How small the difference between victory and defeat, between life and death.
Not all books muster up to the hype surrounding them. The Night Circus was one such example—a beautiful debut, but unpolished in many ways. George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first entry in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, meets its praise full-on.
To be frank, I didn’t know what to expect from A Game of Thrones. I knew Martin had developed a reputation as a merciless writer, so I avoided reviews as usual to keep spoilers and impressions at bay. I also understood the HBO series was popular, but fantasy shows aren’t always made of the best stuff.
Reading the first book was an interesting experience because my boyfriend was starting a different fantasy series at the same time. Every complaint he had about the unrealistic writing, and every silly sentence I would see overloaded with Great Things in Capital Letters and Goofy Names, were refreshingly absent in Martin’s book. Where the other series lacked believable character motivations, A Game of Thrones gave me them in excess. These characters are so clearly positioned in opposition to one another, or conversely in alliance, that betrayals and back-stabbings are the only natural courses to take.
The first chapter perfectly demonstrates Martin’s skill as a fantasy writer: He knows how to use the world and, more importantly, the environment at hand. He crafts descriptions that feel authentic to the characters’ surroundings, and through them gives credibility to events. The whispered things that dwell outside the Wall are fit for the trees and cold and dark that they call home.
Martin also has a talent for bringing importance to every chapter, and he never fails to remind us of the misogynistic, war-hardened land and its brutal politics. That’s where the book takes its title from, after all: the different ruling classes and their endless games.
A Game of Thrones is a grounded, convincing tale because Martin introduces fantastic elements little by little, rather than all at once. There’s no magical prophecies or chosen ones, but there is a direwolf with a stag antler pierced through its body—an evil omen if one ever existed.
The writing never grows dull, although the middle does bend under its own weight as the author leads us toward the final act. He doesn’t make the mistake of focusing too heavily on the ending, so as to sacrifice story, but he could have cut a couple hundred pages.
The book itself bridges the divide between adult and children’s fantasy, focusing on explicit scenes of sex and violence in one chapter and the squabbles and pride of youth in another, and its presence in both worlds makes it all the more interesting.
Martin, a careful and wise writer who tends to characters as closely as plot, writes the beginnings of a tale not meant for the weak of heart. Characters suffer. You’ll dread the consequences … much like those tangled up in the war themselves.