In which I unabashedly jump on a bandwagon, but also learn that I can still be surprised by epic fantasy
Title: Game of Thrones
Author: George R. R. Martin
What it’s about: So I admit it. Yes, I’m reading Game of Thrones because of a certain HBO series. But can I really be blamed? I knew I was going to watch the show. With Big Love gone from my life there was a gaping hole in my subscription television regiment, and what better to fill it than an epic fantasy with dizzying production values? But would I read the books? I don’t always feel reading the books is beneficial to enjoying the show. I held off on the Sookie Stackhouse novels even though I devoured True Blood, because reading the novels would have ruined the suspense and the show also diverged quite dramatically from the books. But something about Game of Thrones felt more up my alley. I also knew that while True Blood is a character-driven show, centering on the eccentric gang from Bon Temps, Game of Thrones would be a massive drama forced to attempt to seamlessly integrate gorgeous landscapes, dramatic battles, and high courtly intrigue into one-hour time blocks. I felt there was a good chance the nuances of the plot would get lost in the television adaptation, so reading the book would only enhance my understanding. Convinced, I dove into the first volume in George R. R. Martin’s yet-unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire series.
Game of Thrones is set in the land of Westeros in a troubled time. King Robert, the first ruler from his House, has held the kingdom for less than two decades, after he wrenched it from the grips of the Targaryens, a dynasty gone mad after centuries of inbreeding. When the Hand of the King dies mysteriously, Robert travels north to Winterfell, to ask his old friend and battle companion Ned Stark to step into the role. Ned regrets to leave his family–-his wife Catelyn and their five children, as well as his bastard son Jon, who he has raised as one of his own. He is wary of Queen Cersei, sure that she and her family had conspired to murder the King’s Hand. All the troubles of court pale in comparison to the whispers of horror in the North. Centuries ago, a massive wall of ice was constructed to keep out the beasts in the North and a guard of men in black have since manned the Wall, waiting for the day that the undead Others might march on Westeros again. Signs show that the Others may be returning and as summer has lasted a decade, the winter that is coming will plunge the land into an unimaginable blackness. The King is less concerned with what he deems legends and myths from the North and more concerned with the last of the Targaryen line, the young girl Daenerys, who is now in exile across the sea and has married a horse lord never once defeated in battle.
What it has going for it: Epic fantasy in not in style. Maybe this is changing, but from what I see, while fantasy itself has seen a massive resurgence, I rarely find classic medieval sword-and-sorcery world-building on this level anymore. This could in part be because of the feeling that this type of fantasy has been overdone, that all the spark has come out of it. But to Martin’s credit, he approaches the genre with a fresh, modern spin and uses a format that lends itself well to the vast scope of the story. The book is narrated by eight different characters, and their stories interweave and play off one another as befits the narrative. The principle narrators all come from the Stark family, the moral center of the tale and the embodiment of honor. But the two narrators from outside the Starks also win us to their side, though they are at times the outright enemy of the Starks. Daenerys was one of the most fascinating characters in the book (probably my favorite) and Queen Cersei’s dwarf brother Tyrion is certainly the funniest, but also perhaps the wisest.
Another point to Martin is that he is not afraid to take the plot in unforeseen directions. As I mentioned, fantasy epics are well-tread territory and the reader can often guess how the story will play out. The reader expects the good to triumph and the wicked to be cast down, no matter what the odds (see tiny Hobbit v. the world). Martin does not accept this. In fact, he asserts many times over that honor is not always wise and that trying to “do the right thing” is sometimes impossible as the “right thing” is often a matter of point of view. There were many times while reading that I could not believe Martin took the book in a certain direction. I watched him nip entire storylines in the bud, plots that I had expected to play out over many books exploded halfway through this one. And that’s a good thing. It means I don’t have this world figured out quite yet and I can still be surprised.
Would I recommend? Yes, both to those watching the television show (it will only enhance your experience) and to those who love classic high fantasy. This won’t disappoint and maybe you too will find you can still be surprised by the genre.