A Game of Thrones: Book One of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin (Voyager {HarpurCollins, 1996 {Random House Audio, 2011, Narrator: Roy Dotrice)

High Fantasy, Post Modern, Military Science Fiction, Military Speculative Fiction

gamethronesukGrade: Β — (Beta) Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre. 

In brief:

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin is a serial[1] high fantasy novel that changed the face of its genre. The first truly post-modern epic High Fantasy novel that I have encountered, it would have received a higher grade were it not written as a serial.  It and its many sequels are, however, cliff-hangers and so may well not appeal to those who actively dislike fantasy.

Setting:

http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/World_Map_%28HBO_Game_Of_Thrones%29

Set in a High Fantasy world with a magic system that does not include D&D style spell casters (i.e. wizards who throw fireballs) or Tolkienesque non-humans (i.e. no elves, dwarves, orcs or other demi-human creatures), but does include dragons and undead.  The story follows the political complexities between the multiple power factions that exist in a medievalesque kingdom that very vaguely resembles the geography of the UK (in that it is divided into three sections: The South, the North and Scotland… er… sorry: Beyond the Wall).  The personal and nasty actions of some characters set in motion a series of events that result in a very violent civil war and an epic story.

Game-Of-Thrones-HiRes-MapwesterosAlso of great importance are the seasons of the world, for while every year has four seasons, there are also great seasons that last for years at a time, suggesting the planet has an irregular elliptical orbit.  In this, the first book of the series, there has been an unusually long Great Summer, and no Great Winter… but as the Stark family motto decrees, it is clear that Winter is Coming.

In Depth:

In June of 2010 I wrote a review of the Song of Ice and Fire up to and including the third book (A Storm of Swords).  It was, in fact, generally quite negative, for while I enjoyed the series while reading it, I had also grown quite irritated at the length of time between the publishing of Book Three and Book Four (A Feast for Crows).  Time has passed, however, and I have embarked on writing a series of my own and realized that sometimes, shit happens.  Indeed, sometimes whole extra books are needed just to cover issues that got edited out of one novel but are required for the next to make sense.[2]

Game-of-Thrones-SMALLWhat is more, I have started watching the T.V. series, A Game of Thrones,[3] which does a very good job of bringing the books to life.  Indeed, in some elements they may even improve on Martins’ masterpiece because the whole 694 pages of the first book were covered in ten episodes (that’s ten hours), and for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what major plot points were cut out.  Nothing of significance really… but I’ll get on to that at the end of this article.  Now, as that Season Three (which will cover some if not all of A Storm of Swords, the third book in the Song of Ice and Fire) is about to air, I thought that I would go back and review each of the first three volumes of the series – particularly as that when I read them, I thought they were by-and-away the most daring and interesting fantasy novel I had read since Lord of the Rings.  To that end…

a-game-of-thrones-book-coverA Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin was one of those few truly genre changing books. In my opinion, it was the first truly post-modern epic High Fantasy novel, and indeed, were it not written as a serial, it would likely have gotten an Alpha rating. It truly does it stand out from the crowd and has a great deal of appeal for even the most literary minded.  It is, however, a cliff-hanger serial fantasy novel and so may well not appeal to those who actively dislike fantasy or need each book in a series to give some (any) form of closure.  Even so, if you do have a general distaste for sword and sorcery stories, but are willing to try something new, this book may well be a good place to give a try.[4]

In essence, for both of you who do not already know, A Game of Thrones is the first book in a planned seven (well, originally six, but whose counting?) volume series based very roughly on the War of the Roses.  It introduces the readers to the world of Ice and Fire, including the geography, the basic history (though that is expanded upon as the volumes more forward) and a low level of magic that may, or may not, increase as the volumes progress.  It also introduces us to the politics and characters that make up the world, and it is here that the depth of the series and Martins’ true brilliance as a writer shines through.

game_of_by_roryjas-d3icc7eAs a whole, and indeed in this book in particular, The Song of Ice and Fire is a character driven tale.  According to some definitions, this would make it as much a Literary novel as a Fantasy, but I suspect most of the literatzi would deny it that status.  Even so, it is a story that is driven by its characters and their motivations.

Indeed, one element that sets it apart from other Fantasy novels is that its characters are so well and so believably drawn.  Even those characters that one hates at the beginning of the series, one gains sympathy for as the series progresses, and at times one thinks “Wait! Am I REALLY hoping that this SOB who pushed a child out of a window is going to make it through to the end?”  What is more, many of the characters who one puts real emotional investment into are killed brutally as the tale progresses. To this end, it is in some ways the antithesis of much Military Sci Fi,[5] as that the Good Guys are not always  Right, the Bad Guys are not always Wrong, and indeed even the concept of who is Good and who is Bad is in considerable doubt throughout the book.

House EvansAdded to this depth of character is a depth of world. Hidden in the strange nature of the long and short summers and winters are hints of science that suggest that Martin has thought long and hard about how the world that the tale is set on orbits its sun (though this is never discussed in the text of the book).  The geography is well thought out, though most of the action does basically take place on a scaled up version of the UK.[6]  The magic is subtle (at least in this book), and does not at any point dominate the story, but rather serves in the background.  Furthermore, there are elements of plot development that are very strong – including the fact that there are non-human races hinted at that are not shown, or perhaps (just perhaps) only glimpsed in the book suggesting they may not even be real.

a-game-of-thrones001These elements, strong characters, moral ambiguity, complex politics, and a well thought out world system, all grow together to make A Game of Thrones one of the best fantasy reads I can think of.

Having said that, there are times where one thinks that the complexity of the story may go a bit overboard.  This is particularly the case as the series progresses, but even in the first novel this is the case. Indeed, as already mentioned, the TV series, discussed in brief below, manages to cover most, if not all, of the main points in a total of about ten hours while the book is almost seven hundred pages long.

Thus, one might suggest that if you are uncertain whether or not you would like a Post-Modern High Fantasy with an exceptionally high kill rate, you might want to try watching the TV series first.  If you like it, pick up the book, BUT, don’t expect the book and the series to be identical.  They most certainly are not.

Cover - A Game of ThronesAlternately, I might actually suggest that those who are curious might listen to the audio book, which is highly enjoyable and brought back my love for the series without having to invest the time in reading the whole thing over again.

Regardless, for any fan of Fantasy (or indeed most any branch of the Speculative Fiction genres), I would highly highly recommend this series, though I might wait until it is completed before starting it.

MV5BMTEzMTk0NjE4MDdeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU3MDAwNTU0MDg@._V1._SX214_CR0,0,214,314_Notes about the Audio Edition:

Random House Audio does a brilliant job of producing this Audio-book,  and Roy Dotrice does a wonderful job of narrating it. Indeed, his plumby, highly educated English accent is the perfect choice for the reading of this book, and his regional accents are pretty much spot on (well… totally spot on to my ear).

What is more, his gravelly, mature voice in particular plays well to the post-modern nature of the book, for it is a tumblr_m1s5m4cOGr1qbi3zpo1_500very calm, traditional voice akin to those one might hope for in a reading of Tolkien or traditional versions of the Arthurian legends.  To that end, where the books veer suddenly from the more formulaic natures of fantasy, Dotrice’s adds to the literary surprise without being taken out of the story.  In short, a brilliant read for a brilliant listen.

A Game of Thrones, the Television Series:

game-of-thrones-posterGrade: Α – (Alpha) Great book, must read regardless of what Genres you enjoy.  Makes you think of things beyond the scope of the book

Wait!  I’m giving the TV series a HIGHER grade than the Book?  Well, no.  Go and read my grading system.  An Alpha, a Beta, a Gamma and a Delta Prime are all basically the same grade, but notes the degree to which a consumer (be it reader, listener or watcher) would enjoy the series based on whether or not they like the genre.  An Alpha has wide appeal regardless of genre and should probably be watched anyway, a Beta notes that a tale probably worth giving a go regardless of which genre’s you like, but that the tale has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre (so if you hate tales of that type, don’t bother), a Gamma (which is normally the highest a series can get), is a similarly great tale, but really won’t appeal to people who dislike a genre, and a Delta Prime will ONLY appeal to people who like a given genre.  So, yes, I think the TV series is more likely to have cross genre wide appeal than the book.  It takes less time to watch for one thing, and for another, one is used to season end cliff hangers.

Iron-Throne-Teaser-game-of-thrones-18537488-1280-720Explanations aside, I was stunned upon watching the First Season of this series.  Though none of the actors matched my image of the characters they played (well, maybe Sean Bean as Ned Stark or Lena Heady as Cersei), they were all marvelous choices and I’m sure no two readers had the same image in their heads anyways.  Indeed, some actors (particularly Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister) were so good that they have now replaced my image of the characters. To that end, the acting and directing were superb.

got-game-of-thrones-31255993-1280-720What is more, the imagery was perfect, and came pretty close to matching the images that Martin drew in my mind.  Added to that were the opening credits that depicted settings from the book growing up from a globe in the form of gears – thus matching the geocentric world view that a medievalesque society would be likely to have while also symbolizing the ‘gears within gears’ of the politics of the show/book.

Lannister-game-of-thrones-33996763-1280-853Added to this was first rate scriptwriting and direction. The places where the story veers from that of the book were perfectly logical ways to adjust the tale for a different medium.  In many cases, the series set up later plot developments in a better and earlier manner than the books do.

So, in short, I love the series and think its well worth watching.


[1] A serial is a series in which one must read the entire set for closure to any story line.  For a definition of all the categories of series, including serial click here. http://wp.me/PWa2h-bN

[2] Of course, mind you, I’m not writing a serial in which each volume ends in a cliff hanger.  My books will all have some form of resolution at the conclusion of each volume.

[3] Cleverly named after the first book, and not the series, since most non-fantasy fans refer to it that way anyhow.

[4] Though, if I were you, I’d wait until the whole series is done because the talented Mr. Martin has very very long gaps between his writing.

[5] Yes, I call it that because much of it focuses on Soldiers and the impact of war on them and those around them. I can, however, see how some might object to this, particularly as that it without a War Story, and that it is Fantasy not Sci-Fi, but until I rewrite my categories, I will include MilFant as a subcategory of MilFic.

[6] Actually, there is a problem in the age of the world.  Through the tale there are discussions of things happening thousands of years ago, yet the technology does not seem to have changed in all that time.  While one could argue that the long winters have limited technological growth, and that the historic prevalence of magic may have led to its development over that of other technologies, it does seem a long time for NO significant technological advances to take place.  Of course, in later books it is suggested that the histories may have exaggerated the time scales.  Even so, this is fairly minor and can be overlooked by anyone who is not obsessed with chronological developments.

In fact, in an upcoming opinion piece, I will most likely make an argument against this objection.  In short, it is that, historically speaking, technological advances tend to come in leaps followed by plateaus of non-development.  To that end, certain key factors have to come into play to raise key factor technology levels higher and… oh, I’ll get to it later, but in essence, remember how long the Paleolithic lasted.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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