A Game of Thrones
George R. R. Martin
Fifteen years after the civil war in which Lord Eddard Stark helped put his friend Robert Baratheon on the throne, he reluctantly accepts Robert’s request to leave his home of Winterfell to help with administration in the capital. Even before he leaves, however, Eddard finds that his predecessor may have been murdered, and soon he is drawn into a dangerous game of politics and intrigue. Meanwhile, across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen–child of the dynasty that Robert deposed–is sold into marriage to a lord of the nomadic Dothraki because her brother wants allies to regain him the throne. Lurking behind all the politics is the coming of winter: in this world, seasons last years, and after a long summer, winter–a time of legendary evil–has begun to return at last.
Martin is currently one of the biggest names in doorstopper fantasy novels, and it’s easy to see why. He not only creates a huge cast of characters but makes them all memorable, and his pacing is relentless as he switches from one character to the next, always keeping the reader in suspense about someone. His world is intricately detailed, and his politics are some of the most complex and credible that I’ve seen in a long time. His prose is capable, and he has a knack for dramatic scenes. And if you love twisty, unpredictable plots, then you’re in for a treat–Martin spends the first three-quarters of the book setting up his plot-lines and the last quarter pulling the rug out from under every one.
One could object that Martin uses a lot of elements that have appeared in other epic fantasies, but he actually turns this into a strength by subtly twisting them–usually in the direction of realism. Thus, while the Dothraki are yet another iteration of the barbarian warrior horse-riding plainspeople, they are far more believably (and terrifyingly) barbarian than anyone you’ll run across in David Eddings or Robert Jordan. Similarly, while one of Eddard Stark’s children is a spunky tomboy heroine, she’s not capable of anything more than you would actually expect from a child her age.
The book does have its faults. One is simply a problem of its type: in 864 pages of relentless POV-switching, it’s difficult for the reader not to become more interested in some characters than others, and during the last third of the book I found myself increasingly impatient when the narrative shifted away from my favorites. Also, while Martin’s characterization is generally good, there were places where he belabored his points; for instance, he didn’t need quite so many chapters to show us that Sansa is romantic and naive. And while his world-building is generally quite realistic, I found myself skeptical that a world with such different seasons would have exactly the same flora and fauna as our own.
What really turned me away from this book, however, was not really any fault of Martin’s so much as the type of fiction he has chosen to write. A Game of Kings reads like gritty historical fiction (in fact, it’s supposed to be inspired by the War of the Roses). Gone is any trace of mythopoeia, eucatastrophe, or even much wonder; this is the story of people trapped in a brutal, ruthless world where the only choice is to become ruthless yourself or die. A few of the characters are somewhat concerned with right and wrong–Eddard Stark most of all–but mostly the only question on anyone’s mind is survival, and the only choice is between Us and Them. Many of the characters grow over the course of the novel, but it’s almost entirely in terms of disillusionment and strength; I finished it unsure that anyone was ever going to consider morality even relevant, let alone try to make the right choices.
Now, it’s true that that in times of extreme danger, survival instincts do come to the fore. History abounds with situations of far greater brutality, where any innocents very quickly end up compromised or dead, and only an absolute saint could hope to preserve any kind of moral compass. So on one level, I have no quarrel with the story Martin has chosen to tell. But it’s simply not the kind of story I want to read. When I turn to fantasy, it’s not to be told how awful the world is, and how depraved people can become; I know that already. I read fantasy partly for the art of world-creation, but mostly for the wonder, and the portrayal of how the world might be, or should be. I look to fantasy for more meaning than is readily obvious in daily life, not less.
(I should also note that this novel is only the first of a still-unfinished series, and it is entirely possible that Martin will later take the story in a more redemptive direction.)
The kind of story that this novel is makes it hard to judge morally. Martin enjoys playing with the reader’s sympathies, making you empathize with people on all sides. In another author’s hands, such a technique might be used to imply that there is no absolute right and wrong, but I don’t think that’s what Martin is doing. He seems to be interested in telling the story of his characters with almost historian-like detachment, understanding all of them without judging any. And like a history, it’s probably not going to corrupt anybody, but it’s hardly likely to inspire anyone either. (In fact, it’s less like to inspire than history–because, unlike Martin’s story, history does contain saints.)
A word about content: this novel is rated a strong R at least. People swear, people have sex (including adulterous sex, incestuous sex, and sex with thirteen-year-old girls), people get raped, and people die in a number of horrific ways, including having molten metal poured over the head. (You get to see that one twice, in real-time and in flashback.) I have a pretty high violence tolerance in fiction, but there were times I had to put the book down because I felt ill. Furthermore, while the sex scenes are written dispassionately, without any tiresome attempts to arouse the reader, they are pretty detailed. (Martin has no concept of Too Much Information.) I would not recommend this book to anyone who was under twenty or without a strong stomach.