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Review: A Game of Thrones

There is a good book inside Game of Thrones—maybe even two—but they are buried underneath an avalanche of monotonous detail, with four interconnected plot lines fighting each other for attention and strangling each other for air.

The book tries to do too much and instead does too little. As the first part of an epic-scoped series, it attempts to set the stage of an entire world, telling the reader all about the politics and society of the world and failing utterly to make any of it interesting on a human level. The cast of characters includes some gems, to be sure—Tyrion and Jon and Arya are my favorites—but their stories feel like backgrounds for later tales, not tales in their own right. Martin has scorned one of the cardinal rules of writing—start in the middle—and ignored it to his great detriment.

Tyrion is the closest to a complete tale, an antiheroic rise from scorned younger brother to man in his own right. But his tale cannot stand on its own without the suspicion that Tyrion is an assassin and a scoundrel, and that suspicion is born of the other narrators being more sympathetic than he is. Jon is a close second for completeness, a Shakespearean play of a bastard son taking what is given him and trying to find out how much honor his station allows him, and where. But his internal drama is driven entirely by the events played out in the other plot lines; information that reaches him too late for him to do anything: if the reader learned those events when Jon did their import and impact would be considerably lessened. Arya is an interesting character whose story I expect to start sometime soon, but as of the end of the book she’s still seeking a conflict she can fight in instead of merely observe.

The other characters are more deeply problematic. Eddard is completely bland, a tragic hero who in the end fails to let his tragic trait take him to his grave. Sansa is a foil and little else. Catelyn is a narrator’s tool and a convenient traveling point of view. Bran is nearly interesting but then consigned to live out a boring life far from any of the action. Their inclusion serves the greater epic, but it just clogs the novel and makes reading it slower, spacing out the actually interesting points with filler material.

But I’m intentionally ignoring Dany. This odd inclusion is one of the above-mentioned novels embedded deep within Game of Thrones, struggling to survive on its own. But here, too, is an odd mismatch: Dany is interesting, and her personal arc is appropriately scoped for the beginning of an epic, and it even has a resolution to make the novel feel complete. But Dany’s surroundings are completely boring. Martin conglomerates the Mongols and the Amerindians and the Huns into one confused people and then populated this nation with flat, uninteresting characters who cannot be distinguished from their cultural roles. Khal Drogo is the Dothraki, and the Dothraki are him: there is no distinguishing feature that allows him to be interesting, and when Dany falls madly in love with him the reader is stuck wondering why.

Now, it’s completely possible that the rest of the series takes all of these shattered shards of plot and hangs them onto one amazing chandelier, sparkling with Martin’s talent. And if the series was a trilogy I might even work up the courage to find out, but there’s already five books out and a sixth is on the way. I don’t want to spend the time to wade through more muck to get to the occasional interesting nugget.

And in the end, the scope is the problem. An epic is a fine and lofty goal, but if the component parts aren’t interesting enough to take me along for the ride, it’s a failure. And Game of Thrones’ meanderings from genuinely good ideas to regurgitated anglophilia lost me somewhere in its big mushy middle.