Almost all people love fantasy but only when it is recognisable. Game of Thrones fills this niche perfectly. Distinctly stylish and duly influential, this book is worth your time.
Game of Thrones purposefully avoids high fantasy: in doing so it has met with some due ire from established fans of the genre. I, however, like it. Unlike Tolkien’s world, this is a recognisable realm where humanity flaunts its gritty moral range with tight prose.
I read elsewhere that there is a real dislike of the children, labelling them as duly uniformed and disturbingly underaged. I guess the actors playing Danerys and Jon in the series really don’t look 13 or 14, nor do I think they aim to be. Yet such miscontextualised criticism is often fired at Shakespearean plays. I suppose the language of Game of Thrones resembles more closely the social consciousness we would recognise today, which risks such erstwhile criticism. Framed through the War of Roses (York = Stark; Lannister = Lancaster), this consciousness is very British, and painfully class related. Such hierarchies affect behaviour and compel roles: we should not expect a highborn girl to willfully defy the role that defines her entire world. As with all such fantasy texts, and like all Romantic depictions of a Western World, we need to commit to understanding the imaginative frame in which it resides. I feel we can trust GRR Martin that this is one worth getting to know.
As I opened this review stating that fantasy is mainstream (see the success of Beowulf both as the recent film and as Heaney’s best-selling translation, and the new Lord of the Rings series). However, it is often dismissed as nerdish and faddish: Orks and Elves and Dwarves don’t fit bar-talk well. I wonder, therefore, to what extent the genre becomes more niche when the story demands the reader absorbs an extraordinary amount of lore. When does the fantastical become foreign? Tolkien perhaps pushed this to acceptable mainstream limits, while even Ursula Le Guin adopted her fantastical style (far more expansive than Martin’s) whilst keeping the magic within comprehendible limits.
What distinguishes GoT’s greatness from these other fantasy texts is the absolute focus on courtly intrigue and a hyper-tragic plot threads. Having up-to-date knowledge of the series, following the story of, say, Lord Varys makes me appreciate how well he represents the under-trodden and forgotten masses in this world. He is a secret hero in a world of pseudo-heroes and there are the clues there for us to see it.
For casual readers the style flows easily, with occasional literary ambitions opening chapters. Sometimes characters are hard for me to picture; there is occasionally not enough physical description of the minor knights for example. However, the TV show has cast them well. I have a bizarre detestation of food description in general but this is done well. I don’t mind it. Above all, the dialogue is expert. The back and forth between Robert and Eddard upon their first meeting reads with the tight subtext of a film script: you can see GRR Martin’s past professions has honed his craft. Surprisingly, I found the audiobook rather difficult to follow, and enjoyed the pacing of the written narrative much easier.
So while some of the wonder is removed from the world of Westeros, it is still fantastic. If you are a fan of the series and want to sink some time into an 800-page epic, I recommend this heartily.