Wednesday, December 29, 2010

SIF 01: A Game of Thrones (Martin, George RR)

Rating: 5
Year: 1996
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes!

This is the book that changed my tastes in Fantasy novels. Before I read this, I was reading Mercedes Lackey's "Valdemar" series at least once a year. But Martin's darker, grittier style of storytelling, solid plotting and characterization simply puts Lackey to shame. She can be dark, yes, but her longer works tend to sag under their own weight even for being a third as long as one of Martin's novels.

"Thrones" is the first in Martin's epic 'A Song of Ice and Fire.' For all the characters he introduces--close to 1,100--this series boils down to the scheming of one evil, petty, power-hungry bitch named Cersei of House Lannister.

Cersei is Queen of the realm of Westeros, wife to King Robert Baratheon I. She loathes Robert and wants him out of the way so she can rule in his stead. She tolerates his occasional attempts at lovemaking, but has avoided having children with him, preferring to warm the bed of her twin brother Jaime instead. All three of her children (Joffrey, Myrcella & Tommen) were fathered by Jaime. Seemingly only a few people bother to find the truth, but Cersei has them killed to protect herself.

King Robert was a mighty warrior 15 years ago; these days he's a fat drunkard. He doesn't like his wife any more than she likes him, so he spends his time wenching and drinking, fathering a bewildering number of bastard children during his reign. He knows he's surrounded by people with more loyalty to his wife than to himself, so he travels far to the north to convince his old friend Eddard Stark to come to stand beside the Throne and advise him.

When Robert dies after a hunting...accident...the realm quickly falls apart; his brothers Renly and Stannis each claim to be Heir to the Throne, questioning Joffrey's parentage and opposing his succession. Joffrey quickly shows himself to be as evil and spiteful as his mother, having Eddard Stark executed--and this brings Eddard's eldest son Robb into the Game of Thrones.

The realm fractures, the families resume their old rivalries, and the bodies pile up in a bloody harvest.

Meanwhile, far to the north, Eddard Stark's bastard son Jon Snow has joined the Night's Watch, long ago set to guard the northern border of the realm from bands of wildling people and the Others.

Meanwhile again, in a more distant land, Danearys Targaryen (the last daughter of this formerly ruling family) faces an arranged marriage to a barbarian king. Robert feared the return of a Targaryen--any Targaryen--to the realm, and he ordered her murder.

There could be so many more "meanwhiles."

This book should come with score cards and wrist splints. Once King Robert dies, the body count goes up. The reader shouldn't get too attached to point-of-view characters, either: Martin kills them off in service to the story. This adds some weight to the narrative that I'd really like to see from other authors. He doesn't protect his POV or "main" characters any more or less than those supporting them and it brings a realistic sense to his books. Even relatively minor characters have a story, even if it's just a few words to let us know that this is someone's father, or that one is the town drunk. This makes them into people, even if they're put to the sword shortly thereafter.

This is where those wrist splints come in: "Thrones" runs to 807 pages. Martin doesn't waste them. The story is gripping and fast-paced even when little is happening.

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