Jan 12, 2011

A Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin

I last read Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire when I was fifteen. A Feast for Crows wasn't even written at the time, and I read the first three books in my own native language. Around the time it became apparent that the release date for A Dance with Dragons alternates between "a long time off" and "never", I decided that I would not touch the series again until it was completed. Aeons passed, however, and I'm not the innocent dumb kid I was then. That is to say, I'm another dumb kid now, less innocent perhaps, but oh well. The A Game of Thrones show draws near, and it even seems that the fifth book is to be published before the end of the world. So I decided to hell with teenage vows, and let's recap. And I'm terribly happy I did that, because A Game of Thrones blew my mind! So here's a review of a book everybody's read:

The Seven Kindoms of Westeros are a huge land of forests, mountains and wild rivers, where seven Great Houses vie for power. An impossibly huge wall of ice and stone protects its northern border from the frozen wasteland beyond, where wild tribes and other things - older things - live. United hundreds of years ago by Aegon the Conqueror, first of the Thargaryen kings, and his dragons, Westeros is now governed by Robert of the House Baratheon, after a bloody civil war ended the Thargaryen rule fifteen years ago.

The book follows three major storylines, as Eddard Stark, head of one of the seven great Houses, is summoned by his old friend Robert to serve as the King's Hand, after the previous Hand has died under mysterious circumstances. In court, he faces the intrigues of the Queen's family - the Lannisters of Casterly Rock, an ambitious and rich House - as well as various other factions, only to stumble upon a secret that could potentially devastate the kingdom.

Meanwhile, on the Wall, Jon Snow - Eddard Stark's bastard son - joins the Black Brothers, an order dedicated to protecting Westeros from the threats of the frozen North, even though nobody believes in them anymore. But as the years-long summer draws to an end, an even longer winter looms just beyond the horizon. And with it comes the long night, when creatures from the legends come out to devour the world. And even if Westeros does not believe in the threat of the Others, Jon is caught in events that could mean not just the end of the Seven Kingdoms, but also of every living creature in them.

And far to the east, beyond the sea, the last two surviving members of the Thargaryen family - prince Vyseris and his young sister Daenerys - are living in exile. Vyseris plots to sell his sister to a powerful warlord from the Dothraki horse tribes, hoping to gain in return her new husband's warriors in order to reconquer the kingdom that Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark stole from his father. However, Daenerys falls in love with Khal Drogo, and soon finds that her destiny goes in an altogether different direction.

A Game of Thrones is comprised of short chapters, and each of them follows a single character's POV. The most often appearing are of course Eddard Stark, his bastard son Jon, and Daenerys, but others are almost as prominent, like Eddard's wife Caetlyn, their son Bran and his sisters Sansa and Aryq, as well as the Queen's dwarf brother Tyrion Lanister (who, incidentally, is one of the best characters in the series). Through those many eyes George Martin paints a vivid picture of a pseudo-medieval world of knights and armies, of political intrigue and ancient magic that nobody believes in.

The author uses the supernatural very sparingly. The focus of the book is the power struggle and the Great Houses' machinations, but Martin still creates a world that feels fantastic, even in its amazing geography. A castle perched on the top of an impossibly high mountain above the clouds; a Wall of ice that's almost seven hundred feet high; a city of stolen gods that could house every member of a thousand tribes. A Game of Thrones also gives the reader a strong feeling of a threat looming just beyond the horizon, and one that the Seven Kingdoms willfully ignore. The two secondary plot-lines - Jon's and Daenerys' - use the inexplicable more often, and it is there that we learn more about the strange nature of the world's years-long seasons, the truth about the ancient creatures that lived before humans, or the fate of the dragons.

However, what separates George Martin from almost every other writer of epic fantasy is the fact that he is a word-smith first, and epic fantasy writer second. The language used in A Game of Thrones is incredibly elegant, used with a combination of impossible attention to detail and at the same time a seaming ease that speaks of enormous talent. Unlike most other authors in the field, Martin started out with science fiction and scripts for TV (he has written many episodes of The Twilight Zone for example). He is also the creator of the shared world of the Wild Cards series, and a contributor/editor of a mind-numbing quantity of short story anthologies. His own short story collection - Dreamsongs - came out a few years ago, and was so vast, that most editions were split into two volumes. He has won the Hugo award four times, the Nebula twice, as well as a huge number of other awards and nominations.

It is easy to forget all this amidst the anger so many fans feel for the long time he has taken in writing A Song of Ice and Fire, but I will not go there. George R. R. Martin is a lot more than "the author of an epic fantasy series", but even though I knew that, rereading A Game of Thrones in English now made me aware of this fact in a way that I wasn't before. The first installment in the series is a masterpiece of storytelling and plot-construction, as well as introducing complex and believable characters, which - even if separated into "good" and "bad" factions - all carry enough humanity in them to be relateable to a degree. The fact that two of the fans' favorites are members of the "evil" Lannister family is proof enough of how good the characterization is.

One warning to the three of you who haven't yet read the series. None of the books in A Song of Ice and Fire is self-sufficient. A Game of Thrones ends far away from where it starts, but it ends with a thousand cliffhangers. And even if none of them is a real nail-biter, it is more than obvious that the series is supposed to be experienced in its entirety, as a single titanic novel. And since probably not even our grandchildren will live to see the last installment, one should think twice before starting it.

However, I say that it is worth the frustration. A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the very few pinnacles of the Fantasy genre, and a shining example of masterful storytelling, worldbuilding and character creation. To deny yourself so much enjoyment just because the story is not yet finished, would be a crime. One you may live to be grateful for, but it's not funny if it's that safe, right?



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "Tyrion Lanister (who, accidentally, is one of the best characters in the series)."

    Accidentally? Do you mean incidentally?

    I don't think it was an accident. Once you read the other books, I think you'll see Tyrion is practically the heart of the story.

    (had to edit. stupid missing words)

  3. Incredible series. I can't wait for the miniseries!

    By-the-way, I never knew you weren't a native English speaker. What's your mother tongue?

    I've taken to reading some things in languages other than my own on occasion. My French reading ability is good enough to read Francis Ladoux's AWESOME translation of THE LORD OF THE RINGS (LE SEIGNEUR DES ANNEAUX). Now if only my Japanese were that up to snuff!

  4. Van, of course I meant "incidentally". Sorry for the mistake. Of course Tyrion being as awesome as he is, is no accident.

    Dave, I am a Bulgarian, so yeah, my native language isn't English. Sadly, English is the only other language I know, but at least I think I'm pretty decent at it ;)