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A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One)
Synopsis: Westeros is a land where seasons last for years, not months, and a long winter approaches. Many years after Eddard Stark and his friend Robert Baratheon overthrew the Mad King Aerys and brought peace to the Seven Kingdoms, Eddard is content to remain the Lord of Winterfell, living in the quiet north with his wife and children. When Robert, now King, calls Eddard to his side to become his advisor, Eddard reluctantly complies, sensing trouble approaching, while his wife Catelyn receives a message that could plunge the kingdoms into war. Meanwhile, Aerys’ heir Viserys and his sister Daenarys plot to reclaim his lost throne. And in the forests beyond the great Wall surrounding the kingdoms, supernatural beings known as the Others are beginning to move…
Review: Ah, the fantasy doorstopper. You know, those gigantic hardcover books that can be used as weapons of deadly assault? With the fifty thousand pages and eleventy billion characters and places and other little details that you have to pretty much memorize if you want to get through the book with a minimum of confusion? Part 135346 of a series?
I’m a fast and voracious reader, so giant books that take a while to get through usually fill me with glee. I was actually sort of reluctant to get started on this series (more on that later) but I was pleased by its unique structure, which features an ensemble cast and a ton of viewpoint characters. The appendix in the back of the book is pretty much required, but Martin also forgoes true chapters and just switches viewpoint characters every five-to-ten pages, splitting the book into manageable chunks and showing all the different sides to a situation instead of simply mentioning something once and then forgetting about it.
Martin’s prose is fluid and natural, a welcome change from all those books trying to sound old-fashioned but just coming off as pretentious. His descriptions are rich and vivid, with fantastic word choice that properly hits the targeted emotion. This, combined with the short sections which you can easily catch your breath at, sent me speeding through the book, reading through a three-hour car ride, not wanting to put it down at night.
There is a ton of complex political intrigue and other complications that drive the plot forward, making this a book you need to turn your full attention on. At the same time, there is a lot of humanity and emotion that can be downright painful to read. I can’t talk too much about the plot (since I’m not actually done the book yet) and I don’t really want too, since this blog is for getting people interested, not for recapping the story. However, I would like to talk a bit about the worldbuilding Martin has done and how it sets the tone he is going for.
A Game of Thrones is true dark fantasy. This is more difficult to find than it seems. ‘Edgy’ versions of just about everything under the sun have been popping up for years, but just taking a classic fairy tale and adding a lot of sex and violence does not a dark fantasy make.
In fantasy, the type of world you create sets the tone for your story. Everything you include or leave out has an impact. The brutal violence, illicit and disturbing sexual relationships, and, yes, the crippled children and slaughtered puppies that this book contains is not there simply to make it more ‘edgy’. It is setting the tone of the book, and defining the world the characters live in.
See, Westeros is a medieval, magicless world– medieval with all the screwed-up values and horrible living conditions, magicless and thus defenseless against the Others, or any other supernatural beings that may appear. Also, if you’re not white male nobility, your life is basically screwed. This is a bleak, gray world.
I can think of one other true dark fantasy off the top of my head. It’s a show called Berserk, and– surprise!– it’s also set in a medieval, magicless, bleak world with supernatural beings humans are defenseless against. So why this type of setting? It’s a way of showing that essentially, no one is safe. The ‘good guys’ might not come out on top… and do we even want them to? Even if the Starks ‘win’, what’s going to change? Their lives will still suck. Tragedy will come (it came in Berserk, and I see winter approaching for Westeros). And this is only the first book of a series, so there’s plenty of opportunity for things to get even worse.
Yeah, so if you couldn’t already tell, I like my fantasy to be just a teensy bit more idealistic. I’m not talking constant friendship speeches, I just don’t like this pervasive feeling of despair. I’ll finish the book, I’ll probably even start on the rest of the series, and I have nothing bad to say about the writing or plot. Dark fantasy is just not my thing, and this will never be on a list of my top favorites.
Do I recommend A Game of Thrones? Yes, but take note of the extremely mature content contained within. And if you don’t feel like reading 800+ pages, check out the TV series, which I have heard nothing but good things about. But if it’s all right by you, I’m going back to my JRPGs.