I seriously cannot think of another word that could possibly describe the first book in this brilliant series created by George R. R. Martin.
It has been a very, very long time since I have read something so intricately created, with every aspect of a whole world described in such detail. Every individual in this story is carefully thought out, with deep motives, personalities and the ability to make game-changing decisions. Just, wow.
Let me warn you now, this will undoubtedly be a very long blog – it has taken me weeks to finish the book, and at 807 pages it is the shortest in the series so far (two of the seven books have not yet been completed – which is a good reason to space these books out rather than have to wait in agony for the last two in order to find out what happens!)
And, while we are on warnings, for those of you who are uncomfortable with sex scenes, be wary – they are in there and they can be a little bit confronting! Try to keep in mind that this is set in a kind of medieval world, where incest was neither uncommon nor immoral, and in some cases, actually encouraged in the name of keeping bloodlines pure. However, having watched the first two seasons of the television series, the sex scenes in the novel are incredibly tame compared to the constant and casual nudity provided by HBO (yes, I broke my rule and watched a movie/television version of a novel before reading the novel, but I did not know at the time that it was based on a novel! Totally not my fault… but I should have known, nothing that brilliant comes from anywhere but a book…)
A Game of Thrones, the first of seven novels in the series A Song of Ice and Fire is narrated from the point of view of eight main characters, and a one-off narration by Will, a Night’s Watchman who sets the scene of some troubling events happening beyond the enormous wall protecting the Seven Kingdoms from the North.
While the changes in narration can be confusing at first, it is well worth forging ahead until you learn who each person is. Very soon it becomes an excellent strategy by Martin to keep you turning the pages, not stopping at chapter breaks because the next one has information you have been waiting to read for the last eight chapters!
Bran Stark is the first main character we are introduced to, the seven-year old son of Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn. Bran is allowed for the first time ever to go along with his Lord father and his two older brothers to see the king’s justice done – the execution of man who has fled from the Night’s Watch. As they return, the party find a litter of direwolves in the snow, their mother dead, although Bran doesn’t understand the significance of the antler which was used to kill her (and neither do we, as far as I can figure… but the adults in the story seem unnerved by it!). Direwolves are the Stark family emblem but haven’t been seen for over 200 years, and Bran’s older brothers Robb and Jon convince their father to let them keep the pups. There are five grey pups nestled with their mother: one for each of Eddard Stark’s trueborn children, and one pure white pup, driven away by the others, for Jon (Eddard Stark’s illegitimate son).
Catelyn Stark, wife to Eddard (Ned) and mother to Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon, is the next character to be the focus of a chapter, and we quickly see the deep love and respect she has for her husband. She comes to Ned to bring him the news that sets the whole plot of the story into motion: his dear friend and the Hand of the King, Jon Arryn, has died and the King, who is like a brother to Ned, is on his way to Winterfell, home of the Starks. Catelyn knows already what King Robert is coming to ask: that Ned will return with him to King’s Landing to serve as the King’s Hand. However, it soon becomes apparent that something sinister may have played a role in the sudden death of Jon Arryn, and Ned is left with the difficult task of investigating who wanted to kill Jon, while trying to avoid the same fate himself.
From here, we are taken across the sea to the East to Daenerys, a beautiful thirteen-year-old girl who, along with her cruel older brother Viserys, are the last remaining in the royal line of Targaryen. The Targaryens ruled the seven kingdoms with the power of dragons, but the last of the dragons and the rest of their family were killed when King Robert took the throne. They are living in exile, and Daenerys is being prepared for her wedding to Khal Drogo, the warlord of a savage band of nomadic people. Viserys has organised the wedding as a trade: he will give his sister in marriage in return for the army he needs to return to the Seven Kingdoms and retake the throne. It becomes quickly apparent that Viserys is arrogant and misguided in his quest for the throne. He forces those around him to call him king, but not even those who are closest to him truly support his claim to the crown. Daenerys unexpectedly finds kindness, love and trust with her barbaric husband, and is finally protected from the mistreatment of Viserys. She becomes a strong and confident young woman, and comes to realise that the blood of the dragons has passed to her rather than her brother.
From the East, we return to the Seven Kingdoms and Eddard Stark (Ned), who is bewildered at the change that has come over King Robert. Once a fit and fighting man, Robert is now overweight, tired, and surrounded by Lannisters – none of whom Ned trusts and who may well be behind the death of Jon Arryn. Ned takes King Robert to visit the grave of his sister, Lyanna, who Robert was to marry and who he has continued to love more than his wife, Cersei Lannister. Lyanna died and Robert still blames the Targaryens for her death. King Robert does want Ned to become the Hand of the King and even Ned, as a close friend to King Robert, cannot say no to him. As much as Ned doesn’t want to leave his family and his home, he knows he must, and so he rides off to King’s Landing – but not before a terrible accident endangering the life of one of his children.
Jon Snow, Ned’s illegitimate son, is just fourteen but has grown up fast and is aware of almost everything going on around him. He realises very quickly that with his father going to King’s Landing, there isn’t a place for him – he cannot go to King’s Landing as a bastard would be a disgrace at court, and he cannot stay at Winterfell as Lady Catelyn Stark never wanted him there in the first place, let alone without his father present. Jon decides after drinking a bit too much Summerwine that he will join his uncle on the Night’s Watch, declaring to his uncle Benjen, “Even a bastard can have honor.”
Arya Stark is the youngest of the two Stark sisters, and seems to get along best with her brothers – especially Jon. Unlike her sister, Sansa, who dreams of marrying a prince, Arya despises all things girly and would much prefer to fight battles. Arya reluctantly leaves with her father to go to King’s Landing, and he kindly allows her to have “dance” lessons with a trainer who teaches her how to fight – a skill she quickly finds she needs to use and which repeatedly saves her life.
Sansa Stark is beautiful and ladylike, the perfect candidate for Prince Joffrey’s future queen. Innocent and very naive, Sansa is swept away by the excitement of King’s Landing and the prospect of being engaged to the Prince, but very slowly she starts to realise what everyone else has already seen: Prince Joffrey isn’t the kind and charming young man that he pretends to be, but the flashes of violence and cruelty that show when he is angry are his true personality. Sansa’s polite nature and good upbringing end up being a valuable asset as she must stay in the good graces of Queen Cersei and Prince Joffrey, but the danger she is in grows with Joffrey’s power, and she ends up relying on some very unusual alliances to keep her safe.
Tyrion Lannister is the younger brother to Queen Cersei, and in contrast to his older brother Jaime who is tall and handsome, Tyrion is small, stunted and awkward. Born a dwarf, and known to most in the kingdoms as the ‘Imp’, Tyrion provides an interesting perspective in his chapters. Reluctantly, Tyrion has become one of my favourite characters, he is kind to those who are different, surprisingly brave in battle, and honest to a fault. He seems to take delight when the evil schemes of his family are foiled, and holds his bratty nephew Joffrey to a higher standard than most dare to, but at the end of the day he seems steadfastly loyal to his family. Having the point of view of Tyrion makes it very difficult to completely hate the Lanniester’s, even if it is fairly obvious that they are the “bad guys”. This combined with the viewpoint of Daenarys makes it immensely difficult to form a strong allegiance to just one or a few characters, or to know who to go for ultimately when the inevitable battle for the seven kingdoms comes to a head.
What can I say? This is absolutely one of the most fantastic and riveting books I have ever read. The series certainly has the potential to become my favourite series of all time. I find myself walking the halls of the castle with Arya (by far my favourite character), climbing the walls of Winterfell with Bran, and riding with Jon to the Great Wall, desperate to find out what will happen next and caught up in every aspect of their lives. Beautifully written, detailed beyond imagination and thoroughly captivating.
With only slight hesitation, I give it five stars – and the hesitation was only to consider whether to give it six. Why did it miss out on Mrs Gwynn’s highest honor of six stars? One reason only – leaving room for the fact that I have very high expectations for the rest of the series.
My final advice to readers considering entering the world of George R. R. Martin? Whatever you do, as much as you want to… do not, under any circumstances become attached to any of the characters…