"Winter is Coming"
Stark Family Motto
by George R. R. Martin
Spectra Books, 864 pages
I gave up on fantasy literature twenty years ago or so. Having read a good deal of it, I came to realize that nobody was saying anything new. It was mostly rehashes of Tolkien, Howard, Lieber, Moorcock, and company's stories, with a dash of Dungeons and Dragons sprinkled in for good measure. Last year, I was told about A Game of Thrones, and I naturally scoffed. Nobody could write new fantasy, I thought, so why would I bother? My fiancee was a little less stodgy and picked this book up. She couldn't put it down until at one point she burst into tears and wouldn't pick it back up for hours. What kind of fantasy book is this, I thought? Needless to say, I read it as soon as she was finished, and it was worth every second of time I spent devouring it.
A Game of Thrones is set in a fictional land both familiar and alien. Leaning heavily, however, toward the familiar. Anyone even peripherally versed in the history or geography of England will find the setting perfectly comfortable and may even roll their eyes once in a while at the references. That being said, the story is far from light, and it is one of the darkest, moodiest books I have read without it often hitting you over the head with its darkness.
In the same way I had some difficulty digesting Dune as a teenager, I don't think I would recommend this book to young readers. The book is highly political. It's also dark, gory, and very graphic. Did I mention political? The main characters are complex and highly developed, as are their politics. Certain other characters are caricatures of good or evil, but even the few shallow characters somehow fail to detract much from the story.
A Game of Thrones is the story of Eddard "Ned" Stark, Lord of Winterfell and The North, his family, and the political machinations of various other noble families as they jockey for the ultimate prize: The Iron Throne. A throne deliberately made of iron barbs and edges, so that no man or woman could rest easily upon it, remembering always the responsibility they held in their hands.
The book also delightfully light on ridiculous magic. There is some magic, to be sure, but it is a far more earthy, animist sort of magic that is never described into mundanity. It is used infrequently and to excellent effect, more like mythology magic than your run-of-the-mill fantasy novel magic.
Martin, as an author, is daring. He treads boldly into territory that others would cringe at. In addition to his tremendous narrative skills, he throws in a certain disregard for the typical rules of a novel and does it well. This is the first book of a planned six (the fourth is nearing completion), and if you don't immediately reach for the second upon finishing, I will be very surprised.
A Game of Thrones is an imaginative, powerful novel that happens to be be in a medieval fantasy setting. Don't avoid it because of its genre, as it is possibly the first real fresh air in fantasy in over 20 years. I unreservedly recommend this story to readers of any kind of fiction; if you like inventive, bold, emotional fiction of any kind, you could do much worse than to give this book a whirl.