Title: Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire #1)
Author: George R R Martin
Year of Publication: 2005
Length: 835 pages
New or Re-Read?: Re-read in anticipation of the HBO series starting
Rating: 4 very solid stars
Be ye forwarned: This review is going to be long. I’m also splitting it into two sections: Spoiler-Free and Spoiler-Full. Mostly because I just don’t know how to talk about so much of this book without spoilers.
I’m going to try to avoid giving the same review that, well, everyone else on the planet has. Yes; A Game of Thrones is not your grandfather’s fantasy series. Rather than good and evil, we have every conceivable shade of grey. No hero is without fault, and no villain is without… Okay, almost no villain is without some hint of redemption. (I hold severe reservations about Cersei and Lord Frey, for a start). GRRM doesn’t pull punches, and no one is safe — up to and including children and pets. Westeros is a far harsher world than most fantasy series exist in — its as much a political thriller as it is a sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Especially in this first book, the sorcery aspect is subtly played — rumors, myths, legends, long-forgotten things which no one quite believes in any more.
Okay, so, the requisite summary — And all I can really do without spoilers is tell you how things stand at the beginning of the book: Robert Baratheon is King of the Seven Kingdoms, after overthrowing the previously ruling Targaryen dynasty. He rebelled when the crown prince, Rhaegar, absconded with Robert’s fiancee, Lyanna, the younger sister of Robert’s best friend, Ned Stark. Ned lives up North, close to the Wall, which separates the Seven Kingdoms from the wilds and wastelands (where, we learn in the prologue, an ancient supernatural evil appears to have awakened). Ned has a wife, Catelyn, five children (Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Rickon), and a bastard (Jon). He also has a brother, Benjen, who is a brother of the Night Watch, who guard the Wall. Robert has, for fifteen years now, lived in King’s Landing, towards the south of the continent, with his wife Cersei (Lyanna died in, er, mysterious circumstances before the end of the war). Cersei was born a Lannister, the ruling family in western territories. Robert asks Ned to come serve as the Hand of the King, and despite deep misgivings, Ned agrees. Further complexities ensue thanks to Cersei’s brothers, her twin Jaime (a member of the Kingsguard, who betrayed and murdered Aerys) and the dwarf Tyrion (snarky and smart as a whip). The last Targaryens, meanwhile, are in exile across the Narrow Sea, where heir Viserys is about to sell his sister Daenerys into bridal slavery to a horselord.
And oh yeah. The Targaryens used to have dragons.
Yeah, this book is so complex that even the briefest summary is that long. That gives you a good indication of the depth of the story, though — it has a true cast of thousands, which can be a little mind-boggling at first. The trick is just to let it all wash over you, refer to the index if necessary, and wait for GRRM to draw your attention to the people who are really important. You can notice the rest on re-reads. 😉
This series is also fun for a history geek, because there are a lot of parallels between Martin’s invented history and the history of England. Stark v Lannister pretty strongly resembles York v Lancaster in a lot of ways, the Wall and the wildlings show some inspiration from Hadrian and the Picts, and the “Dance of the Dragons” which is hinted at in this book and talked about a little more elsewhere has correlations to the civil war between Stephen and Maud in the mid-12th century. So there’s an added level of entertainment for readers like me.
Re-reading this book is a trip, because you notice all the things that GRRM seeds so.goddamn.early! Hey, Prince Doran’s hedging his bets. Hey, there’s Barristan Selmy! Hey, they’re talking about Mance Rayder! Hey, Illyrio is talking about the Lord of Light! So many little tidbits thrown out that pay off later.
I noticed this on my last re-read as well, but I become increasingly convinced of the Rhaegar+Lyanna=Jon theory. It’s just… blatant, once you’re aware of it. Nothing in Ned’s memories or fever dreams about Lyanna makes the slightest bit of sense otherwise. And how much he hesitates every time Robert talks about how sweet and biddable Lyanna was and what a great marriage they would’ve had. What concerns me is that GRRM may flounce. Like, since so many fans have guessed that twist, that he’ll change it midway through the game (and, potentially, that’s why DwD was such a struggle for him to get through — because he had to change his initial plans).
Here’s another question I can’t quite figure out: Why does Westeros consider the Targaryens such a big deal? Why is everyone so hung up on them? I mean, I love the Targs, don’t get me wrong. But they were only around for 300 years. Less than that in the North and in Dorne. Yes, they united the Seven Kingdoms, but… for such a fractionally small part of history. I mean, we are talking about a land where (against all probability, language development, and genetic drift), families have had the same names and lived in the same territories for between 1000 and 8000 years. Is it just that they’re so recent? Folk certainly act like they were a much longer institution than they were. How did they come to so thoroughly dominate in such a short time? I find this odd.
I think the easiest way to compose my thoughts will be POV-character-by-POV-character. The first thing that strikes me, looking at these, is how narrow the scope is in this first book compared to later ones. Mind, I think GRRM widens the field far too much in A Feast for Crows (Greyjoys? Really? I’m supposed to care?) But here, 6 of 8 POV characters come from the same family. Our only alternate views come from Tyrion, member of the enemy family to the other 6, and Daenerys, far across the Narrow Sea. Compare this to 5 of 9 in A Clash of Kings, 5 of 10 in A Storm of Swords, and only 2 of 12 in A Feast for Crows, and, well, you see how the story expands outwards.
But, as far as A Game of Thrones goes, we have:
Ned: Eddard Stark, and his indefatigable honour, which pretty much gets everyone dead or in dire peril. Seriously! Most of the problems in these books can be linked to Ned Stark doing what’s “right” instead of what’s smart. I increasingly feel like the winners of this whole series will be the people who can balance honour and pragmatism. People who have no honour at all are villains, and we need to see them fail eventually, even if it takes a while. People with too much honour make idiotic mistakes that get people killed. The characters who are going to triumph, I feel, are those who choose to be honourable when they can be… but who aren’t willing to sacrifice everything for it, who would rather be practical than dead. Ned isn’t one of those people. Ned makes very poor decisions. What’s strange is that, as much as I know his execution shocked me the first time around (mainly due to the thought that POV characters aren’t meant to bite it), on re-read, he seems pretty much doomed from the start. There’s this black cloud that follows him around from the second he hears Robert is headed up the kingsroad to visit him.
Cat: Catelyn Stark, nee Tully, wife to Eddard, daughter to Hoster, sister to Edmure and (crazy-ass) Lysa. I have never liked Cat, and I’ve never made much of a secret about it. What really rubbed me the wrong way about her this time around, though, besides her catastrophically stupid decision to kidnap Tyrion Lannister without good cause, is her treatment of Jon. From the very beginning, she treats him like dirt on the bottom of her shoe. And I just don’t get it. Yes, I can understand being upset about having to house your husband’s bastard. But it’s been fifteen years. Shouldn’t she have reached some peace about that by now? I mean, this is a kid that’s a) not responsible for how he was begotten, b) her eldest son’s best friend, and c) a good influence on her younger children. Why so much hate? Apart from that — yeah, the catastrophically stupid mistake. And what’s worse is how smug she is about it, including her decision to take Tyrion to the Eyrie.
Sansa: Sansa Stark, second child and eldest daughter of Ned and Cat. I swear, she gets dumber each time I read this book. I know she’s just an 11-year-old girl and we shouldn’t expect too much, but, seriously? How did she grow up this dim at Winterfell? How did just living in the North not knock better sense into her? Her younger siblings show a lot more reason and judgment, so you can’t really foist it off on her youth. I wonder if this is, though, a weird streak that she does inherit from Ned rather than from her southron mother — this wanting to believe the best of people. But even so — Ned at least sees the bad and chooses to believe good will prevail. Sansa’s just so blinded by romance that she doesn’t even see it. She’s all, “Oh, Joffrey is my sweet prince and my life will be wonderful!” despite all evidence to the contrary. I mean, seriously, he’s an unabashed little jerkwad from the get-go. There is no redeeming trait in him whatsoever. How does Sansa not see this? I get it that we need her like this at the beginning for the general theme of “life is not a song” (despite the title of the series), but it doesn’t make me want to throttle her any less.
Arya: Arya Stark, third child and second daughter of Ned and Cat. The tomboy. Arya is fiesty and troubled, always feeling like she comes off second-best in comparison to her sister, never allowed to play with the boys in the way she’d like. Ned compares her to his sister, Lyanna — which I think says a lot about Lyanna’s character. Arya has a fiercer practical streak than most of the Starks, and she thinks faster on her feet than the rest of them do. Arya’s also one of the focus points about a theory I have regarding the direwolves — but I think I’m going to hold off commenting on that until I’ve gotten through A Clash of Kings again, because more of it becomes apparent there.
Bran: Brandon Stark, fourth child and second son of Ned and Cat. The dreamer. Him getting thrown out the window is the first “ohmygod!” moment of the series — the first moment when you realise that GRRM means business and won’t protect anyone. Admittedly, Bran doesn’t do a whole lot else in this book — his chapters are fairly introspective, and he is, until Robb leaves Winterfell, more our way to still see what’s going on in the North. The seeds are there, but Bran’s story doesn’t really take off until the Reeds show up.
Jon: Jon Snow, an illegitimate member of the Stark family. I love Jon. He’s one of my favourite characters. But I hadn’t realised just how much of this book he spends vacillating, and it sort of annoyed me on this go-round. I guess it’s necessary to get him to where he needs to be, and I feel like his plot arc is pretty much all about standing at the crossroads and having to make tough decisions about who he is and who he wants to be. Also his dream about Winterfell lying empty, with none of his family there to answer his calls, (pg 267 of the paperback) is really eerily prophetic, considering what comes later.
Tyrion: The Imp, the younger Lannister son. His chapters are probably the most flat-out entertaining of the whole book. He has such an interesting and sarcastic outlook on the world, which makes his viewpoint great fun to look through. I particularly love how he takes to Jon and Bran, and honestly, I really hope that circles back around by the end of the series. Bastards and cripples and broken things — and they could cheerfully take over the world. Tyrion’s so sharp, and you can really tell how his family has influenced him, too — growing up with the lions, he couldn’t let himself show weakness, so even when he has ever reason to be terrified for his life, he has to stay unflappable and irreverent.
Dany: Daenerys Targaryen, Stormborn, Mother of Dragons. My favourite character in the whole series — and she didn’t start out that way. Because she’s so weak and cowed by her brother at the start of the book, dragging her feet and looking backwards — but she gets over it. I love watching her grow, and I love watching her assert herself. Once she Takes a Level in Badass, she just keeps climbing that tree — it starts, I think, with her first moment of throwing off Viserys’s authority. And she keeps leveling up from there — her reaction to his death, “He was no true dragon,” is just kind of brilliant, and then how mercilessly she deals with Mirri Maz Duur — and then, of course, the dragons. Her bravery, her surety that the fire won’t hurt her, how calmly and fearlessly she walks right into it. The ending of this book is one of my favourite moments in the whole series thus far — just the idea of the sky being alive with dragonsong for the first time in hundreds of years, it’s so glorious.
Okay, a couple thousand words later, that may be all I have. For now. I’m sure I’m going to look back as soon as I post this and think of things I’d meant to say. I mean, I have thousands of thoughts about this book and the series, but not all of them structure into a review very well. And that’s what westerosorting is for.
A final thought: This is a book blog, yes, but should I also blog my responses to the “Game of Thrones” episodes as they air? I think I might, particularly with the book so fresh in my mind.