Sunday 17 June 2012

A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin– part 1 (p.1-410)

contains spoilers
The story so far:

Several years ago, the old king was deposed by men of the houses of Lannister, Stark and Baratheon, to be replaced on the throne by Robert Baratheon. When Robert’s right-hand man dies, he offers the position of Hand to Eddard “Ned” Stark. Ned is an upright and honourable man, but such men are few, and treachery is rife. His sister-in-law, widow of the former Hand, suspects that her husband was murdered, and Ned’s son has suffered a terrible fall in suspicious circumstances. While all this tension is going on, Viserys Targaryen, descendent of the deposed king, is plotting to return from exile and take back the throne by force.

A Game of Thrones is a story that spans an entire continent and beyond, a great, sprawling saga. George R. R. Martin’s worldbuilding is impressive, often a little overwhelming with the sheer number of names one has to take in, but not as overwhelming as I’d feared. He plunges drops the reader straight into his world without interrupting the pace for exposition. We are told what we need to know when we need to know it, and Martin writes with respect for his readers’ intellect, trusting us to pick up on the important details. It is the small things, little customs and details that bring home to us that this is a foreign world with different ways. Martin casually writes of a nine-year summer – is this literal? Metaphorical? A bit of both, I suspect – this world turns differently, and there is snow even in summer. But winter is coming, we are reminded in the Stark’s family motto. The good times are coming to an end.

The jacket blurb writes of “characters so venomous they could eat the Borgias,” and I confess this put me off the series for a long time. I don’t like reading about unpleasant characters. But central to the story are the Stark family who are solid, dependable characters, generally good eggs with a strict code of honour. I was pleased to find that we see from the point of view of Ned’s children – Robb, Sansa, Arya and Bran, as well as his illegitimate son Jon Snow. (Snow being the designated surname for nameless children in Winterfell, another of those wonderful little details that bring this world to life.) I’m particularly fond of 9-year-old tomboy Arya, so young and yet so sparky. Yes, there are some highly unpleasant characters in Queen Cersei and Viserys “still not king” Targaryen, the latter of whom I had not spent two pages with before wishing him an ignominious, snivelling end. I challenged Mr Martin to “make me care” before setting out on this adventure; well, I suspect having such a strong and specific death wish for one of the characters counts as caring, does it not?

Aside from the Starks, I don’t trust anyone in this story. There is so much treachery underfoot that I am wary of everyone, old friends or acquaintances or newcomers who know too much. I’m not sure what to make of the King – except that I imagine him played by BRIAN BLESSED, this is fact for me! – he’s an old friend of Ned’s, but kinging (his verb) has changed him. “You knew the man,” Catelyn Stark tells her husband. “The king is a stranger to you.” Robert is equally wholehearted in his loves and his hates, bringing Ned to court as a valuable counsellor, but ultimately his pride won’t actually listen to Ned’s counsel. Robert has a better nature, of that I’m sure, but it is buried beneath his pride and desire for revenge.

At the point I’ve reached so far, Ned and Catelyn Stark are trying to find out the truth behind the suspicions about Jon Arryn’s death. They, and I, are pretty certain that the Lannister twins: Queen Cersei and Jaime, are responsible – but why? We also know that they tried to kill seven-year-old Bran once, but a second assassination attempt happened, and Catelyn has had their brother Tyrion arrested. Now, Tyrion has been a viewpoint character for several chapters, and I’ve grown to like him, despite, or more probably because of all his snark and surliness.* I don’t want him to be responsible – but he is a Lannister, and though he is the black sheep of the family, I’ve yet to see how deep Lannister loyalty goes in him. Meanwhile, the consequences of the Starks’ mistrust can only be disastrous – I’m not quite sure what’s kept the houses of Stark and Lannister from slaughtering each other yet, and am expecting war between the houses, and others, with every turn of the page.

I don’t trust anyone, least of all the author. I’ve been warned how tricksy and ruthless he is. Unfortunately, this warning has led me to have a bit of a game of “who’s going to die?” which could potentially spoil shocking moments later on. Again, I will see. + It won’t take long. Martin keeps me hanging on by wanting to know a bit more about the murder mystery, or the political situation, or most of all the characters. A Game of Thrones is another “one more chapter” book, especially because each chapter switches to another character or another setting and I go to close the book and then think, “ooh, I’ll just look to see what [Arya/Eddard/Tyrion/Jon, etc] has been up to.”

So far, there has not been so much swording or politics as I had expected, which was all I really knew about this book. It was a pleasant surprise to see the focus on the youngsters, especially Arya and Bran – and more so to find that some of the swording has been by Arya, if only in practice. I love that kid! Hoping to see a lot more of her.

But winter is coming.

*Though not a generally comic book, Martin has an eye for the ridiculous, and my favourite moment is when, as they enter a battle, various characters shout out their battle cries, Tyrion is tempted for a moment to join in with “Casterly Rock!”
+I know Sean Bean dies. Sean Bean is notorious for dying. And I reckon there’s only one character he could play. Bother.

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