Limyaael

[info]limyaael @ 11:17 pm: Review of George R. R. Martin's 'A Game of Thrones'
Because Jordan's Waste of Time still has about 10 fans to one of Martin's, and this is not the way things should be.



Brief Summary: Hell, no way to make this brief. A Game of Thrones is the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire, a series that will eventually be seven books long. Its sequels are A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. (Martin is taking forever with the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, but the books are good enough that I am unrepentant about encouraging new fans. Besides, it's still less time than Stephen King took with the Dark Tower books). It's epic historical fantasy based loosely on the Wars of the Roses. This isn't really England, though.

This world is a planet that's had its seasons knocked out of whack by something in the past. The summer that's on as AGoT opens has lasted nine years, and a winter sometime in the past lasted twenty-five. Most people are currently fearful that the winter coming up is going to be a killer. But not everyone cares about that; a lot of the nobles are still involved in the 'game of thrones,' court politics. Thirteen years ago, the present King Robert Baratheon rebelled against the royal Targaryen line after they did some incredibly heinous things, including strangling his future brother-in-law to death and kidnapping and raping his future bride hundreds of times. He married Cersei Lannister (of the House of the Lion), and the Seven Kingdoms settled into an uneasy balance between the Lannisters and the Starks (the House of the Direwolf), the family that Robert would have married into. And, of course, just so that nobody can rest easily, the last two Targaryen heirs have escaped and are in hiding overseas, with the elder brother preparing to marry his thirteen-year-old sister off to a barbarian lord he hopes will help him win his throne back.

The action starts with Robert Baratheon coming north to ask Ned Stark to become his King's Hand, his second most powerful officer, the previous one having died in mysterious circumstances. At the same time, a betrothal is arranged between Robert's son Joffrey and Ned's daughter Sansa Stark. And in the far north, the Others, white cold-demons who can make the dead do their bidding, are moving...

Structure: This gets a section to itself, because it's one of the most admirable things about Martin's writing. (Okay, so I find damn near everything he does admirable. Hush). Martin begins with a prologue that is, bar none, the best fantasy prologue I have ever read. It doesn't recite some prophecy, it doesn't give a big dollop of mystic history that won't become relevant for thousands on thousands of pages, and it does not have an omniscient voice pastede on yay. It plunges the reader straight into the action, with several members of the Night's Watch, which guards the huge ice Wall in the north, on a hunt for a wildling (outlaw people living in the far north) camp:

"We should start back," Gared urged as the wood began to grow dark around them. "The wildlings are dead."

"Do the dead frighten you?" Ser Waymar Royce asked with just a hint of a smile.

Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. "Dead is dead," he said. "We have no business with the dead."

"Are they dead?" Royce asked softly. "What proof have we?"

"Will saw them," Gared said. "If he says they are dead, that's proof enough for me."

Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner. "My mother told me that dead men sing no songs," he put in.

"My nurse said the same thing, Will," Royce replied. "Never believe anything you hear at a woman's tit. There are things to be learned, even from the dead." His voice echoed too loud in the twilit forest.

"We have a long ride before us," Gared pointed out. "Eight days, maybe nine. And night is falling."
(A Game of Thrones 1)

Clear language, good dialogue, excellent sense of characters, enough information to put us in the setting without strangling us with irrelevant names, and a brooding sense of Something Out There. And what happens at the end of the prologue has to be read. The Something is Out There, and it comes and finds them.

Then we switch to the first of the viewpoint characters. Martin has adopted a structure that works extraordinarily well: he has eight viewpoint characters, all written in limited third-person, and he flows back and forth among them. He doesn't violate the constraints for the sake of an omniscient voice, he writes children differently than he writes adults (though he says that he hates it and never planned to write so long with several main characters as children), and he doesn't have some obsession with making every chapter equal in length or number, so that they go as long as they must and stop where they should, often on cliffhangers.

And, oh, the characters.

Characters: Martin has an absolute gift for characterization. He can make people love characters that seemed hateful at the start of a book, and the other way around too. And he doesn't make any of them into smirking, cackling villains. Each character is the hero of his or her own story, and it shows. It can be absolutely heartwrenching when two viewpoint characters are on the opposite sides of a battle. If you see most comfortably in shades of black and white, this is not the story for you, but if not, then welcome aboard.

I particularly like his choice of viewpoint characters for the first book. Six of them are Starks: Eddard Stark (Ned), patriarch of the family; Catelyn, his wife; Sansa, his proper and lady-like eleven-year-old daughter; Arya, his nine-year-old daughter whom he eventually gets fencing lessons; Bran, his seven-year-old son (gods, the poor kid); and Jon Snow, his fourteen-year-old bastard son by an unknown mother. [At least it seems this way; one of the favorite games to play in ASoIaF fandom is, "Who is Jon Snow's mother?"] This dumps a lot of sympathy on the Stark side, but there are tensions and conflicts in the family that make it less than just a, "Oooh, the poor Starks!" sympathy-fest. Ned is honorable to the point of being incapacitated. Catelyn (bitch bitch bitch... excuse me) resents Jon's presence and Ned's utter close-mouthedness about who his mother was. Arya and Sansa's sibling conflicts are results of a serious difference of temperament and get rendered that way. Bran and Jon are both rendered outsiders by different circumstances, and so aren't a part of a Stark Borg. They are people, not just members of a family, and in a setting where family is a big part of your life, that actually causes quite a lot of problems.

And it helps that we have a Lannister point-of-view, and not from the shining brother Jaime, either. Jaime is a knight, golden-haired, green-eyed, noble and virtuous (on the outside, anyway), and the killer of the last, mad Targaryen King. But instead of Jaime, we have... Tyrion Lannister, his hunchbacked, midget brother, born with one black and one green eye and suspected by a lot of people of being a bastard. And he is never, ever going to measure up to Jaime no matter how hard he tries. And a lot of people suspect him of things he didn't do. And, gods, he is such an easy character to root for that the notion of choosing a side pretty much implodes on itself.

The eighth viewpoint is Dany, Daenerys Targaryen, the thirteen-year-old princess being sold off by her brother Viserys in hopes that his new brother-in-law will bring armies to his cause. I suspect Martin deliberately read up on the princess clich├ęs and set out to prove that they could be done right. Dany is small, young, anxious, and has violet eyes and silver-gold hair. She's also always expected to marry her brother because that is what Targaryens do, and she's utterly terrified of what's going to happen when she's sold off. But she fucking well adapts, gets used to being among the horse-riding Dothraki, and weathers everything that comes her way. This part at the end of one of her chapters (minor spoiler) always breaks my heart:

They were on the far side of the Dothraki sea when Jhiqui brushed the soft swell of Dany's stomach with her fingers and said, "Khaleesi, you are with child."

"I know," Dany told her.

It was her fourteenth name day.
(A Game of Thrones 236).

The characters are expected to grow up far too young (by our standards) and far too fast, but it's perfectly in keeping with the medieval standards of the book.

There are also many, many wonderful minor characters, and I guarantee you that someone is going to thump me in the comments because I forgot their favorite. But here's some attempt at listing the ones I find most fascinating and compelling:

-Sandor Clegane, the Hound, faithful servant to Prince Joffrey, who wears a steel helmet shaped like a dog's head because half his face is burned from his brother holding it in a brazier, and who has a weird, almost-romantic relationship with Sansa Stark.

-Syrio, Arya's fencing teacher, who has her go around the castle catching cats to prove her quickness and balance on one leg as part of her lessons.

-Lysa Arryn, Catelyn's sister, who is crazy-nuts after the death of her husband (the previous King's Hand) and still nurses her son at six years old.

-Petyr Baelish, Master of the King's Coin, who smiles too much and knows everything and has loved Catelyn for years on years on years.

-Samwell Tarly, one of the boys in the Night's Watch which Jon goes to join, fat, roly-poly, and extremely unhappy to be there. The other boys help him.

There are also the six direwolf pups, one for each of the six Stark children, that they find and raise. These reflect their children's personalities in interesting ways. Sansa's Lady is gentle and perfect; Arya's Nymeria, named after a warrior queen, is fierce and will not stand for anyone hurting Arya. My favorite here is probably Jon Snow's Ghost, albino, and apparently mute, and so silently-moving that he can have your arm in his jaws before you realize what hits you.

But do try not to get too attached.

Setting: Going to a medieval fantasy world, as so many LOTR Mary Sues seem to want to do, would suck donkey balls, and Martin shows why. This is a medieval fantasy world as it was meant to be. Life is nasty, brutish, and, above all, short.

The class differences get emphasized in A Game of Thrones to an extent that is not visible in any other fantasy I've ever read. Peasants are an afternoon's sport for the knights, to be hunted down and killed or raped if they've got nothing better to do. The nobles are heroes only to those who really don't know better, like Sansa Stark; "Life is not a song," as Petyr Baelish tries to tell her, but she goes on believing it is. The spymaster is capable, but he can't hunt down everything, and his loyalties are in doubt. People get hurt, and it doesn't heal overnight. (Martin is very, very fond of maiming his characters). Prostitutes get hurt. Mercenaries are not saints. Servants are not treated like their masters' bestest friends. This is a medieval fantasy world.

And people die.

Most fantasy books have a cluster of characters that you know will not die under any circumstances (or else they die Jordan die get resurrected). Martin has several characters like that, especially in AGoT, where you will probably settle in comfortably on a first reading and think, "Oh, he/she is too important/cool/intriguing/favored of the author to die!" And then Martin slaughters them. The level of tragedy and despair in this series is very high. The game of thrones has actual, deadly consequences, instead of just the backbiting gossip and foiled poisoning that is the hallmark of so many political fantasy novels. And when people try to warn you about something, they are really being serious, instead of just being there to add to the spooky atmosphere.

It's great.

The physical setting itself is also wonderfully varied. The eastern continent where Dany is is home to a bunch of nations that don't follow the traditional Western European stereotype, and Jon and some of the other Starks spend a lot of time in the far north, where snow and cold are common even in late summer. This does lead to some depreciation of southern culture that I could do without, but that kind of thing gets better in the later books. Martin knows what he's doing with the Starks, who have managed to survive in this place for about eight thousand years and whose motto is Winter is Coming. They carry some of the north with them even when they are traveling through more standard fantasy landscape.

Plot: Just about every cool thing I could talk about, except the minor stuff I've already mentioned, would spoil something wonderful. But it's dense and exciting and multi-layered and the characters influence each other, and half the time the reader is left screaming because he or she knows that no no no due to something that happened to another character in the previous chapter that's not going to work don't do that ouch aargh! in a brilliant demonstration of why third-person limited viewpoint rules, and omniscient can go hide its head in shame now.

Final Analysis: I love these books. I love what they do to me. There's just about every emotion that you can imagine: sniffling sorrow, nasty gloating triumph, incredible joy, sobbing frustration, stupefied shock, and several scenes that make me bounce up and down in my seat screaming (even if only internally), "That was so fucking cool!!1!"



Yes, Martin is an author I get fangirlish about. Deal.

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