I have to confess, I’ve been backing off of reading epic fantasy for a while now. I’ve started a few series, only to put them aside in favor of something more accessible that isn’t going to lead me to too many sunrises as I obsessively read. And a number of the books I’ve tried in the last few years couldn’t capture my attention. A slow start that doesn’t draw me in by page 50 usually means I’m going to look at the looming volumes as a daunting task and put it aside. Sometimes the sheer size of a paperback means I’ll pass it over when reaching for the next thing to read.
On my flight back from Munich last week I finally cracked open a book I’ve been putting off for about ten years: George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. The news that HBO is making it into a television series bumped it up my list, but I’m certainly glad I brought it along to Europe. There’s nothing quite like the German pageantry of Oktoberfest to set your mind on the Medieval.
Martin reaches the apex of the genre. The multiple points of view interweave beautifully, and the very effective technique of titling chapters with the name of the POV character made it easy to keep things straight. Despite the many characters, Martin keeps their voices distinct, and their thoughts or commentary on one another help keep you siding with various factions. The mystery of the piece, the revealing of state secrets that prompt a war, is nicely spun.
One thing I noticed right away was that Martin keeps a hard emotional distance from his characters. You find yourself cheering for a character who then meets a rather hard end, and Martin executes these fates without a hint of sentimentality. He balances his characters on the edge and shows absolutely no hesitation in pushing them into freefall. In this sense, the book reads a bit like a history. Only the immediacy of the characters’ emotions ties you into the narrative. Martin largely follows the show not tell rule, though I found myself wishing he’d break it a bit more often. As good as the book is, it’s burdened by its sheer length of 800 pages. A few characters could have been eliminated without detracting from the themes or narrative. This might have helped bring the book into a more manageable size, though I suspect that with the scope of the series, he’ll make use of these players later. As the genre goes, Martin definitely starts with action, draws you in with relatable characters, and neatly breaks the book into clear cut scenes. He’s created a fantasy world with the usual western European flavor, and he does it with style. Magical swords, beasts, jousts, battle, and intrigue all fill the pages. The story is compelling, and I’ll certainly be picking up the other volumes, saving them for snowy weekends or another transcontinental flight.