In most people’s idea of fantasy, you practically run into elves at the post office. Oh, yeah, that’s a dragon over there. We’re up to the eyeballs with the bloody things– they’re like pigeons nowadays.
But George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series establishes a world that’s historically recognizable yet with the potential for the fantastical. A few surrealities are apparent early on, like the walking dead and the summers and winters that last for years. But the bulk of the story is grounded dirt-deep in bloody, petty, gritty politics, so to see a dragon here would be an actual “holy shit” moment.
In this sense, I feel like A Game of Thrones is the start of maybe the perfect fantasy series for me to read. Many friends of mine have figured as much, but also recommended it to me based on the idea it’s really freakin’ good.
And yes, it is. Where do I sign up for the club, and how much are dues?
(Is the HBO series faithful to the books? If I had HBO and saw more than the pilot episode, I could tell you more from experience. As far as I know, the TV adaptation’s most drastic deviation from the books is dropping the “A” in the title.)
(Spoilerish Fun Fact: I wonder how many fans of the show are pissed that Sean Bean’s presence in the series has just been… truncated.)
The story centers around House Stark of Winterfell, a castle that guards the frosty northern fringe of the Seven Kingdoms. Lord Eddard Stark, who is basically Atticus Finch with a greatsword, is selected by his old friend the King to become his new second-in-command (The Hand of the King). “The King eats, they say, and the Hand takes the shit,” says King Robert Baratheon with a laugh. Lord Stark reluctantly agrees to leave his icy outpost and take half his family to King’s Landing. The problem is that the position was recently vacated upon the death of the previous Hand of the King, and perhaps by not-so natural causes. And the court of King’s Landing, we find, is a nest of vipers that tests Stark’s moral fortitude.
The chapters alternate their focus among a handful of characters, all of them members of House Stark with a couple exceptions. Daenerys is a thirteen-year-old heiress to an all-but-destroyed dynasty who is wedded into a Mongolian-like army of nomads. You get to watch this waifish ingenue grow into the matriarch of the barbarians.
Whenever I see a Tyrion chapter, I become happy. He is a vertically-challenged heir to House Lannister, which opposes the Starks in the ensuing war, but you never quite know where his allegiances lie. Lacking any physical potency in this brutal world, Tyrion survives by his cunning, and he gets all the best lines as this story’s Falstaff. (When Tyrion is arrested at an inn, the innkeeper shouts to the captors, “Don’t kill him here!” and Tyrion shouts, “Don’t kill him anywhere!”)
The perspective shifting is about the only way I can picture writing this story: it allows Martin to dig into the intense intimacy of the characters while maintaining the grand sweep of the narrative, as these characters are strewn about two continents as a war begins to tear them apart.
Winter is Coming
Martin cultivates the sense of dread that, while you don’t know exactly how or when, disaster is coming and on many fronts. Example: for 8,000 years a 700-hundred-foot-high wall spanning an isthmus stands to protect the known world from… from what? What’s on the other side of that wall? Very bad things, given the Prologue that opens the book like a medieval horror tale. This is just one of maybe seventeen powder kegs set afuse in AGoT, and you can hear them hissing through almost every chapter.
I think Martin writes very well if lacking editorial oversight. He belabors the obvious as if it’s been months since you read the last couple chapters, and he has the unfortunate knack for singling out the stupidest phrase a character utters and assigning it as their motto to be repeated until you reach for a claw hammer to pry your eyes out. And when it comes to Tyrion being a dwarf, Jon being a bastard, or Varys being a eunuch, Martin beats a dead horse like Taylor Hawkins wailing out a drum solo. Thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-he’s-a-bastard-bastard-bastard-thumpa-thumpa-thumpity-kisssh!
I counted six instances where characters actually said the phrase “game of thrones,” and that shit is unacceptable. The next book had better not subject me to Robb saying, “This next battle will truly be A CLASH OF KINGS!” or Catelyn complaining, “These men are never satisfied until they’ve had A CLASH OF KINGS!”
And I will read the next book. I don’t usually do that– on the account that life is too short and packed with too many wonderful authors to continue down a single vein for very long. But this series is something else. You don’t have be a fan of the genre to enjoy it (the success of the HBO series is no surprise). I imagine you can be the avid reader of this fantasy series without necessarily jeopardizing your sex life. That it happens to be great makes it all the more special.