Book #7 for 2011: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
I first read this novel back in 1999 and was mesmerized by it. I’d forgotten much of it in the intervening years and I chose to reread it now because I wanted to freshen my memories of it in preparation for reading the remaining books in the series (those that have been published so far, at least, which will be four as of July) and because I didn’t want the parts of it that I didn’t remember spoiled for me by the HBO TV version. As it turned out, I didn’t remember very much about it at all. It also turned out that it was even better than I’d remembered.
I’ve been familiar with Martin’s work for many years — more about that in a moment — and knew that he was a good writer, but it wasn’t until I read A Game of Thrones that I realized just how good. It’s as perfect and gripping a piece of storytelling as I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, a type of novel that you don’t really find much of these days in which character and story are developed with leisurely yet never boring strokes and intertwined in such a way that each perfectly complements the other: The characters are illuminated by their actions within the story and the story is made compelling and exciting by the believability and depth of the characters. Martin’s writing style is neither literary nor pulpish, but tonally perfect for a story that’s simultaneously old fashioned and modern. His prose never grates yet it never calls attention to itself and he always knows precisely what details to draw out to make the novel’s millieu seem both vivid and lived in. Everything here seems real; much of what’s here seems thrilling.
Which makes it all the odder that the novel falls into the fantasy genre. Not that good fantasy shouldn’t seem real or thrilling — I don’t think a fantasy should even be referred to by the adjective “good” if it doesn’t seem perfectly real to you while you’re experiencing it — but the book-length fantasy genre had become so dominated by J.R.R. Tolkien clones over the last third of the 20th century that a certain artificiality had settled over it, not to mention a certain predictability. The inevitable presence of hobbit-like creatures and an heroic quest structure had become such a cliche that many people had begun to assume that any book labeled “fantasy” would be about those things. In the 21st century publishers have started relabeling fantasies with new genre names like “paranormal” and “urban fantasy” to try to recapture audiences repelled by the fear that any book from that section of the store is going to read like yet another rehash of The Lord of the Rings.
You’d be forgiven if you thought that’s what this book was going to be too, because the original packaging from the 90s (and even the new packaging that namechecks HBO on the cover) certainly gives that impression. But Martin isn’t playing the Tolkien game here. A Song of Ice and Fire (the overall name of the series of which this book is the first) is a family saga, not an heroic quest, and the fantasy elements are few and far between. In fact, if it weren’t for about five brief moments in this book, you might not notice it’s a fantasy at all.
For those of you not watching the HBO series version that’s running currently, I’ll summarize the story briefly, avoiding spoilers for those who ARE watching: It’s about several families, most notably the Starks, a noble family that rules over the northern portion of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a country that bears a striking resemblance to medieval England; the Targaryens, a deposed royal family now reduced to two members, a brother and a sister living in exile on an unnamed (?) southeastern continent resembling medieval Mongolia; and the Lannisters, a vaguely sinister noble family with a lock on the western portion of the Seven Kingdoms and a claim on the throne of the whole continent. The story contains a central mystery — the death of Jon Arryn, the Hand (read: Chief of Staff) of the King of the Seven Kingdoms, Robert Baratheon — that Eddard Stark needs to solve, a lot of royal intrigue, and a dozen or so fascinating characters, most of whom are given viewpoint chapters of their own throughout the book. The fact that the novel is set in something that resembles our world and our history without it actually being our world and our history is the major fantasy element — that, plus an occasional hint of undead creatures living in the far north, an oddly elongated cycle of seasons, a form of black magic that pops up later on, and something very, very major that Martin saves for the last page of the book. Otherwise, this is a book about people, not Hobbits.
If you enjoy vivid storytelling but avoid books like this because you think you don’t like fantasy, you’re making a mistake. At the very least, try the TV show, which is an excellent and faithful adaptation, though like any adaptation it can’t quite be the original. And as an aside for those who are watching, I’ll add that everything you’ve seen up until now — that is, in the first four episodes — is basically prologue. The plot should really kick into high gear in the fifth (this Sunday’s) or the sixth (next Sunday’s) episode. I, for one, can’t wait.
A NOTE ON GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: I first became aware of George R.R. Martin in the letter columns of comic books back in the 1960s. Seriously. He’s a year-and-a-half older than I am and his letters used to appear regularly in comic books like The Fantastic Four and Green Lantern (I’m guessing at the specific titles, though I bet I’m right) that I read regularly too. In the 1970s, when he was in his 20s, he began publishing science fiction. His early stories were a bit heavy on the post-adolescent angst, but even then were beautifully written. I met him a couple of times at science fiction conventions. I didn’t really know him, but we had mutual friends and they would occasionally keep me up on what he was doing. He was fat, geeky-looking and almost a stereotype of a science fiction/comic book fan; he just happened to be one with a hell of a lot of talent and brains. He worked in television for a while in the 80s, most notably on the show Beauty and the Beast, the one where Linda Hamilton and a furry Ron Perlman were involved in interspecies sexual tension. I can see the television influence in A Game of Thrones. It has that sense of leisurely character development and the episodic twists and turns of plot that I love in a good serial TV show. Which it now is, bringing things full circle.
And now I’m off to read the next book in the series.