By Jerome Chappell-Tay, Classics Second Year
Content Warning: General warning for brief mention of violence and assault (none discussed in detail)
George R. R. Martin’s take on the fantasy genre has captivated readers and audiences across the world who are now familiar with his work, either through reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series or watching the HBO show Game of Thrones. After being disappointed with the ending of the HBO series, I decided to read through the entire book series (which as of writing this review is still two books away from completion). This review of the first book in the series will not contain any major spoilers so don’t worry if you haven’t seen the show!
A Game of Thrones (1996) is primarily set in Westeros, a continent that was previously made up of seven kingdoms that was united under the Targaryen Dynasty. After the most recent Targaryen king was deposed in a war, Westeros has since been ruled by Robert Baratheon, the head of one of the major houses. The book begins with the Stark family of the North finding out about the mysterious death of Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King. The head of the family, Eddard Stark is chosen as his replacement by Robert on a royal visit to their castle, Winterfell. What results is many of the major houses forming alliances and seeking to undermine each other in the power vacuum.
Martin’s world is rich with more detail than can be included in a review!
Simultaneous to this plot are two other storylines. The first one concerns Jon Snow, the illegitimate child of Eddard Stark who decides to join the Night’s Watch, an organisation of warriors originally set up to defend Westeros from the Others, a race of magical creatures thought to have disappeared from the world thousands of years ago. The second one follows Daenerys Targaryen and her brother Viserys, the last members of the Targaryen Dynasty living in exile in a continent called Essos. Daenerys is sold by her brother to the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo in exchange for their support in retaking the Iron Throne.
Martin’s world is rich with more detail than can be included in a review! The reader will often find themselves referring back to a guide at the back of each book of the various families and political players in the series. Despite having so many characters, Martin develops them enough that you are devastated when he brutally kills them off. The series is told from the points of view of different characters, meaning that the reader gets significantly more time with characters like Jon and Daenerys than others. However, as the series progresses, the choice of POV characters becomes more diverse. You are offered glimpses into the minds of characters like Queen Cersei who, from an outside perspective, seems to be a stereotypical evil queen. With Martin however, the truth is often far more complicated than it first appears.
It has often been labelled as ‘fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy’
Some of my favourite characters from A Game of Thrones include the POV characters: Tyrion Lannister, the intelligent and witty brother of Cersei who is shunned by most characters due to his dwarfism; Catelyn Stark, the wife of Eddard Stark who does everything she can to protect her children in a harsh world; and Daenerys Targaryen, the young princess who finds her inner strength in a world where women are rarely in positions of power. There are no characters who are wholly good or evil and some of your favourite characters will make decisions you disagree with, but that is the beauty of Martin’s writing.
The world of A Game of Thrones is dark and unglamorous. Martin depicts the awful consequences of war and abuse in all forms, showcasing how violent and unjust the world can be. Therefore, there are many scenes which some readers may find upsetting. While at times the descriptions can be gratuitous, Martin effectively conveys horrific events without any glorification, something which can be rare in fiction. The world of Westeros is especially unkind to women, which makes the plethora of diverse female characters even more fascinating, since they all find different ways of obtaining power in this male-dominated society.
There are no characters who are wholly good or evil and some of your favourite characters will make decisions you disagree with, but that is the beauty of Martin’s writing.
Overall, for newcomers to the series and viewers of the show, I highly recommend A Game of Thrones. It has often been labelled as ‘fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy’ and while this is debatable, it highlights the series’ wide appeal. In this first book of the series, the reader is immersed completely into a fantasy world full of political manoeuvring, backstabbing and betrayal, and well-rounded realistic characters. The multiple narrators exemplify how complex the world truly is and readers will find themselves rooting for characters in opposing factions, leaving them torn when they come into conflict. This well-written and well-paced opening to the series is full of action while sowing the seeds for the chaos that will unfurl in following books.
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