Last spring I got hooked on the HBO original series, Game of Thones based on the fantasy series by George R.R. Martin called A Song of Ice and Fire. Currently there are five books out, after the first season finale I went out and bought the first four. Having finished the first book, which the show gets its name from, I think it’s time for a review.
Tackling a set of work like this can be daunting, but lets start at the creator of the mythical world of Westeros and beyond, George R.R. Martin. GRRM, as his name is often stylized, is in short a fantasy/sci-fi writer who looks like Bruce Vilanch’s father. But seriously, you may recognize his name if you’re a fan of the live action series Beauty and the Beast that garnered a large cult following. Since the show wrapped up shooting GRRM has dedicated his time to writing - shorting shorties, novellas, children’s books, and his opus - A Song of Ice and Fire. GRRM is also notable for being a bit of a crank - let me expound on that - while widely regarded as one of the more accessible authors of a series like his, GRRM is outspoken against fanfics (Fan written stories using his characters) seeing them as infringement on his copyright of the characters. All in all, from a relative outsider, GRRM stands out as a pretty decent person who has a vision for his characters that he doesn’t want muddled - but that’s open to interpretation.
A Game of Thrones was released almost 20 years ago but has seen a bit of rebirth outside of it’s core of fans thanks to the popular HBO series. This isn’t surprising, it’s sweeping landscapes and captivating characters translate very easily to the television screen … but how would the books hold up for someone who hadn’t read them beforehand? Well I hope to address that.
Starting with the handful of pivotal characters in the first book, let’s take a look at cast GRRM created. I should explain, the book is written in a narrative by any number of a set of characters and the narrating characters change every chapter and from book to book. In A Game of Thrones we focus on characters from a couple of different “houses” that form the upperclass of Westeros. There’s Eddard (Ned) and Catelyn Stark from Winterfell (the northern most territory) and his children Robb, Sansa, Arya, Brandon, Rickon, and Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow. Catelyn is the oldest daughter of House Tully of Riverrun who oversee the western mountainous region. Ruling the western low lying provinces are the Lannisters of Casterly Rock headed by Tywin Lannister and his children - Queen Ceresi Baratheon of the seven kingdoms that make up Westeros, Jaime Lannister, and Tyrion Lannister. We’ll get to Ceresi later. There is also House Arryn, who also lay claim to the eastern region lead by young Robert Arryn and his mother (and Catelyn’s sister) Lyssa Arryn. Also in the east are the Baratheons of Storm’s End headed by King of the seven kingdoms Robert Baratheon, his wife Ceresi and his children Joffrey, Myrcell, and Tommen. In the interest of brevity, we’ll skip House Martell and Tyrell who don’t figure prominently in this book. Along with the King’s Landing these six regions make up Westeros. And now I’m tired.
so in short:
House Stark - Winterfell
House Tyrell - Iron Islands | House Tulley - Riverrun | House Arryn - The Eyrie
House Lannister - Casterly Rock | House Baratheon - Storms End
Several member of House Stark, Tyrion Lannister, and daughter of a deposed King , Daenerys Targaryeon, make up the largest part of the narrators in book one. Each of these characters is pretty complex and likeable in their own ways. The Starks are stoic, strong, quiet people whose lives are thrown in upheaval and they struggle to deal with it. Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf, is the outcast of his family but ultimately the most sane and the glue that holds his house together. Then there’s Daenerys. Daenerys is the star character of this book, she’s forced to mature but does so with amazing aplomb. And lastly there’s Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard son who watches all these houses feud from the outside as he joins the Night’s Watch, more or less Westeros’ version of the national guard. What makes this characters so interesting is that none of them are perfect, none are clear heroes or villains.
A Game of Thrones is a pretty standard fantasy read beyond that, the storylines are ok, the imagery is good but over done, and the pacing is painfully slow. One of the reasons this books lends itself well to the screen is we can forgo the over the top descriptors and allow the story to drive everything.
What I liked:
- Great Characters, Martin does a fantastic job fleshing out a multitude of characters and making them entirely relatable.
- The storyline, seems a little done before but there’s enough here to keep you interested
- The narrating, Martin does enough of a job swapping out the narrative that even if you get bored with a Sansa or Catelyn chapter you will hold on to get a Ned, Jon, Tyrion or Daenerys narrative.
What I didn’t like:
- Slooooooowly paced, especially to start. As in the first 1/2 to 3/4 of the book is a fight to get through unless fantasy is your thing.
- Martin is very descriptive, to a fault. I don’t care what every character is wearing every chapter.
- There’s no map of the eastern continent where Daenerys’ story exclusively takes place. There’s no context to the places we’re reading about in her travels.
The the verdict - pretty good read if you can stay on task and nothing is distracting you. I would say it is worth reading if you are interested in the show, but not a must read. That said I’m definitely picking up book two now to get a heads up on Season Two. The best way I can put my feelings about this book into words is that if not for the show I doubt this book or the series would have piqued my interest.