A Game of Thrones by George R.R Martin (1996) – Book Review
A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R Martin’s epic fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire series, had been on my To Read list long before HBO adapted it into a TV series. For one reason or another, I only just got around to reading it, having seen the entire first season of the show and eagerly anticipating the second. So, it was from this perspective I cracked the spine on this tome.
A Game of Thrones the book, and Game of Thrones the TV series are, besides a few minor details of character and situation, more or less the same thing with the first season of the show covering the first book in the series. I didn’t think anything could further my respect for the TV series but now having seen how carefully and faithfully this complex novel has been brought to life in the screen, I only love it the more.
For those unfamiliar with the TV series, A Game of Thrones is set in a fantasy world of rival houses locked in a battle to secure the Iron Throne, the seat that hold the Seven Kingdoms together. While the families of the Seven Kingdoms fight and plot with and against one another for power, the heirs of the former king gather power in a foreign land preparing their return, all the while the men of the Night’s Watch guard the icy north against more ancient, more otherworldly foes. Every character is carefully drawn with a distinct voice and a clear role to play in this treacherous plot, from Kings and Warlord chieftains, to little kids.
A Game of Thrones has some of the best characterisation I have come across. The novel is split perspective between various characters and Martin has given unique clarity to each one. Such skill is rare in writers, especially in the epic fantasy genre where all too often a book can get preoccupied and bogged down by its world building. Martin is just as adept at giving life to the thoughts and feeling of a ten year old girl as he is a mighty chieftain, or young honourable solider.
These are all characters to be cared about, even the more morally ambiguous or downright despicable characters all have their moments of humility and humanity. It’s easy to illicit sympathy for a man of honour, good guy character like Ned Stark, or any of his noble family, although Martin does it especially well. The real treat is in the other more ambiguous characters. The dwarf Tyrion Lannister is by far the most intriguing character of the lot. While his diabolical and ruthlessly ambitious family plots and wars their way through the Seven Kingdoms, Tyrion is on one hand loyal to his blood, but on the other hand is separate from their battles, above them in many ways.
The subplot of Daenerys Targaryen is simply brilliant. While the characters in the Seven Kingdoms all speak of the fallen Targaryens as monsters, the last Targaryen princess is an attractive and sympathetic character, fierce as she is humble and the contrast between the two developing perspectives of the Targaryen family is a thrilling reading experience. Be warned, there are an enormous number of characters. Possibly too many. I started out trying to keep track of them all, from stable boy to banner men, to former Kings and distant uncles, but by the end names were washing over me while I kept my focus on the central characters. Considerately, the book includes a detailed character list in appendix so this isn’t much of an issue.
The plot is more or less a typical tale of feuding powers and in the hands of another writer, it may have come off as cliché and predictable. Again it is the enormous strength of characterisation that prevents this from happening. Some might say that this characterisation itself could be standard fantasy plot, Jon Snow for example is a classic darkly brooding hero while Joffrey Lannister is a familiar smarmy, rich brat. In many ways this is true, but types still have their place in literature and all forms of storytelling. There are after all many theorists who still hold to the morphology of folktales and functions of narrative structure, an archetype that can be easily applied to A Game of Thrones. It’s how these types are used, the elements they are forced to work with and against and the story in which they are brought to life in which gives a type a constant uniqueness. While A Game of Thrones is a fantasy novel of the purest form, the focus of the narrative is always on character while the fantastical elements creep at the corners like shadows. The ending however does change this with a massive cliff hanger leading into the next book in the series, A Clash of Kings (1998).
A Game of Thrones is a slow book to read and not only for its 900+ pages. There’s never a sense of having anything rushed along to get to the action bits. The joy is in the fine details, teased out for the reader to relish. And relish I did. I’m easily distracted in most things and bore easily with epic fantasy. A Game of Thrones kept me riveted to the last page, and then took me to the bookshop for the next book in the series.
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