I am working on reading Clarissa, the longest book in the English language. A girl can’t read 1,489 straight pages of 18th century courtship drama without occasional relief. She simply can’t. So, I read George R. R. Martin’s ultra-popular 1996 novel Game of Thrones and I am going to review it for you. Hold on to your hats; I have a lot of thoughts about this book.
For those of you who have been living on the moon for the past few years and consequently haven’t heard much about Game of Thrones: it is the first book in Martin’s pseudo-medieval epic fantasy series Song of Ice and Fire. HBO has released two seasons of a super sexy, super violent TV series adapted from the novels. There are five books so far.
Game of Thrones was recommended to me by the two people whose opinions I trust most when it comes to literature. So, I was expecting to love it. However, 500 pages into this 800 page tome, I was not really feeling it. Before all you rabid fans start hating me, please note that it really grew on me. By page 800, I was invested enough in certain characters that I was holding back sobs. I will tell you what I liked about it first.
Martin creates a rich fantasy world. I think fantasy fans appreciate novels set in a world that has its own vivid geography and history, which Martin efficiently delivers. He doesn’t spend a lot of time exhaustively describing features of the landscape, but I can still picture Winterfell, the Wall, Dothrak and other settings from the novel. You will not find long, Tolkien-esque passages or ballads extolling the virtues of heroes who died long before the events of the book. Rather, Martin gives the bare bones of his world’s history and darkly hints at the details. This approach keeps the action moving, creates mystery and lays the foundation for a more intricate understanding of his world, which I assume he will develop in later books.
Certain characters are well-developed. I am mostly thinking of Tyrion, Daenerys and Arya with an honorable mention for Catelyn, Ned and the Hound. Yeah, that’s right, I did not say John Snow. Deal with it, fan boys and girls. Martin presents Tyrion very well. At first you don’t know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. By the end you don’t care that he’s on the wrong side, you are rooting for him anyway. He is nuanced and lovable. Ned Stark’s tomboy daughter Arya is great too and I can’t wait to see Daenerys take over the world. (I don’t know if that happens. Don’t tell me.) Martin deserves credit for bravery. He is not afraid to make you love a character and then brutalize that character.
Plenty of tension. I cannot fault Martin’s plot. I especially find the tensions between the old aristocratic houses to be well done. There is certainly plenty of intra-family tension as well. In fact, there are heavy doses of all your classic types of literary conflict: character vs. character, character vs. the world and internal conflict.
The last chapter. Whooooooooooeeeeeeeeee. It’s epic!
Now on to what I didn’t like so much
Stilted structure. Martin uses floating limited omniscient third person narrative. Meaning, the story is told in third person, but each chapter focuses on a different character. Each chapter title is the name of the character whose perspective we are seeing for that chapter. Now, this isn’t a bad strategy. It allows Martin to bounce around his large fantasy world and let the reader inside the heads of his many characters. However, it significantly interrupts the flow of the different storylines. Martin ends a chapter on a dramatic moment, leaving you wondering something like “Whose disembodied hand is that? How long have they been dead? What killed them?” Instead of getting answers you are sent to the other end of the kingdom to hear about another character that you don’t really want to hear about, because you are thinking about that hand. Six long chapters later, Martin gets back around to the hand, but you have forgotten about it, because you are worried about someone’s crazy sister. So, the author has to spend time at the beginning of each chapter reminding you of what happened the last time you checked in with that character. All this jumping around results in a lack of flow.
Style. George R. R. Martin is obviously inviting the J. R. R. Tolkien comparison with those two “R”s, but he is no Tolkien when it comes to crafting an elegant sentence. Apart from some jargon specific to medieval war craft, his vocabulary is basic. His sentence structure is often so simple that I felt like I was reading the world’s least appropriate children’s book. Simplicity is not necessarily bad. But, those two “R”s put Tolkien in the back of my mind. Tolkien’s style is far from flawless, but it drew on classic Norse, Celtic and Anglo-saxon tales which gave it a certain classic, epic flavor that is missing from Game of Thrones. Also, there are moments in Game of Thrones that seem intended to be dramatic, but fall flat. I suppose Littlefinger is supposed to be funny, right? As I read his dialogue I was thinking “Boy, I hope the writers change this for the show, cuz, yuck.”
Certain characters are not well developed. Sansa is girly and that’s all. Teenage girls are complicated, y’all. Martin had 800 pages to give her a scrap of complexity, but he didn’t bother. Cersei is a bitch and that’s all. Jaime is conceited. Those of you who have read it, did you notice that Martin never mentions that Jaime is impatient until nearly the end of the book when a plot point hinges on his legendary impatience? Not strong writing.
One particular scene bothered me. Sandor Clegane, aka the Hound, is a grizzled, surly, macho, laconic, introvert. He seems to dislike Sansa Stark, because she is noticeably afraid of him. However, late one night he opens up to Sansa and tells her a personal story that no one outside of his family is supposed to know. He then threatens to kill her if she ever tells. Hold the phone! Why on earth would he do that? There is no reason why that character would reveal himself to Sansa in that moment. Martin wanted the reader to know about the Hound’s past before the next scene occurred, so he had him pour his heart out to a frivolous girl with whom he had no previous bond. Silly and unrealistic. The writers of the HBO show obviously agree with me, because they have a different character reveal that information. Later on there are some hints that a protective bond may form between the Hound and Sansa, so it seems like this scene is out of order. Someone as proud, macho and anti-social as the Hound doesn’t show vulnerability to some random girl he happens to be walking next to.
“When dead men come walking in the night, do you think it matters who sits the Iron Throne?”
You may like this book if:
- you like fantasy.
- you like well executed fantasy.
- I was going to list some other stuff, but it basically boils down to liking fantasy. You know, princesses, knights, intrigue, honor, battles, magic.
You may not like this book if:
- you do not like fantasy.
Final thoughts: Game of Thrones is an excellent example of its genre. I didn’t love it immediately, but I am excited to read the next book. You will probably like it. Everybody else does. It makes me happy when fantasy books/shows/movies are very popular. People like to look down on fantasy fans and accuse them of nerdiness. The popularity of this series and of Lord of the Rings shows that deep, down inside most of us LOVE a good sword and sorcery epic. We all wish we had the balls to dress up as Ned Stark and go LARP in a public park. That hat I told you to hold on to, take it off for LARPers, they are fearless.