Revisiting George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: A Game of Thrones

With HBO’s adaptation of Martin’s epic fantasy series almost finished, even if the series itself certainly isn’t, I will be revisiting my original reviews from 2011 of the five books in the series completed by Martin.  My revised reviews of A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons have now been posted as well.

A Game of Thrones invites comparisons to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.  The series rivals those in quality but is very different in style and tone.  The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time are about epic battles between good and evil; A Game of Thrones is similarly epic in scope, but the good and evil are contained within each character.  It is, at its heart, about power and its acquisition.  The tone is far darker than the aforementioned series and is unrelenting.

A Game of Thrones opens (after a prologue revealing frozen undead in the far north) with Lord Eddard Stark being asked by his boyhood friend, King Robert Baratheon, to ride south to serve as the King’s right-hand man (literally, his official title is Hand of the King).  The promotion, along with suspicions around an accident in Eddard’s family and around the circumstances of the last Hand’s death, sets off a high-stakes feud between the Starks and the powerful Lannister family.  Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, the rightful heir to the throne (his father, the last Targaryen king, was usurped by Robert in a rebellion) and his sister set a plot into motion to take back the throne.

Martin tells his story in through the familiar third person limited narrative structure, cycling between eight different POV characters (not including the prologue).  Outside of Tyrion, the black sheep of House Lannister, and Princess Daenerys, of House Targaryen, the POV characters are all members of the Stark family.  Martin takes a more subjective approach than, say, Jordan in The Wheel of Time, making limited use of the unreliable narrator for dramatic purposes.

What unfolds is an engrossing tale of family, power, and intrigue in a world where the events of a rebellion twenty years prior are as relevant as the events of yesterday.  Where other fantasy epics focus on battles and swordfights, the conflict at the center of A Game of Thrones centers around politics.  A dark secret begins to unfold and loyalties are uncertain.

Martin has been much lauded for his gritty, realistic depiction of medieval life, and he never lets us forget that his is a Hobbesian world, where life is nasty, brutish, and short.  There is a high body count that includes characters most authors would not dare touch.  Martin also has a talent for zigging where the reader expects him to zag, and the plot begins hurtling toward the shocking climax little more than halfway through the book.

A Game of Thrones is the first volume of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, now at five of a projected seven books.  It served as the inspiration for HBO’s Game of Thrones, and the first season of the show follows the events of the first book directly.  The TV series and the fourth and fifth book have not changed my view that A Game of Thrones is one of the finest fantasy novels from the past three decades.

5 of 5 Stars.

About H.P.

Blogs on books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday (speculative fiction) and Hillbilly Highways (country noir and nonfiction).
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15 Responses to Revisiting George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: A Game of Thrones

  1. Prince LaQroix says:

    This was the only book in the series that I’ve read. I really enjoyed it and plowed through it. I don’t know what it was but I just couldn’t be bothered to continue the series. Part of it was the weird fascination that I feel GRRM has with deviant sexual practices i.e. incest. But I also just figured with all the horrific villains and the crap they do to the “good guys”, they payback will never really be satisfying. Or maybe I’m just rationalizing my reluctance to continue the series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • H.P. says:

      The first three books are brilliant. I would love to reread them…except there is no payoff waiting for me in the end. We don’t get it from the fourth and fifth book, and the sixth book is in the wind.

      We do start getting some catharsis in the show in season six. Which is a long time to wait, but it’s a grim series.


  2. J.J. Adamson says:

    I have a great amount of respect for George R.R. Martin and his achievements over his long careers. With his work in TV, he’s only expanded the market for fantasy literature and helped attract more mature readers, in so doing creating a market that I can sell to. I’ve read some of his earlier sci-fi and although it seems highly indicative of its times and not that interesting from today’s perspective (some of it was a lot more inflammatory at the time it was published although the ideas in it weren’t original), but it’s all well-written.

    A Game of Thrones on the other hand, I could barely read. I can’t remember how many times I’ve tried to read it and haven’t gotten very far for three reasons: (1) the prose is choppy, the sentences short and disconnected from each other; (2) with the constant POV-shifting I can’t really tell what’s giong on or how the characters are connected to each other. This wouldn’t be so bad–who cares about one book?–except that it’s inspired a bunch of younger writers to do the same thing and shift all over the place. I am loathe to say “I don’t care” because that’s so subjective, but in A Game of Thrones as well as in many of its mimics, as soon as I am interested in a character’s story, the chapter ends and we’re on to someone else. In the parts of this book that I’ve read, I can’t tell how any of it is connected, and it doesn’t go into enough depth for me to really get into it.

    It’s like a TV show, except that on a TV show you can get to know characters a lot faster.

    The third problem is the crassness that Martin uses. I don’t know any women who talk about menstruation the way these people do, and I don’t believe they would in such a culture. The claim that I hear over and over about these books is that “this is what living in a fantasy world would really be like” but I just don’t buy it. His fans say Martin’s read his history, but so have I and I have a different take.

    Liked by 1 person

    • H.P. says:

      I like third-person limited rotating POVs, although between the influence of The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire its overdone at this point. A little omniscient narration can go a long way. Martin keeps a tight rein on his POVs in the first three books and it keeps the book moving along (his pacing in those books is killer), although he steps away from that to his detriment in books four and five. Rotating POVs can be a great tool to keep the reader turning pages if done right. Of course, if the reader is meh about the book it makes them more likely to put it down. And rotating POVs too quickly can create the illusion of things happening without things actually happening (the one Kevin J. Anderson book I read had this problem).

      The series is dark and that can work as a storytelling tool, but it isn’t really realistic. That, I think, deserves an entire post of its own.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. John Boyle says:

    I’m glad GRRM has attracted readers to the field, but I couldn’t get past this first book. He’s just not my cup of tea.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Off The TBR says:

    Man I wish he’d finish this series. It’s definitely a favorite of mine. One thing I really appreciated was him saying once that at the core of the books is the idea that the decisions you make have consequences. And that’s the reason a lot of bad things happen to beloved and not so beloved characters. They don’t just get a pass because they are an important main character.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoyed the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire.

    That being said, the last two (and I am convinced they will be the last two*) were absolute wastes of time and wood pulp. And besides writing two great big door stopping wastes of time, GRRM seems to revel in bad consequences while avoiding giving his readers any good consequences.

    I’m done with him. I’ll watch the final series once the last episode has aired, so I can just knock them all out in a binge.

    *GRRM swears he is writing and working on the Ice and Fire stuff. But a professional like himself has no excuse really. He’s busy with other projects, other books, the projects he wants to be busy with, not the books he promises. Part of me wonders if he originally plotted it out and there’s were actually some happy endings amongst the various POV characters. But now, in this age of Trump, which has made his mood even darker, he can’t bring himself to write anything positive or hopeful.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Spoilers ahead, for anyone who hasn’t read the books or watched the show: I should also add that GRRM can be quite a d-bag about giving fans a bit of happy endings. Some time ago, back when book 3 was new, I was reading fan boards about the book. We were all speculating on the fate of a favorite but minor character from book 1: Syrio Forel. He “died” “offstage”.

    Word has it GRRM either got tired of fans asking about Syrio’s Fate and/or decided to forgoe his plans for Syrio (to bring him back, since we never saw him die). All because the fans’ questions and theories annoyed him. I should have stopped reading him then and I would have been spared the inanity of books 4 & 5.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. H.P. says:

    If he were getting up and working on the books every day they would be done. It doesn’t take a decade to write a book.

    I walked away from the show for a while when it passed the books, but it isn’t like the book series will finish anytime soon, and the show grew into such a cultural touchstone. I will read the remaining books when they finally come out, but the show will have sullied them considerably (even though I doubt they will bear much resemblance).

    I would love to go back and reread the first three books, because they are great. But there is no catharsis and no closure to that. And reading the remaining two books would only hurt, not help. A little catharsis, at least, would leaven the mediocrity (see: season 6 of the show).


  8. Pingback: Revisiting George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: A Clash of Kings | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

  9. Pingback: Revisiting George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: A Dance with Dragons | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

  10. Pingback: Revisiting George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: A Storm of Swords | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

  11. Pingback: Revisiting George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: A Feast for Crows | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

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