The much lauded TV series seduced me into reading “A Game of Thrones,” the first book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (of which there are currently seven). I was not disappointed. Martin manages to create a fascinating high fantasy world without falling into the pit so many fantasy author’s tumble down into: he does not fall in love with his own setting. There is far more going on than gory battles and demonic wraiths, this is a story about the strength of family and the alluring, violent world of power.
The book centers around members of three important families in a world where summer last up to a decade and winter twice as long. Bids for power are just as raucous as the climate. The land is comprised of an assortment of kings ruling under a high king, surrounded by free cities, a mysterious land where men originated, and the lands of the cruel horse people the Dothraki. The three families: the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryen each attempt to grab or maintain power from their own unique positions. The Starks, led by the honorable yet troubled Eddard Stark, rule the northernmost kingdom and are at the narratives heart. The Lannisters are a cruel and cunning folk who are most shown through the eyes of Tyrion, the Lannister patriarch’s dwarf son who secretly despises them. The Targaryen were originally the high kings. They are a powerful people called “the dragonborn” whose military strength united the kingdoms. They also practiced incest to keep themselves “pure” which probably did them in, as their last ruler was mad and was removed from power. Poor and exiled, the two surviving Targaryen’s try to reclaim their throne by trying to curry the favor of the Dothraki.
I could hardly put this book down. Though nearly nine hundred pages long, it never seemed slow and at times felt agonizingly slow I desperately tried to learn the fate of one character of another. The characters are strong and dynamic even when villainous. Death seems to lie behind every corner and no character is safe from plots and counterplots, and most make plots of their own. Martin wisely pays attention to both those at the center of power and those at the fringe, giving voices to Eddard Stark’s bastard son, prostitutes, and elderly scholars.
The settings are strong. Martin takes the reader from the great untamed wilds of the north to the bustling, treacherous marketplaces of the free cities to the grand epicurean halls of the southern kingdoms. Geographically it is all hard to figure out. It is unclear to understand the relationship between the mainland, which comes illustrated, and the outlying continents including the Dothraki homeland. Nevertheless, the landscapes of most of these places are clear. Take for example Martin’s description of High King Robert Baratheon’s throne room:
Though the high narrow windows of the Red Keep’s cavernous throne room, the light of sunset spilled across the floor, laying dark red stripes across the walls where the heads of dragons had one hung. Now the stone was covered with hunting tapestries, vivid with greens and browns and blues, and yet it still seemed to Ned Stark that the only color in the hall was the red of blood.
This is a must-read for anyone with an interest in fantasy and is also a good place for the curious to start (though I would recommend “Lord of the Rings” first for newbies). While it relies heavily on many of the common tropes of high fantasy (kings, wars, Norse influence) it focuses more on characters than on fantastical voyages.