Fifteen years ago the Mad King, Aerys Targaryen, was torn down from his seat of power and killed. Robert Baratheon ascended the Iron Throne, supported by the most powerful houses in the Seven Kingdoms, and has ruled ever since. When Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, dies, Robert asks his childhood friend Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and the North, to replace him. At court in the south, Eddard discovers the king he once knew is a stranger, the realm's ruling council is infested by schemers with their own agendas and he hears a whisper that Arryn was murdered to protect an old secret. As he attempts to learn the truth, he discovers his honesty and honour may be hindrances, and there are others who are far better versed at playing the game of thrones. As he seeks answers, Stark must choose his allies carefully, for the stakes in this game are the highest of all.
In the furthest north of the Seven Kingdoms stands the Wall, a vast fortification 700 feet tall and 300 miles long, built in an age when people still possessed the secrets of sorcery. Eddard Stark's bastard son Jon Snow, unwelcome at Winterfell in his father's absence, elects to join the brothers of the Night's Watch, who maintain and hold the Wall against the wildlings of the haunted forest beyond. As the great decade-long summer draws to a close and the winds of winter start to blow against the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, men of the Watch start to disappear and the dead begin to stir...
On the continent of Essos beyond the Narrow Sea, Viserys Targaryen, the last son of the Mad King, weds his sister Daenerys to the warlord of a Dothraki khal, forty thousand fierce bloodriders who are unrelenting and savage in battle. Determined to avenge the murder of his family and the theft of his birthright, he lays claim to the Iron Throne...
First published in 1996, A Game of Thrones, the first volume in A Song of Ice and Fire, has become one of the defining works of the fantasy genre, arguably the most defining work in the epic subgenre since The Lord of the Rings was published forty years earlier. Almost every epic fantasy written in the last decade has been written in its shadow, many newer authors cite it as a major influence and it has become a key touchstone of the genre.
It has been ten years since I first read the book and six since my last reread, and I must admit to some concern that the book wouldn't perhaps stand up as well on this latest read-through. Would five years of seeing people arguing about Jon Snow's parentage on the Westeros message board leave me apathetic when reading the story again? Fortunately, it did not.
A Game of Thrones is well-named for it is constructed as a game with different factions and different sides, with the first book introducing us to two of those sides (the Starks and Lannisters). The meticulous construction of the plot, the intertwining of different conspiracies and schemes and the successful depiction of the 'intoxicatingly complex' politics of the realm (to quote another review) - with the reader invited to decide who is in the wrong and who is in the right - are several reasons for the book's success, but the main reason is the characters. Eddard Stark, proud and honourable and too honest for his own good; his wife Catelyn, steadfast, clever and intelligent but blinded by anger over her husband's bastard son; the Imp, Tyrion Lannister, blessed by birth into a great house but cursed with deformities and a raging anger against his distant father; Daenerys, a young girl whose life and destiny are in the hands of her ambitious brother and her new husband and who must learn what it means to be a Targaryen; and Jon Snow, a young man who must find his own place in the world when it becomes clear he cannot share in the honours of his father's house. Together with a veritable galaxy of strong supporting characters - King Robert, Littlefinger, Varys, Lord Renly, Roose Bolton and more - they define this story and this world.
Prior to A Game of Thrones, with a few memorable exceptions, epic fantasy seemed to be defined by events and places and battles and the furniture of the setting, the writers often forgetting the lesson of Tolkien that these things are secondary and of no importance without protagonists to become invested in. This novel brought the characters back to the front and centre of the genre. Understanding the characters, who they are and what they want and what they are prepared to do to get it, is key to understanding the world of Westeros, its political landscape and the wider conflict that develops. The characters are treated as real people with all the flaws and problems that come with them, confounding some readers used to novels which never move beyond first impressions. For example, Catelyn Stark is an intelligent, strong and politically savvy figure, a reliable support to her husband and sons, but because the first time we meet her she lays into Jon Snow with some venom and hatred, these other qualities are sometimes overlooked.
A Game of Thrones is also a fundamentally adult book. This is a harsh, cold and unsympathetic world where life is cheap, promises count for little, honour and chivalry only exist on the tourney field and sons and daughters are bought and sold in marriages solely to enhance the power and prestige of their houses. Based on the historical truths of the Wars of the Roses, the Hundred Years War and the surrounding medieval period, Martin doesn't skimp on the violence or sex, although it isn't really gratuitous either. Tyrion learns some important truths about himself on the battlefield, whilst Daenerys discovers how to use her sexuality to exercise her own power and influence over her new husband. And, something that some later epic fantasy writers seem to have forgotten to include, there are also plenty of rays of sunlight in the gloom to show us that for all its faults, Westeros and its people are indeed worthy of salvation.
The book is certainly not without flaws. The rotating-POV structure can lead to frustration, as you are just settling into one character's storyline and are then wrenched halfway across the continent to another character and by the time you get back to the first one it's moved on by several weeks or months. The worldbuilding, although highly intriguing, also feels a little sketchy at this point (something Martin addresses in spades in the sequels and prequel novellas), although individual locations like the Red Keep, Winterfell and the Wall come to life quite nicely and there is a sense of a vast history lying behind events and locations. The book also feels like it moves a little too quickly at times, with sometimes weeks passing between chapters, armies covering hundreds of miles in the blink of an eye and so forth. On one level this is a good thing: if A Game of Thrones was told in the same level of detail as say A Storm of Swords or A Feast for Crows, it would be considerably longer. On another, some of the more subtle nuances of character and plot from the later volumes are skimmed over here, whilst the series' central theme of power is more hinted at than fully indulged (which has to wait until more factions and more players enter the game).
These complaints are pretty minimal, however. A Game of Thrones (*****) is a seminal and important work of modern epic fantasy, arguably unmatched since its publication as the opening volume of a fantasy sequence (although Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before has come closest). The book is available now in the UK and USA.