Book review: George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones”

“Winter is Coming” by Joel Watson from Hijinks Ensue

So here I am, about a decade and a half late with George R. R. Martin’s epic “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. Everyone and their mother’s second cousin twice removed has probably already read and written down their thoughts about these books, and I’m just yet another voice in the chorus.

Nevertheless, I hope you guys indulge me a bit as I give my two cents worth on a book you’ve all probably heard about over and over and over again the past year. I’ll try to be quick about it, I swear! And if for some reason you are even more behind than I am, I promise to have as few spoilers as can be managed.

To be quite honest, I started reading “A Game of Thrones” with a lot of baggage attached to it. Because it’s been around for such a long time, because of the highly successful TV series attached to it, because of the breathless recommendation attached to both,  and because of accusations that the prose was a little too purple, I was a little wary going into the book.

It starts off harmlessly enough, starting like any regular swords and sorcery epic, if a little more dour and humorless. Martin gives his characters a good base to work from in the early chapters, illustrating them so deftly that it’s easy for the readers to latch onto them and either love them or hate them. But there’s really nothing out of the ordinary.

That is, until an accident happens in Winterfell that kicks things up a notch. It still shocked me even as I knew it was going to happen — I may have sneaked a peek at an episode of “Game of Thrones” — and the way that particular mystery is resolved is just one of the things that makes this large novel such a joy to read.

For one thing, that initial mystery doesn’t plod around for the rest of the book, vainly trying to maintain tension and suspense past its ability to do so. That particular mystery is resolved even before the novel’s halfway point, and Martin is clever enough to introduce other conflicts, intrigues, and mysteries piecemeal throughout the book so the reader still has something to latch onto and ponder about.

Not only does Martin exhibit an excellent control over the ebb and flow of plots in his novel, he also does not neglect building a world that is as alive and vibrant as the plots that move within it. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been reading a lot of YA, but most of the books I’ve encountered this year either take three-fourths of the book just setting up atmosphere with just a wisp of plot floating by or rattle of the events of the story so blandly that it reads more like a badly-written history textbook rather than good fiction.

It’s also not hard to empathize with the heroes that Martin offers us. The best of them are tragically honorable, like Eddard Stark, trying to hold on to a nobler time even as the world around him makes it abundantly clear that that time is past. And the enigmatic Tyrion Lannister — with his quips and tricks — is a perfect voice for anyone who’s ever had to rely on their wits against much more physically advantaged foes. In another time and place he may just as easily have been a sassy gay man.

I’ve also heard a lot about the misogyny present in the books, and it certainly might look that way for some, what with all the raping and pillaging and underage sexing going on. But considering the fact that all of these female characters are moving in a time and place where they are expected to do very little, Martin actually gives them so much more complexity than one would expect.

Daenerys and Arya have these wonderful arcs about the empowerment they gain, and Cersei and Sansa show that women can be just as cunning, loathsome, and insipid as any of the male characters in the novel. The women in the story are fully-formed; they are far from ornamental and actually play important parts and move the plot along.

If there’s anything that might put readers off, it is perhaps the immense size of the book. “A Game of Thrones” runs past 800 pages, minus the appendices, and Martin doesn’t exactly inject the work with humor or romance to lighten up the proceedings. If it’s not the unrelenting heaviness that gets to you, it might be the prose: while it’s not purple, some of it is certainly archaic, and I don’t know if younger readers still have the constitution for something like that.

But if those things don’t keep you away, then by all means pick up a copy of “A Game of Thrones”. It’s going to be a dark and bumpy ride all throughout, but it certainly is an unforgettable experience.

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4 Responses to Book review: George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones”

  1. angie says:

    I’m one of the ones who is even more behind than you cos I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m watching the HBO series right and now and its very interesting :) I want to read the book while the crew is preparing for the second season. Great review as usual.

  2. Bard says:

    I tell everyone to stay away from the series because it is the art of emotional torture at its most refined, leaving just enough hope to add extra pain, and keeping you manacled with the brilliant characterization – all to better destroy its subjects.

    • Ronald says:

      I know! I kind of dread reading the other books in the series because of Martin’s well-known tendency to kill off beloved characters.

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