The OF Blog: SOIAF re-read project: George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

Saturday, May 01, 2010

SOIAF re-read project: George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

My experiences reading George R.R. Martin's fiction may differ in some respects from several reading this.  When I was 12 years old in 1986, I was in my school library during 7th grade study hall and I was browsing through the magazines.  There was one excellent SF magazine (my maternal grandparents subscribed to it, come and think of it) there, the late, great OMNI.  I remember reading over the course of two months a two-part horror story called "The Pear-Shaped Man."  Even today, nearly 24 years later, that story is still one of the creepiest stories that I ever recall reading.

I loved it, of course.  But I never remembered who the author was.  Flash forward to 1998.  Robert Silverberg edited this huge all-star anthology of secondary-world fantasy simply called Legends.  In it was an interesting novella called "The Hedge Knight."  Good story, perhaps something I'll want to explore later, I thought, being but a poor graduate-level teaching trainee at the time.  Still didn't register who wrote the story.

Two years later, during the late winter/early spring of 2000, I was a frequent visitor (but not yet a poster) to the now-defunct WoT fansite, wotmania.  I saw where the webmaster, Mike Mackert, was raving about this series, only two volumes in length then, by some guy named George R.R. Martin.  Being a first-year teacher at the time and wanting something new to read (I think my book collection at the time was barely 200, or 10% of what it is today), I bought a paperback copy of A Game of Thrones soon afterwards, followed by making Amazon purchases of A Clash of Kings in hardcover that summer and pre-ordering A Storm of Swords for its October 31, 2000 release. 

Out of the three, I enjoyed A Game of Thrones the most, as I found the action in A Clash of Kings to lag, not to mention it took me from early November 2000-mid-March 2001 to get around to finishing A Storm of Swords, which at the time I found to be the most bloated and least enjoyable of the three.  I seem to recall making some semi-negative comments sometime in late 2001 on wotmania that drew some visitors from the SOIAF fansite, Westeros.  The resulting (mostly) civil discussion ended up with me deciding to re-read the series early in 2002.  My opinions of each book improved, especially for the third volume, although I still have never had the amount of admiration for Martin's prose and characterization that numerous fans have had.  Despite being at the Nashville booksigning in November 2005 that launched his fourth A Song of Ice and Fire book, A Feast for Crows, I never got around to reading that book.  Don't know exactly why, except that I think I was very busy with my Spanish and Social Work classwork at the time (although I knew then that I would be dropping out of that dual program after the semester due to having lost my job a couple of months before) and afterward, there were several other books awaiting my attention.

So it's been eight years since I last read the first three volumes and the fourth volume will be an initial read for me.  Just as I did in the Dune Chronicles commentaries and what I'm currently doing with the WoT ones, I'll be writing more from the perspective of how I'm reacting to the text, how I remembered reacting to it years before, and if my impressions have improved or not.  There may be some analysis, but these commentaries are not intended to be formal reviews (although I'm well capable of writing those if I so choose).

Now onto A Game of Thrones. When I read it during the spring of 2000 almost exactly ten years ago, it was a refreshing read.  I believe I had read and re-read the WoT series a handful of times the three years prior to that and I was growing tired of that series and the little epic fantasy that I had tried outside of Tolkien did not appeal to me.  I was more of a "classics" and historical fiction reader at the time, when I did not indulge in reading some of the historical monographs that I had kept from my days as a history grad student.  Back then, I believe it was the "political" nature of the book that appealed to me the most - the plotting, the scheming, the murder attempts, and eventually the beginnings of an armed rebellion.  The pacing was decent and the characters were distinctive. 

It was pretty much an entertaining read that did not "shock me."  I've always found it interesting to hear of those readers who are put off by the "character deaths" in this series.  From the opening scenes set in Winterfell, I always found myself thinking of Ned Stark as being a tragic figure, one whose rigid morality was too different from the scheming nobles around him to allow him to survive for long.  But I never really thought too much about the other characters during my initial two reads in 2000 and 2002.

During this read, I decided to pay closer attention to how Martin structures his scenes.  What I noticed is that there is little overlap between characters who are in the same locale.  Each PoV character, told in third-person limited PoV, differs significantly in tone and reactions from the others in the area.  After struggling recently with umpteenth sniffing woman/Aes Sedai in my WoT re-read series, this was a refreshing change of pace.  Although there were some necessary usages of internal monologue, Martin did not indulge himself too much here, as he shapes the dialogues to carry the brunt of the scene load.  The result ends up being subtle characterization shifts/developments that are introduced and later deployed to great effect without the author feeling the need to keep shouting, "Hey!  You!  Pay attention to this clever bit of foreshadowing!"  The fact that there are no plot "prophecies" in this book (and very few in the series, if I recall) is a great relief, since I'm not the sort of reader who needs those sorts of foreshadowings to keep on reading.

The pace was more languid than I recalled, however.  For some reason, I had thought the time between Ned's realization of who Prince Joffrey's real father was and his subsequent arrest and execution was much closer than it actually was.  There were a few times where it seemed to take overly long to develop certain scenes, but these are relatively minor quibbles, considering that for the most part, the character interactions developed earlier in the novel appear to explode into vivid action for the last quarter of the novel.  From the Stark (and Jon Stark) children's ties with the direwolves found in the beginning of the book to the antagonisms between Stark and Lannister that result from Robb Stark humiliating Prince Joffrey, to the ways that caprice and cruelty breed and spread, Martin uses most of what he hints at earlier in the novel to great effect in this one.

There are a few storylines that hint only at some minor progression and nothing approaching a narrative resolution here.  Robb's actions after his father's execution merely set the stage for the next two volumes; same holds true with Jon's experiences with the Black Watch.  With the exception of the Daenerys story arc (which reaches a crucial narrative point), the various subplots of A Game of Thrones end up feeling like the stage has been set more than anything else.  No real narrative cliffhangers, but the tone of the novel's concluding chapters feels as though a thunderstorm is about to burst over the heads of the characters involved.  Much better read this time than I recalled experiencing my first two times reading it.  Might find it hard to keep alternating between series at this rate.


Bill said...

I have to concur with your analysis, Larry. Particularly with the Ned Stark arc - it was the rereading for me, that pointed out how much "time" he had until he conceded to the public ceremony.

I also have to agree with the tragic nature of some of the characters - the method and means were oft surprising in the series, but I liked it. It builds a sense of urgency in the story, and makes events more meaningful, when you realize the author isn't afraid to kill off characters.

Which brings me to those characters that survive: seems to me a brutally realistic statement on how the world works. Most fantasy stories come up with the underlying theme of "If you do the right thing, then things will turn out fairly." - which, in reality, is simply not true. It's something I have not found in other works, although I am admittedly not as well read as you or most of your readership.

People survive, in the dark, because they make morally grey decisions based on self-preservation, or because they have more inherent value alive than dead. Otherwise, life is not always fair.

Aside - you have not read "A Feast for Crows" then, as of yet? Will you be reading it during this reread project?

Adam Whitehead said...

I'm wondering if, when Larry reads Book 4, he with thematically engage with what Martin was trying to achieve with the book, or he'll bitch because Brienne's story is a little boring?

Maybe we can start a pool going?

Larry said...


Yeah, I'll be reading it. There are several books over the years that I've put off for years, knowing that I'd probably enjoy them if I had the proper frame of mind when reading them that I didn't do because "the timing wasn't right."

As for the "statement about how the world works": I'm used to stories that have so-called "brutal" or "tragic" endings, so that aspect didn't bother me, nor did it appeal to me. It is what it is and I judge such tales on how internally consistent they are.


You're betting on the former, right? Because one complaint I'm going to be making when I write my review of Jordan's CoS deals with certain thematic issues. And I never really saw any reason to support the disliking some have given to Brienne's character, although I never did really proceed far enough into AFfC to find out :P

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this semi-review/personal thoughts! thanks Larry

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