Monday, August 28, 2006

A Game Of Thrones, George R. R. Martin

Title: A Game Of Thrones
Author: George R. R. Martin
Rating: Good

This book came highly recommended, and while I'm glad I read it, I've read better fantasy. A Game Of Thrones is good, and the story is interesting, but it didn't quite rise to the "great" category for me.

The story itself follows several main characters - all of royal blood in one way or another - as they struggle through events in a kingdom in which the king's power is on the wane. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of these characters, and the point of view jumps around between them. The plot is very complex, the cast of supporting characters is huge, the action is quick and the writing well paced.

It sounds like a perfect book, right? Alas, for me, there were a few flaws.

That huge cast of supporting characters is actually too large. It was impossible for me to keep them all straight, and even the appendix at the back didn't help much. (I tried looking up a couple of characters and couldn't find them there at all.) I toyed with the idea of taking notes to keep track of people, but this was supposed to be pleasure reading, and that seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

Martin is quite happy to kill off characters that he's spent time making you think are going to stick around. It was frustrating to watch someone you thought was important - and that you were going to get to know for a while - die. A corollary to that is that it is entirely unclear idea which characters - if any - the author thinks actually are important, and will stick around. He has little or no empathy for anyone in this story, and that comes through in the writing.

I never bought (or understood) the king's decline. None of the story is told from his point of view, and his actions seem to have no basis in reason that I can find. Something seemed off there.

I have seen the "each chapter told from a different point of view" approach work very successfully elsewhere. Here, however, it seemed to be a vehicle for obscuring important information, rather than something that assisted the telling of the story. Just when you thought you might learn something interesting the narrator's point of view would change, and some unknown amount of time would pass - possibly going back in time to tell another piece of the story that was happening in parallel.

There are actually two stories going on in this book, held together by only the most tenuous of threads. It is likely that the later volumes bring these stories together in a more direct fashion - you can sort of see it coming - but in this volume they were so disparate that it was distracting.

Finally, there was something about the writing that let me drop the book just about anywhere without hesitation. I could literally put it down mid-paragraph without thinking about it. Usually when I read, I get so wrapped up in the book that I don't stop before the end of a chapter at a minimum, and I have been known to sit up for hours reading to get to a good stopping point. That never happened here, and I don't know why.

I know others have raved about this book, but given that list of reservations, I cannot claim A Game Of Thrones is one of my favorites.

There was one other oddity here, but I cannot hold it against the author. Years ago I subscribed to Fantasy & Science Fiction and I read a novella in there that I still remember. I found that novella in here, in it's entirety. Martin had extracted the story of Dany and published it separately in the magazine. I don't think he even did much editing - just took all the chapters from Dany's perspective, put them together, and voila - a novella. In truth, I found that story more interesting in novella form, since it had no interruptions and thus better pacing. Rereading it here - split into pieces - was an interesting experience, and highlighted some of the other issues called out above.

Overall, I'd say this was a good book, and clearly the author put a lot of time and effort into its creation. I'll continue reading the series and hope for some subtle changes that might make the later volumes more appealing.