A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the biggest series in modern fantasy. It’s an epic series of seven planned novels with only four currently published, complete with a fandom so ravenous Neil Gaiman has had to remind them that “George R. R. Martin is not your bitch”. Each book is, of course, thoroughly massive; even in paperback, A Game of Thrones runs over 800 pages, and the novels are regularly split into two books overseas.
In short, A Song of Ice and Fire can be pretty intimidating.
But the HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones is due out next year, and it’s filled to the brim with good actors that I like, including Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Because I know I’m going to watch it, I decided to finally suck it up and dig in.
A Game of Thrones is set in Westeros, also known as the Seven Kingdoms, a land where summers last years and winters lifetimes. After the throne was taken in a bloody civil war by his friend Robert Baratheon, Eddard “Ned” Stark, Lord of Winterfell, has tended to the North and his family with nary a thought of court. When King Robert comes calling with the news that the King’s Hand, Jon Arryn, has died and offers Ned the position, Ned reluctantly takes it in order to discover the truth of Arryn’s death. Meanwhile, across the sea, the last daughter of the royal house Robert wrested control from has married a great warlord in an attempt to gather forces to retake Westeros. But all these mortal concerns pale in the face of the strange and supernatural stirrings beyond the Wall in the North, to the horror of the ever-vigilant Night’s Watch, a brotherhood sworn to protecting the Kingdoms from what lies beyond. Summer is fading; winter is coming.
A Game of Thrones is epic in scope, which means lots and lots of characters. Martin helpfully provides a few pages on the major houses in Westeros that covers nearly all of the main characters, although it would have been much appreciated at the beginning of the book. (I was occasionally scared that they were in the back because they had spoilers. They do not, so feel free to check.) There’s also the ever helpful fantasy map at the beginning of Westeros, although we’re left to our own devices when we visit Daenerys, the last daughter of the House Targaryen, across the sea. Martin’s worldbuilding is pretty much flawless. I was a bit concerned with the supposed “barbarians” Daenerys lives among, but we’re quickly shown that’s the attitude of her racist brother, not her. There’s a real depth and detail to everything, and only once is he tempted to crowbar a little exposition in concerning the supposedly mythical Children of the Forest, which I could forgive, as it adds a colonial narrative to Westeros. Martin does his best to make this fantasy world as real as our world is, and he wildly succeeds–especially in action and battle scenes that drive home the cost of war.
It’s also amazing how he manages to make a book that’s 700 pages long in hardback and 800 in paperback so readable and enthralling. I will readily admit I got a little fatigued towards the end–the last doorstopper fantasy series I read was Harry Potter, and it’s been a while for me. It’s no fault of Martin’s. I think this readability can be chalked up to the almost thriller-like structure of the book. We alternate between characters every chapter, and each chapter is short and usually ends on a great hook. Each chapter reflects its third-person narrator–for instance, Sansa, Ned’s daughter, is prim, proper, and romantic, while her sister, Arya, is a stubborn little tomboy. While there’s plenty of characters who are young, the narration manages to reflect their youth without dumbing them down. It’s ridiculously well done.
All of this, on its own, would be superb fantasy. What makes A Game of Thrones truly great is how human each and every character is. There is no such thing as purely good or purely evil. Even Ned Stark, who is a beacon of goodness in these dark times, has his faults–Jon Snow, his bastard son, thinks of him as almost perfect, but always remembers he cheated on his wife. Some of the more flamboyant “bad guys”–Queen Cersei, Prince Joffrey, and Viserys–don’t have as much depth as the rest of the cast, but it’s still there, and I have every confidence that Martin expands on them in later books in the series. My favorite characters ended up being Arya, the aforementioned tomboy (of course, right?), and Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf son of the politically powerful and physically gorgeous Lannister family, whose sarcasm, wry sense of humor, and motivation were marvelous. (I sensed, for some reason, a touch of Truman Capote in him, which I thoroughly enjoyed.) But that’s just the tip of the iceberg; each character is fully realized and almost heartbreakingly human–honorable and stubborn Ned, Daenerys coming into her own in a strange land, and, almost worst of all, Sansa’s realization that the world is not as the songs and fairy tales have rendered it. It’s truly a marvelous feat.
I look very much forward to the next one, although I may wait until next year to space them out.
Bottom line: A Game of Thrones boasts an absolutely solid and realistic fantasy world, as well as a thriller-like structure that makes the 800 pages fly by–but what truly makes it great are how human each character is, never wholly good or wholly evil. If you like fantasy, or even just political intrigue, this is a must read.
I bought this book from a local thrift store.