In a harsh land, governed by people and traditions hardened by time and circumstance, dynastic families vie for control of a kingdom. Ancient terrors stir in the northern wastes with only a forgotten brotherhood of warriors standing in its path. A deposed king-in-exile waits for his chance at vengeance across the sea, gathering a horde of barbarians to recapture his throne. George R. R. Martin weaves a complex epic of treachery and honor, family and incest, control and power, showcasing the prices paid by those who would play A Game of Thrones.
Much has already been said about this book–it has been out for nearly fifteen years and interest as been piqued by the well-received HBO series based upon it. The praise is well-warranted. The plot is intricate but not obtuse, the characters interesting (if not entirely sympathetic), and the pace is breakneck. It takes a writer of decided skill to not only hold the interest of a reader for over 800 pages, but to make them need to read what comes next. This is especially true in this case because all aspects of the story (setting, characters, and plot) are so grim and presented without mercy.
This is not a story of happy endings or even one in which virtue is rewarded. In fact, most of the time the good die young, the noble suffer, and the innocent are besmirched*. If anything, this would be my sole complaint about the book: I need my villains to receive some comeuppance and, so far, this hasn’t happened. This novel is decidedly a first act; the pieces of the game are put into position for the upcoming epic conflict. My hope is that in the next acts the ‘heroes’ are able to get a bit of their own back. But Martin is a master of thwarting expectations–which is what makes this work so damn readable in the first place.
Some criticize the work as being misogynistic. I disagree. While there is plenty of misogyny depicted in the work, I do not believe the work itself to be so. Such acts are portrayed without glorification, stark† in their barbarity and coarseness. Martin’s female characters strive to exist in a world that is harsh to everyone in it and is especially so for women. They are shaped by a world utterly hostile to them and the novel is revelatory of the different ways in which people can react to such a landscape. At the same time, I do not think that Martin is trying to teach us anything new about feminism, privilege, or patriarchy. In this work, it simply is. It exists in our world. It exists in his world. Sometimes his characters rise against it or subvert it; sometimes they succumb to it–just like the rest of us. Of course, the question could be raised as to why one would chose depict such a world in a fantasy…but then again, why depict a world with any of the short-sighted bigotry humanity has expressed over the ages? Because it is undeniably part of who we are and the struggles of individuals against it are part of our story.
A Game of Thrones is a brilliant novel, fantasy or otherwise. It is brutal, not only in theme but in execution. It depicts a Hobbesian world in which one has to look very hard to see beauty striving to emerge from beneath the blood and the barbarism. Nevertheless, it is well worth the effort.