A Game of Thrones: An impressive start to an excellent fantasy series

George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast For Crows, A Dance With Dragons, The Winds of Winter, A Dream of Springbook review: A Game of Thrones George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and FireA Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is set in Westeros, a continent that was divided into Seven Kingdoms until the Targaryens and their dragons conquered it. Fourteen years before the story begins, Ned Stark, Robert Baratheon, and Jon Arryn led a rebellion against the mad king Aerys Targaryen. Robert became king, Jon became the King’s Hand, and Ned returned north to govern his lands. Now, Jon has died and Robert demands that Ned come south to help rule the realm.

Unfortunately ruling the realm without dragons is easier said than done. The overwhelming majority of Westeros’ leaders imagine their role as a “game of thrones” rather than responsible governance. So no wonder Robert has led the kingdom into spiraling debt. Even Ned, who believes that “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword,” makes decisions for the benefit of his house rather than the realm. Sadly, the notion that knights should be heroic is now just a fantasy for innocent children like Sansa Stark to dream about.

The most interesting characters in A Game of Thrones are the ones who realize the sad truth about knights and lords, but who strive to do good anyway. Tyrion Lannister, a disfigured dwarf referred to as “The Imp,” personifies this conflict. Tyrion argues that “most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.” The hard truth that he faces is that hobbits are not welcomed into glorious castles. They are also set on quests meant to fail and embarrass rather than succeed. Tyrion is mercilessly taunted, accused of murder, and thrown away into what are probably the coolest dungeons ever imagined in fantasy.

Tyrion’s imprisonment is one of the best scenes in A Game of Thrones. Somehow, Martin manages to have his readers rooting for Tyrion to escape while also rooting for his captor, Catelyn, to succeed — even though Catelyn’s success will mean Tyrion’s death. Impressively, moments like these are not unusual in the novel.

Some readers will be put off by the fact that A Game of Thrones is decidedly bleak, and Martin’s plot is frustratingly faithful to the culture of Westeros’ “heroes.” These lords, ladies and knights have turned their backs on romantic notions like honor and justice. Consequently, both are difficult to find in Robert’s kingdom. This is a plot that will not weave itself into an elegant knot in which everything is revealed, answered, or put to rest. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when we learn that magic has died out in Westeros. The dragons are dead, wizards have been replaced by the maesters’ sober calculations, and the children of the forest were killed centuries ago. A Game of Thrones often feels all too realistic for comfort.

However, perhaps a romantic age of magic is returning. Beyond the Wall, the dead are walking and direwolves are returning to the realm. Martin’s use of secret passages in castles may be a tired genre trope for some, but I enjoyed reading about Arya’s discovery of forgotten tunnels within the king’s Red Keep. We later learn in passing that King Maegor had his architects killed so that no one would ever reveal the secret of the Red Keep’s tunnels. These small details are what elevates A Game of Thrones to the same level as a series like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels, and Martin may prove to be better at keeping those details from derailing his plot.

It would be difficult not to recommend A Game of Thrones. Only its pessimistic worldview and the scale of its ambition should cause readers to hesitate. Westeros has many details for readers to take in, but they are as fascinating as they are daunting. The characters are engaging, and Martin’s decision to undermine everyone’s motivations offers readers an unusual experience, regardless of their genre preferences. Consequently, A Game of Thrones is an impressive start to an excellent fantasy series that will hopefully finish as strong.

~Ryan Skardal (2011)

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.

~Rebecca Fisher (2014)

A Game of Thrones is a deep, broad and compelling work of medieval-style fantasy. I’m not a reader of much epic fantasy, but after watching a preview of the new HBO series (starting in April 2011), I found myself drawn in by the mystique, texture and composition of the story.

The twisting and extensive story is equal parts medieval historical fiction and fantasy. The book is long at over 700 pages, many taken up with well-crafted character development and exposition. The scenery, outfits, and activities are very middle ages European: well-hewn swords, knights in armor that gleams in a multitude of metallic shades, both honor and treachery are driving motivations for characters at all levels of the social stratosphere. There’s a wee bit of magic, a zombie or two, and no fantasy-themed story can go too long without dragon lore.

The characters and backstories are plentiful and complicated. Martin has written detailed histories on all of the royal houses in an appendix and it will take more than a few references in your reading to get your arms around and feel comfortable with who’s who and which houses are allies and which are enemies.

The core of the story revolves around the mysterious death of a key advisor to the king. His wife sends a message to her sister suggesting that the death was murder. This plot point is only a small device used as a launching point for the exploration of Martin’s incredibly rich universe. Two houses are at odds… House Stark, led by the infinitely honorable, patient and noble Eddard Stark, and House Lannister, led by the irrepressibly conniving Cersei, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and inheritor of a bloodline of dubious quality.

A Game of Thrones is heavy… in details, exposition, in character development, and in world-building. It’s not light reading, but it’s fulfilling. A Game of Thrones is the first in a series by Martin and while some stories are built and resolved, very little is truly concluded. I find my mind drifting back To Martin’s world a few days after I finished reading, and I think it won’t be long before I return to the land of “Thrones.”

~Jason Golomb (2015)

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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JASON GOLOMB, who joined us in September 2015, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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  1. I loved reading this book. I just bought the rest of the series and can’t wait to start reading A Clash of Kings.

  2. I’ve been watching the HBO series (well, half watching, since I have to cover my eyes for about half of it!). It is amazingly true to the book and is really well done!

    I’ve given up on reading the series until it’s finished, though.

    You mention the dungeons. I had forgotten about that dungeon in the Eyrie, but it was really awesome in the HBO show.

    Now that my husband is also watching the show, he understands the motto “Winter is coming.” So, we’ve been using the ominous-sounding motto “Summer is coming” as we got closer to the day our 5 kids get out of school for the summer. Yep. And now summer is here and they’re home… It is no longer quiet in my house. At this moment they’ve got a bunch of friends over and they’ve taken over the house. At least someone is cooking brownies, so it smells kind of nice…

  3. @Bookish Hobbit. I promised myself that I’d only read the first, but am now reading the second novel as well.

    @Kat. I haven’t actually seen the show yet, but I’m curious to see the sky dungeon. On the other hand, maybe I won’t watch it. I like the way the characters look in my imagination already.

  4. Excellent review Ryan. I have the same feelings about this book and I could not have said it better.

    I had to break down and get HBO just to watch Game of Thrones and I’ve pre-ordered the Kindle version of Dance of Dragons.

    As much as Martin has frustrated me with this series, I do owe him a huge dept of gratitude. I was already a fan of fantasy, but hadn’t really tackled anything that would be Epic fantasy before ASoFaI. when I read Game of Thrones back in 98, it really stoked my passion. This book opened my eyes to what fantasy could be.

  5. There is no questioning the brilliance of the first three books. Though Martin’s loss of control over the story he wanted to tell is allready evident in A Storm of Swords, the quality of the books only diminishes in Volume 4 and, most notably 5. Personally, I would advise noone to start this series until it is actually finnished. If Martin ever does finnish ist.


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