Yes, I am well aware that MizzeeOH already reviewed this. But she didn’t call dibs, so HA! Anyway, let’s venture into my first book review of the first volume in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, A Game of Thrones.
While I never really considered myself an avid reader, the one genre of literature that has always captivated me is fantasy. It all started when I saw the Lord of the Rings movies and developed a love for RPGs like Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem and the Lunar series. This led me to the Inheritance Cycle (Shut up! I was fourteen), which lead to the His Dark Materials trilogy, which lead to the Dark Tower series and other such tales. At one point I even tried to write my own fantasy series, but that was ultimately scrapped upon the realization that my writing sucked and that it was a soulless, cliché rip-off of other, much better series. (Now that I think about it, what fantasy series didn’t borrow from Tolkien to some extent?) But then something happened. Something that changed my view on the fantasy genre as a whole, and made me realize just how big things can be if you have the right ingredients in the right place and the know-how to use them.
I was chatting with a friend of mine when she introduced me to Game of Thrones. Not the book, but the HBO series. I couldn’t watch it myself because I don’t have HBO, but clips on YouTube alone were enough to get me involved, so much so I already have the first season DVD pre-ordered on Amazon. In the meantime I decided to read the book so I could really get a taste of what I was missing out on, and this is what I discovered.
Game of Thrones is set in the land of Westeros, a vast continent rich with history where seasons can last for years on end. The lands have been divided into seven kingdoms, each ruled by a high noble family, all of which have their own complicated relationships. One of these families is the Starks, rulers of the North. As the long summer comes to an end and winter draws nearer each day, the Starks are visited by King Robert Baratheon and his entire court with the request that his old friend Lord Ned be the new Hand of the King, his most trusted advisor. Against his better judgment, Ned takes up the offer and is brought along to King’s Landing. As his new job takes its toll and certain event unfold, Ned holds some speculation about the death of the old Hand and suspects that it might be the plot of Queen Cersei Lannister and her family. But the further Ned investigates, the more he realizes that the secrets they hold might tear the lands apart in war once again.
Meanwhile, Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow is recruited to the Night’s Watch, an ancient order that dedicates their entire lives to guarding the Wall, a seven-hundred foot high wall of ice that reaches from one end of the continent to the next, separating Westeros from the far North and the evils beyond its boundaries. Across the Narrow Sea, Viserys Targaryen, an exiled prince, obsesses over reclaiming the throne that King Robert usurped. To assemble his army, he weds his sister Daenerys to the chief of a tribe of mighty warriors, not realizing that he had put her in a position of power greater than he imagined.
A Game of Thrones is an interesting specimen in fantasy in a lot of ways. George R. R. Martin managed to create a world so rich and so lively it seems impossible to keep track of it all without a bunch of flow charts to help you out. Regardless, he gives Westeros so much life that it leaps out of the pages. Reading this I felt like I was right there standing there on top of the Wall as the blistering winter winds howl, scurrying through the labyrinth halls of Red Keep in King’s Landing, surrounded by the exotic sights, sounds and smells of Vaes Dothrak. Just as you are placed in the center of this world, you are also placed in the center of all the action. Game of Thrones as a whole is a very complicated story where you never know what might happen next, but Martin’s masterful writing style somehow makes it pretty easy to follow without having to hold your hand the whole way. We see and feel what these characters are thinking and going through as these plots unfold before their eyes. There are a few fantastical elements to this world such as the extended seasons and the existence of certain mythical creatures (many of which are believed to be extinct), but for the most part, a lot of them are kind of downplayed. The major focus of the story is on a plot where everyone playing is in a struggle for power. There’s a lot of intrigue, betrayal, secrets and suspicion, all sitting on a powder keg that could go off at any time.
Westeros is a place with a grand scope and filled to the brim with characters who all have their own enticing stories to tell and their own complicated relations. By the end of the novel you will have a firm opinion on almost every character. Some like Ned Stark, his adventurous daughter Arya, the exiled princess Daenerys or the dwarf Tyrion (easily the best character in the book) will have you rooting for them every step of the way, while other characters like Ned’s more spoiled daughter Sansa, Queen Cersei, the self righteous Viserys, and especially the malicious Prince Joffrey (who is a textbook definition of the word “shithead”) will make you want to reach through the pages and choke them. But since there’s no real main protagonist and each chapter is told by one of eight POV characters, we get to see them from different angles and different perspectives. This leads to a lot of ambiguity as Martin seems to love playing with the reader’s expectations. At first I found myself warming up to characters like King Robert, only for me to realize that they’re not all they’re cracked to be. The same thing happened for me when reading Catelyn’s chapters. Now don’t get me wrong, she is a great character. She’s a devoted wife and mother, incredibly determined and willing to risk her life to protect those she loves. The thing about her that keeps me from loving her is the way she treats certain characters. She acts like a complete bitch towards Jon when he really didn’t do anything wrong. And while her animosity with Tyrion was more understandable, I couldn’t help but resent her attitude towards him either. So don’t set any of your opinions in stone with certain characters, because you never quite know if they’ll change your mind. Except for Joffrey who can go dive headfirst into a pile of rusty nails… that’s on fire… with AIDS.
Remember what I said about Martin loving to play with reader’s expectations? Well apparently he likes doing that a lot, because there’s a new twist and turn at the end of every single chapter that will keep you interested and guessing. If you think you know what’s going to happen, you don’t. If you think that certain characters will end up victorious, you’re probably wrong. For a fantasy story, it’s seriously grounded in reality, especially with some hard to handle facts that go against the conventions of the genre. Bad things can and will happen to the good guys, and sometimes their own good traits do end up becoming their downfall. Children are forced to grow up at tremendous rates, characters once thought trustworthy end up stabbing everyone in the back, and misunderstandings lead to disaster. Needless to say, it can get pretty brutal at times, sometimes so much that it can be quite unsettling.
A phrase that is uttered a lot throughout the book is the Stark family mantra, “Winter is coming.” Literally, this can allude to world’s unusual weather patterns, but it can also be an analogy of the fact that we go through days of suffering and hardship in our lives and their inevitability. When the good times end, they are followed by the harsh times, just as summer is followed by winter. (I know fall is in between, but just go with it for the sake of the metaphor.) Characters do suffer and sometimes it looks like things can always get worse. The author never hesitates to remind us that the hero doesn’t always have to win, and that sometimes the scum of the earth end up triumphant. It can be kind of a downer at times. Hell, the last few chapters were absolutely depressing. But sometimes that’s a wake up call a lot of people need and that everybody eventually learns, and this story does a great job of conveying this. Does this mean things will get better among all the turmoil? With a nation on the brink of war, it’s hard to say, but there’s only one way to know for certain.
So what it all comes down to is that Game of Thrones is a one of a kind tale that will grab a hold of your interest and never let go. There’s something in it for everyone. If you like strong, complex characters, twisting plots, good writing, or just something a little different, then I can’t recommend this enough. It’s a real doorstopper, clocking in at almost 700 pages, but you should be able to breeze through it easily enough, and with each chapter you complete, your anticipation for the next books will only grow.