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.