Huh. I really didn’t expect to like AGoT as much as I did. I was a big fantasy guy in high school, but got away from it pretty big-time in college. Partly because I was really embracing the “English major who only reads Serious Literature” thing, partly because I took a look at Robert Jordan’s first Wheel of Time book, thought, “damn, this is just Tolkien with a tacky coat of paint splashed on,” and extrapolated that to all newish fantasy.
But the AGoT recommendations have been rolling in, so I took a look. And damn, I’m glad I did. There were a lot of things I liked, but in the end, it’s Martin’s capacity to take the narrative to really unexpected places that sold me. I won’t go into specifics, since we’re in spoiler-free mode here, but if you’ve read the book you know there’s one major development (and several minor) that you’d expect to be a trick or a fakeout, and I was genuinely stoked when it became clear that no, that really happened, and it’s not getting walked back. That kind of narrative daring is rare and awesome.
The blurb on the back of my copy of AGoT compares the book to T.H. White’s (awesome) The Once and Future King. I don’t think that’s exactly apt. Both books use medieval fantasy to comment on modern politics, but White’s book is extremely concerned with the philosophical justifications for war and the question of whether might makes right (shocking that a book written in England in the 30s would have these concerns, huh?). GoT is extremely political, and extremely unphilosophical. Events and machinations happen, and if a character should take time to think about whether or not whats going on is right, there’ll be hell to pay. In fact, I think that’s one of the main themes of the book- that honor and morality are important but they alone won’t save you.
Really, the book AGoT most resembles is Dune; in fact, the resemblance to Dune is pretty strong. Both works are about the machinations of powerful noble houses in a feudal structure, set in a non-Earth-y world. Both feature an honorable house pitted against a wealthy, amoral one (although I’d say the Lannisters are more interesting and better-motivated than the Harkonnens). Both… well, it’s spoilery, but let’s say there’s another resemblance. Dune concerns itself equally with politics and ecology; AGoT chucks the ecology and throws in another helping of politics; specifically, an examination of the consequences of all this political maneuvering which must be born by the families of the participants and other innocent bystanders.
All of which makes it sound potentially kind of boring, but it’s just the opposite- Martin’s world is immersive, and after the first 2 or 3 chapters the plot grabs you with intensity (I haven’t rocketed through a book this urgently in years). His characterization runs the gamut- Tyrion Lannister is a great, complex, fully-motivated character (who gets all the best lines), while Ned Stark is basically the exact stock character you’d expect to star in a book like this. But there’s depth even to that- the seeming roteness of Ned is part of what gets so interesting as the book hits the home stretch. It’s a fakeout, or at least a really clever flip of genre expectations.
Not surprisingly, next week’s strip will be about A Game of Thrones.