Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

About three centuries ago, the land of Westeros was known as the Seven Kingdoms.  Then Aegon Targaryen and his sisters came from the collapsed civilization of Valyria with their dragons and conquered six of the Kingdoms.  (The seventh Kingdom joined up later semi-voluntarily.)  Eventually, the dragons died off, but the Targaryen dynasty stayed in power through inertia and intermittent smashing of rebels. Finally, King Aerys the Mad was such a poor ruler that a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and his supporters succeeded in overthrowing the Targaryens.

A Game of Thrones

Robert is…a better king than Aerys, anyway.  He had intended to marry a member of the Stark family, lords of the North, but she perished during the rebellion and Robert settled for Cersei Lannister, member of a powerful Western family.  The Lannisters have become powerful at court, but one of their intrigues is about to have a slight glitch, putting their plans in jeopardy.  Other noble families have noticed the success of the previous rebellion, and remembered that their ancestors were also kings.   Across the Narrow Sea, the last heirs of the Targaryen dynasty are still alive and dreaming of retaking the Throne of Swords.  Far to the North, beyond the Wall, an enemy older than the Seven Kingdoms itself is stirring with the coming of Winter.

If this were a history book, we’d be about to see a lot of maps with flags and arrows on them.

This is the first volume in the vastly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has spawned a TV series, Game of Thrones.  There are planned to be seven volumes, of which five are out and the sixth is scheduled for release in 2017.  This may mean that the TV show will need a completely different ending.  Mr. Martin started writing this epic fantasy series with the idea of making it more “realistic” (cynical) than  many of the doorstopper fantasy books then  on the market.  As such, things do not always go well for people who try to stick to ideals such as honor and justice, leading to cruel, pointless deaths for them or others.   I should mention here that yes, GRRM does go to rape repeatedly as a way of showing how gritty and realistic the setting is, and there are at least a couple of child marriages that are pretty creepy.  (I am told that the TV series aged a couple of characters up.)

This book is written in tight third-person, so we only know what the current viewpoint character senses and thinks about.  This allows the author to keep certain things a mystery until another character is the point of view, and to shade the interpretation of certain events.

Most of the viewpoint characters in this first volume are members of the Stark family.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is more or less the main protagonist of this book.   A childhood friend of King Robert, he’s now been called upon to become the King’s Hand, the person who handles most of the daily details so the king can concentrate on ruling.  Their mentor had been the previous Hand, but recently died, and his wife sent the Starks a letter accusing the Lannisters of having a hand in it.  Eddard is a very honor-bound man and constantly attempts to do the right thing.  Given the nature of this series, that’s not healthy.  His clan motto is “Winter Is Coming.”

Catelyn is Ned’s wife, originally of the Tully family.  Her sister is the wife of Jon Arryn, the former hand.  Catelyn is fiercely protective of her children, which causes her to make several rash decisions.

Robb Stark is the eldest child and heir to their castle Winterfell.  At fourteen years old, he must assume a man’s role before even his harsh homeland’s usual standards.  We don’t get any point of view chapters for him.

Jon Snow is allegedly Ned Stark’s illegitimate child of about the same age as Robb.  While he certainly does resemble Ned, the older man’s refusal to explain anything about Jon’s conception or mother  beyond “he’s my bastard” suggests there is some mystery about his actual parentage.  Catelyn doesn’t like him one little bit.  He’s sent North to the Wall to join the Nightwatch like his Uncle Benjen, only to find out that conditions there are not as expected.  (Benjen goes missing shortly thereafter, one of the big mysteries of the series.)

Sansa Stark is the older daughter, who is good at activities considered traditionally feminine in Westeros.  She’s also a huge fan of chivalric romances, and thinks that’s how the world works, at least for her as she’s clearly the lady fair type.  (Think of an eleven-year-old Twilight fan who actually lives in a world where vampires follow horror tropes.)  She’s engaged to Robert’s handsome son Prince Joffrey and ignores some important clues to his real personality.  (In fairness, her father told her none of his evidence of what was really going on.)

Arya Stark is her slightly-younger sister, who is initially more likable for modern audiences, as she gets all of the “rebellious tomboy” personality bits.  She gets some important clues early on, but only being ten and not having context, doesn’t get to do much with them.

Brandon “Bran” Stark is seven, and an avid climber.  This gets him in trouble when he passes by a window that should have been unoccupied and learns a dangerous secret.  His subsequent near-death experience causes him to forget what he learned, but the person whose secret it is can’t take chances on that, and the assassination attempt made on Bran moves much of what Catelyn does for the rest of the book.

Rickon Stark is the baby of the family at three, and doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book.  Nor does family guest/hostage Theon Greyjoy, who is slightly older than Robb and Jon, and is boarding at Winterfell as a hostage to the good behavior of his father.

Tyrion Lannister is the only member of his family to get point of view chapters.  Born with dwarfism, Tyrion was barely tolerated by his father Lord Tywin and sister Cersei, and marginally treated better by his handsome brother Jaime (now a Kingsguard.)  Clearly never going to win glory in knighthood, Tyrion has concentrated on honing his mind, and his razor tongue.  He is kind to Jon Snow and later Bran, but runs afoul of Catelyn Stark due to the manipulations of his enemies.

And then there’s Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen.  She and her older brother Viserys are the sole remaining grandchildren of the former king, and Viserys is thus the rightful ruler of Westeros for the Targaryen loyalists.  However, in exile in the Free Cities, their cause has not gone well, and the royal pair are broke.  In a last-ditch effort to raise an army which he can use to take back Westeros, Viserys arranges for Dani to be married to Khal Drogo, a mighty leader of the Dothraki horse nomads.

Despite his taste for child brides, Khal Drogo is a pretty good husband by Dothraki standards, and Danerys learns to love him.  Even better, their child is prophesied to become “The Stallion That Mounts the World.”  Viserys isn’t willing to wait until his nephew is born to start conquering things, and pushes a little too hard.  He probably never really understood what it means to “wake the dragon.”

Don’t get too attached to any of these people, Mr. Martin has no qualms about killing viewpoint characters in cruel and pointless ways.

Good things:  There are a lot of vividly-drawn characters in multiple factions–my edition has a list of the major clans and their members at the back, along with a timeline of the Targaryen Dynasty, and that still leaves out multiple members of the cast.  The politics are detailed but not too difficult to follow.  The main thing is that far too many nobles remember bad things that happened to their families decades and even centuries before, and operate on the principle of getting payback for that.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so other than “someone’s going to have a cruel and pointless death soon” it’s hard to guess what’s happening next.    Sometimes I did get frustrated by people making boneheaded decisions for stupid reasons, but the majority of actions made sense given earlier or later explained motivations.

Less good:  The content issues noted earlier; Mr. Martin likes him some earthy language too, and is overfond of the word “bastard.”   This is rather obviously not a standalone book, with most of the plot threads still hanging loose at the end of Book One, and I am told many of them dangling through the end of Book Five!  Perhaps I should have stuck with my original intention of not starting until all the books are out.

To be honest, this series has had so much hype that you probably already know if you’re interested in trying it.

Let’s enjoy the Sesame Street version of the plotline!

Magazine Review: Marvel Science Fiction November 1951

Magazine Review: Marvel Science Fiction November 1951 edited by R.O. Erisman

Marvel Science Fiction started as a pulp magazine titled Marvel Science Stories that was published irregularly from 1938 to 1952.  The original publisher was the same one who eventually published Marvel Comics.  At the point this issue is from, the magazine was a digest-sized quarterly.  The line-up of authors is particularly strong.

Marvel Science Fiction

The cover by Hannes Bok isn’t related to any of the stories, but served as a caption contest.  You might want to enlarge the image to look at some of the details.

“Embroidery” by Ray Bradbury opens the issue.  Three elderly women concentrate on their embroidery as they wait for five o’clock.  This is not so much a science fiction story as an opportunity to use poetic metaphor.  As with many speculative stories of the time period, the threat of nuclear annihilation looms large over the text.

“‘Will You Walk a Little Faster'” by William Tenn continues the theme of existential dread with a tale that explains the origin of the legendary “little people.”  It seems they’re really aliens, and the rightful successors of humanity once we render ourselves extinct.  The problem is that the latest developments in mass destruction will render the planet uninhabitable if used in World War Three.  So the aliens are offering an even better weapon that will destroy humans without harming the environment, cynically counting on humans’ short-sighted self-interest to close the deal.

“The Dark Dimension” by William Morrison is another tale of humans being destroyed by their own greed, but on a…smaller scale.  Gerald Weldon, a self-educated scientist,  was cheated out of his discoveries twice, by two different men.  Now Weldon has discovered a way to communicate with, and possibly travel to, another dimension with different physical laws.  The beings on the other side of the portal seem anxious to have him visit, but having been burned twice, Weldon is hesitant.  Can he make full use of his discovery without being betrayed, or will he need to play on that betrayal to gain revenge?

“Shah Guido G.” by Isaac Asimov concerns a future United Nations that has become corrupted into a dictatorial regime that reigns from a new Atlantis.  It’s all a setup for a last-line bit of wordplay.  (The title might also be a pun, but if so it eludes me.)

“Chowhound” by Mack Reynolds takes place during an intergalactic war.  A Kraden has finally been taken alive, only for the Terrans to learn it’s no brighter than your average cow.  So the New Taos has been dispatched to the front to try to discover how such a creature could fly a starship, let alone wage a war.  It seems hopeless, especially when it appears an invisible spy has gotten aboard the ship.  Can Mart Bakr’s interest in exotic cuisine solve the mysteries?

“The Most Dangerous Love” by Philip Latham features the first rocket expedition to an extrastellar planet.  They’re aided by a young inventor who’s invented a new, more powerful scanner, able to focus on tiny areas at great distances.  Young Sidney Schofield has had no time for romance, having been so fixated on completing his invention.  It perhaps is no surprise then that when his scanner picks up a beautiful girl on the planet Del-S is headed for, he falls in love hard.  As the ship gets closer to the destination, it turns out the girl has a similar device, and soon the couple are in communication and looking forward to a life together.  Unfortunately, there is one small detail that makes them star-crossed.  There’s some Fifties sexism on display; the captain muses how grateful he is that there are no women aboard his ship, as they’d be constantly fighting and causing trouble.

“The Restless Tide” by Raymond Z. Gallun tackles the problem of immortality for a species like humans that evolved to handle a lifespan less than a century.  A husband is already tired of his comfortable Earth life, but his wife isn’t quite ready to go out to the space frontier again.  It’s ultimately something of an optimistic story; humans will always find something to do.

This is followed by a twenty-question science fiction trivia quiz.  Some of the answers are outdated.

Next up, a three-essay discussion of the question, “Should Population Be Controlled?”  The Yes position is taken by Fritz Leiber, in the form of a dialogue between two smug future people explaining the benefits.  Mr. Leiber correctly predicted the Pill (which came on the market in 1960) and the e-book.  On the other hand, he also talks about the concept of the stupid people outbreeding the intelligent people if steps aren’t taken, which is largely discredited.

No is handled by Arthur J. Burks, who argues that God intends for humanity to multiply, and Nature makes sure that we do.  Therefore, any attempt to artificially control population is doomed, so we shouldn’t even try.  Mr. Burks is also not a believer in “child-free” people.  Fletcher Pratt ties it up with Maybe, pointing out that no method of population control will be effective unless people go along with it, and known methods offend many religious people.

The letters column is the usual assortment of praise and gripes, with one correspondent (Francis J. Litz) complaining about the prevalence of half-naked women on covers of supposedly serious SF magazines.

“Mountains of the Mind” by Richard Matheson starts with a political scientist getting an electroencephalographic (EEG) reading from a doctor who’s researching geniuses.  When he sees his chart, however, he feels the need to seek out a mountain range that matches those peaks and valleys (ala Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)  And he feels the need to do so alone, ditching his fiancee from their planned vacation.  Eventually, he reaches the mountains and learns that he has been selected as one of the secret guardians of the world based on his compatible brainwaves.  He also learns that all the secret guardians must remain celibate, and he’s been manipulated since birth, which is why he’s kept putting off getting it on.  It’s difficult to get a read on the sexism level here–the story never specifically says that women can’t be secret guardians (only one other guardian appears or is named), but the only female character in the story is specifically not a genius, and works as a receptionist.

“Dover Spargill’s Ghastly Floater” by Jack Vance has the title character buy the Moon just a day before new transmutation technology makes Lunar real estate worthless.  Except that this was part of the plan all along.  His real motive was to terraform the Moon.  There’s some dodgy science to explain how the atmosphere isn’t going to evaporate off, and a businessman who fails at flexibility to the point I’m surprised he still has a company.

Judith Merrill and Harry Harrison provide the words and art respectively for a short piece on the Hydra Club, an invitation-only society for science fiction authors, publishers and interested people.  There were a lot of famous people in this club.

The back cover is a look at the first real-life space suit designed by the U.S. Air Force.

All in all, an enjoyable issue with lesser stories by good authors.

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