11.12.2011

George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones 4-Book Bundle (Book Review)



Title: George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones 4-Book Bundle
Authors: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Bantam
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Summary in a Sentence: A very well-written, enjoyable and engrossing fantasy series that declines after the first two books and rather than being uplifting tends to be rather uninspiring; although one really cannot go wrong with $15 for four novels (Kindle)

Mr. Martin has been dubbed the "American Tolkien" by Time magazine -- I cannot agree with this. The world he created for "A Song of Ice and Fire" is certainly very well thought-out to the smallest detail, and rich in those details, which is reminiscent of Tolkien's Middle Earth. However, he is no Tolkien, first and foremost because whereas Tolkien wrote inspiring tales of friendship and honour amidst evil and destruction, Mr. Martin seems to weave a depressing, dark, and uninspiring tale.

This is not to say that the books are bad. George Martin is a very skilled writer, and it is his skill that kept me going and made me really want to love these books the way so many do. He may even approach Tolkien's mastery in terms of command of language and in some ways I enjoy his very dynamic style that engages all of the senses more enjoyable than Tolkien. It is just in his underlying message, and some really stupid ideas that make no sense if one knows anything about medieval societies, that made me ultimately unable to give the collection more than 2 stars out of five.

The novels take place, for the most part, the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, which are, at the beginning of A Game of Thrones, united into single kingdom. It is an ancient kingdom with history stretching back some 12,000 years referenced in the story. To summarize the series without spoiling too much, I think it is fair to say that the overarching plot is of a conflict between the leading families of the realm with House Lannister (the Queen of Westeros being of this house) playing the role of antagonists against the Starks of the North (the large family of Eddard Stark play a major role in the series). There is also a subplot concerning the exiled Targaryen heirs who seek to reclaim Westeros (the last Targaryen king having been overthrown about fifteen years before the start of A Game of Thrones by King Robert I). There are massive complexities within this broad plot involving familial alliances and age-old rivalries (which I thought was especially well-done) which all explodes into a massive civil war.

One of the major aspects of the world Mr. Martin created is that it has seasons that last for years. I found it extremely difficult to suspend my disbelief on this score, since it would be impossible for people with mediæval technology to survive in northern climes where there are winters that last years and even a decade and more. Especially since there is reference to there being snow on the ground in summer in Winterfell. No satisfactory explanation is ever given in the novels as to how this was accomplished -- although aside from this I found, on the whole whole, the world-building at play in these novels was first-rate.

In addition to well-done world-crafting, Mr. Martin populates his world with a large cast of characters who are for the most part believable and interesting. The problem I had with them is that they are, with very few exceptions who almost all get killed early anyway, too dark. That is, they are all completely out for themselves and here, again, the worldbuilding starts to fall apart a bit because a society with such universal disdain (not just disregard) for oaths and honour would not hold together. Certainly not in a feudal realm which Westeros is portrayed as. An assassination or an oath-breaking here-and-there is realistic and adds conflict to a story. The CONSTANT and unending oath-breaking, assassinations/regicides (more than one occurring at weddings that were ostensibly to form alliances), betrayals, the brutality of every character, the lack of decency, in the end all proved too much for me. In the beginning (i.e. during A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings) this is not so bad as the few good and decent characters are still around. But as they are killed-off the work becomes -- as I mentioned in the summary, uninspiring and depressing. At first I thought it was good writing -- giving the protagonists lots of conflict to overcome -- but ultimately it becomes clear that the overriding theme of "A Song of Ice and Fire" is can be summed up by a character called "The Hound":
... there are no true knights, no more than there are gods. If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can. Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.
Which is certainly not uplifting at all. It is social Darwinism/"survival of the fittest" writ large. It is, ultimately, soul-destroying uninspiring garbage. The technical writing itself is superb.  The many interesting plot elements and twists and turns, conbine for an enjoyable and addictive read. I devoured A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings in a matter of days and found myself enthusiastically insisting that anyone willing to listen read these excellent, excellent books filled with well-done battle scenes and manoeuvrings both physical and mental. But this depressing and FALSE theme and theory cannot be countenanced. The world can be ugly and there is evil in it, to be sure, but it is not THIS ugly -- there ARE true knights and heroes, and the IS a God. And no society has survived on a "survival of the fittest" mentality, and it has rather been those societies that took duty seriously that rose to be great civilizations.

Just a couple examples from this series and how they're ridiculous when applied to real life. In one scene, we see a group of lords laughing to scorn a certain duke's "softness" because he allowed his peasants to take shelter inside his castle. This ignores the importance of serfs to a mediæval culture -- the main point of castles was to keep these valuable citizens safe. Martin never does try to explain how there isn't mass starvation across Westeros when the serfs are wantonly massacred and their own lords make no attempt whatsoever to protect them (and on the contrary tend to prey on them as much as the enemy). Then there's the marriage scene I referenced which angered me so much I stopped reading the novel for many weeks. It's preposterous that one would slay his new allies at the very wedding feast that is to seal the alliance. No one would ever join with that lord again and in reality in a feudal society which DEPENDS on the sacredness of oaths, such a man would be spurned by all.

Returning to the technical aspects, though the pacing was spot-on through the first two installments, I found that by book 3 (A Storm of Swords) the plot started to seriously drag and there was the overarching plot in this novel slowed greatly. It seemed that the tale started to meander and although things would happen they did not advance the cause of the war much. It felt like treading water and I wondered if Mr. Martin had any clear idea of how this civil war was supposed to end. Also, while unexpected twists are good,  Mr. Martin went too far in some instances. At one point he managed to wipe out, over the course of a chapter, almost all of the protagonists  and any realistic hope that whom I had identified as the "good guys" could win the war. I think this is a legitimate complaint, because it is not proper (in my humble opinion) for an author to implicitly imply a certain group are the protagonists and then wipe them out. It is denying the reader delivery on an implicit promise. Which compounds the problem with the overall theme I cited above. It certainly made me far less enthusiastic to read A Feast for Crows (Book 4) and I read it just to finish what I purchased. I currently am not planning on purchasing A Dance With Dragons (Book 5).

Still and all, I think it is worth reading for the mature reader. Certainly it is something I'd encourage writers like myself to read to learn from Mr. Martin's unquestioned skill. The Kindle version is only $15.05. A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings alone are absolutely worth $15. So if we consider the other two as a free bonus then this is a good deal. A postscript on my rating -- I would give A Game of Thrones 4 our of 5, A Clash of Kings is probably worthy of 3 since the "there are no true knights" theme is not yet fully developed there, but A Storm of Swords and A Feast of Crows are worth no more than 1 each and taking the collection in totality I have to give it 2/5.


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