Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 1)

A Game of Thrones CoverA Game of Thrones is the first book in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, telling an epic story set (mostly) in the land of Westeros, where summers and winters can take anywhere from years to decades. But, at this point, with the popularity of the TV show based on this series, this novel really doesn’t need any further introduction, does it?

This is not the first time that I have read this novel. I read the first four books about a year before the TV show came out, and while I got the hardcover of the fifth book immediately when it was released, I never got around to reading it. Recently, I got a sudden yearning to be immersed in Westeros again, so I decided to re-read the first four books before starting the fifth one. Re-reading a novel, and this one in particular, always gives you a different perspective on the novel, so this review will be based on my memories of when I first read the book, as well as the further insights I gained through this re-read.

What struck me immediately when I began to re-read this novel was just how beautiful the writing is. I’d completely forgotten. The writing flows wonderfully well, and Martin manages to combine clarity with a style that evokes the medieval England-esque setting that he has going on in the novel. I find his words to be a pleasure to read.

The other thing that struck me was that Martin tends to use the same structure for most of his chapters, a structure which is effective, and, I think, most suitable to the kind of story that he is telling. Martin’s story is epic, first and foremost: there are nine POV characters in this novel, set widely apart on two different continents, and this novel spans about nine month’s of their life. Because of this scale, in order to keep the story going at a reasonable pace, Martin recognises that he cannot detail everything that happens to a single character. Thus, the time between two of a character’s chapters cane be anywhere from weeks to months. This leads into the structure that Martin uses in his chapters. Rather than beginning with a summary of what has happened, Martin first details what is currently happening to the character, then organically slips into a flashback of prior events, before finally concluding with the main piece of action for the chapter.

This structure works very effectively. For one, it allows Martin to maintain his intimate perspective on his characters, as the flashbacks happen because of what the character is thinking, rather than simply because the reader needs it. Secondly, it means that the start of the chapter is immediately exciting, making you want to keep reading. Finally, by slipping into flashback in the middle of the chapter, Martin effectively leaves you on a mini cliff-hanger, wonder where the chapter is going to go, making you want to read further.

The worldbuilding in this story is also well connected to the epic scale of the story, and Martin does a wonderful job of it. The world, and each House and culture within are masterfully thought out, making a coherent whole, and it is clear that Martin knows his world inside and out. That said, because of the scale of the story and the worldbuilding, the book has a very steep learning curve, making it a more difficult book to follow than most. It is one reason why re-reading the book is such a joy, because you already remember most of the characters’ and places’ names, but I definitely struggled with the novel’s barrage of nouns the first time I read it.

What adds to the difficulty of the book is how slow-moving the plot is. Martin does a great job of mitigating this problem through how he structures his chapters, discussed above, but the book still remains more slow moving than most novels. This can easily make it frustrating for readers unaccustomed to such books, or who read quite slowly.

To move onto an other aspect of the work, Martin’s characters are wonderfully realised. Each character feels like a fully realised person, perhaps because Martin understands that every person is capable of great good and great evil. The other reason for this is that it feels like the characters are not subservient to the plot of the novel. In fact, it seems to be the opposite, with the plot seeming to be subservient to what each character would do. This perhaps leads to the sprawling nature of the series, but in this book it works wonderfully, as the plot flows organically from what the characters would realistically do, but the plot itself remains very tight and coherent.

Martin’s belief in fundamentally ‘grey’ characters also leads to the great amount of explicit sex and violence that is in this series. This is another thing that Martin does very well. It never feels like the sex and violence are there for the sake of there being sex and violence; rather, the sex and violence flows organically from what the characters would do, allowing for the sex and violence to effectively provide insight into the different characters.

A Game of Thrones is an amazing book, and one which I love whole-heartedly. However, because of the learning curve and the slow-moving plot, the novel demands to be read consistently. It is not a book that can be read a small bit of every now and again; the book is at its best when you read considerable chunks of it every day. Readers willing to make that commitment will find a whole lot to love in this book, but readers who aren’t are surely going to be frustrated by it.

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