Monday, September 6, 2010

Book Review -- A GAME OF THRONES by George R. R. Martin

George R.R. Martin read Tad Williams' epic trilogy, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (some of my notes and comments can be found here) and realized that fantasy was not simply for children, and that an author could do far more than just a pastiche of Tolkien (much like Terry Brooks has been accused). Williams had proven that a writer could draw from a great many sources, such as traditional romance of knights errant, Tolkienesque high fantasy, pulpy and gritty fantasy by such authors as Lieber, Howard, Moorcock, Zelazny, and Anderson, and transcend all of those influences by creating something deep and meaningful while simultaneously avoiding imitation.

George R.R. Martin was inspired by this to begin work on a massive series that was very loosely inspired by the War of the Roses. Thus was born A Song of Ice and Fire. His first novel, A Game of Thrones (released August of 1996, my senior year of high school), runs 860+ pages of intrigue, deception, plotting, and character development. The Alexandrian's review of the first few books states:
This is a brilliant series. Brilliant and painful and beautiful and stunning. Literally stunning. There are points in reading it when I found my mouth hanging agape, in sheer shock.
After reading the first volume, I have to agree.

The book is very strong in its characterization, so much so that the entire plot is very character driven. However, we are rapidly treated to a variety of plot-twists and sudden surprises. When you read this series, you will find many of your expectations to be overturned. Martin's story reflects real life in the manner that the best-laid plans do not always come together as we expect them to, and unforeseen elements will completely derail them. The characters themselves are far from stagnant. They change and grow as they experience things.

And there are a lot of characters. But none of them are identical or interchangeable. Much like R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series, they are all deeply fleshed out and multi-faceted, with entire psychologies so well-defined that their characters make sense. One drawback to this is that many fans develop deep and abiding hatreds for some of the characters, and therefore have difficulty identifying with them (a great example is the loathing many readers have for Sansa Stark). However, I believe that they are limiting themselves by simply reading about characters that they would like. Martin hasn't set about creating entirely sympathetic characters, but instead has built believable personalities and psychologies for each one, making them real and occasionally alienating. Martin's book is fantasy, but it isn't all that escapist (more on this later).

I think there is a great difference between writers like Martin and Bakker when compared to Tolkien, and that difference is the contemporary writers produce books that are propelled by their characters. Tolkien's characters almost seem as if they are along for the ride. For example, the Fellowship is essentially railroaded into the Mines of Moria, Frodo "accidentally" slips on the Ring at the inn in Bree, and the Ring's temptation of Boromir is the author driving a character to take an action that would result in a party-split that otherwise may not have occurred. It's more of an event-driven plot, and the characters are not as free to act as the ones in Bakker's and Martin's books. That being said, the psychology of the characters themselves determines their behavior in the contemporary tales, and while Martin's psychology isn't anywhere near as heavy as Bakker's, it's there and it certainly plays a role.

We may not agree with the behavior, decisions, and opinions of all of the characters Martin presents to us, but we can certainly understand and perhaps even sympathize. And we can even see how actions can cause events that spiral out of control and force confrontations.

This isn't to say that all of the plot is purely character driven (for example, Lady Catelyn Stark and Lord Tyrion Lannister just happen to visit the same inn on the same rainy day), but their behavior is perfectly in character and the choices both of them make on that particular occasion put not only themselves, but the entire continent of Westeros on a course toward war. Once these events begin, we can see that the different players, such as Lord Tywin Lannister, Robb Stark, and others, have too much to lose by not taking action. It is very interesting, especially after reading Geoffrey Blainey's The Causes of War about a year-and-a-half ago, what assumptions and plans different factions make when going into a war, and how these differ from the reality that emerges. We literally see some of these characters do risk-reward assessments for their proposed actions. In a way, this is a fascinating study in how wars can begin from small causes which ignite underlying tensions.

Martin's book is smart, but some might say that it is unfocused. One major complaint is that it jumps around too much. In A Game of Thrones, the story is told through eight separate points of view, with three major plot threads in development (one of which is divided into numerous subplots). Although these may very well unite at some point in the series, being jerked between three major story-arcs can be quite jarring for some readers. It's a symptom of what I call the "soap-opera impact" on fantasy-fiction, in which numerous plot threads have to be playing out simultaneously, and the author must constantly jump from one to another in order to keep the reader's attention. Martin's use of eight separate perspectives involves ample use of cliffhangers between chapters, but to his credit, he doesn't always leave us hanging. He often uses the transition to different character viewpoints to give us a variety of perspectives on events. This comes off as a strength, albeit a tricky one to maintain.

A possible weakness later in the series may come from our familiarity with the characters. Our exposure to more and more players throughout the series may serve to strain Martin's ability to surprise us further. I read that at one point, we get to see the inner workings in the mind of even the Kingslayer, Jaime Lannister, one of the most interesting characters in the series, as a chapter is told from his point of view. The problem with this is, while it can make the characters themselves more fascinating, it also could dispel some of the mystery surrounding their drives and goals, thus making them more predictable. Martin could end up painting himself into corners, forcing himself to make his characters act in ways contrary to their established natures in order to provide more surprises. Simply adding new characters to continue generating plot twists could get old.

In brief, though, I think Martin takes many of the potential weaknesses of his style and turns them into strengths. Instead of leaving the reader dangling after numerous plot threads over long periods of time, Martin is busy developing them. There's no sense of resolution yet, but the three main plot threads are held up by subthreads that tend to move and resolve rapidly enough to keep the reader interested, and the different character viewpoints provide one with a variety of perspectives, which keeps the book fresh and entertaining.

The weakness of this, however, is the lack of any one single protagonist with whom the reader can specifically identify. And this will honestly come down to individual preference. Some readers cannot get past the constant shifts in character, especially to certain characters they dislike. Indeed, a good literary critic might have to ask if this is preventing Martin's work from actually succeeding as something more than just fantasy. Tad Williams' work transcends fantasy, but I really can't say the same about Martin's work. It reads like a historical fiction novel, actually, and not much like a fantasy at all, and while this may be a strength, it doesn't propel the work into the sort of literary magnitude and depth that Tad Williams' books had.

That being said, though, Martin's not writing an escapist sort of story. The tale is bloody, brutal, and full of lots of unpleasantness. He's unapologetic about war. There that he sugar-coats and glosses over. He takes on a lot of challenging and unpleasant facets of medieval society. Sex and sexual violence are a part of warfare. The frequency and brutality with which rape occurs can be disturbing, but Martin is jamming it in our face in order to challenge our whitewashed conceptions of medieval warfare being chivalric (see "Chapter 3: Chivalry and the Chevauchée in John A. Lynn's Battle: A History of Combat and Culture). However, Martin doesn't employ the poetic finesse of a Tolkien that could perhaps propel this book beyond being exemplary genre and something more.

Then again, it's simply the opening volume, and Martin could further cultivate and develop a lot of these more challenging aspects of his tale further.

Is there symbolism in the book? Absolutely. The first chapter has the Starks finding the wolf-cubs, and I would most certainly suggest that the cubs' symbolize the Starks themselves, as well as their fates. This is especially poignant regarding Eddard Stark. (NOTE: This is, honestly, hardly a spoiler, because Martin foreshadows it so hard that if you are surprised then you need your head examined). What Lady's fate says about Sansa Stark is anybody's guess at this point, but I have my interpretations/theories. Arya, Rickon, and Robb all very much embody the actions and fates of their wolves by the conclusion of the book. Only Bran seems to stand out, but that is because I believe his condition is not as debilitating as it seems, since his wolf is fine.

There's some other symbolism in the book, but none of it seems to really jump out at me as embodying some higher sort of meaning. Perhaps I have to go back and reread the series again once I'm finished, but I haven't detected the sort of deeper philosophical and spiritual meaning that Tad Williams underpins Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, for example. Does that make Martin's books at all bad? Absolutely not! Indeed, Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is incredibly unique in it's ability to transcend genre. Martin's work is exemplary, and blows every other fantasy writer out of the water, with the exceptions of R. Scott Bakker, Steven Erikson, early Raymond E. Feist, and J.R.R. Tolkien himself. But you cannot really compare Martin to these works, because, although they all count as fantasy, that is like saying apples, oranges, and grapes are all fruit. There's a limit to how much similarity there is for comparison, before things just begin to break down.

Martin's purpose in writing A Game of Thrones is to tell an intensely political story, rife with labyrinthine politics and byzantine treachery, flawed and intensely human heroes (the best kind), and no clear antagonist. It's tragic, really, if you think about it, but then again, all wars are, after all. And Martin succeeds in his aim. There were times where I had to reread a passage out of sheer disbelief, for the things that occur in it. Martin lacks the over-flowery prose of some fantasy authors, and delivers his medieval setting with all the nasty, dirty details. The sheer variety of his characters and their fully-fleshed personalities is only surpassed by Bakker.

With writers like Erikson, Bakker, and Martin, I think fantasy has a great deal of potential. The only flaw in the book is a lack of a clear protagonist. But it is a necessary sacrifice for Martin to be able to tell the sort of story that he wants to tell. The variety of perspectives throughout the novel gives it a uniqueness that helps to keep the story moving and keeps us from getting bogged down in one character's shoes. Martin needs the varied points-of-view in order to tell exactly what kind of story he wants. Without them, his book would be much weaker, even if it were more solidly and conventionally constructed. Martin's risk becomes the reader's reward.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Style B
Substance A
Overall B+

1 comment:

Chris Cesarano said...

I'm surprised to see the negative fan reaction to Sansa. I mean, yes, I even had a negative reaction, but at the same time the character arc she is intended to take is clear. She's been fed an illusion, where life is like the fairy tales. In fact, she is your typical modern girl grown up on Disney and other such precious childhood feminine culture.

It is very clear from the get-go that George R. R. Martin's setting is anything but fairytale, and you know she is going to have to face the fact that all her assumptions and all that she was taught was wrong. While someone like myself cannot relate to Sansa, I can certainly understand the trials of the character.

Of course, in the end what we have is a very different story. It's not an epic in the traditional sense. If anything I think Game of Thrones has more in common with The Iliad than The Lord of the Rings. When you read Homer's epic tale, do you believe there is a true villain? Is there a definitive bad guy that must be defeated by the good heroes? Not at all. I expect A Song of Ice and Fire to conclude in a manner that will piss a lot of people off. The burning down of Troy is not a happy thing. It is a victory for the Greeks, but can you say the heroes won?

George R. R. Martin writes people. I don't know what to think about him writing from the perspective of Jaime Lannister, either, as the potential to get in someone's head suddenly helps you sympathize with them. Once you sympathize you stop disliking or hating them. Then again, can you truly hate Cersei or Joffrey? Or Tywin himself? Joffrey is a victim of circumstances in his own right. Cersei may be a bitch, but it's not like she chose to be that way. Following Tyrion's perspective helps you see Cersei in a different light than Eddard Stark or Arya could.

Of course, so many readers of fantasy are used to stories following the Lord of the Rings method. In some ways even Memory, Sorrow and Thorn does this, though part of the purpose of that story is NOT to hate your enemy, that there is no true pure black-hearted evil as most fantasy tends to parade. Everyone loves Lord of the Rings, but does anyone know why Sauron is evil? Hell, I don't even know because I haven't read The Silmarillion.

I think it helps to compare A Game of Thrones to The Iliad better.