July 20, 2003

A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

This is a novel of things going from bad to very, very much worse. It's a novel of politics, and battles and intrigue, of honor and dishonor, of heroes and of truly nasty people. It's an epic fantasy, and it makes David Farland's The Runelords look like a cheap comic book.

To tell the truth, I don't entirely like this book; reading it is rather like watching a car crash in slow motion. I knew that before I started, though, as this was my third time through it. Why did I read it again, if I dislike it so much? Because it's the first book in a series, and I want to see how the story ends. Because the writing is clear, the plotting is detailed, complex, and flawless, the conception is vast but not sketchy, and the characters are well-drawn and fascinating. I dislike it not because the writing is bad, for it is not, nor because I dislike that characters, for I do not, nor because it is a bad story, because it is not, but simply because awful things happen to characters I like, and it's clear that things are going to continue to get worse before they get better.

I should add that the pain isn't gratuitous. Some authors (notably Katherine Kurtz in her later books) seem to take a sadistic pleasure in denying their characters happy endings. Horrible things happen simply because they can. Nothing ever goes right; everything always goes wrong, in the worst possible way. Here, all the troubles--the divisions, the intrigues, the betrayals, the deaths--make sense and follow logically from the backstory. It's a bad situation; I didn't feel like Martin was making them worse than he had too.

The political set up is complex. Three hundred years before the tale begins, the land in which it takes place was divided into seven kingdoms. Then came Aegon Tragaryen and his men from across the sea. Aegon was called the "dragonknight", and with good reason; he brought with him three large, ferocious, and fire-breathing dragons. There was some kind of unique bond between the Tragaryen line and the dragons, for the dragons would do Aegon's bidding. After a fair amount of fighting, Aegon was crowned King over all of the seven kingdoms.

Aegon's line ruled for almost three-hundred years. The dragons and their young were held in honor, but at last, some hundred years before the story begins, the last dragon died. The Tragaryen line wasn't doing well either, for all of this time the kings had been marrying their sisters to keep the royal blood pure. The last Tragaryen king, Aerys II, was a bloodthirsty madman, and half the realm rose against him.

The rebels were led by Robert Baratheon, and his foster-brother Eddard Stark, heir to Winterfell. In past times, before the coming of the Tragaryens, Winterfell had been the seat of the Kings of the North, and Eddard was the heir of that line. The rebels were victorious, Aerys II was killed, and Robert Baratheon took the throne. Robert had been engaged to Eddard Stark's sister Lyanna, but Lyanna had been raped by the son of King Aerys; this was casus belli. Lyanna died of her wounds. The King must needs marry, and he married Cersei Lannister, daughter of Lord Tywin Lannister of Casterly Rock. Like Eddard Stark, Tywin was the heir of one of the original seven kingdoms. The Lannisters had played it cool during the civil war, coming to the support of Robert Baratheon only when it was clear that he was going to win; indeed, there were signs that Tywin's son Jaime Lannister would have taken the throne for himself if things had gone just a little differently. Instead, Robert settled in to reign in King's Landing in the south, and Eddard Stark returned to Winterfell in the north.

Fifteen years have passed, and the realm is (though none realize it) deeply troubled. Robert is an impatient man, and a bad king. He prefers tournaments and boar hunts to ruling, and the Lannisters have taken advantage of this to take over as many of the royal offices as they can.

So the situation stands when Robert comes north to ask Eddard to be his Hand, that is, his chancellor, the one who speaks with the king's voice. Eddard agrees only because the previous Hand, his foster-father Jon Lord of Arryn, was likely murdered by the Lannisters. He goes to find out what happened, and to bring the murderer to justice.

That's the short version of the back story. It's the characters who keep me reading:

First, there's Eddard Stark himself. He's an honorable man, a skillful commander, a wise ruler, but he is lord of a rural domain far from the intrigues of the capitol. He is insufficiently sneaky for the task that is thrust upon him.

Eddard's oldest son Robb is but fifteen years of age, and much like his father. He must rule over Winterfell in his father's absence, and rise up to the challenges that will seek him out.

Eddard's older daughter Sansa is a perfect lady, a romantic, and a fool. Fools learn from experience, and she gets plenty. Will she learn from it?

Eddard's younger daughter Arya is a tomboy, and well acquainted with all of the folk of her father's castle, high and low. She's tough, courageous, and no fool, and it's a darned good thing.

Eddard's son Bran is injured in a fall, and loses the use of his legs. My suspicion is that he'll turn out to be the bravest of all the Starks.

Eddard also has a bastard son named Jon Snow, who is about the same age as Robb. Jon was raised with the others, but cannot inherit. No one knows who his mother is; Eddard stifles all rumors with anger and finality. As the realm begins to crumble, Jon is sent north to join the Brothers of the Night's Watch at the Wall of ice that separates the lands of men from the frozen north. And it becomes clear long before the end of the book that battles over the throne are mere squabbles, and that the real conflict will be here at the Wall. Here, and only here, is there any hint so far of supernatural evil.

Tyrion Lannister is the second son of Tywin of Casterly Rock. Further, he's a foul-mouthed, cynical, sarcastic dwarf. He's also become my favorite character in the whole book. He's not a nice guy (he's a Lannister, after all) but his choices are limited. Unlike his father, he is capable of kindness, if of a piercing, sarcastic variety. He's smart, and capable of taking care of hiimself. He's good at making the best of a bad lot. My suspicion is that he's going to be the next Lord of Casterly Rock, and that the Starks are going to have to make peace with him if anyone is going to survive in the long run.

And then there are the two jokers in the deck. Stannis Baratheon is King Robert's younger brother. Throughout this book he is notable in his absence; he hovers, never present, but looming dimly just over the horizon. And there is Daenerys Tragaryen, daughter of Mad King Aerys, who barely escaped death at the hands of Robert and his men and has been living a wandering, threadbare life with her brother Viserys in a land over the seas from her father's realm. Will the dragons fly again?

This should say something about the book--it's taken me pages just to give the smallest idea of what it's about. There are, at present, two sequels, one of which I've read previously, and one of which I haven't; I'll be getting to this over the next few weeks.

But not immediately.

Posted by Will Duquette at July 20, 2003 03:03 PM