A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
Published by Bantam (USA), Voyager (UK)
Readily available in paperback RRP £8.99
Robert’s Rebellion brought about the downfall of the powerful Targaryen family who had ruled Westeros for 300 years. Supported by the great houses of Stark and Lannister, Robert Baratheon fought a bloody uprising that culminated in the Battle of the Trident and the death of the Targaryen Crown Prince.
Fifteen years later King Robert travels north to Winterfell to call upon his childhood friend, and supporter during the rebellion Lord Eddard Stark, to travel to south and become the King’s Hand. Lord Stark is an honorable man and places his duty to his King above that of his own lands and family and so leaves with his two young daughters for the capitol.
During the journey south Lord Stark learns that his childhood friend is a changed man, King Robert is a drunken womanizer. After an eventful journey Lord Stark wearily enters the capitol and takes up his new position, only to learn the Kingdom is massively in debt and his fellow King’s councilors have their own agendas. It does not take long for Lord Stark to learn it is the House Lannister that rules through Robert’s wife Cersei Lannister, and also uncovers some sinister truths about the death of Robert’s previous Hand, and a dark secret the Queen and her twin brother would do anything to keep secret.
As his investigations into the previous Hand’s death uncover intrigue, murder, bastards and treason Lord Stark realizes he has put his daughters in danger and must escape. Before his plans can be carried out the King is killed whilst on a hunting trip and the Lannister’s move to cement their position of power. Lord Stark is left facing a web of lies and uncertain allies alone.
First published in 1996, A Game of Thrones is the first book in the series entitled A Song of Ice and Fire. Initially suppose to be a trilogy the series has grown to encompass four novels, already published, with a fifth due out in July 2011. The plan is for a further two novels to complete the series, though some fans and commentators question whether this will become more as time goes by. With the series George RR Martin has created an elaborate, detailed world with a recorded history dating back over 8,000 years. Like the books the story is big, its epic, with a continent the size of South America and a cast of hundreds you’ll need plenty of quiet “me time” to get your head around it all.
I was at first daunted by the scale, within the first half dozen chapters you’re bombarded with the extended families of the main characters, their histories and the histories of the lands the rule over. If that isn’t enough you have to navigate through the plot and try to join the dots so you know who is siding with whom. Martin weaves a good story, you think you know where you are going and then he magnificently pulls the rug from under you.
I’m a fan of fantasy, but you can forget trying to apply standard fantasy rules here. There are no great wizards, there is no farm boy destined to lead the forces of light (and you’ll be hard pressed to identify any such forces), no grand quest, no magic talisman, no giant tanned barbarian to save the day. In fact, you may think you get to know the characters, and can label the good from the bad, but in Westeros, doing the right thing is not always the right thing to do.
Martin creates believable characters, you could believe you could meet someone like Eddard Stark, possibly the last honorable man in Westeros, or Jamie Lannister, the Kingslayer more concerned with his reputation than what goes on around him, or Petyr Baelish, brilliantly clever schemer and player with people’s minds. By creating believable characters he has managed to create a story that twists and turns with every page leaving the reader sometimes confident and others confused. The plot has all the political intrigue of The West Wing, with the double crosses of 24, the scale of Ben Hur and the graphic violence of a Quentin Tarantino movie.
There are some negatives though, the story is told from individual points of view and not all are as interesting as others. Whilst it’s good to see the intrigue and treachery from Eddard’s POV, it’s not so good reading Sansa Stark gushing how great the slimy Prince Joffry is, or Catelyn Stark bitching for the third chapter in a row about how her husband up and left with the King. But after a while you realize these chapters are there for a reason, Martin is building the characters into more than words on a page. Not every chapter can be action packed with fights, swearing and sex, every story, like life, is full with mundane, everyday episodes.
For me though, the one thing that surprised me the most about this first book was it has the highest death toll of main characters than any other book I’ve read. With most ongoing book series you expect the main characters to carry the story along, not so here. You are left at the end with barely a handful left and wondering how Martin can continue without them. But continue he does, because throughout the story he has peppered names, places and events that you will visit later on. Like real life people come and go only to turn up again later on. At the end you begin to realize why Westeros is so big and why the cast so numerous.