Review: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

1 November, 2012 Reviews 6 comments

Review: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. MartinA Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire #1
Published by Bantam on March 4th 2011
Pages: 835
Genres: Adult, High Fantasy
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
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five-stars

In A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin has created a genuine masterpiece, bringing together the best the genre has to offer. Mystery, intrigue, romance, and adventure fill the pages of the first volume in an epic series sure to delight fantansy fans everywhere.

In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes of the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom's protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

Wow.  Where to begin?

George R. R. Martin’s sprawling epic of a series has been around for years, but only recently, with the release of HBO’s enormously successful television adaptation, has it managed to achieve the kind of popularity that it enjoys today.  Consequently, I had never heard of A Game of Thrones until the promotional storm for the small-screen reworking hit the web, and I became unable to access a single webpage without seeing pictures of Sean Bean splashed across it.  (Oh, Ned…)

And, unsurprisingly, I bought into all of the hype.  I’ve had the first installment in A Song of Ice and Fire sitting on my Nook for more than a year now, untouched save for an initial reading attempt that got me about forty pages in before I moved on to something else.  Not because it wasn’t worth the time, mind you.  I just have the unfortunate habit of getting impatient and jumping from one book to another.

My experience with this particular installment has been rather tainted, as a great deal of it had already been spoiled for me before I even picked it up.  The entire first half was familiar, as I had watched several episodes of the show’s first season before getting to the book, and several significant plot developments that occur in the latter portion had already been spoiled thanks to the wondrous powers of the internet.

I bring this up as a way of introducing this review’s first point – I don’t think I’ve ever responded to a book in as physical a way as I did this one.  Despite the fact that a majority of its story was already known to me, I spent most of my time reading it making quite a bit of noise.  I gasped (a lot).  I cringed.  I muttered.  I yelled a few times.  I managed to get myself deeply invested in a work of high fantasy, which is a pretty surprising thing for me to admit, as I have no qualms in telling you that I do not particularly enjoy the genre.  The swords-and-sorcery style of storytelling has never appealed to me much, and the only real aspect of it that I’ve ever really liked has always been the “sorcery” bit.

Imagine my surprise when I found that I didn’t just enjoy A Game of Thrones, but loved it to bits.  A piece of high fantasy that’s 99% hack-and-slash violence and complex political intrigue, with no  emphasis on magic or some similar idea?  I would have scoffed at such a notion.  So what makes Martin’s work the exception to the rule?

The writing, for one thing.  Martin’s wordplay is gorgeous, and he paints scenes so well that you have absolutely no trouble placing yourself within each one.  Of course, this may be because he has a tendency to describe everything in exhaustive detail, especially when it concerns clothing or food.  (Honestly.  There’s a solid paragraph dedicated to one of the two on every other page.)  Yet it never feels tedious or excessive, and is never so complicated that you need to run for a dictionary every few sentences.  His writing has a subtle quality to it, as well.  It’s never overly flowery, to the point that it threatens to turn purple, yet it never settles with being simplistic and straightforward (which can become rather dull, to be honest).  It also subdues some of the story’s more graphic pieces, à la extreme violence and sexual interaction, and imbues them with a sense of tact that I appreciate.  Excess and blatancy can oftentimes pose problems, and Martin’s restraint does well in keeping things tasteful (for the most part), yet entertaining.

That isn’t to say that this book is child-friendly.  It isn’t.  I feel that I have a high tolerance for the kind of content that is oftentimes deemed “mature,” but some of the novel’s elements are uncomfortable nonetheless.  There’s some heavy stuff here, folks.  Funnily enough, the adult-centered sex and bloodshed that Martin incorporates into the story is no real problem (though the incestuous aspect of it is another matter entirely), but whether that’s due to me being desensitized to such things (thanks, America!) or Martin’s less-than-explicit writing is hard to say.  What gets to me is when children are involved.  Now, the book makes it clear that, in this world, adulthood is reached early on in a child’s life.  By the time these kids reach their thirteenth year, they’re essentially considered men and women, and consequently given all of the burdens that come with adulthood.  Still, reading detailed accounts of the things that these young people are subjected to (particularly when it involves sexuality) is distressing.  Call me prudish and narrow-minded, if you must.  It’s an entirely different time and place, so I’m obviously not going to be wholly synced with the culture that’s presented here.  And, yes, it is a work of fiction.  Still, I have no problem in admitting that I found some aspects of the novel to be too much.

It’s also worth mentioning that A Game of Thrones is extremely misogynistic, or can at least be interpreted as such.  Now, I’m not saying that its author is sexist.  I’m saying that the characters within his story are.  Women are raped, beaten, and generally treated as inferior beings, and it’s painful to read.  Granted, several of the primary female characters are portrayed as strong, role-breaking women, yet this does little to disguise the fact that they are all still expected to be pretty, fertile, and compliant, and failure to do so usually leads to verbal and physical retribution.  It’s tempting to reason it on the basis of the cultural setting, but let’s be honest, shall we?  It may be fictional, and it may be “accurate” for the time period in which it is based, but such sexist overtones cannot simply be excused and ignored.  To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how I feel about it.  I am curious to know what female readers think, as I’ve seen some extremely varied opinion.  Some adore the series regardless, others hate it.  It’s a topic for further discussion, to be sure.

I will warn you now.  This is a difficult book to read, and not simply because of the above reasons.  It’s complicated, and not the kind of story that you can pick up and skip through for a bit of light reading.  It requires a measure of focus and dedication, because there is a lot to absorb.  There’s enough plot in this installment alone to fill three lesser volumes, and the cast of characters is so extensive that it starts to drive one to insanity.  I may be exaggerating, but not much.   I guarantee that you’ll be putting the book down often so that you can reference other sources, and, no, it won’t be a dictionary.  It will be a wiki or two dedicated to the franchise, because you’re going to have to remind yourself who’s who frequently.

Seriously.  There are so many characters.  Martin throws out names by the handful, and it’s near-impossible to keep track of them all without extensive note-taking or a photographic memory.  Throw in a plot filled to the brim with complex politics and a scope that stretches between two continents, and you have a book that gets really confusing, really quickly.  It’s frustrating, I admit.  The first half of the book is a bit slow, and its overwhelming nature tempts one to throw it across the room.  If you enjoy it enough to stick with it and get through the first half, though, I guarantee that it’s worth it.  After the first several hundred pages (yes, it’s long), the plot picks up (yes, it’s really long) and things get intensely interesting.  You reach a point where you realize that, wow, you’re actually able to understand and follow a majority of the storylines.  Similarly, there’s an instant where you stop and find that you can recognize the characters’ names and discern their relationships with one another.  Your knowledge certainly isn’t complete (anyone who claims that they know every character and plot thread is either lying, or inhuman), but you start to see the big picture, and it’s a ridiculously satisfying achievement.

Somehow, Martin manages to take all of these pieces and make a cohesive whole.  It all ties together wonderfully, and I’m at a loss as to how he manages to do it so well.  Naturally, there are a lot of loose ends left after things draw to a close, yet it stands as a compliment to Martin’s storytelling ability that I wanted to pick up the sequel the moment that I finished the first installment.  Normally, such a heavy piece of literature would leave me burned out and in need of a break.  But here sits A Clash of Kings on my nightstand, untouched only because I’ve had “important” things to do these last few days.  (Things like school.  And life.  Silly, I know.)

 

To Conclude…

If you aren’t adverse to a demanding bit of storytelling that may offend you at times, I wholeheartedly recommend that you give this one a try.  It wasn’t until around page 500 that it became a five-star for me, so if you find yourself struggling initially, I urge you to stick with it.  I promise you that it’s worth the effort.

And I suppose that I should start watching the television show at this point, if only to complain about how much better the book is.  I’m eager to see it now that I have the source material as a point of reference.  Though I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of the pointless scenes of wanton sex that HBO always feels the need to include in their programming.  Doing so seems a disservice to the original work, in my opinion.

Ah, Hollywood.  Could we expect anything less?

Paul Beimers

Paul Beimers

Reviewer at Cuddlebuggery
A reviewer, blogger and trope enthusiast who isn't nearly as consistent with his reading as he should be.

6 Responses to “Review: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin”

  1. ChristinaBooth

    Great review. You definitely touched on many of the great (and not so great) aspects of Martin’s work, particularly in this book. Speaking as one who is now on the fourth book in the series (Feast for Crows) the overly long descriptions, massive passages of nothing but political intrigue, and general snail pace of it all doesn’t really get any better, and since I’ve hung out with Martin three books now it has come to be a bit exhaustive.
     
    As for your opinion on the seemingly misogynistic aspects, I definitely come to feel the same way at times. Martin isn’t so much guilty of creating a world where the women inhabiting it are subjected to rape and brutal treatment, but at times I wonder if it’s too gratuitous. It often seems like any woman outside of the main or sub character cast is either raped or brutalized in some sexual way, but at the same time these facets are non-negotiable. Martin’s world is a cruel one and women happen to get the brunt end of the stick, but in a lot of ways its understandable. Disgusting, because we readers live in a society that is nothing like Westeros, but understandable. His main female cast definitely responds to these injustices in their own unique ways, and he portrays them realistically in that it’s not so easy for say, Daenarys or Sansa, to stand up and right the wrongs they are bestowed, because in their world there are rules and customs they have grown up with and can’t simply go against. So at times I’m torn.  As a woman it’s hard for me stomach a young girl being sexually abused and discriminated against without feeling offended, but I also have to take into consideration that Martin’s world is run by men who put these customs in place because THEY think they’re right, and not because Martin inherently shares the same opinion.
     
    And the show follows the first book greatly and definitely does it justice, so even with the graphic instances of wanton sex, you’ll probably still be able to enjoy it.

    • PBeimers

      @ChristinaBooth I wholeheartedly agree with you, Christina.  I’m about a fourth of the way through the second book, and I’m definitely growing a bit weary of some of the tendencies that you mention.  Still, the story and its characters are so intriguing that I find it impossible to put down!
       
      In regards to the misogyny, I think that your views align with mine perfectly.  Martin’s worldbuilding is certainly a conflicting one, so it’s difficult to take a definitive stance on the issues and controversies that surround the series and its treatment of certain themes.
       
      And I am certainly looking forward to watching the television series, despite my reservations. I’m hesitant to begin my viewing anytime soon, however, as I hear that the show tends to introduce characters and storylines from latter books, particularly during the second season.  I certainly don’t want to spoil anything that has yet to appear in my reading of the novels!

  2. Amy Turn the Page

    I slogged through this book (because I’m actually a fan of the show) and I found the writing very dry and VERY repetitive. (Seriously, subtly = not Martin’s strong point). But mostly I just found it a very uncomfortable read. I mean this is a gigantic tomb of a novel and I got very tired, very quickly of how women are portrayed, talked about, treated in it and the language in general. On every other page it seemed a woman was being raped, threatened with rape and/or called a whore.I felt like I was constantly wincing while I read.
     
    I got a lot of flack of friends who love this series telling me I was talking rubbish when I said how misogynistic these books are. I’m not saying the author is himself misogynistic or sexist (though I think it’s very obvious these books are written by a man, particularly when it comes to the sex scenes – Ned and Catelyn’s ‘love’ scene springs to mind – one of the very few sex scenes between a couple supposedly in love and a character we are meant to root for – and it’s all about Ned’s needs, her lying there and doing her duty, putting his seed in her etc – its hardly implied she enjoyed it at all), but the world he has created very much is.
     
    The strong female characters only ever seemed to be as strong as the male characters allowed. There is just this very constant threat of rape for any female character that overshadows the entire book. Women are always being ‘mounted’, or ‘taken’ etc.
     
    A lot of people have argued with me that it is ‘realistic’ for the period/setting. To that I say: this is a fantasy. There are dragons, a gigantic wall of ice, decades-long seasons, zombies, make-believe religion, geography and politics. And the one thing Martin chooses to depict in a ‘historically accurate’ way is the appalling treatment of women?! Major fail. He’s certainly not the first author to have done so, but he does seems to take it to extremes.
     
    I am rooting for certain characters and excited by certain plotlines including some that I picked up in the book that weren’t in the show, but I can’t being myself to read the rest. The whole book just kind of made me feel…  tainted. Besides. There is a very handy wiki page that covers all the characters and plot points in detail – without the need to slog through any more of his books 😉 I’m glad you loved it though! I think you can love a book and still have strong issues with certain aspects.
     
    (Sorry for the long post btw! I just had a lot of interesting discussions about this very topic with several friends and wanted to respond to your review!)

    • PBeimers

      I definitely understand your views, Amy.  I’ll admit that I found several aspects of the book very uncomfortable as well, with the treatment of women and children being the most significant of them.  Martin has crafted a really great story here, but I do feel that he takes it a bit too far at times.
       
      I, too, felt a bit tainted after finishing the novel, though the feeling wasn’t so problematic that it dissuaded me from picking up the next installment in the series.  As you pointed out, it is possible to love a book despite its issues, and, when I look at this work as a whole, I certainly feel that way.  It has its flaws, but what book doesn’t?  That being said, I completely understand why some readers dislike the franchise, and I don’t fault them for it.
       
      And thank you for the comment!  I’m so glad that someone took my review’s request to heart and decided to share their thoughts.  I feel like this series would make for some very lengthy and interesting discussions, so I think that it’s great that we’re able to share our thoughts here in a way that isn’t hostile or degrading.

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