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Overview Here is the first volume in George R. R. Martinâ€™s magnificent cycle of novels that includes A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. As a whole, this series comprises a genuine masterpiece of modern fantasy, bringing together the best the genre has to offer. Magic, mystery, intrigue, romance, and adventure fill these pages and transport us to a world unlike any we have ever experienced. Already hailed as a classic, George R. R. Martinâ€™s stunning series is destined to stand as one of the great achievements of imaginative fiction.
A GAME OF THRONES
Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdomâ€™s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.
Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.
Reviews This may be the best Fantasy I've read since J.R.R. Tolkien. I highly recommend it to any fans of the Lord of the Rings series who have been disappointed by the other supposed epics that have shown up since. Martin has created a sprawling world, full of intrigue and potential, and sowed it with characters who can carry out interesting conflicts within it. His prose is far more readable than the average Fantasy writer, capable of beautiful phrases and sweeping passages, but also excellent at carrying out action and expressing mindsets. In good characters, a good world and a good grasp of English, he certainly has more of the ingredients for great Fantasy than I've seen in a long time (and he bought them in bulk).
Now that I've put my best praise up front, I can talk about the weaknesses. Specifically: the beginning. The first hundred pages are a chore, and you would be well-served bringing a notebook to keep track of all the names and characters Martin throws at you. There is Bran, named for his father's dead brother, one of a
dozen other Brans who will be mentioned. There is Robb, and there is King Robert. Jon Snow and Jon Arynn are different people. Eddard and Ned are the same person. God help you when some of them get nicknames.
The names might not be such an issue if the characters stood out more, but aside from remembering that Bran likes to climb and Jon Snow is a bastard who angsts about his father, there really isn't much to hang onto. The second hundred pages improve by starting to jam the characters into personal plots, but reading is still slow and grim for much of it. Only Tyrion Lannister stands out as having a particularly unique voice, and he's a cynical intellectual midget who literally somersaults out of a window in his first paragraph. He really didn't need help being unique.
Lastly, the sexuality is pretty thick and jarring in those 200 pages, and Martin is not particularly entertaining, arousing, endearing or interesting in his descriptions. In fact, all he did was creep me the Hell out. He doesn't pull back on it later. You merely get used to it. The intimate details do help mood occasionally, but it more seems like his personal fascination that I'd suffer through (for thankfully shorter lengths of prose) to get at the worthwhile material.
If you should make it beyond that gap, brave reader, you've got something great ahead of you. The situations of the many characters form and get direction, such that they are mostly distinct (though sadly most of Martin's women sound the same and are very similar emotionally - with two keen exceptions). The book bounces between a dozen characters in their attempts to grow up, start lives, start families, run kingdoms, search for doomed heroes, protect the king, train in the way of the sword, play the politics of the court - everybody's up to something, giving you a plethora of perspectives as the major conflict emerges between two houses. You can easily come to care about people on both sides of the war that begins near the end of the book, which is an incredible feat, especially when it's this compelling. You're likely to sympathize with people who may eventually fight each other to the death.
I can't praise the momentum enough. Beyond the portion I've already criticized, Martin builds momentum like no prose writer I've read in quite some time. One character's actions will have ramifications for another; one battle means another; one curious detail reveals a large plan. Characters will die, plots will fail, and you
will not always see it coming. Better, the more trivial chapters, like a trip to a blacksmith, expand on the world or give characters a chance to chat in highly entertaining ways, such that it holds interest without needing to rush plot on you. The hundreds of names for places and people you'll never see in this book are a testament of Martin's intricately built world, which may be the most lovingly developed since Tolkien. Equally important, he puts his best efforts into placing interesting characters into that world - a failing of the majority of modern Fantasy writers. A Game of Thrones goes from character to character, building up an incredibly compelling drama that spans hundreds of miles and dozens of interesting people, and grows more interesting by the chapter. At page 100 it was a chore to pick up; at page 500 I didn't want to put it down.
Martin makes many of his influences quite obvious: Mervyn Peake (the description of the Iron Throne could have come straight out of Gormenghast, and all of the family fighting sounds like an elaboration of Peake's plot), J.R.R. Tolkien(the loving details and lore of weaponry, the labored sense of history in the world, the bygone beastiary, and the endless frickin' names), the Nibelungenlied (not to spoil it, but one character's hunting death sounds like an elaboration of Siegfried's demise), and classics like Shakespeare (like Peake and Tolkien, you don't write about this many troubled, royal-blooded in-fighters without a hard-on for the classics). Similarly, most of the elements of classic sprawling storytelling are here, including most of the major characteristics of the classic hero and villain, but the individual characteristics are divied up amongst the entire cast. So one character gets the Jedi-like wise but quirky swordmaster teacher, one has a history of heroism (but little these days, a nice spin), one is a king (but not kingly), one is a tormented bastard, one is powerless (and actually crippled), one is totally innocent and pure (not for long in this world, though), one wins the battles and so on. Similarly, the villain elements: the untrustworthy council, the diabolical wife, the giant, the brute, the torturer, the snotty brat - if magic shows up more frequently in this world, there will definitely be an evil witch or wizard. None of these elements feel hackneyed (except possibly Martin's almost misogynistic tendency to make women weak or vile - and even there, the weak girls are sympathetic half the time), generally feeling like they fit into this world that was once inhabited by dragons and shades.
That's the last thing I really need to praise. Martin's is a world haunted by Fantasy. It's fascinating. You don't see the dragons; they're supposed to be dead. The gods don't appear. There's a mention of manticores, but that's it. This world seems to have descended into realism out of a mythical past. But Martin is just
setting things up, and when the first major mystical thing hits, it has enormous impact. After that you're left to wonder how much Fantasy content exists in his world. How much is real, and how much is myth? And it's not done in the standard skeptical tone, but with reverence and intrigue, and it always follows the plot, rather than becoming the plot, making it all the more engaging. I know no one reading this knows me much (well some of you may) but I DON'T reread books. I usually read a book once and its quite well locked into my brain. As much as I've enjoyed many books I've read, they just don't require a second read for me. I read them, now its time to move on. "A Game of Thrones" is different. I loved this book and its characters so much, and crave the world and narrative so much that I couldn't wait for Martin to get the newest installment out. So I started rereading the first book I've ever reread.
Let me just say that I didn't find ANY of the characters boring. Even the characters that I would find an anoying personality type, are deeply engrosing in this tale. And those types of characters number just 2 for me in this book. There are so many characters, with such a broad range of personalities that there is someone to match everyones likes. Yet even the characters I initially found myself repulsed by, grow and change and are just as fascinating as those that I admire and empathize with.
Normally I dislike when an author has too many characters and jumps from character to character from one chapter to the next, not so in this book. Martin's ability to tell a story and hook you on it, is so great that I started to look forward to these jumps to different characters. With this many characters you really are provided with a great narrow and broad picture of the currents of this world and narrative. Its like watching individual storms all over the globe, all adding up to the global weather system.
Which leads me to my next point, his pacing. I've read my share of epic fantasy series. In particular Martin's two major contemporaries/rivals for the top spot of the epic fantasy genre: Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan. Both these authors have good parts, and bad parts to their books. There are momments in their books where I stop and think, "That was the coolest thing (event) I've ever read". Yet there are way more parts in both author's works where I was thinking "when are we going to get to the next awsome and exciting event? Why are we still walking/riding/working/...etc(you get my drift)". I came to expect this in any
book, particularly epic fantasy. I just thought that when a book/series gets as long as these tomes, you end up having to spread some borring filler in there because one imagination can only do so much exciting work. Martin broke that mold for me. I kept waiting for a momment where part of my mind would start, metaphorically, tapping its foot in bordom thinking, "are we there yet?". It never happened. Each chapter would grab me, and by the time the chapter ended I was groaning at having to leave behind this story thread because I was wrapped up in its narrative path. Then I'm instantly swept up by the events of the next chapters story thread.
Finally there is the commitment by the author to this narrative. Many stories have jeopardy but you kind of know that in the end, the main character can't die, there are more books to come. Don't ever count on that in "A Game of Thrones". Everyone of the characters is fair game, and people/characters will die in horrible and tragic ways. In this book and in subsequent ones in the series, I literally threw down the book and got up in shock. Sometimes even shouting out to no one at all, "Oh my GODS!, he killed !". It gives me confidence in Martin and his own level of commitment to telling me the best and most real story possible, complete with unfair and tragic events happening to good AND bad people (though in the case of the bad people I suppose it would be "fair and happy" when negative things happen to them..lol). Ok, thats it, I can't believe how much I wrote here. Hope this gets some folks to read this book. Cause once you read the first, you'll be hooked.
03/22/2009: I just finished re-reading this book, and have to say it was even better the second time around. I caught subtleties to the plot that I never caught before, particularly about Jon Snow, Lyanna Stark, and Eddard Stark. I also found it interesting how much more the tension in the book was increased for me because I knew certain great momments were coming in the book, and the tension that created for me was most enjoyable. This is quite possibly THE best first book in a fantasy series I've ever read. I can't wait to re-read book #2 now, if only I had more time to read! The world kept screaming at me that this book is one of the best fantasy novels ever. So I bought it (and scored an awesome 1990s cover). Then people started warning me how complicated it was. So I let it collect dust on my bookshelves for a couple years. Until now.
I didn’t find it difficult to follow. Sure, I had to flip back a few times to recall characters and events. That is to be expected in a long book with multiple points of view. I do wish Martin had stuck to one name per character. But, on the whole, it was easier that keep up with than the dwarves in The Hobbit or the political intrigues in Kushiel's Dart. Lesson learned: don’t let people scare me off books. James Joyce, here I come!
At first, it bothered me that the majority of the main characters are under twenty years old. How can they already be discussing the marriage of a seven year old? Is it really a good idea to let a twelve year old boy order executions? Then given that the average life span in this medieval-type society would be maybe forty years old, I can see how one would want to kick start life’s big events earlier. And I am excited at the prospect of seeing these characters grow up over the course of the series. Instead of flashing back to transformative childhood events, we can experience them in real-time.
Martin masterfully manipulated my feelings toward the characters. I was prepared to despise the barbarian king, Drogo and ended up liking him. I hardened against Catelyn when I learned how she treats her stepson, Jon, only to soften when she doubts her decisions toward her (maybe) enemy, Tyrion. I went back and forth with the enigmatic Petyr. I questioned the sanity of a favorite, Daenerys at one point. Heck, I even sympathized with the whiny Sansa by the end. Masterful! Martin really set up compelling backstories for his characters and took me for a ride. I love that no one is completely evil or loveable.
The world-building, while solid, is not the best I have encountered. To his credit, Martin did create some striking images – namely the imposing Wall of ice, a castle perched on the side of a cliff, and (view spoiler). Several times I wanted to shake the characters and yell, “If you know a decades long winter is coming, shouldn’t you be preparing your food stores?” I was also expecting more fantasy elements. There is no magic to speak of. I suspect, at the very least, that the otherworldly Others and dragons will emerge from the sidelines as the series continues.
After some wishy-washy debate, I knocked off a star. I am starting to notice how derivative all fantasy novels are. This is probably not fair to Martin since he wrote this book years and years ago. Many of the fantasy authors I’ve read recently likely copied elements from Martin himself. Alas, I cannot change the order of my
readings and the impression stands. The star also fell, because I didn’t read this one at breakneck speed. Normally the pages of these epic fantasies fly by so fast my hair stirs in the breeze. This book felt as long as its full 800+ pages.
Hmm, now that I've written them down, my downgrade rationale seems pretty lame. Back to five stars! This really is an excellent fantasy novel. I will certainly be continuing the series. As the Texas summer heats up, I am looking forward to escaping into an all-out winter with Martin! I’ll tell my husband I am “getting into character” as I lower the thermostat a few more degrees. Martin, I am sending the electricity bill to you.
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