Career author and television writer George R.R. Martin is well on his way to becoming a legend in his own time with his grandest of epics A Song of Ice and Fire that begins with A Game of Thrones. Published by Bantam Books, this astounding novel launched this epic fantasy series in 1996.
A Game of Thrones creates the usual fantasy genre world with Medieval technology and sensibilities, and Martin enriches it with abundant detail, deft use of political intrigue, and a many-layered development of the social order of his magical realms.
The Fantasy World Setting
Written on the scale of a true epic, A Game of Thrones covers many different lands from harsh northern landscapes of old piney forests, to wealthy cities with high castles, scorching deserts, and barbaric nomadic encampments. An overarching theme of the world is its peculiar climatic state in which seasons shift slowly. It can be summer for decades and winter for decades. As A Game of Thrones opens, it is said that the summer is fading, and with much foreboding, that the time of winter is coming.
The social order consists of nobles and commoners, referred to cleverly as smallfolk. Religious power is dominated by the state church that worships the Seven, but this has been superimposed upon a far older religion that was closer to nature. All the castle strongholds of the ancient families contain a sacred grove called a Godswood. Once all the Godswoods contained a heart tree as a divine presence, but most have been ripped out since the rise of the Seven. However, one of the main noble families in the story, the Starks, still honor the Old Gods and have a heart tree in their family’s Godswood.
A scholarly order called the Maesters is also an important player in the social order. The men of this order are learned in many subjects, almost limitless subjects if they are ambitious, and they also fulfill the function of delivering medical care. Each noble family has a Maester in its household. Maesters also handle most communication with letters and messenger crows.
An omnipresent force in the story is the Wall in the north. It is an ancient and massive construction of ice that guards civilization from the Wildling people of the far north and other more threatening supernatural dangers. The Wall is manned by the Night’s Watch. Members of the Night’s Watch take no wives and are ostensibly sworn to celibacy. Some men volunteer for the Night’s Watch, which is called taking the black, but since the duty is hardly attractive, necessity demands that the ranks be filled from captured criminals as well.
Characters and Plot
No review can attempt to convey the full complexity of the plot of A Game of Thrones, but suffice to say the flashpoint of the fantasy novel’s immense plot is the overthrow of the entrenched dynasty of the Targaryens by Robert Baratheon, which took place about a half a generation prior to the opening of the novel. Upon this setting of a recent upheaval, old ambitions and resentments linger among powerful families based on who sided with whom during the war between Baratheon and the Targaryens. Also, two heirs of the Targaryens survive in exile and plot to reclaim their kingdom.
- Daenerys – The young and beautiful surviving daughter of the ancient Targaryen Dynasty, she rekindles inside her the potent mystical power that once made her family stronger than all others. Her family is “the blood of the dragon” and reborn in her care are the dragons of old. The hatchlings suckle at her breast. With such growing power at her command, the usurpers of her kingdom will surely know her wrath in due time.
- The Starks – Much of the fantasy novel is told from the perspective of the members of this noble family, Eddard, Catelyn, and their children. They are compelling characters that draw out the sympathy of the reader, especially because their choices tend toward the tragic.
- Jon Snow – The bastard son of Eddard Stark, his mother is a mystery. Jon Snow, knowing that he cannot be his father’s heir, decides to take the black and join the Night’s Watch on the Wall.
- Tyrion Lannister – He is a dwarf, which carries on the fantasy genre tradition that often includes dwarves, except he is not a different race. Tyrion is a human dwarf. He is much reviled by his family, but he finds power in his scheming wit and he is a thoroughly interesting character.
The strength of Martin as a writer comes through in his characters. He constructs his fantasy novel entirely from the point of view of different characters. Each chapter is named for the character that will be guiding the story for that portion of the novel. The style of Martin’s story telling has more modern grit than fairy tale charm. His fantasy is not meant for children, which has made him a resounding success. Additionally, Martin has mastered the cliffhanger. He knows how to end a novel and leave a reader truly in need of more.