A Game of Thrones – George R R Martin – [Book Review]

Before you start, I know I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I bought a copy of Game of Thrones because I’m a fan of the show and wanted to read the original work from which it sprang. I’d been told about its narrative structure, too, and wanted to see how it was handled, as multi-viewpoint third-person is how I’ve set my own work.

For those unaware, each chapter in Game of Thrones bears the name of the character it follows (which results in a contents page that looks like a goldfish trying to name all the protagonists).

The problem with coming back to evaluate a story having seen the TV series is, all the characters already have faces – Peter Dinklage will always be Tyrion in my head, Sean Bean will always play Eddard. There’s no imagination involved because those roles have already been filled by HBO.

Similarly, there are no surprises. The first series followed the first book down to the last scene. My friend tells me the show diverts from the books more in later seasons, and outright cuts many characters from the narrative, but this first book is practically the first season’s screenplay. Apart from, of course, this page of differences, which includes nerd-facts like:

  • In the book, Jaime pushes Bran from the window with his right hand. In the show he uses his left hand.

Right. I can’t believe the filmmakers took such liberties.

The book really does read like a TV show, though, with each scene its own little story; but I can’t tell if that’s because I’ve seen it as television, or because of the writing style. However, the death of one of the main characters I felt was dealt with better on screen than in the book, which turns the reader’s viewpoint at the last moment so we don’t witness the horrible act. Instead we’re given a series of (rather dull) chapters describing people reacting to the news. It felt very secondhand. That’s the story’s dramatic climax, mind.

Game of drones

What I can say about the writing style is, it does lean towards the tedious. For example, Martin describes with neurotic regularity the colour, trim, seam pattern and shape of every woman’s item of clothing, and the metal, engravings, seals and insignia of every man’s armour.

Not to mention their hair. Christ on a bike, the number of times some servant brushes a woman’s hair until it shines like a precious metal, it sounds like Martin used to run a salon.

“The girl brushed her hair until it shone like molten silver…”

“His man had oiled his forked yellow beard until it shone like real gold.”

“His hair shone like spun gold.”

“She had brushed out her long auburn hair until it shone…”

“Her thick auburn hair had been brushed until it shone.”

“While Doreah brushed her hair until it shone like spun silver…”

“…soaping his long black hair and combing the knots and tangles from it until it shone again as she remembered.”

Meanwhile, there are plenty of “writing rules” that are flagrantly ignored – but I’ll let you decide whether that is more an affront on the rules than on Martin himself. For starters, there’s a tonne of “filter words” – he felt, he thought, she wished, she knew – which modern writing advice suggests can be cut, bringing the reader closer to the head of the POV character. But check out this cracker:

“Jon felt bad when he thought of the old man.”

I’d warrant most writers would avoid the words “He felt bad” at every opportunity, but one might defend the phrase as from the childish verbiage of a fourteen-year-old boy’s perspective. Either way, it’s a bit shit.

And there’s a shit-tonne of “was”, “were” and “had” throughout, often the mark of weak writing, but maybe that’s something you only notice as a writer. It certainly hasn’t stunted its success, but it makes for a rather clunky narrative at times.

For the most part, the tone of each character’s narration doesn’t differ much, though the younger characters Bran and Arya bring a generally more playful and simple voice, while Tyrion’s is a little more ruminative than the other adults.

But their characters are well formed in the dialogue, which in my view is Martin’s strongest suit. He maintains consistent, disparate tones for each one, whether that be the meandering rambles of the Grand Maesters, or the courtesies of Sansa, or the brazen doggedness of mercenaries The Hound and Bronn.

(Tangent: I read a sci-fi book recently, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. I didn’t write a review because I didn’t have an awful lot to say about it to be honest, but one thing that struck me throughout was the uniform sassiness of every character. Every single person was a wisecracking comedian, and the lack of variety was irritating. It’s something I’ll be coming back to in edits for Citadel, to ensure voices are unique and identifiable.)

The things I liked about the book are the things I liked about the show – a gritty fantasy world, with very little sorcery and monsters (the White Walkers were always my least favourite part of the story), lots of rich characters with their own agency, and a storyline that follows a path of cause and effect to its seemingly inevitable conclusion. It’s extremely accomplished story-telling.

So, while I very much enjoyed Game Of Thrones, I don’t think I’ll be reading the other 1.5 million words of the series printed so far. There’s simply not enough artistry in the text to warrant going over events I’ve already witnessed on the stellar TV show.

Not to mention the fact HBO will likely reach a conclusion to the series before Martin does.

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