Yes, I’m finally jumping on the bandwagon. I’ve heard people rave about the books, I’ve seen clips of the HBO show, I’ve even browsed the Wiki pages. For someone who had never read a word of A Game of Thrones, I had a fairly good grasp of the plot and characters — which meant it was long past time for me to sit down and properly absorb George R.R. Martin‘s magnum opus.
Is there really any point in providing a summary? If you’re here you probably already know the gist of the story, so let me get a little creative in my reviewing and try to break down what it is about A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE that makes it so unique — and by extension, popular.
For an epic that’s ostensibly meant to be a “fantasy,” there is relatively little in the way of magic and monsters. That’s not to say they’re absent entirely, but Martin has been open about the fact that he was heavily inspired by the War of the Roses in the writing of his saga, and that as a result the storyline is more focused on political intrigue than the typical staples of fantasy fiction (wizards, spells, magical creatures and so on).
Yet that’s not to say they’re completely absent. What’s different is in how they’re utilized, for the likes of dragons and zombies and giants exist on the periphery of the main action. There are many people in this world who no longer believe in magic’s existence, so long has it been dormant. Yet when the story opens, it’s clear that strange forces are once more awakening and beginning to encroach upon civilization — namely in the north, where terrible creatures known as “others” are moving ever-southward.
But if there is a terrible war brewing between mankind and the supernatural, most of the world’s attention is diverted by other matters. Across the continent of Westeros the great ruling houses are preparing for civil war with one another: the wily Lannisters, the proud Baratheons, the noble Starks, the exiled Targaryens — all of them have a claim to the Iron Throne, and members of each are willing to go to brutal lengths in order to garner power.
Which is all part and parcel of the “no one is safe” policy inherent in the writing. In your typical fantasy novel characters are divided neatly down black and white lines of morality, but the cast of A Game of Thrones is portrayed in varying shades of grey. In a world without straightforward heroes and villains, not to mention chapters that alternate between different points-of-view, various events and characters are up for interpretation depending on who is experiencing or interacting with them. And because it’s difficult to know who to trust or what to believe, many of our central characters don’t get happy endings.
It’s a surprising tactic that makes a reader deeply concerned about the wellbeing of their favourite characters, knowing that they might well be killed off at any point. Martin’s gift is in bringing to life an array of characters with varying personalities and viewpoints, all of which are sympathetic to some degree, but at odds with each other in politics or personal matters. For instance, we’re led to like and respect Ned Stark, but in another storyline entirely, a secondary character that we also quite like speaks poorly of him, blaming the man’s honor and adherence to the laws as the cause of his misfortune. The Lannister family is considered a dangerous foe, but our insight into the sardonic Tyrion Lannister means that we have at least one member of that house to root for.
So throughout the novel there are different angles of perspective and opinion which invites the reader to make up their own minds as to who would be best suited to rule on the Iron Throne — after all, an honorable man does not necessarily make for a suitable king. The sheer range of characters that Martin presents, from a bastard son to a noble-born dwarf, an exiled princess to a pair of sisters as different as night and day, means that everyone is bound to get a “favourite” over the course of their reading experience.
Likewise, the world-building is dizzying in its scope. From the Wall, an ancient structure in the north that’s been designed to deflect dangers from the north, protected by warriors known as the Night’s Watch, to the continent of Essos to the east, of independent city states, miles of grassy plains, and fierce riders known as the Dothraki, the world that Martin has built is filled with as many bizarre wonders as it is the domestic comforts of food, hearth and family. The world has its own history and mythology, from sunken kingdoms to magical creatures in the forests, and each chapter reveals more as the novel progresses.
Going into the book with some foreknowledge of what to expect, I was surprised by the lack of two elements that I’d been warned about: firstly, the “gratuitousness” of sex and violence, and secondly, the dizzying array of characters that needed to be kept track of. I’ve no doubt that such things may become more pronounced in later books, but this early in the saga’s progression there is certainly a sense of restraint when it comes to scenes of sex/violence (it’s there, but hardly over-the-top) and the chapters alternate between only eight characters (not counting the prologue). I’ve no doubt that things may get convoluted later down the track, but for now at least it’s relatively easy to keep tabs on our central characters and their individual arcs.
I was also warned beforehand that I was in for a long wait should I start reading, with the first three books released over the course of a decade, and the next two over another. Everyone is settling in for another long wait before the sixth book is made available, with one eye on the television show that is getting ever-closer to overtaking its literary inspiration. There have been some that recommend not starting A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE before it’s completed in its entirety, simply to spare yourself the protracted waiting periods. As for me? Well, I can handle it. And I was sick of being left out of conversations for want of knowing the finer details of the storyline and characters.
So, in short: switching points-of-view, a wide variety of characters, a ginormous fictional world to explore, no central protagonist, a high death toll, no clean-cut villains or heroes — these are at least some of the reasons why A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE is so popular. I’m well and truly in it for the long haul, so I’ll be getting my hands on the next installment A Clash of Kings as soon as I can.