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A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (1996)

Book review: A Song of Ice and Fire #1: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (Voyager/HarperCollins, 2003 [1996])

In the game of thrones, you win or you die

As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must … and a dead enemy is a thing if beauty. The old gods have no power in the south, Stark’s family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, a vengeance-mad boy has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities beyond the sea. Heir of the mad Dragon King deposed by Robert, he claims the Iron Throne.

Like a lot of other people I only started reading the book after watching the TV show, Game of Thrones. The only downside of this is that when reading, the people I picture look like they do on TV. It’s not a problem, though – well, not a big one, anyway. The characters look a lot like they’re described in the book, except on TV they’re much older. More on that in a sec.

For those who have seen the first series of Game of Thrones, you already know the plot. For those who haven’t, this book stars the Stark family, from t’ North. Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, and his family are happy Oop North, but then the Royal Family comes to visit and King Robert tells Eddard (Ned) that he wants his old friend to be his right hand man … what with the previous one recently having died and all.

Reluctantly, Ned agrees to take on the Hand of the King role and move down to King’s Landing. Shortly before they’re about to leave the next youngest son falls off a tower and is crippled. Was it an accident or did someone try to kill him? Things aren’t much better down South either, as it turns out – Ned and his two daughters are drawn into political intrigue, scheming, murder and all sorts of things straightforward folk from up North aren’t comfortable with.

Across the sea, a young princess is married off to a horse lord, while her brother wants to invade the Seven Kingdoms (read: where everyone else is) and take the Iron Throne for himself.

Well, that’s a simplified version of events, at any rate. To go into details would take forever. It’s a hefty tome with a page count of 800-odd. If you want a summary of the novel (and indeed the first series), it’s “political scheming, incest, banner descriptions and occasional murder”.

The chapters aren’t numbered, instead they’re named after the person whose point of view you follow in that particular chapter. For instance, chapter one is called “Bran”, because you follow next-youngest Stark child Bran in that chapter. I don’t try to imagine what the person behind the name is like before I start reading, so I didn’t have the problem I read someone else had (“I had to keep adjusting!”).

Because the story is moved forward by following certain characters from their particular viewpoint, I got a good feel for each of them, as I could see how they reasoned. Not that I had any great love for Sansa from the TV series, but here, good grief … silly, silly girl, who sees everything through rose-tinted glasses. I much prefer her feisty younger sister Arya!

There are a lot of tiresome descriptions of banners everywhere, and houses this, that and the other. There are a number of houses in this series, and the smaller ones owe allegiance to the bigger ones. At the end of the book, you get an overview of the major houses and their inhabitants and so on, which I’m sure is fascinating to some. For me personally I glanced over them without paying much attention, because I don’t really care, to be honest. I was after a glossary, and there isn’t one. Certain things I kept wondering about eventually got explained, but others keep on being unexplained. There’s no glossary to explain them either, and Martin hasn’t bothered. Frustrating.

How the seasons work (winters/summers, as it’s such a big deal) I have no idea, and I asked Mr T (who has followed the book series for years) who still couldn’t explain it. There seems to be cycles of warmer weather, called “Summers” and cycles of colder weather, “Winters”. The annual cycles still seem to function during these, but the winters are more extreme when there are Winters, and there isn’t much of a summer? The actual mechanics of these cycles have not been explained in any way.

There are frozen zombies, direwolves, castles high up on mountains, whorehouses and lots of incest. In fact, the Targaryen family marry brothers to sisters in order to keep the bloodline pure. So, umm, yeah. That’s a thing. Speaking of, I love how a child happens upon a copulating couple and think they’re “wrestling in the nude”. Aww, sweet summer child.

One of my (and everyone else’s) favourite characters from the TV series is Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf. He’s pretty much the same in the book, and comes across as very likeable, if somewhat cocky. He’s a really decent guy, which is a pleasant surprise, considering what the rest of his family are like.

As a whole it’s an interesting book, if decidedly squicky in places, but I wonder if I would have found it as interesting if it hadn’t been for the TV series. I guess once I’ve read further ahead than the number of series they’ve done so far, I can make a better judgement, as the first novel and the first series are very closely knit, aside from the ages of the characters.

Mr and Mrs Stark on TV aren’t exactly the late 30s of the books (Sean Bean is 53), and both Jon and Robb are meant to be 14, which they clearly aren’t on TV. Bran is 7, Arya 9, and Daenerys is only 13 when she’s first wed to Khal Drogo. Needless to say, their TV counterparts are older. Perhaps because on TV they’ve upped the amount of sex and nudity to absurd levels. (I also think Daenerys is about as loony as her equally inbred brother, but she’s better at hiding it.)

Oh, and the names. Everyone seems to be named, including a guard that’s only mentioned in passing. I know a lot of people have complained about the Lord of the Rings as having SO MANY NAMES, but I never got that impression myself, nor from the Wheel of Time. This, however, does my head in. I’m not great with names as it is, and here everyone needs a name, regardless of if they’re important or not. How are we supposed to remember them all? Ughhh.

So yeah. It feels as if the writer is too preoccupied with the interpersonal politics and the fights between the houses than to tell a story about the actual people sometimes. Still, it might be a long book, but it’s never actually dull or particularly slow. I can’t wait to read and see what happens. Although, considering the book series is still being written, we’re all technically still going to be in the dark.

4 out of 5 ravens.


An easily distracted and over-excited introvert who never learns to go to bed at a reasonable time. Enjoys traveling (when there's not a plague on), and taking photos of European architecture. Cares for cats, good coffee and Boardwalk Empire. A child of her time, she did media studies in school and still can't decide what she wants to be when she grows up.

8 thoughts on “A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (1996)

  1. Having not seen the TV-series (nor do I feel like it anymore, after reading the book), I found it basically just “squicky”. I agree with you on just about everything on this book..!
    And above all, it was waaaayy too long.

  2. I saw the first episode of the first series, and then promptly tried the book instead since the TV format did not suit me at all but the story seemed fascinating. Now I’ve read all the books that have been published, and have a few comments:

    The main reason for having the houses in the end of the book is probably to make it kind of a “glossary of persons”. If I recall correctly every book contain a list of all relevant characters with descriptions that do not spoil anything if you read it before starting to read the book. So if you find yourself thinking “I remember reading this name before, but who is it?” the list at the end might be a good help.

    About having a lot of named characters: To me, every named character seems to have had a role making it relevant to name him or her. Sometimes the character returns often enough, possibly in different surroundings, to require a name or a description such as “the captain of the guards” so that the reader can tell characters apart. Then a name is just as easy. Other times the name is there to make the reader care ever so slightly more about the character to make it hurt more when the character is killed, and yet other times a minor character in one book turns into a major character in a later book.

    About the climate and things unexplained: the series revolves very much about mysteries, so if something does not make sense or is unresolved that is probably just a story hook for a part of a future book.

    Lastly: a caricature or similar of George R.R. Martin would be that he writes very long books, introduces a lot of characters, kills half of them to keep the number under control and that the climate does not make sense. The weather does not make sense as in the Seven Kingdoms seem to be about the size of England or the entire UK, but the North is kind of like Greenland and the south is a huge desert.

    1. When I talked about named characters, I meant “random fruit seller off the street”, as in, people whose names you REALLY don’t need to know, who could just remain anonymous. If it’s someone that is actually needed for the plot, or to humanise them to make their deaths more significant emotionally, fair enough, but if it’s just for the sake of naming extras, I’d rather wish he didn’t.

      The first book, at least, only has a list of e.g. House Stark, with their banner, a mention of friendly houses and a cast list. Perhaps useful on occasion, but not as useful as having a glossary reminding you of who built the Wall and when, what a direwolf is, who the Mad King was, or the state of dragons, for instance.

      Ah well, I’ll just have to keep reading and see how it all pans out. 🙂

  3. The books are so painful to read because they are so detailed as to be occasionally tedious, and because such TERRIBLE things happen. Like, TERRIBLE. To good people. And the bad guys often win. But I keep reading because there’s usually one character or two that I like and am interested in, and then before that one gets killed off he introduces another that I like… I keep reading to find the happy ending. No luck so far.

    1. I’ve not come as far yet, having only read the first book (well, save for the ones in said book!), but I hear Martin likes to kill the readers’ darlings. Right now, I’m not sure who I’d be most upset about if they got killed, as a lot of the characters are ruddy annoying.

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