Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Game of Thrones

Not quite what I usually discuss here, but I've nowhere else to put it: some thought on rereading the first book of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire for the first time in more than five years.

Once upon a time, I loved epic fantasy.

It started with Tolkien, and then, thanks to a marketing gimmick that offered a big chunk of the first book for ninety-nine cents, spread to Robert Jordan.  Other names went into the mix-- Goodkind and Carey and Eddings and Williams and Hobb and so on-- but one came to dominate: George R.R. Martin.  I only picked up A Game of Thrones because of the cover blurb from Robert Jordan, but Martin quickly displaced Jordan from the top spot on my list of favorite doorstopper fantasy writers.  I suffered through all but the first couple months of the five year wait for A Feast for Crows, maintaining my interest in the series even as I gave up on other epic fantasy writers as no longer offering anything I wanted.

Even as the wait for A Dance with Dragons extended, I kept the characters and situations of the series at the back of my mind.  Then, a few months ago, joy and rapture, a publication date for the new book was announced.  I resolved to reread the first four volumes sometime closer to that release date.  I was a little nervous about it.  My sense of what constitutes good writing had evolved considerably in the years since I'd done anything more than glance at my copies of Game, Clash, Storm and Feast.  Would I find the characters flat, the plot non-existent, the style laughable?

At first, I did have some trouble getting back into the rhythm of Martin's prose.  There is a lot of exposition, not always presented in the most natural manner, and his use of the third-person limited viewpoint sometimes jars with that, as though characters find history, geography, and etiquette lessons running through their heads at convenient moments.  Martin's language, while never awkward, is rather workmanlike, which can have a wearying effect in an 800 page book.  There are times when thematic messages are brought home too heavily, and attempts at pathos backfire, suffering from what one might, after Oscar Wilde, call Little Nell syndrome.

But against these defects are ranged great virtues that reminded me why I've stuck with this series at a time when I'm no longer a fan of epic fantasy.  There's the world-building, which has not only depth but breadth.  Unlike some other writers, who enjoy detailing certain aspects of their milieu but leave others implausibly blank, Martin offers a dizzying array of information: a map, of course, and a basic chronology, but also details of religion, culture, history, myth, agriculture, and warfare.  From mouth-watering descriptions of lavish food to the different heraldic arms of a dizzying number of houses, the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is rich in the small realities that make an unfamiliar milieu, whether historical or fictional, come alive.

But a novel is more than its setting, and the real power of the series is its characters, who are wittier, nastier, and more ambitious than anyone you'll ever meet, yet also recognizably human.  Martin plays with the tropes of fantasy-- scheming nobles and mysterious, threatening forces, evil queens and bastards of uncertain parentage.  But the absence of a Dark Lord means that good and evil are harder to separate.  In a violent feudal society where loyalty can come at a steep price, is valor wiser than discretion?  Stout-hearted honor may be laudable when you're on a quest against demons, but when your enemies are humans with complex drives and unknowable motivations, it may bring ruin, or an executioner's sword, down upon your head.  The full scope of this moral ambiguity doesn't become clear in A Game of Thrones, which is, after all, only the first movement of a larger story, but there's enough to make clear that the series won't be offering easy answers or happy endings.  A grim, gritty atmosphere is another of this novel's virtues, though one that makes it decidedly unsuitable for pre-teen fantasy fans.  Knights can be noble and dashing, but they can also be brutal rapists, and while invented colloquial swearing has its place here, more familiar four-letter words add to the air of dark realism.

It may seem an obvious thing to say in light of the recent HBO adaptation (which I haven't seen), but even before that was announced I had thought George R. R. Martin had a very cinematic imagination.  Whether this was the cause or the result of the Hollywood career whose conclusion left him able to write A Game of Thrones, he is especially adept at constructing chapter-ending images that, despite the flat prose, are as exciting as if one were actually there, watching it happen.  The book ends on two gorgeous quasi-cliffhangers that will, I'm sure, make for riveting viewing, leaving those viewers who don't want to read the series deeply satisfied yet desperate to find out what happens next.

Many of the characters of A Game of Thrones are children when the novel begins, and events force them to grow up fast.  Although sometimes it's played too forcefully, this is mostly a good way to bring home the harshness of a medieval milieu.  Westeros may be a glamorous place, but you'd never want to go there, at least during the timespan of this series.  For the rereader, there is a special potency as characters envision reunions that will never occur, promise victories that will be denied them, plan for futures they won't live to see.  As I approached each twist of fate, I found myself hoping that somehow things would play out differently this time, which, of course, they didn't.

There is much less magic in this novel than in other contemporary fantasy.  There are signs and portents, dreams that might be prophetic, and a few rituals that might or might not actually accomplish anything, but this is a world where magic has been unknown for a long time.  Its gradual return, across this volume and future ones, lends it an ominous quality it wouldn't have if it was a commonplace, fully worked-out system.  The magic of A Game of Thrones is mostly in the reading experience, in the use of the epic fantasy form to explore the brutality of medieval life, the virtues and flaws of the wealthy and powerful, and the sense of wonder that any great work of speculative fiction brings.

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