Wednesday, April 20, 2011

100 Books 24 - George R. R. Martin's GAME OF THRONES

I believe I have already said once or twice on this blog that I lost my taste for fantasy literature a long time ago, disgusted at the vast array of poor Tolkien pastiche and second rate romanticism I found once I was done with the good stuff, which consisted of, well, Tolkein and Michael Moorcock and... yeah, them.

So how the hell has it come to pass that I find myself George R. R. Martin's bitch and not the other way around as the meme mocks?*

It does have a bit to do with the television show that's just premiered on HBO, but not because I have watched it. No, it was the foamy-mouthed, hypersonic, jumping-up-and-down-so-rapidly-the-body-becomes-a-blur excitement that suddenly erupted from all around my circle of friends. People whose taste I had come to respect absolutely were as out of their minds with excitement as little kids at an amusement park that these books were getting a TV series. People whom I have nagged (mostly successfully) to give Tim Powers or Neal Stephenson or Alastair Reynolds or Gene Wolfe a try were nagging me in return to read these, hinting that truly they were of the same level of quality as the works of these beloved favorites of mine.

So, grudgingly and not really expecting much but struggling to keep an open mind, I delved again into Game of Thrones, which I had bought for my Kindle a year or two ago after a similar wave of urging from my friends, but had just not been able to get into. I would start the prologue -- a party riding "destriers" instead of horses (but they weren't like Gene Wolfe's destriers which were big crazy mutant horses but really, just war horses), wearing boiled leather and on some mission and spouting dynastic gibberish -- and my eyes would just slide off the e-page, my mind wandering to thoughts of some other books I have on my Kindle (my Kindle is loaded with awesome; I'm addicted to those giant bundles of public domain authors' complete works that Amazon hawks for free or so close to free as makes no difference: Balzac, Zola, Conrad, Conan Doyle, Burroughs, Dickens etc.) and before long Game of Thrones was no longer on the first page of my home screen, bumped down and down and down by other books I was reading or peeking at. Anyone who says Kindles have not fundamentally altered the reading experience is a fool.

But this time I got past my prejudices -- which, as I've said, are great; David Eddings and Terry Brooks and Stephen Brust have a lot to answer for -- and past the prologue and found that, while there were indeed dragons in this fictional world (and there still are giant dragon skulls in one hall), this was not typical "dragons and dum-dums" as my mom likes to call the genre.

Why this is so is subtle, which is why it's magnificent. As I was discussing with my nearest and dearest yesterday, Martin is kind of the anti-Tolkien in the best possible way. Where Tolkien (and to a degree his legion of imitators) was always way more interested in the mythology and philology of Middle Earth than in the narratives he set there or, I would argue, the characters, Martin has more or less just tweaked our own historical world here and there and focused on telling an intricate and involving story from the points of view of at least nine characters (so far). While he doesn't go balls-out and pull a Ted Sturgeon (Godbody is not only told from the points of view of seven or eight characters, but each point of view chapter advances the same story and is written in first person so masterfully that, as no less an admirer than Robert A. Heinlein pointed out, you could open the book to any page at random, read a sentence or two, and know immediately which character was speaking), he does bring us right into the thoughts, emotions and experiences of these characters, making even probable villains into figures with which we can at least partially identify. And none of them are paragons, either of good or evil; they are all complete and flawed human beings; even incidental characters feel believable and developed as they are evoked and disappear sometimes in just a few pages.

Martin has done this so well, in fact, that in the closing chapters' battle scenes, told, again, from multiple points of view (and in gloriously gory detail), the reader finds herself cheering, in effect, for both sides -- without feeling deranged (which, about derangement see below). Who else could do that? Certainly not Tolkein. Sturgeon, yes. Alastair Reynolds. Tim Powers probably could if he wanted to. Stephenson. Hmm!

That's pretty damned remarkable in any genre. But it's not the only reason I like Game of Thrones and am pretty sure I will like the three extant sequels (which I have already bought, because I am George R.R. Martin's bitch).

Game of Thrones, even as it concerns itself with mighty dynastic struggles over what amounts to an imperial throne, also subtly mocks those very pretensions. Wise men advise young nobles that the common people really don't care who the hell the king is because they have more important things to worry about, like surviving. Adherence to strict codes of chivalry is pretty much never rewarded, but neither is naked self-interest. Nobility and royalty are presented as the matters of luck and chance that they have always been -- and not to be taken for granted. In addition, I've found some of these nobles quite funny, perhaps in ways Martin did not intend.**

Nor are there tales of bogus elevation of the type I complained of in my last review to be had in these pages. We are not following a plucky young hero's rise from obscurity to greatness by virtue of his superior virtue, nor are we watching an unjustly disinherited one fight his way to justice and his rightful place. There is very little actual justice in this world.

But there are lots of interesting little touches -- and big ones -- for long-dead dragons aside, this world is still very much not our own collective history under other names (although famously Game of Thrones is largely inspired by the Wars of the Roses). Here, winter and summer are seasons of extreme and wildly varying duration; as Game of Thrones opens it has been summer for some seven years and everyone with half a brain is starting to brace him- or herself for a winter just as long and bad.*** The northernmost part of the civilized world is guarded by a Wall 700 feet high and built entirely out of ice -- and what this wall is keeping out is still pretty hazy as I finish this first novel. Something called Others that seem to be a hybrid of zombie and zombie master, and possibly other bad stuff as well. And there are the weirwood trees, which fascinate me utterly; remnants of a prior civilization I cannot help as imagining as exceptionally wise and cultured hobbits, the "Children of the Forest", these are white trees into which faces with red eyes (the trees' sap is red, as are the leaves) are carved and which occur only in sacred groves. There are hints these trees are sentient. I am intrigued and hope to learn more about them very soon.

And soon it will be, for as I said, I've now got all four extant books, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4), and I've pre-ordered A Dance with Dragons, supposedly out in July though I'm not holding my breath. And I'm probably going to read them all in one great gulp, even though in doing so I'll be breaking a rule I set for myself at the beginning of this challenge: that my 100 books would also be from 100 different authors. I still want to stick to this so that means, yup, I won't be counting these sequels towards my 100 books. I still think I'll make my goal, never fear.

A final note: if I still haven't convinced you that I'm impressed as hell with Game of Thrones, I stayed up so very much past my bedtime last night finishing it that I basically haven't been to bed. I haven't done that since I was a teenager. Reading Tolkien. With a flashlight under the covers, so I wouldn't get caught. 'Nuff said.

And no, I haven't watched the show yet, nor am I going to until I'm done reading.

*Said meme, for those of you too lazy to click, cometh from Neil Gaiman, who received an email from someone asking the provocative question of: doesn't George R.R. Martin owe it to me/us to hurry the hell up and get the next sequel out already? Martin being notorious for taking his time in publishing said sequels. To which Gaiman, speaking I'm sure for fan-mobbed authors everywhere, answered an emphatic no and started an uproar of hilarity that has even spawned quite a spiffy song by my good friend and fellow Functional Nerd, John Anealio. Go give it a listen - he offers it and the rest of the album on a "pay what you want" basis. Oh, internets, how I love you!

**Seriously, what a load of popinjays these guys are! We're talking some fancy, fancy armor here, kids, bright and colorful, sculpted to resemble animal heads and elemental symbols, be-feathered and color-coordinated -- and I'm not just talking tournament armor here. Fops in metal suits, these guys. It's weirdly endearing.

***I must confess this deranges me just a bit. I'm not enough of a mathematician/physicist to address it properly and am too lazy to make a real attempt, but how these extreme seasons actually work in orbital/planetary terms bugs the hell out of me. I had, of course, a similar problem with Inverted World but felt confident that Christopher Priest would answer my questions by novel's end there because figuring out exactly why that world was that way was the whole point of that novel. Here, I'm not so sure. It's a medieval world and likely no one has the science to figure out this world's orbit around its sun, or axial tilt. It's even possible that Martin is not at all interested in this and it's a freaking flat world with a dome of a sky across which the sun and moon chase each other or something. It's a horrible distraction and I fully accept that it's my problem and not Martin's but it's really kind of the only thing that spoils the book for me. Just, you know, not enough to make me stop reading, obviously.


  1. Hey Kate,

    As I said on Twitter, I'm currently on the second book of this series, and I'm loving it so far. I'm going to be very interested to see what your opinion is when you get to the end of the first. There are... some surprises, ones which I think you will (perhaps perversely?) find quite enjoyable. Or at least the storyteller in you will, if not the fan.

    I, too, had largely written off fantasy for a long time. It seemed like everything in the genre was either a ZOMG SUPAR EPIC 20-VOLUME TOLKIEN IMITATION or an account of a D&D game spiced up to look like a novel. It was only once I started looking into authors that deliberately reject (or at least reject emulating) Tolkien that I started to really enjoy the genre again.

    I read somewhere (might have been Martin himself talking) that the difference between Martin and Tolkien is that Tolkien was very deliberately (and knowledgeably) imitating mythology, while Martin is imitating history. And that makes a world of difference, as you're seeing. While Martin is still a bit constrained by the rules of story, history is much messier, dirtier, and more complicated than myth.

  2. Jason, that sounds exactly right. Game of Thrones feels like really well-written historical fiction a lot of the time, which I absolutely adore.


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