The first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series confirmed one thing for me: the guy knows how to write an epic fantasy series. The magnitude of the story is comparable to Lord of the Rings, but it was much more successful at actually capturing my interest from the get-go.
The story opens with a prologue set apart from the rest of the novel, foreshadowing the danger of what’s beyond the Wall and the possible supernatural threat of the Others.
After the prologue, we’re introduced to Eddard Stark (usually called Ned) via his son Bran. The Starks play an instrumental role, and that much is apparent early on, especially as they make up a healthy portion of the main characters. We find out that they are essentially the rulers of the north, which is quite sparse in terms of civilisation, and are one of the main seven houses that rule the fictional land of Westeros.
The book switches point of views every chapter—overall, there are eight characters through which the narrative unfolds. First off there’s the Starks; Eddard and his wife Catelyn, along with their children Sansa, Arya and Bran. There’s also Jon Snow, the alleged bastard child of Eddard and an unknown woman. The other two characters are Tyrion Lannister, brother to the Queen, and Daenerys Targaryen, one of the rightful heirs to the throne who went into hiding following the murder of her parents.
Quite quickly, it’s evident that Eddard Stark is going to be important; he is revealed to be King Robert’s closest friend, and is asked to become Hand of the King, giving him a rather powerful position. The thing about Martin’s series is that it isn’t focused on the fantasy aspect—it concentrates far more on the politics and the power struggles, and the rather unstable political climate. It’s a tension that’s been building since the overthrowing and murder of King Aerys II, Daenerys’ father, in a war instigated by Robert.
The major symbol of the book is the Iron Throne, which Robert has claimed as his own in the years since the war. The Iron Throne holds the power of the seven kingdoms, basically; the power of kingship. And it’s a rather eerie symbol, considering it’s made out of weapons… and apparently people have been known to impale themselves while sitting on it. Freaky, right? It’s rather symbolic, I guess, of what power ends up doing to people—or what other people do to them for that power.
The Lannisters are set up to be the villains (some of them, at least) of the piece, with Queen Cersei seemingly hating Robert and arousing Ned’s suspicions immediately. Jaime Lannister, Cersei’s twin brother, was responsible for killing King Aerys—earning him the title of Kingslayer, as he was previously part of the guard to protect Aerys. Tyrion is the only one of the Lannisters who seems to be in a moral grey area and not too deeply involved in the plots and intrigues at first, until it’s for his own gain.
It’s a very compelling story; Martin knows how to pack the information in while still making it interesting and engaging to read. Slowly the characters and the world are unveiled, and it becomes possible to envisage the snowy landscapes of the north; the noble atmosphere of Winterfell, the residence of the Starks. It’s a journey, basically—and it provides a lot of insight into just what people will do for power. It’s set in a medieval Europe-esque society, where jousting and melees are still popular and knights roam the land.
For me, the character that stood out most was Daenerys. The girl who had only just been born as the dynasty of the Targaryens fell, exiled along with her brother Viserys. Viserys is quite possibly the nastiest piece of work; he’s so consumed with the idea of getting his throne back that he sells her off to be married to a man called Khal Drogo, who basically commands an army of his own.
Daenerys is only thirteen years old at this stage, too, let’s remember. But she goes along with it because she’s never had any power of her own and she doesn’t know how to fight back, really. Viserys has spent their whole life telling her this is what she has to do to help him, and she’s so disempowered that she meekly agrees with him. The first book is her journey to early adulthood as she discovers her own power and how strong she really is.
Tyrion Lannister was a close second place in terms of most intriguing characters—cunning, sarcastic, cynical, a little bitter and disdained by everyone for being a dwarf. Tyrion managed to bring humour to the book in a way that no one else did; he was also most often the smartest person there, having quite a talent for political manoeuvring (which he really only used to help himself out).
He’s a character that evokes sympathy because of the situation he’s in, and because he gets misjudged a fair bit by everyone else. But Tyrion still definitely has his own flaws, which seems to be the norm with Martin’s characters. None of them are particularly decent people, and the ones who are don’t last long.
A Game of Thrones was a very exhilarating start to what I’m supposing really is one of the greatest epic fantasy series. (Although I do admit that I only ever read The Fellowship of the Ring.) It caught and held my interest for 800-odd pages, and I’m looking forward to reading on to see what happens to these characters next.
George R. R. Martin has interwoven a beautiful and rich fantasy world with a dark and gritty story of political conquest. It really just works. His characters aren’t just vehicles to move the plot forward, either; they’re well-rounded individuals who all bring something to the narrative. They’re funny, they’re noble, they’re usually kind of awful human beings and they’re real. I think that’s the most important thing. It’s easy to imagine real people acting this way, which is what makes for a good story.
So—George R. R. Martin, I salute you and I’m looking forward to continuing the series with A Clash of Kings.