Literally several people have noticed that I haven’t reviewed a book for a while and were wondering what the hell I’ve been doing. Well, I have an excuse as I have just read the first two books of the series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. I was going to read the whole series and then review it but given the length of the books and the slow rate at which Martin is writing them, I probably won’t finish them until I’m old and will be too busy ruling the world from my moon palace.
I haven’t read any fantasy books for about 15 years and was finally tempted back by constantly seeing this series at the top of bestseller lists. I was further tempted when HBO decided to make a TV series of it with my neighbour Sean Bean. (He drinks in my local and it was highly embarrassing when he saw me reading the book.)
This review is of the first book. Which is epic, huge, massive, grandiose in all ways possible. The story is set on a magical fantasy world, and primarily centers on a continent known as Westeros. Which is coincidentally like medieval England. In the West are hills and mines – Wales. The North is quite stern and fierce with hard people who lack humour – the north of England. Above them is a massive wall (think Hadrian) that was build to keep out the savage, uncivilised ‘widlings’ and pale ghostlike ‘Others’ who inhabit the cold lands up there – think Scotland. The capital, largest city, and place where all the good looking people hang out is in the warm and pleasant lands in the southeast. On a river. It’s pretty blatant.
The story primarily revolves around the nobles, lords and royalty in the land as they try to outwit each other with usually incredibly violent rewards for the loser. I say primarily because while the ‘Game of Thrones’ is the core, there are two other plot threads going on. One is what is happening up near the wall in the North, and the other is the story of what happens to an exiled Prince and Princess who have fled East.
The book has magic, but not much. Most of it is hinted at or referred to as things that happened in days of yore. There are hints of more magical things afoot and this feeling grows throughout the novel but don’t expect any lame-arsed elves or swarthy dwarves or electricity firing wizards. It’s mostly just dudes in armor twatting each other with swords.
The Game of Thrones is told from the perpectives of various characters. Essentially, a character’s name is the title of a chapter and everything is told from their point of view. This is actually pretty effective as it allows for some great characterisation and advances a story whose strands take place all over the world Martin has created. Most of the characters are superb and believable and you care what happens to them (some of them anyway, others are plain evil). There is the odd character that feels a bit one dimensional or cliched but they are in the minority.
The negative side of this technique is that occasionally major events happen and the character you are currently reading about just gets told about it. This sometimes feels like a bit of con, almost as if Martin couldn’t be bothered to write the actual scene. For example, at one point you are seeing things from the point of view of a woman who is hiding in a forest near a battle. The men go off and fight a battle which you don’t even see, then they get back and inform her that woohoo they won and the fight was awesome. Which is rubbish as I wanted to read about the battle.
I feel a word of warning is needed here. This book is not meant to be read as a one off. It is very much part of an ongoing tale which is epic. I have also been informed that books four and five were a bit slow plotwise and a long time coming publishing-wise. The series is supposed to be seven books long and Martin is getting old. Just saying…
The series: A Song of Ice and Fire is pretty violent at times (which is great and has some superbly exciting set pieces). It can also however, be a bit long winded with unnecessarily long lists of knights and nobles and their flags and sigils (which is a a bit dull but adds to the feeling of an epic world and only happens occasionally). Also, Martin has a mild obsession with incest – one family featured only breeds heirs through brother and sister marriages. A big chunk of the plot revolves about a different incestuous couple but I won’t tell you who (although you find out pretty early on) as it might ruin things.
To summarise though: I loved A Game of Thrones. It drags you in and you will desperately want to know what happens next. The plot has shitloads of twists and some pretty shocking deaths of people you really didn’t expect to pop it. This creates even more tension as anything could happen. The most telling point is that after finishing this 800 page book I immediately read the second, even longer novel in the series.
Which is high praise indeed. Recommended.