Title: A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire #1)
Author: George R.R. Martin
Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy
Source: Kindle edition purchased on Amazon
My Rating: 9/10
I’ll get straight to the point: A Game of Thrones has everything I want in a book: good writing, well-crafted characters, a great world, and a riveting story. The sheer awesomeness of this novel is that everything about it is done so damn well and in reading it I experienced everything I love about reading. Despite being over 800 pages long and fairly complex, I tore through it in 3 or 4 days, binge-reading for hours.
There are so many intertwined plot lines, told by multiple narrators, that I’m not even going to attempt a summary because it can only be inept. As you can guess from the title though, it’s about the politics, intrigue and batttles for the throne – one of them or all of them. This world has seven kingdoms, but currently only one king, a man who was not born a royal, but took the throne when he overthrew a tyrant king. Like most epic fantasy, the novel is set in version of medieval England. This is the only reason the book lost one star in my rating: this setting has been done to death in the genre and on the whole there’s nothing particularly new and different about A Game of Thrones, even if it is a bloody good read.
However, I can at least say that this is not another Manichean Tolkien derivative (which is what puts me off most epic fantasy). There are no elves, and there’s only one dwarf, but he is a midget, not another species. Magic and monsters exist, but most people consider these things to be mythological, and A Game of Thrones has far more swords than sorcery, although it’s clear that the sorcery will gradually play a far bigger role. Summer and winter can last for years (I raised an eyebrow at the plausibility of this), and after a summer almost a decade long, everyone fears the winter that’s about to begin. Winter is coming – it’s the tag line you’re most likely to hear for the book or the TV series, and in a world where you get summer snows, you can begin to understand just how menacing the thought of winter islet alone one that will last for at least ten years.
With its many plots and rich characters, this is the kind of book you get totally involved in. You care about the characters, both good and bad, wondering about their histories, how things will turn out for them, hoping they get rescued, or that someone will behead them asap. The plots are incredibly engaging, but also ruthless. In some novels like this one, the main characters seem to be protected by their importance in the narrative and an artificial sense of justice is present – the good characters won’t be hurt too badly and the bad ones will get punished. A Game of Thrones is more realistic, which means that it’s often brutal and tragic. Yes, that hurts sometimes and it even made me cry, but it also serves to pull you deeper into that world. With that sense of real-world injustice and cruelty, you feel less like you’re just reading a story and more like you’re immersed in a world that truly exists.
It’s no surprise then that A Game of Thrones evokes a great deal of discussion from a varied group of readers. It was chosen as the group read for my online bookclub in May, and led to such a flurry of enthusiastic praise, debate and cheering for characters that those who weren’t reading it were inspired to get a copy and discussions are still going on as more people start reading it and others move on to the sequels. It was one of the few group reads that everyone who read it loved.
I was particularly impressed with Martin’s female protagonists. They are very much a product of their cultures, which have clear gender divides and generally place masculinity over femininity, forcing women into a position of inferiority. The female leads in A Game of Thrones each deal with this in a different manner. Cersei is the wicked queen who, as a woman, feels she is offered no legitimate paths to power and thus pursues it through cruelty and deviance. She has no qualms about doing what she must to be powerful, and equates fear with respect. Catelyn Stark is a very practical woman, driven by the urge to protect her family. She defies convention when it gets in her way, but bows to it when she must and mostly plays by social rules unless love for her husband and children causes her to break them. Her daughter Arya Stark is one of my favourite characters, not only in this book but across the board. She’s a tomboy stuck in a culture where she’s expected to be a sweet little girl. Instead of practising her sewing as she’s told she’d rather be outside with the boys, getting dirty and learning to use a sword. Naturally, this leads to a great deal of conflict, which is often exacerbated by her feisty spirit, but even then I’m always on her side.
Arya’s older sister Sansa is the complete opposite. Of the female leads she alone bows completely to convention. While Arya is trying constantly to break out of the mould she’s being forced into, Sansa is totally focussed on being the perfect girl, no matter how difficult the circumstances. While this makes Sansa one of my least favourite characters (competing with her betrothed, Prince Joffrey Barantheon) she is nevertheless very interesting. She shows how her society’s idea of the perfect girl is a person designed for a fairytale world and consequently can’t function properly in the real world. Sansa is constantly deluding herself and even hurts her family just to sustain her view of the world as good and beautiful and to maintain her image as the perfect girl. As a result she often comes across as being incredibly stupid and spineless – which says a lot about why women are generally assumed to be weaker, less brave and less smart than men.
Finally there’s Dany – Daenarys Targaryen. She and her brother Viserys are the only surviving heirs of the king who was overthrown. Although they’re penniless and living in exile, Viserys nevertheless harbours delusions of grandeur, imagining that he can rally a force to take back his throne and that the common people will be delighted to have their rightful king back. He sells Dany in marriage to a clan chief, assuming that in return he will get the army he needs. But the marriage is the beginning of Dany’s rise to power, not Viserys’s. She grows from being a timid thirteen-year old girl who has learnt to accept the cruelties of life, to a strong, otherworldly leader. Even without a throne or even a home, she has more grandeur and dignity than anyone else trying to rule over the Seven Kingdoms. Amidst all the humans fighting for either power or peace, Dany alone is truly regal.
I’d read the rest of the series if only to follow her, but of course there’s much, much more than that. I have to apologise for this somewhat unconventional review – it has a lot of gushing without really discussing the book as a whole and then diving into detail about one specific aspect. But to be honest I wasn’t going to write a review at all, simply because there was so much I loved about this book I didn’t even know where to start and I don’t think I could really do it justice. On the other hand, those feelings alone should convince you to read it, because even if you only ever give one fantasy novel a chance it should be this one.