Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Game of Thrones

Before posting the actual review I need to say a few words. I've been following George R.R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire since I first saw A Game of Thrones in a bookstore in 1996. It was on my 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels list and I did intend to wait until I got to the M's, read what was out and post the reviews, however you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice (do mice really plan?) men. GRRM, as his legion of fans call him, finished the long awaited (nearly 6 years) 5th book in the series; A Dance with Dragons, a little bit back and it's coming out on July 12 (hopefully I'll get my hot little hands on it within a week of publication. The biggest remaining chain down here; Dymocks, have it listed as being in store on July 14), so I had to break the schedule and reread the first 4 books now. I'll post the reviews in the lead up over the next week or so. Sit back and have a read of my contribution to the two million or so reviews of this book that are already out there.

Ever since being published in 1996 George R.R Martin’s first volume of his epic A Song of Ice and Fire series has been reviewed countless times (usually glowing reviews I might add), has been the subject of a number of ongoing reread projects, a lavish HBO mini series and a comic book. I’m not sure that I can really add a lot to all that, but I’ll give it a try.

This is about the 5th or 6th time I’ve read A Game of Thrones (apparently the wonderfully tolerant and accepting people over at SFFWorld seem to think I know nothing about the book, so read on at your own peril) and each time I find myself struck by the sheer brilliance of the writing. George R.R Martin had already created a detailed history for his world of Westeros by the time he had the vision that led to him writing the books and it shows here. His marvellous descriptions of what has gone before in Westeros recent and ancient history are worth the purchase price alone. Add to that the game of political intrigue, a slightly stylised depiction of medieval life and some of the most detailed shades of grey characters I’ve ever been privileged to read and you have an almost flawless piece of writing.

For those few who haven’t read the book, or aren’t aware of it’s plot here goes. The story is set on the giant continent of Westeros where seasons last for years, not months. The current summer has lasted nearly a decade, but winter will come and when it does it will be long and hard. After a period of relative political stability Westeros is about to be plunged into a deadly conflict for the crown, the game of thrones is about to begin.

The story is told from the point of view of 8 of it’s major characters: Eddard Stark, the Lord of Winterfell, stiff necked and honourable to a fault, Ned is in no way equipped for the dangerous political intrigues he’s about to step into. Lady Catelyn Stark, Ned’s faithful wife, who will be tested to her very limits as she desperately tries to protect her children from those who would use them as pawns to further their own ends. Jon Snow, Ned Stark’s baseborn son, who elects a life of hardship and struggle as a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch, manning the Wall to Westeros’ far north and keeping the kingdom safe from the wildlings and Others that live in the frozen wastes beyond the Wall. Sansa Stark, Ned and Catelyn’s oldest daughter, who goes south with dreams of valiant and chivalrous knights only to find out that the stories are not real. Arya Stark, Ned and Catelyn’s rebellious tomboyish younger daughter, who will have to learn how to survive without any help, if she is to survive at all. Bran Stark, middle child of Ned and Cat, suffers a severe injury early on in the book, and becomes far more responsible than any child of his age should ever have to be. Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf son of powerful Lord Tywin Lannister, Tyrion relies on his wits and silver tongue to keep himself alive and propel him upward in the game of thrones. Daenerys Targaryen, the last surviving heir to the Targaryen Dynasty is far away to the east, married to the feared Dothraki horselord Khal Drogo, Dany is much more than a pawn, she’s a major player, she may be young, but she wants what she believes is rightly hers; the throne of Westeros.

It’s not just these PoV (Point of View) characters that make the story come alive, it’s the others that Martin peoples his narrative with. Characters like the scheming Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish, the dangerous and mysterious sellsword Bronn, former first sword of Braavos, turned sword teacher; Syrio Forel, the less than honourable knight of the Kingsguard Ser Jaime Lannister and his vicious twin sister Queen Cersei, the scarred vengeance seeking Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane, Ned’s oldest son Robb Stark, the heir to Winterfell, the list goes on and on.

The book is heavy on the political intrigue and the action along with all the pomp and ceremony of the age and light on the magic. Magic does exist in the world, but it’s not the driving force that it is in many other epic fantasy's of the time. Martin doesn’t pull punches and there are shocks galore throughout the book’s 600+ pages. Key characters do die and others do things that you wouldn’t expect of them. Many of Martin’s characters are shades of grey, rather than black or white, and it makes for interesting and absorbing reading. I’m left breathless every time I finish this book and never regret a single minute of the time spent reading it.

I can’t recommend it too highly and the only warning I have is that since the 3rd volume (A Storm of Swords) Martin has slowed down considerably (the 4th book; AA Feast for Crows took 5 years to come out and the 5th; A Dance with Dragons almost 6), the books are frustratingly addictive, so savour them and be prepared to wait for the next instalment.

Joe Abercrombie’s gritty trilogy and subsequent standalone volumes have been influenced by A Song of Ice and Fire, although he also owes a lot to Glen Cook’s Black Company series, and Martin himself has said that Tad William’s Tolkien homage Memory, Sorrow and Thorn inspired him and made him see that there was a viable market for BFF (Big Fat Fantasy) if anyone was minded to try and write one.

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