Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin

PrintE-mail Written by Ian Mat Sunday, 08 May 2011

Book Reviews

Author: George R. R. Martin

Publisher: Voyager

Out now

Summer is coming and what better way to spend it than by reading in the sun. Well, there’s the new TV adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones from his A Song of Ice and Fire for a start. But does the first book in the seven-part swords-and-politics series deserve a primetime adaptation on North America’s HBO channel?

Quite simply, yes. Released 14 years ago, A Game of Thrones, sets out the complex chessboard of a multi-way power struggle in the land of Westeros. The story begins in the north where the civilised world ends at the Wall, a gigantic structure built to keep out the mythical Others. But news of the creatures’ death seems overrated when a search party is slain in the ancient wild forest past the Wall, fuelling the flight of a lone survivor to the northern capital of Winterfell. But the terror-filled watchman’s warning falls on deaf ears, and his head falls on to the floor after being reluctantly executed for abandoning his post by the troubled Lord Eddard Stark. His problem: the king is shortly arriving from the south with an offer that can’t be refused, quickly turning into a murderous conspiracy of incest, throne grabbing and revenge. And over the sea to the savage lands in the east, the last of the exiled royal family who once commanded dragons plot their return.

The hype surrounding the TV adaptation has been richly deserved and seen both book and Kindle edition of A Game of Thrones swoop to the number one and two slots in Amazon UK’s top 100 science fiction chart, with the second book, A Clash of Kings, hot on its heels.

The plot is told from the third-person perspective and changes to a new character with each chapter: Lord Stark, his various children, the exiled Targaryen princess to the east, and more. With threats happening on every point on the compass, this ensemble approach is the only way to go. But the greatest benefit of this POV-hopping narrative not only covers the big picture, it makes every player a delight to read. This book’s strength is not its plot. The formula of a mysterious external threat dogging the steps of a civil war, though not new, is brilliantly told here. No, the true strength is its characters. The wickedness of the conspiring Lannister family is the vilest thing put to paper since Frank Herbert’s House Harkonnen in Dune. But even then, as sinister as lead characters appear to be, like plotting Queen Cersei and malicious knight Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, the author gives us rare glimpses into the rotten souls of these villains, where a scrap of innocent intent has put these characters onto their black paths.

The reader will have their favourite characters and look forward to these passages more than others. But rest assured, once the plot has furthered on, like the slow-burning drama in the east with exiled Daenerys Targaryen, you will find your favourites constantly being reshuffled like a pack of cards.

This 864-page brick of a book can seem daunting at first, and possibly put down towards the middle when it feels like too much is happening at all fronts. And the sight of a 70-page appendix listing eve ry major house in Westeros can shake your faith somewhat. But you will find yourself returning to the novel for “one more chapter” and you will be well rewarded. Without giving anything away, the plot gives a very harsh twist of the knife three quarters in, forever altering the course of where you expected it to go. Expect controversy when this is aired in the TV series.

Martin says he wanted A Game of Thrones to be a more adult take on the swords and sorcery genre. So expect sex, drunkenness, violence, betrayal, plotting, intrigue and very little magic, heroes and clear-cut decisions where no-one gets hurt. Think the characters of Raymond E. Feist’s Magician in the hands of Bret Easton Ellis.

Critics have praised the pilot episode, Winter is Coming, and a second series of Game of Thrones was commissioned within hours of broadcast. But is it better than the book? This is one of those rare occasions where both TV and book are equal. The reason for this is the producers took the unusual step not to change the story. A few scenes here and there are absent, but it just shows how cinematic the book is that it does not need too much tampering. But be warned: once you read A Game of Thrones, you will end up reading the three others in the sequence, with book five to be released in July.


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