Friday, December 16, 2011

"A Game of Thrones"

It's all right.
People have been going on a lot about A Game of Thrones lately. I'm talking here about the novel, not the TV adaptation which I haven't seen and which sounds like the usual HBO exploitative pseudo-art which makes people who just like seeing lots of sex and violence pretend that they're engaging in something deeply intellectual and sophisticated. But I wouldn't want to judge it prematurely. Anyway, I'd heard word that the first novel in George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series was the absolute cat's pyjamas so with the resultant klaxons and alarm bells blazing in my head, a healthy dose of scepticism and a dubious look on my face, I purchased the aforementioned tome and gave it a read.
Now I'm not going to suggest, as might be expected, that A Game of Thrones is a bad novel. It's certainly above average. I'm just not entirely sure why it's getting the rave amounts of praise that it is. It's more or less a similar situation to the one I found with "The Way of Kings" except that Martin's novel is actually interesting, unlike Sanderson's unfortunately overwrought work. Prepare to groan, however, for I am going to attest wholeheartedly that it is nowhere as good as, yes, you guessed it, The Lord of the Rings. The reason I say this is because due to the human predilection for bigging things up by putting other things down in lieu of stronger evidence A Game of Thrones has been getting a lot of favourable comparisons over The Lord of the Rings. I've always been of the opinion that you don't big something up by putting other stuff down; that doesn't hold any water in my book. So partially this is a correcive; frankly if you think Tolkien's writing is too boring or stodgy then the more's the pity because you're excluding yourself from a unique and powerful style and aesthetic. Martin's stuff is a bit more by the numbers.
We're presented with Westeros, a sort of extended England being ruled over by a relatively typical feudal heirarchy. In the North we've got House Stark, home of several of the protagonists, and down South are their scheming Machiavellian nemeses, House Lannister. There are a number of Houses all over the place with fingers in various pies. What do you suppose this entails? If you guessed "lots of bickering, court politics and civil war" then you'd be right. Basically a good deal of it is medieval drama in an imaginary world. It's not presented in a boring way but I'd be lying if I suggested that it came across as the most fresh or original set of concepts in the world. I'm pretty sure every Fantasy author and his wolf has had a point at which their big epic diverted into medieval politics for some reason. Just to ram the point home, let's pick, say, the Tolnedrans from The Belgariad. Yep. Just compared "A Song of Ice and Fire" to David Eddings. Problem, fanboys? Too bad comments are disabled, huh?
Of course we do get some juicy snippets of more interesting stuff on the horizon. Over a giant wall of ice to the North dwell the Others, necromantic wintery horrors who clearly want to overthrow the world of Men at some point, and far away in the East we hear about the Shadow and the lands from which dragons once came and so on. However this is just volume one in what is already a five-part and apparently going to ultimately be a seven-volume series, so don't expect to see much of the supernatural in this instalment, oh no. Apart from some undead shenanigans, all we get is an appearance by the Others at the very beginning and one by Dragons at the very end. Most of the rest of it is given over to innumerable nobles squabbling and having power struggles. It's interesting that Mormont, the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch who guard the Wall, notes that really worrying about the Others and the oncoming Winter should be everyone's primary concern and that who's king doesn't mean a damn when murderous fiends are probably to be soon on the rampage and it kind of feels like Martin's altogether aware that the series is currently dealing with the boring and stupid bits just to make us understand how people can have bad priorities or a lack of perspective at times.
That being said I did appreciate the fact that the novel presented a reasonably realistic medieval society. For instance there are very few genuinely old people, medicine is incredibly limited and women are hardly empowered. Another thing I appreciated is that the battle scenes are generally brief or occur elsewhere. Martin doesn't give us drawn-out titillating video game action sequences, only sporadic impressions of the genuine horror and pointlessness of life-or-death combat. One thing I will quibble about is that considering the issues at stake and content I rapidly despaired of how many of the third-person narrators or perspectival characters were children. Children are almost always annoying as points-of-view and many of Martin's kiddies are no exception, although they do permit some disturbing moments such as when youngster Bran stumbles upon a scene of rather grotesque incest or when Sansa ends up being used in the power-plays of the Lannisters, which while a slightly worn narrative conceit is nonetheless effective enough in portraying Martin's exploration of the possibilities of human viciousness.
Eddard Stark, the father of the kids, is a boring, humorless, honour-bound character like so many tedious Fantasy protagonists but he is executed towards the end so that's something. The best characters were the bastard Jon Snow and the deformed prince Tyrion Lannister. As outsiders they both relieved a lot of the mundanity of the plot and provided something more than rather dry medieval narrative, especially since almost all of the overtly 'fantastic' elements were consigned to the side-narrative about Dany set on the continent of Estos over the sea. One thing I found frustrating was the fact that significant portions of the Estos narrative were not covered in the maps provided and at times it was difficult to assess where in the world these events were happening relative to the main story.
The Dany plot is more of this "having to grow up too fast" type thing which seems to be a big part of Martin's intent. At the most superficial way I'd suggest that he's interested in depicting how politics, the "game of thrones", brooks no room for innocence, mercy or honour, and that the squabbling of factions over the niceties of control is at best the pursuit of a hollow goal and at worst an idiotic distraction from far bigger problems which will occur regardless of who's in charge. In that regard I suppose the novel is successful. Its darkness is of the human kind. It's confronting and unpleasant and doesn't pull very many punches. That being said the problem with such seriousness is that it often isn't especially engaging, and being dragged through the mud alongside the characters may be as cathartic as King Lear but that doesn't make it a fun journey. Similarly the argument is hardly original or fresh; everywhere you look you can see the mercilessness and stupidity of politics being satirised, but I suppose this is just bringing it to a new generation of numbskulls who think this kind of stuff is the apex of literature. The dreariness of the setting, theme and characters is effective but at the same time occasionally quite exasperating. I can't imagine how it could ever be enough to sustain a series of so many long novels.
I guess that's my biggest quibble. Why do all these "game changing" Fantasy works always have to be these massive epics? At no point in A Game of Thrones is an overarching story connecting to future instalments ever established. It's all just side-narrative, set-up for something involving either the Others or Dragons or both which I have to assume will happen at some point later in the series. It's really hard to argue for the value of Fantasy in artistic terms when it becomes unpleasantly evident that it's about grinding out as many novels as possible, the through-plot stretched wafer-thin, to make as much cash as can be had. Obviously The Wheel of Time is the prime offender but I think it's a blight which afflicts the genre as a whole. Everywhere I look people like Martin, Feist, Brooks and Goodkind are constipating through these enormous series of epics, and as trite as it seems to go back here they'll never achieve anything on the level of Tolkien, who, comparatively speaking, understood the importance of brevity and conciseness, and who knew when to stop. Even Pratchett, who has churned out countless novels, has them reasonably short, pithy and self-contained. What precedent is there for this kind of long-windedness in the world of serious literature beside À la recherche du temps perdu? The best examples of science-fiction are normally the short, punchy ones. Why do Fantasy authors never do the same?
Regardless, I wouldn't go so far as to dismiss A Game of Thrones but I do think that, much like The Way of Kings, it is absurdly overrated. While effective in its point that point is hardly fresh. The story is slow, plodding and often quite dull, the characters are often frustrating more than anything and it really doesn't innovate nearly as much as people like to suggest. It's not as overtly trashy as some Fantasy, but it's still trash. It's not bad trash, but it's still trash. Martin may make things a bit darker and more "realistic" than some Fantasy but he's still ultimately cavorting with the likes of the late David Eddings and the equally late Robert Jordan. It's an okay novel but I just can't fully express how overrated it is. Then again the Philistines who give voice to our culture wouldn't know any better. Read it if you've got nothing else to do and want a Fantasy that will bring a slightly thoughtful frown to your face but if you don't then you're not missing anything.

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