Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review: Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin

If there's one thing I can't stand, it's an eight-hundred page introduction.

I seem to be inundated with the the bloody things at the moment – The Phantom Pants Menace came out in 3D on Friday (forming part one of a three-part, seven-hours-of-celluloid intro) and only a few weeks ago I finished The Two Towers, book two of Tolkien's introduction to Lord of the Rings.

And only last week I finished book one of the highly-regarded Game of Thrones.

The series is actually named “A Song of Ice and Fire” and authored by George R. R. Martin, but has gained a far greater following in recent years as “Game of Thrones” after HBO broadcast a big-budget – and quite faithful – TV adaptation. The first book in this series tells the story of the noble houses of the Seven Kingdoms through the eyes of several key figures.

Courtesy: Wikipedia.org
I became utterly absorbed in this book. I read it everywhere, from waiting rooms to buses, savouring every quick plot twist and trying unsuccessfully to anticipate the novel's climax. However, Martin worked in so many delicate subplots that three quarters of the way through it became apparent that the novel couldn't (or wouldn't even try to) resolve them before it finished. I found this remarkably frustrating, as almost every other aspect of the novel was outstanding. This means the novel didn't crescendo to a climax but to a kind of damp squib. While there were some plot elements settled, others left the reader hanging like in the original Italian Job.

It's a simple premise of speculative fiction: each “episode” needs to stand as a work of it's own. As a serendipitous example of this, take the most famous film trilogy of all time. Although George Lucas originally planned for Star Wars to be a trilogy, he wasn't initially able to secure funding for the project and made “A New Hope” as a standalone film. It was only when the movie became the greatest film of all time that he was able to pour the requisite dollars into Empire and Jedi. By circumstance (and given his recent work many would say that's the biggest stroke of luck in history) he had to make Star Wars as a discrete work of art.

The same could be said of The Empire Strikes back – you can watch either of the first two Star Wars films without needing to see the other. We'll get to Return of the Jedi later. Or never, preferably.

Tolkien anathema Raymond E. Feist did the same with Magician, another series of fantasy books which seems to breed like rabbits. Each volume of his groundbreaking trilogy could be read enjoyably as an individual novel, not leaving the consumer to immediately think “Now I have to go and buy/borrow/steal A Darkness at Sethanon”. Drawing another fictional example, it's why The Wire is so fraught – there simply isn't enough resolution to go around. When compared to other series that depend on plot arcs (say, Battlestar Galactica), there's a vast difference that makes the consumer less on edge.

It's also unfortunate that during what should be the final acts of resolution – the last fifty pages – the book jumps (the shark?) from a human based drama to include more of the supernatural. It's saddening to see, as the dexterity with which Martin deploys his bevy of convincing human characters doesn't deserve the “get-outs” of fantastical creatures.

For a book that I mostly thoroughly loved, that's a lot of criticism, so let's examine what makes Game of Thrones so eminently readable. The novel is plotted so hard it could be a poem (but isn't, Tolkien), it's characters are amongst the most believable of any science-fiction/fantasy series and set pieces are often resolved imaginatively and unexpectedly. It's also intriguing that, as with Phillip Pullman, the world is seen through the eyes of children. These little humans, who are as convincingly portrayed as I think I've ever read form many of the main antagonists and each is forced to mature quickly and assume their place in a middle-age society. As the reader's point of view changing rapidly between characters the first thirty pages can be confusing, but the narrative device works well – indeed so well after a while you can't imagine another story-telling method. Also, with Game's global scope, seeing the world through characters the whole world over allows a level of insight rarely afforded by fantasy constructs.

Although there are many plot strands left for books two and beyond, what makes the book so addictive is its pacing. It's like there is a black hole at the end of the book which starts pulling the reader towards it; at first almost innocuously and as you get nearer with greater force. It's a book which will no doubt provide you with any number of nights where you put it down at 2am having meant to read only a chapter.

A thoroughly worthwhile read, but only if you plan to read the rest of the series. Footballs.

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