Genre Fantasy Publisher Bantam Year Published 1996 Review Posted on 8/21/2013 Reviewer Rating
7 out of 10
A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin
Reviewed by David L. Felts
If you've read this book, why not
If you haven't caught HBO's series Game of Thrones, I highly recommend
it. On the heels of enjoying the series, I decided to do a re-read of
the novels. Game of Thrones was first published in 1996. I think I might
have read it that year, or shortly thereafter. Now a review of a novel
published over 15 years ago might not be timely, but the re-surging
interest due to the series makes it relevant.
The first book in A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones introduces us
to Martin's imaginary world and its main characters, as well as kicking
off some plot lines that form the basis of future novels. What's
interesting about the novel is the way Martin chooses to tell the story.
Each chapter is dedicated to the viewpoint of one character. As a
result, we get to know them intimately. So not only do we get to see the
characters the way they see themselves, we also get to see them the way
other characters see them.
Martin uses this technique very effectively. A character who might be
seen as unfavorable by others can turn out to be far more complex and
sympathetic once we get into his or her head. As an example, Tyrion
Lannister is seen by many as a disfigured and venal dwarf, but when
exposed to his point of view, we begin to understand him and the choices
he makes. This complexity adds a great deal of verisimilitude to the
The downfall of this technique is that it can be confusing to keep the
characters and their motivations straight and that it limits our view of
events. While not so much an issue in the first book, which bounces
back and forth between the viewpoints of eight main characters, later
books in the series use as many as fourteen. It can also tend to mire
the story in minutia; some of things the characters deal with don't seem
to have much relevance to the overall big story. Such a tightly focused
perspective can inhibit our ability to see the big picture.
Another interesting thing Martin does is kill people off. Since there is
no one viewpoint that the story hinges on, all the characters are
disposable. At first, it's surprising when a viewpoint character is
killed, and somewhat exciting too, once we realize that anyone at any
time could bite it. It certainly adds a lot of uncertainty to the story.
A good thing, in my opinion.
Most of this first book centers around Ned Stark and his family,
although there is an ancillary storyline about the last two remaining
descendants of the family that ruled Westeros before Ned's friend Robert
Baratheon rebelled and took over. Ned Stark is a descendant of one of
the oldest families in the kingdom, and ruler of the north. His
inability to see the world as anything other than black and white causes
a lot of problems, both for him, his family and the kingdom. At first, I
kind of admired him and his determination to do what he thought was the
"right thing", but it didn't take long before I realized it was a
weakness, not a strength. Kudos to Martin for pulling off reversals like
this; he does it more than once.
My favorite characters where Jon (the bastard son of Ned) and Arya
(Ned's youngest daughter). I detested Sansa (Ned's oldest daughter).
It's a testament to Martin's skill that his characters can evoke such
Outside Ned's family, we've got Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen.
Tyrion is the dwarf brother to Cersi (the Queen) and Jamie (the captain
of the king's guard). Tyrion's caustic wit, devious intelligence, and
self-deprecation make him a great character. I like that I couldn't
quite figure him out. Just when you think he's in it for himself, he
does something that changes your mind.
Daenerys is the last descendant of the deposed line of kings that used
to rule Westeros. She's on her way to becoming a powerful force who
might be capable of reclaiming what once was hers.
This is a long book, with a big world, and many characters. Martin
doesn't pull and punches; there's violence and sex aplenty, and not
glossed over a la Lord of the Rings style. He gets into the
nitty-gritty, and that means this isn't a book to give your twelve
year-old. If it were a movie, it would be rated R.
Despite the medieval settings, most of Martin's characters have very
modern sensibilities. This can be jarring at first, but in the end
enables us to more easily identify with the characters and their
motivations. There's no attempt to mimic Tolkien's flowery prose or
evoke any other sort of old world feel. Not a problem for me, but some
fantasy readers might not appreciate it.
Big fantasy tomes (and this is a big one) can represent a large investment of time. Game of Thrones is worth it.
A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin on Amazon