I’ve embarked on a fantastical journey. This is not the first time I’ve read the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, nor, I hope, will it be the last, because there are many things to love about it. But it’s been four years since my first trek through A Game of Thrones, and since I intend to continue onward this time, I figured I was due to revisit book one.
About the book: The Hand of the King is dead. Some might say he was murdered. Either way, Winterfell’s Lord Eddard Stark sets things in motion when he accepts the position offered by his friend, the king. While he’s away at King’s Landing, the rest of his family must step up to leadership roles on behalf of the north and Winterfell, but other houses in the Seven Kingdoms want to use the Stark family’s new vulnerability to gain more power for themselves. Some wish to be the Hand of the King–and some, with secrets and schemes laid years ago, want to be king (or queen). The slippery and ambitious Lannisters, loathed by many, seem to have the closest claim to the throne if only they can get the king out of the way. But while allegiances shift and families grapple for the throne, there’s new trouble beyond the Wall–the white walkers are closer than ever before, killing men and raising wights from the dead. If ever there was a time the Seven Kingdoms needed to band together, the growing threat past the Wall is proof that this is it. And yet all the major houses of the Seven Kingdoms are too busy at war over the Iron Throne…
“Every noble house had its words. Family mottoes, touchstones, prayers of sorts, they boasted of honor and glory, promised loyalty and truth, swore faith and courage. All but the Starks. Winter is coming, said the Stark words.”
A Game of Thrones is the first in a seven book series (five published so far, with no news on which decade the sixth book might eventually appear in). It’s high fantasy, but there’s not a lot of magic. There are old stories of the magic that used to be in the lands, but very few characters brush anywhere close to it in this first novel. There are hints of the supernatural. Some might argue there’s a bit of romance. But first and foremost, this is a political series, an exploration of characters and their alliances and the powers they wield or lose.
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
About the writing: you don’t read A Game of Thrones for the writing. You just don’t. George R. R. Martin’s writing style is competent. It’s wise in its choice of detail and in the seamless flow of present action and backstory. It includes some great lines. But the narration is primarily matter-of-fact, concerned with the inclusion of every necessary detail in its proper place rather than beauty of metaphor. There are some clunky sentences, moments when the pronoun doesn’t refer to the last name mentioned and other little issues that are not indecipherable but do cause occasional confusion. But it’s okay, because you don’t read A Game of Thrones for its pretty sentences.
You read it for the characters.
“Never forget who you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
The best part of A Game of Thrones is that it’s not a tale full of “good guys” vs. “bad guys.” Who even are the good guys? There’s not even a main character. Everyone in A Game of Thrones is (arguably) as important as everyone else, be they man, woman, or child. Readers can choose a different favorite for the throne every hundred pages. Even just on my second time through the same first novel, I have different favorites than I did the first time, though my most-hated characters haven’t changed. In this first novel, the reader follows nine POVs, all in the third person. The chapters are titled only with their lead character’s name. But it’s all connected. The major players appear in each other’s chapters, or their relatives do, or their friends, or their secrets. Martin is a master of plucking individual story lines out of the whole, making each of them distinct and compelling without losing sight of the bigger picture and its interconnectedness.
“I swear to you, I was never so alive as when I was winning this throne, or so dead as now that I’ve won it.”
This was an interesting book to reread. There’s a bit of mystery, some questions that are answered within this first volume and some left for future novels. That made it fascinating to read back through, with some idea of what was coming ahead but gaps still left to motivate reading on. There’s so much detail packed into this one shortest novel of the series that I felt the reread was completely worthwhile, even though I did recall the big reveals that took place. I was able to look more closely at the little hidden truths that are folded into the writing, but I don’t know enough yet to see through everyone’s secrets.
“The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true. Look with your eyes. Hear with your ears. Taste with your mouth. Smell with your nose. Feel with your skin. Then comes the thinking, afterward, and in that way knowing the truth.”
I don’t want to talk too much more about plot, but I will say it’s intense. You need to have a strong stomach to read through some of the details in this book. There’s rape. Murder. Battle scenes. Direwolves. Humans reanimated after death. Harsh punishments and cruelty. Incest. Betrayal. A child pushed off a tower. And you never know who’s going to live or die. I learned my first time through this book not to get too attached to any one character, because Martin likes to build sympathy for them just to lead them to their deaths. If this was a spoiler review, I’d talk about some of my theories, but it’s not, so I’ll just say (for anyone who’s read this already or watched the first season) that Tyrion is my favorite Lannister, Arya is my favorite Stark, and Daenerys is currently my favorite character. I thought Jon’s chapters were most fun to read, and Catelyn’s the least. But no matter who you favor, A Game of Thrones is utterly captivating and 100% worth the time it takes to read an 800-page book.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Same as last time. I still find politics a little exhausting to read about so extensively, so I’m aiming to take about a week’s break before starting the next book. But I will watch season one of the TV series in that time. My plan is to read the five books published so far, and then watch the corresponding episodes for each book as I complete them. I suppose when I reach the end of the fifth book I’ll carry on with the episodes and just read the remaining two novels when they’re eventually published. (Please, George R. R. Martin, publish those last two books.) Waiting for the series to be finished is one of the reasons it has taken me so long to dedicate myself to reading it.
- Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is not really the same as Martin’s books at all, but I think there’ll be some overlap between the two fan bases. Outlander is a sci-fi/romance/historical fiction/fantasy mishmash about a time-traveling woman who falls through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and stands up in the same circle two hundred years in the past. And it has a phenomenal TV series that’s about to get really good in September, so now’s the time to read it.
Coming up next: I’m currently reading Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare, the final book in the Infernal Devices trilogy. Because as fun as it is to start a new series with 1000+ page books, it’s also a relief to finish what I’ve already started. Clockwork Princess is a Shadowhunter novel set in Victorian London, featuring an evil mastermind with an army of mechanical monsters and a tragic love triangle.
Are you a series reader? Which one’s your favorite?
The Literary Elephant
Update: You can now read my complete review of the next book in this series, A Clash of Kings!