George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series receives almost universal acclaim from reviewers. I picked up A Game of Thrones after seeing it recommended by several reviewers. Since it is billed as the entry into an epic fantasy series, I half-expected to see a fantastic world populated by magic wielders and magical creations. Instead, I found that magic is virtually non-existent. Gritty, harsh realism is the predominant theme in Martin’s medieval universe. In fact, this book reads more like historical documentary than fantasy fiction.
Martin’s Seven Kingdoms supposedly resembles 15th-century England during the War of the Roses with the Starks and Lannisters representing the York and Lancaster families, respectively. Even the map of the Seven Kingdoms bears vague resemblance the map of Great Britain, with a vast unexplored ocean to the west, a barbaric, frozen land to the north and ancient, exotic realms to the south and east. At the forefront is the conflict between the honorable Starks of Winterfell and the cunning, powerful Lannisters of Casterly Rock for control of the Iron Throne. In the beginning of AGoT, Ned Stark finds himself installed as the right-hand man of the King, his old friend, while Lannister influence is exerted through Cersei, the beautiful but cruel Queen. Interwoven throughout are myriad other characters who weave their own intrigues and schemes. In the north, barbaric tribes and direwolves threaten to overrun the “Hadrian’s Wall” guarding the Kingdoms from the frozen wastes. Worse yet, there are glimpses of the Others, mysterious undead creatures, and their army of wights raised from the dead. In the east, a Dragon princess lives among horse warriors dreaming to one day retake the throne that had belonged to her father.
Martin’s universe is distinguished by its realism. The characters behave as real people would, in realistic if not predictable fashions, with entirely believable motives. I found that reading Martin is frequently frustrating, as there is no clear line of demarcation between good and evil so common in other fantasy works. Yes, the Starks are probably good and the Lannisters likely evil, but there are many gray areas. Seeming heroes commit heinous acts, while supposed villains are entirely sympathetic. If you expect to cheer for good and see evil punished, you would be sorely disappointed, not just with AGoT but likely with the entire series. In fact, for most of the 3 books written thus far, the side of good seems to be sorely persecuted. You just have to accept things the way they are, that good and evil go hand in hand.
Martin seems to revel in the anti-heroes. I can’t recall how many times I’ve encountered dashing leading men/women and their equally winsome companions in other works. Here, beauty and wholesomeness often hide vile intentions and a cruel character — think Cersei — while Tyrion’s deformities and ugliness disguise a truly noble spirit.
Martin’s world is undeniably dark. The Seven Kingdoms is a violent world, where blood is spilled and lives are snuffed with little pretext or remorse. There is no uplifting conclusion, no triumph of good over evil. In fact, the mood at the end is decidedly downcast as a major character meets with a tragic end. However, there are lighthearted moments, such as those involving little Arya. Tyrion also has many funny lines, in a sarcastic sort of way.
This brilliant novel definitely breaks new ground, and quite a few stereotypes, in the fantasy genre. If this book is any indication, this promise to be phenomenal series indeed.
Originally posted March 20, 2003 on Amazon.com