A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)

by George R. R. Martin | Science Fiction & Fantasy |
ISBN: 0553593714 Global Overview for this book
Registered by erinacea of Friedrichshain, Berlin Germany on 8/19/2016
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Journal Entry 1 by erinacea from Friedrichshain, Berlin Germany on Friday, August 19, 2016
A few weeks ago I was doing some research on "Game of Thrones" and because I only knew very little about it (I had heard of Jon Snow, Tyrion and Daenerys as well as the massacre of the "red wedding", and I knew that the books were supposedly very violent and included both incest and rape) I turned to Wikipedia for more information. I was only interested in an overview of the setting and characters, so the many many pages on that topic were way too detailed for me, so I ended up skimming the main page as well as reading the summarizing paragraphs of the characters that seemed most important (because they had dedicated sub-pages).

In all honesty, I hadn't expected to like the series, though in hindsight I'm not even sure why. I think part of it was that I felt that the story was probably overhyped (although I should have known better after initially looking down on Harry Potter until I actually started reading and was hooked with the first sentence), the other part was some kind of wariness about the amount of violence involved as well as the deaths of presumably beloved protagonists.

Yet when skimming the Wiki pages, to my own surprise, I found myself intrigued. There were a number of characters that, just from their brief description, sounded absolutely fascinating so that I actually found myself wishing to learn more about them. Also, as a result of my wiki dive, I suddenly found myself in possession of various bits of knowledge whose semi-connectedness raised new questions I found myself puzzling over. For example, spoiler, highlight to make visible I had wondered how people had come to the conclusion that King Robert's children were in fact not his at all, or what led to the betrayal that became known as the "red wedding", or how Mad King Aerys earned that nickname. The obvious solution arrived with a bit of a delay: that, duh, maybe I should check out the books after all. Non-committally of course, one book at a time with the option to drop out whenever I felt like it...

That decision having been made, I spent my sweet time picking out an edition I liked, which wasn't too heavy but also came with a nice crisp font because I expected to spend several hours reading and didn't want to spend that time battling headaches or forearm fatigue. I probably picked some kind of fan edition but I love the layout and think the reduced eye strain means that the extra 2€ are well invested.

As expected, I needed more than a single week (about 10 days in total even though I had plenty of free time) to read the full 800 pages. What I had not foreseen was the immediacy with which the world and characters drew me in. Though I had learned about the Wall during my research, the prologue left me confused (who are these characters? what's going on?) but immediately afterwards, I latched on to the characters (various Starks) introduced in the very first chapter.

I had heard that the story involved hundreds of characters and it would be easy to confuse them (though that might be more of a problem with the tv series). I thus was pleasantly surprised to learn that while the POV did switch between several characters, Martin kept circling back to the same set of characters (8 in this first book), so happily I didn't end up overwhelmed. I like all the Stark protagonists (with the possible exception of Sansa), though my favourites by far are Daenerys and Tyrion, Dany because her character shows an incredible growth in a very short time and because I adore dragons (who doesn't?) and Tyrion because he's so witty and resourceful and his chapters are always full of surprising revelations.

I can't really say a lot about the quality of the writing other than that I'm learning a lot of new vocabulary I probably won't ever need. The constant descriptions of what everyone is wearing is getting a bit annoying, though. I suppose it's part of worldbuilding and I suspect (or hope) that eventually it will (or would if I was paying attention) enable me later on to recognize an otherwise unidentified character seen through another person's eyes.

Something I really like is how Martin uses the POV switches to present different perspectives on the same situation, not by retelling the exact same scene but by having the conflicts be drawn out enough that there's plenty of time for various characters to get involved and notice (or not notice) what's going on and coming to their own (possibly wrong) conclusions. He's also got a great sense of timing and knows both when to finish a chapter and which character to switch to next. The switches always made sense to me.

I had realized pretty early (back during my wiki hunt, to be honest) that I liked the characters. However, as Martin continued constructing the plot, that too became more and more enthralling. From my brief foray into the story overview I had come away with the completely wrong impression that the plot was moving at a glacial speed. In hindsight, I think that whoever wrote the wiki pages for the most part restricted themselves to the first book that a given character appeared in except where two characters' fates became strongly interlocked at a later point. As a result of this, I was amazed to learn that most of what I thought I "knew" about these characters had already taken place by the end of the first book. For example, I was surprised to learn that Bran's fall happens within the first 100 pages. Similarly, I had absolutely expected the birth of the dragons to happen later in the series, but then I also hadn't been aware that living dragons were initially a thing of the past in the first place.

And even in general I found that my wiki had spoiled a much smaller amount of the plot for me than I would have guessed. Apparently the information overload resulted in me vaguely remembering certain events but forgetting the characters involved. I know the wiki mentioned people dying, for example, yet I was completely unable to say for any specific character how long they would survive. The converse is true: if I know details about a character's life that haven't happened yet, obviously no matter how dire their current situation, they're not going to die here. That greatly reduced my worries during the few situations where the protagonists themselves were in mortal danger. On the other hand, I had had no clue whatsoever about the setup for the next book happening at the end of the first one (Robert or Ned being killed, Robb being crowned "King of the North") leaving me full of suspense and anxiety for the coming books.

I feel like I should comment on the book in some more detail. As before, spoilers are coloured white and need to be highlighted to become readable:

Arya
I took a liking to Arya already during her first chapter. I adore depictions of siblingship and the bond between Arya and Jon is particulary touching. I feel like her training with Syrio is going to come in really useful in the future. I actually was surprised that Ned actually allowed her to keep her sword but now I think that when he mentioned Lyanna during their conversation he came to the realization that maybe his sister might have still been alive if she'd been capable of defending herself and that's what prompted his agreement to Arya's fighting lessons. I thought it was very realistic for Ned to disapprove of Syrio's lesson, even though he was clearly wrong about that: not only because Arya loved the lessons but because Syrio was not just teaching her to fight but more importantly to survive. (Most of his lessons deal with dodging attacks, knowing when to run, hiding, reading people correctly etc.)

I had no idea Arya ever had to run away or fend for herself, so the last two chapters were really exciting. I mean I knew that she turned up in future events, so I wasn't too worried, but there was still the danger of her possibly getting captured and/or hurt. Although I was utterly sure Yoren wasn't attacking her, it still took me a reread of the end of the section to realize that he was chopping off her hair (which makes sense considering she's trying to hide).


Bran
I adore Bran. As with Arya, I liked him from his introduction. I'd read that he was quadriplegic on the wiki, but I'd no idea this happened so early in the series. His passion and talent for climbing seems like a suspiciously convenient way for him to get to the most unlikely place ever to witness something he shouldn't have, but it does lend his injury even more tragedy to happen to someone who wasn't just used to running around wherever he wanted but for whom heights neither posed a problems.
The crow dreams were also mentioned on the wiki but they're still somewhat creepy.


Catelyn
Catelyn is a difficult character to like. She's remarkably quick to judge people and seems unlikely to reconsider her opinion afterwards. This applies both to her dislike for Jon (though understandable given Eddard's behaviour) and her treatment of Tyrion (again understandable after Petyr's claims and considering her general distrust of all Lannisters). That said, she's hell of a lot smarter than her fool of a sister, and I rather admire her diplomatic prowess in dealing with Robb and negotiating with the Freys.

Daenerys
Daenerys is probably my favourite character so far. Interestingly, the book I'd read just prior to this one dealt with the role of girls in today's Afghanistan. Knowing that this still happens in our own world put Viserys' plans to sell (marry off) his thirteen-year-old sister into perspective, which surprisingly heightened the impact rather than decrease it. I love how Daenerys, once she gets used to her new role as Khaleesi, slowly changes her view of her brother and ends up redefining the power balance in their relationship. The way he died was horrible and I appreciated that Dany mourned him while holding him in contempt at the same time.
I also loved the way Martin handled her decision to euthanize her husband (I knew he'd die but not how it happened). The entire scene was haunting and surprisingly sweet.
Reading the wiki somehow had not prepared me for the information that dragons were extinct in Westeros and the entire world. Still, I knew that Daenerys would hatch some dragons' eggs, which sadly decreased the amount of mystery surrounding the "stone" eggs she'd been given by Illario. Though I'd known about it beforehand, her entering the pyre was awesome nonetheless and an incredibly powerful end to the book.


Eddard
I liked Eddard, though his strict sense of justice in my opinion made him somewhat less interesting than some of the more conflicted characters. I especially liked the scenes where he acted the father for his daughters, just as Catelyn did for the boys. (I strongly suspect that Martin used this juxtaposition on purpose.)
I was a bit surprised that he doesn't ever think about Jon's origin, and it's clear that Martin is deliberately hiding something here. (As a result of my wiki forage, I think I know the answer, or at least the popular theory.)
His death came as a shock to me. By that point, I'd sort of expected him to die as a result of the infected leg wound. (Then again, seeing how Martin already used that manner of death for Khal Drogo, it makes sense for him to come up with something else. This way, it's much more dramatic, more horrific for his daughters, and serves to firmly establish Joffrey as the Stark's enemy.)
Warning Cersei was a foolish thing to do, though I still admire the compassion that made him to do.


Jon
As far as I can tell from my meagre impression of the fandom, Jon Snow is one of the most popular characters. He clearly took his father's lessons to heart in that honour is extremely important to him. Other than Ned, he doesn't have the social standing where chivalry is expected, but has to earn his respect from both his peers and his elders.

From the start, Jon is presented as incredibly likeable: the way he convinces his father to let his half-siblings keep the direwolf cubs as pets is not only diplomatic and selfless, but this is also the first (though not the last) time that he decides to protect the weak (the direwolf cubs) at what seems to be his own detriment but ultimately is rewarded for doing so. I loved the brotherly way he treats his younger half-siblings who return the affection as well as the unlikely friendship with Tyrion. I also admired how Jon managed to turn the other Night's Watch boys' initial dislike into respect and earn their loyalty, even more so because it didn't come naturally but he had to change his behaviour after a rebuke from someone he respected.

From the wiki I got the impression that Jon would eventually abandon the Night's Watch (which was why I couldn't believe he would actually join up to the moment he said the oath), so the conflict introduced here (between the honor/duty of following his oath on the one hand and the honor/duty at protecting his family on the other) is bound to flare up again.


Sansa
Right now, Sansa is the least interesting of the presented POV characters, though I have a feeling that this might change in the future. As far as I can tell, her POVs mostly serve to give the reader a chance to view the splendour and grandeur of life at the royal court before everything goes sour. Her naive and idealistic view of knights and princes etc. hurts to watch and I actually think her father was doing her a disfavour by not giving her the same talking-to Arya got about treating her sister fairly. Of course, it didn't occur to him because Sansa was unlikely to cause any trouble, but still...

Tyrion
In my opinion, Tyrion is the most interesting character so far. I'm always looking forward to his next chapter because even if nothing important happens plot-wise, there'll be plenty of occasions to show his wit and sarcasm. I also appreciate his realistic (bordering on embittered, for good reason) outlook on life that serves as a healthy counterpoint to the more idealistic views of practically all the Starks.
It bothers me a bit that we still don't know whether Tyrion did or didn't have anything to do with the attempt to murder Bran in his sleep. I mean he brought up some pretty convincing arguments for why he didn't do it (and I tend to believe him, on that account at least), but I'm somewhat annoyed that his inner voice sheds no light on the matter. (The same criticism applies to Martin completely hiding e.g. Eddard's inner thoughts whenever someone mentions Jon's mother.) I get why Martin does it but it feels a tad forced.


Though Martin didn't waste any time in procuring the first corpse or the first assassination attempt, this book did not contain nearly as many grisly deaths as I'd feared. Apparently, this book mostly serves as an introduction to the world and characters and a setup for future conflicts.

I still don't dare get attached to anybody. Nobody's safe, after all.

Next book: A Clash of Kings

Journal Entry 2 by erinacea at Friedrichshain, Berlin Germany on Saturday, September 10, 2016
This doesn't really belong here, but I've been watching season 1 of the HBO series, and as that's clearly related to the book, I'll put my impressions here anyway...

In general, I felt the tv representation kept very close to the book. Oh, there were some simplifications and some scenes took place in different locations, but for the most part, it was pretty faithful to the original. I was surprised that the series (or at least the first 10 episodes) contained no flashbacks. There are plenty of scenes involving characters reminiscencing, which would have worked well when acted out, but in all cases the directors chose to have one character tell another. I guess this is cheaper than having to find more actors for the younger characters, and even more for long dead characters.

Casting

On the whole, they hired a pretty good set of actors. I especially loved Viserys, Drogo and Tyrion, all of whom nail their character in look, stance, attitude and general mannerisms. In general, I felt that the Dothraki team had an overall greater quality of actors. Apart from Drogo and Viserys, this also includes Daenerys, Ser Jorah, Dany's handmaids, Rakharo, and Mirri Maz Duur.

The Westeros' cast also included some great actors, though. I've actually seen images of Tyrion all over the media and Dinklage is the only actor among the cast whose name I know, so he's always been Tyrion in my mind to begin with. But even when taking that into account, he's a terrific actor who absolutely nails the character.
I also really liked Littlefinger (exactly the slightly mocking way of acting I imagined for the character), Arya, Catelyn and, to a lesser extent, Maester Luwin, Cersei and Benjen.

On the other hand, I've got some trouble with Jaime. He's handsome enough and his acting is impeccable, but he's so different from what I imagined him to look like (and so different from Cersei), that this discrepancy intruded into every scene that featured him. The same also applies to Renly, who doesn't look anything like Robert. I don't buy that this is how Robert himself used to look when he was younger. As with Jaime, this is mostly down to the hairstyle, I guess. Also, he's nowhere handsome enough.

Speaking of handsome, I feel that Theon should have been more so (to give him a basis for his obvious belief in being god's gift to women), whereas both Robb and Jon are too handsome. Jon also looks nothing like anyone else in his family, which might be a conscious decision to accentuate his being a bastard, but he was supposed to look like a true Stark anyway.

On the negative side, I don't care much for movie!Bran. Not only doesn't he look the part, he's also not a convincing actor. I still don't care for Sansa and I imagined Joffrey to look different, too.

I also don't agree with their depiction of Varys. While he's a good actor, I feel like he doesn't quite hit the ingratiating tones, flabby movements and oily behaviour that I imagined. As a result, he seems like a much more likable character, but also less mysterious. His clothing is also nowhere near fancy/colourful enough.

Locations and props

I was a bit disappointed with all of the locations because (having read glorious references on the wiki) they were a lot grander in my head (they're still good, though). All locations, that is, except for the Wall, which was... impressive. Its size seemed a bit ridiculous in the books, but seeing the actual scale difference of the rangers against the backdrop of the Wall was awe-inspiring.

Speaking of disappointing, the Iron Throne was a joke. Now I've seen pictures on the net how Martin envisioned it and I knew that HBO went for a much smaller version but after actually having read the books, the movie representation was positively puny. Instead of the monstrous thing boasting about the number of defeated enemies to anyone standing before the king, this one's basically a normal throne with a highly questionable design.

Additional scenes

The series included some scenes that were not in the book, most of which revolve around non-POV characters in conversations no POV character was privy to.

I loved that the series gives the Lannisters a lot more depth. There are plenty of scenes showcasing Cersei, Jaime or even Tyrion in more detail. As a result, Cersei and Jaime appear much more human, something that gets a bit lost when 3/4 of the POV characters are Starks and naturally predisposed to assume the worst from them.

I loved the early introduction of the idea that Cersei Lannister loves her children just as much as Catelyn Stark loves hers (because it makes her much more likable and foreshadows the later conflict). I also loved the drinking game Tyrion played with Bronn and Shae (I'm not entirely sure why, it just felt like a good way to learn about the three of them in a very natural manner). I liked Catelyn (once having become suspicious) investigating the Winterfell tower and finding a blond hair, which lends her future actions against the Lannisters much more credibility. I liked Maester Luwin teaching/questioning Bran about the most important families and their mottoes as that makes up for leaving out some of the general information mentioned in the book, and is also a nice scene about the heirs of noble houses being taught all this. I also liked the scene with Joffrey apologizing to Sansa and kissing her shortly before Ned being imprisoned as traitor, because it explains what motivated Sansa to go to the queen and tell her of Ned's plans as well as the Septa's courageous behaviour in protecting her charge, which adds more depth to a character usually described negatively through Arya's eyes. I also appreciated the extra scenes showing Theon's status as a ward at Winterfell and that, indeed, he was as much of a guest as a prisoner.

I was a bit disturbed by the many additional sex scenes. I felt that some of them (e.g. Viserys sharing the bath with Doreah, talking about dragons) worked a lot better than others (Littlefinger explaining all about his history with Catelyn while watching two of his whores seducing one another - WTF?)

Surprisingly, I appreciated the scenes brought forward from the second book to show the aftermath of (major spoilers) Ned's death (Arya's introduction to the Night's Watch candidates, and Joffrey's treatment of Sansa as well as his approach to ruling). The former is a sort of cliffhanger that's not really necessary in an ending already ripe with hooks for season two, and the second one actually adds more urgency than it takes away. Both good choices, I think.

Changed scenes

The first major change was Tyrion's introduction, which (having been moved to a whorehouse) subtly shifts the emphasis of his character from outcast to bon vivant who enjoys wine and women (not necessarily in that order). As a result, his first interaction with Jon takes place a bit later, as a result of which they might be a bit colder to each other. On the other hand, Tyrion's the one to rescue Jon from his Night's Watch brothers' revenge. This surprised me a bit but worked extremely well; the advise sounds like something Tyrion would say. I was sad that they didn't become friends (or thus declare each other) in the series.

I missed Tyrion's active participation in Tywin's battle against Robb's forces. Having him knocked out before the fight started was sort of funny but I felt that Tyrion's first battle was an important point of character development and I feel a bit cheated about it being left out. I guess the reason was that it would have involved horses in combat, which I've noticed they tried to avoid in general.

This probably also explains the shortening of the jousting tournament to the two key events, which in theory seems like a good summary, but it does leave the viewer wondering whether either of these are normal events at a tournament, when an important point was that neither of them are! Also, if I hadn't read the book, I'd have been completely confused about why the Hound apparently won at the end if there weren't any preceding battles.

In general, I missed the direwolves. I understand that it's difficult to work with animals, but having the wolves (who, for obvious reasons, don't look nearly as threatening as described in the books) only turn up when they're needed for the plot sort of detracts from their symbolic significance for the Starks and, if visible beforehand, announces their importance for the upcoming scene, while, if not visible, makes them come out of nowhere, which is confusing to the viewer. Jon's movie!wolf also isn't anything like Ghost in the book, which I feel detracts from Jon's character, as well.

Jon Snow was a much less interesting character in the movies than in the book. It feels like things are happening around him but he's lost his agency. His decision to teach the other boys (after a rebuke from Tyrion) made it into the movie, but you don't really get to see how as a result they rally around him. I missed the scene where they have his back when he defends Sam and also the one where he asks Maester Aemon (bypassing all established hierarchy) for Sam to be assigned to the stewards, which I feel is what prompts Ser Alliser to also have Jon assigned to the stewards and Commander Mormont to decide to "groom him for command".

In general, the Night's Watch training scenes looked so staged I couldn't take them seriously at all. The actual battle scenes in King's Landing also looked choreographed (which they obviously were) but were at least somewhat believable.

I hated the way Daenerys' wedding night was changed from essentially seduction to rape. It really sours the later loving relationship between Dany and Drogo, and I don't really see the point for making him abuse her like this. It's not like they don't show that he's violent towards others elsewhere. I suspect they figured that Daenerys had to "earn" his respect by seducing him later on, which is an insult to any victim of spousal abuse. To be fair, in the book she also was unhappy with the way he treated her and he did hurt her quite a lot (so maybe they were just going for a condensation of time), but her decision to take a more active role in their relationship was not fueled with as much desperation as in the series. Also, in the book his repeated "No" was clearly addressing her tears (which prompted his gentleness), but I got the impression that in the movie they played it for laughs, which felt really inappropriate for a rape scene.

I liked that major spoilers Jaime's assault on Ned and his men was changed to have Jaime actively take part in the fight rather than order his men to handle it and immediately flee the scene. I don't think that book!Jaime is a coward, but this scene makes him appear much more honorable. It also gives us an opportunity to actually see his combat style, which is amazing and suits him really well.

A minor point, but I found it very strange that Rickon was mentioned a few times but only actually appeared in two short scenes. I understand why they did it (young actor, possibly frightening crowd scenes) but at the very least he should have been there when the Starks welcomed their king and queen and while Catelyn kept vigil over Bran.

Summary

In summary, I greatly prefer the book to the tv adaptation, though on the whole they did a good job. I liked that they used the opportunity to humanize the book "villains" by highlighting their motivations but disliked how they felt the need to "sex up" the series.

Since this was a borrowed DVD set, I don't know if/when I'll get around to watching the other seasons, but I'd very much like to see how they portrayed certain characters and/or key events.

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