Tolkien Gestures Book 16: A Game of Thrones

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre. This week, we start the hugely epically (and unfinished) long epic which was one of the lists earliest additions.

Every time I’ve done one of these lists there are a few books that feel like “shoe ins”, due to a reputation that has spread beyond their genre. There is often also a few that fill me with trepidation due to their size. And George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones was both. For starters, i knew it was book 1 of a massive and unfinished series. Its reputation is fearsome; dark, complex, very very long, and so on. Whenever I’ve pondered the nagging question “where is Fantasy’s equivalent of say, Dune?” I’ve often been pointed here.

And at first I was a tad wary – the book is pretty slow to get going, and particularly early on feels like an odd merge of Dune and a vaguely fantasy themed War of the Roses. The early characterisation of good, noble Starks and eeeevvvviiiiilllll Lannisters didn’t fill me with confidence and whist the book certainly opens out beyond that its a naggingly black and white characterisation, limited mainly to these two groups, that isn’t really challenged. The Starks especially seem to suffer from being setup to be “only nice and honourable people” in this crapsack world, there pretty much to be smacked around and disabused of this delusion.

The other thing that i struggled with is the writing style, oddly. Like a lot of fantasy novels I’ve read Martin seems to think that because we have a medievalist world then we all need to speak in overly formal, 19th century diction, and it’s a little wearing, frankly. Not so much in the book, but just genre wide. And of course this has the other big genre cliché of being bloody unfinished. I mean, there’s not even the pretence that A Game of Thrones is a complete novel; it just sort of stops on its final reveal (from the story thread that isn’t at all connected to the rest of the story, but is clearly there for later) and the rest of the story lines have really just got started. It feels like an 800 page prologue, that takes 400 pages to get going anyway, and that’s faintly irritating.

But in many respects that’s a couple of (big) niggles, because on the whole I really enjoyed it. It is gritty (“Dark”, is overused, I think. Ellroy is “Dark”, this is just realistically grim), and complex, and once you get your head around the occasionally similar-sounding characters that are bit too easily confused it builds pretty well and once it starts to lift off it has great tension and drive, although there is little that was actually surprising in the main “the king dies, big war, Ned get his head chopped off” plotline. The other two arms-reach plots are pretty good, but so incredibly self-contained you have to take them on faith that they will eventually go anywhere.

It’s especially irritating when you its fairly clear that he’s going to play around with these characters and ideas further down the line, so that maybe some of the criticism of genre genericism are addressed, but he doesn’t get to it here.

Zoe was highly amused when I shouted from the sofa “Oho! Everything is better with Zombies!”, but actually there is a nice mix of the fantastically blended into a realistic feeling world with a solid story, and I was gripped, by the end. Well, the point at which the book stopped, at least. I’ll probably get the next one, actually.

On a wider point though I’m not sure where aGoT stands in relation to its genre or my opinion of it. In some ways I think it’s the sort of Fantasy Novel I actually like – essentially a real world (if historical) novel with very recognisable real-world characters, with just enough magic and mystery gubbins to act as wildcards and game-changers, without being in the meat of the story.

But it does make also me wonder where the real flights of fantasy are – Westeros is so clearly Medieval Europe – same social setup, same gender roles, same politics, and it’s to the books strength, actually, that its speaking in a recognisable “language” whether you know much about history or have just read a lot of fantasy, cos it all seems stuck in RenFaireWorld when you come down it, but it’s still very much in the normal end of the genre, that still doesn’t feel that diverse. I can’t say other than that I really liked A Game of Thrones and I’d recommend it to anyone, but in many ways it’s still ploughing familiar fields, whatever its intent…

Next up: Another first book in an overly long series, with Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon. However, as I haven’t finished it at time of writing, it’s likely to be out in a fortnight.

On a related note, we are nearly though the full list now, and i’m looking into a new project for next year. If any readers have found this interesting/informative/amusing please let me know if you have any ideas of what i should dive into next.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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One comment

  1. I listened to this book on audio and I nearly abandoned it twice out of disgust in barely the first quarter of it. I found this gusting, offensive, long, boring and overpriced. Before this audiobook I thought there was no limit to what I could listen to, I mean I’ve listened to Scrolls (Zing!) but this is the codifier of audiobook intolerableness for me. I hate it, I loathe it. It is everything I ever hated about fantasy, right down to the revelation of incest (cough, Star Wars).

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