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Gravitas – One of the problems that fantasy novels often face is that books from this genre are not taken as seriously as novels from other genres. This is completely unfair and does a disservice to a great and vibrant genre that has so many fantastic and imaginative authors. However, as unfair as this may be, this reputation still persists. Game of Thrones doesn’t suffer from this prejudice as much as some novels however. So how has George R R Martin managed to gain gravitas from a cynical world? The answer in part is due to the complex family histories and rivalries that course through the books, so reminiscent of the power struggles of Medieval Europe, such as the War of the Roses in Medieval England. The Wall is clearly identifiable as an extreme version of Hadrian’s Wall, and the tourneys and heraldry of the knights are believable because they are so recognisable from the history of our world. The complexity and research put into these books are so rich and thorough that it can’t help lend the world of Westeros depth and authenticity.
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Realistic Magic – Fantasy novels are so appealing because authors can imbue their worlds with magic. It opens up a primeval part of us that desires the raw power and mystery of the arcane arts. However, how well this is done is often either the making or breaking of a successful fantasy novel. The magic of Game of Thrones is clever, realistic, and believable. It is often subtle, such as the burning of leaches, engorged with king’s blood that puts a curse on the false pretenders to the throne of Westeros. However, it can also be more overt, such as with the dragons of Daenerys, either way, the magic is treated with respect and never becomes over the top or seem ridiculous. Magic depicted with a soft hand is often the stronger for it.
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Spectacle – Before he started writing Game of Thrones, George R R Martin had a career script writing in Hollywood, often being told that budgetary constraints prevented his more outlandish and spectacular ideas making the screen. Therefore he decided to write a set of novels, where his wildest imagination could run wild without the least consideration to cost or practicality. In fact, he claimed that when he wrote Game of Thrones it was with the intention that any film adaptation would be completely impossible – which of course is ironic, looking at the success of the television adaptation (more of that next week). Either way, the sheer scale and grander of the castles, armies, and cities of the Game of Thrones world is breath-taking as each castle outdoes the last in terms of majesty and scale.
George R R Martin also knows how to write fantastic scenes of spectacle such as the unforgettable tourney scenes when the great knights of the seven kingdoms meet on chargers and match lance against one another.
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Sex – okay, the sex in the books is nowhere near as pronounced as in the television series, but it still plays a massive part in making the series so exciting. It isn’t just that the sex scenes are well done (which they are) it’s the fact that sex plays such a central role in the politics between the warring families (and within those same families) running through virtually every plotline and subplot. Sex in Game of Thrones isn’t just about titillation and a few racy chapters, it’s about power and how sex can be used for good or ill in a complex game of strategy and domination. It’s a very sex obsessed world we live in, why would George R R Martin’s be any different from our own?
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Unpredictability – from the first novel, when they chop off the head of Ned Stark, you realise this is a very different series of books from what you’d normally expect from novels of this type. The shocks keep on coming, with the Red Wedding, and the string of patricides and regicides. No one can really predict how it will end, as no one can know with complete certainty who will be left standing at the end.
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Characters – finally we come to the real strength of Game of Thrones. As great and powerful as all the other factors are in making the books compelling, it is the characters within the story that make it really come alive. Each character is well thought out, with strong characteristics, have fascinating back stories and real, genuine, personalities of their own. The clever writing style, that changes the point of view each chapter between the various characters, gives the reader a thorough insight into each characters motives and ambitions.
It just shows, the secret of great writing isn’t really a secret at all – its still, and always will be, about the characters.
Next week I will discuss the television series, what the legacy of Game of Thrones may be, and how its success may have changed how we view fantasy novels.