A Game of Thrones barely needs an introduction. It is the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire by master writer George R. R. Martin, who has been praised for this series as ‘the American Tolkien.’ A Game of Thrones is a novel that almost transcends criticism. Its impact on the fantasy landscape (including television) is undeniable.
In a land where seasons have been thrown out of balance, and winters can last years, Ned Stark is summoned by his old friend, King Robert Baratheon, to serve as the Hand of the King. Compelled by his honor, Ned is forced to set aside his responsibilities as Warden of the North and travel south to King’s Landing to rule the kingdom Robert has neglected in favour of drinking and whoring.
Ned quickly finds himself caught up in the investigation of his predecessor’s suspicious death, which may be linked with his son Bran’s unlikely fall from a tower and may even prove to threaten his own life. Ned sets himself at odds with Robert over how they address the looming threat posed by Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, the last surviving heirs of the royal house which ruled the Seven Kingdoms for a thousand years. Due to this conflict, Ned cannot seek the King’s help or protection in his investigation.
This is fantasy, right?
Martin’s approach to fantasy invites two obvious responses. Firstly, there will be readers demanding to know where the magic is. They will feel like Martin made promises in the prologue that weren’t kept in the main narrative. The otherworldly threat beyond the Wall doesn’t materialise in any significant way in this first entry in the series.
The second group will read the chilling prologue, beautifully crafted by one of the genre’s most accomplished writers, and feel the shadow that it casts over the novel and the series as a whole. As the human drama unfolds within the Seven Kingdoms, the reader is constantly aware that there is a supernatural threat looming over the petty squabbles that occupy the minds of men. If the danger was made spectacularly apparent it would lose its power. The people would turn their attention to fight it. As matters stand, the reader can see tragedy looming as the people of Westeros continue politicking, thoroughly unprepared for what is coming.
Furthermore, Martin’s subtle use of magic serves to make the fantastical elements of the story all the more fantastic. The conclusion to the novel is thoroughly foreshadowed and yet utterly striking precisely because Martin has withheld magic from the reader.
Utterly, painfully human
In keeping with his believable world, Martin has populated his story with flawed and unpredictable humans (and plenty of them). A Game of Thrones is a tale of political intrigue and betrayal. Chivalry and honour are a cloak nobles use to cover their machinations. Heroic knights have almost entirely passed into legend. The most interesting and effective characters are those like Tyrion Lannister who recognise the inconsistencies of the world they live in and readily face its harsh realities.
In spite of the many shades of grey that colour the characters, there is bound to be one character with whom every reader will identify or sympathize. Unfortunately, you may then feel cheated that there wasn’t enough time dedicated to your favorite character. Or you may be upset that your favorite character died. Martin is famous for twisting knives in the guts of his readers. It is constantly made clear that no character is safe, which allows Martin to crank up the tension to excruciating levels. And the release of this tension is rarely cathartic. A Game of Thrones offers a bumpy emotional ride.
A rich, detailed world
Once again, the incredible depth of Martin’s world-building will split readers into two camps. Many will adore the detail and the epic scope, but there will be readers who feel frustrated by what they perceive as excessive levels of detail. The history of the country and the heraldry of the noble houses can be overwhelming at times, and the fact that Martin goes to pains to avoid dumping information makes it harder for a first-time reader to keep up, but it’s ultimately for the good of the story.
Anyone who has already read A Game of Thrones recognizes the inadequacy of the plot summary above as far as capturing the many plot threads and relationships that exist in the story. The reality is that in a world of such size there would be numerous significant players vying for power. In A Game of Thrones, Martin is just getting started on introducing the key players in the Seven Kingdoms, so if you find yourself struggling desperately to keep track of the existing characters, this may not be the series for you.
Adult content warning
A Game of Thrones was not the first novel to push fantasy to a gritty, mature place, but it was certainly the most significant. There are elements of the story that will disturb many readers, though it can be argued that Martin keeps his themes consistent with the quasi-historical medieval setting. These elements exist because the story is realistic. Characters become sexually active and get married at a very young age. Battles are fought with heavy, edged weapons, causing devastating wounds that often fester. Incest occurs, though once more it is to Martin’s credit that the incestuous relationship at the heart of the story makes romantic sense to the characters involved. They aren’t simply set up to be mocked as an abomination, in spite of the reader’s feelings on the subject.
The treatment of women in A Game of Thrones is also consistent with Martin’s setting, and is therefore likely to frustrate some readers. Women are predominantly powerless and passive, with even the prominent female characters forced into political marriages and patronized by males as having ‘women’s weaknesses.’
Why should you read this book?
It’s A Game of Thrones. Fantasy doesn’t get any bigger than this. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I recommend finding out if it suits yours by reading it.