On Reading the Novel “Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)

“What do you think might have killed these men, Gared?” Ser Waymar asked casually.  He adjusted the drape of his long sable cloak.  “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.  Everyone talks about snows forty foot deep, and how the ice wind comes howling out of the north, but the real enemy is the cold.  It steals up on you quieter than Will (a character in the book), and at first you shiver and your teeth chatter and you stamp your feet and dream of mulled wine and nice hot fires.  It burns, it does.  Nothing burns like the cold.  But only for a while.  Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after a while you don’t have the strength to fight it.  It’s easier just to sit down or go to sleep.  They say you don’t feel any pain toward the end.  First you go weak and drowsy, and everything starts to fade, and then it’s like sinking into a sea of warm milk.  Peaceful, like” (4).

And so begins the widely acclaimed, bestselling novel Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, the first of five books in the series A Song of Ice and Fire.  Many people recognize this fantasy series for the HBO televised adaptation that has been making headlines in the entertainment industry for five seasons now.  As widely spoken about as this story is, I don’t know too many people who have actually read the book, let alone the entire series.  No wonder, really, when you stop to consider the 805-page novel that makes up the first book alone.  I seldom have the time to read longer novels like this, but I have taken on the challenge to read the first book with a group of booktubers (YouTube vidbloggers who post reviews of books) during the month of March.  They are calling it the “Game of Thrones Readalong,” with a group discussion forum in Goodreads for those wanting to share thoughts on the book.  What better time to read this book than now, with a group of bookworms to share my ideas with.  So, I thought, why not.  I enjoy fantasy literature like this, and I have heard a lot about the story from friends.  Mind you, I have never seen the TV series, nor have I read any reviews about the book.  In fact, I am coming into this series with a clean slate, if you will.

This passage told by Gared, one of the Night Watchmen of the northern Wall, is found in the prologue of the book and seems to set the undertone for the story.   Using a wide array of vocabulary that seemingly fits the “cold” theme, Martin creates a plausible world around the wintery setting of what he calls simply “The North.” From the very beginning, the story is not an easy one to follow.   In fact, the first 100 pages or so are set in the northern reaches of Winterfell, the home to House Stark.  A very diverse cast of characters are introduced from the get-go, which makes it difficult to keep up with who’s whom, but the more often they are mentioned, the easier it becomes.  Enter King Robert and his family for a royal visit to the keep, though, and the character cast is made even more difficult to follow.  And so it is that the first conflict in the story is revealed, the setup of political intrigues so intricately crafted, that you can’t help but feel compelled to read further on in the story.  Don’t forget the introduction of our story’s antagonist from the parallel story of Daenerys, her marriage to the Khal Drogo and the backstory of her tempermental brother.  This gives the book a flair, in my opinion, that is seldom matched by other books in the genre.

Now, I have heard a couple of rumors about this book — the first being that Martin has a habit of killing off his characters, especially likeable ones.  After all, it seems to be one of the most talked about series at the moment, what with season five of the fantasy drama being released in April of this year.  But, I never really understood the sense or value of this — murdering off characters — until I started reading the book for myself.  If murdering a character in a story is not an effective narrative device, I don’t know what is.    In fact, the first attempt at murder has been directed toward Bran of House Stark, the seven-year old son to Lady Catelyn and Lord Eddard, who happened upon the adulterous Queen Lannister and her lover in an abandoned tower of the keep during their visit to Winterfell.  Here we are, reading about Bran’s endeavors to climb the abandoned keep so that he may take in a view of his home one last time before departing to the southern kindgom with his father, when he overhears the Queen with her lover in seclusion, whispering ill tightings and foreboding plots while making love in the tower, a graphic and lustuous scene, no doubt.  Wanting to take a closer look at the two mysterious voices, he glimpses and recognizes the Queen, whom Bran reveals to the reader, but he does not tell us who the man with her is, even though he recognized him, too.  This was most certainly intentionally left out by Martin for foreshadowing purposes.  Suddenly caught, Bran slips from the ledge and falls, only grabbing hold at the last minute.  With an intent that borderlines malevolence, Martin goes on to write:

“Take my hand… before you fall.”  Bran seized his arm and held on tight with all his strength.  The man yanked him up on the ledge.  “What are you doing?”  The woman demanded.  The man ignored her.  He was very strong.  He stood Bran up on the sill.  “How old are you, boy?”  “Seven,” Bran said, shaking with relief… The man looked over at the woman.  “The things I do for love,” he said with loathing.  He gave Bran a shove.  Screaming, Bran went backward out the window into empty air.  There was nothing to grab on to.  The courtyard rushed up to meet him (85).

What a moment!  The images of this young boy climbing the tower, of his innocence in only wanting to say farewell to his home, of the vertigo he experiences as he plummets down into the courtyard — these are what leave readers wanting more.  As Martin writes at the end of the book in his acknowledgments, “The devil is in the details, they say.”  Indeed, they are.  In fact, the intrigue of this scene doesn’t just come from the shove from the window, but more in the way Martin leads up to it.  He tells us earlier in the chapter that Bran has a habit of climbing things he shouldn’t be climbing and that his parents and guardians are always scolding him for doing so.  Suddenly, he falls from a ledge with no witnesses, making the whole drama surrounding the Queen to look like an accident waiting to happen.  Add to this intrigue the fact that he might live to tell about it, and you have good drama in the works.  Moments like these are what keep readers begging for more.

The second rumor I have heard, which has been reinforced by the South Park parodies during season 17,  is that Martin likes to add steamy, sensual details to his story.  I’ve only just finished the first 100 pages in the book, yet there have already been two sex scenes, if you will.  Albeit soft-core in nature, they are still visually gripping and erotic, an element I wasn’t quite expecting to find in a fantasy-based world.  Does it ruin the story?  No.  If anything, it helps create a more realistic and vulgar landscape, where people are quick to take what they want and indulge in their passions.  As I see it, this is also fitting to the feudal-based system, where pompous, hedonistic aristocrats live fanciful lives filled with pleasures (enter King Robert), all superficial traits to mask a deeper and harder truth –the reality of this realm.  These fleeting moments are written with clarity, further making Martin’s acknowledgment a suitable one for the story.  His fantasy world is a world of sin and hardship that is only made worse with the foreboding reminder made at several moments earlier in the story: “Winter is coming.”

I have divided this book into three sections, each at 200-page increments marked by sticky notes, with the intention to read one section each week.  At this rate, I should finish the book by the end of March, which happens to be the goal for the “Game of Thrones Readalong.”  A hat-tip to The Book Fox (click the link to check out her YouTube channel) for recommending this readalong.  I’m curious to see how Martin’s story unfolds.

Review of “In the Country of Last Things” by Paul Auster

In The Country Of Last ThingsI’m a fan of utopian and dystopian literature, so when Paul Auster’s 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things was recommended to me, I dropped what I was reading at that time and set to it immediately.  I was drawn into Auster’s imagery right away from the beginning; in fact, many of his descriptive passages were quite harrowing, setting the scene of this futuristic no-named city well, but I found that the more I read, the more the book started to wane from the expectations this scenery was creating.  I wasn’t expecting the book to start so slowly, given we don’t actually learn about Anna Blume, the central protagonist in the story, and the reasons for her predicament until around page 41, when she reflects back on a meeting with the editor from the newspaper her brother works for; given this book is only 188 pages long, I consider this to be a late start.  While the introduction was a bit long-winded, telling, rather than showing us, how this imaginary society is, this wasn’t what bothered me about the book. I found the scope of the world Auster created to be extremely limiting.

I can’t help but call out a few of the inaccuracies in this novel.  Moments that are explained to us early on turn out to be something else later in the story.  For example, her brother worked for a newspaper which sent him off on assignment overseas to cover an exclusive story, but he ends up missing in the end.  Having followed him to the city where our story takes place, in hopes of finding him there, Anna tells us a bit about where she is:

“this country is enormous, you understand, and there’s no telling where he might have gone.  Beyond the agricultural zone to the west, there are supposedly several hundred miles of desert.  Beyond that, however, one hears talk of more cities, of mountain ranges, of mines and factories, of vast territories stretching all the way to a second ocean.  Perhaps there is some truth to this talk” (Auster 40).

She then goes on to tell us how she ended up in the city in the first place, having taken a lead from her brother’s employer, an editor named Bogat who “exud[es] an air of abstracted benevolence that seemed tinged with cunning, a pleasantness that masked some secret edge of cruelty” (Auster 40), a description consistent to the rest of Auster’s style.  His comments, she recalls, offer some sense of foreshadow, when he states, “Don’t do it little girl… You’d be crazy to go there…. No one gets out of there.  It’s the end of the goddamned world” (41).  And, he was right.  We never learn if she ever leaves, but this is not what bothers me so much.  It’s her failed sense of geography.

I know, you’re probably thinking — what does that have to do with anything, especially in a fictional world?  Yet, for all of this talk about her brother going off to a foreign land to report, and herself traveling there in hopes of finding him, you would think her knowledge of the world would be better than how she leads on.  She doesn’t even know if there is a second ocean on the other side of the country she’s in — “Perhaps there is some truth to this talk,” she says.  I find this to be a bit hard to believe, since it doesn’t come off as a story set in the 15th century, where cartography and exploration of the planet were still in their infancy, but rather a futuristic tale where libraries, newspapers, and even airports exist.  The way I see it, she doesn’t have an excuse for not knowing.

This is but one of a couple of inconsistencies I found to be in this story of survival.  Where the story lacks in plausibility, it makes up for it in Auster’s strength in characterization and imagery, though.  One example of this can be found when Ferdinand dies.  Anna, struggling in the streets, alone and impoverished, is offered shelter by an old, married woman, Isabel and her husband, Ferdinand, both of whom take her in for a considerable part of the story.  Ferdinand proves to be an old, embittered tyrant of a husband, however, so this creates quite a bit of tension in the story.  Once Ferdinand dies, we learn a lot about Isabel’s relationship to him, more so at this point than at any other when he was still alive.  Auster reveals deeply embedded feelings about their life together in the simplest manner of expression:

“Isabel spent the rest of the morning fussing over Ferdinand’s body.  She refused to let me help, and for several hours I just sat in my corner and watched her.  It was pointless to put any clothes on Ferdinand, of course, but Isabel wouldn’t have it any other way.  She wanted him to look like the man he had been years ago, before anger and self-pity had destroyed him…. Isabel worked with incredible slowness, laboring over each detail with maddening precision, never once pausing, never once speeding up, and after a while it began to get on my nerves.  I wanted everything to be done with as quickly as possible,  but Isabel paid no attention to me. She was so wrapped up in what she was doing, I doubt that she even knew I was there” (71).

The meticulous manner in which the matronly Isabel sets to preparing her husband for death, not a funeral per say, as dead bodies are policed up off the street like garbage and sent to the outskirts of town, but for something more than ‘processing’.  Auster captures the ritual involved with preparing the dead so well in this scene that it creates a deep feeling of nostalgia and inner-peace for Isabel as one could only hope for the now widowed woman.

There are some intense moments in the story, some which left me cringing from the suspense Auster’s dramatization creates.  There are also some dull points in the story, as well.  While I enjoyed reading about the characters in this story, it is safe to say that I found it a bit lacking to believe in the dystopian world he creates, a world with no-name and no sense of itself.  A bit disappointing really, but I won’t let this novel keep me from reading any of this other books.  He has a great writer’s voice; it’s just that in the end, this fallen society leaves me wanting more.