A Game of Thrones
George R. R. Martin's epic fantasy novel was first published 15 years ago, but between the HBO series and A Dance With Dragons due in July, awareness is at an all-time high. Copies of the book have been flying off the shelves on leathery wings and magically appearing in eReaders everywhere. Cries of "For Winterfell!" have been heard reverberating across subway platforms and mall parking lots. Portly gentleman with chin-beards walk the streets with confidence. It is a glorious time to be a geek.
With weekly installments being parceled out by Home Box Office, I will offer only the most general of summaries. Thrones takes place predominantly in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a land where there are no set seasons and winter can last for years. The narrative is comprised of three main storylines- that of a sacred brotherhood patrolling a gigantic wall of ice, a spoiled exile and his sister attempting to raise an army in a foreign land, and a power struggle over the coveted Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms. Like the Holy Trinity, the three stories are one, and a complex history is shared between them. It is a history that lays the groundwork for the thousands of pages and hundreds of characters to come.
Martin has been credited with ushering in a darker, more adult era of fantasy, full of graphic sex and violence. Fantastical elements take a back seat to human drama, so those who normally turn up their noses might deign to take a whiff. You'll find no boy wizards or wise-cracking centaurs here. There is a dwarf, but he is of the real world variety. Dragons exist as fossils adorning the halls of the king, displayed like dinosaur bones in a museum.
Stylistically, the book has as much in common with historical fiction as it does with the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. Martin's decision to ground conflict in realism gives the fantastical elements that much more impact. So when a frozen corpse reanimates with murderous intent, it is as much a shock for the characters as it is for the reader. When ***REDACTED*** and ***REDACTED***, it actually means something.
For those who might find the book's girth daunting, a few chapters is all it takes. Martin doesn't drag you kicking and screaming into Westeros, he chloroforms you and secrets you in. You wake up in a world so well defined, with characters so well drawn, you are content to be its prisoner. Even secondary and tertiary characters are imbued with a depth that would put other novel's protagonists to shame. You care what happens to each and every one of them, whether you are fearing for their lives or wishing them dead, and that is what keeps the pages turning.
In fact, A Game of Thrones is like a perpetual motion machine of reading. Each chapter is told from one of several main character's points of view. Martin expertly builds each one to a mini-climax and then moves on, leaving you wanting more. It may seem frustrating, but as soon as you begin the next chapter you are caught up in another part of the story. It is a never ending cycle that propels the narrative forward and is what makes such a large book so readable.
This is storytelling on a grand scale. Fantasy writer's tend to get a bad rap from the prose police, but Martin is no slouch. His style is appropriate in tone and serves the narrative well. My only criticism is that sometimes his sexual descriptions dip into romance novel territory, what with all the references to dew-dropped nethers and plunging flesh-swords (I'm exaggerating, but you get my point.) It is a small complaint, considering the characters those sexual appendages are attached to.
If you are a fan of well written fantasy, you've probably already read Thrones multiple times. For those looking to dip their toes and test the waters- you're gonna get your foot bit off. If you are lucky enough to recover it, you can keep it in a jar as proof of the encounter, hobbling around with a smile on your face, content in knowing this is only the beginning.