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Brilliant escapist fantasy with historical and contemporary echoes.....
on 26 March 2018
Although this review is attached to the latest book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (Volume 5 Book 2, “After the Feast”), I’m referring to all the books in the series, and to the TV series “Game of Thrones”.
I began reading Volume 1 of ASOIAF at the same time as I sat down to watch Season 1 of the TV series in the summer of 2017. Yes, about six years late for the TV series and over 20 years late for the books. Since then I’ve read all the books up to “After the Feast” and watched Seasons 1-6 of the TV series. I delayed reading “After the Feast” because I assumed it would tie in with Season 7 of the TV series, and I thought I would read and watch simultaneously. However, I soon realised that “After the Feast is still deep in Season 6, and as George RR Martin hasn’t yet published Volume 6 of ASOIAF, I have no idea what Season 7 of the TV series is based on, nor what Season 8 (due to air in 2018) will be based on. Season 1 followed Volume 1 fairly closely, if memory serves, but subsequently, the gap between the books and the TV series has gradually widened. It’s clear that to keep within budget and timescales the TV script writers have had to do a major pruning job as the books are far more complicated than the TV version. The former have more characters, more sub-plots and more background. That makes them in many ways more satisfying and entertaining than the TV series. On the other hand, the TV version has an economy and pace that the books sometimes lack. My biggest gripe about the books is that sometimes the detail seems unnecessary and slightly self-indulgent, e.g. descriptions of meals that add nothing to the plot and action. Also, the dialogue can be a bit clunky and an uneasy mixture of modern and faux mediaeval. When Jon Snow talks about “structural defects” in the Wall, you think why didn’t he just say “cracks”? On the other hand, the author very sensibly makes no attempt to replicate all the various languages that are spoken in this world, unlike the TV series which gets a bit silly when characters babble away in High Valyrian or Ghiscari and we get the subtitles in English. In the books we only get a couple of key (mystical) phrases and that’s quite enough. No point trying to out-Tolkien Tolkien.
However, the TV series is much tidier than the books, and the quest for simplification and the need to keep the stars in the limelight mean that the TV version is often more dramatic, e.g. the reunion between Jon Snow and Sansa Stark in the TV series is a brilliant adaptation of the equivalent incident in the books where Jon Snow hears that a young girl has been delivered to Castle Black and he thinks it might be Arya Stark, but instead he finds himself face to face with the daughter of a minor retainer of the Starks, a girl he hasn’t seen for ten years and barely recognises. It’s a bit of an anti-climax for Jon Snow and for the reader. Another example: in the TV series, after Tyrion Lannister flees from King’s Landing, he eventually reaches Meereen where he becomes a trusted adviser to Daenerys. In the books no such thing has happened by the end of “After the Feast”. Tyrion has joined a mercenary company in an army besieging Meereen, and his place as trusted adviser is filled by Barristan Selmy, who was killed off sometime earlier in the TV series, but is still clinging on to life in the books.
The whole thing is pure and very therapeutic escapism, but it’s also great fun to look for historical – and current – parallels. For example, although it’s been said that the English Wars of the Roses provided much of the inspiration for the books, there are other parallels, e.g. Roman history. I’m sure the name Lannister is taken from the Latin lanista, a gladiator trainer. The trial of Maergery Tyrell is clearly based on the fate of Anne Boleyn, and the parallel is all the more stark because HBO cast the actress who plays Maergery – Natalie Dormer – as Anne Boleyn in “The Tudors” a few years ago. The first bloke to admit to fornication with Maergery is a musician, obviously based on Mark Smeaton who confessed to committing adultery with Anne Boleyn. A contemporary parallel is the impact of religious fundamentalism on the politics of Westeros with the rise of the “sparrows” and the followers of the Lord of Light. Both sects are very mediaeval, and there are obvious parallels with the Reformation and the Inquisition, but also chillingly modern.
I could go on, but I won’t. I’ll just say that although I’m not that keen on fantasy novels and not a great watcher of TV, I found the books incredibly entertaining, and the TV series compulsive viewing.