Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, 1996

Um, wow. Is it too early to call A Game of Thrones my favorite book of 2011?

Seriously. This book absolutely knocked my socks off, in the best possible way. It's the kind of "knocked your socks off" that makes me want to tear into the sequel right here, right now, because I'm not sure how long I can stand being away from Martin's characters and fictional world.

The novel (the first in a multi-book series) takes place in a fictional world that basically recalls England during the Middle Ages. It follows the Stark family as they navigate a dangerous world of politics, murder and war. A long winter is coming and supernatural forces are rallying in the north, even as an epic struggle for the throne begins, with the fragmented Stark family trapped in the middle.

Obviously, this is a gross oversimplification of an enormous story with many interlocking viewpoints, a huge mythology and incredibly complex character motivations. In other words, it's the kind of thing that could be a leaden bore in the wrong hands.

It is not a bore. Game is absolutely dynamic. Even though it is 800 pages long, there is not one chapter or subplot that is simply filler. Martin skips the boring parts and gets into the meat of the story every time. He can make a conversation between old friends as tension-filled as a battle scene. His politics are completely thrilling; it's incredibly fun trying to guess what everyone's agenda is.

Not that it's easy to do. I consider myself difficult to fool, but again and again Martin would completely blindside me with atom-bomb revelations. Some of them are difficult to see coming just because they're so audaciously nasty. The man never flinches from brutality and he makes no apologies for it. His is a world with real consequences, where people can and will die. One huge death late in the book is about as shocking and horrific a fictional demise as any I've ever read.

But there's a huge upside to all of the gloom and gore: it makes the rare scenes of love or tenderness feel earned, both by the reader and the characters.

And the characters. Oh good God, the characters. Have I ever fallen for a fictional person as quickly as I did for Tyrion Lannister? Is there anyone out there who doesn't love Arya Stark or Jon Snow? And how is it that every scene with Littlefinger or Jaime Lannister or Cersei leaves me salivating for more?

Martin clearly has a thing against one-dimensional characters. Every single person in the book--and it's a huge cast--is multi-faceted and strikingly real. People you thought were villains turn out to be heroes and the people you thought were heroes turn out to be as cruel and spiteful as everyone else. Again, this makes those moments of nobility or heroism precious and special.

Seriously, there are some truly twisted sequences in this novel. Scenes like Dany and Drogo's wedding night should be gruesome and cringe-inducing, but instead it's gentle and kind of sweet. On the other hand, Sansa and Joffrey's wholesome romance is nauseating. Martin is a master at using our own assumptions and preconceived ideas against us.

I also love Martin's treatment of the supernatural. In most fantasy universes, magic is right up there, front and center. In Martin's world, spells, monsters and magic stay on the sidelines, present but subtle. When something otherworldly comes on stage, we've had time to look forward to it, and Martin doesn't disappoint. Some of the most effective scenes in the book are supernatural in nature:

Royce's body lay facedown in the snow, one arm outflung. The thick sable cloak had been slashed in a dozen places. Lying dead like that, you saw how young he was. A boy.

He found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning. Will knelt, looked around warily, and snatched it up. The broken sword would be his proof. Gared would know what to make of it, and if not him, then surely that old bear Mormont or Maester Aemon. Would Gared still be waiting with the horses? He had to hurry.

Will rose. Ser Waymar Royce stood over him.

His fine clothes were a tatter, his face a ruin. A shard from his sword transfixed the blind white pupil of his left eye.

The right eye was open. The pupil burned blue. It saw.

The broken sword fell from nerveless fingers. Will closed his eyes to pray. Long, elegant hands brushed his cheek, then tightened around his throat. They were gloved in the finest moleskin and sticky with blood, yet the touch was icy cold.
--- (pages 10-11)

Martin's writing is clean and gloriously crisp. He never falls prey to the bloated exposition or over-description of other fantasy writers (sorry, Robert Jordan). His dialogue is convincingly archaic, but incredibly readable. I love that his emphasis is always on the characters, not on getting us to the next battle scene (although the battle scenes are amazing).

You know that you loved a novel when you have to wrack your brains to come up with anything negative to say about it. I pretty much adored it all-- the characters, the intricate storytelling, the unique structure, the pedal-to-the-metal pacing.

My biggest problem is that Martin sets up the sequel so exquisitely. We're left with six or seven delicious cliffhangers and a war raging. It's a testament to the novel's excellence that it feels absolutely packed with incident, yet the series' true conflict is only just beginning.

Thanks a lot, George. You've probably spoiled my next few reading experiences because I'll be pining after A Clash of Kings the whole time. There aren't a lot of authors who could spin a story as entirely bewitching as A Game of Thrones. The novel pushes all the buttons. It is tremendously exciting, as finely-plotted as a mystery, as poignant a human drama as any. It's even highly funny, usually courtesy of Tyrion or Littlefinger. It's a complete package and it's only the first one in the series, for God's sake.

I can't wait for Round Two. But if Tyrion gets killed, I'm coming after George R. R. Martin.

NEXT UP: The very first nonfiction book that I'll review on this blog: Michael Caine's new memoir The Elephant to Hollywood.

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