Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Game of Thrones: Book One of A Song of Ice and Fire

A Game of Thrones: Book One of A Song of Fire and Ice
By George R.R. Martin

(Some spoilers. Nothing major)

This is the first book I read on my new Kindle (or any sort of e-reader, for that matter). Got it for my birthday a few weeks back and I have not been disappointed. There was an adjustment period, but by the middle of the book I hardly noticed the difference from a real book. I guess this ushers in a whole new era of reading for me and given my proximity to English books, I can honestly say I'm stoked about the prospect of reading whatever. I. want.

Now, onto George R.R. Martin's genre-arching, mega-selling, multi-billion dollar ultra-hit fantasy series A Game of Thrones.

I have to admit I was more than a little hesitant to pick this book up as I have had terrible luck with the fantasy genre over my reading career. Actually, that's a really nice way of saying that I flat-out detest fantasy as a genre. I think Id rather read Harlequin romances before fantasy if that gives you an indication of my loathing for the genre.

And don't tell me I haven't tried. Fantasy freaks are always telling me I haven't read this yet, or that yet. Save it. Your favorite genre sucks. I tried Tolkien. Lord of the Rings is one of the only books I have ever started and not finished (I got about 250 pages in before Tom Bombadil made me throw this bloviated heap of trash out the window). I have tried on a couple of occasions to plow my way through one of the Shannara books by Terry Brooks (I think it was The Elfstones of Shannara or the Firepits of Shannara or the Teacups of Shannara. I forget). I have (grudgingly) read the first three books in the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, two books by Neil Gaiman, all the Harry Potters and one of the Dark Tower books by Stephen King, so don't tell me I haven't sampled a cross-section. The only thing I learned in all that reading is that I did not enjoy a single page of any of the books mentioned above (except Harry Potter, I admit).

I always find fantasy novels get bogged down in contrived verbal nonsense. Long-winded introductions where titles and land-holdings and prior achievements are bandied about. Honor, courtesy and gallantry slow the plot down to a snail's pace. If there is one thing I can't stand it's entertainment that doesn't get on with the plot (this is why I hate musicals). It's always an Elvish Lord pledging his unyielding allegiance to the Dwarfish Baron over six and a half pages with talk of dragons and enchantments and defending the Keep.


Give me science fiction any day of the week.

I think my dislike for the fantasy genre stems from my passion for real medieval history. Fantasy is a weird, bastardized version of a very misunderstood and completely fascinating period in Western history and I find that the genre does much harm in most people's understanding of Europe and the Middle East during the era of knights and castles and chivalry.

Which gets me to George R.R. Martin.

By no stretch of the imagination am I suggesting that Martin remains loyal to medieval history. He has, after all, created his own world a la Middle Earth (or Shannara) populated by feuding families and the hint of mystical creatures. But his focus (at least in book one) on the political wrangling of the Seven Kingdoms and the eventual disintegration of the alliance in the wake of King Robert's death ring true to the brutal game of succession that existed in medieval Europe. I was reminded on more that one occasion of the centuries-long battle between the Carolingians and Merovingians in early Medieval France and many of the events in the book mirror real events in the early history of England when it was still divided into the kingdoms of Essex, Wessex and the like (Winterfell is quite obviously Scotland) as well as China and the Asian Steppe. That's cool.

While there were moments in the book where Martin lapsed into the tired cliches of a fantasy writer, he mostly maintains the plot and delivers literally dozens of compelling characters (none of which his is shy about killing off) and enough political intrigue to make Julian Assange blush. While he hints at the notion of dragons and giants, it would seem that the world of the Seven Kingdoms is rooted in reality (mostly) and there, mercifully, exists no magic in this world.

And that's how Martin was able to sucker this fantasy-hating reader in. By resisting the urge to fill the pages with wizards and warlocks and ballrogs and trolls, Martin was forced to conceive of a story based on the strength of his characters rather than the cleverness of his creatures. While I have not fallen for the series like others readers seem to have, I am looking forward to reading the second book in the series, although not right away. Think I'll start in on the HBO series tonight.

Oh, and there seem to be zombies in this book, which scores major points with this guy.

Other reviews from A Song of Ice and Fire:

A Clash of Kings
A Storm of Swords
A Feast for Crows


Erin said...

I only skimmed your review, because I plan to read this series at some point and really hate spoilers of any kind (thanks for the warning!). Just wanted to say, though: why do you think they fantasy genre so often utilizes the medieval period? I've often wondered. I just read a series set in the 1800s with dragons and it was excellent, yet so many fantasy novels take place in a world with many parallels to our own medieval years. Curious whether you have any thoughts on the matter.

Ryan said...

I'm taking a wild stab at this question:

I'm guessing that Fantasy as a genre has it's roots in mythology and since mythology is traditionally based in the distant past. Fantasy has looked there for inspiration. Couple that with the fact that the bulk of Western literature has been penned since 1600, it would seem logical to look to a point in the past based on the invention of the printing press?

That was nothing but a guess.

Chiba Chiba Y'all said...

I would agree. People tend to write what they know.

I hate fantasy for reasons you summed up perfectly. Have you been reading my diary ryan? every step of the way, in the tv series at least, whenever some fantasy element was brought up, i was surprised. Like oh shit... This is fantasy. I had forgotten.

And winterfell is totally scotland.uu

Ryan said...

It's not my fault you left your diary at my place. What was I going to do? You're all the way in Indonesia and I had nothing to read. Thanks for the opinions!

Erin said...

I'll buy that. Thanks!

Lisa said...

Caught the first episode in the HBO series and thought the book definitely had potential but I was scared off by the whole idea that if I liked it, I'd get caught up in a series of long books. Same reason I've steered clear of the Outlander series. That and the time travel thing.

Sue Jackson said...

Hi, Ryan -

Thanks for stopping by my blog and taking the time to comment - I was thrilled to have found another fan of Replay! My husband and I both love that novel. I've read it three times before and I'm sure I will read it again.

I've heard so much about Game of Thrones - thanks for the overview!


DMS said...

I enjoyed your review! I like your honesty. I did not like Lord of the Rings either- even though I do enjoy fantasy. I am happy to see you liked Harry Potter- I absolutely love that series and think JK Rowling is a master writer.

I have heard great things about this book- but from people that loved Lord of the Rings, so I haven't been too interested. Your review made me think I should give it a try.

I found you through Book Blogs and signed up to follow you. When you have a chance- please stop by and follow the blog for my middle grade novel that I am hoping to get published.

Take care-
Jess- although I may show up as Fairday, the main character from my novel. I can't figure out why that happens and I can't fix it. :)

Shaun Mason said...

I was also not a big fantasy fan, but I'm about 100 pages from the end of Dance with Dragons, and I started several months ago with Game of Thrones, casting aside all other books while I read the entire Song of Ice and Fire series straight through, such has my addiction been. As you point out, Martin's characters are very compelling, as is his story, and he includes enough fucking, beheading and zombies to keep an adult reader interested. Many of his characters' personalities are so complex that I think one benefits in the enjoyment of these books with some life experience (I'm 50). I highly recommend all these and beware, they are more addicting than heroin.

Shaun Mason said...

that's my comment above, I don't why it called me unknown.

neal call said...

Just browsing your blog, through a series of links. But I'm intrigued by your hate for "fantasy." Maybe it's just that you hate mass-market fantasy as it's labeled by publishers?

Frankly, I'd list all of the following as "fantasy," or at least closer to fantasy than science fiction on the speculative fiction scale: Paradise Lost, Moby-Dick, Turn of the Screw, Beowulf, The Scarlet Letter, Midnight's Children, The Road, etc. There's really great stuff out there, and I'd hardly look to Terry Brooks' Shannara series as being the outstanding example. It was just the start of the best-seller fantasy craze, which put a lot of trash on the shelves.

I think you're right, though, that Martin's work is head and shoulders above most of the fantasy best-sellers out there. I reviewed it on my blog recently.

chrissyhsn said...

Did you ever try any of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" triology (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass)? I feel like you might enjoy it, based on on the following:

1. You and I seem to have similar taste in books, and I ended up really enjoying them.

2. You hate the fantasy genre but maybe enjoyed Harry Potter--same is true for me, and I ended up enjoying HDM even more than HP.

Ryan said...

I've had His Dark Maretials on my list for so long it's not funny. I really need to pull the trigger and just buy the damned thing. Thanks for reminding me.

Ryan said...

Erm... Materials.

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