Friday, May 20, 2016

Audiobook Review: Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Book Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

Audiobook Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: Martin creates a unique and engaging fantasy world that comes alive through the book's well-developed characters.

I purchased this audiobook--the first in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series--a while back but kept putting off listening to it because it seemed like such a daunting tome to tackle at thirty-three plus hours.  But as Season 6 of the series approached, I finally decided to fire it up to help remind me of some of the back story prior to diving into the new year of the TV show (which actually goes beyond the completed books).  And once I started it, I found myself making excuses to go for a drive or to extend my commute so that I could keep listening to the book!

Since I am expecting that most people reading this have more than a passing familiarity with the story, I won’t spend too much time recapping it.  I’m also going to mention one of the major spoilers (which is actually pretty much common knowledge by now), so be warned.  Basically, Game of Thrones is a fantasy tale set in the land of Westeros and the main story focuses on the power struggles to sit on the Iron Throne which rules over all the lands.  The main character in this book is Ned Stark who is the lord of Winterfell in the north and he reluctantly travels to Kings Landing with part of his family to be the adviser to the king only to find himself pulled into the court intrigues and politics aimed at controlling the throne.

One of the things that I noticed while listening to the audiobook is that things do not happen quickly in this story.  There is some travel across the lands and a lot of talking and a few fights, but Martin was definitely not trying to make this an action-packed affair.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for the book to introduce a character and then digress for several pages giving backstory on that person.  But while it sounds like this approach would make this a rather dull read, especially consider the length of the book, that’s not the case at all.  Not only did I almost never find it boring (except for some of the Sansa chapters), I regularly found myself wanting more.

Personally, the bloated page lengths of books these days is something that has turned me away from many of the newer entries on the shelves.  So often these are the result of publishers pushing for a higher page count or writers lacking editorial constraints and the story ends up turning into a slogfest or completely losing focus.  Martin maneuvers past these pitfalls as he demonstrates himself a master of words who can make even the most mundane details interesting.  There’s a reason this book series is so popular: it really is that good!  At least based on the first volume and what I have seen translated to the television series.  One of the important things Martin does in this books is dump almost all the expected fantasy clichés.  This book is not packed with elves and orcs and wizards and many of the expected tropes of the genre.  Some of that is there in the background, but he doesn’t just give us another spin on the standard setting as he builds a fully fleshed out world of his own with interesting, well-developed characters.  In fact, it is the many characters with their varying degrees of moral ambiguity that makes this such a fascinating read.

(Warning, major Spoilers to follow in the next paragraph.)

The first book sets up the grander tale that Martin has planned with his Song of Ice and Fire series, but in Game of Thrones one of the major themes is the place that honor holds in this world of scheming and maneuvering.  Ned Stark is of course the primary example of that as he follows the “honorable” path throughout the story as opposed to the moral grays evidenced in many of the other characters.  He acts as the moral measuring stick, and we make the assumption that he will be our guidepost throughout all of the books.  That’s why his beheading at the end comes as that much more of a shock.  Ned is set up as our hero and then we are left without the moral fiber he represents once he is executed.  The story is told (quite effectively) from multiple points of view with Ned’s representing the closest to the typical fantasy hero.  And when he is gone we have to scramble for which point of view will be our guide from that point forward.  That’s some powerful yet risky storytelling, but Martin pulls it off perfectly.

The audiobook version is read by Roy Dotrice who does an absolute first-rate job with the material.  He makes each character stand out as a distinct presence and they come alive through his reading.  I have to admit, though, that at first I did not like the voices he used for several characters, especially Tyrion.  Having been exposed to the top-notch performances from the series, it was hard to accept the different voices he used for some of the characters.  But I can’t really fault him for not matching the performances of the actors, especially considering that this audiobook came out years before the TV series.  I did eventually accept and even learn to like his Tyrian voice, but I could never quite warm up to his Varys.  That’s probably because he played the character closer to the way he is portrayed in the books which is different than Conleth Hill’s interpretation in the series, but again, I can’t count that as a knock against Dotrice.  He delivers an excellent reading of one of the all-time great fantasy books and I highly recommend this one to anybody to enjoys masterful storytelling whether they are fantasy fans or not.

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