Book Review: A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin
I realize I am really late to this party (the book came out in the 1990s), but I usually am with everything reading related—there’s just so much to read, and so little time to keep up, and school set me back on my fantasy reading quite a bit. But I wanted to read it, so I finally did. And I enjoyed this book very much by the end. It was actually pretty tough to decide what rating to give it, because for many parts of it, especially in the first half, I was really annoyed and fully anticipated I wouldn’t be able to finish it (I thought I was going to have my first Caw-Caw Crow review), but the end was fantastic, and would have been worthy of an Epic Dragon rating had there not been some of the things that, at least for me, work against the over-all experience.
On the whole, and despite giving it a middle-grade, I would recommend this book to people who, like me, didn’t get to it right away and have been hearing about it a lot. I especially recommend it if you are one of those people who heard about the HBO show and want to watch it, but who, like me, don’t want to watch it until you’ve read the books, or at least a few of them. So, that said, onto the particulars of my book review of George R. R. Martin’s very cool story, A Game of Thrones (link to the Facebook page for it, that has other links for the series, etc.).
One of the things I like the most, nay, loved the most, about this book is the descriptive places where Martin paints a setting with absolutely masterful craftsmanship. I am insanely envious of his spectacular vocabulary when it comes to the devices, parts, pieces, architectural structure, bits of armor, boat terminology, fabrics and so much more related the medieval setting he describes. The language is natural, works well, and really adds a layer of credibility to the book that many authors don’t have. He just comes off as very smart and well-read. He reminds me of Cormac McCarthy a little bit in that way.
But it’s not just vocabulary and description, it’s the delightful way he weaves together a setting to include the people, the activity, the physical setting, the noise and general ambience. It’s truly wonderful writing when he gets it just right. Here’s a little example:
The Mud Gate was open, and a squad of City Watchmen stood under the portcullis in their golden cloaks, leaning on spears. When a column of riders appeared from the west, the guardsmen sprang into action, shouting commands and moving the carts and foot traffic aside to let the knight enter with his escort. (Martin 234)
There’s a lot happening there besides just a knight entering the city. We see what color the city watch wears, we know what weapons they are carrying, but we also are given to understand that they are generally relaxed and not feeling any particular urgency since they are leaning on the spears rather than standing bolt upright or even just “standing with spears” or something else that would have told us nothing beyond the who and what. We also get the sense of the business of the city by the fact they have to move carts and foot traffic aside, which shows the actions they take, but also sets the scenery by putting those particular items there to begin. It’s really effective writing in that way. I love it when Martin does that, and he does it a lot. In places, it’s a clinic in good writing on that front.
However, these very same things that I really liked about the book are also sometimes over the top. There are many places, many, where he seems to go on and on and on about this bit of food and that flavor of something else, or the scroll work on this guy’s armor or that doorway. I am not a skimmer when I read, because I read not just for story but to learn about writing and how writers do what they do. I consider George R.R. Martin someone worthy of study because, as a writer, clearly I can learn a lot from him. However, because I don’t skim, I found myself frequently thinking, “Come on, get on with it all ready. Who gives a crap what vintage of wine it is or that it came from the high hills of such-and-such, the fruit born of the something or other vine some distant summer back when the high lord so-and-so had his first baby and shot the White Stag of Whatever and blah etc., blah.” This kind of thing counts as Chekhov’s Gun to me.
If you’re not familiar with what that is, Russian playwright and author Anton Chekhov famously said, “If you have hung a pistol on the wall in the first act, then it has to be shot in the last act. Otherwise, don’t hang it up” (Senelick xxviii). He was speaking of writing plays, obviously, and while I realize that A Game of Thrones is not a play, the point can also be applied to storytelling in a larger sense that goes beyond the stage. I understand the need to set the scene and even set up future events in a novel because you have no physical sets for an audience to see, but I think there are a lot of pistols hanging on the walls in this book that have not gone off. And yet I had to read about them anyway.
I know some people like that super-detail, and I do to, to an extent. In places, I really loved how he did it. The same goes for the long history lessons that get stuffed in here and there. Some were very cool, others tedious. I am sure there is a purpose farther down the road in the series for the tedious-seeming ones, so I won’t harp on that longer. I am more than happy to concede that I don’t know all that he has in mind for the stuff I read but doesn’t apply to anything in the first book significantly. I’ll even concede I probably missed connections along the way. However, I will also point out that an author can only expect a reader to retain so much of that sort of detail, and beyond that point, the rest is basically wasted because there won’t be a payoff for the reader. They simply can’t hold on to it all, so despite having read it some seven hundred or a thousand pages ago, there will be no “ah ha” moment when it finally plays out. It’s just lost in the sea of words.
So, that’s my main beef with the story. Too much detail that breaks the rule of Chekhov’s Gun.
My second primary criticism with it is the seeming obsession the story has with whores and sexualizing little girls. In an early chapter in particular, somewhere around page eighty-nine, there is a scene that is so completely impossible to believe, that not only did it shatter the fictional dream, it nearly made me put the book down and be done with it. I actually did put it down and read another book before I came back to A Game of Thrones.
Now before I go on, I would like to point out, I am not a prude. I have no problem with fictionalized sex, rape, incest and even violence to children if that’s what needs to happen for the story to be honest to itself. I expect the very fact I say that will offend a few people, which only proves my point that I am not a prude at all. However, I do require as a reader that the scene feel true to life, an honest depiction of a reality, even a fictional reality as is being created in a novel. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening in places in A Game of Thrones.
(SPOILER ALERT: The next paragraph has a bit of a spoiler in regards to that early chapter I’m talking about, so if you want to skip over that, jump down to the next big paragraph below, where I wrote “Spoiler Part Over Now.”)
The problem I have with the particular scene is that it is unreasonable. The girl, Daenerys Targaryen, is thirteen years old, her parents have died, she’s in a foreign land amongst strangers, and her older brother who is cruel to her and pinches her nipples all the time, sells her to a much older man of a different race that she’s never met, who looks different than anyone this thirteen-year-old has ever seen, and who takes her as a child bride. They go to a wedding ceremony where she sits, betrayed/sold by her only living relative, terrified and watching this barbaric seeming ritual that includes public fornication by pretty much everyone as they dance around the party humping each other, which traumatizes the girl since she has never witnessed that sort of thing, obviously, and then comes fighting in which she sees people killed and hacked open (twelve of them as I recall), and all done right in front of her, to her horror as it is another thing she has never witnessed before. So she sits mortified through all of this, absolutely dumbstruck with terror, after which she is given some bride gifts, including horse, which she does like, but then has to ride out into the cold night where she is stripped naked by this complete stranger of a much-older man and then made to stand shivering with cold as he fondles her for a very long period of time and then, miraculously, when he finally decides to use a finger to, test the waters as it were, she is suddenly—well, let’s just say that suddenly she is just horny as hell and can’t wait for him to do her (Martin 90).
I realize I have never been a thirteen-year-old girl, so I could be way off here, but, I’m sorry, I just don’t buy that scene being believable in any way.
Spoiler Part Over Now.
Now I realize that is only one scene, but that particular character gets a narrative treatment that was distractingly creepy throughout the story, and to me it seemed unnecessary. Additionally, the seemingly random sexuality pops up a few in a few other places as well. It kind of reminds me of some HBO and Showtime series where they stick naked people in the weirdest places, and have people banging randomly despite there being no real advancement of plot by it. I probably would have ignored that as an issue had it not been so pronounced with the Daenerys Targaryen character up front.
Beyond that, there are whores everywhere in this story. It’s like, literally everywhere. I’m perfectly fine with a patriarchal fictional world, and I’m fine with the fact there are only a few female characters with any admirable qualities. It’s fiction, roll with it. But the men in the story are all endlessly consumed with whores. I understand it’s supposed to be a rough-and-tumble world, but I’m not sure why so many big, powerful, super-wealthy noblemen have to stoop to whores as often as they seem to do. Surely there are enough serving girls and farm girls to attenuate at least some of that, not to mention all the sisters, daughters, widows, etc. of the aristocracy and merchant classes. Surely there would be more of those around to satisfy all these knights and other levels of the elite to a degree that would mitigate the nearly constant presence of whores or talk of whores. Not saying those guys wouldn’t go get some hot dirty-whore action periodically, at least some of them surely would, I’m just saying, the abundance was conspicuous to me at times.
My last bit of nit picking is about the dialogue where, in places, it came off as affected or weak. In some spots, it was fabulous, and yet, in others, it was so completely awkward I couldn’t believe the same person wrote it. For example, and this will tie in nicely to my last point, he’s got one character making a simile in dialogue that says something was going to be “uglier than a whore’s ass” (Martin 219). First off, there’s that whore thing again. Secondly, since when are whore’s asses so uniformly ugly that they became the symbol of all things ugly, the paragon of grotesqueness, and the icon of hideousness in all its anticipated forms? Are whore’s asses misshapen with such ubiquitous constancy that we came to the point where they define the adjective? I think not. Frankly, whores can be ugly, certainly, and the lifestyle might easily work upon one’s comeliness over time, but I would think that there are at least as many whores with spectacular asses as there are whore’s with nasty, sore-ridden, ugly ones. To me, having a nice ass seems like almost a necessity of the trade for some grades of whoredom. So, yeah, stuff like that.
(And I realize this may seem like an over-the-top critique of that particular bit, but I’m trying to have a bit of fun, and, well, I blame that sort of thing on the book’s editors. I will be the first to admit I’m sure my books have dumb stuff in them too, stuff that gets by you when you write and can’t even see it anymore after going through the manuscript a zillion times. But George R.R. Martin is published by Bantam, a part of Random House, a HUGE publisher. He’s not an indie like me, so surely he’s got people going through his manuscripts, professional people, who are helping him catch stuff like that. So, because of that, I don’t feel bad having a bit of fun to make a larger point, and it’s also why I rate the book a Center Centaur as well. I’m always going to rate harder on traditionally published writers because they get a lot more help and their books cost a lot more and, therefore, I don’t feel it is unfair to expect more from the finished product.)
So, I’m sure by now you’re thinking I didn’t like this book. But I did. I like it a lot, except where those things I just mentioned make it feel very long. It’s fabulous in many ways, and in many places the descriptions are not too long and are simply wonderful. I stopped and read several of them carefully, in awe of the precision and beauty of the prose. The descriptive stuff is usually very good. Just as more often than not, the dialogue is exceptional, too. In fact, my favorite character in the book is Tyrion Lannister, and it’s because of the fantastic dialogue. He’s got so many good lines, like, really, really good lines, that I often laughed aloud and reread the passage several times just to enjoy the fine writing that did that to me. There are other characters that are very strong too, Lord Eddard Stark for one. A wonderful character, and even the character of Sansa is very well done. It would be easy for a lesser writer to butcher the job that Martin has done with her, or at least what I think he is doing with her. It would be easy to make her too weak or too strong, and he’s walking that line very well.
The strongest part of this book, and the reason I totally recommend this book despite what I have said about the parts I didn’t care for, is the plot. This story is just good. Period. George R.R. Martin has got, at least with this first book, a fantastic plot underway. Weaving a storyline is definitely a strong suit for Martin, both on the chapter level (many of his chapters end leaving you with chills or tears) and for the whole A Game of Thrones novel.
This novel works as a standalone story even though it’s part of a longer series. Granted it barely stands alone, and I imagine he got some criticism for “loose ends” from people when this one first came out (I know the feeling… hey, you can only write sequels so fast), but it works by itself if you want to try his style of writing out. If you read it, and don’t move on, you will not feel like you wasted your time. It’s good; the plot is awesome; the depth and grandeur of the telling is fantastic for the most part; and the ending is magnificent. I got to that last page and was like, “Dammit, now I have to read the next book.” And I will.
And the HBO series looks awesome!!!! (Everyone I’ve talked to says its good, but I’m probably going to read all the books first and then watch the whole series straight through on DVD, because I love doing that!). Here’s the trailer for the series, season one:
Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam. 1996.
Senelick, Laurence. “General Introduction.” Anton Chekhov’s Selected Plays. Trans. and ed. Laurence Senelick. New York: Norton, 2005. Xxvii-xl.