I picked Game of Thrones up as a direct result of all the attention the forthcoming HBO series has been getting on Pajiba, and I’ve been (mostly) really pleased. So much so that I read the next two books in the series (A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords) right after. Song of Ice and Fire is a high-medieval fantasy about the descent of a kingdom (Westeros) into civil war even as it’s threatened by malevolent outsiders, including the Others (ice zombies!), and the arrival of a years-long winter. At the beginning of the story, King Robert—who himself snatched the throne from its previous rightful holder—dies under suspicious circumstances, and two noble houses (the Starks and Lannisters) enter into contest for the Iron Throne. Other would-be kings emerge and soon enough, chaos rules.
Martin hasn’t reinvented the wheel or anything, when it comes to fantasy fiction, but he’s put together a great story in these first volumes of what is really an as yet unfinished mega-novel. In a lot of ways, Westeros feels like it was cobbled together from a catalog of fantasy fiction clichés: there’s the Wall-Type Thing Behind Which Evil and Blight Reside (which you may recognize from Lords of the Rings, or Robert Jordan’s work), there are dragons, there are humanoid beings, and magic. At times, Martin’s commitment to creating an original world can feel a little half-hearted. He’s no Tolkien, you know? But—and this is what’s so great about Martin—it doesn’t matter, because that’s not what the story is about. It’s all about the human drama: the machinations of men and women obsessed with power, the drive to survive, the need to avenge. They could be Tudors. Setting his story in a fantastical world merely serves to liberate him from the strictures of our own history.
There isn’t one character in here that is purely good. Honorable characters are often very foolish, and even many “evil” characters have their odd moments of introspection and kindness. My allegiances changed about as often as the characters’—which is to say constantly—and by the end, I don’t think there was a single person that I had cheered for throughout. Except Tyrion. Tyrion could shake a baby, and I’d still like him. Just as surprising as Martin’s willingness to make his characters complex and unlovable is his willingness to kill them. Even the POV ones*. DUN DUN DUN. It’s that kind of story.
As a writer (in the technical sense of the word), Martin is serviceable. If he could have used a stricter editor to cut down on purple prose and the occasional pointless digression, well, at least he isn’t constantly repeating himself. I like that: I think it speaks to a certain amount of respect and trust in the reader that is often lacking in genre fiction. In Robert Jordan’s books, for example, about 20% of the text could probably be eliminated if Jordan hadn’t assumed we were all suffering from a tragic case of short-term memory loss. Martin ends almost every chapter at a moment of suspense, which is cheap, but effective. The chapters are short, so I didn’t mind so much.
I’d like to address the question of sex for a second: there’s a lot of it (especially in Game of Thrones), and I would argue that a lot of it is written to titillate, rather than to develop the story. Is the sex part of character development? Absolutely. Did I need every last sexy detail of a thirteen-year-old girl’s…um…rape? No. Frankly, it’s distracting. It’s probably more of a problem of style than the actual content. I’m kind of creeped out by the sense that Martin really enjoyed writing all the sex…it’s like a stranger on the bus telling you all about his fantasy involving a peep-toe heel and a lizard named Elmo, and that’s awkward. Even if it is informative.
I recommend this, overall, if you really like fantasy as a genre, and I can’t wait to see what HBO does with it.
*I’m the kind of loser who needs to know exactly which character is going to die, or I get so anxious that I can’t enjoy the book. Am I alone in this?