As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, HBO’s addictive series Game of Thrones leads me down a winding path.
Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season. 5 discs. color. 561 min. HBO Studios. 2012. DVD UPC 883929268757. $59.99.
Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season. 5 discs. color. 550 min. HBO Studios. 2013. DVD UPC 883929242993. $59.99.
Game of Thrones: The Complete Third Season. HBO Studios. Not yet released on DVD. $59.99.
Based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” saga, HBO’s grandly ambitious series, which just completed its third season, follows the intricate and complicated maneuvers of a huge cast of characters engaged in a battle for a crown: the heirs of a slain king are set in murderous opposition, an exiled would-be queen plots in the East, and two ruling families, along with legions of connections, spies, and allies, fight a pitched and bloody battle from North to South. It is a complicated, richly textured, and gripping series, notable for its sudden plot twists and its darkly violent tone (played out through plenty of very disturbing scenes). With so many players seeking the throne, and so many competing interests, the power of the series rests firmly in the characters, which are portrayed with sharp edges and murky borders. Morally ambiguous, the show features few characters that are purely good or evil (although evil certainly has a tight grip on some). Equally compelling is the world building, which vivifies as it expands: vaguely medieval landscapes are joined by those reflecting an even older, more mythic feel, as well as icy plains, lush forests, and any number of unique castles and holdings. Blending both historical touchstones and fantasy motifs the series evokes the War of the Roses, the schemes of the Borgias, and Viking sagas and includes characters that can embody animals, see the future, and mother dragons. With its multiple plotlines and quick, episodic pacing, the series feels both portentous and immediate—a thrilling combination that leads to quick addiction and binge watching.
The Vikings. History Channel. 2013. (Not yet released on DVD).
For fans who are most interested in the adventure and underlying mythic elements of Game of Thrones, suggest this new series on the History Channel. It, too, has a lush and tactile visual feel and the same strong sense of atmosphere and quick pacing. Set in the early medieval period, it follows the fate of a band of Norsemen as they battle for power, raid the coast of England, and contend with the will of their gods. Season 1 centers on Ragnar Lodbrok, a warrior who is weary of raids to the East and the staid, conservative rule of his earl. When he discovers a way to sail to the lands of the West, he challenges his earl and goes questing, ravaging the north coast of England and setting into motion events that will eventually lead him to becoming a ruler in his own right.
While this series is not as political or as complexly plotted as Game of Thrones, fans of that show who are interested in its military, adventure, and religious aspects will find much to enjoy here as well.
The Tudors: The Complete Series. 15 discs. color. 34 hrs. Showtime Entertainment. 2010. DVD UPC 097360733044. $99.98.
Fans who enjoy the lushness, political maneuvering, and detail of Game of Thrones might also enjoy Showtime’s series about the reign of King Henry VIII. It also features a large cast spanning kings, cardinals, courtiers, mistresses, and wives, all of whom have agendas set at cross purposes with one another. While Henry’s throne is never in real danger—the game at the heart of the series is not for his crown but to conceive his heir and to gain his favor—the plots and counterplots are just as complicated and compelling as those powering the HBO series. One by one, individuals, such as Cromwell, and whole families, such as the Boleyns, scheme to hold power within Henry’s domain. And one by one they fall to his anger and the executioner’s sword. While the picture isn’t necessarily accurate historically, the sense of place always rings true. With grand landscapes, careful attention to detail—especially costuming—and a heavy, dangerous, and expectant tone, this historical soap opera, which lasted four seasons, makes for addictive viewing. Fans looking for more in the same vein might keep an eye out for the “Cousins’ War” series premiering on Starz this August.
House of Cards. 4 discs. color. 675 min. Sony. 2013. DVD UPC 043396424708. $55.99.
For viewers who most enjoy the scheming and the sheer ruthless exercise of power in Game of Thrones, suggest Netflix’s recent production starring the ever-brilliant Kevin Spacey. Lacking dragons, swords, and shape-shifters, House of Cards moves Game of Thrones into a contemporary setting—the halls of Congress, where the slippery sports of deceit, manipulation, and power unfold. Spacey plays Frank Underwood, the House majority whip who has been disappointed in his ambitions to serve as secretary of state, a post promised to him by the president. The 13-episode series tracks Underwood’s revenge and new ambitions, as well as his expedient use of other players and would-be players in the ongoing game of power at the heart of the show. Fast-paced, acidly smart, and slickly produced, House of Cards is a lush and nihilistic meditation on the way power is amassed and exercised: so ruthlessly, it turns out, that even the Lannisters could take notes. Fans might also like to consider the 1990 BBC version as well.
I, Claudius. 5 discs. color. 668 min. Acorn Media. 2012. DVD UPC 054961875092. $59.99.
While not as fantastical, opulent, or sprawling as Game of Thrones, this BBC production, based on two novels by Robert Graves, ably goes toe-to-toe with that series for its political machinations and complexity of plots (and for its time, the sex and violence). The story is told in flashbacks from the point of view of Claudius, the fourth emperor of Rome, who, despite his image as a stammering fool, survived decades of double crosses and murder. As part of the family that included Caligula and Nero, Claudius lived in the company of schemers. The way he navigated their plans and stayed alive, as well as the way he tells his own story as an old man looking back, is enthralling. For fans who enjoy the psychological motivations of Game of Thrones and are willing to forgo its fantasy elements, this 13 episode series, recently released in a special 35th-anniversary edition, may be just the thing to fill in time before HBO runs the next season of Game of Thrones.
Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. Spectra: Bantam. (Song of Ice & Fire, Bk. 1). 1996. 704p. ISBN 9780553103540. $35.
The first stop for fans of the HBO program is to read the books by Martin if they have not already done so. Season one adapted A Game of Thrones, season two covered A Clash of Kings, and season three concluded halfway through A Storm of Swords. Viewers who don’t want to read ahead at least have two books to tide them over until season four begins, but Martin is up to book five in the series, so those who don’t mind getting a jump and perhaps want to be better prepared for scenes like the Red Wedding have a great deal to read while waiting for the next season. Viewers should note, however, that Martin’s books differ from the HBO episodes: the show is faster paced; many of the key characters are older; plotlines and some events have been condensed, changed, added, or cut; and some characters are presented in different ways. The exquisite world building, the emotional power of the stories, the strong characterizations, and the multiple points of view are shared between print and screen, however, as are the dark tone, moral ambiguity, and the mix of political treachery, family saga, and history and fantasy elements.
Durham, David Anthony. Acacia. Anchor: Doubleday. 2008. 768p. ISBN 9780385722520. pap. $7.99.
Durham’s sprawling trilogy (which also includes The Other Lands and The Sacred Band) makes a good suggestion for next reading. While the pacing is closer to Martin’s novels than to the HBO series, the vivid world building, the multiple plots, the historically informed setting, and the rich characterizations are all present. So, too, are plenty of intrigue, treachery, action, and moral ambiguity. A saga of an overthrown king, hidden heirs, and schemes, Durham’s story launches with an assassination plot hatched by northern rebels of the Mein. As the Akaran empire falls and as the war of the Mein is launched, the fate of the four royal children—two boys and two girls—becomes central. Their plight, survival, and quest to once again rule their kingdom, as well as the plans and plots of others, propel this epic and grand-scale trilogy.
Ruckley, Brian. Winterbirth. Orbit. (Godless World). 2008. 688p. ISBN 9780316068062. pap. $7.99.
Readers who want more political fantasy novels, as well as a medieval setting, a dark and brutal tone, a hazy veil of moral uncertainty, and large-scale world building might enjoy Ruckley’s “Godless World” trilogy. It pairs well with the HBO series as Ruckley offers an emotionally involving narrative, with well-developed characters placed in a fully realized world, and plenty of plots and treachery to track. In a world abandoned by the gods, several races are caught in a violent war. The armies of the Black Road (a group of humans exiled in the north who adhere to a religion focused on predestination) advance southward, set on a relentless course to reclaim what was once theirs. Their quest sets a number of characters in opposition to one another—key among them are those who see the conflict as a chance to rule. Infused with Scottish history and hints of magic, Ruckley’s meaty and vivid saga spins out in Bloodheir and concludes in Fall of Thanes.
Cornwell, Bernard. The Winter King. Griffin: Saint Martin’s. 1997. 448p. ISBN 9780312156961. pap. $16.99.
HBO’s series, for all its political scheming and treachery, has just enough of an adventure edge that it matches well with titles that have an action focus as well, an element Cornwell ably supplies in his retelling of the Arthurian tales. Cornwell also offers Game of Thrones’ legion of fans large helpings of many of its most addictive aspects, including a vividly realized historical setting; a dark, gritty, and engrossing sensibility; a strong background of folklore and myth; and story lines that intertwine war, betrayal, greed, and duty. The three-book series begins with The Winter King, in which the complex figure of Arthur is introduced, along with the scheming and manipulative Guinevere, the ambitious and dishonest Lancelot, and the powerful and crafty Merlin. As the trilogy unfolds in Enemy of God and Excalibur, even those who know the legends well will be enthralled by the deeply textured world building; the layers of conflict among characters, cultures, and religions; and the battles and complex political intrigue.
Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. 28 CDs. unabridged. Books on Tape. (Song of Ice & Fire, Bk. 1). 2004. ISBN 9781415901502. $75.
To gain an experience of Martin’s books beyond the visual, suggest the audiobooks read by Roy Dotrice. In a gruff, gravelly voice, Dotrice crafts highly immersive experiences that grab hold of listeners and never let go, owing largely to his ability to create the pitch-perfect tone for each scene. Dotrice also creates lively characterizations with wonderful inflection and accents, each flavored to account for regional differences. He is a master at pacing Martin’s sprawling novel so that it becomes a rich and fevered experience that is a joy to listen to and that moves at a clip that heightens the tensions of the various plots. Watching the HBO series benefits newbies to Martin’s world as it supplies visual cues as to who’s who and manages the complexities of the various plotlines. Dotrice, who must read every word, does the same thing through his voice alone and offers listeners an experience that is every bit as transformative and masterly as Jim Dale’s reading of the Harry Potter books.
Abercrombie, Joe. The Blade Itself. unabridged. 22 hrs. Audible. (First Law, Bk. 1). 2010. $19.64.
Grim, dark, adventuresome, and set within a medieval infused world, Abercrombie’s “First Law” series is rife with gritty and grim battles; schemes, plots, and opportunism; and political tensions and intrigues. Like that of Martin and the HBO series, Abercrombie’s world is peopled with a large cast of characters and multiple, intertwining plots. This opening title sets up the Union empire and introduces, among others, Logen Ninefingers, a fighter who might have run out of luck, and Glokta, a Union inquisitor. Narrator Steven Pacey brilliantly performs this and several other titles in the series with great gusto and immediacy. He shares with Dotrice the ability to create a superb range of voices and a quick, engaging pace and to infuse the lines with perfect intonation—which is particularly important to pick up Abercrombie’s darkly ironic humor. With performances both immersive and addictive, both Pacey and Abercrombie will make listeners want to move on to the next title in the series, Before They Are Hanged.
For more recommendations, see Pop Culture Advisory: Game of Thrones.