Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin // A Fantastical History Book

I've been putting off writing this review for a while - I actually finished the book about a week ago. I have so many conflicting emotions about A Game of Thrones that I needed some time to sort them out. It's been an interesting ride, reading this book, and at one point I thought that I wasn't going to continue with the rest of the series. As you can see from my "What I'm Reading" widget on the left sidebar, I ultimately decided to read the rest, but ....

The truth is, A Game of Thrones just wasn't as good as I'd expected it to be. For a person like myself, that absolutely adores high fantasy and everything associated with it, this is a strange conclusion. Because when I was in the middle of the book, and realized something just wasn't clicking for me, I just couldn't figure out what the heck it was. I mean, George R. R. Martin is just a fantabulous writer. You couldn't ask for better characters or a more intriguing plot, and his writing style doesn't have too much or too little detail. In fact, I'd say it's all quite the recipe for an Excellent book. (And that's saying a lot. Remember what I said in this review?) But...

Something just wasn't right. I didn't feel drawn to pick up the book after I finished my homework and was looking for something to read. I pondered and pondered what it could be, 'cause really, A Game of Thrones seemed to be entirely "my kind of book."

Finally, I told my mother my dilemma. As I was describing it, I finally realized what it was about A Game of Thrones that was bugging me so much.

The interesting thing about the book is that, though written in third person, it is in third person limited, and every chapter the point of view changes, so we're continually seeing the story from a different character's eyes. That's a very cool concept, because the reader naturally sympathizes with the character who is narrating the story. Also, it lets the author show each character personally and then the reader can appreciate their depth.

A Song of Ice and Fire (which is the name of the entire series, if you didn't know) is, in every sense of the word, an epic. It's big, and needs a big setup. Since I'm only partway into the series, I don't know if the following is true, but it seems to me that the plot elements (buildup, climax, resolution) are in the series as a whole, not in the individual books. To me, it looks like the first book is all setup and exposition. It is where we are introduced to the characters and the problem is defined. This might just be a way to get us to keep reading (it certainly worked for me!) - we need to find out the rest of the story.

So here are my main complaints:

Because there are multiple points of view, and because we are sympathizing with multiple characters, I cannot determine who the main character is! And this bugs me a lot. The person I thought was the main character ended up DYING - so clearly, I was wrong. And if there is no main character, I can't tell who's good and who's evil. In my opinion, a high fantasy ultimately needs to define the villain. And though you may think that the Lannisters are the villains - suddenly, when Tyrion Lannister narrates, you feel some doubt. I really, really like Tyrion! But I also really, really like Robb and Lady Stark. And what about Dany? You can't forget her. She is just awesome. But ultimately: all these people are vying for power. They can't all win - two of them have to lose.

Now this is a very interesting setup. We have the conflict defined, and wonder how the heck Martin is going to get his characters out of it. Someone's going to have to lose - fail - die. But it's hard to get the reader's interest when they aren't rooting on a particular character. Sure, I'm against Cersei and Joffrey. But if they fail - so does Tyrion. You see my dilemma? There is no "bad side."

I think this ultimately comes from Martin's desire to create a realistic world. In the real world, sometimes there are no "bad guys." There are long, drawn out buildups. Sometimes the result isn't the best. Sometimes the result is the worst one that could happen.

Martin's world is very much like that. It is up to us - the readers - to determine who's side we're on. And I think that it shouldn't be.

The one school subject that I don't have any interest in whatsoever is history. And I think its because of this sort of long resolutionlessness. There's no plot in history. And though in A Song of Ice and Fire there may be a plot, it only starts manifesting itself at the end of the first book! This is why I almost decided not to read the rest of the series. In the middle, I was getting that history textbook vibe - it was a history written in an interesting way, from various perspectives of the chief powers involved. Definately not my thing. Thankfully, I am a persistent and committed reader - when I start a book, it takes a lot to get me to stop. So I eventually finished and realized that yes, there was a hint of a plot.

Now, you may say that Lord of the Rings is similar in that there are various perspectives and that it's more like one big book split up into a couple volumes. So why do I ADORE Lord of the Rings and not Game of Thrones? Well, Lord of the Rings has a plot. You know it from the beginning. It's all about Frodo destroying the ring. Even after the breaking of the Fellowship, when the focus occasionally switches to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli; Gandalf; or Merry and Pippin, its is still ultimately about Frodo destroying the ring and thus defeating Sauron. And Sauron is clearly the evil power. OBVIOUSLY.

If, in A Song of Ice and Fire, an evil Sauron-like power manifest itself (maybe from North of the Wall?) and the three competing powers end up having to overcome their previous grievances and fight together - that would be cool. But what would happen once the evil was defeated? Maybe one of the good guys gets wounded defending his former enemy and dies an honorable death. And then the other two split up the land between them.
Ok, now I'm just making stuff up. The only person willing to not take the entire land would be Robb, so that wouldn't work.

But that's just ramblings. Now you have the reasons why Game of Thrones is not on my Excellent list. Hopefully the rest of the books will be able to redeem the series.
Though I am truly going to take a break from the intensity after A Clash of Kings and read some Jane Austen. Because, wonderfully, my Kindle recently resurrected from it's near-drowning, and I have a nice Austen collection on there. But that's another story.


Have you read any of the Song of Ice and Fire books? What did you think? Please, no spoilers without warnings in the comments. :-)


  1. Well, actually the history and "no-bad-guy"-thing of Game of Thrones was the one thing I liked about it... I like history and usually I don't like these obviously evil guy, because then the villain sometimes is described as too evil than I'd believe. For no reason. Sauron for example. You never get to know why he should be the bad guy.

    1. I also like sympathetic villains. But after two thick books of "who is the villain and who is the good guy," I gave up. It was a little too much on the other extreme.
      But hey - I don't like history books. Since you do, it seems GoT is more for you. There's definitely an audience for it out there. :-)

      Also - Sauron is balanced out by Saruman, who IS a sympathetic villain. Thus, the genius of Tolkien.
      (Also, Sauron may be explained in the Silmarillion, I think? I haven't read it, so I don't know. But I know what you mean about those kind of bad guys.)


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