How George R. R. Martin made me a fan of epic fantasy (a review of Game of Thrones)

I finished reading Game of Thrones this morning and I thought a review of the book was in order, despite having mentioned it already on several occasions. Be warned there are spoilers present! So without further delay, here is how George R. R. Martin made me into a fan of epic fantasy:

  1. He altered my preconceived notions of what an epic fantasy is supposed to be. In my head, all epic fantasy was simply a retelling of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It all contained elves and wizards and dragons. Magic played a big role. Ambitious quests were the order of the day. And it was almost always good versus evil. Game of Thrones broke all the rules in this respect. The “dwarf” was so through a birth defect. There were no wizards. While magic was hinted at, we see almost none in the book. There were no quests. Nor was there a clear good or evil. (Joffrey seems evil, but he’s really just a kid trying to be a man.) From the moment I started reading the book, it was not at all what I expected. And that was refreshing.
  2. His characters were among the most complex people I’ve come across in science fiction and fantasy (Connie Willis has equally complex characters in her novels.) These are not characters who necessarily behave the way their position dictates. A fighter isn’t always brave. A lady isn’t always meek. An old man isn’t always wise and a young boy isn’t always a child. The burdens of the leaders of men weigh heavily upon them and that comes through in the book. By the end of the book, I began to feel like I knew some of the characters so well that I could guess at their reactions to a situation and be pleased to find that I was usually right. They feel like friends to me, not caricatures.
  3. His world-building is masterful without being intrusive. There is enough of the world and its background to give you a good understanding of the time and place of the events, without taking you out of the story. And yet, there is enough hinted at but not said to leave you wondering. For instance: how on Earth did they build that wall? The society is a complex one (after all, it is a melding of seven kingdoms, each with its own rich history) but it is presented clearly in the narrative at times and places that are appropriate to the story. Unlike Tolkien, Martin doesn’t step out of the story to give a lengthy history (except, perhaps, once toward the end of the book when Bran is learning about the early days of his people). The laws in this universe are self-consistent and add value to the story as a whole.
  4. He makes you forget you are reading epic fantasy. Instead, from almost the very beginning, you feel like you are integrated into the lives of people in a world that is different from our own, but still recognizable. That there are tropes of epic fantasy becomes incidental. What matters is the story, the characters, and how it all plays out. I think the same is true of Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear and it is a rare writer that can make you forget the genre in which you are reading, but fall so deeply into a story as to feel as if you’ve become part of it.
  5. He dangles the magic just far enough of your reach to make its effect all the more worthwhile. I call this the Superman-effect. Whenever I watch various incarnations of Superman, I am always looking forward to when and how he will use his powers. But in skilled story-telling, it is few and far-between, even though we want to see it more. Martin hints at powers both great and terrible throughout the novel. There are the direwolves, the Stark’s have taken. There is something special about them. There was Bran’s remarkable dream during his coma. But really, we only see a remarkable display of magic or effect in two places: first when the wight’s attack Jon and the Lord Commander in Castle Black on the Wall. And later, at the very end of the novel when the three dragons are born in a remarkable funeral pyre. Such judicious use of magic, sprinkled tantalizingly throughout the novel but coated thickly only twice had a profound effect on me as a reader.
  6. He spins a remarkable tale. There was not a single point in the book where I thought to myself, this is getting a little slow; I really wish I could skip on and find out about so-and-so. Each time I thought it might happen (usually in scenes from Sansa’s point of view) I found to my surprise that I was captured by the story being told, by the subplots unfolding, and by the vast tapestry being laid out before me. More often than not, I had to force myself to stop reading or I would have trouble getting up for work the next morning.
  7. He tells a gritty story with an honesty I haven’t seen much of in science fiction and fantasy. The grittiness of the world is part of what attracted me to it. These were not tales involving the angelic elves of Rivendell. These were tales of men at war, men who were greedy and rapacious. These were tales of women who were cruel. These were tales of men who strove for honor but didn’t always live up to the name. In short these were the tales of ourselves as we really and truly are, not saints, not sinners, but somewhere in that vast purgatory in between. James Morrow in his novel Only Begotten Daughter, as well as in his Godhead Trilogy, is the only one who comes to mind at telling so brutal and honest a tale.
  8. He isn’t afraid to take risks, up to and including killing off major characters. It was one thing to see Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, to be killed by Ned at the order of the King. It was quite another to see Eddard Stark beheaded after living his life for 8/10th of the book. It was almost as difficult to see Khal Drogo’s demise, sad and pathetic as it was. Or King Robert’s for that matter. It was difficult to see Bran paralyzed, Sansa abused by Joffrey, and Arya begging in the streets. Difficult: but that is life. Nothing can be counted on by yourself in this world that Martin has created and for the reader, that means that no one person is special, despite what they might think of themselves. It leaves plenty of room for surprise and emotion.

Even the most perfect story can’t please everyone 100%. If there were any minor flaws in the story, there are two that I would call to attention:

  1. I felt that the phrase “play this game of thrones” was used a little too much. At least, it stood out to me more than any other phrase in the book. Even “Winter is coming” was tempered and used to elevate the mystery of these long winters. But hearing the phrase “game of thrones” repeated again and again by the various players didn’t ring true to my ears. Once or twice, maybe, but beyond that it felt like the reader was being beat over the head with it.
  2. I can only imagine the frustration of the reader who read this book hot off the presses–only to find so many loose-ends untied, with the story ending essentially at a climax–and perhaps with no idea when or if there would be a sequel. In my case, at least, I was able to downloadA Clash of Kings to my Kindle the moment I finished reading Game of Thrones.

I rarely give out a 5-star review and if you look at novels I’ve ranked with 5-stars, you’ll find that it is a very select class. But Game of Thrones has now joined them. And I’m so glad there are more books to discover in this world.

14 thoughts on “How George R. R. Martin made me a fan of epic fantasy (a review of Game of Thrones)

  1. And now you know, Jamie, why Neil Gaiman had to say what he did about Martin’s writing speed, and why John Anealio had to write that song.

    And you haven’t even met some of my favorite series characters–yet. :grins:

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