Thursday, March 5, 2015

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

I've been in Ste. Genevieve for just over a month. One of the best things about my apartment is the close proximity to the local library. I only got wireless internet service in the apartment today, which has afforded me plenty of time to read and write after work. 

My Remington Fleetwing is being used to pen my latest novel, an epic fantasy. I've loved epic stories of brave heroes and adventures since I was a boy. Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Huck Finn are but a few of my favorites. 

So, before setting out to write a work whose scope and breadth trumps everything else I've written up to this point, I began seeking the advice of one of the most renowned and experienced writers of the genre today.

George RR Martin has done it all. Books. Short stories. Screen plays. TV scripts. Today, he's best known for his epic multi-volume series A Song of Ice and Fire, which has been running since the 1990s and has yet to be concluded. 

I had known of Martin's work for years in the same way I had known about Stephen King. Sensational stories abounded. No one was safe in his world. There was lots of death. Betrayal. Torture. Cruelty. And everybody gets raped! 

HBO made quite a stir when they decided to produce a miniseries based on the novels. The show's grit and graphic sex cast the entire franchise in a dark light. At first, like Stephen King's work, I was hesitant to pick up any of the books because of what other people said. Yet, I watched several clean scenes on Youtube. The acting was superb. I watched videos explaining the history of Westeros.

Most important of all, I liked listening to George RR Martin talk about his love of the craft. He smiled. He laughed. He made jokes. As with King, I watched dozens of interviews before deciding "This guy seems pretty cool. I think I'll give him a chance."

And so, when I got my library card, I marched to the paperback section and left with a copy of "A Game of Thrones."

First edition cover.

At first glance, the book is intimidating. The Bantam paperback version clocks in at just over 800 pages, not including the appendices that explain each nobel house. But after enjoying Brandon Sanderson's "Mistborn," I was ready for another long savory ride.

"A Game of Thrones" is the story of the Seven Kingdoms, which make up the continent Westeros. An uneasy peace has settled in the sixteen years following a rebellion which ousted the last king and set Robert Baratheon on the throne. At the heart of the story is Eddard Stark of Winterfell who is caught up investigating the mysterious death of the king's Hand (deputy commander) John Arryn. When the secret is revealed, Eddard starts out on a path that plunges Westeros into civil war.

But you probably already knew that. As with most trending works of literature, I'm late to the party.

So, did I like it? Yes! 

The first thing that struck me about Martin's writing was its simplicity. Being a novel about knights and so forth, I expected lots of purple prose with flowery descriptions. Not so. Although the alternate spelling of certain words ("Ser" instead of "Sir," "Maester" instead of "Master") invokes the spirit of old English and classical chivalry tales, Martin's prose is very matter-of-fact. No where is this more important than in the characters' dialogue. A few phrases are restructured, archaic expressions used when making formal greetings, but these serve as a faint reminder to the reader that they are not witnessing modern speech. Even foreign words like khalasar (a unit of the nomadic Doth'Raki people) are used in such a context that the reader can quickly discern their meaning.

Another thing that struck me was Martin's frequent use of indirect discourse. For those of you who don't know what that is, it is a writing technique that involves mixing the narrator's words with the feelings of a character. 

For example, note the difference between the following sentences:

  1. John frowned as Martin struggled to get out of the mud.
  2. John frowned as Martin struggled to get out of the mud. How many more times would he have to tell his brother to watch where he was going?

The third point about Martin's work I enjoyed was the mythos of the world. Every culture, from the Starks of Winterfell to the exiled dragon-spawn nobility, thought and acted just as a person would after spending a lifetime in their culture. I enjoyed hearing each character grapple with the legends about the ancient societies before them, most of which centered around conversations about Valyrian steel. It followed a rule of fantasy I've heard many times: show the reader enough to convince them that there is a larger world out there, but don't reveal every detail and spoil the intrigue. 

Lastly, I felt that there were no wasted chapters in this novel. Yes, it's a long book. However, I felt that each chapter served to better develop each character, even if it did not necessarily serve the plot. At no point did I think, "Come on. This is boring. Get back to the real story!"

But what about the violence? Sexual content? Cursing? Well, yes. They are present, though not by means of pornographic in-your-face scenes as one might expect after watching the show (if what I've read about it is to be believed).

His Wikipedia page says that Martin "writes frankly" about these subjects. Frank expressions do not equal outright obscenity. The best comparison I can think of is a history book. You might read, "The German army took the town and hanged forty suspected partisans." Martin's prose reads in a similar manner when discussing the darker aspects of war and society. Yes, some characters suffer brutal deaths. Yes, there are incidents of rape in the book. All of these things are dealt with in a matter-of-factly way, not something to be enjoyed or reveled in.

As far as cursing goes, there are few instances where the characters use words that modern readers would associate with "cussing." Since they all swear by a pantheon of deities, one can't argue that they're taking Jehovah's name in vain. Most of the time they swear by something else, namely the Others (undead creatures thought to live in the desolate frozen wilderness beyond Westeros' northern border).

"A Game of Thrones" defied my expectations and gave me a lot of good inspiration for my own material. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

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