A Game of Thrones, by George R R Martin

First of all, I would like to state that I haven’t seen the show based on this series, nor read any of the other books, so if you’re going to comment, I ask that you please avoid giving me spoilers for either. I know these books have been around for a long time, but spoilers are spoilers and I don’t like ‘em.

Now that’s been said, on with the review.

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Author’s website
Publication date – August 4, 1997

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Summers span decades. Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun.

As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must … and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty.

The old gods have no power in the south, Stark’s family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, the vengeance-mad heir of the deposed Dragon King has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities. He claims the Iron Throne.

Thoughts: Sometimes I get a craving for the kind of epic fantasy that I used to read in high school. The kind that has a long plot, many books, a traditional fantasy setting, all the earmarks of the stuff that got me into this genre in the first place. A Game of Thrones was exactly this. I started reading it and I felt like I was 16 again, discovering the joys of a richly-detailed fantasy novel with politics and battles and that indescribable feeling of familiarity, of coming full-circle and returning to the old and the awesome.

I won’t deny that part of my review is going to be coloured by that nostalgia. It can’t help but be. Reviewing is part objective, part subjective, and the subjective part is open to influences such as those memories.

It’s for this reason that I was able to overlook many of the problems this book had. It wasn’t a bad book, per se, even objectively. But it did fall back on many standards of fantasy, both in plot and in characters. True, those things weren’t as standard when this book was first penned as they are now, but still, there was a great deal of reliance on them.

Ditto for the characters. Just about every character was an archetype of some kind, able to be summed up by a witty phrase or description as commonly found on TV Tropes. The large cast of characters made for enough diversity that this wasn’t as glaring as it could have been, but on their own, most of the characters were fairly 2-dimensional, without much to them in terms of motivations, personality, or development. There were exceptions, of course (mostly Dany), but for the most part, much of the characters were left to their archetypal actions and thoughts, without much else to define them. Cersei in particular got shafted when it came to character development. It wasn’t that she was irredeemable so much as she was just shallow. I hate to use the term “cardboard cutout,” but that goes a long way in describing how she and others felt to me. Characters, not people. Actors on a stage, not individuals living their lives.

Switching back and forth between multiple character points of view was a good way of showing events in different places while still keeping a third-person limited narrative, but it did serve to slow the plot down somewhat. Surprisingly little actually happens, in terms of an overarching plot, but you get so caught up in all the little details and experiences and thoughts of the characters through whose eyes we see that it’s nevertheless easy to keep the pages turning and the story going.

For all that there are archetypes and tropes in spades throughout this novel, I can’t deny that it was entertaining, the beginning of an epic story that I was more eager to sink my teeth into that I realized. The varied cast of characters made sure there were plenty of people whose chapters I wanted to read, some more than others. Most of the culture expressed was clearly European in inspiration, but there was a nice break with the Dothraki, whose culture was (from what I could tell) largely based on nomadic Mongolian lifestyles. The dialogue was at times stilted, though I can forgive some of that because of the setting and feel of the novel; you almost expect that people will be speaking with outdated and old-fashioned speech patterns in an epic fantasy, and A Game of Thrones delivered just that.

This isn’t the book to read if you want something new and creative in your fiction. This is what you read when you want a return to the old, that comfortable familiarity where everything entertains but little surprises. It’s comfort reading for those who started with or grew up on epic fantasy, and for that reason alone I can overlook some of the poor development and odd pacing. I look forward to tackling the rest of the books in the series, and hope that they only get better from here.

5 comments on “A Game of Thrones, by George R R Martin

    • I’d wanted to read this series almost since starting to do book reviews, but over time other books just piled up and got in the way and I kept having to put it off, which was a real pain when everyone else was enjoying the show and my own stubborn pride kept me from watching it until I’d read the books. Then Jamie at Mithril Wisdom started the readalong, and it gave me the perfect excuse! We’re starting the second book this Saturday, if you want to join in partway through.

    • I’m wondering how I’m going to react to the Wheel of Time series, if I ever go and reread it. I know that nostalgia will colour some of it, because I also read it in high school and it was during my early days of getting interested in genre novels, but I also know that objectively, the series had a lot of problems. I’m curious to see whether nostalgia will win out over objectivity.

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