So you’ve all seen it. No? What do you mean, no? Ah, I see. Because it’s on an obscure, subscription-only Sky channel. Well that’s fair, but you could always watch it courtesy of HBO Go (I feel there needs to be an exclamation mark on the end there, but never mind), the network’s free online service. What? That’s only available if you live in the US? Curses! Well then, looks like your only option for getting a fix of first-rate fantasy serial Game of Thrones is to hold out for the DVD release. Or, you could just take the plunge and read the books. Daunted? You should be. The first instalment of George R. R. Martin’s epic ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ weighs in at over 800 pages with four, equally large, sequels and a further two more in the pipeline. So is it worth the commitment?
First of all, let me just say something regarding the book’s age. It was first published in 1996 but (and having only been a recent convert myself) it speaks like it was written precisely for today’s market. The ideas it demonstrates through character, narrative, uses of mythology, and intricate plotting feel impressively current even fifteen years on; this is mature fantasy writing that happily sits within the more recent trend for character-driven genre-fiction (sci-fi remake Battlestar Galactica springs to mind).
The narrative itself follows no less than eight protagonists. Each chapter is named after one of these eight – ranging from the bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark to the exiled princess of usurped House Targaryen – the duration of which is spent viewing the unfolding events from the chosen character’s perspective. This can involve a lot of lurching about as a simple chapter break can take us halfway round the world and weeks ahead in time. There can be a certain amount of feet-finding as the reader dusts themselves off, but Martin has a good estimation of his audience’s ability, never making it too hard for them to work out what’s occurred between chapters, even if certain details are missing, or are only ascertained through paying close attention to the dialogue. In short, he makes us work for our story; knowledge is our privilege, and we feel almost a part of the intrigue as we spy from our perch above the page, piecing together what we know and trying to second-guess a character’s next action.
More often than not we are wrong footed as events take an unexpected turn, our judgements prove wildly incorrect, or someone dies. It should be made quite clear that A Lot of People Die. The fact that there is no singular protagonist means that absolutely no-one is safe. This strings a wonderful tension through the narrative that really makes the reader fear for their favourites. And I mean really fear. As odd as it sounds, you will probably experience genuine outbursts of emotion as you read this series: you will hate, grieve and rejoice with the type of authenticity rarely reserved for fiction. Characters that fit the typical heroic profile end up victims of their own honour, whilst assumed villains you are sure will prove the most antagonistic spend most of the narrative languishing in a dungeon. Instead, the unassuming, the untried, and the pragmatic take their places, and it is from these still-developing characters that we see the most intriguing conflicts of interest arise: alliances are formed and enmities are born on the backs of whims and rash decisions. The consequences are often severe and far-reaching.
This is symptomatic of a brutal honesty that runs through A Game of Thrones. Actions have clear consequences: characters either learn from them or suffer by them. There is a delightful moral ambiguity that all characters subscribe to, and while you may root for certain factions over others, that old tale of Good versus Evil is notably absent. This story is one printed in greys: tainted history, lust for power and stubborn honour are the roots of conflict here. Most characters are even-handedly drawn, and even those you will love to hate have reasons for their maleficence. War is painted in its twin colours of political instrument and moral depravity. For each scene of lords discussing the justifications for their warring, there is one detailing its gruesome flipside of rape, violence and devastation – more often than not it is the common people we see bearing its brunt. This is grim stuff, and the sense of foreboding is enforced by the repeated motto of the Stark family: ‘winter is coming’. In Martin’s world, where seasons can last years, it is no idle warning.
One glance at the convoluted family trees detailed in the book’s appendices will tell you Martin has lavished love and attention to fine-tuning the minutiae of his fantasy world. But don’t let the long list of Lord this and Ser that put you off. The only reason you’ll need to refer to these appendices will be because you have a genuine interest in learning more about the lordly houses. Martin cites the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses among his influences, and the effect is to make his fantasy world all the more believable, its family feuds deeper ingrained and its politics more meaningful. Martin keeps the magic of his world on a firm leash, drip-feeding its secrets so that we are kept hungry, never bloated. The amount of detail is never enough that it proves suffocating, and a pleasing hierarchy emerges where it is clear that characters and plot are put first ahead of background and lore.
All this makes for a gripping fiction, and whether you enjoy fantasy or not, the standard of the writing, the storyline, and the sumptuously vast world that is envisioned should be reason enough to invest some quality hours in escapism. True, you could save yourself the time and wait for the DVD release instead (there’s something strangely compelling about Sean Bean in and of himself), but it’s not quite as rewarding as having your imagination shade in the faces and lands of Westeros in your own colours. And one final word: should you try it, you’ll find it hugely addictive.
An edition of this article first appeared at 4Qmagazine.co.uk on 6th Feb 2012.