Sunday, March 11, 2012
I'd never heard of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series before the HBO show was announced, news that didn't make me rush out to read it any faster. I love The Lord of the Rings, but I've never been one for the fantasy genre. I find too much sunniness in it, too much wide-eyed, Arthurian belief in the nobility of the Middle Ages. Good and evil are defined in stark terms, and codes of honor replace thick webs of politics. What a load.
All the more unfortunate, then, that I should have ignored Martin's series for so long. A Game of Thrones is so perfectly catered to what I like and dislike about fantasy that it almost seems made for me. Modeled more after historical fiction than anything, A Game of Thrones is so viciously unsentimental in its travelogue of scheming, intrigue, brutality and rape that it almost comes as a shock when the occasional flash of magic enters the picture. Yet Martin also avoids easy cynicism; his characters are flawed, some to the point of nearly pure evil, yet he contextualizes everyone so well that even the Lannisters have their moments of charm, and not just the sly dwarf Tyrion. There's a clear desire on Martin's part for the chivalry and nobility he casts out of the genre; it's simply that he cannot place it within this world and make it fit. And that is why the only character who truly lives up to the morally absolute, honor-bound standards of typical fantasy cannot even make it all the way through this book, the first of seven, without dying. It's a testament to Martin's skill that he satiated my thirst for more grim, realistic fantastical fiction even as he, for the first time ever, made me truly long for the simplistic goodness of a highborn warrior lord to triumph.
I also love that Martin understands that climaxes need not come in the last five pages and that falling action can be as powerful as saving all the good stuff for the end. This structure makes for a series of shocking twists rather than merely one, and it also helps Martin slowly push the scope of the narrative outward, never settling on any one character or story arc, not even that of poor Eddard Stark. By the end of A Game of Thrones, I couldn't wait to continue on in the series because it so effectively hinted at bigger stories (and not merely bigger action, which is over all too quickly). Highly recommended.