...if you can call it a review when I only read about half of the first book of a long series. Yes, I'm talking about Game of Thrones.
It is very rare for me to put a book down when I am half way through. Either I stop reading within the first few pages, or I carry through to the bitter, bloody end. The number of books I have stopped reading midway through are few and far between, and Game of Thrones (first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series) was one of them. So: Why?
The answer is a little complicated. I found much to praise about that book. The writing was very good, the world building was excellent to the point that I can honestly say the only better world building was that of Tolkien himself, and that is very high praise indeed. The plot was sufficiently complicated without being overly convoluted. As a work of imagination, this is stunning.
It is a little harder for me to pin down what was off putting. I suppose the sex had a hand, although not too much. I am fairly inured to representations of sex, even strange sex, in literature. (Getting stuck in courses with Sade on the reading list will do that to you.) (Heck, Shakespeare is full of sex, too)I don't seek out books for the sex portrayed within, but I also don't automatically toss a book aside when it appears either. In this book there was a lot of sex, much of what used to be referred to as deviant. . It was incestuous, or paedophiliac, or prostitution. (Again, two out of those three are also in Shakespeare) In the half of the book that I read, much of it seemed to serve little purpose in terms of plot or story. It was just there because... There is, for example, a fairly innocuous scene where Catelyn leaps from her bed naked in front of her husband and the Maester. A few lines of dialogue follow to drive home the point that she is indeed naked. Her lack of clothing does nothing in terms of adding to the story or the plot or the character. It's just there. Does it make the story more real to the reader? Maybe. For me, it stuck out for its sheer pointlessness.
But it wasn't just the sex that I found pointless. It began to dawn upon me that the story as a whole was pointless. Brilliantly written, but still pointless. Almost all the characters in the book are not good people. There is no hero in this book, someone for whom I am cheering to take over the throne. And yes, I am aware that most people like Tyrion. He is a good character, but he does not have a good character, if you understand. It is just a bunch of not too admirable people involved in a long power grab and struggle to survive.
So there are few good characters, or at least, no one who is particularly good. But the same is true in the opposite direction. Even the bad characters aren't particularly bad. There is no Sauron, no Smaug, no Dark Lord hovering over the horizon. There is no one who will plunge the world into a new darkness should he win. In the first book, the worst character was Viscerys, who, along with his sister Daenerys, is the last of the old dynasty to occupy the Iron Throne, the dynasty that was all but destroyed just before the beginning of the book. Viscerys is evil, but not Hugely, Massively, Awesomely Evil. He is a small evil. He does not bring destruction, merely irritation. His death is less a cleansing than it is a relief: at least we won't have to hear from this clown any more.
It is obvious that the Iron Throne is to be fought over and eventually claimed by one character or another, but there isn't much difference between the characters. In fact there was a scene with Daenerys and her guard, whose name I can't remember, where they discuss this very point. Viscerys has been spinning a constant fantasy about how the people, especially the commoners, await their return to the throne. How people have hidden banners and symbols of the old regime in anticipation for their glorious return. Daenerys asks her guard when Viscerys is out of earshot if this was true,. The guard sighs and tells her no, it is not. It really makes no difference to the commoners who sits on the throne, he says.
I saw then that the guard was right. It really makes no difference who sits on the throne. It was not long after that point that I stopped caring. There is nothing at stake in this book. No world's fate hangs in the balance. There is no lie to be overthrown because there is no truth to be found here. In Lord of the Rings, to which I often hear this book compared, it makes a difference if Frodo succeeds or not. It make s a difference if Aragorn takes his throne or not. Here, one or another, it makes no difference. It is a dreary world filled with dreary people. Tolkien once said that he views history as nothing but a long defeat, although there may be occasional glimpses of the final victory. The events of The Lord of the Rings was one such glimpse in his world. Game of Thrones offers no glimpse of victory: from what I could see, it was merely the long defeat. At most it offers some little relief in humour of the kind found in taverns and brothels. But it offers no light in the darkness. Winter is coming. There is no promise, or even hint, that Spring is coming in its turn.
As I said, there is much to praise in this book. It is very intelligent, even brilliant at times. And yet, in the end, or rather, the middle, I just didn't care enough to turn the page. Instead, I laid it down and never picked it up again.