Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Game of Thrones (Book) - Nitpicks

Ah... A Game of Thrones. The first in a five book series, rereading A Game of Thrones was like returning to an old friend. The old quirks that I remembered were still there. The 2+ years I had spent away from it fuzzied my memory enough that it felt fresh and exciting once more. For a long time, I’ve regarded A Song of Ice and Fire (the series’ name) as one of my favorite series of all time, if not the favorite. Nowhere else can you find that incredible blend of fantastic world-building, spectacular character development, immense attention to detail, and enthralling writing. On rereading (this is probably the third, maybe fourth, time I’ve read the first book), I was not disappointed. Needless to say, I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes the idea of reading about knights, heroes, intrigue, violence, and magic.

And that ends this review! Or at least, the spoiler-free part of it. Given how many times I've read this book, I’ve no interest in obliquely trumpeting its awesomeness. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of fiction, and of fantasy books in particular, knows that this book is among the best of the best. It’s a given. So, instead, I’m going to go into the specifics in no particular order, assess what I thought went well and what didn't interest me so much. Go into themes and characters. Try to resist to gush endlessly and turn this into a 12 part blog post. We’ll see how it goes...
The Eyrie

First off, the criticisms. In
A Game of Thrones, a good portion of the book is spent in the eastern mountains, far away from everything else, at a stronghold known as the Eyrie. Watched over by an insanely overprotective and vindictive harpy (Lysa Arryn) and her hopelessly spoiled brat (Robert Arryn), the only time I felt that the plot began to slow is when a couple of the viewpoint characters (Tyrion and Catelyn) are forced to travel to this place, deal with the most absurd crap imaginable, and then trudge all the way back. Certainly, the Imp’s trial and the subsequent epic duel keep the attention, but the rest becomes a bit of a blur.

After thinking about it for a while, it occurred to me that the reason this part felt so slow was because it felt like a sideshow to more important events happening elsewhere. The rest of the realm is on the brink of war; the king is ineffectual; tensions are rising between many of the houses. The growing stress and increasingly desperate moves to restore order are a huge part of what makes
A Game of Thrones so engrossing. The Starks and Lannisters are at each other’s throats while still barely holding the peace. The crown treasury is running empty and terrible secrets of both sides begin to spill forth. You can tell that the shit is this close to hitting the fan, at all times.

By contrast, it becomes obvious early on that the Eyrie and the Arryns are going to sit out, remain neutral while the rest of the realm starts slugging it out. They are going to perch on their mountain fortress and fearfully twiddle their fingers while everyone else actually does something. And, don’t get me wrong, I understand why George RR Martin does this. This is world-building. It is understandable that a faction or two would want to remain neutral. But taking the reader’s attention away from the eponymous “game of thrones” to go on a long journey and focus on the empty machinations of some trollop on a mountain seemed like a poor writing choice to me.
This pretty much sums up Bran's character


Now I feel a little bad targeting one character and writing him off, but damn. In A Game of Thrones, at least, Bran is one of those characters who you kind of want to slap in the face a few times (Catelyn is a distant second). The problem is that Bran quickly becomes defined by the injury he acquires after his first chapter; the boy essentially is crippled from the get go. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being crippled. But the fact of the matter is that other characters arguably have it worse. Jon has no real parents and is forced to take the black or be shunned for the rest of his life. Tyrion is a deformed imp who everyone wants to sneer at or murder. While these other two characters have these factors affecting them negatively, they both make progress in defining themselves beyond said disadvantages. They grow as people and thus become admirable in surpassing their station.

However, Bran chooses instead to whine constantly. It felt like the majority of his chapters involved Maester Luwin trying over and over to explain to him that there is more to life than wallowing in misery and being crippled. Advice that utterly fails to sink into Bran’s thick skull. Let’s assess the ways in which Bran could be awesome, but chooses not to recognize because he’d rather complain:

1. By the end of the book, he is the No. 1 authority in Winterfell, what serves essentially as capital city of the entire northern region.
2. Despite his crippled status, he is capable of commanding enormous respect because he has a giant freaking direwolf as a pet, if nothing else.
3. He has ample opportunity to hone his mind to a razor’s edge; Maester Luwin points out repeatedly that Bran could study to do whatever he wants to: architect, astrologist, commander, etc.
4. His physical failure is partly cancelled out by Tyrion’s specially crafted saddle design, which allows Bran to ride a horse however and whenever he likes.

To be fair, Bran is very young (less than 10 years old). But this is a series where a 14 year old girl goes through the most difficult upbringing imaginable and still comes out looking like a badass (Daenarys). Thus I found Bran’s chapters to be a recurrent aggravation; compared to the suffering and change some of the other less fortunate characters go through, it is hard to maintain empathy in a whiny little boy. Thankfully, this annoyance was partly relieved by the interesting, if enigmatic, dreams he goes through as well as how he serves as a lens through which we can see events arise and change in the Winterfell area. So it wasn’t all bad.


  1. ****SPOILERS*****
    (Not really, but I will be mentioning future books in vague, broad terms.)

    First, to all the Bran hating: I get the feeling that Bran is a very important character, in ways that certain other POV characters are not. I agree that he's not well-written. But the person of Bran does get better and is intrinsic to the overall story.

    One of the biggest things I've picked up reading through the series again is a reminder that the overall story of the books is not "Game of Thrones;" the series as a whole is "A Song of Fire and Ice." There's more tying all of this together than the political machinations happening in Kings Landing, and it won't really come out till George R.R. Martin finishes with everything.

    The Lysa episode reverberates throughout the rest of the books... again, I see how a lot of the action is in Kings Landing, but that could be said of a lot of episodes. Daenerys is hardly relevant for a number of books to come, strictly in terms of Kings Landing, but he is setting up a huge story arc in which she is vitally important.

    In short, I see George R.R. Martin as a very good, though not spectacular, writer, who set himself to an extremely ambitious and exciting project. In a way you could almost divide the book into a number of different sub-books which stand on their own. But Martin clearly intends all of this to work together into a greater work of art. The POV chapters are often arranged so that there is a contrast between the events in consecutive chapters, even when the events are not in any way related.

    /end my 20-odd cents

  2. I like your comments and it was interesting to read them. But I wanted to emphasize the point that, with this review and future reviews, I'm trying to focus on one book at a time. I personally know that Bran becomes more relevant and interesting later. I also know that some of the events that occur at the Eyrie are essentially build-up for events that occur in, what, book 4? When Sansa goes there? So I know that what happens in GoT isn't pointless.

    However, I do think it could have been done better. While, sure, the series focus is on "A Song of Ice and Fire" (whatever that means), each of the individual books tend to focus on a different situation/set of events. A Game of Thrones focuses on said intrigue, its build-up and the climax of the political machinations manifesting in the death of the king and the launching of war. A Clash of Kings focuses on the five different kings/houses beating the crap out of each other. A Feast for Crows focuses on the fallout throughout the realm from constant warfare and the ramifications that reverberate among houses and factions we haven't really seen up to this point (details on the Greyjoys, Martells, etc). A Storm of Swords is the only one which is a bit hard to define... People butchering each other en masse? Big battles?

    Long story short, I feel that GoT's main focus was on the intrigue and thus the Eyrie could and should have been replaced by, perhaps, Catelyn taking Tyrion to Dragonstone and getting a similar sort of reaction from Stannis Baratheon. As one of the main claimants to the crown, Stannis' faction has far more relevance to the plot of GoT than do the Arryns. And given Stannis' dismissive attitude to the Starks, it wouldn't have been hard to replicate events (Tyrion's capture then subsequent tricky release). Anyways, I'll stop hypothesizing and just end with my observation that the Eyrie really could have waited until later.

    As for Daenarys, even though she's on a complete 'nother continent, she does manage to command enormous influence over intrigue and events throughout the world (in GoT, at least). Much of the arguments between Robert and Eddard are about whether or not to execute her, and this is the catalyst for quite a few fights between them that lead to other events. Not to mention, at one point, Daenarys successfully convinces Drogo to take his entire horde to go conquer Westeros! So it isn't hard to see how she is relevant to the book where the Eyrie and the Arryns aren't. At least to my eyes.

    Anyways, in the end I agree with you, though. GRRM has an extremely ambitious project, but the POV chapters, while usually aligned very well, aren't always perfect.

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