Series: A Song of Ice and Fire #1
Published by Bantam on March 4th 2011
Genres: Adult, High Fantasy
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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.)
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?