Tuesday, 7 October 2014

George RR Martin's Game of Thrones Book 1 Review

‘Game of Thrones’ has done the impossible, made fantasy cool. Harry Potter managed to get one foot out of the fantasy closet but it took ‘Game of Thrones’s patented brand of misery and sex to seal the deal. I talk of course, of the television series adaptation, HBO’s worldwide smash based on the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ book series from George RR Martin. I, like many, really enjoy the television series but have found the abundant spoilers, from unadapted books, hard to avoid. Therefore I decided to make my way through the original books and try and get ahead of the show. I’m writing this having just finished the first book in the series, ‘A Game of Thrones’. Or ‘Game of Thrones’ as my Sean Bean’d HBO tie-in cover would have me believe.

There are fundamental issues when reading a book having already seen the television show or film. For one thing it’s nearly impossible to imagine the world and characters as not being what you’ve seen on the screen. This isn’t helped by the brilliant casting decisions on the part of the television production team. In addition to this issue, every plot twist and major development is known to you from watching the show. This is particularly an issue with George RR Martin, as his style is to write unexpected outcomes to surprise the reader; he makes a lot of effort to purposely write in such a way that surprising situations will catch you off guard. Once you know these twists it ruins this craft somewhat and makes you notice when he is preparing one. When something shocking is about to occur everything becomes sunshine and light, just for the calm to be disrupted as someone is stabbed or something.

That being said, George RR Martin has a lot more to his writing than M Night Shyamalan style shocking ‘twists’. Martin comes from the showmanship line of writing, much of his skill comes in telling the audience what is going to happen, then tricking them into hoping it won’t work out that way before doing exactly what he originally promised. It takes real skill to do this repeatedly but just the right amount to keep your audience unsure of what you are doing, to keep them engaged in your universe. This requires a lot of writing craft.

Craft is the main word I would use to describe the book in general. You can see the cogs turning in the pages, the skill of an experienced author who understands their audience and the writing discipline excellently. That being said, Martin’s clear love of the fantasy genre occasionally seems to take over. The book is generally written in a very strait forward, standard novel format. Frequently, this simple flow is disrupted with extensive background lore of the universe. A character will go off on a tangent about the lengthy history of a family or a town before awkwardly returning to the narrative at hand. Background detail is important obviously as it builds the world but some of it could have been saved for the, already large, appendices.

The writing in these books is very easy to read, almost suspiciously so. I would say a real effort has been made to keep the vocabulary at a rate that your ‘average’ reader wouldn’t have issue with. The chapters of the book are also incredibly short, most of them being between 10 and 20 pages a time. This book has clearly been written to be accessible to more than your average table top fantasy fan. A gambit of Martin’s that has clearly paid off with the amount of mainstream success the series has gotten.

Martin is an excellent creator of characters, which is useful as the Thrones universe has many distinct people filling it. It’s also refreshing to see female characters written with skill. Martin writes these characters as a gender with its own strengths and problems. The chapters of the book flip between different characters within the narrative. This is nice as it gives you a chance to get inside each character’s head and get their take on the situation, their prejudices. The only issue with this is that even with a world filled with well written characters you are bound to like some more than others. I found myself flipping to see if the current Sansa chapter would be followed by a Tyrion chapter any time soon for example.

The story moves along at a nice pace throughout the book. Martin’s strength lies in his characters so that’s how he tells the story of the world. Actions scenes, such as the battles lack a bit for me descriptively and are hard to visualise, or would be if not for the television adaptation.

The big question now, which is better? The original book or the TV show? Most adaptations of books are terrible, usually cutting out essential world building scenes to make the production more concise. For me personally, I’d say the adaptation is better than the book. That isn’t to knock the book; the book’s very good indeed. The adaptation is so close to the book however, at least of the first book, that it could have been written based on the show, as a novelised retelling. The brilliant characters that Martin created are given real soul by the actors chosen to portray them, as you would expect if you scour the world hovering up respected character actors. The world Martin described has also been created sparing little expense or attention to detail visually.

‘Game of Thrones’ is a hugely popular franchise, it really deserves to be. I intend to continue my journey into the books, while waiting for the fifth season. “When you play the Game of Thrones you win or you die”. Well whether you read the books or watch the series, you win.

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