Well, after the HBO series and, frankly, quite a bit of peer pressure, it was time to dive into George R.R. Martin’s extensive – and rather verbose – A Song of Ice and Fire saga. The first edition, A Game of Thrones, is the book which aligns with the first season of the HBO series. The sweep of the novel, which contains an awful lot of exposition and introduction, is appropriately vast compared to its obvious fantasy novel predecessors. The kingdoms covered by Martin are imagined fully and with terrific depth. Martin has created this world from the embers of archetypes, fantasy novel lore (both real lore like Tolkien and the sort of collective unconscious of the swords and sorcerers set) and his own imagination – and the world and conflicts are as fully formed as George Lucas’ world in Star Wars. However, Martin does a better job than post 1985 Lucas of showing us the human scale and providing the reader access points. We are able to care about how these far off conflicts go and have a rooting stake in the outcome – and that the 805 pages here is not a slow dirge is kind of impressive.
This novel is the first in a series that is still ongoing, so there is a lot of introduction to get done. This is something that could have been deadly, stupefyingly dull – an encyclopedia entry about a place I don’t give a crap about. However, Martin sidesteps this pitfall by using multiple perspectives, and changing primary viewers each chapter. In this case, we are mostly following the Stark family – who have ruled the North where the Wall is which is keeping out apparently evil, occult spirits. Eddard “Ned” Stark is the lord of the domain (I guess sort of a governor of a state sort of thing) and his family includes his wife and give children. One day, Robert – his old friend who has since risen to the King of the entire realm, summons him and names him to replace the deceased Jon Arryn as the King’s Hand. (his right hand man basically) Eddard is reticent – he has known Winterfell and the North his entire life and does not want to uproot his family. However, the king appeals to Ned’s honor and friendship and somehow he is up and leaving his family.
We get this story from Eddard’s perspective. Stark is a good and decent man – he has a code and tries to stick to it. However, we also get viewpoints from other areas. Martin gives voice to the thoughts of Stark’s wife and four of Stark’s children (Bran, Jon, Arya, Sansa), as well as an outsider of one of the ruling families as well as a princess of an order that was nearly destroyed. Martin follows each of these stories with great care – all of the characters are outside of the power structure, but trying to survive. We see how events outside of their control (mostly) shape their own experiences. Martin’s smartest decision here was to stick with a small, fairly easy to follow group of characters. There are dozens of more perspectives, but the narrative gets very cloudy with more than the half dozen or so that we end up hearing about.
Martin’s structure is sound, and his real strengths are in character development and associated plotting. The fates of the characters all make sense – and spring from their organic personalities. As a reader it makes it both compelling and frustrating, for instance, to see Ned Stark in action. His values are clearly the purest of the folks introduced in this concept (and I know I am being circumspect about the plot) – but he also makes the worst decisions, and puts the dogmatic right thing ahead of situational ethics and realpolitik. Sansa is a pathetic creature, so sweet and wanting to be the right kind of lady (of course in this realm that means catching a powerful husband – don’t shoot the messenger), but unaware of the gravity of what is going on under her nose. Martin is spinning a lot of plates here plotwise, setting the scene for apparently complicated future doings, but we are rarely lost and the motivations are clear.
If Martin is weak in any area though, it is verbosity. At 805 pages we get a lot of detail. However, we also get a lot of flowery, ornate descriptions of landscapes that I suppose are supposed to provide texture, but instead seem like a parody of an author like Dickens or something. It feels like tightening his focus could have reduced the novel by about 20% and concentrating the abundant amounts of good stuff. That said – we have 805 pages that turned quite easily. The sequel definitely gets my attention – and maybe some more plot discussion when that review comes up.