A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. ★★★★
Is there anything new that I can say about A Game of Thrones? Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of it or the TV show that it spawned? I certainly had heard a lot about it prior to reading it. In fact, I had some peripheral awareness about who the characters were and what happened to them.
Despite a fair amount about the story and several spoilers before hand, I still enjoyed A Game of Thrones. It was also different than I expected in that there was some magic and more fantasy elements than I’d heard. There wasn’t a lot of fantasy elements, but they were there, and I got the feeling that they would increase. So despite the medieval Europe based world that aims for as much grit and realism as possible, it didn’t feel like historical fiction.
I gather that the whole point of A Game of Thrones is to take the typical fantasy world that’s based on medieval Europe and treat it as realistically as possible. But for all the acclaim about the groundbreaking world building, I found it fairly standard. It’s still based on Western Europe. It had the same gender relations, landscape, basic culture, and everything else of the stereotypical Western Europe fantasy (i.e. it’s mainly white, patriarchal and hetero-normative).
The only thing that makes it really different from the standard fantasy world is the seasons: winter and summer are variable and can last for years at a time. In the North, there are dire wolves and supposedly mammoth, but dire wolves are the only prehistoric animal to appear in the book and for all intents and purposes, they could have been normal wolves. I really like the idea of the variable seasons, but I wish that it was better integrated into the world building. Perhaps it will be shown in a later book, but how do people survive during ten year winters? Are they storing food all summer long? Are they migrating to warmer lands in the South? What work are they doing during the winter, when they can’t plant the fields?
I’ve also heard discussions about the treatment of female characters. I’m not yet ready to make a statement either way. However, it’s worth noting that half the POV characters are female, which is a higher ratio than I’ve typically seen in fantasy books (do note that all POV characters are still white straight people). However, only one of the four female POV characters was above fourteen – Catelyn Stark, who I didn’t care for. Throughout the story, she makes bad decisions and goes into hysterics over her children.
I’ve heard disagreement about the character of Sansa Stark in particular. I didn’t like her for the majority of the book, but not because she’s the “girly” daughter. I don’t think she’s dis-likable because of this. The problem with Sansa is how she fails to see reality. She’s living in a delusional world. For the majority of the book, she’s dreaming of princes and fairy tales and songs. When she finally realizes that she’s not living a fairy tale, it’s heart wrenching.
The Daenerys sections are the most problematic. I know that both child marriages and rape during wartime happened frequently throughout history (and still today). However, I’m not convinced at the extent of rape that happens in the nomadic society presumably based upon the Mongols, who were actually more egalitarian than the Western European cultures at the time. I don’t know if George R.R. Martin didn’t do any research on the subject, or did and decided to add it in anyway to make their culture (the only nonwhite culture we see a significant portion of) as vile and barbaric as possible.
I was also worried about the violence level going in, but I didn’t find it a problem. It was about on par with the violence in The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I loved. I only recall one sex scene outside of the Daenerys sections. From what I’ve seen, the TV show really amps up both the violence and sexual content. It’s present in the book, but not to the same extent.
A Game of Thrones has become one of the biggest names of the fantasy genre, so I’d feel a bit foolish recommending it – what are the chances that you haven’t already read it or heard of it? Still, it’s pretty much required reading if you like epic fantasy. However, if you’re looking for something light and escapist, I’d avoid this one.