Thursday, September 22, 2011

Shepherd492 reviews: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones (George R.R. Martin)

Game of Thrones is an example of political intrigue at its best. The story is told through eight points of view (nine, counting a one-shot prologue character that does a great job of hooking the reader). The different points of view flesh out all sides of the conflict present here, and the world at large. Primarily a struggle between House Lannister and House Stark, the story actually starts as somewhat of a mystery. Clues and chance encounters foreshadow the conflict to come, but the POVs used don't give it away. The mystery isn't so much who is responsible for the events early in the story, because the Lannisters are quite obviously behind it to begin with, but instead how and when things will fall apart. Scene after scene goes by, building tension and adding on extra details and nuances to the complex plot.

This doesn't always work, some scenes in the middle of the book aren't very good, and serve only to slow down the plot's momentum. The scenes with Daenerys are ok, but they don't tie into the main arc at all in this novel (I'm assuming that she will have a more significant impact in future books in the series). This sub plot is further weakened by the use of familiar fantasy tropes such as dragons, spells, horse lords and mages not seen elsewhere in the book. They aren't exactly overused, and in fact the sole use of a spell in the novel was a very powerful moment. The drawback is that these elements aren't seen, but are only occasionally referenced, in the other six points of view. This further reinforces the sub plot's complete lack of integration with the main story.

Once the plot gets moving, the pacing really kicks into high gear. The armies and hosts of the opposing Houses rally to fight each other, and the ensuing fight scenes, planning, and diplomacy are expertly handled. Tyrion Lannister is particularly effective here, serving as a look into the enemy camp, without being a cliche riddled villain. In fact, none of the villains really feel like bad stereotypes, they aren't seen much, particularly early on, but when they are seen, they are very effective in instilling negative emotions and genuine dislike. The only real problem with the end of the book is that it ends on a complete cliffhanger. There is absolutely no sense of resolution, with all but one character's plot left unresolved. This is rather deliberate seeing as this is book one in a (currently) five book series, but some sense of conclusion would have been appreciated. As it is, it seems like the book was abruptly cut off at the halfway point.

Overall, the plot here is great, with too many intricate details to recall, and enough twists to make it one of the better I've read. The climax is also fantastic, as the pieces begin to fit together, and the factions assemble for what will hopefully be a great struggle in the ensuing books.

While the book mainly focuses on the eight POV characters, the supporting characters are (mostly) fleshed out wonderfully as well. The main characters are five members of House Stark, one member of House Lannister, and Daenerys, an exiled princess living in a foreign land. Every character featured here is constricted very carefully, often being cast outs (Jon Snow, Daenerys) or misfits (Tyrion, Arya), but always having more than one dimension to their personalities.. This gives these characters an instant relateability to the reader, and is presented very realistically even though each of them was born to nobility. Eddard and Catelyn, the Lord and Lady of House Stark, are the most crucial to the main plot, trying to piece together the Lannister's plan before it is too late.

The best thing about the characters is is the fact that they are far from perfect. Catelyn is perhaps rash in her decision to apprehend Tyrion, something that gave the Lannisters justification for what they did afterwards. She is also unrelentingly cruel towards Jon, Eddard's child with another woman. However, she is mostly kind to her other children, and is very capable in many aspects of leadership and tactics. Tyrion is a schemer, a manipulator, and at times a bully, but he also has some of the best lines in the book, and goes out of his way to be kind to fellow downtrodden people (Jon in particular) on a few occasions. Sansa, one of the Stark's two daughters, is prissy and antagonistic towards her younger sister, but also very sympathetic by the end of the book.

Eddard and Bran supply two of the biggest shocks in the book, however. Bran, the Stark's second youngest son, nearly dies in the first one hundred pages of the book. This alone establishes an environment where no one is safe. What pushes this environment above and beyond what anyone could reasonably expect, is Eddard's execution in the final third of the book. This came as a complete surprise, as Eddard was the closest to a "heroic" adult character in the novel, and because he seemed to be the central character to the narrative. These two decisions result in a series that feels more realistic than typical fare. In the same way Chewbacca's death managed to completely change the tone of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, these two events manage to bring an unparalleled sense of tension and unpredictability to this series.

Secondary characters that aren't featured as points of view, such as Cersei, Joffrey, Lysa, and Baelish are also characterized well. Not every side character is done well, and in fact many names are dropped without any sort of context. The cast of characters in this book is truly enormous, and some are only mentioned fleetingly, then referenced at a later point. These characters are often one dimensional, and they are extremely hard to keep track of due to the sheer amount present.This is only a minor flaw, however, and this book should be enjoyed and celebrated for its complex, flawed characters, and the dramatic turn of events that affect two of the main cast during the novel.

World building and gritty, unpleasant realism bring this story to life, and lend it a critical sense of authenticity.  The fight scenes, in particular the massive armies clashing towards the end of the book, are phenomenal, capturing the scope and feel of a medieval engagement and delievering plenty of thrills. The dialogue is very fitting for the time period, the nobles and peasants are completely different in terms of dialect and phrasing. The words themselves are also consistent for each character, and generally very believable. Tyrion's quips and sarcastic comments are a highlight, but just about everyone comes through with a few touching scenes of conversation, whether it is Eddard talking to his daughters, or Daenerys saying goodbye to her husband.

The realistic setting extends to every facet of the story. Incest and rape play a crucial role in the story, and a bastard is featured as one of the main characters. Pillaging, executions, prostituition, and drinking also factor heavily into the advancement of the plot and setting of the scenes. Also of import is the manner in which the mythology of the series is constructed. A overarching plot here concerns the existence of prolonged seasons. Seasons can last for years, decades even, and the upcoming arrival of winter adds to the sense of impending chaos prevalent throughout so much of this novel. Political alliances, minor houses, events, technology, and belief systems are also thoroughly explored here. The history of the realm is also carefully fleshed out in a series of conversations, though much of what is learned is not applied in this novel, and may not ever be, it is still a useful step in world building and immersion.

The prose itself is largely bland, however. The writing style is effective but hardly the most creative. The author does a good job of describing the settings, but often goes out of his way to detail what armor/outfit some minor character is wearing. While some of the concepts are really cool, they are also unnessicary and slow the flow of the story down a bit. The romantic scenes are also kinda lame, using the same formula for most of them, and featuring the few cheesy lines in the entire book.

Gritty, daring, and endlessly entertaining, Game of Thrones suffers from only a few minor flaws, and is a staple of the new wave of fantasy novels. The realistic, flawed characters, detailed environment, and epic scope make this a book that everyone should read.

Final Score

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