The Short Version: In a land called Westeros where seasons can last for years, a summer of relative (and deceptive) peace is coming to an end. The man who deposed a mad king has grown fat around his throne, a conniving family has insinuated themselves into his graces, and his best friend rides to become his Hand. That friend, Eddard Stark, finds himself and his family drawn into this ‘game of thrones’ against his iron will – and before the novel finishes, all of their lives will be changed irrevocably. Oh, and across the sea to the East? The deposed mad king’s daughter is coming into her own at the head of a barbarian horde. Oh, and in the North? There are some bad creepy things happening that no one seems to realllly want to pay attention to. Winter is coming.
The Review: It’s always a gamble to take the plunge into a new fantasy series. I lived for fantasy novels when I was a kid – although I was discerning, reading only the “Forgotten Realms” novels that I thought were a cut above the rest. The Drizzt Do’Urden books, of course. Obviously Tolkien. I remember getting into Dragons of Autumn Twilight and then devouring most of that series… until I suddenly found myself a little less-than-interested. That was the last true epic high fantasy I indulged in – I think the ridiculous deus ex machina of the last book (Dragons of A Forgotten Moon or something like that) just soured me on epic fantasy. There are series, of course, that I’ve considered giving my time to. Raymond Feist’s books, this series by Martin… but I’ve just preferred not to get caught. I read small fantasy now – or Discworld. Less chance of being burned, I suppose. Also, I don’t count Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series as fantasy. Just fyi. That’s obviously the best epic tale of all time and we can quibble about where, exactly, it falls on the shelves some other time. But that epic also ‘ended’ nearly ten years ago (although Uncle Stevie has a treat for us soon – but again, I digress).
Then everyone started talking about this series. The HBO tv show got underway, the fifth book’s announced publication was a Big Deal even among non-fantasy literary-minded friends, the reprint covers looked infinitely better than the cheesy 1990s covers… and so I rolled the dice. Knowing full well that I’d potentially be committing myself to five (projected seven) BIG books with lots of characters and new maps to learn and a series that apparently gets people way up in arms in a way I haven’t seen in a long time – or risking absolutely disappointment on the level of an 800-pager. Of course, the twelve year old boy who got a C on a book report he turned in two and a half weeks early because his teacher thought he “never could’ve read that book so quickly” knew it wasn’t a risk at all. Glad I listened to him.
The book – first in the series – is everything you’ve been told. It is epic like they don’t make epics anymore. A revolving cast of characters who get their own chapters gives the story an almost oral history feel: we see an event from one character’s perspective, then see the repercussions from another point of view, then a few chapters later a character thousands of miles away hears about it for the first time and a whole new set of repercussions comes about. Brilliant. The juggling by Martin is nearly impeccable. There are times where I wish he’d organized his chapters a little differently, of course – but that’s just because there were times where I thought other storylines were more exciting in the moment. Like a good MC, though, Martin keeps you wanting more. He sends you away from characters for (most of the time) juuuuust long enough and then brings you back.
The writing is great, I have to say. It’s intelligent – on a level that, sorry folks, most fantasy never achieves. I don’t know what it is about fantasy, by the way. I mean, the stereotype of the fantasy writer/fan is that they’re a nerd, right? Nerds are smart. So why does most fantasy sound like it was written by somebody who got straight C’s high school English? Actually, there’s a pretty simple answer to this question but I choose to leave it be because a) once upon a time, I was almost that kind of nerd and b) I don’t want to offend any nerds reading now. I wear my colors proudly and wouldn’t give up my love of swords and dragons for the most beautiful woman on the planet – but guys, you’ve gotta go out and meet those women some time. All I’m saying.
Anyway, where was I? Right: Martin writes intelligently. He creates this world and doesn’t bother to stop and explain the rules or the details explicitly: he expects you to pick it up as you go along. The story of the Children of the Forest isn’t really explained until the last hundred pages or so – but you come to understand basically what they are long before that. Things are set forth in such a brash and brassy way that you take them as fact and put faith in the idea that they’ll be at least moderately explained sometime in the future. And these characters are very real. They are not the sort of characters we expect in fantasy because they’re all multi-faceted and flawed. Even the ‘heroes’ have dark sides and even the villains (except maybe the queen and Jaime) have redeeming qualities. Tyrion Lannister is a great example – he seems evil but at the same time, he has done good things. It’s hard to reconcile all of it, just as it is often hard to reconcile a real living human being’s flaws with their more sterling qualities.
The plot is too convoluted for me to really get into (I was impressed I managed to keep “The Short Version”, well, short) but it’s a humdinger. Plots, counterplots, battles, political machinations, betrayals, friggin dragons. It’s big, sprawling even, and that’s why it’s worth the read: because it is one of the most fully realized worlds I’ve ever been invited into. It’s like looking at a painting and seeing the grass move, smelling the smoke from the chimney over yonder, and hearing the birds in the forest behind you.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. I never got tired. I never got bored. I never lost interest – in fact, I’d put the book down to do something else and almost every time, I’d be back to it within a half hour. It requires a commitment, yes: I don’t know whether or not to go out and buy the next three books now and just really go for it… or to take a break, read some other things, relax a bit before I head back to Westeros. I don’t know. Probably some kind of break, right? I feel as though I’ve been through the wars a bit, just like all of these characters – and that’s maybe the highest compliment I can give the book.