Sunday, May 29, 2011

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

(Image:  The Iron Throne as depicted in the HBO miniseries Game of Thrones)

If I had only one sentence to describe A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin, it would be this:  Epic fantasy collides with historical fiction. 

And like most accident scenes, the results are often messy.

A Game of Thrones, the first in A Song of Ice and Fire series, hit the bookshelves with wild acclaim 15 years ago.  Books two through four soon followed, but then series petered out in 2005.  Now there's a resurgence of interest due to the debut of the HBO miniseries and with the impeding release of book five, A Dance With Dragons, this July.

This epic covers a dynastic struggle among several noble families in the kingdom of Westeros, an island vaguely similar to the British Isles.  In fact, it's been said, this series is a fantasy version of the War of the Roses.  Wikipedia provides a detailed plot synopsis for the 807-page opening of this saga:

I enjoyed the book for several reasons:  It was well written, while the characters appeared to be fleshed-out, flawed and three-dimensional, not merely caricatures of good and evil.  As a wargamer, what I liked most about this book was the world building. The author did a fantastic job developing a realistic fantasy world that isn't dominated by monsters and magicians.   A Song of Ice and Fire spawned several gaming spin-offs, such as a strategy game, (now, sadly out of print), a miniatures boardgame, a card game and a roleplaying game.

Despite my 4.5-star rating, I do have some reservations about the book and the series as a whole.  First of all, A Game of Thrones is an 807-page tome, which, unless you're a speed-reader, doesn't qualify as "light fare."  Books two through four also weigh-in at over 700 pages each.  On reason for the large number of trees killed to make this book, is there is more than one main story line.  In fact, there are seven.  That's seven people to keep track of, as the story jumps from character to character.  Add in all the minor characters and it becomes difficult to differentiate who's who in Westeros.

For the HBO series, Film Book developed the following info graphic to help viewers figure out who's doing what to whom...

(Image: Film Book's infographic Westeros 101)

My biggest complaint though,  is the story felt inconclusive--even after 807 pages.  This was merely the opening act of a long saga.  And from what I've read on line, the sequels are equally inconclusive.  So I'm not inclined to pick up the remaining books any time soon.  Instead, I'd rather veer off the author's beaten path and wargame my own misadventures with my gaming friends.

My complaints aside, A Game of Thrones is overwhelmingly, but not completely, popular with readers.  Based on's statistics, out of 1,875 reviews, this book 1,332 5-star ratings, for a 70%  approval rating, while 252 readers gave it a 4-star rating (14%).  From here, the percentages drop down into the single digits, ranging from 83 3-stars (4.5%), to 99 2-stars (5.5%), down to 109 1-stars (6.0%).

I find it interesting that more readers truly hated the book than those who merely disliked it, or were indifferent to it.

From reading some of the rants and reviews, one of the tipping points was the setting and tone of the book, or the "world building," I mentioned earlier.  Those who disliked A Game of Thrones, considered the world dark and grim.  I prefer to use the word "harsh."  In modeling the story after the War of the Roses, then it is indeed a harsh and unforgiving world, where life has been said to be "violent, brutish and short."  Which is why I liked it--the story goes against typical epic fantasy tropes.  I suspect, the other readers who liked A Game of Thrones, also enjoy reading historical fiction, like I do.

For now, though, I'm "quiting while I'm ahead" in my feelings towards the series.

For more info on the creator of A Game of Thrones, check out George R.R. Martin's website:

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