A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (Harper Voyager, 1996)
In the midst of all that hysteria a few years back it was easy to forget that George RR Martin's A Game of Thrones/Game of Thrones actually began way back in the last millennium. Boy, has it really been that long?
This is the first book in the A Game of Thrones series, which is still only partway through publication even though the TV version finished in 2019. To my mind, it marks a simpler, happier time when the plot of one of the books or show was comprehensible even to those who hadn't read every page or watched every episode that preceded it.
How soon things became complicated! But for now, with A Game of Thrones, there is an easy way in to everything that follows for a reader who hasn't already immersed themselves in a fictional fantasy universe created by a writer of utter genius.
In Westeros, King Robert Baratheon has appointed a new Hand of the King: his oldest friend Eddard Stark. Ned Stark's wife receives word from her sister that the old Hand was murdered for having dug up a secret about the royal children.
Ned unwisely investigates, even as his own family up in Winterfell is convulsed by an assassination attempt on one of his sons. Just like the old Hand of the King, the child had stumbled on a dark secret regarding the queen and her twin brother. War between the Starks and the Baratheons quickly follows.
Meanwhile, in Pentos, Daenerys Targaryen is forced to marry a horselord, Khal Drogo of the Dothraki, in return for Drogo's promise to provide an army to help her brother recapture Westeros and unseat Robert from the Iron Throne in the name of their old dynasty, who Robert murdered and exiled.
The greatest danger in A Game of Thrones, however, lies not in the south where men and women vie for power and scheme to sit upon the throne, but up at the Wall. North of the Wall are rumoured to be the undead, living in uneasy proximity to the Wildings.
With the rise of the undead, the Wildlings flee south, requesting sanctuary from the dangers of the Night King and his legions. Ned's illegitimate son Jon Snow serves up at the Wall, defending Westeros from living and dead enemies as one of the Brothers of the Night's Watch.
A Game of Thrones establishes a host of characters from multiple noble houses and provides plenty of sword and sorcery action. The Targaryen's hold on power has in the past relied upon dragons, and Daenerys's horde of wedding gifts includes three dragon eggs. The presence of the Night King and his undead army north of the Wall provides a supernatural evil for mankind to fear and dread.
However, most of the tension and fighting in this volume comes from the clash of men at arms. It is the perfect mix of magic and conflict, a satisfying narrative in its own right regardless of the subsequent expansion of the franchise to come.
The three very different worlds of Vaes Dothrak and the great grass sea, Westeros and King's Landing, and the icy wastes for the Wall are vividly described. There is an immense amount of legend attached to each, and a backstory for every possible occasion and every noble house together with a plethora of sigils, mottoes and titles.
It is partly this incomparable world building that fills nigh on eight hundred pages, but the uniqueness of the writing to include so many such details makes the fictional universe more real than many fantasy novels. That, and the excellent characterisation, were what I enjoyed most.
Thanks for reading my review of A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. I'll be back on Friday. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my article about recent developments in the modern vampire novel (Once Bitten) here.