Sunday, June 5, 2011

...and success, with Game of Thrones

So where have I been these past few weeks? Not moderating comments, not remembering to return the mountain of library books I decided I didn't want to read after all, but finding success with George RR Martin's Game of Thrones and the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire series.

I'd been hearing about these books for a while. Several of the folks I play World of Warcraft with enjoy reading fantasy books, and I remember them chatting about this series as long ago as last summer. I, however, do not usually enjoy reading fantasy books. I don't really know why I never venture into that section at the bookstores, because when I do pick up something with unicorns or magicians in it, I often enjoy it. I liked the Harry Potter books. I liked the Lord of the Rings books well enough. At one point in my life, I had The Once and Future King virtually memorized. So I don't really know why I shied away.

But a recent New Yorker article about George RR Martin spurred me to try Game of Thrones. The article mostly focused on the extreme internet backlash Martin has faced for not being terribly forthcoming with the latest installment in his series. The prior one came out in 2005, and ended on a cliffhanger. He had a ton of loyal fans, who formed fan clubs, talked on internet forums and chat rooms, and occasionally even found out that they had more in common than just the books and wound up marrying each other.

Plenty stayed loyal, but now there are hate sites too, and he gets bushels of angry letters warning him that he'd better not die before he finishes the book. (Incidentally, the article was also an eye-opener for me in a different way. The week after the article appeared, the New Yorker ran a four-folded ad for the HBO show based on Game of Thrones. I guess the publication I work for is not the only publication that does stuff for its advertisers).

Anyway, several things jumped out at me from that article. George RR Martin was consciously trying to take the genre in a different direction, away from the quest-based archetype that Tolkien set up. The article says that the books were based very loosely on the events of the War of the Roses (the real one, not the Kathleen Turner movie). It also said that the books were minimalist in their fantasy trappings. Those are two reasons that I guess I'd shied away from the genre: the fantasy books that I looked at often struck me as either the same basic book over and over again, or just an excuse to write vivid descriptions of unicorns. So I gave Game of Thrones a shot, and liked it so much I bought A Clash of Kings last weekend.

These are perfect books to get lost in, they're nice and long and action-packed. The characters are fully fleshed out but there's a lot there for "plot" people too (oh, is there ever). The NYer article was right about the minimalist nature of the fantasy elements. They are there, but they don't hit you over the head with it, focusing more on the relationships between the characters, and how events change them.

The story is basically a conflict between several noble families. About 12 years prior to the start of the books, Ned Stark and Robert Barthaeon massed an army to overthrow the mad dragon king Targaryen (he wasn't literally a dragon, but the family had an affinity with them, even though dragons are extinct). The last of the Targaryens fled across the seas. Stark returned to his family's lands in the north, and Barthaeon wed Cersei Lannister and ruled as king. But Cersei Lannister has higher ambitions than just being a pretty ornament, and the Targaryen children are now of an age where they can start plotting to win back their throne. Stark has no desire to be anything but the lord in his own region, but he's not given much of a choice.

One slightly disorienting thing about the books is that they're told in a round-robin fashion through the eyes of a variety of characters. I counted about ten third-person-limited perspectives in Game of Thrones alone, and more are added in the second. It's good in a way: if you find someone boring, all you have to do is wait out their chapter, and the story will go with someone else, and you will have seen the back of them for a while. Sometimes, though, they're too long away and it's hard to remember where you left off.

The books are also pretty brutal. There's rape. There are violent murders, including one of the most imaginative, gory and fitting death scenes since the film Seven. There's more treachery than you can shake several sticks at. There is a lot of sexism, but one thing I like is that as the story unfolds, you get a hint of what might be coming to sexist asshole kings who discount the capabilities of women.

The books are very absorbing, though. George RR Martin tempers the brutality with humor and tender touches where you least expect it. For example, the young Targaryen girl, Danerys, is essentially sold into marriage by her older brother to the leader of this fearsome, savage tribe. She's only 13. Her wedding festivites are terrifying, with members of the tribe getting drunk, grabbing random women right out in the open and having sex with them, killing each other over who gets to have sex with who, and by the end of the scene as the wedding night approaches, you are terrified for Danerys. But her new husband turns out to be tender and gentle, and their wedding night is one of the sweetest scenes in Game of Thrones.
So far, I highly reccommend the series, and can't wait to see what comes next.