I’m always hesitant to recommend a fantasy novel, because the fantasy genre is typically polarizing; either you can’t get enough of it, or you think it’s all Tolkein-derivative drivel. And I have to admit, over my years as a reader, I’ve come down on both sides of the debate. But whether you’re a fan of fantasy or not, chances are if you’re reading this blog you like good books, and if so, you’ll like George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, because it is a very good book.
A Game of Thrones is the first of a series of a seven volume series called “A Song of Ice and Fire” (which you might or might not know has been adapted into an HBO series called Game of Thrones, the second season of which has just ended), and it’s about as far from “Tolkein-derivative drivel” as you can get. Loosely based on the real-life events of the War of the Roses, where 15th century England was divided by civil war), A Game of Thrones tells the story of the noble houses of the Seven Kingdoms, a fictional land where winter can last for years at a time and where power and politics go hand-in-hand with adultery, incest, assassination, and infanticide. This isn’t your parents’ Middle Earth: there are no elves, and while there is a dwarf, he’s a wisecracking nobleman with a taste for wine and whores. A Game of Thrones follows the struggles for power of a wonderful and diverse cast of men and women, including the noble Starks, who travel from their northern holdings to the decadent south to uncover a plot to corrupt and usurp the throne; the rich and manipulative Lannisters, whose beautiful faces hide terrible secrets, and whose lust for power knows no bounds; and the exiled Targaryens, the last survivors of the old dynasty wiped out by a civil war, striving to reclaim the stolen crown.
Magic and otherworldliness is significantly downplayed in Martin’s world, giving the novel a refreshingly human quality; characters who at first seem like nothing more than one-dimensional villains take up the story, and getting the chance to read from their perspectives shows that Martin has developed them as fully (and can make us identify with them) as much as the story’s “heroes.” Nothing is black and white in A Game of Thrones, and that lends it a depth and complexity (and realism) that is often sorely lacking in fantasy novels.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but don’t get too attached to any of Martin’s characters; if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading the five published volumes of this series, it’s that they’re all fair game, and any could die when you least expect it!