“Winter is Coming.”
… Or is it? I think we can all agree a few months of summer would be a gift, but the Starks’ words are ever prophetic and wise as we will soon see.
George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, offers a boundless tale fit for the likes of kings. Martin’s world is immensely complex and intricately forged, plunging us headfirst into the imaginative landscapes, twisted politics, and complicated family lineages of the lands of Westeros. You will find yourself hard pressed to leave this immersive, dangerous world once you have made your entrance.
A Game of Thrones (1996) is the first novel in Martin’s epic fantasy series, the fight for the Iron Throne beginning in earnest in a world baring striking resemblance to our own medieval past. But, it wouldn’t be complete without a touch of dragons, a sprinkle of magic and, of course, the White Walkers.
We are in a time long forgotten and trouble is brewing in the Seven Kingdoms. The cold is fast approaching after decades of a blissful summer, and there are disturbing reports of sinister forces gaining speed beyond the Wall. The Starks of Winterfell, a family whose legacy is one of upright honour, are at the centre of the rising tensions that have plagued the realm.
At the behest of King Robert Baratheon, Lord Eddard Stark leaves his comfortable seat to travel south to assume his position as Hand of the King – quite the feat considering the fate of his predecessor, Jon Arryn. Ever the honourable, Lord Eddard accepts and departs for King’s Landing with both his daughters in tow, leaving behind his lady wife, the young Lord of Winterfell, and a half-crippled son. Yet, this proves the least of his worries, funnily enough.
With Lord Eddard now assuming his position as Hand, we find ourselves in the midst of rising tensions between the Starks and House Lannister, one of the oldest and most powerful Great Houses of Westeros. King Robert exists in a loveless marriage to Queen Cersei, daughter to Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the East. Arriving at court, Lord Eddard comes to realise the full extent of Queen Cersei’s power, wishing to claim the Iron Throne for her son, Joffrey. As wolf and lion clash, Martin brings new meaning to the phrase: “The King eats, and the Hand takes the shit.” And Lord Eddard definitely took the shit.
Jumping across the Narrow Sea to Pentos, one of the Free Cities of Western Essos, Daenerys Targaryen, one of the last surviving Dragons, is plotting her return to the Seven Kingdoms to avenge the unseated Targaryen regime and assume her rightful place as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Sold to a savage Dothraki horse lord by her power-hungry brother, Viserys, Dany finds that her return home will be anything but simple.
However, before we are introduced to the Great Houses of Westeros and its dynastic feuds, Martin toys with the supernatural in our first look at the Others. As the tale unfolds, we find ourselves firmly rooted in the area of political intrigue and the ensuing war that is to become the central focus of A Clash of Kings. For now, the fantasy takes a backseat, but fear not, there is plenty more to look forward in this first instalment. What sets A Game of Thrones apart from other novels in the fantasy genre is precisely its treatment of the supernatural. While it is clear from the very beginning that there are hidden monsters lurking just out of sight in this world, we are treated to very little of this in the first book. What we get instead is a large bout of realism as characters time and time again refute the existence of these savages beasts and mystical beings. They are simply just wild tales courtesy of the wizened, aged Old Nan, a servant at Winterfell.
Perhaps, the most remarkable aspect of the A Song of Ice and Fire saga is Martin’s ability to create the mystical and entirely realistic world. Told in the third-person limited style, each chapter voices the perspective of one of the eight central characters, varying in age, gender and House. Martin’s profound talent at character development is unlike that of his contemporaries in the fantasy genre, providing both the emotional intensity without the excess, achieving depth. But it is best not to get too attached as no one is safe! Death is nothing but a commonplace in this world. Even rape and incest are no strangers here as we learn to our dismay.
Martin’s writing stretches beyond the intricacies of character to the rich histories of Westeros and its Great Houses. A Game of Thrones leaves nothing unsaid, the context of each family, place and event crafted with care and as ancient as weirwoods themselves. Writers Dan Weiss and David Benioff definitely had their work cut out for them in recreating the haunting brilliance of the A Song of Ice and Fire series for the screen. As ever the case in this situation, numerous details didn’t make the final cut in the TV series, yet this proves not to be a discredit to the masterpiece that is the HBO hit.
We see multiple successful attempts to flesh out those characters that are otherwise considered peripheral to the central eight perspectives, namely members of the King’s council and notorious schemers, Lord Varys and Lord Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish. Even Viserys Targaryen is allowed a few extra moments to occupy the screen before the reins are handed over to the Mother of Dragons. A closer insight is given to the circumstances of the King’s marriage to Cersei Lannister, details that are not divulged throughout the novel itself. It’s hard to imagine Robert Baratheon ever sharing a heartfelt moment with his Queen, but nothing is impossible in the world of Game of Thrones.
So, who will win in the bid for the Iron Throne? That is the question that vexes not only A Game of Thrones, but Martin’s entire epic fantasy saga. We are left wanting more, and then some.
You can view the trailer for Season 1 of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Season 1 is correlative with the first instalment of A Song of Ice and Fire:
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire (Book 1: A Game of Thrones)
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Page Count: 694