshine and rainbows.

The story is split into chapters that focus on several of the lead characters, Ned, his wife Catelyn, his 9 year old daughter Arya, his 12 year old daughter Sansa, his 7 year old son Bran, his 14 year old bastard son Jon, the queen's dwarf brother Tyrion and the deposed 'Mad King's' daughter, Daenerys. I found this multi-focus narration to ultimately be an interesting and beneficial way of structuring a story that spans hundreds of miles and countless sub-plots. It is rare for all the narrators to be in the one location, so this style allows you to catch glimpses of the different people, places, customs and loyalties found across the land. Unlike some fantasy novels I've read which spend the first 50 or so pages setting the scene and describing the history, in A Game of Thrones you launch straight into it and learn about the fantasy realm as it is necessary.  This quickens the pace without sacrificing character or setting development and also adds an air of mystery which is quite important in this tale of lies, deceits and double-agents.

Another great addition that this multi-focus style adds is that you see a character or event from several angles. Nothing in this book is black and white, noone is truly evil or good, or friend or foe. When you're reading a chapter from the position of Ned or his family his past infidelities or aggressions are ignored or explained away so as to paint his as a wonderful family man who does what he must for the benefit of the greater community. However if you read the chapters from his enemies perspectives, or even in Jon's (his bastard son) chapters where people feel free to speak as they wish, you realise that he isn't quite as free of sin as his family likes to think/pretend. It adds a great deal of depth and realism to the characters, because let's be honest who in the world is actually perfect? Especially a world when bloody take-overs are considered fairly normal?

The multi-focus narration is also great for advancing the intrigue and mystery surrounding the bit-part characters. They don't have their own chapters so you have to piece them together with what you see from chapter to chapter, and they certainly aren't easy to pinpoint. Their loyalties and motivations seem to switch depending on whose chapter they're in and how the latest event played out. Lord Baelish and Varys are two such characters. Baelish has old ties to Ned's wife, and Varys is a eunuch and has 'eyes' all over the kingdom. Both sit on the King's council and both seem to be moving from side to side, gathering information, plotting and other mysterious behaviours. They're quite fantastic characters and are so important in the direction the novel takes. While they may only have small parts to play, you soon realise how much power they hold and how easily they can make the larger characters dance like puppets on strings.

This constant air of suspicion and distrust are important because many of the events take place because a character has heard something, taken offence and decided to act. It's like a very dangerous game of chinese whispers, for all you know the message you've received is only half the original message or could have been completely garbled down the line. We know that some of the characters aren't to be trusted, or at least seem like they shouldn't be trusted, but because this is a world where loyalty to family through age-old truces and marriages is considered sacrosanct no one thinks to question the information or the word of people considered 'friends'. This means people take dangerous and stupid risks and that the outcome they're expected almost never occurs as they intend. It also makes for fantastic reading, because while we have an idea of some plot-lines and of some not-so-friendly friends we're as much in the dark as the characters most of the time, and are equally shocked, outraged and surprised by some of the revelations that come out.

The book is really well-written, the sub-plots flow smoothly and the dialogue is sharp and quick-witted. Characters only have the one name (unlike LOTR where they seemed to have a different name in every town) and are often fairly simple so it isn't hard to link names to characters and keep them straight - a problem I often have with fantasy. Added to this is the fact that each character (regardless of how small) stands out very distinctly as their own person. They're incredibly well-developed and are all extremely emotional characters, acting out in anger, fear or despair, making them very realistic and very unpredicable.

I really enjoyed this book and can't wait for my bookstore to finally get the series back in stock so I can begin book two. I briefly mentioned at the start that the fantasy elements (i.e. magic, spells, dragons) are fairly backgrounded. It is more that these elements are so well written in that they seem completely natural to the story and don't take over from what the story is really about, the warring of families and general human-y things. So if you avoid fantasy because of the magic, dragons, elves etc then perhaps give this book a try and you may find yourself converted into a fantasy fiend soon enough!


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