Friday, February 17, 2017

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

So, uh, yeah... I've kinda been promising a certain book review for literally almost a year, haven't I?

Hopefully the music will last you until the end of this review.

(WARNING: Minor spoilers ahead for both the book and the first season of the show, although I'll try to keep it as spoiler-free as possible. Also, the usual ranting and occasional foul language, obvs.)

I should mention in advance that this review will probably contain a lot of comparisons to the TV show. Sorry that I can't give a completely pure, unbiased, and "untainted" opinion on this book, but since I was a fan of the show first, I couldn't help but constantly compare the source material to its adaptation as I was reading it. And since my reading experience was inextricably tied to my viewing experience of the show, I can't help but talk about it here.

All that being said, I have a tiny confession to make that you're all going to hate me for: I think I might, just might, like the first season of Game of Thrones more than I like the book.

NOW HOLD ON. Just hear me out before you come at me with those torches and pitchforks. I'm no stranger to controversial opinions, and you already know where I stand on books not always being superior to their movie--or in this case, TV--adaptations. But that's not to say that I think the TV show is far superior; the novel is excellent, certainly one of the best books I've read in a long time, but I admit that there are a few instances where I liked the show's interpretation of a particular scene or character a little bit more.

Still, it is one of the best books I've read in a long time, and that almost makes this a hard review to write, considering I'm not used to heaping praise on the books I review on this blog. What can I say? I'm a professional complainer. It's a lot easier to pick apart what wrong with a thing than to fill up an equally-lengthy and equally-entertaining review with all the reasons said thing is awesome... and yeah, it is a lot more fun, too. But, well, it's also a lot more fun to actually read books that I enjoy once in a while. A diet of pure shit isn't good for anybody. So after a long stint of consuming mostly the literary equivalent of boiled cabbage, A Game of Thrones was like, a nice, juicy steak with a side of mashed potatoes smothered in gravy. But, that's not to say the steak was perfect...

The Good Stuff

At 800+ pages and only the first book in a series, this novel might look intimidating, and it's sure as hell not a quick read, but it's well worth the time investment. Despite it's massive scope, it's not hard to get immersed in the setting and story from the very beginning. Martin really had his work cut out for him, juggling multiple POV's and multiple story lines in multiple locations across two continents in a huge fictional world. The worldbuilding alone is impressive; while much of the action does take place in a seemingly typical pseudo-medieval setting, there are a lot of elements in play that not only add rich layers to the setting, but have a noticeable influence on how the characters think, behave, and advance the plot.

This strong worldbuilding pervades the book, and is evident in the little details. With a few minor exceptions, Martin does what can often be hard for writers of epic fantasy and holds back from infodumping on the reader's face, revealing culture and history a little bit at a time in ways that are mostly very organic and don't interrupt the flow of the story, but rather enhance it. And when he does include heavily descriptive bits, they often pull double or triple duty. For example, a one point as Catelyn is on her journey to the Eyrie, she meets a bastard girl who acts as her guide. This not only provides an opportunity to further elaborate on the place of bastards in general in this society and how they are treated, but also provides a bit of insight into Catelyn's personality, particularly regarding bastards, social status, and reminds us of her ill will towards her husband's bastard, Jon. It also demonstrates how good Martin is a subtlety, since it's implied but never stated outright that the bastard in question is the daughter of Robert Baratheon, whose huge number of bastard kids ends up being pretty important later.

Speaking of everyone's favorite bastard, Jon Snow, one thing I did like about this book that the show kind of dropped the ball on were all the clues regarding a certain favorite theory about Jon's true parentage. Anyone who's watched the show up to the latest season knows what I'm talking about, but if you, like me, had limited exposure to the source material you were probably confused for a long time any time to saw fans bring this theory up (and if you don't know what I'm talking about, I'm not telling you), because as far as the show goes, all the mystery about Jon's mother was pretty much forgotten about until season five. But in the books, there's been potential evidence since the very beginning! So it was nice to finally see this theory's true origins for myself.

As I said, Martin had his work cut out for him when it came to juggling the many POV's we get in this book. And while it's not always managed perfectly, he does strike a pretty good balance most of the time, revealing select pieces of information through each different main character, keeping the reader in as much suspense as the characters--or at least as much as can be when you already know how it ends--as he weaves each character's story arc into the story as a whole. It's a long journey watching how each of these plot threads eventually intertwine--and plenty of them have yet to converge--but a rewarding one for those with a little patience for slow-burning stories and who like their fantasy with a side of mystery and a generous helping of political intrigue.

Keeping a huge cast of characters and their subplots straight is no small task in and of itself, but it would be a pretty dull and frustrating read if all these characters didn't have unique personalities as well. Now, I don't use the word "flawlessly" lightly--actually, I never really use it at all, so what does that tell you--but Martin pulls this off flawlessly. Almost, anyway. The novel may be constantly head-hopping with each chapter, but it's not hard at all to keep them straight when each character's personality and worldview comes through so well in the narrative style of their respective chapters. This is especially significant considering the POV characters are a mix of kids, teens, and adults, both male and female, so keeping each narrative voice authentic is an extra challenge which I believe Martin meets pretty well... for the most part (more on that in a bit).

That doesn't mean you necessarily have to like all of these characters--every single one has their own unique flaws--but it does let the reader really get inside their heads and allows us to see the conflicts from all different sides. It adds depth and weight to the story when you're rooting for people on seemingly opposing sides, not to mention the resulting gray and gray morality which makes the story more interesting (you know, for those of us who like that kind of thing). And it's important to note that these people are flawed, and that Martin doesn't pull any punches in showing that their mistakes have consequences. He doesn't coddle them or excuse them or couch their questionable beliefs or actions in terms of protagonist-centered morality. The world may be fantastical, but the characters are very much real.

The Not-So-Good Stuff

Well, the book-steak might have been tasty and well-marinated, but it was also a little under-cooked. Or maybe I'm just too much of a picky eater. Anyway, now that I'm done stroking George R.R. Martin's ego, I can move on to the part you came here for: the complaining!

Apparently my use of gifs is inversely proportional to the amount of praise I give a book.
(Un)fortunately(?), I really don't have that much bad to say about this book. I mean, maybe the pacing dragged a little in some places? I didn't mind so much, though, but then again I like a good slow-burner if the story is strong and it's as deeply immersive as this novel is. But as much as I praised Martin for doing an awesome job and juggling a lot of POV characters and made a point to mention that multiple viewpoints added a lot of richness to the story, I have to admit that it did seem to be on the verge of getting out of hand at times. This book is stuffed to the max with as many POV's as it can handle, and even then after a while the constant switching did start to get a bit frustrating. Since the scope of the novel is so large and the characters are so spread out doing their own thing with little overlap for much of the book, it can be hard to judge just how much time passes between chapters and over the course of the story as a whole. We can use Dany's pregnancy as a guideline and estimate that it takes place over roughly a year, but sometimes it feels like little time passes between certain characters' chapters--say, Bran's chapters--while months might fly by between each of Dany's, so I didn't always know if the story was progressing in a perfectly linear fashion or not. It was also a little frustrating that the POV chapters weren't exactly evenly distributed, so you might go for long stretches before getting back to a certain subplot that you might've almost forgotten about, especially if, like me, life got in the way and you had to take a break from reading for a while.

Martin also gets a little bit of side-eye from me when it comes to writing female characters, specifically Dany. He does a decent job for the most part, but he gets the side-eye any time he says things like how "she felt her breasts rubbing against her painted vest" or whatever when we're supposed to be inside her head. Uh, yeah, as a woman, I can assure you that most of us ladies aren't so hyper-aware of our boobs all the time.

Also, it was a little disturbing just how often he felt the need to remind us that she's a thirteen/fourteen year-old girl, and it makes me glad they decided to age her up a few years in the show. I mean, with all the casual comments like the one I paraphrased above, she's pretty much the character whose consistently described in the most sexual terms... and then he has to go and remind us that he's talking about a girl who's barely even a teenager! Martin, what the hell is wrong with you? I tried to tell myself that maybe he sometimes forgot--or simply didn't think critically about--the age of the character; after all, this is a gritty, pseudo-medieval setting where kids are forced to grow up fast, get married young, and teens take on adult roles early. So thinking about it that way, it sometimes is easy to forget just how young some of the characters are. But then he ruins that bit of wishful thinking by choosing to emphasize her age right after she gets pregnant! Like, there's a sex scene, Dany finds out she's pregnant, and then in a single-sentence paragraph at the end of the chapter, he says "It was her fourteenth nameday."

Gross, dude. Why? Just why? 

Moving on from that bit of ick, I don't have many more nits to pick, except over a little something that I can't really call anything but "armor porn". Like, Martin really, really has a thing for lavish descriptions of over-the-top armor. I'm talking jewels, precious metals, big-ass capes, elaborate designs... I really can't do it justice. I'm pretty sure Martin saved up all of his infodumping and purple prose so he could blow his figurative load all over our faces when it came to talking about armor. And I just don't get it! Everything else about this setting is supposed to be gritty and realistic, but that all goes out the window when it comes to armor.

So, did I like it? Of course! My only regret is that I didn't read it before watching the show, but while it was hard to keep from picturing things the way they look on TV and hearing the voices of the actors in my head when characters had dialogue, it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book. Final assessment: four and a half stars (out of five).

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