Saturday, 27 August 2011

Review: 'A Game Of Thrones' by George R R Martin

This book is the first of a proposed 7-part story known as 'A Song of Ice and Fire', of which only 4 parts have been published so far, in 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2005. [Edit: book 5 appeared in 2011] At the present rate of production, we might all be dead (including the author) before #7 appears. The story is fantasy, although not the high fantasy of Tolkien - there are no elves, orcs or wizards (so far), and the only dwarf is all too human. There is more political intrigue and betrayal than undying honour or valour, but there are dragons and direwolves, and magic of a sort, although it is subtle at this point.
I am totally ambivalent about this book. I love it, but I also hate it. I am fascinated, but also repelled. Reading it has been a totally absorbing and emotionally draining experience. There is an army of devoted fans out there, and entire websites devoted to detailing and analysing every aspect, however small, and I could easily become just as obsessive. I am not sure that I want to, so this review is partly catharsis and partly an attempt to keep a sense of perspective.
Let me deal with the fascination first. Every fantasy book defines its own world, and Martin's is intriguing and well thought out. There are two defined continents, a western one (Westeros) and a larger eastern one (Essos), and as you can tell, names are not the author's strongest suit. There may be other continents beyond these. The initial focus is mainly on Westeros, but there is some action on Essos too. There are cities and kingdoms and castles and ancient forests and vast grasslands, and it all feels nicely believable. The far north of Westeros is permanently cold, and the south (some 2000-3000 miles away) is tropical to desert. The most interesting aspect of this world is that both summers and winters may last for several, sometimes, many years, and their cycles are not predictable (at least, not to the characters). There are some mysterious entities to the far north, but these are kept at bay by a 300 mile long wall of ice 700 feet tall.
There is a 12,000 year backstory, with an original people, now possibly extinct, several waves of invaders of increasing technological complexity, a lot of wars and some mysterious events, which may or may not have a bearing on the overall story. There are two religious dogmas, an older and a more recent one, which co-exist, plus others on the eastern continent. Martin is no linguist (unlike Tolkien), so his Westeros characters all conveniently speak the 'Common Tongue'. The Essos characters have their own languages, but we hear no more than an odd word or phrase of them
One quibble: the author is American, and his invented world falls very much into the northern hemisphere pattern. Westeros corresponds with North America and Essos with Eurasia, with a relatively friendly (to Westeros) western seaboard, a more exotic and barbaric central plain, and the far east, with its Jade Sea and places like Yi Ti. It would be nice to see a little more imagination at work here.
A bigger quibble is one that I have with Tolkien too: the described world seems like a vast, empty landscape, with only the merest hint of farms or fields or fertile valleys. All these cities and castles and armies of warriors had to be fed somehow, but there is no real indication of the vast acreage of agricultural land that would be needed to sustain them. In Essos, for instance, the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo has 40,000 fighting men in his train, with all the corresponding numbers of hangers-on, riding about their vast grasslands and making camp wherever they want. There is simply no way to feed those kinds of numbers with the occasional recreational hunt and a bit of bartering for fruit, it takes military levels of organisation and bulk food supplies. But on the plus side, the author takes some pains to describe the food: barley and root vegetables in the north, exotic fruits and spices in the south.
The book's setting is, essentially, medieval Europe, at least in Westeros. There are kings and queens, knights and various lordly retainers, swords and battles and tourneys, a little chivalry and a lot of aggressive power-snatching. This seems to me to be an extremely conventional, not to say hackneyed, approach, and although it leads to some dramatic action and court intrigue, where you are never quite sure who is trustworthy, it is still unimaginative and a disappointment.  Nevertheless, the author adds some original touches to it, and some of the descriptive writing (of the battles, for instance) is glorious.
Apart from the aristocracy, who cover the full spectrum of human characteristics, there are the 'smallfolk', who appear to be uniformly awful. They are ugly, often deformed, dirty and smelly, and live as outlaws, whores, thieves and the like. Even those who are relatively ordinary are routinely hostile and treat those around them badly, whenever they can get away with it. The city of King's Landing is depicted as a cesspool of unrelieved wickedness, and the countryside is filled with bandits and cut-throat robbers. Very occasionally, a relatively kind or at least normal peasant is wheeled on for plot-related purposes, but mostly Westeros is a dangerous and unpleasant place. This too is less than original.
The plot is driven by the machinations of the court, and with the rule of primogeniture, there is the inevitable emphasis on male heirs, fighting prowess and legitimacy, with females relegated to the role of mothers, and passive objects of desire or alliance. There are signs that some of the female characters may become warriors or other kinds of plot-drivers, perhaps at the expense of motherhood, but certainly the females are less rounded characters than the males.
But Martin's great success is in making us care about his characters. In this book, most of the action is seen from the point of view of one family, the Starks, and they are by far the most normal and likeable in the book. Despite a political marriage, the parents love each other, and are devoted to their children, who, despite their squabbles, are close too. Each chapter takes a different character's point of view, but there is never any difficulty following who is who, and the story runs on seamlessly from one chapter to the next. Occasionally, this device is jarring - after a dramatic cliff-hanger, for instance, we want to know more at once, rather than switch to another character and location
The plotting is immensely complicated, encompassing not just the here and now, but the traumatic events (not fully described) of fifteen years before, and even earlier than that, but mostly it's easy enough to follow, and the revelations are well signposted, without ever being blindingly obvious - you think 'oh, of course' rather than 'well, obviously' or 'wait, what?'
I have a bit of an issue with the sheer number of characters. To Martin's credit, he has worked out names and histories and heraldic devices for not just his main aristocratic Houses, but a whole welter of lesser ones as well, but this doesn't mean that he has to blind us with all of this (or even any of it). It would be enough to mention an odd detail in passing, to give the reader a flavour of this long and convoluted history. But no, when it comes to the battle scenes, we have to hear all the names and have their flags described, in mind-numbing detail. And the names are all rather dull variants on Anglo-Saxon names, with a great deal of repetition to boot.
And so to the big issue - the cause of the loathing and repulsion mentioned above is this: Martin takes great delight in killing and maiming even his lead characters, in a variety of truly horrible ways. Of course, there's nothing wrong with killing off a character, in principle at least, if it drives the plot forward in unexpected ways, or illuminates a character, or to create a redemptive ending, and in a faux-medieval setting there's no need to shy away from the gritty reality of life. But an author of fiction does have, in a sense, a contract with the reader: the characters are the vehicle by which the story is played out, but they are not merely expendable props, they are the sole means by which the reader engages in the fictional world. If you remove a main character without an obvious reason, you cut the reader adrift from that.
After several of these nerve-shattering incidents, I broke my number one rule, and went off to the internet to find out which characters survived (at least as far as the last book published). I never normally want to know what's coming next, it really spoils the surprise, but it is extraordinarily stressful when characters find themselves in a threatening situation, and you have no idea whether they are going to survive or be horribly maimed. And Martin must have a very sadistic streak - just when you think it's all over, there's a completely unexpected and cruel twist.
Nevertheless, the writing is excellent, with only the occasional infelicitous line or Americanism to jar the reader. Martin's world is totally believable, engaging and absorbing. The landscape feels real, and the people and events are described with just enough detail (although the author's interest in the niceties of the costume seems a little excessive).  There is the real feeling that the overall plot (lengthy as it will eventually be) has been well thought out, and is really going somewhere. There are mysteries to be unravelled, loyalties to be untangled, prophecies to be interpreted and an underlying layer of magic added with a very light hand to leaven the mix. There is simply no knowing where it will all end, but you really really  want to know.
Westeros is a fairly brutal place, where people treat each other in horrifying ways, but the violence is never unduly graphic, and although there is a great deal of killing and maiming, there is no torture (yet). There is a certain amount of casual rape, but only in the context of a society which is barbaric on various levels and sees it as the natural right of a victor after battle. Again, it is not described graphically, and sex scenes between leading protagonists are actually rather gentle (so far).
I do feel uncomfortable with the rather casual approach to justice. Even in the midst of the fairly revolutionary events depicted here, it somehow feels very wrong that characters should be found guilty of a crime without even the most cursory attempt at a trial, and minor characters are simply killed off to create dramatic tension. Given the emphasis on knightly codes and oaths and honour, it seems quite unbelievable that one group of knights should kill another group in cold blood in the middle of the city, without being subject to any penalty whatsoever.
There are some plotting glitches. Distances in Martin's world are vast, and land travel is slow, but somehow they manage to move around quite freely (perhaps the author is deliberately vague about times and dates). Communication is conveniently fast by means of trained ravens, a slight cheat but acceptable. However, the characters travel almost entirely by road, even when this is obviously slower than using ships. At one point, a group of characters travels by road, while another character uses a ship and arrives at the destination ahead of the original group, begging the question why they chose to travel by road at all when the sea is a much quicker route. And one has to wonder why there is so much disparagement of bastards, when there are so many of them (except that it is necessary for motivation).
The book opens with the discovery by one set of characters of direwolves, the sigil of their house, and ends with the discovery (or creation, perhaps) by another character of dragons, the sigil of her house. The word 'sigil' is an interesting choice by the author, as it implies more than a mere heraldic symbol, but a degree of magic, of protection, even. It will be interesting to see whether this means something: the dragons are clearly significant, but it would be impressive if the wolves also turn out to have some importance to the overarching story, rather than being simply mobile plot devices - conveniently protecting their characters from harm, or finding things at key moments, for instance. In particular, the two daughters are now without their direwolves (while the male characters get to keep theirs), and I wonder what the meaning of that is (if any).
It should be obvious by now that, although the writing is extraordinarily vivid, the characters well-drawn and the plot intriguing, I have serious reservations overall. My main concern is the amount of casually brutal violence inflicted on even the most innocent or honourable characters. It may be that when the story reaches its end, we will be able to look back and see that all of this was necessary for plot or character reasons, and the resolution could not have been achieved without it. But until then, I reserve judgment.
Thoughts after rereading: It is six months since I first read this book, and since then I've read it twice more. What is there to say about it? With an average rating of 4.42 on Goodreads, rated by 36,383 readers, and with 4,724 reviews (to date), what can I possibly add? What can I say that has not already been said before, and undoubtedly better? This is the book that got me reading fantasy again. Decades after 'Lord of the Rings' left me stunned, here was another piece of fantasy that completely blew me away. Larger than life characters, a vipers' nest of political plotting, a whole world of places and inter-related families and history and creatures and magic and strange happenings, plus a dazzling writing style - all that and more blended to make a story I was unable to put down.
Well, there has to be a but, doesn't there? Right from the start, almost, I had concerns about some of the author's methods. After the rereads, that has settled into three issues. Firstly, Westeros is a dismal, depressing, miserable place. No, I don't want fairies and unicorns, or a simplistic good/evil dichotomy, and gritty realism has its place, but this is beyond realism. Nowhere in the real world do you find quite so many selfish, scheming, treacherous, downright evil people, and so few people with even an ounce of good nature in their bones. Now it may be that Martin will eventually toe the traditional line, and good will triumph over evil (in some sense) somewhere in the latter part of book 7, but until then we are left with a book whose message appears to be: life's really a bitch, and then you die (horribly, painfully and slowly).
Secondly, Martin does appalling things to his main characters. They die (if they're lucky), otherwise they're mutilated, crippled, beaten up, enslaved and forced to see and do hideous things, even the children. Minor characters fare even worse, but that's almost expected in a genre that deals with end-of-the-world scenarios. But the main (point of view) characters are the way the reader engages with the story, we have to care about them on some level to enjoy it, and having them vulnerable to death or worse at any moment actually interferes with that. The reader is liable to disengage, and that (surely) is not what any author wants.
In fiction, it's not enough to make your characters suffer just because you can. They have to suffer for a reason - because the plot depends on it, because it makes their character grow, or because the author is making a point about life or humanity or some such. There are too many instances in Martin's work where the reason is not at all obvious - Bran's injury, for example, where we can clearly see the proximate but not the ultimate cause (in plot terms).
Thirdly, the story sprawls. Now, fantasy is prone to largeness by nature - you can't fully describe an epic story in standard novel format, so three volumes at 600+ pages apiece is perfectly normal. Entire continents and worlds need a lot of people and places to fill them. Martin, however, takes this to a whole new level. The cast of thousands all have names and affiliations and children and servants and histories and sigils and named swords. No one could possibly remember a tenth of it, without a photographic memory. To get a handle on it, you have to take copious notes or use a wiki or read the books many times.
And the plot sprawls too. The first book's narrow focus on the Winterfell/King's Landing axis, plus the Dothraki movements, makes for a tight story, with only 8 POV (point of view) characters, excluding the prologue. But the later books begin to spread all over Westeros, with 9 POVs in book 2, 10 in book 3 and 12 in book 4. Book 5 is reported to feature 16. This, combined with the explosion of the originally planned trilogy into 7 (at least) books, makes me wonder whether the story has actually got away from the author altogether.
Now, I realise as I write this that all these points are precisely the things that many people love about the books. Gritty reality is much better than elves and Tom Bombadil tweeness, they argue, it's truly exciting if any character could die at any moment, and the depth and richness of Westeros is awesome. I can understand that. When you've eaten marshmallows for years, something acid is just what you want. But I think Martin takes it too far, and too much acid is destructive. I still see these as defects.
They aren't the only ones, of course. Sizes and distances are dodgy, the magic is all over the place and the medieval European setting is conventional, to put it mildly. But none of that bothers me much, because the story is so good, and the writing is extraordinary. I'm still going to read the whole series (assuming the author and I both live that long). I'll still enjoy it. I trust Martin to produce an amazing finish. But ultimately I will judge the books by the reason for Bran's injury - was it critical for the plot, or did the author do that just because he could? [First written January 2011]

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