Nov 15, 2011

[Books] A Game of Thrones

Despite my geekery, I can only read so much content in the time allotted to me by causality. Thus I'm man enough to admit that I had not heard about George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series until HBO announced that they were adapting the books into a TV series. Boo me.

But fast forward to the present and it seems everyone is trying to catch up with the books given the success of the HBO television series and its very successful initial run. It's not often that a fantasy series gets so much acclaim, especially in this time when geek shows can be popular one moment and yet not cost-effective the next.

It took me a while to fully immerse myself in the show, but eventually I was hooked and decided to pick up the books shortly thereafter. And I'm glad that I did since they're a whole different level of awesome even when compared with the TV show. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that the two properties of the franchise remain to be distinct and unique experiences. Both may try to tell the same story, but they manage this in dramatically different ways.

This is definitely some of the best fantasy that I' read in recent years - and I can't wait to get started on the next book!

A Game of Thrones is the first book in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. It was first published in 1996 and since then it has won several awards including the 1997 Locus Award and has been nominated for the Nebula Award as well.

The book has us following different characters utilizing different perspectives for each in order to tell the overall story. There are quite a number of story arcs of interest, but I suppose we can more or less narrow things down to a few key branches.

First, we have the Starks of Winterfell in the North. This noble house is currently ruled by Eddard "Ned" Stark, who is an often cold but just man who is not afraid to live up to his responsibilities. Initially we have them finding a litter of direwolf pups - one for each of his 6  children and one for his bastard son Jon. Given the direwolf is considered to be the sigil of the house, the discovery of the wolves is a powerful experience. Ned eventually gets asked by King Robert Baratheon, who rules the Seven Kingdoms, to join him at King's Landing as the Hand of the King. Ned is reluctant to take the post, but eventually agrees to travel south.

Across the sea in the East we also follow the story of Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled children of the mad king Aerys II, who had been forcibly removed from power by Robert Baratheon. Viserys has arranged to sell his sister to Khal Drogo of the Dothraki warriors (think barbarians) in exchange for their potential aid in a future campaign to reclaim the Iron Throne and rulership over the Seven Kingdoms. But once timid Daenerys starts to gain new strength given her time with the horse warriors and starts to see how sad her brother has become in his efforts to scramble for power.

And lastly there's the Wall, a massage construct that protects the Seven Kingdoms from the wild things beyond their territories. Something dark is brewing beyond the Wall and all that the Night Watch can hope to do is hold for as long as they can with what limited resources they have should the worst come.

George R.R. Martin.Image via WikipediaLike most epic fantasy stories, A Game of Thrones has a rather rich cast of players involved and it will take anyone a bit of time before fully appreciating who's who and what role they play in the story. I felt it was a bit easier to map out the relationships based on the book versus the TV show, but then maybe that's just me.

Once you get past the initial sense of disorientation from a story that keeps shifting to different people (remember Eddard is Ned, okay?) then the story really starts to build into something much more than initially expected. It's definitely political intrigue on a grand scale that involves massive armies, old grudges and many, many secrets. It's hard to be a man of honor in a world so focused on personal desires and motivations.

The book also features a large number of compelling and interesting characters, even if they seem a tad unusual. A few that really stand out are naturally Tyrion Lannister - the queen's brother and a dwarf, and Arya Stark - one of Ned's daughters who is more interesting in learning swordplay instead of needlepoint. They're not just interesting because they are unusual mind you - they're great characters since they're delightfully complex, and thus feel all the more real to you as a reader. Humankind is not solely filled with archetypes and stereotypes after all - people are crazy and inconsistent with both positive traits and dire flaws. And I feel that Tyrion and Arya help drive that point him given their humanity.

The book is a tad explicit in terms of language including describing sex scenes and violence (albeit to a more limited sense). Definitely not something I'd recommend for kids and even more conservative results. Is this essential to the overall story? Maybe, maybe not. It's hard to judge base on a single novel alone since this is still mostly setup work for the greater series at large.

But the writing is great, and I'm not talking about the sex stuff here. Martin has a way with words that lends itself well to the kind of world-building that is essential to driving a successful epic fantasy franchise and yet he keeps this approachable and relatable. Far too often fantasy writers feel obligated to use loftier terms or more verbose descriptions to create the mood and tone they desire for their books. Martin is able to convey his world in more conventional (but not necessarily simple) language that still presents his world with the kind of grandeur and wonder that it deserves. Plus he knows how to balance out different characters and how they might interact in a manner that remains human instead of falling into the trap of caricature.

A Game of Thrones is a great book - one that certainly deserves the full HBO treatment it's getting these days. I'm glad the series was made since it helped me learn about the book and I imagine countless others are now venturing into the world of fantasy novels because of it. Thus this first book fully deserves a total of 5 words of wisdom from the Imp himself.

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