Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Review of Game of Thrones Book One In A Song of Ice and Fire Series by George R. R. Martin

Though there are many problems with HBO's version of A Game of Thrones, I must admit that it is compelling viewing.  It has often been my experience that there is normally a large difference between a text and a film version and with that in mind, I set out to read A Game of Thrones.

Martin set his world in an alternate medieval history where dragons, earth based religions, the dead walk the earth. In this alternate world summers can last for decades bringing bounty and comfort however the ominous statement that winter is coming is continually uttered.  The wall is 700 feet high and 300 miles long.  It is all that keeps the  seven kingdoms safe and is guarded by the nights watch, who are men who swear to guard the wall, never to marry or produce any children.  So seriously is this oath taken that Lord Eddard Stark beheads a man who deserts.  

Each family in A Game of Thrones has a motto and sigil by which they live. The families that we see the most of are the Starks who are led by Lord Eddard of Winterfell and the Lannisters who are led by Tywin of Castlerock.  For Eddard duty and honour are his two primary concerns and eventually his undoing when he comes to serve as the hand of the king.  The Lannisters are a devious, wealthy family who always put self interest above everything else.  The trouble between these two noble families begins when Bran, Eddard's son discovers Jamie and Queen Cersi engaging in incestuous sex.  Not wanting to be discovered, Jamie throws Bran from the roof leaving him disabled for life.   The situation then escalates when Catelyn takes the dwarf Tyrion Lannister captive in the belief that he is responsible for the injury of her son.  While in the Kings service, Eddard discovers that the children the world believes were sired by Robert Baratheon the king, and birthed by his wife Cersi are in fact the product of her incestuous relationship with her brother and king slayer Jamie Lannister.  Robert is betrayed and summarily executed by Joffrey.  This quickly leads to a declaration of war with the Lannisters on one side, the Starks on another and Roberts brothers, Stanis and Renly fighting as well for their right to the throne.

If that were not enough, the nights watch is suffering from a lack of men and crumbling facilities. Eddard's son Jon, joins the night watch because he cannot see a future for himself within the Stark household.  Almost immediately he is pulled between the vow he swore and the family he still loves.  His vow cannot be easily cast aside because the others have made themselves known and with winter coming, it is only a matter of time until they become a real threat to the seven kingdoms. 

To the east the last Targaryens - Viserys and Daenrys are struggling to regain what they deem to be their rightful thrown from Robert who they consider to be a false king and usurper.  To that end with the help of Magister Illyrio, Viserys promises his 13 year old sister to Khal Drogo, the leader of the war hungry Dothraki.  In return for Daenrys hand in marriage, Drogo promises to help Viserys regain his throne.  As a wedding gift Daenrys is given a horse and three petrified dragons eggs.  The eggs are fitting because the Targaryens are considered dragons and had used the mighty beasts to win confrontations though now, they have long since been considered extinct. 

As you can tell from my brief summation, there are many political sub plots in A Game of Thrones.  There are a lot of characters and at times it is easy to get lost and forget exactly which parties are aligned.  The standouts however are: Robert Baretheon (the King), Cersi Lannister (the queen) Jon Snow (Roberts legitimate son) Catelyn Stark (Eddard's wife) Rob Stark (Eddard's Son) Sansa Stark (Eddard's oldest daughter) Arya Stark (Eddard's youngest daughter) Tyrion Lanniester (the dwarf) Joffrey Baretheon (King Robert's heir)  Khal Drogo (khal of a Dothraki tribe), Daenrys (the last Targaryen).

Those familiar with A Game of Thrones the HBO series are well aware that it is obviously filmed for the benefit of the straight male gaze as nearly each week there is a trip to a brothel and female nudity is always on display.  I was relieved to see that this is not the case with the book.  Women are still very much considered secondary to men as can be seen from Rob's refusal to trade Jamie Lannister for his two sisters Sansa and Arya. Women are property to be used whereas men run all but one of the kingdoms.  They are the warriors and the kings - they rule the world. Though Cersi is technically Joffery's regent after Robert dies, Twyin is quick to send Tyrion to become the hand of the king and essentially run the kingdom. Danerys is abused by her brother for much of the novel, though she does eventually stand up to him.  It would however have been more redeeming had she been the one to take his life rather than her Drago.  Unlike the series, Catelyn does not couch every single action in her motherhood. Being a Tully and defending the family and Tully land is very much a motivation for her, though I could have done with her turning into a spunky agent and deciding on virtually a whim to arrest Tyrion Lannister when bumping into him in a tavern on her way back from Kings Landing.

With the exception of Hordor the disabled characters are well drawn in this series.  Tyrion is a man of small stature and is often called the imp.  He recognized that because of physical disability he had to find another way to prove his value and there works hard to learn.  Cersi makes it clear that she is not a fan of Tyrion and she blames him for their mothers death.  Twyin does not see Tyrion as valuable, and actually sets him up to be fodder in a battle though being a man of short stature.  It is only when Twyin believes that Jamie is completely lost to him that he begins to see Tyrion as his son. Tyrion is filled with rage at the way the world treats him but he is determined to make his way.  He often plays super crip and pushes himself to the point of pain.  The perfect example of this is the pain he endured riding a horse on his trip to the wall.  The Tyrion of the book, is more disabled than the Tyrion of the HBO series.

One of the things Martin makes clear is that with accommodations Tyrion and Bran will be able to participate more in society.  Tyrion designs a special saddle so that Bran will be able to ride a horse and he says, "on horseback you will be as tall as any other man." He takes care to inform Bran to think about accommodations as allow him to participate. Bran seems to be looking at a future in magic and perhaps that will be his equalizer.  For the moment however he is dependent on Hodor to move him from place to place.  Hordor is neurologically atypical and is described as very simple. Hordor's real name is actually Walder but no one has bother to remember why he is now called Hordor. Basically Hordor follows instructions and simply responds with his name.  He is little more than a beast of burden for Bran.   In this way we can that if one's disability is physical rather than mental, one has a better chance of acclimating to society.  To some degree, there is the issue of class that separates Bran and Tyrion from Hordor, but I believe that disability is the real barrier. A society with more respect for disabled people would not tolerate the constant ableist comments thrown at Tyrion, or the suggestion that Bran has no life ahead of because he will be unable to do the things that TAB men do.

I was displeased to see that Martin had no problem using fat as a sign of someone's negative character tributes.  Both Samwell and Robert Bartheon are fat men.  In Robert's case, his weight gain is constructed as as representative of the irresponsible short sighted manner in which he has run the kingdom.  Jon makes a point of saying that he does not recognize Robert as being the same man that Eddard described in his stories.  Gluttony, laziness, slovenly and boorish behaviour are all attributes associated with Robert and it is hardy coincidental that these are traits often ascribed to all fat people.

Unlike Robert, Samwell is quite and retiring.  He is sent to the wall by his father because growing up, he much preferred to cook, sew and sing.  When he gets to the wall, he is forced to admit that he is a coward.  Samwell is the only self identified coward in the Game of Thrones. Samwell is highly effeminate when juxtaposed to the other men of the nights watch and since what separates them is fat, it is impossible not to see this as yet another disparaging view of what fat masculinity entails. 

The closet we come to race in this series are the Dorthroki.  They are thought of as uncivilized in comparison to the White characters of this show.  At her wedding, Daenrys is shocked to see them engage openly in sex and killing each other over small spats.  Daenry's refers the language she speaks as the common tongue as this further others the Dorthroki. The only word Drago knows in the common tongue is no and uses to inflection when he means his one word to be a question, rather than a statement. The Dorthroki commonly consume horse and Viserys makes it clear that this something that is beneath a man of his station.  In every way possible the Dorthroki are "othered."

There is so much to this book that it is hard to talk about in specifics and that is why the synopsis of the book in this review is so very short.  A Game of Thrones is a book that must be read to be truly understood.  There are several problematic elements as I explained above, but A Game of Thrones is a compelling read.  The world is vast, the characters are diverse and the story itself is intriguing.  Martin takes care to invest each character with strong traits and unlike many books in this genre there are no blank slates.  With each page the tension rises as the peace that was won with blood falls apart.  With all the blood that has already been shed though, I wonder if there ever really can be a winner of the game of thrones.