A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin
Book One of A Song of Ice and Fire
George R.R. Martin
Read: January 2005
Capsule: It's frustrating at first, but this mammoth entry into A Song of Ice and Fire is an enjoyable tome.
Paperback: 864 pages
An ex of mine warned against reading this series by George R.R. Martin, saying it was utterly addictive and, therefore, utterly disappointing. You see, due to the sheer number of characters and separate plotlines involved, Martin seems to take a good four or five years between installments of the story. This is the first in the franchise -- the fourth book was released a few weeks before Christmas -- of what promises to be at least seven volumes. Each book in the series is massive, weighing in at around 1000 pages, this last so huge that they've divided it into two volumes; book five, the illegitimate stepchild of book four, is due in the spring sometime.
I tried reading this, the first book a few years back, and got about 100 or so pages in before giving up. I'd never been much of a medieval-style fantasy fan, and this book was no exception. The characters were wooden, the setting contrived, the development and action slooooooooow. I gave the book to Briana and moved on to another book.
Then over Christmas 2004, the cover of Game of Thrones caught my eye at Book Warehouse. My experience with the first attempt was so unimpressive that I didn't remember having tried. I bought Thrones a second time and got to reading. Again.
The first 150 pages were absolutely infuriating. In judging the wooden characters, contrived setting, slow development, non-existent action, I found a maddening familiarity. I couldn't figure out why I felt so close to these badly-written characters; I was so involved with them that I could predict what they'd do next. Anyway, I stuck it out this time, and by the 200 page mark, I was hooked. Things picked up, and the pieces moved around the meticulously developed chess board brilliantly.
The story revolves around the family of Eddard Stark, an upstanding, soldierly nobleman in charge of the northern lands of Winterfell. The world is similar to 14th or 15th Century England, with one huge exception: seasons are of an extreme and indeterminate length -- a good summer will last nine or ten years. The cold seasons, then, bring not months, but years of hardship, toil and trouble. The Starks, as the earnest figureheads of the northern territories: they are the proverbial ants working hard through the summer, forever preparing for times of have-not. This leads to the Stark family motto, bleak but strong: "Winter is coming."
Eddard Stark and his comrade-in-arms, Robert Baratheon, overthrew an evil king years ago, and the latter now rules the Seven Kingdoms. A just but firm ruler in his youth, Baratheon has been fattened and slowed by years of unhealthful kingship and a questionable marriage to a scheming queen. Mysterious murders and heirs to the throne that don't resemble the king one whit are all precursors to kingdom-wide strife to hit as a winter of legendary prophesy falls upon the land.
Martin is an accomplished hobby historian, so the marked similarities between his story and the real-life civil unrest that culminated in the 30-year War of the Roses aren't surprising in their realism. He is decidedly unapologetic in depicting realistic medieval patriarchy: nearly every man of worth has as many bastard children as he does legitimate offspring, and nearly every other man (of worth or not) is willing to rape, pillage and kill wives and children to get ahead.
Most interesting, for me at least, is the Wall. The far northern rim of the kingdom is lined by an ancient, massive wall of ice. Hundreds of metres high and wide enough for several to ride abreast, this border wall is manned by bastards, criminals and miscreants as part of the Night's Watch. There's an odd honour in being part of the Watch; rather than being hanged or jailed for crimes, or begging for the want of a job, these outcasts find a comaraderie and purpose unavailable for them elsewhere.
On the other side of the wall lies a mysterious mix of wildmen, ye olde magic and feared bloodthirsty spirits. Magic isn't at the forefront of A Song of Fire and Ice, a la many fantasy novels, but supplies a (usually) subtle, sinister undercurrent throughout the books.
Frankly, with each book as thick as a contributor to Stephen Harper's Conservatives, it would be unwieldy for me to accurately summarise the story here. Besides, there are so many that have done the job already: The Citadel and The Tower of the Hand: The Encyclopedia of Ice and Fire are definitive sites, as only fantasy geeks and webheads could possible compile.
Bloated and spent after three weeks of this literary Roman orgy, I rolled out the door and bought the second book, A Clash of Kings. At a book exchange party a few weeks later, I asked Bree if she wanted Thrones, and she looked at me with her inimitable "I love you, friend, but you're a perfect idiot" smile.
Whenever I eye up a new paperback, then, I try to remember if I've given it to Bree first.