George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones offers fantasy fans a gritty, realistic medieval adventure that stands in sharp contrast to the aloof elves and all-pervasive magic populating endless Tolkien knockoffs.
The book is set in the land of Westeros, a fantastic realm removed in time and space from our own medieval period. In this land, summers and winters last for years, with autumn and spring flashing by as mercurial seasons caught between fire and ice. Magic, once a known and powerful force, has ebbed and is now viewed as a legend, albeit a legend with a known foundation in fact. Spells died long ago, but the last dragons were slain only decades ago. A medieval society based on a European model dominates Westeros, which was once broken into seven kingdoms, but has since been united into a single domain ruled by a single king. The seven families who had once fielded kings in their own right continue to scheme against on another, playing an unending “game of thrones” for dominance.
A Game of Thrones opens by introducing readers to the Starks, a family which rules the northern lands of Westeros. Ned Stark is the stalwart, honorable lord of the north, the sort of man who refuses to delegate responsibility, and will personally carry out any executions he has ordered. He has three “pureblood” sons and two daughters, as well as a bastard son fathered under mysterious circumstances while fighting a war against a mad tyrant. These brood shares their father’s nobility and sense of honor, and along with their mother, Catelyn are soon caught up along side Ned in the twice-damned political games of the realm.
The source of their coming troubles is King Robert, Ned’s best friend and an ally in the war against mad king Ares two decades earlier. When Ares died, Robert was crowned king. Now, all these years later, Robert had ridden north with an immense caravan to ask Ned to be his Hand — an advisor who rules in the king’s name and with his blessing — after the previous Hand died under troubling circumstances. Meanwhile, something dark, cold and infinitely evil is lurking to the north, slowly gathering its strength and preparing to awaken Westeros’s worst nightmares.
Painfully Good Fantasy
I’m not a student of medieval history, but I know enough to know that most modern fantasy white washes what it was like to live in that era. Peasants are remarkably sanitary and literate, cities are clean and civil, and if there’s an evil in the land, it’s because of some overlord whose taint has crept into the good lands of men.
Not so A Game of Thrones Martin pays excorticating attention to the particulars of medieval life, in which even leaders may not be able to read, battles are fought by tactics both honorable and vile, and life as a peasant can be brutal, especially for those caught up in the games played by the great houses. Going further, the life of women is harsh even for those of noble birth, who find themselves bartered in exchange for alliances and power by fathers and brothers.
Martin retains the concepts of chivalry in his world, but it’s badly warped — if not shattered — by the scheming nobility. Intrigues spawned by this scheming win more battles than swords, and the mental friction caused as the noble Starks are caught between their honor and the cutthroat manipulations of their enemies is excruciating.
In many fantasy novels — at least the ones I’ve read — the core characters are sacrosanct. While they may suffer trials and setbacks, the intrepid heroes ultimately win through in the end. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books are an excellent case in point; while several minor characters have fallen, only one of the main characters has died and stayed dead (and I’m not sure that Morain really will stay dead). In A Song of Fire and Ice though, no one is safe. Martin has absolutely no compunctions about offing characters, be that major or minor. It makes the book an unsettling read, as you think, “no, he couldn’t really do that” … and then he goes ahead and does it. But this is not to say that Martin kills off characters simply for shock value — there is a definite sense that all of this serves the plot, and serves it all too well.
I greatly enjoyed guttering flame of magic found in Martin’s book — a flame that’s almost, but not quite blown out. Indeed, a surge of just the right sort of wind, combined with potent kindling, could be enough to bring magic storming back into the world. However, the magic of this realm, weak or strong, is not the magic of Tolkien and Gygax. It is very much in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert H. Howard, in whose works the practice of magic is a feat that drains the body and corrupts the soul. It’s a dangerous thing, something that only the brilliant or insane (or both) are willing to wield.
Martin also does an admirable job in crafting multiple points of view, and making even villains likable. Readers will find themselves despising a character at one turn, and then, when the perspective shifts around to that loathsome villain, they come to understand him and his actions. By the time the perspective shifts again, they may even have come to respect the character. The shifts add greatly to the book’s already dizzying emotional kaleidoscope.
A Game of Thrones is the first book in a larger series known as A Song of Fire and Ice. It is followed by two more books — A Clash of Kings and a Storm of Swords — and a fourth tome — A Feast For Crows — is being written. Each novel is huge — the first book is 846 pages, the second is 768 pages, and the third is 1216 and those page counts may intimidate some readers. I’ll freely admit that the main reason I was able to get through the books was that Audible.com offered them as audio books. But while the books are long, they’re also well-paced and compelling reads.
From a libertarian standpoint, the book has its highs and lows. Being a book set in a medieval society, there are few democratic ideals here — no elected offices, no universal sufferage, and little in the way of a true capitalist economy (although they, at least, are on a gold standard).
That said, the Starks provide a philosophical rallying point — while nobles, they are well-behaved nobles who value the rule of law, personal responsibility, and their vows of friendship and loyalty. They are uncompromising in their beliefs, which is one of the reasons they encounter so many difficulties. These are traits that libertarians — as well as most others — will value.
A Game of Thrones is the perfect alternative to the cliched fantasy books we’ve all seen so much of over the years. It harkens back to fantasy’s alternative roots, not Tolkien, but Howard, and is well worth the significant time investment required to read it.
- A Game of Thrones
- Book 1 of A Song of Fire and Ice
- By George R.R. Martin
- Spectra Books
- 864 pages
- ISBN: 0553573403
- MSRP: $7.99
- Buy it from Amazon.com