a game of thrones

The first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series confirmed one thing for me: the guy knows how to write an epic fantasy series. The magnitude of the story is comparable to Lord of the Rings, but it was much more successful at actually capturing my interest from the get-go.

The story opens with a prologue set apart from the rest of the novel, foreshadowing the danger of what’s beyond the Wall and the possible supernatural threat of the Others.

After the prologue, we’re introduced to Eddard Stark (usually called Ned) via his son Bran. The Starks play an instrumental role, and that much is apparent early on, especially as they make up a healthy portion of the main characters. We find out that they are essentially the rulers of the north, which is quite sparse in terms of civilisation, and are one of the main seven houses that rule the fictional land of Westeros.

The book switches point of views every chapter—overall, there are eight characters through which the narrative unfolds. First off there’s the Starks; Eddard and his wife Catelyn, along with their children Sansa, Arya and Bran. There’s also Jon Snow, the alleged bastard child of Eddard and an unknown woman. The other two characters are Tyrion Lannister, brother to the Queen, and Daenerys Targaryen, one of the rightful heirs to the throne who went into hiding following the murder of her parents.

Quite quickly, it’s evident that Eddard Stark is going to be important; he is revealed to be King Robert’s closest friend, and is asked to become Hand of the King, giving him a rather powerful position. The thing about Martin’s series is that it isn’t focused on the fantasy aspect—it concentrates far more on the politics and the power struggles, and the rather unstable political climate. It’s a tension that’s been building since the overthrowing and murder of King Aerys II, Daenerys’ father, in a war instigated by Robert.

The major symbol of the book is the Iron Throne, which Robert has claimed as his own in the years since the war. The Iron Throne holds the power of the seven kingdoms, basically; the power of kingship. And it’s a rather eerie symbol, considering it’s made out of weapons… and apparently people have been known to impale themselves while sitting on it. Freaky, right? It’s rather symbolic, I guess, of what power ends up doing to people—or what other people do to them for that power.

The Lannisters are set up to be the villains (some of them, at least) of the piece, with Queen Cersei seemingly hating Robert and arousing Ned’s suspicions immediately. Jaime Lannister, Cersei’s twin brother, was responsible for killing King Aerys—earning him the title of Kingslayer, as he was previously part of the guard to protect Aerys. Tyrion is the only one of the Lannisters who seems to be in a moral grey area and not too deeply involved in the plots and intrigues at first, until it’s for his own gain.

It’s a very compelling story; Martin knows how to pack the information in while still making it interesting and engaging to read. Slowly the characters and the world are unveiled, and it becomes possible to envisage the snowy landscapes of the north; the noble atmosphere of Winterfell, the residence of the Starks. It’s a journey, basically—and it provides a lot of insight into just what people will do for power. It’s set in a medieval Europe-esque society, where jousting and melees are still popular and knights roam the land.

For me, the character that stood out most was Daenerys. The girl who had only just been born as the dynasty of the Targaryens fell, exiled along with her brother Viserys. Viserys is quite possibly the nastiest piece of work; he’s so consumed with the idea of getting his throne back that he sells her off to be married to a man called Khal Drogo, who basically commands an army of his own.

Daenerys is only thirteen years old at this stage, too, let’s remember. But she goes along with it because she’s never had any power of her own and she doesn’t know how to fight back, really. Viserys has spent their whole life telling her this is what she has to do to help him, and she’s so disempowered that she meekly agrees with him. The first book is her journey to early adulthood as she discovers her own power and how strong she really is.

Tyrion Lannister was a close second place in terms of most intriguing characters—cunning, sarcastic, cynical, a little bitter and disdained by everyone for being a dwarf. Tyrion managed to bring humour to the book in a way that no one else did; he was also most often the smartest person there, having quite a talent for political manoeuvring (which he really only used to help himself out).

He’s a character that evokes sympathy because of the situation he’s in, and because he gets misjudged a fair bit by everyone else. But Tyrion still definitely has his own flaws, which seems to be the norm with Martin’s characters. None of them are particularly decent people, and the ones who are don’t last long.

A Game of Thrones was a very exhilarating start to what I’m supposing really is one of the greatest epic fantasy series. (Although I do admit that I only ever read The Fellowship of the Ring.) It caught and held my interest for 800-odd pages, and I’m looking forward to reading on to see what happens to these characters next.

George R. R. Martin has interwoven a beautiful and rich fantasy world with a dark and gritty story of political conquest. It really just works. His characters aren’t just vehicles to move the plot forward, either; they’re well-rounded individuals who all bring something to the narrative. They’re funny, they’re noble, they’re usually kind of awful human beings and they’re real. I think that’s the most important thing. It’s easy to imagine real people acting this way, which is what makes for a good story.

So—George R. R. Martin, I salute you and I’m looking forward to continuing the series with A Clash of Kings.

in defence of females redux

There’s another medium where female characters generate a lot of hate: video games. There are reasons for this, and one of the primary ones happens to be that a lot of female gamers take issue with the fact there’s a lot of “fan service” going on. Specifically, the females are half-naked a lot of the time. Not always, but enough for it to be a concern.

This is the way the companies market the games to their male audience. It’s proof that sexism is alive and well in the video game industry. But it doesn’t mean the female characters should be completely disregarded or hated.

The Final Fantasy games are an extremely popular Japanese role-playing (or JRPG) series. There are a lot of perfectly well written, fleshed out female characters in this series, even if sometimes they have misplaced their bra.

Final Fantasy VII is perhaps the most well known game, spawning several spin-offs and a movie. It’s about a lot of complicated things—the plot is certainly more complicated than a lot of books and movies—but it basically comes down to an ex-mercenary who joins a terrorist group that his childhood friend happens to be part of. Their goal is to topple the megalomaniac arms development turned electricity company, Shinra, that has basically taken over the world.

The game is a love story, with a twist. Tifa and Aerith both have feelings for the main character, Cloud, and this develops all throughout the first disc of the game. You even get to pick which one of them Cloud is nicer to, through text options, and you score a date with one of them depending on what you picked. This love triangle is the cause for a lot of the hate focused on Tifa and Aerith. There are a lot of debates about whom Cloud should have picked, which are silly when you consider the fact that Aerith dies, so it negates one side of the argument completely.

A lot of fans seem to be under the misapprehension that Tifa and Aerith were fighting tooth and nail for Cloud’s affections. Yes, they competed, but they also became close friends. Tifa was just as distraught as Cloud when Aerith died. Both characters are strong and have agency, in their own way.

Tifa is a martial artist who resolved to topple Shinra after her father was killed and her hometown destroyed because of them. Aerith is a girl with special powers, who spent most of her childhood in the Shinra labs as a research specimen. She joins the fight against Shinra to learn more about her heritage and the fate of her previous boyfriend, who was killed at the hands of Shinra. Both of them are three-dimensional female characters, and both of them have strengths and flaws that add to the overall story. It wouldn’t have worked half as well with one of them missing, and the contrast between them is what makes them so great.

… Yes, Tifa wears a mini-skirt and suspenders, and Aerith wears a pink dress and is delegated the role of Team Healer, a general female stereotype. But this doesn’t make them vapid or one-dimensional or purely “fan service”. This is an aspect of their characters that is inevitable in the video game industry, and a whole lot of other industries, but it’s not all there is to them.

The other Final Fantasy games similarly have female characters that are hated, simply because they occasionally need to be saved or occasionally reveal that they are flawed characters. Oh no!

In Final Fantasy VIII, Rinoa is a character that joins a resistance faction to free a town from martial law, despite her father being the general of the army of that country. Later in the game, after travelling with Squall and co, she becomes a Sorceress: someone who is hated and feared by the world. But she deals with this as best she can, and she ends up being the strongest character in the game because of it.

Final Fantasy IX has Garnet, who is heir to the throne but decides to seek counsel from her uncle when her mother starts becoming more and more corrupt. Final Fantasy X is really all about Yuna, a summoner who decides to take on the burden of saving the world, knowing that she’ll have to sacrifice her life to do so. And Final Fantasy XII tells the story of Ashe, another princess who has her country invaded by the enemy, joins the underground resistance and does a lot of the dirty work herself to get her country back.

These are all female characters that accomplish just as much as the male characters, both in terms of development and their achievements in the plot. They’re all clear-cut individuals who have motivations and aspirations, and they are all integral to the story.

Why do they receive so much hate? Rinoa is apparently too naïve and immature, even though she’s only seventeen and has lived most of her life in luxury. Garnet is apparently not worldly or wise enough, even though she’s never been outside her kingdom. Yuna is apparently too much of a martyr, even though she eventually challenges the notion of sacrifice and saves the world while surviving. And Ashe is apparently too serious and “bitchy”, despite the fact she lost her father, husband and kingdom all at once.

These aren’t really circumstances normal people find themselves in, but these characters have the personalities of real people, and it seems they most often get criticised for acting like real people.  Instead of being one-dimensional cardboard cut outs, saving the world and never doing any wrong, they are well-rounded individuals who don’t always do or say the right thing. It’s exactly the same with the male characters, but they are seemingly accepted because they are strong and manly, and sometimes have to save the girl.

Final Fantasy XIII is especially guilty of this criticism of its female characters. Lightning and Fang are accepted by both male and female gamers alike, because they’re strong, stoic and… well, manly. It’s interesting to note that Fang’s character originally was meant to be male. Vanille and Serah, on the other hand, receive a lot of hate for being “girly”. Vanille is kooky, eccentric and sometimes annoying on the surface—but she’s hiding a lot, and this seems to be what people forget. She has depth; incredible amounts of it, even though sometimes you can see up her skirt. In one review, Serah was called “passive” for allowing her boyfriend to help her deal with her grim future. A grim future that was, essentially, either turning to crystal or becoming a mindless monster.

That is not exactly the correct definition of passive. That should actually be defined as ‘normal’—an eighteen-year-old girl not knowing how to deal with that on her own and having no one else to turn to? Shocking.

The Final Fantasy series has a lot of depth and, yes, it has a lot of flaws. But its female characters are rather amazing, and should be recognised as such—they don’t have to be liked, because their personalities are unique and won’t appeal to everyone. But they should be respected as characters and they shouldn’t be hated for being female or showing off their cleavage, because they all have a purpose outside of that. They all tell a story. They’re all important.