On Tuesday, I received my Game of Thrones Bluray box set in the mail. I had gotten the set as a gift from Leslie, who forked over some extra cashish to Amazon to ensure I’d have the set the day it came out. Ten hours over two late nights and bleary-eyed mornings later, we’re finished watching it. I’m now simultaneously telling Leslie that I’ll wait a year for the second season to come out on Bluray while hoping she blows me off and orders HBO for the three months when Game of Thrones starts again in April.
It’s funny to think back and realize that a year ago, I had no idea what A Game of Thrones, or who George RR Martin, was. I had never even heard either of them. I had seen ads for the series running last year and thought “Hey, this looks kind of cool”, but not cool enough to pony up for HBO. Then I started reading reviews of the series and fielding calls from my buddy Eric, who could talk of nothing but these TV shows. I was amused listening to Eric gush about this show as he desperately tried to keep from giving anything of the plot away.
The HBO series is based on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga which, at this date, stands at five books and projects to be seven in length. Martin began writing the books in the early 90’s. He’d been a screenwriter for such shows as Beauty and the Beast and grew frustrated that television, at that time, was a vehicle ill-fitted for the stories he wanted to tell.
Intrigued, and not wanting to wait for the series to come out on Bluray, I downloaded the first book of Martin’s saga and dove in, albeit not without a little trepidation. The series is classified as “epic fantasy”. I am a huge fan of the Tolkien books and I’d read and reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings many times since the 1970s. Early on I had decided to explore other works of fantasy and had been left very much turned off. Before I gave up on them, the books I read were pale and shallow copies of Tolkien’s work. Every book contained a struggle between unambiguously good and evil characters, a journey of some sort and relied on “magic”, rather than character and conflict to carry the story. With their wood elves, wizards and faeries, most of them were just plain silly.
Not so, to my delight, A Song of Ice and Fire. The saga has, as its backdrop, a dynastic struggle for the Iron Throne between the great families of a mythical land called Westeros, which bears a close, gritty resemblance to medieval England. Martin’s characters are decidedly human, with strengths and weaknesses and motivations both noble and base. Indeed (and I’m not giving away anything here), in A Game of Thrones‘ opening chapter, Lord Ned Stark, a most decidedly honorable man, beheads a deserter from A Game of Throne’s equivalent of the French Foreign Legion. Ned does so because the penalty for such desertions is death and, as he tells his young son “We follow the old ways. The man who passes sentence must be the man who swings the sword”. Stark does so with a heavy heart, knowing that the otherwise brave deserter fled with good reason: in fear of something few men, perhaps even he himself, would have the courage to face.
A Song of Ice and Fire is filled with such dilemmas and ambiguities. There are characters you start out hating, only to have your attitude soften a bit once their motivations become clearer, while you scratch your head at something an otherwise standup character says or does. The folks in these books do what they do to navigate a world filled with violence (and liberally peppered by Martin with sex). A world where when you engage in intrigue, as one character puts it, you either win or die.
There are elements of magic at work here, but they are used to add mystery and dread to the tale, not to carry it. There are no elves or faeries prancing about the woods (if they did, they wouldn’t last very long) or people chasing each other with wands, Harry Potter-like, shouting “Hiccupus Copiuses” at each other.
Probably the most commented on aspect of Martin’s books is his complete and total disregard for readers’ attachment to characters. Martin excels in a huge way in making you care about the characters (and there are hundreds of them) in his story. You become more and more invested in a character over the course of thousands of pages, and then the author kills him. He is thoroughly ruthless. With one or two very macabre exceptions, there are no Lost-like flashbacks. Dead characters don’t pop up Obiwan Kenobi like, bathed in light, providing soothing advice to the living. There are no Gandalf-like returns. I’m not sure a lot of authors could successfully pull this off. You’re reading through hundreds of pages, following a character you think the story is going to be built around, only to have the rug yanked out from under your feet…frequently.
If you watched the first season of the HBO series and think you’ve gotten your fill of this type of thing, as the Wilding woman says to Jon Snow…you know nothing….
I looked up my iTunes account and am surprised how fast ( I am a ponderous reader ) I plowed through these books:
A Game of Thrones 5/6/2011
A Clash of Kings 5/22/2011
A Storm of Swords 6/16/2011
A Feast for Crows 7/19/2011
A Dance With Dragons 8/6/2011
My timing was excellent…longtime fans of Martin’s books..and there are millions of them… had to wait six years between the fourth book and the fifth. I finished A Feast for Crows about a week after A Dance With Dragons came out. Eric and I remarked on how over the top some of these fans seemed. There was considerable angst in the fan community about Martin’s progress on the saga, with some urging Martin to finish the books before he croaked. “These people are assholes”, I thought, as I happily churned my way through the books last summer.
But I find my attitude changing a bit, now that I’m finished the books and eagerly, very impatiently, awaiting The Winds of Winter. Whenever I see Martin doing an interview or speaking at some huge convention, I find myself thinking (fuming, actually), “Hey buddy…why the hell aren’t you at your computer typing.”
Heavy is the head….