Sunday, March 11, 2012

50 Book Pledge #7: George R.R. Martin — A Game of Thrones

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.


  1. Glad you enjoyed this so much. I love this series too. Like many others, I got into it around the time the HBO show started; I watched a couple episodes and immediately decided I needed to read the books as well. Before the first season was over, I'd read all four books that were then out. I love its lack of sentimentality, its darkness and moral complexity. It's just amazing, especially the first three books. Wait until you get to A Storm of Swords, the third book. That one in particular blew me away.

    The show is quite good as an adaptation, necessarily condensed, and a little sexed-up too, but mostly very faithful to the tone and ideas of Martin's work.

  2. I've been a long time silent reader, but these last two books were too much of a coincidence to not comment on. I read His Dark Materials last month (I was on the third book when you posted you'd read The Golden Compass), and I'll be damned if I didn't start A Game of Thrones last night. Seems odd that we would have chosen these books independently at the exact same time.

    At any rate, I've enjoyed and subscribed to the site for a couple of years now, you're a man after my own heart and I look forward to more posts in the future. If you do plan on going to grad school, I expect this site to stay as frequently updated, workload be damned.

  3. Ed: I'm about to start Storm of Swords. The first two books are just exemplary (even if there's one too many dreams sequences in A Clash of Kings for my liking). And the show is equally great, though yeah, they did pump in the nudity. But hey, HBO must be spending a fortune on it for risky returns, and if they commit to all seven seasons needed, go for it. As it is, it already feels like a medieval version of The Wire.

    Tony: Thanks so much. Always nice to hear feedback.