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November Books 3) A Game of Thrones

3) A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

I don't often re-read books, especially very long ones, especially the first in a series of very long books. But I know that sooner or later, the next book in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series is going to come out, and I was concerned when I read the most recent one that I had forgotten who some of the characters were; and anyway I enjoyed the book so much on first reading, which must be over five years ago now, that I wanted to see if it stood the test of time.

And it does. Part of the charm is the rapidly shifting perspective, with each chapter of a few pages detailing events from the viewpoint of Eddard Stark, aide to King Robert, or one of Eddard's six children, or the dwarf nobleman Tyrion Lannister, or Daenerys Targaryen, heiress to King Robert's deposed predecessor. Part of it also is that within that volatile framework, the story in this volume is basically a contrast of the disintegration of Eddard Stark's career, family and life with the upward trend of Daenerys' fortunes - though the latter undergo a twist at the end of the book.

The other tension that runs through the book - a theme which as far as I remember re-emerges only in the most recent volume to the same extent - is the tension between the ideals of honour and chivalry held by Eddard and by his daughter Sansa, and the Realpolitik of the dynastic struggle into which they are plunged, the game of thrones that gives the book its title, with perhaps only Tyrion Lannister being the direct viewpoint character for the more cynical approach, though of course it comes up in almost every conversation.

And despite the book's strong fantasy credentials, in fact the the tools used in the game of thrones are steel and poison, largely. In Westeros, the setting of the story for most of our characters, I think the only obvious intrusion of magic is Jon Stark's encounter with zombies from the frozen North. Daenerys, on another continent, encounters more magic and supernatural events than the other characters combined, including in the book's stunning denouement.

The background is especially well realised. Martin has successfully combined the standard knights-in-armour setting with a sense of cultural distance, by the cheap but effective trick of slightly altering spellings - so we have "Eddard" rather than "Edward", "Catelyn" rather than "Catherine", and, most effectively, knights are dubbed "Ser" rather than "Sir". Daenerys, in exile across the water, encounters a bewildering variety of other cultures, and will go on to encounter more in future books. There are hints of the religious diversity which becomes a major theme of later volumes. And against all this human geography, climate change is on its way; as Eddard Stark's family motto would have it, "Winter Is Coming".

Another advantage of re-reading is that I know what is going to happen. First time round I think I read the books so fast, wanting to know who was going to be killed next, that I missed details that turned out to be important, like why exactly Jonah Mormont was exiled, and who Samwell Tarly was. I'm also now more than ever certain that Jon Snow is really not Eddard's son but his nephew, from the vague hints we are given. And the shallowness of Eddard's enemies comes across even more clearly - they are motivated only by the desire for power, and not with any sense of what they want to do with it, which is why despite their apparent victory in the game of thrones in this volume, we have the sense that they are riding for a fall later in the series.

Anyway, I won't rush to reread volume two, but I won't put it off too long either.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 10th, 2006 08:04 am (UTC)
I won't put it here, but from the 'vague hints' the careful readers in the Plokta cabal (in particular drplokta and frostfox) have a completely coherent description of how the story must come out and why. I understand that this is the exact equivalent of those sad people who obsess about the detail of future episodes of television shows. But still. It starts from the observation you make above about Jon Snow, which I doubt I would have noticed for myself but which my friends told me after reading the first novel. I had merely complained that there seemed to be a bit of a characterisation failure because Eddard Stark as depicted was about the least likely husband ever to turn up with a bastard son. Duh.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 10th, 2006 12:02 pm (UTC)
I reckon Rhaegar. While we tend to hear from his enemies that he was a monster like all the other Targaryens, there's a moment in the first book when Johan Mormont says to Daenerys "Now I see whose sister you really are" or words to that effect and clarifies that he means Rhaegar not the awful Viserys. So Rhaegar may well have been a more decent guy, and quite possibly his abduction of Lyanna more consensual, than we have been led to believe.
Nov. 10th, 2006 10:00 am (UTC)
that book is on my table
Nov. 10th, 2006 10:00 am (UTC)
This is one great series (says the person who translates it into Dutch and therefore reads it quite thoroughly).

According to Martin's blog, he expects to finish the next book by January 1st, so it will probably be out next spring.

(Deleted comment)
Nov. 10th, 2006 02:12 pm (UTC)
The manuscript of A Feast for Crows was available in July, and the English version came out about three months later, so I agree March 1st is probably too optimistic, even if Martin does manage to deliver in January.
Nov. 10th, 2006 04:28 pm (UTC)
A publisher with the proper motivation (ie, Large Sacks of Cash) can and will turn a book around in six weeks. If GRRM gets the book in by January, I'm betting it'll be out by the anticipated date. They have to be pretty darned certain of the LSoC, but it's a fairly safe bet with the Martin books (as with the Jordan books, which is where I /know/ it's been done in the past).
Nov. 10th, 2006 11:05 am (UTC)
I read the first one in advanced proof, and forgot all about it. Years later, I read the second one, liked it, so went back and read the first, and then the third.
I decided not to read the fourth when it came out - though I bought it, in hardcover - because I knew I'd just end up reading them all again. When the last book comes out (if the last book comes out...) I'll read the series again from the beginning.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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