I remember being mesmerized on my first read through of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Newly returned to the fantasy genre and having subsided on diet of Robert Jordan, Raymond Feist, and a certain pony-tailed fellow who shall remain nameless for my first forays into fantasy as a teenager reading A Game of Thrones was like having a bucket of ice water thrown in your face. We throw around dark and gritty a lot these days and while that had been done before Martin there were few authors then and there are authors few now who do dark and gritty quite like Martin does. In truth there are few fates in the world that are worse than being a character in a George R. R. Martin novel.
A Game of Thrones is an extraordinarily difficult book to sum up. Even the official product description struggles to do a decent job; mostly failing.
Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.
Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.
Of course about 75% of that description bears little on the novel’s proceedings. It nails the fact the Starks are central to the story but it places far more emphasis the Wall and the events there than I ever would. I’m of the opinion that there is no succinct way to even begin to sum up this novel.
This being my second read through I was surprised by a number things this time around. First and foremost was precisely how much of the novel has stayed with me over the years. The longevity of the images that Martin has seared into my mind is a testament to what he has written here. Second, and perhaps most important is the fact at how hard it is read again. I don’t mean that the writing is bad or anything like that but rather that watching the characters go through what they do again is actually quite difficult to swallow. Knowing what will happen makes parts of the book, especially the beginning, downright painful.
As I continued to read I decided that this sort of shock and awe at the pain being inflicted on the characters should be factored in when looking at the popularity of Jon Snow. Jon is the most standard archetypical hero figure in the entirety of A Game of Thrones. His chapters have their ups and downs but they are never quite so wildly shocking as the rest of the novel’s. Indeed, Jon Snow’s narrative is downright subdued to the point that its absence would have little bearing on the overall scope of the novel. This is important I think. Because, while Martin spends a lot of time focusing events south of The Wall and on the titular game it is what is going on at and beyond The Wall that is really important. Martin does a wondrous job at getting us involved in the squabbles of the various lords and ladies of Westeros but my impression is that is a sleight of hand and the squabbles of men will look insignificant in the face of one fact, oft repeated in the novel: winter is coming.
If you were to ask me what was Ned Stark’s greatest failure there a perhaps a few answers but the one I’ll give you is this: Sansa. Harsh, maybe but the Lord of Winterfell raised six level headed (or age-appropriately level-headed) children and one that is absolutely wrapped in her own little fantasy world. It is very easy to hate Sansa. She is the stereotypical girl princess, wrapped up in stories of honor and beauty and blind to the world around her. I also think that fact is what makes her such a great character. Yes, she is annoying as anything you’re willing to name but she is so innocent that watching innocence slowly get stripped away, and knowing what that innocence cost her family, is profoundly sad. In a world of adults Sansa is the only real true child that we ever meet and Martin forces of to watch as that childhood is stripped away without warning or without care. Even the Hound seems to recognize that fact.
The early Daenarys chapters still leave me feeling kind of gross; particularly her wedding to Khal Drogo. Of course, as they progress the Daenarys chapters are also some of my favorite in the series. The last couple of Daenarys chapters are particularly powerful right up to the novel’s closing scene. Danaerys’ perspective also offers us one of our only true glimpse of magic in the series and Martin’s sparing and subtle use of magic of the course of A Game of Thrones (and the series as a whole) is one of the more unique and memorable aspects of the novel. What magic we do get to see is typical both terrible, horrifying, and all the more amazing because of it.
There are tons of other great characters that I could talk about. Tyrion, complex and scheming. The Hound, angry and brusk yet honest in his own way. Arya, who I always wish had more time to shine here. Lyssa Arryn and her son with their disturbing relationship. So many characters! Martin’s ability to weave so many disparate perspectives into a single narrative whole is impressive (and, in a sense the fault for the long delays for A Dance with Dragons). In truth there have been no fantasy novels I’ve read that read anything like anything the Song of Fire and Ice series. If you’ve yet to give A Game of Thrones a spin you really need to; it embraces epic in a whole new way and in a way that really sets it apart from the rest of the genre. I’m looking forward reading through the other three novels released so far, hopefully before A Dance with Dragons drops in (supposedly) July. You can also catch the first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones miniseries on Sunday.