Archive | June, 2009

“A Game of Thrones,” by George R.R. Martin

2 Jun

“A Game of Thrones,” by George R.R. Martin (807p)

A Game of Thrones is the first novel in an as yet unfinished planned seven part series by American fantasy author George R.R. Martin. Set in the fictional world of Westeros, a realm resembling medieval Europe, it tells three stories roughly connected from the viewpoint of several main characters. The first story is told by Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled princess of the overthrown king living in the mysterious eastern land with her brother Viserys. The second story is told by Jon Snow, bastard son of Eddard Stark sent north to serve his life as a guardian of the wall that protects the lands of Westeros from the evil that lurks beyond. The third story is the main story told by most of the character viewpoints, and concerns the eventual civil war between the competing houses Stark and Lannister following the suspicious death of the king’s right-hand man. This story is told by Eddard Stark, the new Hand of the King; Catelyn Stark, wife of Eddard; Sansa, Arya and Bran, their children; and Tyrion Lannister, the brother of the ambitious queen Cersei and son of the most powerful lord in the realm.

In the east, Daenerys Targaryen travels with her brother Viserys in the search of a political marriage match with a powerful lord in return for an army to win back his birth-right, the kingship of the Seven Kingdom. The ruling Targaryen’s were overthrown in a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon (now king), and every member of the royal family either died in battle or were summarily executed, leaving just Viserys and Daenerys to live in exile. Viserys is far from a loving brother, however, and regularly beats and terrorises his younger sister. As Daenerys embraces the life and culture of her new people, her brother grows continuously discontent and impatient waiting for his promised army. His increasingly boorish and disrespectful behaviour leads to tragedy, and Daenerys is eventually left with nothing in a strange hostile foreign world following the death of Khal Drogo, her husband. As she takes her own revenge on those who took everything away from her and buries her loved one, a stunning transformation occurs with the ornamental dragons eggs Daenerys carried with her as a symbol of the lost Targaryen might. Daenerys Targaryen had re-awoken the dragon.

Jon Snow is the bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark, Warden of the North and Lord of Winterfell. He seeks to join the Night’s Watch, the black covered men sworn to man the wall separating Westeros and the evil beyond. After travelling north with his uncle Benjen Stark, who disappears one day while on patrol beyond the wall. Jon settles into his training and soon progresses quickly, his earlier knights training at Winterfell serving him well. Upon his swearing of the oath that would bound him to the brotherhood for life, Jon is dismayed when he is assigned to a lesser role than he thought he would receive but endeavours to make the best of it. He is convinced his true calling is to command and makes his full commitment to the Night’s Watch, proving himself to himself, as the King-beyond-the-Wall begins his first march south bringing all his evil with him. Jon Snow knows his place is with the wall.

The main story, though, concerns the story of the Seven Kingdoms. In the prologue Eddard Stark, called Ned, executes a man for deserting the Night’s Watch and on his return to Winterfell, comes across a fallen direwolf (the herald of the House Stark) killed by the antler of a stag (the herald of the royal House Baratheon), leaving behind it six pups – five for the natural born legitimate Stark children and one albino pup, given to the bastard Jon Snow. They return to Winterfell shortly before King Robert, his family and all his retinue arrive for a royal visit, rare to the northern lands. Robert’s visit is really just a guise to ask Ned to become the new Hand of the King following the death of Jon Arryn. He also promises to wed Sansa, Ned’s daughter, to his son and heir, Prince Joffrey. Reluctantly Ned agrees because he wishes to find the truth of Jon Arryn’s death, suspecting the Lannister family. Preparations are made to journey south to King’s Landing, the capital, leaving behind his wife Catelyn to rule with his eldest son and heir, Robb. But Bran, the middle son, accidentally stumbles upon a terrible secret shared between the twins Jaime Lannister and Cersei, the queen, and befalls a tragedy himself. Ned still decides to depart and takes his daughters Sansa and Arya with him, and shortly after his departure an attempt is made on the life of Bran and Catelyn. Her discovery of the knife that tried to kill her and her son forces her to also take leave of Winterfell and head south to seek out her husband.

In King’s Landing Ned chafes under the horrors of court life. The intrigue, backstabbing, lying and untrustworthiness of every man and woman causes him much grief. His investigations into the murder of Jon Arryn continue and he frequently clashes with the unsavoury members of court over it – Varys, the eunuch with all the eyes and ears in the city; Littlefinger, a man who had once loved his wife and is now an influential councillor; Robert, the king who hates being king; and the Lannisters, the worst of them all. Catelyn arrives in King’s Landing and discovers the owner of the knife used in the attempt on her life belonged to Tyrion Lannister. Travelling north again, Catelyn and her company stumble upon Tyrion by chance in an inn and take him prisoner and head east, not north, and the lands of the Eyrie and the Vale of Arryn, which is being ruled by Catelyn’s sister Lysa following the death of Jon Arryn. This act, taking a son of the most powerful family in the kingdom prisoner, stirs the Lord of Lannister into action, and be begins to mobilise his forces – war is coming.

Ned Stark pieces together the mystery of Jon Arryn’s death and eventually discovers the truth, the same truth his son Bran discovered at Winterfell. Queen Cersei’s plan to have her son Joffrey become king succeeds when King Robert is slain while hunting, and Ned is betrayed and captured by the Lannisters. Offering himself to Joffrey to free Sansa and Arya, he is brutally executed by Joffrey and Sansa is captured again, her sister Arya had stolen away in the night. The Lannisters had made their bid for absolute power and now reigned supreme over the Seven Kingdoms. Civil war erupts as the noble houses declare for either Stark or Lannister. The Tully’s obligingly side with the Starks and join forces with Robb Stark, now Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, as he leads an army south to face the Lannister army. The Frey’s declare for Stark as well as Catelyn negotiates a series of dynastic marriages tying the two houses together. As a series of decisive battles are fought and won, with the Stark army defeating Jaime Lannister’s forces, the younger brother of the deceased Robert heads south and proclaims himself king with the support of House Tyrell. Robb Stark is also proclaimed King in the North and supported by the Tully and Stark banner-houses, while the Lannister’s hole up in King’s Landing, Tyrion Lannister ruling as the new Hand of the King. The story continues in A Clash of Kings.

A Game of Thrones is an epic novel. It is epic in scope and depth with a full cavalcade of different characters, each of whom have their own personalities and fleshed out story. It is obvious Martin has put a hell of a lot of effort into this, you can see it in the writing the way everything connects and there are no holes in the story. His skill as a writer is also exemplary, for his style of multiple points of view told by a series of character is challenging, and easy to make a meal of. But Martin manages to seamlessly switch between characters and give them all their own distinguishable voice and personality, perfectly switching from noble lord to whimsical little girl to mischievous and cunning dwarf. Even the characters that do have their own point of view chapters are suitably personalised and distinct, so the full cast of characters is wonderfully put together.

The dialogue flows easily and fluently, nowhere does it seem forced or contrived, which is important in a story where the majority is told through the dialogue rather than the narrative. His style is actually quite similar to Sharon Kay Penman. That also makes it eminently readable and a real page turner, I found myself ploughing through chapter after chapter and went through more than a hundred pages in one sitting (and I’m a notoriously slow reader). For such a complex story with so many things going on at the same time for the reader to digest, this is a real accomplishment by the author.

While this does fall into the genre of fantasy, it’s not really the stereotypical fantasy novel. For one thing, magic plays almost no role in A Game of Thrones, and the supernatural elements are confined to the usual superstition and mysticism found in the past. The series is essentially written to resemble the Late Middle Ages in Europe (and the story is based on the War of the Roses), so I would think of it more as historical fantasy rather than clear cut fantasy. The setting and images created in the narrative immediately resemble any description I have read of medieval Europe. This is quite an adult novel as well with all of the politics involved a lot to digest and make sense of, but seasoned readers will grasp the political manoeuvrings of Cersei Lannister and Ned Stark easily. Anyone interested in trying a book in this genre would be wise to consider A Game of Thrones because it is an enrapturing and engrossing read that will pull anyone right into this ruthless, complex and intriguing world the author has intricately created. Do not be put off by the fantastical setting or classification because this novel and series is so much more than that, it’s many things, and a very worthy read.