Medical Gumbo

Medical Thoughts Seasoned With a Bit of Everything
OCTOBER 3, 2011 12:32PM

The Book Catechism: A Game of Thrones

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Why did you read this book?

Not because of the HBO series, which I have never seen. I pay the cable company a king's ransom every month. There's no way I'm paying extra for a movie channel. No, what first pricketh my interest in this medieval fantasy novel was a story in the New Yorker by Laura Miller. She described a runaway bestseller in the fantasy market that had considerable literary merit.

I prefer literary fiction usually. The more hoity-toity, the more I like it. But I'm always on the lookout for the best of the best in other genres when I want a break between Cheever and Borges.

Do you recommend it, overall?

To the average male reader, yes. It's very far from chick lit, but Laura Miller likes the series, so I wouldn't say women won't like it. Just that it's not typical women's fare. This is a hardboiled, gritty, murderous war story. A realistic Lord of the Rings. The story takes place in an alternative universe that -- what are the odds -- resembles medieval England. Some people have called it LOTR for adults, but that is unfair to Tolkien. LOTR is and always has been adult material. It's just that Tolkien has been mined by so many children's authors for ideas that it is hard to approach LOTR without brining the baggage of decades of fantasy books and films with you.Thrones has the advantage of being able to look back over the last 80 years of fantasy writing and avoid the cliches. Cliche-deficient writing is usually going to be superior.

Thrones is a much more realistic LOTR. In Thrones people die, brutally, painfully. If you think Sauron and the Orcs were cruel you ain't seen nothing yet. In Thrones women are raped, children are tortured and murdered. Like the Arthurian legends that underlie most fantasy fiction, Thrones has something of a love triangle. Except one of the sides of the triangle is incestuous.

It's realistic in the sense that it is bloody and cruel, then?

Yes, but it's more than that. In Thrones one character dies from a wound infection. That happens all the time in real wars, but I've never heard of that in fantasy. More than that, there is, at least in this book (it is only the first of seven), very little magic. Much of the sorcery in this book is explained, though not all of it. The wizards seem more like shamans than real wizards. They helplessly watch people die just like everybody else, and apply salves and prescribe medications that the reader implicitly understands are useless. The only drug that seems to work is the "Milk of the Poppy" -- opium. (Sometimes real medicine is like that, too.) In this sense, Thrones is a little like Genesis rewritten by a Deist. Much of the magic is not magic at all.

But there are a few very significant exceptions. The way Martin will deal with these exceptions is the tension that drives readers from this book to its long chain of sequels.

Is there a medical angle to it, since this is a medical blog?

People get infections in this novel. And there's a dwarf that isn't a dwarf in the traditional fantasy way -- that is, a member of a race of short, super-strong people who like to dig for gold. This is a real dwarf, someone who has short stature and abnormal curvature of the spine. Possibly spina bifida, or severe scoliosis, or some other congenital medical problem that would cause dwarfism. That's what I mean when I say there's not a lot of magic in here. The only dwarf in the book is a dwarf because he has a medical problem.

At any rate, I find it fascinating that people in an alternative universe have wound infections. Is this from alternative universe bacteria? Or are we dealing with the usual staph infection? Why have bacteria in an alternative reality? Could it be that the people in the Thrones world evolved from simpler life forms and the bacteria are a remnant of those simpler forms, just as it is in this world?

What is best about it?

Plotting and character. The book is told from the point of view of almost a dozen main characters. To keep all that clear Martin titles each chapter with the name of the character who will be the point of view in that chapter. This is a wise move. If he hadn't made the point of view so painfully clear, this would be a very confusing story.

As it is, the number of points of view creates an intricate plot. And the characters, to meet the complexity of the plot lines, are complex also. I was often surprised at the reactions and interactions the characters had with one another -- this book is far from a simple good vs. evil formulation. There are heroes, and there are villains, but the two sides interact with one another in very complex ways. Characters are punished for being foolish, or haughty, or weak. An alcoholic king suffers mightily for his love of drink, his successor suffers for his brashness. A recurring theme seems to be good people who are punished for not being pragmatic. In Thrones, you suffer for having scruples.

It's hard not to like a book that is so serious about consequences, and looks so deeply into personal weakness.

What is worst about it?

There are no underlying themes. As a highbrow reader I am used to books that comment on the human condition, to use a stilted and overused phrase. Thrones is not like that. It looks at human foibles the way a soap opera does. It shrugs and says, Well, what can you do? The complexity is there to generate interest, not for philosophy. I expect for most readers that is not a problem. It's not really a problem for me, but it isn't what I prefer. I like profound. Sorry.

Anything else you don't like?

This book has a long windup. Like 500 pages long. The prologue starts with what seems like a supernatural event, and then the focus shifts to a medieval swords and knights story. The next supernatural event occurs 500 pages later. It took so long to get back to the theme in the prologue that I started to wonder if Martin had forgotten about it.

There is a parallel story that takes place in a land across the ocean from the main story. Even at the very last page it is not clear how this parallel story will intersect with the main yarn. This puts me off a bit.

On the other hand, it isn't as if the 500 page wait is boring. There are wars, marriages, murders, and intrigue. There's plenty to do and the story moves very quickly. Since even main characters are sometimes killed off, there is a sense of jeopardy not present in stories where death of the hero seems unthinkable.

Short chapters make it easy to digest the complex plot arcs.

Would this book make you read more fantasy novels?

Probably not. One of the things I glean from this book is that fantasy fans like a different book structure than I like. This book is very much like a soap opera. It is composed of many short chapters. The action moves rapidly from one character to another and leaves suspenseful situations up in the air for dozens of pages at a time. The story has a huge, long, slow arc, but there are many smaller arcs that appear and resolve along the way. Kind of like Luke and Laura.

Fantasy folks seem to prefer a story that goes on and on and has dozens of smaller stories within that emerge and resolve along the way. Think of the six-episode Star Wars series, or LOTR, or the infinite incarnations of Star Trek. The attraction is the open-endedness. We literary people prefer a tightly organized story that comes full circle and resolves in a satisfying way. Think of Pulp Fiction or To Kill a Mockingbird. A truly literary work comes to an end, often so hard that there is no real chance of a sequel. Even those with sequels have to re-invent the basis of the story so it will work again. Fantasy novels plan for sequels. If Thrones had ended in a way that had made a sequel difficult, it wouldn't have half so many fans.

It depends on what you like. Fantasy fans prefer 1001 Arabian Nights (which, come to think of it, is the true grandparent of modern fantasy). Stories go on and on, episodically, and could continue forever. Literary people prefer Hamlet, where practically everyone is dead at the end of the final scene. Hamlet II is an impossibility. I don't condemn the fantasy approach, but it isn't my preference.

In other words, you don't plan on reading any more of the series?

I think I will. I bought the first 4 books on sale for 35 bucks. The book was an effortless read. With short chapters, I could read a couple of chapters a day and make good progress. I don't think knocking out a few more will be hard. Nothing much is resolved at the end of the first book, so if I don't soldier on I won't understand very much about what what already happened. It is well-written and entertaining. Just because I am not a fantasy guy doesn't mean I can't like Thrones. I like Star Trek and LOTR without liking their genres.

And anyway, I have lots of time. It took Martin 5 years to write the last book in the series, A Dance of Dragons, and he says he has 2 more books to go. So I am guessing if I get through the next 5 books in 10 years I should be ready to read the last book when it comes out. I'll be standing in a bookstore at midnight behind a bunch of fantasy fans in suits of armor, waiting for the final release. And I will be having fun.

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