Sometimes I do want to be in on that pop-culture thing that everyone's talking about!
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I started reading A Game of Thrones, I joked that I was finally getting back in touch with my childhood self, who devoured fantasy novels by the dozens. However, as you might have heard, this isn't a book for children – and moreover, its plot is driven by political machinations far more than magic or fantasy.
Indeed, I thought the conceit of “a world where the lengths of seasons are unpredictable and summer has lasted ten years” was one of the weakest parts of the book. (Although it does allow House Stark to have a bad-ass motto, “Winter is Coming.”) It just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: a year in Westeros seems to be about the same length as a year on Earth, but if the seasons are so unpredictable, how do the people there count years? However, I liked many other aspects of George R.R. Martin’s world-building, e.g. his description of an impregnable mountain castle and its terrifying prison cells.
The most impressive thing about this book, though, is its characterization and narrative technique. It's a sprawling, epic tale, but it’s structured as a series of self-contained episodes. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a single character, often as he or she faces great danger or difficulty. I noticed early on that the point-of-view character is often the least powerful person in the room, which effectively heightens the tension. Writers are often encouraged to leave out the boring parts of the story and only keep the good parts; Martin adheres to that advice like a pro.
The eight point-of-view characters manage to be insiders and outsiders at the same time – they are born into noble families, yet they lack true power, or are caught up in events beyond their control. Daenarys Targaryen is a princess with “the blood of the dragon” in her veins – but she is in exile, struggling to adapt to the alien culture of her warlord husband. Tyrion Lannister is one of the smartest characters in the book and is brother to the queen – but he is a dwarf, and thus the subject of mockery and disrespect in a culture that values physical strength. Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark is the right-hand man to King Robert Baratheon – but his principles of honor and righteousness make him an outlier among the crafty politicians of the royal court. The stories of Ned’s wife Catelyn and daughters Arya and Sansa give three different perspectives on how feudal noblewomen deal with the limited roles that their society offers them. Ned’s lovable seven-year-old son Bran becomes crippled in a horrifying accident, and his 14-year-old bastard son Jon Snow undergoes much angst about his illegitimacy.
Though Martin writes about a patriarchal, hierarchical, violent, and unfair world, it’s clear that his sympathies lie with the outsiders and underdogs. (Witness the unexpectedly touching conversations between Jon and Tyrion about the nature of being an outsider.) As such, I can’t agree with the criticism that this book is a work of foul misogyny. Are these the best female characters I’ve ever read (whatever that means)? Perhaps not. But they have credible and varied personalities, their actions influence the plot, and their point-of-view chapters make up nearly half the book. I also like that the book doesn’t fall prey to the fallacy that women are only worth paying attention to if they kick ass or disdain traditionally feminine things. It asks us to sympathize with a feisty sword-wielding tomboy (Arya) and with her obedient goody-two-shoes sister (Sansa) – just one example of the complexity of the world that Martin has created.
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