A Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin

>> Monday, October 23, 2017

TITLE: Game of Thrones
AUTHOR: George RR Martin

PAGES: 848

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: 1st in the A Song of Ice and Fire series

Summers span decades. Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun.

As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must... and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty.

The old gods have no power in the south, Stark’s family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, the vengeance-mad heir of the deposed Dragon King has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities. He claims the Iron Throne.
Up until a month or so ago, I was perversely proud of being what felt like the only remaining Game of Thrones virgin. The TV show is one of the many I'm vaguely interested in watching, but then never do (pathetically, in the last few years, all I've watched on TV is Bake-off and Masterchef). As for the books, I had it in my mind that they were sort of Lord of the Rings-ish, which didn't tempt me.

So I was happy to go on my oblivious way, pretending to laugh when people made "You know nothing, Jon Snow!" jokes. Until my brother WhatsApped to tell me I needed to start the books NOW. He'd been reading them and watching the TV series, and he was desperate for someone to discuss his conspiracy theories with in real life (plus, he thought I'd like them, and he does know my taste). I love my brother, so off I went, armed with all sorts of resources he thought would help (including this really great non-spoilery animated map showing where everyone is and where they've been as the books advance).

And it was so, so good. Absolutely nothing like I expected. It's basically a really good soap opera, with larger-than-life and very well-developed characters, with an excellent balance of super-cool action and character drama, and also a great balance between evil and decent characters.

We have a large cast of central characters, most drawn from two families. There's the Starks, who govern the Northernmost region of the kingdom. They are headed by Lord Eddard Stark, who is a good friend of the King's. They grew up together, and Ned helped him defeat the previous king and take the throne. Now it's many years later, and the king has turned into an irresponsible, thoughtless man Ned has trouble respecting. He's married a woman from another powerful family, the Lannisters, and Ned worries that they are amassing a bit too much power through the actions of the queen, Cersei. Things come to a head when Ned is asked by the king to take the office of the Hand of the King (which is basically the man speaks for the king and ensures his will is done) and has to leave Winterfell with is family and travel South to King's Landing, the seat of the Court.

As this is going on, action is taking place across the sea, where two of the children of the former king managed to escape into exile when their whole family was slaughtered. The young man is now at an age when he thinks he's old enough to act on claim to the throne and marries off his sister, Daenerys, to the head of a huge tribe of horsemen who are famed as excellent warriors. He hopes their support will help him win back the throne.

Each chapter is narrated from the point of view of a different character (although all are narrated in third-person), and at least in this first book, most are from the Stark family. We've got Ned, his wife Catelyn, their two daughters, Arya and Sansa, their son Bran, and Jon Snow, Ned's illegitimate son. Jon has chosen to leave Winterfell to join a brotherhood devoted to guard a Wall that separates the kingdom from the dangers hiding in the ancient forest to the North. We've also got chapters from the point of view of Daenerys, and of Tyrion Lannister, a brother to the Queen.

I liked how that worked to move us to the different bits of the world, helping us see different bits of the action, and I liked how in some cases particular events were narrated from the POV of a character you wouldn't really expect. That felt like a particularly effective device. Anyway, I don't know whether we'll continue to follow the same characters' POVs throughout the rest of the books, but I suspect not necessarily. A couple of them (Ned and Catelyn, mostly) did not feel quite as fascinating as the rest (although I do think they were the right people to give us certain perspectives we needed to see) whereas there are a couple of other characters whose POVs I would be really intrigued to see.

What I've described is only setup, and I don't intend to say much more about the events that take place. Suffice it to say that there's quite a bit of drama. There's big, kingdom-changing drama, of the sort that made me go "I can't believe GRRM did that!", but there's also smaller, more interpersonal drama. And on the whole, it all feels beautifully justified by the different characters' personalities. These genuinely feel like real people, complex and flawed, all acting in ways that make sense given who they are. I felt there were a couple of small missteps (GRRM clearly feels that boys spoilt by their mothers and without a good masculine role model turn into evil monsters in a completely over-the-top way), but on the whole, I recognised these people as real.

The biggest chunk of the book is focused on what's going on at Court and the consequences of that, but there are also significant chunks with Jon Snow at the Wall and with Daenerys over the water. I think those two sets of chapters were my favourites, probably because the characters were fantastic. Whereas the rest of the main characters are part of a family, these two are more outsiders, having to make their own paths in the world, and each do this in very different ways. The other important thing is that what goes on in their stories has the potential to significantly disrupt what is occupying all the other characters' attention, and I'm sure that will become clear in future books.

My absolutely favourite character, however, might be Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion is a dwarf, which sets him apart from his "perfect" beautiful, golden family, particularly his brother Jaime. His father clearly disdains him, but Tyrion refuses to just live a quiet life and fade into the background. He's got one of those brains that just races ahead and makes everyone around him look like they're just plodding on. And that brilliant, brilliant brain also gets him into trouble, as he sometimes can't resist going a bit too far with a particularly clever put-down. I think the reason he's my favourite is because he's the most ambiguous of all the characters. Even having read the whole book, I can't quite figure him out, even with the chapters from his point of view. He seems to have a fair bit of loyalty to his family, while being completely realistic about what they're like, but he also seems to have quite a bit of decency, which can be seen in how he treats those around him. But he can also be completely ruthless. I really, really want to see more of him.

The other element that raises this book above most fantasy is the world-building. This is a fully-realised world. You get the feeling that there's real history behind all characters, and that the world in GRRM's head has lots more than what he just shows in the page. I also really like the touches of the paranormal, like the existence of actual dragons in the past, or what's going on beyond the wall. Well, it's only touches in this book, but I have no doubt there'll be more in later books.

It took me a fairly long time to read this one, and not just because it's a long book. At the beginning, it felt like there was a lot of setting up of the world. That wasn't a problem, and I really enjoyed it, but it didn't quite propel me forward and make me desperate to see what would happen next. I was reading 2 or 3 chapters a day and felt quite satisfied with that progress, as I could really savour them. And then, in the last third or so, things got really, really good and I flew through it. I expect the rest of the books will probably continue at pace, and I mean to start the second one straight away to find out!



Sun,  24 October 2017 at 03:40  

I felt like I wrote the first paragraph of your review. LOL I've been meaning to read the books/ watch the series for so many years now. Sadly I don't have a book-loving brother like you do. However, with your rating, maybe it's time for me to pick up the book. Thanks for the review.

Rosario 25 October 2017 at 06:43  

Sun: Oh, do! I had so many preconceptions about what it would be like, but I was wrong. It's just excellent storytelling, at least in book 1 (and so far in book 2).

Christine,  31 October 2017 at 00:14  

I’m so jealous that you have all those books and everyone’s stories ahead of you! Don’t let anyone spoil anything for you if that’s possible because there are so many amazing twists and turns ahead!

I read the books before the series started (plus the one released after it began) and I used to bite my tongue when my brother who only watched the show used to say “I think this will happen” or “so and so will escape” because for several seasons I knew what was coming. The books are excellent and the characters in them, even the “good” ones like Jon, Daenerys and Tyrion are MUCH more grey than on the show (which is excellent in its own right but needs its heroes to be 99% good.) Martin is a wordy writer and as the books go on he gets much wordier but the first three books are really tightly plotted and well written in particular. I predict you will be burning through the next two. Enjoy!

Rosario 5 November 2017 at 08:26  

Christine: I'm doing my best to avoid spoilers, but it's hard, because they show up in the most unexpected places. I guess because of the TV series this has become such a part of popular culture that you'll get throwaway comments in completely unrelated places. On a leadership seminar I went to last week: "This is a bit like when Cersei did X". Oh, great, thanks for that.

Anyway, my brother is going to do exactly what you did and bite his tongue at my (probably completely wrong) predictions! :)

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