Thursday, January 28, 2010

48. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

When I asked for book recommendations for this project, my sister Annie sent me an e-mail with a lot of suggestions. Many of them were science fiction and fantasy books, since those are genres that she knows better than I do. A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series, was near the top of her list. I checked Amazon's Kindle store and saw that I could buy A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, the second book in the series, for the price of one. I figured there was a decent chance that I would become invested in the story, so I went for it and bought both. So far, I have only read the first book. Warning: there are a few spoilers below.

Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades, and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom's protective wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean beauty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

Plot summary courtesy of

The first thing you need to know about A Game of Thrones is that it's long. (Very long.) I don't know the page count, but it's up there. I wanted avoid another An American Tragedy situation (wherein I get caught up in one book for a length of time and fall behind in my pace), so I decided to read other books at the same time. It took about a month to read, and I think I got through eight other books in that time. I told my dad about this strategy, and he sent me a quote from Ambrose Bierce that he thought I would enjoy:

"The covers of this book are too far apart."

Well said, Mr. Bierce.

The next thing you need to know about this book is that it's complicated. I looked up the Song of Fire and Ice series on Wikipedia before I started reading, so I could see what I was getting into. There was a summary of events that took place before the action in A Game of Thrones, and it seemed like a tangled web to me, even after I started reading. There were times when it seemed like the cast numbered in the thousands, and many of them had long, interwoven histories with other characters.

So you see, the book requires a commitment. And while that may sound like a bad thing, it's not. If you dedicate the time and attention to A Game of Thrones, you will be rewarded with a genuinely enjoyable and fulfilling reading experience. Martin has created an entire world filled with unique customs, history, settings, and characters. It's so well-developed and thought-out; I can't imagine being able to do that. I think I may have to read it again at some point; there are so many details that I'm sure I wasn't taking them all in. Oh, and I should mention something that Annie included in her e-mail: You need to give this book a good hundred pages before it really starts to get awesome. Agreed! But it's definitely worth it once you get past that initial hump.

If you've read my previous reviews, you're aware that I can't keep track of action sequences very well. That's true for me in this book as well. There are grand-scale scenes of battle as well as smaller-scale scenes of swordplay between children that I struggled a little with. What really interested me were the motivations of the characters and the wealth of intrigue included in the plot. It's hard to give examples without getting into the whole plot, but suffice it to say that the struggle for power brings out the best in some people and the worst in others. How they interact and plot against each other is fascinating to me. I love the idea of these power plays being a "game of thrones." I think that's very apt, and I liked when characters referred to that:

At one point, a character who yearns for the power his family previously had told someone that the people were secretly waiting for him to seize control of the kingdoms. The other character responded that the people didn't care who won the game of thrones, they wanted to stay out of it and be left to their day-to-day lives. That resonated with me, and I wondered how true that might be for modern-day conflicts.

At another point, the queen remarks, "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." If you didn't already have a firm grasp of her character, that statement would probably give you a good idea.

And finally, one character asked, "...why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?" Again, this resonated and made me think about modern-day conflicts and who truly pays the consequences.

I really liked the way that Martin alternated between different characters' points of view in each chapter. It was very effective, and rounded out the story. He is an incredibly skilled writer to be able to tell his story from multiple well-developed characters' perspectives. It was a great way to subtly drop clues and hints to the reader that not all of the characters were privy to. Although I don't mind saying, there were a few surprises that I didn't see coming at all -- for those of you who read the book, my jaw dropped when Eddard figured out why Jon Arryn was killed. And the scene leading up to Eddard's execution had my heart pounding! Not all writers can achieve that level of suspense. I did become really invested in the story after all; the instances of unfairness (when Robert ruled that the direwolves had to be put down, for example) made me so mad that I was shaking my head and muttering, much to Colin's delight.

Annie told me that the Song of Fire and Ice series are the best fiction books -- of any genre -- that she's ever read. I'm on my way to agreeing with her, and I highly recommend you check out A Game of Thrones.


The Book Pimp said...

Well, I previously tried reading this one and got too bogged down with all the characters. I will have to give it another shot after reading your review!

I'm glad you were able to find a fantasy book that you enjoyed so much!

Magnolia said...

I think if you stick with it, you'll end up enjoying it!