Monday, June 18, 2012

A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin (1996)

As a blogger commented in one of my posts, this is the hot thing to read right now. This is surprising when you consider the book was written in 1996, though when you factor in the currently running HBO TV series based on the book series, I guess it's not so surprising. One word sums up this book: daunting. You've heard from your friends and family how great it is, but the book is just so...massive. And there are four more in the series, A Song of Ice and Fire, that are even longer! I could give you a page length, but that would be meaningless because it varies depending on whether you have the hardcover, large paperback, or small paperback. Besides, it says nothing about how quick you'll read it. The hardcover version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was 700 or 800 pages, but it was a fairly quick read. The version of A Game of Thrones I read was just under 700 pages, but it took me a week and a half of solid reading to get through it because it is so much more complex than Rowling's novel. So yes, this is a daunting read, but once you start getting into it, it's incredible.

The novel is written from the perspectives of eight different characters. A majority of these, six to be precise, are members of the Stark family, holders of the northern realm of Winterfell in the Seven Kingdoms, whose king is Robert Barratheon. Ned Stark is the lord of Winterfell, soon to become Hand of the King upon the sudden death of Jon Arryn, the previous Hand. Catelyn Stark, his wife, would prefer not to see him go, but soon becomes involved in events she would not have anticipated. Ned and Catelyn have six children, of whom four are given a point of view. These are Jon Snow, Ned's only bastard son, a fact that Jon is reminded of constantly; Bran, the second oldest son, who is fond of climbing; Sansa, the oldest daughter, who is in love with the bratty Prince Joffrey and is in line to marry him; and Arya, the youngest daughter, who doesn't want to be a lady like her sister but prefers adventure. Each character contributes something to the story, though I think Bran's and Arya's perspectives add the least, particularly towards the end of the novel. I have no doubt they play a larger role later in the series. The two Stark children I did not mention is Robb, the oldest, and Rickon, the youngest.

Tyrion Lannister from the HBO series
The other two perspectives come from two other houses. Tyrion Lannister is the dwarf son of Tywin Lannister and brother to Jaime Lannister. Jaime served as Hand to the previous king, Aerys Targaryen, and earned the name Kingslayer upon killing him and claiming the throne for Robert Barratheon. Tyrion bitterly realizes the only reason that, as a dwarf, he was not left to die in this cruel world is because he was born a Lannister. However, this does not mean his family is accepting of him, and he is fully aware of this. As he lacks the physical prowess of his brother, he instead sharpens his mind by reading books. He is my favorite character and provides the funniest dialogue.
Daenerys Targaryen from the HBO series

Daenerys Targaryen is the eighth and final perspective. She and her brother, Viserys, are the last of the Targaryen line. Viserys calls himself the true heir to the throne, and he plots to win it back by marrying his sister, referred to as Dany, to the leader of a people called the Dothraki, who live across the sea from the Seven Kingdoms. His intention is to use the massive and powerful Dothraki force to take back his crown. Dany begins the novel as a meek girl, but after she marries the Dothraki leader Khal Drogo, she grows stronger as a character.

There are so many other characters and plot lines that it's impossible to describe them all, especially without giving away spoilers. If the above list seems daunting, I assure you that after a few chapters things will become much clearer. George R. R. Martin does an excellent job of developing his characters, even his side ones, and pretty soon you know who is who, and you start getting an idea of background information that leads to the novel's current events. Fortunately Martin also provides plenty of reminders as to who is who and what is what, otherwise I would have been flipping back and forth through the book far too often.
Catelyn Stark from the HBO series

Along with developing characters and plotlines, Martin also provides new and interesting information in each chapter. In this way he keeps his readers interested and wanting to read more. Once the early introductions begin, the plot truly sets in motion, and it is filled with mystery and intrigue. At the end of each chapter you want to know what happens next. The final 200 pages or so are particularly good. This is where most of the action is, but the action is not boring, as it often tends to be in fantasy adventure stories. For one, Martin knows how to build up suspense, and he realizes the importance of letting the reader know what's at stake. Too many fantasy stories I've read are far too pleased with the fight scenes and grow annoyed with all of that other stuff, like character and story, but for Martin the action is perhaps the least important aspect. First he lets us get to know his characters, and then he lets us know why we should care about the action.

This is not a fantasy story for the kids. Its massive length is one indication of this, but also its content. The violence can be very graphic, with lots of innards spilling out and blood pouring from wounds. There are also several sex scenes, mostly involving Dany and Khal Drogo. The themes, as a result, are much more mature than you would find in a Young Adult fantasy tale. Martin tackles the politics of power, introducing a huge host conflicting interests that make the game of thrones so complicated and impossible to predict. Characters make decisions that have dire consequences, though they seem the right thing to do at the time.

Ned Stark from the HBO series
The story plays out like the dramas of real historical games of thrones, and as such you will find that no character, no matter how much you love them, is safe from death. Several times I laughed, several times I felt saddened, and at other times I was angry with the novel's villains. Though using the word villains may oversimplify the story, particularly since we see things mostly from the perspective of the Starks. I don't know if it's so easy to say who is truly good and who is truly evil. Certainly some are more evil or more good than others. There are some characters who do a very good job of hiding where their true allegiance falls, and what their true intentions are. Ned Stark sets himself up as a good guy because his values place honor as the most important quality in a man. Where that gets him I will not say.

In the end I say you should go and read this book. Grab it from your bookshelf, where you look at it daily, contemplating whether today is the day you will begin. No, you may not have a life until you finish it, but I guarantee you will enjoy your time with it. Of course, Martin sets up such enticing cliffhangers at the end that you might just dive into the next one, and the one after that, cursing the author for writing such an addiction.


  1. Good review.
    ...I had zero sympathy for Ned Stark.

    1. Thanks Amber! I know what you mean, but I did sympathize with him.

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  3. Awesome review! I'm glad you enjoyed the book. It is a long one and there are tons of characters to keep track of, but Martin makes it easy. I suppose I cared about pretty much all of them, even the ones I hated. Ned is still one of my favorite characters, but I think I like Jon Snow the best. Will you be continuing the series?

    1. Thanks Megan! Yeah I do plan on reading the other books in the series. I'll probably start A Clash of Kings in a week or two. How far along are you?