Michael's Reviews > A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
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bookshelves: fiction, fantasy

I actually liked this book a lot more than I was expecting to. Fantasy isn't really my genre, and especially not modern fantasy (though I do enjoy a lot of books with fantastic elements in them). Interestingly, Martin's fantasy isn't very fantastic at all; he seems more interested in exploring the political aspects of his fictional world of Westeros, things like loyalty, betrayal, and the forging and breaking of alliances, in a very medieval-esque society. There are a couple of fantastic elements in the story, mainly the white walkers (I can't help thinking of Tolkien's Black Riders whenever I see that phrase, especially since they play similar roles in the story) in the North. But this plot element is a distant one, only discussed (after the prologue) in contexts that are far removed from the main plot. In fact, this is one of Martin's greatest successes as a writer (and also his biggest potential for disaster): the ability to juggle such a massive amount of plot threads that I, for one, am unable to form any guesses as to how he will eventually draw them all together. This is another of Martin's strengths, the sheer unpredictability of the story. Just when one thinks he has guessed what will happen next, Martin wrenches the story away from that direction with an unforeseeable plot twist. Most of the time this is a good thing. While I don't think this is a great book (honestly, probably not even one of the best ones I'll read this year) it is a good book, with enjoyable characters and interesting situations. I don't know that I'd recommend it to many people, unless they're already fervent fantasy fans. But I definitely have to say that I wasn't expecting it to be as good as it was.

Another aspect of the book that I think is definitely worth addressing is the constant comparisons I'm always hearing of Martin's work to that of J.R.R. Tolkien. Having read the first book, I have to say that I cannot agree with these comparisons whatsoever.

If I had to guess, I'd suppose that the comparisons arise from the fact that Martin has done a pretty good job at world-building. This is definitely the aspect of Tolkien's stories that most people seem to seize upon, and it's definitely true of Martin. In fact, I might go as far as to say that Martin has done a slightly better job at world-building than Tolkien has. His maps seem (at first glance, at least, and I admit I haven't given them much more than that) at least as complex as Tolkien's, and the actual societies, and especially the politics (the aspect of Martin's world he seems the most interested in) of his world are much more defined than those of Tolkien's. (The one aspect of world-building in which Tolkien surpasses Martin is that of culture. In all of Tolkien's cultures, we see very clearly what each group of people value, what they take pleasure in, what they see meaning in. One doesn't see this so well in Martin. True, there are cultural differences between, say, the Dothraki and the people of the Seven Kingdoms, and true, there is a definite difference in flavor between, say, Winterfell and King's Landing. But there's not a difference of culture. At least not among the commoners, and I feel fairly safe in saying not among the highborn, either. In contrast, while they are plainly part of the same culture at large, Tolkien gives us significant differences in culture among, say, the Mirkwood, Lorien and Rivendell elves, and even between the hobbits of Hobbitton and Bree.)

However, the issue is pretty much moot, as I think (and I think most people who not only enjoy but really understand where Tolkien's highest achievements really lay would agree with me) that world-building, while it's the aspect of Tolkien's that is given the most popular attention, is probably the least significant artistic achievement he has made. Not that it's insignificant necessarily, just that it's the least significant of all the many significant things he has done as a writer and an artist. I could go into a list of those achievements, but for the sake of brevity (I've already gone on longer so far than I'd intended to go in totality on this subject) I'll only focus on one extremely significant thing: the quality of depth that infuses all of Tolkien's writing. Now what Martin has achieved is breadth, and that is something quite different. Martin has evoked in his readers the feeling that his world stretches on for miles and miles in every direction, and that in all those wide miles each individual mile is detailed and properly filled in. Now there's nothing wrong with that, of course. But it's something very different from depth, which is the feeling that, nevermind all those wide miles that surround us in all directions, each individual plot of land and each individual moment resounds, no, rings, with meaning, with significance, with something so important that I can't really even put a word to it. This is true of The Lord of the Rings for sure, but it's truest of The Silmarillion, which among all of Tolkien's work is most different from Martin's. The Silmarillion, while it covers long periods of time, lacks a lot of the kind of detail that Martin provides in his work. But what it does have is that ringing depth, that mythic resonance that echoes in one's mind and heart and leaves us with a haunting feeling, a mood that is very slow to dissipate. Martin's stories have their fair share of tragedy, but none of the tragedy cuts so deep and resounds on such a high, indescribable level as the repeated defeats, each more hopeless than the last, of the Silmarillion, or of the bittersweet ending of Rings. I'm not entirely sure why this is so, though I'm sure if I gave it enough thought I could write at length on the reasons. But it is enough to point out that it is so. While I do enjoy Tolkien more than Martin, none of this is to disparage Martin at all, only to point out something I fear most readers are overlooking when they say that Martin's works are very similar to Tolkien, something I don't think is true at all, at least not in any really significant way.

(Edit: One thing I intended to remark on but forgot to was a slight annoyance I had at the way Martin describes some of the gods in his world's religion. I don't think Martin has a very good feel or flavor for any of the religions, and there doesn't seem to be any of the characteristics of actual religions in it, at least not more than shallow resemblances. But my real complaint is that he says things like "the seven faces of god". This is plainly grammatically incorrect, regardless of how Martin's religions are designed. He can either say "the seven faces of the gods" or "the seven faces of God". I'm pretty sure he's trying to evoke or express a sense of irreverence for religion and gods in general by doing this, but come on. It's just not how the English language is used.)
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
March 23, 2012 – Finished Reading
February 4, 2016 – Shelved
February 4, 2016 – Shelved as: fiction
February 4, 2016 – Shelved as: fantasy

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