A review for A Game of Thrones. Boy oh boy.
The world of fantasy feels so different now from what it must have looked like back in 1996, before even Lord of the Rings, the film that launched high fantasy of this variety into the wider public consciousness, had entered pre-production. Compare who gets to read this now with this book’s conceivable target audience back in the day. It’s a completely different world.
20 years later, fantasy of all sorts is mainstream, especially Game of Thrones the series. But has the game-changing success of the HBO blockbuster altered the way we should look at the original book’s standalone value?
I’ve got to be honest with you: I only read the book because of the show. Season 7 got me all hyped again come July, and after I was a couple of episodes in and I’d started itching to learn more about the characters I’ve been following for so many years again, I decided to take the plunge and make the commitment.
For make no mistake, this one’s long. Taking my sweet, sweet time, it took me 3+ months to go through its 780 pages of tinyish print. Assuming that each page took me about 1.5–2 minutes to read (including going through passages more than once to make sure I understood, or to reread for pleasure, which I’m happy to say happened quite a lot), that would make us… 20–25 hours at least? Shit — I just realised that I’m now counting hours with books, too; I thought I reserved this stressful habit for games and series only.
I’ll be honest with you again: I’m glad this book was made into a series and I got to watch it before reading the book. Mr Martin’s style is rich and flowery, but while reading it I sometimes thought, especially with some of his detailed descriptions of places (using obscure medieval masonry lingo) that he could have used a more eager editor. Just like with Lord of the Rings, it seems to me that it takes a certain kind of focused, detail-oriented person, the same kind who reads his/her favourite books again and again instead of looking for new books to discover, to truly enjoy these long-winding epics on the first go.
Thus, it definitely helped that I was already familiar with the characters before jumping in; I enjoyed reading more details about their backstories and fleshing out the space Westeros inhabits in my head, but the stories on their own I don’t think would be sufficiently interesting to capture my imagination had I gone in a complete ASoIaF virgin. I can clearly picture myself picking this book up blind, attempting to penetrate its world, and failing miserably.
That would have been a shame indeed because one of the series strongest points is its characters. They have clear, believable motives which are never easy to pinpoint as ‘bad’ or ‘good’. Reading about them in much greater detail made me feel as if those people and their families had actually existed a long time ago, in a feudal society far far away.
On the other hand, I did find some of the differences between the book and the show jarring, e.g. how much younger everyone was (Ned & Catelyn in their mid-30s, Robb 14, Sansa 11, Arya 9—children really did mature quickly back in the day!), or how different some characters looked compared to their counterparts on the show: e.g. Arya and her “horseface”, the bald, ugly Jorah or the bald, whiskered Tywin.
I also found that some of Martin’s descriptions of clothes, appearance, hairdos etc. were random and a bit all over the place and not as
majestic and authentic-looking as they were in the show (even though Martin says it was a conscious decision and I can see where he’s coming from and now I feel a little bad for badmouthing him for it!)
One thing I liked in the book a lot that would have been pretty difficult to successfully transfer from it to the show (I mean, if they could do it, I’d be totally for it) was the structure. The storytelling went from one character’s perspective to another (e.g. from Arya’s to Jon’s etc), with always some ‘off-screen’ time passing from one chapter to the next. This often allowed for the undisclosed resolution of one chapter’s cliffhanger to be the unspoken backdrop of the next, something which made reading much more engaging and suspenseful.
That said, one of the reasons I’m happy GoT was made into a show and not a movie series is that in the HBO show they managed to follow the original plot and scene progression so well, though I would have still liked to see Tyrion climbing the Eyrie, or Clegane walk Sansa to her chambers after the tournament banquet (this scene was apparently used to cast Rory McCann for his role as Sandor Clegane, pity it didn’t make it into the show’s script intact and Sansa hears about the Hound’s backstory from Littlefinger).
All in all, I quite enjoyed A Game of Thrones. Yet, I can’t give it five stars, and this is the elephant in the room of a question that’s been bothering me: is there a point after which a book of fiction or a fantasy series just ends up being too long? Do we all have some kind of personal threshold? I know A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t even the worst case of an XL series of XXL books (something-something-Wheel of Time—I’m too scared to touch them, honestly), but seriously: the prospect of reading another huge book like that, and then another, and another, and another, and another, and then yet another, especially since I already know what’s going to happen, feels two parts exciting and five parts “hey don’t mind me, I’m just gonna be picking up that Murakami, Bill Bryson and Graham Hancock at some point, k?”
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that with the show and the series and all those infinite other TV and fantasy series out there, in a world that’s so darn interesting by itself and with so many exciting or actionable things happening around us, we just might be spending a bit too much of our life watching, reading, discussing and worrying about imaginary kingdoms, imaginary dragons, fictional incest and fascinating ultraviolence. It all feels like a giant distraction, a never-ending circus.
I’m not saying that you or anyone else shouldn’t be reading fantasy or fiction, not at all—evidently, I’m not impartial to it either. What I’m saying is that I’m not sure I should be spending my limited book-reading time with books like it. I’d compare it with the hip burgers at restaurants like Hot Hot or Μπαρ Μπεε Κιου (Bar Baaah Cue) in Athens and others like them in almost every wealthy city around the world: they are expertly made, hip, trendy, absolutely huge, do well on Instagram and are tasty as hell. But they’re still made of brutally grown meat, and, at the very end of the day, against all appearances… they’re still junk food.
Burgers and Game of Thrones – the 21st-century panem et circenses?
Just for argument’s sake, another comparison: Book 1, 1996 and Season 7, 2017. Taking both of them into account and the apparent incapability of this series’ writer to give it a proper ending (what has led us to where we are now), would you be able to say what this white hot mess is ultimately all about?
I’m fully aware that stories and (adult) fairytales are some of the cornerstones of our humanity. But what about the content of these stories? What role does it play, if any? Are all distractions, entertainment and/or myths created equal?
My reluctant answer would have to be no.
PS: If you’re interested in some worthwhile, engaging, slightly pretentious criticism of A Game of Thrones, check out this top Goodreads review and the related discussion that caught my attention, written before the HBO series was a thing. The reviewer’s list of books that in his opinion ‘are really radical and surprising, unlike aGoT which was entirely predictable despite claims’, might also be worth a couple of looks into.