After hearing so much about the Game of Thrones television show and the numerous media (such as Skyrim) that cite it as a reference, I decided to finally tackle the massive A Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin. After plowing my way through the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, it is pretty clear that I am hooked on the series. By what really struck me was the similarities between it and the recent book I reviewed, Spook Country by William Gibson.
Even though they both use multiple perspectives to tell their stories, I found that my enjoyment of the two books was completely different. Spook Country left me flat while A Game of Thrones drew me in and seduced me into reading further. But why were they so different? What did George R.R. Martin do right that William Gibson did wrong. Because of this conundrum, I decided to do a comparison of the two books rather than a straight-forward review of A Game of Thrones. I hope that by doing so, we might identify some of the general storytelling fundamentals in play.
Let’s start with their one major similarity: multiple perspectives.
Both A Game of Thrones and Spook Country tell their stories through a third person limited narrative. In short, the narrative focuses on the perspective of a single character, but does not take the voice of this character. The reader is limited to the viewpoint of a single character but the text is written in the third person. This is a fairly standard narrative style, especially in mysteries, as the reader is limited to the knowledge of the protagonist, and thus must follow him or her as they unravel the plot, enhancing the tension. However, what makes both A Game of Thrones and Spook Country so unique in this narrative structure is that the story follows a different character in each chapter. To use the example of A Game of Thrones, the story may follow the perspective of Tyrion Lannister in one chapter and Eddard Stark in the next. Spook Country limits this perspective to three characters while A Game of Thrones changes to whichever character strikes Martin’s fancy. The end result is quite different. Whereas Spook Country is relatively dull with stilted, uninteresting characters (with the possible exception of Tito), A Game of Thrones sucks you into the characters lives and involves you intensely with the life and death struggles. Does this mean that the characters of A Game of Thrones are more or distinctively. No, not really. I don’t think its the characters themselves that make them so compelling. It’s how Martin sets up their stories, creating a sense of ….
Let’s take a look at some of the characters in A Game of Thrones. WARNING: This section does contain stories.
Formerly a strong climber, Bran is crippled when he thrown off a tower by Jaime Lannister for spotting him cavorting with his sister, and Queen, Cersei Lannister. Now a paraplegic, Bran try to find a way to make himself useful to a world that worships men of war. To get around, Bran gets around by riding on the back of Hordor, a slow-witted half-giant. Will he ride Hodor into battle and turn the tide?
A dwarf disrespected by everyone, especially his own snooty family, Tyrion gets by on his wits while holding fast to a personal code of honour that far exceeds those of the rest of his family. Will he overcome society’s prejudices to find the glory and victory he so rightly deserves?
Along with her brother, the only two surviving offspring of the former King of the Seven Kingdoms. Daenerys sacrifices greatly for survival, including being married of by her brother, losing her husband and daughter, and her place in Dothraki society. Isolated and alone, she takes her three dragon (which have extinct for centuries) eggs into a pyre and watches as they hatch and bond to her as their mother. Will she lead her dragon children into an assault on the Seven Kingdoms to retake Iron Throne?
Reluctantly taking on the responsibility of the King’s Hand, Eddard must unravel the mysteries of the attack on his son Bran and the death of the former Hand, Jon Arryn. Will he unravel the mystery or will he fall in the game of thrones.
The bastard son of Eddard Stark, Jon Snow volunteers to serve on the wall to find some place of honour in a world that has none for bastards. Amongst his rag-tag group of ruffians, will he overcome his station to protect the Seven Kingdoms from the unknown threats to the north?
A tomboy, Arya is more interested in learning to fight with a sword than the courtly manners of her sister Sansa. Reluctantly, her failure allows her to be trained by a cunning, yet eccentric sword master. Will she one day grow up to command respect as a warrior, not just as a prospective bride?
As you can see in each of the cases, I am filling in the story far off into the future while Martin is still introducing me to them. By setting up most of the characters as weak, unloved, ignored or disrespected, he is giving me an opportunity to fill in the story with how I want things to turn out. We all love underdog characters. We want to see them overcome their challenges and find the respect of their peers because we face these same sorts of struggles day in and day. George R.R. Martin fills A Game of Thrones with underdogs and that is why I have to keep reading. I have to find out what happens to them.
In Spook Country, we have a former rock star, a drug addict and a superhuman parkour specialist. They’re unique but they’re not really underdogs. They don’t feel overwhelmed or at risk in the world in which they find themselves. Even at the end when Hollis is captures, the tension is immediately diffused by the secret underworld character asking her to be a witness to their operations. There is simply little sense of danger and even less sense of overcoming the odds.
Another way in which Martin uses the multiple perspectives well is building sympathy for characters who later perish. When you are in close promixity in someone’s shoes, you feel greater sense of loss when they are gone. It’s the reasons that we mourn for family and friends but not for complete strangers. We can react with horror and sadness but its far more abstract then when it’s someone you know personally. In the case of A Game of Thrones, we are introduced to a couple of characters who later perish. Walking in their faces, we gain a measure of sympathy for them that makes their later deaths, seen from another character’s perspective, that much more powerful. It also makes the world feel like a far more dangerous place. In Spook Country, nobody dies. It brings me to my final point when comparing the two novels.
Raising the Stakes
In A Game of Thrones, the stakes are huge and growing with each passing chapter. People die, the land is plagued by war and atrocities, and new threats can be sensed over the horizon, across the war and beyond the sea. In Martin’s opening book, characters are fighting for their future, Kings are fighting for kingdoms, and humanity in general is fighting for its survival. The growing sense of threat and danger ramp up the tension, pulling us forward and deeper into the book anxious to see what happens next. In the case of Spook Country, danger is muted. Nobody really seems in trouble. Nobody is killed and threats go unfilled. Even the central mystery falls flat, rather than the MacGuffan threatening humanity or even an individual, it comes off instead as post-modern joke. It may be clever or interesting but as a storytelling device, it falls flat. In A Game of Thrones, stakes are simpler, more menacing and easier to feel. The story greater benefits as a result.
In short, A Game of Thrones is an excellent fantasy novel that I can’t recommend highly enough. It will grab you and never let you go. I hope that by comparing it to Spook Country I’ve been able to show why it’s so effective and how it can serve as a template for aspiring authors. I’m well into the second book of the series, A Clash of Kings, and it’s still going strong.