Quick Reads: A Game Of Thrones ch. 1 – 2

a-game-of-thrones

THAT’S RIGHT.

After ignoring requests to read these books for the last umpteen years I’m finally diving in. A long time ago, way before the TV show was even announced, I made a brief attempt to read A Game Of Thrones but quickly gave up because it was boring, although I’ve watched all but the last season of the TV show. I suppose I’ll get slightly further this time.

As usual we’ll start with the cover. Or to be precise one of the book’s many covers, and to be even more precise the one up there ^ since it’s the first one I encountered.

It’s… fine, I guess? It seems clear that even before the franchise rocketed to popularity Martin’s publisher was positioning these books for the mainstream by giving them covers that are noticeably less “fantasy-ish” than a lot of other books in the genre (by way of comparison check out some of the earlier covers, which makes them look like generic Tolkien knock-offs).

I’ve always wondered what the hell that dragon head thing is supposed to be. Is it the hilt of a sword or something?

Before we get off the topic, check out some of the totally anime as hell covers you can get in Japan, like this one:

5

Damn. I want someone to write an entirely new story based around that artwork.

The book opens with four(!) fantasy maps, but we’re just going to examine one to save time.

Game_of_Thrones_The_south_map

Note that there is a location named The Reach, thereby fulfilling the ancient contract.

Despite the sometimes goofy names (there’s a place beyond the wall called The Haunted Forest) I’ve always thought this world seemed a bit more realistic in terms of its shape and layout than most fantasy maps. It’s also noticeably similar in many ways to the landmass of Great Britain (compare the ragged area called The Fingers to the north-west of Britain where the Scottish Hebrides are), which makes sense given that the story is partially based on the Wars of The Roses, with the Lannisters and Starks filling in for the houses of Lancaster and York.

Prologue

What’s this? A prologue that’s set right before the beginning of the proper story and which takes place away from the main action in order to depict an important event that sets the stage for what’s to come? In other words it’s an actual prologue and not some pointless waffle set 5000 years before the rest of the book.

It opens with three dudes in the woods, as all good stories do. They’re members of the Night’s Watch, an order of soldiers who spend their life manning a giant ice-wall that divides the southern lands from the wild, untamed north and the supernatural beings that are said to inhabit it. They’re tracking a party of Wildings (people who live beyond the wall).

“My mother told me that dead men sing no songs,” he put in.
“My wet nurse said the same thing, Will,” Royce replied. “Never believe anything you hear at a woman’s tit.

Good to know we’re setting the tone right from the start.

Ser Waymar Royce was the youngest son of an ancient house with too many heirs. He was a handsome youth of eighteen, grey-eyed and graceful and slender as a knife. Mounted on his huge black destrier, the knight towered above Will and Gared on their smaller garrons

That’s the second destrier we’ve seen in as many days, so I went and took a look at wikipedia. Apparently they’re a no longer extant breed of war-horse popular in medieval times. So there you go.

Will, the youngest and least experienced of the three, has just come back reporting that the Wildlings are all dead. The oldest member of the group wants to turn around and head back for the wall immediately, but Ser Asshole is like “no let’s go see what killed them bc I said so, lol feudalism is rad.”

“It was the cold,” Gared said with iron certainty. “I saw men freeze last winter, and the one before, when I was half a boy.

I probably don’t have to explain this to most of you, but one of the most interesting features of this setting is that the world experiences periodic, extremely harsh winters with years-long summers in between. Unlike normal seasons they don’t run on a predictable cycle, and their length and severity can vary wildly. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they’re often accompanied by incursions from the mysterious Others (called the White Walkers in the show) who haunt the frozen north.

The series starts off at the tail end of a particularly long summer, with ominous signs indicating that the next winter will be a real doozy, possibly even a repeat of the horrific Long Night that was said to plunge the world into darkness for an entire generation.

Unfortunately, having established that winter is coming, the books do sweet fuck all with it– by the end of the fifth book and (roughly) the current point of the TV series the winter seems barely any closer save for a few incidents in the very far north. This is unfortunately the same problem that plagues other major plot threads, like Daenerys’ war against Westeros that still hasn’t gotten off the ground and whatever the fuck is going on with Bran and his psychic powers. Over and over again the story promises some huge, momentous event and then spins its wheels for hundreds and hundreds of pages, advancing nothing.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Our trio of badass dudes go to investigate what happened to the wildlings, only to discover that the bodies have mysterious vanished.

A sword slashed at a branch as Ser Waymar Royce gained the ridge. He stood there beside the sentinel, longsword in hand, his cloak billowing behind him as the wind came up, outlined nobly against the stars for all to see.

This chapter really pushes hard on the idea that Lord Royce is a big noble weeny whose fancy clothes and shiny jewel-encrusted sword aren’t nearly as suitable for nocturnal forestry activities as the other two rangers’ more humble equipment. Which is kind of an odd stance to take given that most of the characters in the series are royalty.

(By the way this is a pretty big difference compared to the series, where the members of the Night’s Watch seem to forfeit whatever titles or status they had on the outside. The idea that Royce, who is only eighteen, is ordering a veteran around due to his Lordliness seems particularly strange)

Predictably, Royce bites it almost immediately when an Other (that name is really awkward, I can see why they changed it) emerges from the trees. Then he turns into an ice-zombie or whatever and kills Will.

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.

Eat this shit up, because it’s a looooong time before anything remotely this interesting happens up north again.

Chapter 1: Bran

Bran is the youngest son of Sean Bean Eddard “Ned” Stark, who is the lord of Winterfell, the most northernly of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Bran, Ned and the rest of his sons (plus assorted members of court– there are a lot of characters in these books) are sallying forth to watch a dude be beheaded.

This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and his brothers to see the king’s justice done. It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran’s life.

Having previously seen this scene from the omniscient viewpoint of the series, the decision to have Bran be the first Stark POV character is kind of odd given how marginal his overall role in the plot ends up being.

As it turns out the guy about to be executed is the surviving Night’s Watch ranger from the prologue (the prologue directly affects the action of the first chapter, my mind is being fucking blown wide open), nabbed for desertion after seeing some serious shit up north.

“In the name of Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by the word of Eddard of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, I do sentence you to die.”

We might as well get this out of the way here: the Seven Kingdoms are ruled over by a single king. In the past the Targaryan family held the throne, but prior to the events of this book the lords of the seven kingdoms rose up and overthrew the last Targaryan ruler because he was a huge douche-wagon. The coupe was led by Ned and his best bud Robert Baratheon, who became the new king after the whole affair was over. Ned and Robert haven’t seen each other in a while due to some complications around the war that I guess we’ll get into later.

(In case you’re wondering, the Andals, Rhoynar and First Men are the three major ethnic groups in Westeros)

Anyway Ned cuts the guy’s head off and Bran is told to watch and it’s all very solemn and manly and kingly, and afterward Ned talks about things like Law and Duty and Kings and the Law and Duty that Kings have under the Law to do their Duty.

These books, like a lot of fantasy novels, have an utter slavering fascination with the idea of royalty and absolute authority.

They found Robb on the riverbank north of the bridge, with Jon still mounted beside him. The late summer snows had been heavy this moonturn.

“Moonturn”? What the fuck is that? Is it just another name for a month? Why not just say month?

I know for a fact I’ve ranted about this on at least one other occasion but: if your book takes place in a temperate climate divided into four seasons, call then spring, winter, autumn and summer. If the year is divided up into discrete blocks of time, call them months. You can even have twelve of them and give them the same names as the real months. Really. It’s fine. Your fantasy setting’s credentials will not be enhanced by having your characters celebrate Yuletidemas on the 25th day of Iceapalooza. If your protagonist’s Spawn-Day occurs once every Star-Cycle, I will not feel as if I’m being drawn into a strange and beguiling world of fantasy.

That’s not to say I don’t support authors writing fantasy stories where days last 72 hours and the years are divided depending on the flocking behaviour of giant neon space-bats, or that take place on the moons of gas giants or inside black holes or whatever else you want to do. By all means, make your fantasy setting wild and strange. But if it’s just medieval Europe with magic, don’t try to fool us into thinking otherwise.

Anyway, our party of Starks discover a dead dire wolf (which to my surprise were actually a real thing) with a litter of cubs. There’s one cub for each of Ned Stark’s children, corresponding to their genders, plus an albino one for his bastard son Jon. And a close inspection reveals that the wolf was killed in a fight with a stag, which is also dead. Isn’t it a funny coincidence that the symbol of House Stark is a dire wolf and the symbol of house Baratheon is a stag? I’m sure none of it means anything.

So that’s the first two chapters. Honestly, I’m not sure why I found them so tedious last time I tried to read them. The writing is quite good and they clip along at a good pace (apparently this ceases to be true fairly quickly as the series progresses).

I mentioned this last post, but I’m going to be very busy until the middle of December so expect posts to be fairly sporadic.

 

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30 thoughts on “Quick Reads: A Game Of Thrones ch. 1 – 2

  1. Aaron Adamec-Ostlund (@AaronAO)

    Supposedly there was going to be a time skip after book three, but Martin wasn’t satisfied with where the characters were at the end of book three so he wrote four to get them into place so that he could move the timeline ahead, but he just kept writing and four turned into five books etc. It would be interesting to read book three with this in mind to see how the characters are set up for a time skip. If I remember correctly A Storm of Swords ends with a lot of characters about to undergo training or otherwise occupied.

    Reply
  2. AJ

    The series became insufferable for me by book 3. The issue with Martin, like most other fantasy writers, is that he thinks he can do a large caste of characters and make them all entertaining/gripping to read. Nope. He fails pretty badly, but I’ve seen worse. The Night Angel trilogy comes to mind. Actually, this seems to be a rather difficult problem, as the only successful attempt that I’ve seen is by Steven Erikson in the Malazan series(though he does succeed fantastically, and with a massive number of POV characters).
    I would like to hear your thoughts on the issue. 🙂

    Reply
    1. ronanwills Post author

      The huge number of POV characters is IMO what dooms a lot of big fantasy bricks. The characters just not being all that interesting is one part of it, but I think the bigger problem (which plagues both Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire) is when the characters start to splinter off and get their own dedicated storylines.

      Let’s say you start out with seven characters and they’re split into two groups in two different locations; that’s two story threads. But then someone breaks off on their own, and you’ve got three. Then two more start following their own paths and it’s four. And then before long each of those four threads has their own locations and proliferation of side characters, and if the author really goes down the rabbit hole some of the side characters will become POV characters and…

      The problem is exemplified for me with Daenerys and Bran, who for most of the currently released books have been far from the main action of the plot, engaging in storylines whose only purpose is to delay whatever important role they’re eventually going to have until everyone else’s plot threads reach the right point.

      Reply
      1. Cascadingflames

        I sped through these books…at first. By the time I got to the last two, I would skip chapters to follow my favorite character’s storylines, then go back and read the ones I found less interesting, just in case I was missing any plot-related things.
        Then at the last book I lost my shit. Martin finally starts killing off more people and narrowing the plot, only to add more POV characters and plot threads to prolong everything. (At least I remember it happening mostly in A Dance with Dragons, it’s been a while.)
        And since this is my first comment, I just want to add that I really enjoy your blog.

        Reply
      2. reveen

        The story really got lost at sea with the Red Wedding IMO. Killing off two of the most active Stark characters while scattering Sansa, Bran, and Arya to the four corners of the world was super ill-advised. I think the story should have either centred entirely around the Starks, or entirely around the Starks and Lannisters, with side characters given POVs sparingly. Like, seriously, Danaerys is arguably his most iconic character, but even her plot lines amount to in the end. They’re 50% bluster and 50% racism.

        Reply
      3. q____q

        Yeah and this splitting off culminates in stuff like we haven’t seen the youngest Stark son and Hodor etc. after they arrived at that magic tree for *a whole season* of the tv show.

        Reply
    2. UBM

      Yeah, there’s a massive slowdown in book 4 and in book five, he goes full Robert Jordan, only with more grimdark.
      I agree on your Malazan comment; I think Erikson’s really skilled at both the pov thing and in building a massive world without getting lost in the details. I really, really enjoyed the Malazan series.

      Reply
  3. AkleK

    Hey, if you’re still taking suggestions, what about The Sword of Shannara? You might know it as the completely shameless Tolkien clone.

    They are adapting the series for TV but they’re starting with the second book (The Elfstones of Shannara) because I guess they’re too embarrassed to do the first book.

    I’ve read through the first few chapters and it seems like it would be great matirial and it’s topical too!

    Reply
      1. AkleK

        I actually think visually it looks okay but that voiceover(It Begins…)

        Can you say anything more cliched in a Fantasy trailer?

        Reply
    1. Archibald van Winkle

      Deeeeeeemmmnnnn, Son. He just made a few tiny tweaks. No wonder he gets praise for the ‘real feel’ of his map. Because it literally is a real map.

      Reply
      1. A. Noyd

        @Basheer Ghouse
        Noooo. I hate it because it seems so cheap. Especially when it’s blatant, like how Jacqueline Carey just laid down new borders within Europe or how the map in Fiona Patton’s Branion books is a mirror image of Great Britain.

        Reply
  4. q____q

    „Over and over again the story promises some huge, momentous event and then spins its wheels for hundreds and hundreds of pages, advancing nothing.“

    It’s Kvothefuss all over again just like every 4 billion page fanatasy story should be!

    Reply
  5. reveen

    Oh shit! Throw down! I think Way of Shadows just became the Green Party here.

    By the way, I hope you like that mothers tit comment, because while I don’t think Ice and Fire is quite as sexist as it’s copycats, it really is a competitor for most uses of sexist slurs and weird vagina centric lingo.

    Also, the world building is okay up until you factor in Essos. Which is kind of like if you took a super racist sword and sorcery setting and slapped it onto your pseudo-historical fiction. Seriously, anything involving east of Westeros is just a cancer on the narrative in so many ways.

    Reply
    1. q____q

      Yup, Essos is were all the racist shit happens (Rapey Horse Savages, White Savoirs etc.). So as long it’s only white people, it’s only sexism and as soon as some PoC are introduced the racism starts. Well done, GRRM (or show producers, cause I (obvsly) haven’t read the books)!

      Reply
      1. reveen

        To be fair, Martin eases up on the grimdark to portray the setting’s black people as actually nice people.

        To be unfair it’s really weird. Noble savage crap mixed up with free-love wish fulfillment.

        Reply
      2. Lissa

        Daenerys is probably my favorite character, but her storyline definitely has the most racism. It gets worse in Book Three, and it reaches ridiculous levels in Book Five, where GRRM throws in everything he can think of to make the cities of Slaver’s Bay look bad – slavery! Human sacrifice! Killing children for fun! Orgies involving intersex people and dwarves for extra depravity, while the obese slavemaster looks on and masturbates! Even a lot of the food is described in disgusting terms – olives stuffed with maggots, locusts, puppies (the most common meat seems to be dog).

        Reply
      3. q____q

        @raveen, really? I can’t remember any PoC characters that are nice except for maybe Missandei. Who am I forgetting? They all are side characters anyway or am I mistaken?

        Reply
  6. Archibald van Winkle

    This series would make for an excellent, snarky read-along starting two-thirds through book two. That is when the drudgery begins to really hit. This first book is actually pretty good, so there will be little for entertainment. That is to say if looking for bad writing and shoddy storytelling. If the desired is a story to pick apart for merits other than authorship or writing, then this series would be awesome. Martin is an excellent author, he just needs to work on brevity. Like, SERIOUSLY work on brevity.

    Overall, this feels like a fantasy fan-fiction of Wars of the Roses. Except it’s 99% pseudo-historical fiction and 1% fantasy. The map is a mirror of Britain with some tweaks. (I see you, Eastern-Oriented Cornwall)He seriously has Lannisters=Lancasters and Starks=Yorks. That is ridiculous. Much like Jordan’s Perrin=Pippin and Mat=Sam. I bet Cercei is even based on Margaret of Anjou. I’m not saying that I am against building on shoulders, but to buy a Clydesdale and dye his hair to call him a Paint is an entirely different thing. I feel the only part of this whole series which deserves the fantasy moniker is the prologue, and the few places where dragons feature. (Rare places where magic is used are sprinkled throughout, but it is so vague that one can’t really be sure WTF is actually happening.)

    So, like the seasons thing, and the ‘moonturn’ thing, Martin has laid some pretty thin veils to cover that this is a pseudo-historical fan-fiction. Which is ironic considering Martin himself is opposed to fan-fiction.

    Many people wonder how Martin can keep everything straight in his head. It’s easy: he just made analogues of history, so he needs only call upon the vast repertoire of WOTR reading he has done.

    Reply
  7. Aaron Adamec-Ostlund (@AaronAO)

    The fact that nearly every character in these books comes from the aristocracy defangs any of supposed satire that these books contain. You can write all you want about the tens of thousands of peasants who have been raped and slaughtered but if every one of the viewpoint characters brooding over the horrors of war are members of the oppressor class it rings hollow. There’s only one character who calls out the system in the books, but he just wants to put his own ideal candidate on the throne and hope everything works out.

    And that’s the problem with the books, no one’s trying to strengthen parliament, hold elections, form a republic, draft a constitution, or do anything that would actually improve the situation. They just want to play musical chairs with the Iron Throne while all of the far more interesting events going on elsewhere never amount to anything.

    Reply
  8. Andrea Harris

    I’ve been to the La Brea Tarpits Museum in Los Angeles and saw the giant display of all the dire wolf skulls they found in the tar pits. I am sure I’m not the only one who thought this of these magnificent, extinct beings: “God, they were dumb.”

    Reply
  9. Lissa

    My first thought when seeing the map in Way of Shadows was that the Song of Ice and Fire maps were much more logical and easy to understand, and far less cluttered.

    “[…]a dead dire wolf (which to my surprise were actually a real thing)”

    Aurochs (which the books mention a lot) were real too – they went extinct in 1627.

    I actually really enjoyed the first three books of this series, and I plowed through them in 1-2 days each. The world is incredibly sexist, but somehow, it didn’t bother me that much. The female characters were fairly well-developed, and they had motivations and goals and actually did things. Then came the fourth book, where the author hit a wall and began running the characters in endless circles.

    Reply

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