Just Finished: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

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“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” Cersei Lannister

Okay, I finally made it through this thick slice of “epic” fantasy. I have to admit that I was a little bit predisposed to NOT like this book. I am distrustful of fiction where a whole, vast world has been created as a stage and the reader is counted upon to learn it and all its inhabitants. I am distrustful of a book that opens with a map of “the world” where I, a reasonably competent student of geography – or so I’d like to think, recognize nothing and am starting from scratch. I am distrustful of a book that requires a large appendix with names and relations of characters, historical lists of the rulers of various kingdoms. (does the reader really gain any insight by a list of seventeen kings of the Targaryen Succession – all of which predate the action in this novel – other than the author has let his imagination run away with him?)

There have been comparisons of the series to Tolkein which I feel are unwarranted and pretentious – though I’ve heard Martin doesn’t make them himself. And – I wonder – are the “R.R.” initials his real name, or part of a pen name? If a pen name, then I am tempted to label him Tolkein wannabe. If not, then what an incredible coincidence: J.R.R. Tolkein, George R.R. Martin, hmmm… I’m also amused by books like this and what parts of real history they decide to keep. It seems like knights, jousting, swordplay, and the concept of royalty and lines of succession always make the cut. (and yes, this is a book where the main characters frequently have names for their swords – I guess I’m distrustful of that too…)

But enough of what “bothered” me about this book. There are many things that I liked as well. At its heart, it’s full of political scheming and intrigue, lusty and graphic battle scenes, characters good and evil – sometimes loathsomely evil – many of whom are adolescents and just learning their way and the ways of this young, still magical world. In fact, come to think of it, all the best characters (for my money) with the exception of the dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, are basically youngsters.

And let’s not forget the “direwolves” (like regular wolves only bigger and, well, “direr”…). Early in the novel, the children of Eddard Stark, ruler of Winterfell, come upon a dying female direwolf, still nursing a litter of pups. The pups are all adopted by the children and figure prominently throughout the book. They become fiercely loyal to their “masters” and are not infrequently called upon to save the day. “Normal” wolves are present in Martin’s imagined world as well. Early on, upon hearing a wolf howl in the distance we get, “Something about the howling of a wolf took a man right out of his here and now and left him in a dark forest of the mind, running naked before the pack.” I liked that.

There are also the “Dothraki,” a warlike tribe, the leader of whom has the good fortune to wed Daenerys, the beautiful – and quite young – heiress to one of “the Seven Kingdoms”. It seems clear to me (a big “fan” of Genghis Khan) that these people are a transparent rip-off of the Mongolian hordes of the late Middle Ages, an irresistible mounted force spreading death and terror wherever they ride. They are fond of drinking fermented mare’s milk, and skilled bowmen in the saddle – both direct similarities with the armies Genghis Khan and his successors commanded.

I suppose I’ve written enough at this point. I guess the real question is will I continue on and read the subsequent books in the series. I am undecided at this point. I’m troubled a bit by the fact that there are several yet to be published (I think eight(?) in all are intended). Martin is going to have to pick up the pace too as he’s not exactly churning them out, either. I admit that I was also motivated by the fact that there’s an HBO series of A Game of Thrones now too – which I haven’t seen, but would like to.

What about you? Have you read this novel or series? What is your take on them, and the genre? Do you think I should “press on?” Let me know.

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