A Game of Thrones

by George R.R. Martin

Cover image

Series: Ice and Fire #1
Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: September 1996
Printing: September 1997
ISBN: 0-553-57340-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 835

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This is the first book of The Song of Ice and Fire, which is most definitely a fantasy epic. We start off with 835 pages of story, characters, and interaction (well, slightly less than that, since the last twenty pages or so are a detailed dramatis personae plus brief history of the major houses) and out of that get nothing close to a complete book. There is a climax of sorts at the end, but it carries about as much concluding weight as a typical mid-book climax of a stand-alone novel. In other words, don't start this book if you want a conclusion at the end of it, and reading the complete series (four books and counting, of equal size) is a heavy time investment.

That being said, I can't call A Game of Thrones bloated. In fact, Martin's pacing was the most impressive aspect of the book. Despite balancing eight major viewpoint characters and action covering most of a continent plus a major plot thread elsewhere and sprawling over 800 pages, I rarely felt like I was slogging through irrelevant detail or reading events that were unimportant or too slow-moving. Martin isn't much of a stylist; this book never knocked me over with beautiful descriptions or choice turns of phrase. The prose is, however, uniformly competent, polished, and up to communicating a lot of information efficiently.

What you're getting is an intricate political drama, complete with rival houses, love affairs, betrayal, bad advisors, ill-suited kings, and plenty of knights, castles, forests, ancient walls, and faux-medieval culture. To be fair, Martin is a bit grittier than most of his competition, and alongside the typical vaguely European pre-gunpowder fantasy setting, steals extensively from one source (Mongol culture) that isn't as frequently mined. Still, the characters don't generally stink, there is a shortage of vermin, and their teeth are better than one would expect; the patina of additional realism is still a patina.

As is often the case, the clearly human characters are on a slightly different world, this time chosen to have irregular and extremely long seasons. The epic saga starts at the end of the longest summer in memory (around ten years). Martin uses magic extremely sparingly (at least in this starting book). There clearly is some; both animal companions and undead monsters show up near the beginning, and dragons are rather clearly going to make an appearance. There are not, however, court mages, schools of magic or witchcraft, routine (or even rare) use of grand magics, or even the management-provided stashes of Magical Artifacts of an Earlier Age. This adds to the feel of realism and puts the weight of the story on the political intrigue and the strength of characterization. Martin isn't taking the easy way out to try to keep fantasy readers reading.

That means the characterization is critical, and the results, I have to say, are mixed. Most of the action centers around the Stark family and follows, in turn with tight third-person perspective, the mother and father, one son, two daughters, and the father's bastard son. Of the lot, Jon (the bastard) and Arya (one of the daughters) are enjoyable characters I had no trouble rooting for. The rest, sadly, are as dumb as a sack of hammers. Some of this impression, admittedly, comes from the reader knowing more about the plot than the characters, but Eddard should never have been a father and has little idea how to do it properly, his wife Catelyn holds grudges for understandable but idiotic reasons, and I quickly reached the point of actively rooting for someone to kill Sansa (the other daughter). It gets a bit frustrating to read much tight third-person perspective focused on a character so mindlessly snivelling as to inspire disgust and revulsion. Jon is, at least, an improvement over the rest of the family, if something of a generic competent everyman going through a coming of age story; Arya is the only member of the brood who I was truly happy to get back to.

The two characters outside the Stark family are a definite improvement. Tyrion the dwarf provides sufficient sarcastic competence for the whole book and was consistently a pleasure to read about, not to mention providing a fascinating perspective since he's theoretically on the side of the bad guys. I have a feeling he's going to continue to be my preferred perspective on the war in the seven kingdoms for some time to come.

The runaway winner of this book, though, is Daenerys (Dany). Dany's story takes place on a different continent, is the thread that involves the Mongol-derived civilization, and is the thread that felt inventive, different, and memorable. She is one of the last of the old deposed line of kings that used to rule the continent everyone else's story takes place on, but she ends up elsewhere in the world, building her power and involvement in a completely different (and not stock) fantasy society, and managing to hit a combination of scared innocence and personal bravery that won me over completely. While I'm sure that all these threads will come together (perhaps several books in the future), I could have done with a lot less Starks and a lot more Dany. She gets the brunt of the power of the conclusion, such as it is, of the first book, and I loved every moment of it.

I can see what people like in this series, well enough that I'll probably read the rest of it despite the length. (That most of the books have won awards and the latest is a Hugo nominee is motivation; if that weren't the case, I'm not as sure I'd bother.) I don't think Martin strays far from stock epic fantasy roots, but he's quite competent at what he does and the paucity of magic is a refreshing change. It reads, at times, like historical fiction in a completely invented world, with only a few twists that put it outside our world, and the world-building is thorough and comfortable.

The setting invites comparison with Guy Gavriel Kay and Martin doesn't come off well in that comparison. A Game of Thrones doesn't stand up to other, much better works by Kay, and if you've not read The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Sarantine Mosaic, or The Last Light of the Sun, I'd start there instead. It does, however, have a slightly different tone; those who are put off by Kay's strong sense of drama and epic may prefer Martin's drier, more factual tone. Plus, there's only so much Kay, and Martin does stand head and shoulders above the average fantasy brick.

If you like epic fantasy and have the time to invest, give it a shot. It's not bad, there are many who liked it much more than I did, and I think it's good enough to keep reading.

Followed by A Clash of Kings.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-04-18

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21