Because I just have a lot of feelings that I cannot keep inside of me, I thought it would be fun to introduce one-off book reviews of things I am reading in my life that aren’t done in a chapter-by-chapter way. Plus, in my head, I sort of imagine that Mark Reads is a daily book club, so why not allow other books to seep into our reading rotation? So let’s discuss A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin!
WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST BOOK IN THE ASOIAF SERIES, A GAME OF THRONES. You’ve been warned!
I don’t know that I’ve ever done this before, and I’ve tried searching my past to find an example, and I’m coming up almost empty-handed. I had heard my friends singing the praises of HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones, but I’m inexperienced with fantasy books, and I hadn’t read a word of the series. I generally read books before I watch cinematic adaptations of the source material. It almost never happens in reverse. (Despite being a fan of Cormac McCarthy, I did watch No Country For Old Men before reading the book, and it is literally the only time I have seen an adaptation that inspired me to read the book.)
It wasn’t until my roommate told me that A Game of Thrones was like The Wire, but with dragons, knights, and medieval-style politics that I decided to give it a chance. I personally think that The Wire is one of the most perfect shows ever made, so once he said that, I knew that I might be missing something amazing. So, sometime around the time between the sixth and seventh episodes, I spent a couple days marathoning what had aired, then started watching it in real time, then had my heart RIPPED OUT OF MY CHEST AND STOMPED ON THE GROUND AND THEN GEORGE R.R. MARTIN FED IT TO HIS CATS OR SOMETHING AND WHAT THE FUCK.
I’ll get there. But the show was fantastic. Gripping. Like The Wire, it was like watching a long, fulfilling novel unfold before your eyes. Sure, it might be “slow” to start, but it rewarded you for every second you spent learning names, lineages, characters, and geography. It all mattered.
I told myself that I’d read the first book and then try to wait to read the second book during the second season but LOL NOPE, NOT GONNA HAPPEN AT ALL. But I knew that despite hearing how remarkably accurate the show was to the source material, there’s no way I could get away with not reading it, so I picked up that sweet deal on Amazon (first four books for $29.99 on the Kindle) and began to devote my BART rides to work and an hour or so a night to living in this world that George R.R. Martin created.
Reading A Game of Thrones after having watched the series was a bizarre experience, especially as I began to understand how the show IS the book. I think that partially helped me plow through it so quickly, as nothing ever seemed slow to me at all, and it was almost like re-reading a book, getting to spot foreshadowing and character arcs I’d not noticed the first time around. I love the tone that opens it all, giving us the physical and emotional idea of the Wall in the North. I love that the Others are introduced (HELLO, LOST) and then not seen again for almost six hundred pages. The technique casts a foreboding cloud over the entire novel and supports Mormont’s final message to Jon Snow: It doesn’t matter who is on the throne. The true evil lies beyond the Wall, and when Winter comes, that is all that matters.
The story told here is engrossing, for sure, but (and I’m sure I’m the last person in the world to state this) GRRM’s real power is in creating characters that are fantastically life-like. I really do like the comparison to The Wire when thinking about this book. We are dropped into the lives of eight people (nine, if you count Will, the man from the prologue), and Martin spends hundreds of pages developing who they are, where they came from, what sort of tropes and archetypes you think they might represent, and how they relate to the growing chaos of the world around them. It is an investment, in that sense, because Martin is a particularly pedantic writer. (And The Wire is inherently a pedantic story as well.) Why does he spend so much time in the heads of these characters? Why switch between so many perspectives, many times giving us the same scene from someone else’s point of view? For me, it gives this book a much fuller, more robust sense of urgency, a more complete view of a world that otherwise would be unimaginable to me.
And that’s the thing: I am not a particularly fantasy-seeking reader. I’ve read very little of the fantasy genre, and I’m sure my lack of familiarity with it is what kept me away for so long. It’s clear that GRRM has borrowed a lot from medieval history, from our own modern world, and from fantasy novels themselves. But this world is distinctly his, and for a fantasy book, I was lovably shocked how real this all was. In fact, at this point, aside from dragons, what else in this specific book couldn’t happen in our world? And I love that about it. It doesn’t distract from how grandiose and ridiculous it is at all, either!
But really, let’s just get down to the REAL shit. Can I just gush about my favorite characters? I just want to talk CHARACTERS because REASONS. List time?
1) Arya Stark
I don’t think it’s a big surprise that I (and probably many others) really enjoy Arya. Her fierce determination to subvert and separate herself from the rigid gender roles that this world forces her into is GORGEOUS. It’s honestly hard to dislike her at all, and out of everyone else in this book, I anxiously awaited every single moment that I got to be inside of her head for a chapter. I’ll get to Eddard in a bit, but having her father validate her feelings in a way by giving her lessons with Syrio Forel is just…god, it’s such a rewarding and fascinating character journey. She represents any person who feels like they don’t fit in, and who finds people who will allow her to pursue her own journey of happiness and acceptance. It’s even more interesting to contrast her with Sansa (who I’ve grown to enjoy quite a bit) because one wants the royalty and the pomp, and she’s the one who is ultimately disappointed by it.
Beyond A Game of Thrones, I feel like only a few characters have the potential for massive character growth, and I’d put Arya at the top of the list, especially as her fate is left in such a precarious position. (Is she REALLY going to the Wall???? OH GOD WILL SHE GET TO HANG OUT WITH JON SNOW omg please let this happen.) What I’m most concerned with by the novel’s end is how Arya will begin to find her place in the world. She’s desperately searching for it, and had all of Westeros not been thrown into civil war, I think that her training with Syrio would have provided her with that answer, or at least a much more steady path. (PS: Please let Syrio be alive.) And now, heading to the Wall, where she’ll see her best friend again, I’m hoping that Jon Snow can provide her with the positive leading that she really is looking for.
2) Jon Snow
HEY IS ANYONE SURPRISED THAT I LIKE THE DUDE WHO IS A SOCIAL OUTCAST AND IS MOPEY AND MISUNDERSTOOD. Yeah, you shouldn’t be, but GRRM does such a fantastic job of making us truly feel for Jon Snow, who never chose to be a bastard, but still must face the negative repercussions of such a reality. It’s why he and Arya are so close, because they both don’t want the life that they’re destined. The problem with Jon is that he can’t change the fact that he is a bastard so, like Tyrion, his journey is one of acceptance. He has to find a way to find his own life with that title and to own it the way that Tyrion does. It’s not necessarily spelled out all the time, but I have a feeling that the two understand and respect one another a lot more than is said. Or maybe I just want them to be friends?
I think that Jon’s experience as a bastard explains why he has such an empathetic heart. Despite the rage that flows through him (which is entirely understandable, by the way), he still manages to reach out to Samwell within minutes of meeting him in order to protect him from brutalization. Of course, their friendship is a beautiful, beautiful thing, but even if you look at the way he acts with others he cares about, you can see the same sensibility. Think about his gift to Arya, or the way he is so devoted to Bran. In a way, I think Jon doesn’t want others to experience the harshness of the world around them, so he does what he can to alleviate that.
I’m just excited to see how his role on the Night’s Watch helps him grow to love himself more, and I think that, ultimately, that’s what I want to see from his character in the future.
3) Tyrion Lannister
Literally the only Lannister I can stand, and for good reason. He’s hilarious, and he uses his lack of tact to his advantage. And for a Lannister, he is remarkably reasonable, one not prone to cruelty and heinous acts of selfishness. (Well…not all of the time, at least.) I read a review of the show that said it was all too “serious.” Okay, first of all, that’s literally one of the worst things to complain about in the history of complaints. Give that statement some context, for real. But even at face value, it seems that person wasn’t even paying attention: Tyrion Lannister serves to poke fun at the entire apparatus. I don’t mean to suggest that he exists purely as some meta commentary on fantasy or this book in particular, but he does operate to provide some much-appreciated breaks in tone, and it helps that it fits so well with his character. He doesn’t seem like a construction to serve a purpose. He’s very real.
There’s not much of it in A Game of Thrones, but Tyrion is clearly hiding a lot of emotional pain/scars behind his facade and I think Shae might be the first one to break through that. I don’t know how much will be explored in the future, but a lot of this book examines the way that he deals with people who are outcasts: Jon Snow, Bronn, and She are perfect examples of that.
Honestly, though, I get the sense that Westeros would be better off with Tyrion in charge, don’t you? Plus, his father is kind of a total dick to his son, so I’d love to see him either win his father’s respect, or maybe TAKE HIS PLACE. oh god THAT WOULD BE AWESOME.
4) Daenarys Targaryen
HOLY CHARACTER ARC. I mean, this is some epic shit. Even more so than Arya, Jon Snow, or Tyrion, Daenarys in born into a role that is rigid and intensely-defined, and she gradually becomes more confident, eventually breaking free of that system to become her own person. All of the characters in the Dothraki world are just fascinating to me, but her relationship with Drogo, Jorah, and her servants just makes me feel SO MANY GOOD THINGS. And I think it’s part of a greater sign for this novel, too. GRRM writes his women as those trapped in these patriarchal systems, but he finds these empowering ways to show how they can break from tradition to gain power, respect, and self-confidence in ways that I don’t think most fantasy novels do.
For Daenarys in particular, she’s a character who is thrust into a situation that is, largely, about fear. Even her narration right from the beginning is indicative of this, and it was wonderful to read those first few chapters of hers, knowing her end result, because you could see how uncertain, reluctant, and frightened she is. She feels like a product to be traded to strange men from a culture that she doesn’t understand, and all of this is through the vicious, horrific treatment of her brother. (HATE VISERYS. HATE.) But as she rejects the notion that she is mere property, one who cannot love who she is “traded” to, she begins to discover the power she does hold, both as a woman and as someone who does not accept the cruelty of the world around her.
Seriously, of everyone who is after the Iron Throne (especially by the end of the book), I’m most excited to see what Daenarys is going to do. By the end of her story, her gamble amounts to such an immeasurable loss, with her khal dead and the Dothraki abandoning her. The pyre she walks into is such a symbolic moment of self-sacrifice and cleansing, and Daenarys wakes from it to emerge as THE MOTHER OF THREE DRAGONS. Oh my fucking god, could that be the most amazing image to end a book on??? LOVE IT FOREVER.
After my top four characters that I instantly felt drawn to, I sort of felt that everyone else had something I either enjoyed or intensely hated. Catelyn’s character was fascinating to me because she chose to break off from her husband and do what she thought was right, and I respected her a lot for that. However, I despised the way she treated Jon, especially since…HE DIDN’T CHOOSE TO BE EDDARD’S BASTARD. I mean, I get that he is a physical reminder of your husband’s infidelity, but SERIOUSLY. STOP IT.
Eddard’s arc is probably one of the most tragic and depressing stories I’ve ever come across, especially since he fits so perfectly into the role as the sole moral leader in a mix of dastardly, despicable politicians. It’s even worse reading it when you know how it ends because IT IS FORESHADOWED SO MANY TIMES.
When I watched the show, I was certain that by casting such a huge actor in the role, it was a guarantee that he’d stay. There are few moments on television that have shocked me quite as badly as watching his execution at the end of episode nine. I couldn’t believe it. You can’t do that. He’s arguably the main character in the whole series! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?
But for me, it represented an important point: sometimes, you can do the right thing, but those with power will continue to do wrong. Sometimes, goodness does not prevail. Obviously, Eddard is a fool, and knowing his death was coming, you can see his missteps along the way. Yet the execution scene in the book is still just as unbelievable.
My heart. GRRM. How dare you do this to me. 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁
Other Odds and Ends
- I understand why we didn’t get to see the battle between Robb’s forces and the Lannisters in the show, but it was AWESOME to read it here.
- King Joffrey is somehow even more irritating in the book.
- They casted the PERFECT actors for Varys and Littlefinger. Also VARYS HOW DO YOU DO THAT THING YOU DO. Holy christ.
- I thought it was kind of weird that Stannis is spoken of so much, but we don’t really meet him? Maybe in A Clash of Kings? Yes, I’d like that.
- OH GOD I WANT TO SEE WHAT IS ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WALL.
- I want a direwolf so badly. 🙁 🙁 🙁
- WHAT IS THAT THING THAT ATTACKED JEOR MORMONT. A wight???? SO ARE THERE ZOMBIES IN THIS SERIES???? oh my god my head will explode.
- Eyrie. EYRIE. So much terror and AWKWARDNESS (Lady Lysa’s son?????). I mean…ok, first of all, I love the concept of this castle built in a way to make it both impenetrable and horrific to get to, even if you live there. I love the idea of that unbelievable hole in the floor that sends men flying. And even though I felt awful for Catelyn, since she truly wanted justice for Bran, I was just amazed that Tyrion was able to use his wits to organize the trial by battle and get out of that. He just astounds me.
- I’m interested to see how the true line of kings is dealt with in the next book. Will others discover that King Joffrey has no right to the throne? Or will the secret die with Eddard?
- I didn’t really care for Robb until he was suddenly in charge of things. His relationship with Catelyn is so touching to me. I especially loved when she wanted to hug her son, but couldn’t because that is totally ~not allowed.~ HEARTBREAK.
- So this book is ridiculously dense, and I’ve missed at least a couple thousand characters or plotlines, so LET US DISCUSS THIS IN THE COMMENTS.