John Wiswell's Reviews > A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
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Apr 22, 08

Recommended to John by: Nick Sabin, Cassie Nichols
Recommended for: Fantasy readers, folklore readers, political fiction readers
Read in April, 2008

This may be the best Fantasy I've read since J.R.R. Tolkien. I highly recommend it to any fans of the Lord of the Rings series who have been disappointed by the other supposed epics that have shown up since. Martin has created a sprawling world, full of intrigue and potential, and sowed it with characters who can carry out interesting conflicts within it. His prose is far more readable than the average Fantasy writer, capable of beautiful phrases and sweeping passages, but also excellent at carrying out action and expressing mindsets. In good characters, a good world and a good grasp of English, he certainly has more of the ingredients for great Fantasy than I've seen in a long time (and he bought them in bulk).

Now that I've put my best praise up front, I can talk about the weaknesses. Specifically: the beginning. The first hundred pages are a chore, and you would be well-served bringing a notebook to keep track of all the names and characters Martin throws at you. There is Bran, named for his father's dead brother, one of a dozen other Brans who will be mentioned. There is Robb, and there is King Robert. Jon Snow and Jon Arynn are different people. Eddard and Ned are the same person. God help you when some of them get nicknames.

The names might not be such an issue if the characters stood out more, but aside from remembering that Bran likes to climb and Jon Snow is a bastard who angsts about his father, there really isn't much to hang onto. The second hundred pages improve by starting to jam the characters into personal plots, but reading is still slow and grim for much of it. Only Tyrion Lannister stands out as having a particularly unique voice, and he's a cynical intellectual midget who literally somersaults out of a window in his first paragraph. He really didn't need help being unique.

Lastly, the sexuality is pretty thick and jarring in those 200 pages, and Martin is not particularly entertaining, arousing, endearing or interesting in his descriptions. In fact, all he did was creep me the Hell out. He doesn't pull back on it later. You merely get used to it. The intimate details do help mood occasionally, but it more seems like his personal fascination that I'd suffer through (for thankfully shorter lengths of prose) to get at the worthwhile material.

If you should make it beyond that gap, brave reader, you've got something great ahead of you. The situations of the many characters form and get direction, such that they are mostly distinct (though sadly most of Martin's women sound the same and are very similar emotionally - with two keen exceptions). The book bounces between a dozen characters in their attempts to grow up, start lives, start families, run kingdoms, search for doomed heroes, protect the king, train in the way of the sword, play the politics of the court - everybody's up to something, giving you a plethora of perspectives as the major conflict emerges between two houses. You can easily come to care about people on both sides of the war that begins near the end of the book, which is an incredible feat, especially when it's this compelling. You're likely to sympathize with people who may eventually fight each other to the death.

I can't praise the momentum enough. Beyond the portion I've already criticized, Martin builds momentum like no prose writer I've read in quite some time. One character's actions will have ramifications for another; one battle means another; one curious detail reveals a large plan. Characters will die, plots will fail, and you will not always see it coming. Better, the more trivial chapters, like a trip to a blacksmith, expand on the world or give characters a chance to chat in highly entertaining ways, such that it holds interest without needing to rush plot on you. The hundreds of names for places and people you'll never see in this book are a testament of Martin's intricately built world, which may be the most lovingly developed since Tolkien. Equally important, he puts his best efforts into placing interesting characters into that world - a failing of the majority of modern Fantasy writers. A Game of Thrones goes from character to character, building up an incredibly compelling drama that spans hundreds of miles and dozens of interesting people, and grows more interesting by the chapter. At page 100 it was a chore to pick up; at page 500 I didn't want to put it down.

Martin makes many of his influences quite obvious: Mervyn Peake (the description of the Iron Throne could have come straight out of Gormenghast, and all of the family fighting sounds like an elaboration of Peake's plot), J.R.R. Tolkien(the loving details and lore of weaponry, the labored sense of history in the world, the bygone beastiary, and the endless frickin' names), the Nibelungenlied (not to spoil it, but one character's hunting death sounds like an elaboration of Siegfried's demise), and classics like Shakespeare (like Peake and Tolkien, you don't write about this many troubled, royal-blooded in-fighters without a hard-on for the classics). Similarly, most of the elements of classic sprawling storytelling are here, including most of the major characteristics of the classic hero and villain, but the individual characteristics are divied up amongst the entire cast. So one character gets the Jedi-like wise but quirky swordmaster teacher, one has a history of heroism (but little these days, a nice spin), one is a king (but not kingly), one is a tormented bastard, one is powerless (and actually crippled), one is totally innocent and pure (not for long in this world, though), one wins the battles and so on. Similarly, the villain elements: the untrustworthy council, the diabolical wife, the giant, the brute, the torturer, the snotty brat - if magic shows up more frequently in this world, there will definitely be an evil witch or wizard. None of these elements feel hackneyed (except possibly Martin's almost misogynistic tendency to make women weak or vile - and even there, the weak girls are sympathetic half the time), generally feeling like they fit into this world that was once inhabited by dragons and shades.

That's the last thing I really need to praise. Martin's is a world haunted by Fantasy. It's fascinating. You don't see the dragons; they're supposed to be dead. The gods don't appear. There's a mention of manticores, but that's it. This world seems to have descended into realism out of a mythical past. But Martin is just setting things up, and when the first major mystical thing hits, it has enormous impact. After that you're left to wonder how much Fantasy content exists in his world. How much is real, and how much is myth? And it's not done in the standard skeptical tone, but with reverence and intrigue, and it always follows the plot, rather than becoming the plot, making it all the more engaging.

Erata:

I’m doing this as much for me as anyone else:
Eddard/Ned Stark: Badass of Winterfell. Lord and executioner.
Catelyn Stark: Eddard’s wife, mother of Robb and Brandon. As a child she was betrothed to Brandon Stark, Eddard’s brother. Now one of her sons is named “Brandon.” Yeah, that’s not going to be an issue.
Brandon/Bran: Eddard’s wussier son, likes animals, used to like to climb.
Robb Stark: Eddard and Catelyn’s son. Older than Bran. Kind of a prick.
King Robert: Here to hang out with Eddard, get drunk and make you confused as to what Robb is doing in camp.
Jon Snow: Eddard’s bastard son. Catelyn hates him. Socializes to some level with Bran and Robb. Totally rocking the “outsider” vibe.
Tyrion: A "dwarf," which I guess means a deformed midget, though he's clearly capable of physical feats that even perfectly healthy people can't do. He debuts by somersaulting out of a window and landing in a handstand. Fun dialogue.
Jaime: Cheeky bastard. Incestuous, murderous - really, going to be fun to see him die eventually, and it'll be fun until then, too.
Circe: "Cersei." Uh-huh. I'm waiting for her to turn someone into a pig.
The Mountain: Big mean guy
Arya: The girl with the sword
Sansa: The girl with romance
Dani: The girl with the huge husband

So Jon Snow hangs out with Pip and Sam on the Night's Watch? That's worse than "Circe." I love it.
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Ujjwal I am 16 so would it be a good read for me or not? Or should i wait few years..? P.S: I like fantasy and thriller type stories like Narnia,Harry Potter,Hunger Games(i know its sci/fiction) and LOTR..?


John Wiswell Game of Thrones has less of a singular direct story than the Narnia, Potter and Hunger Games books. It follows dozens of characters in all directions, not leading up to any one particular event or climax. It's also quite a bit darker. I would have enjoyed this at 16, but it depends on your maturity level and how grim your fiction is allowed to get. If you read through all of Lord of the Rings, then you've doubtless got the grasp on language to tackle this.


message 3: by Jyv (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jyv Nice review and I'm, frankly, astonished at the level of hatred some people see to have for this book. It is the best fantasy book I've read for a long time. Most others don't hold my interest at all, but this one keeps you thinking about the characters long after you've put the book down. I had to watch the series again to feed my addiction and now I'm craving for book two.


John Wiswell Jud wrote: "Nice review and I'm, frankly, astonished at the level of hatred some people see to have for this book. It is the best fantasy book I've read for a long time. Most others don't hold my interest at..."

You may be jarred by my review of the second book. It's an uneven series, but it has some of the most promise of anything I've read post-Tolkien, and definitely establishes what it wants to do. What it wants to do, though, may be too grim or hopeless for the tastes of many readers, and the cultural bigotries in the book are likely to turn off many more. I can grasp disliking it - but it is a great work, at least up to the point I've read.


message 5: by Alan (new)

Alan Sheinwald G.R.R. Martin has created an interesting world with lots of likable characters, epic story and unique in a sense of playing with reader.


Will M. Could you give me a brief description of how fantasy is this fantasy novel. Did that even make sense? its just that I see that there are no dragons whatsoever, and all I see in the plot would be gaining the throne, based on the description of the book, but to what extent? I've only read the prologue, and I really liked it to be honest, but your advice would be very much appreciated and would really influence my decision whether to continue reading this or not considering the length of this novel, and series. Thank you


John Wiswell Will wrote: "Could you give me a brief description of how fantasy is this fantasy novel. Did that even make sense? its just that I see that there are no dragons whatsoever, and all I see in the plot would be ga..."

A Game of Thrones is very grounded and has little outlandish stuff in it, such that when it crops up it can be very surprising both for the characters and readers. It's an approach I don't usually enjoy, but Martin really makes it work. By the end of the series you'll definitely have run into a few supernatural elements, but still most of the characters' lives are defined by what the mainstream views as plausible.


message 8: by Penina (new)

Penina Mezei The hype surrounding this book and whole series are well deserved. Your book review is right on spot. - Penina Mezei


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