This past weekend, I plowed through the last 300 pages of A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, so now today I can finally post my review of the book.
A Game of Thrones is a fantasy novel that focuses on a variety of different characters, but the chief among them is Eddard “Ned” Stark. After King Robert promotes Ned to be the Hand, a position second only to the king himself, Stark begins to uncover a conspiracy that involves the mysterious death of the former Hand and a plot to kill the king. The plot builds as each character vies for political, personal, or moral power in Westeros.
I came to A Game of Thrones in a different way than most, I expect. By the time I read the book, the world had already gushed over the book series and the HBO adaptation. As a fantasy fan, I was suspect of Martin’s nickname: “The American Tolkien.” Tolkien for me is the epitome of fantasy literature; he is not only the best author of fantasy, but he played a central role in defining the genre. Calling Martin “The American Tolkien” is a bit unfair, because there is no way he can live up to the label. He was not there at the inception of modern fantasy, and thus cannot have the same impact.
Let me reveal my bias here: Martin is not Tolkien and I don’t even consider him an equal. However,A Game of Thronesis a great book in its own right, and when I became invested in the story, the comparison between the authors was the furthest thing from my mind. George R.R. Martin creates a complex world full of different characters who each have their own agenda, and he builds tension by showing how the motivations of the characters play off each other. Martin uses the characters to drive the story, which allows the plot to flow naturally. Each chapter is from the perspective of a main character, which helps the author develop the protagonists fully.
Martin attempts to make the story realistic in A Game of Thrones, which has some consequences with how the characters and plot are portrayed. Anyone looking for a predictable fantasy book, with clear heroes and villains engaged in a conflict that reaches a climax, should be wary when reading the novel. Eddard Stark might look like the hero initially, but as the story progresses, it becomes harder to distinguish between good and evil. Similarly, the book is only the first in a story that spans several books, so the ending does not appear complete (although it will make you want to see what happens next).
A Game of Thrones is not without its problems, though. I did appreciate the fact that Martin focused on one character in each chapter, but that approach also has its drawbacks. Martin would often begin a chapter in a random moment without much information to set the scene. He would then go back and describe what happened to the character since his or her previous chapter. If he had started the chapter at the beginning of the action instead of in the middle of it, he wouldn’t have to go backward as much. In addition, I just think there are better ways to tell a fantasy story. I’ve seen the same kind of chapters in a Jodi Picoult book, and while it’s not my favourite technique, I think it works better in a present-day setting. When you’re creating a fantasy world, it’s hard enough to describe it without choosing a style that doesn’t work well with it.
Another problem I had with the book was the sexual content. I’m not against sexual scenes as long as they serve a purpose and are written well, but the amount of prostitution in the book is kind of ridiculous. Even the characters who were too honourable to pay for sex still found themselves in brothels at some point. Martin seems like he enjoys writing the sex scenes a little too much, which occasionally makes him sound like a horny old man. Furthermore, a lot of the sex involves violence against women or at least women in subordinate positions. I understand that Martin was using medieval England as a basis for his fantasy world and he does work to empower women in the second half of the book, but some of the violent sex scenes are written as if he enjoys them or wants to arouse us with them. I hope Martin included these moments to support feminism, but I feel like the book had some mixed messages.
Overall, I give A Game of Thrones a 3.5 out of 5. I enjoyed it and I definitely want to read more of the series after finishing this book, but Martin could have made some better choices in the way he told the story and in how much sex he included. The novel would probably be entertaining for people who like epic fantasy narratives, but people who like dark, realistic books might also find enjoyment in it, because Martin uses historical fact to build his story, rather than whimsy or imagination.