A Week of Ice and Fire, Day One!
It’s all happening for George R.R. Martin this year. With the long awaited A Dance With Dragons due next week and Game of Thrones now a hit HBO series, he’s probably selling more books than he has since 2005. I come to praise Martin, not to bury him beneath the detritus of the last fifteen years.
Now I’m going to take you back to ancient times: 1996. Robert Jordan was alive and good for pull-quotes, Terry Pratchett was putting out both Feet of Clay and Hogfather in the golden age of Discworld, and Neil Gaiman was finishing up Sandman and producing Neverwhere. They were good times.
Then came George R.R. Martin with Game of Thrones, first in the projected trilogy (now a septet) that comprises A Song of Ice and Fire. Without any of the baggage of the rest of the series I must say: this is a pretty damned good book. Certainly, it has some elements of the territory of genre: incest, rape, general unpleasantness, but the thing is that Martin presents these instances impartially, without eroticising them. Where another author might think that rape is the coolest thing going and will take every opportunity to insert it into their narrative, Martin uses it as what it is: a bad act committed by bad men. There are no heroes for him to debase with his fetishes … thus far.
Winter is coming.
So it is threatened. So it shall be. Eddard “Ned” Stark is called down from the frozen North to join King Robert as the Hand of the King. Ned has never had any use for courtly intrigues, but he cannot turn down the request. Courtly intrigues are exactly what he receives.
Meanwhile, Ned’s bastard son Jon “takes the black” and stands guard at the wall on the edge of the world, where the Others have been making disconcerting moves. Across the sea, the son of the long slaughtered Dragon King is plotting to raise an army by selling his sister Daenerys to the leader of a nomadic tribe of horse lords.
It’s one of those series: a lot of characters doing a lot of things, at various points of the world. Apparently there are more than one thousand named characters in the series as a whole, but not all of them carry equal weight. Each chapter is written from the point of view of a particular character, and each chapter is named for that character. In this regard, at least, Martin has made the novel very easy to navigate. Of the eight POVs, six are Stark allied, with only one Lannister and one Targaryen. These eight points of view tell three parallel stories, with some overlap.
It sounds dense, but it isn’t. Every important character has sufficient signifiers to be told apart from the others. The fact that Tyrion, the dwarf Lannister, is a POV character is significant because he is a counterpoint to the overarching and well-argument that the Lannisters are the worst family ever.
Other members of the Lannister family seem two dimensional, but not in an insulting way: Cersei seems a harridan, and Joffrey seems a spoiled and limitlessly evil princeling; Jaime gets only enough page time to suggest his outline. Tyrion colours in some of his family and gives us a vision of what it’s like to be within. He lends them a certain sympathy that none of the Starks would ever be inclined to allow within their own scope. Tyrion also has the benefit of being the character with the sharpest tongue, and provider of the funniest lines of dialogue. Tyrion’s humour is one of the many elements that come together to make A Song of Ice and Fire seem anything other than the leaden fantasy that many fear when they hear of something on this large a scale.
The King’s Landing storyline is where three of the eight POV characters find themselves based and it is the most actively intriguing and intricate part of the book. Ned carries most of the investigation while Arya does precocious tomboy things and Sansa plays the overly perfect courtly maid, and Martin finds himself well placed to cover for each of the characters’ different understandings of their situations. Of particular note are multiple instances in which the younger characters hear things that are meaningful to the audience that are distorted by the filter of child characters. At King’s Landing, character is largely forged through action – and there’s action enough to go around.
Jon Snow is quickly torn away from the rest of the characters to say his vows on the wall, and it is pleasant to have a character whose concerns seem smaller than all the rest. Of course, Martin isn’t going to place the bastard son of a lord at the edge of the world without having that edge contain at least the hint of a threat. Similarly Jon gets his own exploration of self and shows the most promise of any individual character in the book.
While there is overlap between the King’s Landing and North story lines, the Daenerys chapters are so apart from the rest of proceedings that they were isolated and published independently as Blood of the Dragon. In the context of the greater novel, they may jar with some readers. Still, Daenerys’ actions have a direct bearing on some of the actions of King Robert – and Daenerys’ story itself is actually one of the book’s strongest elements. Martin presents a culture that is alien both to Westeros and his intended audience, and peoples it with some of the more overtly unpleasant characters in his larger world – not least of whom is her brother Viserys. Because Daenerys, unlike everyone else, has no touchstone characters, she is isolated. This gives her a bold through-line uncluttered by any other concerns, and also gives the strongest sense of development in a single character in this book. By the end, she became one of my favourites, but she’s not for everyone: her world may be too foreign, or too far apart from the rest of the book for some to cope with. From a shy, obeisant thirteen year old girl, Daenerys becomes a character to love and fear in her own right.
Martin has a handle on each of the characters, implying that he knew where he was going from the start (although whether this is the case fifteen years on remains to be seen). While many of the chapters blur together when the characters are in the same place, none of the POV characters themselves do: each has a distinctive voice, and only one of them is properly loathsome to a certain mindset. They all have their own internal logic and all of their actions make sense, even when they’re ill advised: and believe me when I tell you that all of these people make a lot of mistakes.
Fortunately, Martin’s prose is a match for his plotting and character, with some particularly striking passages – among them the winding and perilous journey to the Eyrie. While Martin has no idea how to write numbers, he knows how to write an epic fantasy. That A Game of Thrones is sold as fantasy is likely to cause concern amongst some readers (to the point that they simply won’t bother reading it at all).
There are a lot of names, but none of them are particularly difficult, and this is largely a book of vaguely medieval politicking. It is early established that this is a world in which dragons once existed, and this may eventually become a going concern – it’s practically written into the name A Song of Ice and Fire – but for now readers are safe from magic. All they need fear from this book is blood and steel and, thereafter, they may well be willing to take whatever Martin chooses to throw at them.
A Game of Thrones has the benefit of one of the most exciting endings I’ve read in a long time. I’m not saying this from the perspective of just the final chapter, or the final page (although it does boast one of the single best final pages I’ve ever read), but rather from the cumulative punch of the final points of view: so many stages are set for A Clash of Kings that the sheer amount of promise on hand is breathtaking. Everything comes to its natural conclusion within the scope of this book so that it may be picked up and run with in the next. Genuinely thrilling work that may one day reach a conclusion worthy of the excitement it generates.