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.