Sunday, May 8, 2011

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

If you even pay a little bit of attention to pop culture, you know that HBO recently adapted George R.R. Martin's (refered to hereafter as Gurm, which is Luke's and my pet name for him) Song of Ice and Fire series to an incredibly well-made television show.  So before the show started I started listening to the first book on audio during my drive to and from work.  It is an insanely long book to listen to (over 36 hours) so it's taken me a while, but I finally finished. 

Giving you guys an overview of the book is almost impossible.  It's an incredibly complex plot, with about a million characters.  It's set in the fantasy world of Westyros, a medieval-esque society, and is about basically the intrigues, scandals, and backstabbing that make up the titular "game of thrones".  The book is classified as fantasy, but has very few fantastical elements.  This is a world where magic has disappeared, and though there are old wives tales about dragons and white walkers and the Children of the Forest, no one believes them anymore.  At least in the first book, our main focus is courtly intrigue.  For a more detailed book description, see the Goodreads page. 

I always try to give spoiler-free reviews, but I have so much to say about this one that there may be minor spoilers.  I will try to leave out anything major, but beware that the length and depth of this book make it impossible to review appropriately without discussing some minor spoilers.

The main draw of the book for me was that Luke has also read it and is now reading the second book in the series.  We generally have completely opposing taste in books, so it's been really fun to read a book that we both like and be able to discuss it.  My absolute favorite is that this one has had me and Luke discussing not only story but writing and what it means to write well.  I'll just do a bullet point-style summary of my thoughts on various aspects of the writing that we've discussed.

Characterization: Because we're both also reading The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss (two series that we both like - be on the lookout for flying pigs and cold days in July) it's been impossible not to compare the two series.  Both have incredibly complex plots and a host of characters.  Gurm, however, is not as successful in Rothfuss at giving depth to these characters and plot aspects.  One of my major problems in Game of Thrones is that the characters are flat and static.  Edard Stark, our hero, will always do the honorable thing.  Cirsei Lanister, a villain, is the typical evil queen/wicked stepmother character.  We also have Sansa, the girly girl who wants to marry a prince; Arya, the strong-willed tomboy; Robert Barathian, the drunken king; Joffrey, the spoiled and selfish prince; Kahl Drogo, the fierce and proud leader of the tribal "savages";etc, etc, etc.   I could go on ad nauseum with the descriptions of stock characters.  Given any situation you know what each character will most likely do because they are such stereotypes.

Predictability: This was my number 2 issue with the book - Gurm goes so far out of his way to do the thing you'd least expect that you start to expect that thing to happen.  Kind of like a Jodi Picoult book - you know it will have a twist and to figure it out all you have to do is thing of what the most shocking outcome could be.  Then it happens.  At first, this was awesome.  I had several jaw-dropped, I can't believe that just happened moments.  But by the end, I had realized that the author is going for shock value and I saw a lot of the "twists" coming.  Not all of them however.  There were still moments throughout the entire book where Gurm really and truly shocked me.  None of these moments had anything to do with a character acting outside of a stereotype, unfortunately.

Plot complexity: While the entire book is written in third person, each chapter focuses on alternating characters who are spread out across the entirety of their world.  Because of this, there are multiple plot points and opposing points of view from various characters.  The book actually moves at a fairly slow pace because there are so many plot points.  Rothfuss does this so well in the Kingkiller Chronicles, but I feel like in A Game of Thrones, the complexity of plot substituted for any depth of character.  It feels like a very complex story, and you pretty much need a map and a geneological reference to keep track of where you're at and who you're with, but it seemed to me that this really took the place of character development.  Instead of allowing characters to grow and change, we are just constantly introduced to new characters, all of whom are plotting and sabatoging and switching sides.  It keeps things interesting, but really seems to substitute complexity for depth. 

Although I had some critical things to say about Gurm's writing, I have very few complaints on the entertainment quality of the book.  I felt like there were times when the description went a little bit long.  The author describes what each person is wearing in painstaking details, especially the armour.  There are huge passages describing battle scenes and what each person is wearing and what weaponry they have and what they look like.  We also hear a lot of descriptions of what people are eating and how it tastes.  So I had moments where I started to get bored - but every time I'd start to think I was bored, Gurm would throw something in that was either unexpected or shocking or that completely changed the direction of the story, and I'd be hooked again.  I was definitely drawn in from the beginning and my attention was held through almost all of the 36 hours - which is a long time for an author to hold your attention.  From an entertainment point of view, I definitely recommend the book, especially if you love historical fiction/court intrigue.

I realize that most of this post is my critiques of the book, but I feel like I have to say that I sincerely enjoyed all of it, even the parts that I felt were not well-written or were in poor taste.  Luke and I have had some great conversations regarding morality in the book.  We've discussed character motivations, and have agreed that so many of the characters, even the "good" characters that we are rooting for, aren't necessarily "good" people.  So many characters are motivated by greed, pride, and self-interest.  What that says about the difference between good and bad in the book has been really fascinating to discuss.  We're typically drawn to characters who are good and honest and pure, but in this book, that's turned on its head in some cases.  We've also been able to discuss a lot of literary themes that we haven't had in common before, such as what makes a book well-written and what makes it entertaining and what is more important. 

I can't really say whether or not I'd continue with the series if Luke weren't continuing.  I might be bored of all the descriptions and annoyed by the writing and give up, or I might be so drawn in to the story and what will happen next that I keep reading.  But, Luke is continuing, and I've so enjoyed our conversations that I am continuing too.  We'll see what happens next and if any of the writing changes when I eventually finish the next book.  It's over 40 hours on audio, so we'll see how long it takes me...

Three things to note before you read:
There are some things that people may find offensive in this book.  There's a decent amount of sex and some it is weird sex: we've got incest (with more than one set of siblings), prostitution, orgies, rapes, and a young teenage girl being sold to a man as a wife (which = sex scenes starring a 14 year old).  So know that there is sex and much of it is, in my opinion, graphic (and weird in a distasteful way)

Also, I've heard others criticize the books for being sexist, racist, and basically un-PC.  This did not bother me in the least.  We're looking at a pre-industrial society.  The book is intended to mirror our Middle Ages, where, unfortunately women were not treated as equals.  This does not mean there are no strong female characters in the book.  Daenerys in particular is one of my favorites and becomes a fierce leader.  She's one of the few characters I saw change and grow in the book.  Also, I'm not concerned about my fictional worlds being PC according to modern reality.  It's fiction, set in another time, place, and society.  But for those of you who are concerned, this is a criticism I've heard from several places.

Finally, the book is violent and sometimes gory.  We've got battle scenes, torture scenes, murder scenes, infanticide scenes, etc.  You name it, it's in here.  People are killed in all sorts of imaginative and vividly described ways, so if violence turns you off, this isn't for you.


  1. I love your review! I agree with most of it, especially where you and Luke discussed how the book makes you question what morality really is. I had the same discussion with myself as I was reading - how certain characters are capable of doing evil things, but still remaining firmly "good" in my estimation of them. It makes for a great debate.

    I agree that the characters are predictable - but I don't necessarily agree that they're static. This is only because I've read the second book and some characters grow and change substantially in the next book.

  2. I'm glad you and Luke have been able to have some good conversations about this book. Paul and I generally have very different taste in books too(he's usually reading very complex non-fiction books), but he's recently read the Kingkiller books with me and Hunger Games and Catching Fire. It's been so fun to discuss them and get his take on the books that I love. I also love the fact that I can say "They just cast Haymitch!" and he knows what I'm talking about.

    I may have to give Game of Thrones a try too if he'll read along with me.

  3. I haven't read this yet, but my husband and I have been watching on HBO and this is the first book that we are going to both read. Which makes me really excited because he rarely reads and when he does it's never anything that I could get through. So basically, I'm glad to see you say you and Luke have been able to read and discuss, hopefully I will be able to say the same!

  4. Great review. I just read the book myself for the firs time. I was a little harder on it than you. lol My main problem was that before I read it, everyone kept comparing it to the Lord of the Rings. I was disappointed.

  5. Wow, the review was great. My views about the book are almost the same. I agree - the book goes on in an unexpected way. It's unpredictable.
    This is the first book I am reading of this type so I found it really nice.
    This book is full of all the emotions and elements; this book is a journey full of violence, treachery, loyalty honesty, love, families, romance, conspiracies, back stabbing and much more.
    Read the complete review of the book - GAME OF THRONES on my blog -