Fat Books & Thin Women

The women of Game of Thrones

Maybe six months ago, I got pulled out of my Macedonia-induced cultural stupor, introduced to this Game of Thrones phenomenon by a billboard for the HBO show near the Peace Corps office in Skopje. (Yeah, there’s HBO in Macedonia! Just not in my house.) My interest in the series was pretty low, though, because (a) I am not a high fantasy kind of person and (b) I hadn’t read much about the first book of the series except for a review taking a critical look at the roles for women.

But in early July, standing in a Barnes & Noble in Florida with my dad, having already picked out copies of A Visit From the Goon Squad and The Blind Assassin and one other title which clearly means a lot to me, given I’ve forgotten what it was, I picked up Game of Thrones from the massive center display, read the first page. Read the second page, put all my other books down on the floor, and read the prologue as my dad did whatever my dad was doing. (He bought Matterhorn that night. See, good taste in literature runs in the family.)

I usually yell at people for starting reviews (or reflections, in this case) by explaining why they aren’t qualified to write the review they’re writing, but…you know, I have nothing to compare Game of Thrones to, there’s no useful commentary I can make regarding its place in the world of high fantasy, so I’m not even going to pretend. I am just going to write about the women, because I come out so far from that post that introduced me to the series. (I can’t remember who wrote about the women of Game of Thrones – if you know, let me know.) There are plenty of spoilers in here.

Martin’s world is so strongly characterized, so fully described, so elaborately peopled; and the women aren’t left out of this. Some of Martin’s characters can be labeled as types (Cersei: manipulative, cold-hearted bitch) but they’re never defined by those labels, they are always able to act in honest and sometimes surprising (but ultimately believable) ways.

Cersei Lannister, the wife of King Robert of the Seven Kingdoms, is a woman who initially appears to be little more than a woman cuckolding her husband and subscribing to some old time views on the value of pure bloodlines, but reveals herself over the course of the novel to have more power than any of the men around her. By the close of Game of Thrones it’s clear that she’s the one really ruling the Seven Kingdoms, despite her son’s unpredictable actions after being crowned. Not just that but that, without anyone’s knowledge, she has for years been manipulating those around her, sometimes acting without the knowledge of any others, to edge her way into greater power.

Catelyn Stark, wife to Robert Stark of Winterfell (who becomes the King’s Hand early in the novel), likewise reveals herself to have more depth than the woman who first appears, furious that her husband’s bastard son (Jon Snow) is living with the rest of her family at Winterfell. Apart from that slip, though, she turns out to be a wise mother and advisor to her husband, and even her tactical error of taking Tyrion Lannister into captivity is admirable for the sheer ballsiness of the move.

Daenerys Targaryen, a teenager living in exile with her brother Viserys, the only survivors to King Aerys II Targaryen, who was violently replaced on the throne by King Robert. Easily cowed by her brother Viserys early on, forced into a marriage with Khal Drogo of the Dothraki (horseback riders), she gains a sense of self and of leadership after her marriage to Drogo, eventually ordering the execution of Viserys, who has repeatedly offended and threatened her and her husband. Dany is awesome. She is totally the best character in the book. Killing her last family member! Owning dragon eggs! Learning the limits of compassion and killing a woman she earlier rescued, who she blames for the death of her husband! Awesome, Dany, awesome. If Martin kills her off in the next four books I’m going to be so pissed.

Then there’s Arya Stark. Arya, Arya, Arya. Born to be a lady, doesn’t want to be a lady, close with her bastard half-brother Jon Snow, who gives her a sword, “Needle,” allowed by her father to train in dancing, aka the Braavosi method of sword fighting. Arya is like a Tamora Pierce character transplanted into the high fantasy world, running around hearing secrets, finding secret passages, being mistaken for a boy. It’s not clear, when Game of Thrones ends, what’s happened to Arya, but as with Dany…if Martin doesn’t keep her around, I’m going to pitch a fit.

I tend to think of high fantasy as being the realm of dudes. My reluctance to read Game of Thrones was due in large part to this idea (which I’m still not willing to label a misconception, outside of Martin’s world. Tell me if I should). Even the minor female characters in Martin’s world, though, are notable for their strength, like Catelyn Stark’s sister who opts to sequester herself in a mountaintop fortress with her nutty son, threatening to throw prisoners out of doors in the floor. Women may not garner the notice of the men they stand with, but Martin repeatedly points to the ways in which the women of the Seven Kingdoms wield as much, or sometimes more, power than the men surrounding them. I am so psyched to read the rest of this series.


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I read A Game of Thrones in a frenzy one weekend and couldn’t put it down. Arya is fantastic and I can’t wait to see more of her. I just started A Clash of Kings recently and then had to put it down for other reading commitments (yuck), but I’ll be getting back to it soon since it is entrenched in my mind and I cannot forget a thing about it. I love the story.

Comment by Natalie ~ the Coffee and a Book Chick

I think I finished this around late August, early September, and I’ve been holding off on the second book for the reasons you mention – I got so drawn into it that I lost the ability to do ANYTHING but read GoT till I hit the last page. It’s such a time commitment to read these books, but I’m psyched for the next one.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Great observation. The women in these books are fascinating and get involved. I esp love Arya!! I’m glad GRR Martin is back at the computer b/c I want more.

Also, he partly based these books on the Wars of the Roses, and you can identify specific people and incidents. Like Lord Frey being Lord Stanley who would go to battle and wait to join until he saw who was winning. Still wondering who is going to prove Henry Tudor and win the whole thing!!

Comment by Word Hits

I had no idea he based them on the Wars of the Roses. I’m going to look for that when I start A Clash of Kings.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I’m guessing that the review you’re referring to is probably the one by Sady Doyle.

As far as high fantasy being the “realm of dudes” and whether that is a misconception: I’d say yes and no. There is a lot of fluff in the fantasy genre and most of it certainly is aimed at men over women. That said, while Martin’s work is among the best of the genre, there is a lot of other quality fantasy around that has well realized characters, both male and female.

You need to be picky about what you read, but it’s not all giant swords and chainmail bikinis or whatever stereotypes fantasy has associated with it these days.

Comment by Chad

Right, it’s pretty easy to generalize about any genre. I love that Martin’s work is pulling so many people (like me) who don’t ordinarily read fantasy into it, because reading one fantastic novel can make such a difference in the way someone perceives an entire genre. I’d love your recommendations for other fantasy novels that are similar to Martin’s in terms of the skilled characterization; I still can’t get over the way he handled such a huge cast of completely realized people.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Interesting post! I have these books, well, four of the five so far, sitting on top of my bookshelves, tempting me with their story and heft. But it’s been long since I’ve been able to read a book or four of my own rather than those sent to me, which are also enjoyable. These are books, I think, that I’ll read aloud to my hubby; we’ve done Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the Eragon series, David Eddings’s Belgarion series…we can do this one too.

This is one, though, I’ll admit, where we’ve seen the show first. I look forward to reading the books, and following what you’re talking about in terms of strong, effective women. One could make a study of this!

Comment by Steph VanderMeulen (@BellasBookshelf)

After months of being all “meh,” I’m starting to develop some interest in this series. Thanks to your review, this may become one of the precious books I read during winter break. You should feel honored. :]

Comment by Jennifer Maurer

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