A Song of Ice and Fire

Stick them with the pointy end: George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones

I joked a little while ago that I was going to do a chapter-by-chapter re-read of these and post one every hour. I really can’t read slowly enough to do that sensibly. I read in great gulps, not in considered sips. So it’ll be one post per book, as usual, and that means I’m not going to say every possible thing there is to say, but I think that’s OK. You go ahead and say the other things in comments.

A Game of Thrones is the first volume in an unfinished fantasy epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s notable for having very good volume completion. It’s very difficult, writing a series like this, where you have chapters from lots of people’s points of view, to make each character thread have an ending. A Game of Thrones does that brilliantly—every point-of-view character has grows and changes and has a story. You could almost take each one out and read it separately—the Daenerys thread was in fact extracted and published as a novella. The threads are closely intertwined, it is all one story, but each story has completion, and despite nothing being resolved, the volume does come to a conclusion, or anyway a satisfying place to stop. This is impressive.

This is a very good beginning, solid worldbuilding, great characters, plotting and complications that often surprised me. When I heard that Martin was writing an epic fantasy series, I was disappointed. I’d been a fan of his for years, ever since reading the story “Sandkings,” I’d read everything he’d published to that time and I wanted him to write more SF, not fantasy. I read it anyway, and I was very pleasantly surprised. This was a book where, the first time I read it I turned straight back to the beginning and read it again. It really is that good.

It’s always interesting to see how a story begins, especially a huge sprawling story like this one. After a brief prologue, Martin begins with all the characters who will have points-of-view in this volume (except Daenerys) together at Winterfell, he goes out from there as they go their different ways. The story begins with the Stark family finding some dire wolf-cubs. The wolf-cubs are given to the children. This sets up certain expectations about the kind of book it is and the kind of way things will go, which turn out not to be the case at all. This is just the beginning of the undermining of standard fantasy expectations Martin’s doing.


The book starts with a small event, from which everything follows. Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King has been murdered. Ned has to replace him. Lysa, Catelyn’s sister, accuses the Lannisters of his murder. The question of who killed Jon Arryn and why preoccupies Ned until he solves it. Bran gets thrown from the tower because he discovers the secret—which is the incestuous adultery of Cersei and her twin, Jaime, and the corresponding illegitimacy of Robert’s children. For the first half of the book Westeros is at an uneasy peace, which is broken by Catelyn seizing Tyrion, Ned finding out the secret and Cersei taking things to the next level. By the end of the book the country is in flames, but it ends on a high point with Robb declaring himself King of the North. Meanwhile, all through the book, we have the adventures of Daenerys Targaryen on another continent.

It’s interesting that Martin starts off introducing us to his complex world so relatively quietly. He gives information about the world sparingly. We learn slowly that the world is one where seasons last for years, unpredictably and magically, and with a wall of ice at the top of the world that has stood as a defence for eight thousand years. The murder and attempted murder of Bran give us an interesting question and a chance to get to know the world before the wars begin—we see tournaments and marriages and a fragile peace. It’s a good choice to show us the land at peace before it is broken.

Lady’s death and the way Nymeria is driven off were the first things to really surprise me the first time I read this book. I expected the wolves to stay with the children. I was equally startled later by Ned’s death. This just isn’t the kind of thing you expect in this kind of story—and that’s one of the things I love about it. Ned’s fall and betrayal is tragedy in the real sense, a man betrayed by his own tragic flaws, which in this case are honour and mercy. Re-reading it all the numerous chances he has to make things go differently are very plain to see—if he’d only compromise. Ned is like Cato, bringing down the world on his head because he insists on treating the world as he would have it rather than the way it is.

This world isn’t a sanitised fantasy world. It has magic, but it’s also full of betrayal and lice and shit and rape and slaughter. It’s a very clever world—I said in my intro piece that it’s as if Sauron arose again to find Gondor going through the Wars of the Roses. Martin constantly reminds us of the darker colder threats—Winter is coming! But he also knows you’re just as dead if you die in a minor battle, or even in a tournament. There’s a sense that everyone is being distracted from the real issues, but there’s also the way that today’s issues are real and as important as what may hit in the winter. Winter isn’t here yet, after all.

We are not, in this volume, given any point of view characters it’s hard to like—Martin goes out of his way to make Tyrion Lannister sympathetic. Nobody is a villain in their own mind. But we have plenty of horrible characters whose heads we don’t see into, and I find Sansa very unsympathetic here, with her insistence on romantic dreams, and Catelyn isn’t much better, with her impulses, dashing off to King’s Landing, trusting Littlefinger, capturing Tyrion.

Daenerys’s story is completely separate from the others. She’s in another continent. But it’s also crucial, her dragon-waking is what’s going to change everything. She’s also the other threat that hangs over Westeros—she’s the last Targaryen. Robert’s right to be afraid of her. Yet we’re shown her first as very young and very intimidated. Her story is one of growing into power. But the whole book takes only about a year. She’s not fifteen at the end, when she’s giving suck to dragons. I like the Dothraki horse barbarians and their culture. They’re clearly based on the Mongols, in the same way Westeros is based on France and England. I like their vast empty city lined with the broken statues of gods of conquered people, and the two markets where people from both sides of the world come to trade with each other.

Jon Snow’s story also lies apart from the others. He begins at Winterfell, but when the others go south he goes north to the Wall. He’s a bastard (that’s true whoever his parents are) and he has a white direwolf. He thinks Eddard Stark is his father by an unknown mother, but it seems likely that he’s Lyanna’s son by Rhaegar, and whether it was rape or not is an open question. (The Crannogman Howland Reed knows, and will perhaps reveal this later.) Ned constantly thinks of Lyanna begging him to promise, and of what his promise has cost—which I think must be his happiness with Catelyn, who never accepted Jon. Jon’s story in this book is about learning to be a brother of the Night Watch, with only the first signs of winter coming from beyond the wall. At the end of the book he’s about to range beyond the wall. Jon’s story has a lot more honour than the others, in this volume at least.

Arya and Sansa are sisters who couldn’t be more different. Arya wants to learn to fight, Sansa wants to be a perfect princess. Sansa’s arc in this book ends with her betraying her father, and Arya’s with escaping in the company of the Night Watch. I like Arya an awful lot more, but Arya (in this volume at least) is a kind of character we often see in fantasy stories, the feisty heroine who learns to use a sword, while Sansa is much more unusual as a point of view. Sansa wants to be good and wear pretty clothes and fall in love, and she doesn’t look any further than that. Neither of them are going to have a good time in the next volumes.

Tyrion is such a great character—a highborn dwarf who wants to prove himself, who makes wits do instead of height. Who does that remind me of—but Tyrion isn’t at all like Miles Vorkosigan. He isn’t driven by honour and love of family, his father despises him, he has a thing for whores, he mocks honour and chivalry. Tyrion has a quip for all situations.

There are a number of things here that are mentioned as set-up for the later books—most especially Theon Greyjoy and Thoros of Myr. They’re tiny little easily missed details in this volume, I’d hardly notice them if I didn’t know what direction things were going. I’m also going to put Bran in this category. Bran in this book seems as if he’s just there to give us a point of view back in Winterfell. He has the dream of the crow, he’s adapting to being crippled, but his part seems all set-up. Yet this is unfair, some of the best images—the army going the wrong way and the eyes in the tree, come from his sections.

By the end of the book we have three declared kings jostling for the succession. For most of the characters the fifteen year peace of Robert’s rule—and that ten year summer that’s just ending—has been most of their lives. But the past informs the present. Starks and Lannisters and Baraethons are tangled up together because of the events fifteen years ago, and Targaryens too—and underneath everything, winter is coming, the ice-zombies are getting ready to attack, and the dragons are coming. Yay.

The best about this is the way you can trust it to all fit together and make sense. If Martin mentions something without explaining it, it’ll be explained later, or anyway alluded to so that you can put it together yourself. It’s overflowing with detail and you can trust that all of the detail belongs and is necessary and interesting. The world and the story are completely immersive, with no jolts to jerk you out of your suspension of disbelief.

On to A Clash of Kings!

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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