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A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: A Review

September 17, 2011

George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the opening installment of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series which has since grown by a further 5 volumes, tells the story of a fictional, but uncannily real-seeming world in which various “houses” contend to claim the Iron Throne, the prestigious seat from which the entire of the Seven Kingdoms is ruled. This is a world where treachery, incest, betrayal and deceit seem to be the common order of things and honour and truth secure only one thing: death. While the dominant houses feud over the Iron Throne, though, a threat is building in the North, beyond the wall, that threatens the very existence of the Seven Kingdoms and everyone in it. Over the course of 807 pages, Martin weaves the narrative of the Starks, the Lannisters, the Targaeryons and the rest, intertwining the families by means of their conflicting desires and presenting twists and revelations that surely only he can have seen coming and that leave the reader desperate for more. And yet, until quite recently, I didn’t know these books even existed.

It was only when a friend asked me how I found the books compared to the recent HBO series that I discovered George R. R. Martin’s writing, and instantly went out and purchased as many of the series as were available at the time. Such, I suppose, is the life of a literature student, exposed only to materials prescribed by reading lists that leave little scope or liberty to explore the vaster realms that fiction has to offer. The consensus among my acquaintance was that the TV series was a pleasingly accurate portrayal of the book and having been completely enthralled by the former, I made the assumption that the latter would also be to my tastes. Thankfully, I was not disappointed. Martin’s characters and plot are just as gripping on the page as they are on the screen, and having committed the unthinkable sin (I plead ignorance, obviously) of having watched the adaptation before reading the original, I found that having a pre-conceived image of each character and scene in my mind while reading actually enriched my experience of the book rather from detracting from it, as is so often the case. The imaginary world that Martin constructs appears to bear many markers that associate it with a Roman-esque or medieval English existence; the vast expanse of wall that extends from coast to coast and segregates the interminable snow and “wildlings” of the North from the greenery and numerous house seats of the South, the nature of the warfare and even some of the power struggles all tend towards that era, but this is by no means a bad thing and I think it really helps readers, if they haven’t seen the TV show already like me, to build up an image in their mind of the different characters and each scene.

Despite the narration being in the third person throughout, I felt as though I was really getting to know the different characters that Martin presents; his omniscient narrative position is obviously very close to the action and therefore places the reader there too. His portrayal of the characters whose perspectives we aren’t privvy to is highly effective as well; I always find the mark of a good narrative is when you find yourself emotionally involved with characters despite being fully aware of their fictional natures and in A Game of Thrones, I felt the same hatred, the same contempt, and the same love as the characters of the novel feel towards one another.

If I had to note a criticism of A Game of Thrones, it would be that occasionally, and progressively towards the end, actually, Martin’s written style departs slightly from the formal tone and slightly archaic language that denotes the historical and fantastic world in which the Seven Kingdoms resides, sliding from time to time into a phraseology more distinctly contemporary and earthly. The best example of this is where Martin comments “Sir Alliser Thorne walked from the room so stiffly it looked as though he had a dagger up his butt.” (p.204) and seems to me as though this clumsy phrase could have been easily avoided by disguising the image in dialogue. While it is perfectly fine for the characters to speak with vulgarity, it is not so acceptable for such a tone to come from the narrative voice.

This though, is only a very minor criticism of an otherwise outstanding novel. Even though I knew what was coming, some of the revelations and twists and turns of the story still came as a surprise and the emotional impact of the narrative was in no way diminished for me. I read this book as though the TV show had never existed, racing through it several chapters at a time and reluctant to put it down even I could barely keep my eyes open any more. It is with the greatest excitement that I have proceeded onto the second installment, A Clash of Kings, and I cannot wait to find out what adventures the Seven Kingdoms have to offer this time.

Buy your copy of A Game of Thrones from  Amazon either in hardback, paperback or ebook edition.

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