Tuesday 2 August 2011

A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin

As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must... and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty. The old gods have no power in the south, Stark's family is split, and there is treachery at court. Worse, a vengeance-mad boy has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities beyond the sea. Heir of the mad Dragon King deposed by Robert, he claims the Iron Throne.

I first read A Game of Thrones back in 2000, and since then I think I have read it a further five times. I would not re-read a book that I did not love and yet this time around the experience reading A Game of Thrones was a bitter one.

I still loved it. Yet, at the same time, I hated it. For what is held up to be the epitome of epic fantasy, A Game of Thrones felt much more like horror. Dark scenes set to shock, the dead walking, and points in the story where you wanted to wish it all away and quit reading. A Game of Thrones takes a strong stomach to read - and a will of steel.

In the dictionary, the definition of 'grim' should show A Game of Thrones. It is relentlessly dark, grim and terrifying. There is little to cheer about, little to laugh about.

I compared, in my mind, A Game of Thrones to Gardens of the Moon - both are very dark and gritty epic fantasy, but Gardens of the Moon shows real flashes of mordant humour. In later books, Erikson explores slapstick comedy, outright belly-laughs, exchanges between characters that cause chuckles. If you look for it, the Malazan series has laughs-aplenty, which help to break up the tragedy and grim darkness of the rest of the books. A Game of Thrones does not. I searched for the humour. I was told that Tyrion Lannister would provide humour, and perhaps Arya Stark. But there was nothing that made me laugh - and all too much that made me cry.

Also, when a novel tells a tale from multiple viewpoints, it lives and dies by the choice of those viewpoints. Some of them I raced through, gulped up compulsively and was desperate to read more. Some of the viewpoints I plodded through and wished would end. Catelyn Stark was one of the latter. I know people say she is a formidable female protagonist, but I disliked her manipulation and her crazy actions against Tyrion Lannister. She was so blinkered and failed, for me, as a major character. Her sister, however, was worse - Lysa Stark deserved booting from the Moon Door.

By far my favourite parts of the book involved Jon Snow on the Wall as part of the Night Watch. The Others were suitably creepy and nasty, with those starry blue eyes, and I just wanted to know more and more and MORE about what was happening beyond the wall. The feeling of foreboding I had during the entire novel intensified incredibly when I thought about the vast expanse of the wall left unguarded.

Martin is a very clever writer. The use of different viewpoints kept the pace of the novel moving at an incredible speed, because the reader wants to continue reading to find out what happens to favourite characters. I did find the constant cliffhanger endings very artificial, however, and it seemed as though Martin did not trust the quality of his prose or characters to keep the reader turning the pages.

He is also clever in giving us characters on both sides of the conflict within the Seven Kingdoms who we end up liking best. For me, I like Jon, Ned, Arya and Tyrion. I have a grudging admiration for Jaime. I do NOT like Sansa, Catelyn, Cersei or Joffrey. It means that the reader is able to understand why some actions might come to pass, and how this conflict escalated into an inevitable war. It is fitting that A Game of Thrones is based somewhat upon the War of the Roses, another conflict where there were good and honourable people to be found on both sides.

I still like A Game of Thrones - but I no longer love it the way I used to. I need more than the horror that I am presented with here. I need less of the darkness and more of the humour and light. I'm not saying I'm solely a David Eddings girl, where no one is allowed to die, good always wins out and the bad guys can be recognised by their black armour. But neither do I fall right at the other end of the spectrum, inhabited by GRRM and others of his ilk. Unrelenting grim is not my style, and I found myself more depressed and horror struck by the events of A Game of Thrones than joyful. I want to know how the story ends. I will read more. But I shall ensure that I have a VERY light book lined up to read immediately afterwards!


  1. It's funny, but my time has tempered the book as well, as I love it...but I also see things I never saw before. Like it being entirely bleak and miserable for the Starks, and entirely too easy for the Lannisters and there is no middle ground...at all...ever...and even when you think there will be a light in the tunnel (The Eyrie and Cat's sister) it turns out to be darker than the path was before. It's like reading a fantasy ANGELA'S ASHES...just when you think it couldn't get bleaker...it does.

    A tough read even all these years later and I really agree with you about how my opinion on it has changed....the innovation of it has mellowed and in my head it just feels like an opening salvo in a long, bleak war.

    That's not to say I dislike it, I still think it's one of the best out there...but for my money something like LOTR that has more uplifting stuff in it even when the chips are down...is what is needed. Having the heroes nearly NEVER win is a hard sell.

  2. Ahh, I think you hit the nail on the head there, Scott. Back when I LOVED A Game of Thrones unreservedly, I had been reading the really light and fluffy fantasy that seemed to mark the 90s. No one died, the heroes won, all very easy. So A Game of Thrones came completely out of leftfield and left me blown away by what could be accomplished.

    Now that grim is the norm, A Game of Thrones is marked out by being *too* grim.

  3. I think you're right and it took something like Joe Abercrombie's BEST SERVED COLD and THE HEROES to really make me see that with SO much bleak fantasy out there it's hard to not yearn for something middle-ish, you know something that has bleak moments and yet also has uplifting things to break that mire up...but with so many writing dark, gritty bleak fantasy out there, I find myself reaching more and more for YA reads to sate the need for something that finds that middle ground.

  4. Interesting post Amanda. I read A Game of Thrones a couple of years ago after reading Gardens of the Moon and thought the latter was much darker. I've got vols 2 & 3 on my shelf but may just to re-read this one again before I see the TV series (yup I'm probably the last person on earth who hasn't seen it!) when it comes out on DVD. I was just thinking how the Malazan books are getting darker and darker as it approaches its conclusion, but then again, you are right in that Erikson does alleviate the darkness with lots of humour.

  5. Hey Sakura, thanks for the comment. I know that Erikson is pretty grim and dark himself - but there is always a sense that the good guys have got something up their sleeves. While people like Quick Ben, Paran, Duiker etc are around, you figure that problems can be solved and they can win the day. With the Starks they are all so unutterably hopeless a position, and it just gets worse as the books go on. You feel like you should be rooting for them to succeed and then the most appalling things happen to them! Makes it incredibly hard to read.

  6. Amanda, you like the same characters I do, with the exception of Jaime. I love Jaime for his simplified view of life that mask his complicated moraless.

    By the way, you recently passed my manuscript, The Lives of Tao, to Marc and Lee. Thank you thank you thank you....THANK YOU.