A Game of Thrones (Book One of A Song of Ice and Fire) by George R R Martin (HarperCollins Voyager, £6.99, 835 pages including appendix, paperback. January 1998.)
Gamblers have a saying: 'One man's ceiling is another man's floor.' Either you're looking up at luck and trying to touch it, or you're standing on top of it, looking down and probably grinning... Deciding whether or not A Game of Thrones is any good, first the reader must ask a different, more important, question: Are we looking up at this book, or looking down on it? The best books are those about which all previous impressions (if any) are dashed during the reading. After all, who wants to understand a work of fiction before it has been read? A reader wants to look up - and find comprehension near the last page. But sadly, A Game of Thrones gives its own gambling strategies away before the end of the first chapter, or even the Prologue. There is no sleight of hand. Martin's novel is a huge pile of chips of equal denomination, bet stubbornly on the same number, time after time.
It should be noted that A Game of Thrones is a book with a history. As long ago as 1994, David Langford wrote in one of his Ansible Link columns about the bidding war that had occurred for A Song of Ice and Fire. Reportedly, the whole shebang went for a cool £450,000. (Nice work if you can get it.) And while a high advance payment is no guarantee of fine writing (witness Archer, witness Collins), it should, in a perfect world, be some indication that what is lumbering forth is a work of promise... In other words, we're talking about hype. However, hype is a marketing device with which this reviewer has no problem. Titanic was hyped: I enjoyed it anyway. Men in Black was hyped: I liked that too. But A Game of Thrones? Well...
Judge the work and not the packaging. Okay: a valid argument. But it is simply the case that I have rarely encountered a book that is so difficult to divorce from the packaging. The reader acknowledges the adoring quotes on the front and back covers, and on the inside page; the impression reinforced is that this might be the finest fantasy ever written. (It will certainly be a detailed one, if the 26-page appendix, noting all of the important Houses, has anything to say.) After the appendix, making it impossible to miss, the reader is treated to a cheesy preview of the next book in the series, which more than hints that the line is rather... manufactured.
The story is not difficult to comprehend, but it would be a folly to reduce it even to a thousand words. There are Houses, politics, wars, some good characters, a bastard child, prophecies, portents, warnings, dragons; and it's set in a world in which children grow up fast. Early on, an arrogant young man sells his sister, Dany, into a noble family; but quite apart from the scenes of paedophilia that ensue, children in Martin's world seem unusually resilient and thick-skinned. At the age of four, a character named Rickon is old enough to realise that he is being patronised by those older. Such scenes as the following occur: "Across the road, a girl no older than Dany was sobbing in a high thin voice as a rider shoved her over a pile of corpses, facedown, and thrust himself inside her. Other riders dismounted to take their turns..." Dany, by this stage, is still a child herself - although a royal child - and she rescues this victim and several others. Sex and children (not necessarily sex with children) are intertwined plot devices throughout. A young boy named Bran witnesses the queen's infidelity, and believe me, Martin does not stop at the chamber door with three dots. The reader sees what Bran sees, and his spying leads to the queen's paramour throwing the child to the ground from a height.
In fairness, the book's plot has every ingredient that an avid reader of epic fantasy could ever want. What this reviewer had problems with was the style of writing. For example, much earlier on than I might have predicted, I experienced the equivalent of a writer's block: a sort of visual impotence that made me feel I would never finish reading. To keep my interest, or rather to resuscitate it, I tried reading in unusual places, and finally I overcame the slump and was able to carry on. But this work is stodgy. A hundred pages have passed before the various groups move on to their next endeavours There is no way that this book needed to be as long as it is, and it contains too much over-worded, ambiguous, bad writing. Consider this paragraph:
"The Other slid forward on silent feet. In its hand was a longsword like none that Will had ever seen. No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed almost to vanish when seen edge-on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing, a ghost-light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew it was sharper than any razor."
It doesn't work. If we had been given earlier references to Will's knowledge of how to compare at a glance the relative sharpnesses of swords and razors, then we might forgive this sort of sloppiness. But that word "somehow" is simply lazy. And "human metal"? Yes, of course we can deduce what Martin means; but this paragraph, among thousands of others, needed more work. There are references to the king whose girth matches his height. Excuse me? So that would make him a sphere, would it?
Another example: "Dany curled up on her side, pulling the sandsilk cloak across her and cradling the egg in the hollow between her swollen belly and small, tender breasts. She liked to hold them..." (Hold what? Her breasts or the eggs?) "They were so beautiful, and sometimes just being close to them made her feel stronger, braver, as if somehow she were drawing strength from the stone dragons locked inside." Right, it's the eggs. Gotcha. But this sort of ambiguity makes for a jumpy read, as one is obliged to evaluate one sentence in order to penetrate the mists of the previous one. In a book this size, bad phrases are the equivalent of bum notes in a classical recital; and they are what the audience remember. (Perhaps we should forgive sentences that read like advertisements for products but are not actually bad, such as: "Nothing held an edge like Valyrian steel.")
Furthermore, Martin is repetitive. Having already said that a set of smells was clinging to a character "like perfume", we read, shortly afterward: "In those days, the smell of leather and blood had clung to him like perfume." Dany's breasts are described as small on several occasions. Or how about the following paragraph, which is quoted in full:
"Lady Stark was there beside the bed. She had been there, day and night, for close on a fortnight. Not for a moment had she left Bran's side. She had her meals brought to her there, and chamber pots as well, and a small hard bed to sleep on, though it was said she had scarcely slept at all. She fed him herself, the honey and water and herb mixture that sustained life. Not once did she leave the room. So Jon had stayed away."
The reader is not stupid, and passages like these read like overkill. Lady Stark did not leave the boy's bedside. Understood. But there are many more clangers. From a point just under halfway through the book comes this discordant howler:
"... 'Very well,' she told him.
'I'll come as well,' Bronn announced.
She liked that less well..."
Oh well. So what is good about A Game of Thrones? Martin offers up the occasional nice turn of phrase ("warm as blood and relentless as old guilts") and I liked the heart tree: "trees ought not have eyes... or leaves that looked like hands." There is a pseudo-occult ritual called bloodmagic, which is well handled. And furthermore, on page 674, there is an excellent description of a surgical operation: "...When she was ready, she broke off the barbed arrowhead and pulled out the shaft, chanting in the sing-song tongue of the Lhazareen. She heated a flagon of wine to boiling on the brazier, and poured it over his wounds.... She bound the arrow wound with a plaster of wet leaves and turned to the gash on his breast, smearing it with a pale green paste before she pulled the flap of skin back in place..." And so it continues, leaving the reader wondering why the entire book could not have been written with that same level-headed skill.
George Martin's world is a sexual world, as noted above, and characters "fuck", in addition to any other euphemism. There are interesting views on the life of a bastard, as seen in the cruel comment - "It should have been you" - that is uttered to the bastard after the legitimate child has an attempt made on his life. The boisterous cliché that is the king (who resembles the actor Brian Blessed) is but one endorsement for the roguish attractions of sex and the high life. At one point he asks: "What do you say, Ned? Just you and me, two vagabond knights on the kingsroad, our swords at our sides and the gods know what in front of us, and maybe a farmer's daughter or a tavern wench to warm our beds tonight." Yes, with a hey-nonny-no.
Martin's world is also a realm of sexual deviancy. Brothers marry sisters; there is a group of people whose sexual preferences are for sheep; and there are plenty of hairless eunuchs on display. As the book progresses, one character in particular, Dany, gains strength, and Martin uses her (if such terminology is fair) to proselytise the virtues of proto-feminism, although even her struggles with her brother remain rooted in sexuality: during fights, Viserys often goes for her nipples. The horrors of our contemporary society are on show in A Game of Thrones, but are kept at arm's length by the distancing effects of fantasy.
Indeed, there are plenty of reminders that George Martin has worked in the horror genre. Occasional shock effects, quite apart from the no-holds-barred eviscerations and descriptions of battles, and their aftermath. Passages such as:
"He thrust his arm into the blackness inside the tomb, as into the mouth of some great beast. 'Do you see? It's quite empt-'
The darkness sprang at him, snarling."
But on the whole, this is serious, and no doubt seriously-intended, epic fantasy. Towards my late teens, when I was reading a lot of fantasy, I enjoyed long, rambling epics. I had more time on my hands, but another factor applied: there was something warm and cosy about inhabiting an author's world for a long time. Not since then have I understood so easily the term escapism. A Game of Thrones, ultimately, failed because I did not want to go back there; nor did I like it much for the duration of my tenure. A Game of Thrones badly needs a final, fearless edit. Even as far in as page 737 there is no real sense of a conclusion looming, and it seems that where once ambition seemed to lie in producing a series of fantasy novels, now that sort of project seems to display a marked lack of ambition. Still. One man's ceiling is another man's floor. But here the reader does not reach up to understand the novel; the reader reaches to believe in it. So, let other minds and hearts have Martin's kingdom. This reviewer will gamble on other numbers.
Review by David Mathew.
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© David Mathew 7 March 1998