Thursday, August 11, 2011

"Game of Thrones" by George R. R. Martin

Having heard lots of positive things about HBO's television series based on Games of Thrones, I was intrigued about Martin's book, even though I knew its focus is political rivalries, a topic that often drags down epic fantasies for me. However, I was pleased to find out that although the novel is true to its title and the backhanded sport of seeking power is at its center, there's plenty of interesting characters, relationships, and mysteries to keep anyone's interest.

Eddard "Ned" Stark is the patriarch at the center of the book.  Although many years ago he overthrew the former king with his friend Robert, who now reigns as king, Ned has little interest in seeking more power.  He's content to rule Winterfell with his wife and children.  However, when King Robert comes to ask Ned to take the position of the king's "right hand man," Ned is thrust into the turmoil that's been plaguing Robert's rule.  The turmoil is led by the deliciously sinister Lannisters: Cersei, Robert's wife, and her brother Jaime.  Meanwhile, Daenerys, the daughter of the deposed king, is living in exile while her brother plots to regain the throne.

Martin's book begins with something I hate in epic fantasy: a giant name dump.  Within twenty-five pages the reader has been introduced to dozens of characters with different loyalties and family connections.  The sheer number of names is staggering and confusing at first, though fortunately it becomes easier to keep track of everyone fairly quickly.  Nevertheless, to Martin's credit, there are a lot of interesting characters.  Ned is one of the only honest adults, though he's noble to a fault.  His wife Catelyn is strong and proud.  Their children are also fascinating characters and are one of the reasons that the political overtones of the book don't weigh it down too much.  While adult characters like Ned and Catelyn narrate some chapters, many chapters are also narrated by children, including most of the Starks' young ones: Robb, Bran, Sansa, Arya, and the "bastard" Jon Snow.  It's nice to see the contrast in point of view between, say, Arya (a young girl who wants to do more), Jon (a young adult seeking to find his place), and Ned.

Without a doubt my favorite character is Tyrion, the "Imp" (a dwarf) and sibling to Cersei and Jaime.  Though he'd call himself a rascal, Tyrion is also one of the rare adults who is honest and generally good.  Unlike the other Lannisters, he doesn't seek power nor does he hate the Starks.  He's also one of the few with a sense of humor, and his dialogue adds some comedy to a book that is mostly serious.

Although I'd classify Game of Thrones as epic fantasy, there's very little fantasy in it.  Instead, there's a typical medieval setting and power structure with ordinary scheming people.  Martin, like most before him, also chose to include the stereotypical subjugation of women (if you're making up a medieval-esque setting, why can't you invent a world where women have some institutional power?).  This is not to say there are not many strong and compelling women (and the female characters are just as varied and engaging as the male), but I wish that could have been done with a little less societal misogyny.  I also thought it was somewhat inappropriate to have a 13-year-old turned on while consummating her arranged marriage.  However, in the end, though I was somewhat disappointed the novel wasn't more unique in its arrangement, again, it's a testament to Martin's storytelling ability that despite the lack of novelty in the book's set-up, the story still feels fresh and exciting.

Game of Thrones does not end with a giant cliffhanger nor does it end with resolution.  Instead, it ups the ante and stakes in the books to come.  I'm not sure whether I'd try to read the whole series--after all, how long can a bunch of selfish (and a couple noble) people's desire to rule be interesting?--but I might be willing to give the next book a go.

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