A Game of Thrones
by George R. R. Martin
Many people in the fantasy community consider this book to be a great novel. One quick look at the 5 star reviews on Goodreads tells you as much, but there is the additional cachet of having been nominated for the Nebula Award (1998) and World Fantasy Award (1997) and having won the Locus Award (1997) and the Best Novella Hugo Award (1997 — for Blood of the Dragon, the Daenerys Targaryen chapters).
With these thoughts in mind, I approached the novel with a completely open mind. I was ready to be duly impressed.
The first few chapters did not disappoint. I greatly enjoyed the introduction of the Stark family. Eddard (Ned) Stark is the Lord of Winterfell, one of the former Seven Kingdoms which are now one kingdom united under Ned's old friend and comrade King Richard. Ned is married to Catelyn, a royal daughter of the House of Tully. Their children include sons Robb, at fourteen, Bran at seven, and Rickon at three. Their daughters are Sansa at eleven and Arya at nine. In addition, Ned's bastard son, Jon Snow, lives with them and he is about the same age as Robb.
The scene that really caught my eye near the beginning of the book is when the family finds a direwolf (an extremely large wolf and the symbol of their house) who had died with a set of antlers stuck inside her mouth. Apparently, she had recently given birth to six puppies. Jon talks his father into allowing them to each keep one of the pups for their own. Six pups, six Stark children -- it was impossible to resist.
When King Richard comes to visit, we discover that the symbol of his house is the stag and he has come to ask Ned to be the Hand of the King, the second most powerful position in the realm. Catelyn does not miss the symbolism that the mother direwolf had died because of a stag and she is very apprehensive about the appointment.
I was delighted with these first few chapters. Martin has given us a set up that is almost mythical in proportion and my expectations were very high. It had the potential to be a tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions. Two close friends occupying the most powerful positions in the kingdom. You have Ned, the Apollonian, set against Richard, the Dionysian. You have a kingdom that is falling apart because of mismanagement. Richard is married into the Lannister family, a devious, dangerous and incestuous bunch. In the world they live in, winter is coming and winter lasts years, sometimes decades. During the winter, wild things from the north come down to terrorize people. And on top of all that, there are two children left from the old king that Richard deposed still alive and trying to raise an army on a nearby continent. All of this had me excited to read the rest of the book.
Unfortunately, for reasons I cannot understand, Martin decided to make all of his protagonists stupid. As I continued to read, doubt set in. When Ned gets to court, he underestimates all of his and the king's enemies, then he puts himself, his retainers and his daughters directly in harm's way, leaving himself no way out. I'm not the only one who thinks he's stupid. His enemies, one after another, tell him so directly to his face and it just doesn't register. His wife then abducts Tyrione Lannister, brother of the queen, and that seals Ned's fate, proving that she is nearly as dumb as he is. However, neither of them get the prize as the most moronic character in the novel -- that distinction goes to their daughter, Sansa.
Once Martin strays from his beautiful set-up, everything falls down around him. Astute readers will begin to see that the antagonists are one-dimensional characters, paper thin and about as engaging as an old doily. There are only a few characters that are written fairly well. I would say that Tyrione Lannister, Jon Snow, and Arya Stark are all very well developed characters, lost in the midst of a sea of stupidity.
Rather than developing a theme and seeing it through to its logical conclusion, Martin simply kills off his characters. The wonderful promise of conflict between Ned and Richard is cut short when Richard gets gored by a boar during a drunken hunt. Finally, when Ned walks into the Lannister trap and gets his head taken off, it's almost a relief to have one of the most stupid characters gone. The fact that Sansa walks him to his execution, thinking he's going to be released, speaks volumes for her mental capability.
The promise of the conflict between Ned and Richard dissolves, we never see the supernatural creatures from the north come sweeping into the land, and the great war between the Dothraki and the seven kingdoms falls apart when Khal Drogo stupidly allows himself to die from superficial wounds (admittedly, the Dothraki are stupid barbarians by definition).
Aside from the stupidity that rules the story, Martin introduces a level of brutality that is truly alienating, unless you have a predisposition toward that sort of thing. This novel is a bloodfest, full of excessive gore to no point that I could see. If an author uses violence to make a point, I have no problem with it, but there is simply no point made in this novel. Nor does the book hint in any way that the sequels will have a point.
To the bloodlust, Martin adds rape and incest. Daenerys Targaryen's time with the Dothraki is offensive to an excessive degree. After killing their opponents, the "warriors" proceed to rape every single woman they encounter among the vanquished. In fact, throughout the novel women are little more than devious, self-centered sexual toys, playthings for the stupid or deceitful men. I found nothing of any redeeming quality in the novel.
So, here we have a series of scenes which do not develop any kind of meaningful story, filled with stupidity, violence and sexual depravity. I do believe that the Marquis de Sade would have loved this novel!