Tuesday, 24 January 2012

A Game of Thrones: it's mainly about boobies

I finished A Game of Thrones last night, the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and it didn't take me long to figure out that it's a junk book. Not like Harry Potter or Agatha Christie books, which are at least written with a bit of glee – A Game of Thrones is more like The Da Vinci Code, pretentious and devourable.

Having loved the Game of Thrones TV series last year, nothing was going to match up to it, least of all the book it was based on. The TV series is more than marginally superior, giving layers of depth to characters such as Ned and Tyrion that are just never seen in the book. In the TV series Sean Bean's Lord Ned is world-weary and understated, but in the book he's stupid and has nothing to him. And the TV series obviously has master storytellers on its side, which for all his admirable perseverance with a highly-realised world, George R R Martin is not.

This surprised me, because George R R Martin is a screenwriter. And you can tell; often his prose is description for a director but with the supposed freedom of his own space. What he describes in one page, a better author could describe fuller in one sentence. And what we're left with in our minds is a series of clear, leisurely, unexciting pictures.

By the way, George R R Martin? Any chance he's influenced by J R R Tolkien? Definitely, but he shouldn't be encouraging the comparison. The book, A Game of Thrones, is original only in so much as it revels in a world bigger than most writers would dare. George R R Martin dared, I think, because he knew he'd created a crowdpleaser and knew he'd be allowed to continue with his world.

A Game of Thrones is a crowdpleaser. Easy-reading for the under tens, but packed with swearing, violence and sex. The sex, especially, is a distraction. Beautiful twelve-year-olds come of age every few pages, whilst “seed” sprays in every direction like a disturbingly sticky fireworks display. But maybe I just haven't read enough books as an adult – maybe it's commonplace for an author to describe a character's breasts instead of her face, which is what George R R Martin does on a regular basis.

I think the idea behind the unoriginality of A Game of Thrones – and maybe unoriginality is too harsh a word – is that by creating a world full of recognisable features, the author can delve into the characterisation without pausing too long to tell us about a bizarre custom or awesome beastie. A Game of Thrones has horse-riding barbarians, fire-breathing dragons, banner-wielding knights in shining armour, and snotty noble boys who think they're valiant but turn out to be whimpering slugs. Kings are warriors, North is cold, and women are walking orifices in pearl necklaces. It's nothing we haven't seen before, but that means we can concentrate on the characterisation... doesn't it? We all have attention deficit disorder, don't we? If we caught sight of something truly original, like – heaven forfend – a medieval fantasy series in which women are equal to men, we'd be so confused we'd collectively drown ourselves in a bucket of liquid sarcasm.

A Game of Thrones should be recognised for what it is – and what it isn't. It's not a literary masterpiece. George R R Martin uses phrases like “he looked like he had a sword up his butt”. He also uses phrases like “he held five-and-twenty years since the day of his birth”. JUST SAY HE'S TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OLD. I would. IT'S ALLOWED.

But what it is is epic. It's a very confident world, so – and I said the same for the brilliant TV series – you're in safe hands. You're free to explore and believe, and turn the pages hungrily because you know there may be no mercy for your favourite character. And there's lots of characters to choose from. It's hard not to have a favourite. Each chapter follows one of the many protagonists, and each chapter heading is that protagonist's name, so it can be 4AM and you reach the next chapter and see who's next and are so tempted to find out what's happening to them that you just keep reading and reading and reading until it's not like you're devouring the book, it's more like the book's devouring you...

Like, you know. A Dragon.

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