A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In the interest of full disclosure, I really like the HBO series of the same name, and have seen all of seasons 1 and 2, eagerly awaiting season 3, before I read the first book. Generally, that's not how I like to do things, but...well...these books are long.
But, I finally got around to reading the first book of the series, and I honestly was not much surprised. The book and the TV show are very similar, though, like in most things, the book offers more detail in places, and a different, often shifting perspective. The major plot points are all there and all the same. So, in the end, I was not surprised.
That said, I liked the book. What I think Martin has done with this series is marry the mystery novel to the adventure novel, and he's done so in perfect harmony. There is a lot of intrigue as to what has happened before the novel starts and a lot of clues that the reader has to follow to piece together some sort of agenda for the characters. This book is one hard-boiled detective away from a Raymond Chandler novel. And it's none the poorer for that. A lot of adventure novels, like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Hobbit, lack surprise. Certainly, we all hold our breath and wonder how the assembled armies at Helm's Deep are going to survive the massive onslaught of orcs, but most adventure novels end with the characters winning. The book would have taken a much darker, nihilistic turn had the Rohirrim and Elvish armies had been slaughtered, leaving only the intrepid Hobbits to stand against the combined forces of Sauron and Sauroman. In these fantasy novels, the point is not so much the struggle, but the toll that struggle takes on the characters. Frodo is a changed Hobbit at the end of that quest, like Bilbo before him. The loss of innocence is the greatest loss of that adventure, and now he can never go back.
In Game of Thrones, the adventure is there (armies, fighting, etc.), but there is also this looming mystery: why did John Arryn die? What about the Baratheon bastards frightens the Lannisters? How long has this plot been going on to seize the throne? What are these dragons? The reader has to put these things together while reading about the adventure of the Seven Kingdoms. And again, there are plenty of those: Robb leads the Northern Armies, Arya trys to escape the city once her family's favor collapses, John's struggle against the Others, Tyrion's escape from the Eyrie, and so on. What is not clear is why all of this is happening.
Another of Martin's strengths is how fully realized his characters become. In the end, these characters were not just flat stereotypes fulfilling roles to advance the plot; these were well-rounded characters who I felt almost friendly toward. I could identify with Ned's struggle between honor and friendship, I could understand Tyrion's conflict between family and doing the right thing, I felt Robb's hesitance at leading an army all he wanted to do was be a kid. Martin has a way of connecting and humanizing characters, even though they all fight with swords, live in castles and exist in a world where dragons, magic and giants are all real things.
But, all of this aside, the book was not the most elegantly written. For all of it's strengths, and there were a lot, Martin's style left a lot to be desired. He often just told you how character's felt rather than developing these feelings through action. There is an odd focus on the clothing worn and the decorations on armor. There seems to be a lot of superfluous sex scenes (particulary with Daenerys and Drogo and even more particularly near the end of the book). But these minor issues did not really get in the way of my enjoyment of the book. That is, though I felt like the book could have had a more sophisticated syntax and style, I didn't feel that Martin's style detracted too much from the text (unlike in the books of Dan Brown, where I felt like he has tons of interesting ideas and stories, but the writing is so bad I couldn't stomach the narrative).
I know that fantasy novels aren't for everyone and that my soft-spot for the genre leads me to like this book more than some might (after all, when I was a kid, I almost exclusively read D&D novels), but I would still suggest this novel to anyone. Not just fans of books with knights and dragons, but anyone who likes a good story. Underneath all the armor plating and intrigues of court, this is just a good story about how people's conflicting desires will often put those around them in horrible situations.
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