Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

With all the attention the HBO adaptation of Martin's most popular novel has been getting, there is no way I could not reread it. Personally, I pretty much always prefer books over movies of television but I may be persuaded to give this series a go. I've been a fan of Martin's writing for quite a while now and I discovered his work though this book. The first time I read it was in Dutch translation, Het Spel der Tronen, in 2000. The other books followed soon after. Since reading A Game of Thrones for the first time, I have read much more of Martin's work and I must admit, I like his short fiction better. When it comes to novels The Armageddon Rag is probably my favourite, although I may change my mind if he ever decides to finish Black and White and Red All Over. Martin is a pretty versatile writer, having written horror, science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction and not looking beyond A Song of Ice and Fire is a shame. That being said, this series is no doubt what he'll be most remembered for.

Once, House Stark ruled the north of the continent of Westeros as kings, but after the invasion of the Targaryens, several centuries ago, the continent has been united under one ruler. In his youth, Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, helped the current king, Robert Baratheon, overthrow the decadent Targaryen dynasty and claim the throne for himself. Now, King Robert is once again calling upon Eddard's help. Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, the second most powerful figure in the Seven Kingdoms, has recently died and the King has realized he is better at seizing thrones than sitting on them. Robert needs someone who is not afraid to speak up to him to help him rule his kingdom. Eddard is a man of honour, he cannot refuse his old friend, even if he has doubt about the wisdom of his decision.

Eddard and his family are soon caught up in the Machiavellian politics of King's Landing. Navigating between the Queen's family, the Lannisters, aiming to increase their already formidable influence, the various fractions at the court, including the sleek Peter Baelish and the sophisticated eunuch and spy master Varys, proves to be quite a challenge. On top of this there is the niggling suspicion that Arryn's death was not a natural one. Eddard begins to suspect he was killed to cover up a secret. As if the internal politics of the Seven Kingdoms were not complicated enough, the shadow of Viserys and Danerys the last members of house Targaryen looms over the realm. These are unsettling times. The Starks would do well to remember their own motto: Winter is Coming.

When Martin started writing this novel he had more than a decade as a screenwriter in Hollywood to his name, working for such series as Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. One of his frequent frustrations of that particular job was that his first draft always had to be rewritten because it would be too expensive to produce in terms of cast, locations, sets and special effects. A problem a fantasy novel never faces. As a result, A Game of Thrones is epic in every sense of the word. It has a huge cast and a total of eight point of views in this book (most of them Starks). Martin will add quite a few more in the sequels. It also has descriptions of large fortifications, a variety of landscapes as seven-hundred foot wall of ice etc. In other worlds, Martin did just about everything he could think of to make sure it would not end up on the big screen or on television. And still, HBO is giving it a shot.

I must admit, I am not entirely surprised someone is trying anyway. Even taking into account the vastly improved CGI techniques, Martin has not left his screenwriter past in this novel. There's lots of short, snappy chapters, some very nice cliffhanger endings, sharply draw, easy to identify with characters and of course the great tragedy of a re-imagining of one of the most dramatic periods in English history, the War of the Roses. Yes, I can believe he was still in episode writing mode when he started on this novel. I remember to pace of the novel going down and the length of the chapters increasing in later books but I will need a reread to see how accurate my memory is on this point.

So what makes this book worth investing millions of dollars in? Well, at first glance it doesn't start all that much different from many other fantasy novels. An ancient threat, thought to be a fairy tale by many, is revealed in the prologue. The honourable and slightly naive Eddard and his family, hailing from an isolated part of the continent where people follow the old ways, are dragged into an a political game against their will, playing for their lives and ultimately, salvation of the continent. The story opens with dire omens, in fact the discovery of a dead Direwolf, killed by a piece of antler in the throat, is a nice summary of the entire Westeros side of the story. On top of that there's a sense of past glory to the book, mentioning of dragons, lots of swords and armour, a medieval setting borrowed from English history, all pretty much standard fantasy stuff. It is however, written by a man who is at the peak of his ability. Tempered by years writing short fiction, novels and screenplays and editing books, Martin knows how to write a good tale, even if it is firmly rooted in some of the most overused clich├ęs of the genre.

A Game of Thrones is a novel that stands on its own a little better than the sequels. Although it is clear Martin has not finished the tale, he delivers a good climax of the novel and reveals the answer to the riddle of Arryn's death, which sets off the whole chain of events the books describe. Structurally, he writes the story back to where it started, with a beheading and a creature not seen in living memory, which I thought was a particularly nice touch. One of the things that clearly hints at a much longer tale is the minimal connection between events in Westeros and the Targaryen story line set on another continent. The are vaguely aware of each other but so few references to the other story line is made in Danerys' chapters that Martin released it as a separate novella (and won a Hugo in 1997). Her story is definitely one of the most interesting parts in the novel. Her transformation from a homeless girl being dragged across the world by her bitter, angry and arrogant brother to a confident Dothraki Khaleesi, is one of my favourite parts of the novel.

When I first read this novel more than ten years ago, I hadn't read as much speculative fiction as I have now. Back then, I thought fantasy couldn't get much better. Martin himself and many others have proven me wrong of course. A Game of Thrones is a very good novel but not until the second and third book does the real impact of what Martin is attempting to do become clear. In a way, this novel shares a trait with The Eye of the World, the first novel of that other huge fantasy series The Wheel of Time. It starts out familiar, following the conventions of epic fantasy. It eases the reader into a lengthy series and gets you hooked on a great adventure. Martin is a much better author than Jordan was when he wrote The Eye of the World of course, none of the quibbles I had with the pacing and writing in Jordan's book show up in A Game of Thrones. That being said, it remains the start of a series that has not yet reached its pinnacle. Martin has yet to introduce some of the shades of grey that will make the at times ridiculously honourable Starks more interesting characters, or flesh out Tyrion's troubled relationship with his father and siblings. A Game of Thrones is not the greatest book Martin has ever written, I see it as something of a herald of some of the great things to come in this series. It has done the trick it was meant to perform however. After reading it, I was well and truly hooked. If there weren't quite so many more recent books on the to read stack at the moment, I'd be tempted to dive right into A Clash of Kings.

Book Details
Title: A Game of Thrones
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 835
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-00-647988-X
First published: 1996


  1. Excellent plot summary, Rob. My high school English teachers drilled into my skull the idea that I shouldn't include too much plot summary in my essays, and that has translated into my reviews too. I provide a little plot summary as I go, but I think this is probably the sort of book where a more coherent summary like you've provided above makes more sense.

    I think I also agree with you when you say that Martin's short stories are better than these novels. A Song of Ice and Fire will always have a special place in my heart, and its political intrigue is second to none. But Martin really lets his creativity take over in some of his short stories, and he can deliver just the sort of twisty, fantastical science fiction that makes for great reading in the evening, just before bed.

    I don't know if you've heard of the Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast, but they interviewed Martin in one episode. It's very interesting, because they talk a lot about his other work before getting into A Song of Ice and Fire, and he shares some cool stories.

    One last question: you said you read this originally in the Dutch translation. I am always fascinated by the experience of something in two languages (which I do not have myself often enough, because my second language is French, but I don't speak it that well). How did reading this in English compare to the Dutch translation?

  2. Well, I read the Dutch translation ten years ago so it is not exactly fresh in my mind. My English has improved a bit since then so I may see things differently now. Back then it struck me as a good translation though.

    Not long after, Amazon penetrated here in the Netherlands and I started reading more and more fantasy and science fiction in English. Once you start doing that, there really is no way back. Many of my favourite authors simply do not get translated into Dutch. We're a small language with and even smaller SF&F market.

    Martin is one of the few I have read in both English and Dutch. His works leans more on plot and character than on the beauty of his prose and that carries over pretty well in Dutch, probably in other languages too. I don't think I'd even consider reading a translation of Guy Gavriel Kay though...

    Translating, and this is something that probably is even more important in Fantasy with all it's made up language, takes a certain creativity. Some translators have it, others don't. Robert Jordan was unfortunate enough to end up with a number of translators who picked just about the worst possible alternatives for many of the fantasy terms in the books. I think those translations are absolutely horrible.

    I've also seen stuff that is absolutely brilliant. One of the best in the field, the late Max Schuchart, delivered some fine translations of works like Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King. Tolkien however, didn't like what Schuchart had done at all and went so far as to write guidelines for his translators. Given the fact that Schuchart won an award for that particular translation, I think Tolkien may have overreacted a tad but I'm wiling to admit he knew a bit more about languages than I ever will.

    They say something is always lost in translation. There is some truth in that but some works suffer more from it than others.