"Paul Levinson's It's Real Life is a page-turning exploration into that multiverse known as rock and roll. But it is much more than a marvelous adventure narrated by a master storyteller...it is also an exquisite meditation on the very nature of alternate history." -- Jack Dann, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Alternate History

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Game of Thrones - my Fall 1996 review of 1st novel

As a warm-up for Game of Thones, set to premiere on HBO on April 17, I thought I'd share with you the review I did of the first novel, A Game of Thrones, in George R. R. Martin's book series, upon which the TV series is based.   As you'll see, it's something of mixed review.  But there was enough that I really enjoyed, even loved, in the novel, that I'm happily anticipating the HBO series, and will review every episode right here.


from Tangent Magazine, #16, Fall 1996
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin,  Bantam Books, 1996, hardcover, 694 pp.
Reviewed by Paul Levinson
GEORGE R. R. MARTIN’S A Game of Thrones - a 694-page novel that begins a series- is in many ways a tale fit for a king.
Its tapestry is satisfyingly rich and complex, weaving together dozens of characters, major and minor, in a wide spectrum of shades of hero and villain, all vivid and memorable. The settings are equally diverse and evocative. Martin writes as convincingly of tart juices oozing from an apple as of sleet on the side of a mountain, and his book is as much an adventure of the senses as it is of the mind.
On the other hand, the thimble-full of living dead and the soupcon of dragons we’re served here add little to the story. Or, they may indeed be setting the groundwork for sequels - which seems clear at the end - but their presence in A Game of Thrones seems little more than frost and steam on the window.
But let’s look through the glass at the story within...It’s an old one - about a king who recently won power by not the most kosher of means, beset not only by inheritors of the displaced title, but members of his own entourage with sundry axes to grind. So he calls back into service his most trusted friend - a man who, for his part, was thoroughly honorable in the way he helped the king come to power. But the king’s new right hand of course comes to the table embroiled in his own familial and political webs, many of which overlap with the king’s, and the fun begins.
   As I say, this is an old story, but Game of Thrones  is so well played that, like a vibrant re-make of an old hit record, you can enjoy almost every beat of it. Indeed, Arthurian/Shakespearean clashes among great and lesser lineages, with all the opportunities they afford for exploration of  such perennial themes as honor, loyalty, ambition, love in all its forms, are always welcome subjects for science fiction and fantasy. Such political and personal strìngs served as superb accompaniment to the science fiction in Dune, and they’re often heart-rending, always provocative and appealing, to behold here - though as a center-stage performance, not as background or foreground for fantasy which is barely there.
    To be sure, a hint of the supernatural, a realm of being beyond our and the characters’ rational comprehension, can work very well in some fiction, and does, when it’s used that sparing way in Thrones. The extreme north of this English-like world, peopled now throughout by a medieval, late-Crusade-level culture, is said to hold more than one kind of cold, slouching beast - remnants or resurgence, maybe both, from a time when these things ravaged humanity. The “Wall,” erected long ago to keep these beasts out, and the men sworn to defend it with a pledge to the realm, not to any king or person, make one of the most riveting sinews in the novel. But the actual brief appearance of these cold nightmares-come-true has far less impact than their suggestion. Similarly, the dragons work better as natural history - they’re believed to have died out over a century before the action begins in this book, and their skeletons are admired, feared, and lamented by various characters who contemplate them - than as actual hatchlings at the end of the novel.
But the dragon thread has other problems. Published as a stand-alone novella in the July 1996 Asimov’s Magazine (“Blood of the Dragon”), it follows the trials and exploits of the overthrown King’s two lineal descendants - a brother who is a claimant to the throne with no army, and his sister, whom the brother gives as a bride to a Ghenghis Khan-type character reigning with a vast army in this England’s version of Europe and Asia, in hopes of getting that army to cross the “narrow sea" and reclaim the pretender`s throne. The descriptive passages are marvelous - you can smell the spice, and taste it in every cup of wine Martin renders - but the story as a whole is not special. Derryl Murphy’s review of the novella in the Summer 1996 Tangent said it read like a “Reader’s Digest” condensation, because its chapters were extracted from the novel. But the truth is that it doesn’t work very well in the full novel either, mostly because its story has only the briefest of intersections with the main action in the other threads.
These other threads show us two different daughters, a romantic and a tomboy, and how they fare in these less­-and-more than chivalrous times; a bastard and a “true-born” hero and another son whose legs are paralyzed but whose mind soars; another family where one son is handsome and vicious and evil yet brave, and his brother - a dwarf, my favorite character in the novel - is conniving, yet so honorable that he pays his debt of gold to a cruel, stupid jailor whom the dwarf has talked into taking a message that will free him. Yes, I liked this dwarf so much that I truly felt glad when, after months of travail, he finally finds comfort in a prostitute’s arms. The book is so good at this, so real and effective in its complex characterizations, that I would vote it an award just for that, and the dragons be damned.
      George R R. Martin, however, is at work on a sequel, which according to Asimov’s is to be titled Dances with Dragons – the second book in his overall series, A Song of Fire and Ice.  I’ll eagerly read it for the characters, the plot entwinement, and the prose craft, and hope that the beasts emerge from the cold and the hot a bit better done next time.

The Plot to Save Socrates

"challenging fun" - Entertainment Weekly

"a Da Vinci-esque thriller" - New York Daily News

"Sierra Waters is sexy as hell" - curled up with a good book


Anonymous said...

Haha, it seems that even 15 years ago George was already working on Dance with Dragons. Soon!

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit confused.. this is a review from 1996 that references 2006?

Paul Levinson said...

My fault - I mistakenly typed 2006 rather than 1996 in the title when I first posted this, and it remains in the url. But the review was indeed written in 1996 :)

giantsizegeek said...

Nice review. I have a big Martin fan since the 1970s and bought A Game of Thrones when it was first published. I didn't remember that was way back in 1996, though! I have to hurry and re-read that before the HBO series starts.

Paul Levinson said...

Thanks, Richard - welcome to Infinite Regress!