A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A Game of Thrones is really good. You may not think so after reading the rest of this review, but yes, I enjoyed this book. I liken it to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in that it's a sweeping epic mostly focused on the movers and shakers while keeping the timeline linear by shifting the focus back and forth between characters and groups of characters, specifically families.
Also, it's a big honkin' huge book, just like those Russian classics. Honestly, A Game of Thrones could have been made into two or three books. George RR Martin has slowed down his publishing rate for this series and some think he's burning out. By breaking up these massive tomes into smaller books that could be released over time, there wouldn't be such a large and noticeable gap between books. On the other hand, if your book is meant to be a thousand pages long because that's how it naturally progresses and ends, the action remains intense, and the reader's interest can be maintained through out, then by god you should publish that thousand page book!
Let me state now, I'm not a big fan of the fantasy genre. It's reliance on cliches, the general poor quality of the writing, the immaturity sometimes seen in relating to characters of the opposite gender of the author, etc. Martin succeeds in many of those areas where so many others have failed. There were relatively few moments while I was reading when I felt like I knew ahead of time exactly where the scene would inevitably lead. On the whole, his writing is solid. His many female characters are fully rounded, not "full-breasted". Yes, there are heroes and there are villains, but there are plenty of shades-of-gray characters in between as well. People are forced into unpleasant choices that they'd rather not make as it goes against their morals or code of honor, but they do make that choice because it's necessary or because - even if it's seen as wrong by many - they just can't see a loved one suffer. I like that. I don't need to see Mr. White Knight Johnny-do-good making noble sacrifices, nor do I want the bad guy doing evil for the sole purpose of doing evil. Martin is very good about giving his characters their due motivation.
As for the writing itself, a gripe I have with fantasy epics is a reliance upon stock phrases. I understand repetition was a memory device used in the old oral tradition, but we write this stuff down now. There's no need to ape a dead art that even its purveyors wouldn't still use if they were around today. They'd get a computer, printer and a ream of paper and be happier than a pig in shit. Having said all that, I'm not even sure this form of repetition is even intended as a homage to the bards of yesteryear. It think this boils down to lazy writing. Now, before you get all upset let me say that I'm not calling George R.R. Martin a lazy writer. He has written many books with many pages. It is truly amazing the amount of output he's produced. But therein lies the problem. When you write a 900 page epic that people eat right up and then beg for more, you are put in the position of having to produce more as rapidly as possible. Coming up with fresh ways of describing actions, characters and scenes can be difficult, even over the course of one regular sized novel, so it's no surprise to see people "breaking their fast" every time there is a morning scene. It's very useful in that it tells the reader not only that it is morning, but also that the characters are eating. That's great! So then as the writer you shouldn't feel obliged to say anything else on the matter and we can keep the action moving on...but wait...oops, he's gone and described what the characters are eating for breakfast, for the dozenth time. A couple times is fine, but unless there's something special about the food that we need to know, a couple mentions for the sake of detail is fine. The other issue being that, because "breaking their fast" and "milk of the poppy" are unusual phrases, they stand out. Therefore repetition of them stands out even more, and if you continue to see phrases that stand out time and time again, they tend to stand out for the wrong reasons and become stand-out annoyances.
Another pet peeve of mine is the adverb. It's a way of quickly describing something without going into much depth, which is fine in some instances, but overuse leads to weak characterizations and the like. Adverb use is fine for journalism, where a reporter needs to describe say a multi-death house fire in the span of 150 words. There's no time for lengthy prose. But when you've got hundreds of pages to work with, there's time. Martin's not as egregious as some fantasy writers about this, but he does get a little adverb heavy now and then. There seemed to be these sections where clusters of them would appear like pack animals rumbling by, causing a momentary disturbance in my reading. It's not a big deal, but they do stick out like a soar thumb to me, especially when used one after another. Hell, there's at least one occasion, and maybe two even, when...suddenly something happened suddenly! Really? Come on, who's editing this stuff? Anyone?
When I was boy I would come home from school and mom would be there doing the ironing or whatever while watching the daytime soap opera General Hospital. This was during the heady days of the "Luke and Laura" saga, and I LOVED every minute of it. Their forbidden love affair dragged on forever, through all kinds of impossible odds. The tension was just exciting enough, with a plot on a level a 9 year old could follow, but more importantly, essentially the same thing happened in every episode so that the story dragged out into epic length. That really appealed to me. I think that's because children seek stability. Here was this fun story that I could come home to everyday and rely on it being there for me, giving me that little thrill I enjoyed so much and being the constant I so desired. That's what the soap opera did for me. To this day I love me a good ol' series. However, series or no, I'm okay with only reading this first book and stopping. I don't feel an overwhelming desire to read on. I'm older now and have things I want to do, other books I want to read. I'd love to follow these characters to the end and maybe some day I will, but good golly miss molly, there's a whole lotta readin' goin' on for what is essentially a soap opera!
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