(reviewer’s disclaimer: as I write this, I’ve had two cocktails and three beers in the past three hours, so while this will not be strictly a Drunk Review, it will definitely be a Tipsy Review. To the extent that I’ve had to re-type “review” twice because I can’t seem to spell it right. Viewer discretion is advised)
My first exposure to this fantasy series was in high school when I was talking to a friend about books and she said, “Have you read the Song of Ice and Fire series? It’s amazing.” I had never heard about it, and asked for more information. What followed was a rambling, ten-minute explanation of the various regions and families at play in George RR Martin’s fantasy epic, and I left the discussion wondering how anyone could find such a drawn-out, complicated story interesting.
Fast-forward a few years, and suddenly HBO is developing a TV show based on these books. I decide that I have to see the show, if for no other reason than I’ve had a mild crush on Peter Dinklage ever since I saw The Station Agent (a crush which was only exacerbated when he played Liz Lemon’s boyfriend on 30 Rock. The point is: Peter Dinklage, god damn). Anyway, I figured I should read the books before venturing into the TV series.
The book isn’t without its flaws, of course. Although different characters narrate different chapters, there is absolutely no change in tone from character to character, to the point where the eight-year-old character thinks, acts, and talks exactly like the forty-year-olds in the book. Certain characters are absent for much too long, resulting in implausible leaps from Mindset A to Mindset Z (Daenerys goes from “I don’t want to marry Khal Drogo and I don’t want to be queen of anything!” to calling Drogo “my sun-and-stars” and planning how she’s going to take back her family’s throne in the space of two chapters, with nothing in between to explain how she got to that point), and certain characters who should have had chapters devoted to their particular mindset are absent from the book (what I wouldn’t give to have read a chapter written from Cersei’s perspective).
But those are minor quibbles. This is a good fantasy book, because it subverts so many familiar fantasy tropes. Tropes like the idea of good guys and bad guys, and nothing in between. This isn’t The Lord of the Rings, where the good guys are noble and awesome and handsome and will win the big final battle and the bad guys are literally pure evil and ugly and will suffer for their foolish attempts at conquest. Martin was strongly influenced by the Wars of the Roses, and the similarities are clear: there’s no single good guy who deserves to have the throne over everyone else; instead we have several powerful families, all of them varying degrees of evil, fighting and clawing over what is, at the end of the day, just a stupid crown. The guy who won the crown, King Robert, is our typical fantasy hero, but he finds that after fifteen years of ruling, actually running a kingdom is a lot less fun that fighting for one. And that’s the way things go: it’s easy to depose the crazy despot, but what happens when you take his place and have to start thinking about taxes and actually governing this country that you fought so hard for? It sucks, that’s what happens. (also it never helps if your wife is an ambitious psycho bitch who wants to kill you and steal your crown, but whatever)
Another misconception that Martin helpfully dispels in his book: the idea that being a woman in a Middle-Ages-influenced fantasy world is anything but a major suckfest. Because, let’s bear in mind, there are exactly three female characters of note in The Lord of the Rings: two magical elf ladies, and a warrior princess. If you’re a woman in a fantasy story, here are your options: you can be a wife, a warrior princess, or a whore. If you get the wife option, at best you get to watch your husband cheat on you with whatever floozy comes his way and then raise his bastards without protest; at worst you get sold off to the richest dude at age fourteen and get raped every night until you can convince yourself that you enjoy it. As for the whores, if you’re really lucky you’ll get to be a classy whore who fucks noblemen (who are still crawling with venereal disease, obviously) or you get to be a regular whore who gets fucked by the king and then raises his bastard without protest (are we sensing a pattern here?) Want to be a warrior princess? Okay, but first you have to be rich, and have a super indulgent father or husband who will let you get away with this, and then you have to spend hours practicing. Yes, being a super awesome fighter takes more work than just picking up a sword and falling down a lot. Nice try though, Frodo.
This deserves four stars, first because of the insane amount of detail that went into the planning stages of the book – Martin comes up with multiple generations of noble families, all with their own mottoes and crests, and manages to keep them all organized – and also because Martin is one of the few fantasy authors to point out that all this fighting over a throne is stupid, petty, and ultimately pointless. In the game of thrones you win or you die, but you get fucked either way.
Verdict: four out of five stars