“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Sometimes there is a line that masterfully sums up the entirety of a book and a series. The line is spoken by Queen Cersei Lannister to the honorable Ned Stark. In the context of the actual scene it is a mockery of Stark’s honor standing in the way of gaining power. But the ominous line resonates as it embodies the central theme of George RR Martin’s book. A Game of Thrones is a story of the pursuit of power and whether morality plays a part of gaining and wielding power.
George RR Martin was an avowed fan of science fiction and comic books in his youth. The son of a longshoreman, his real world was defined by 1st Street to 5th Street of the suburb he lived in. He would often use the worlds of escapist fiction to visit strange and exotic worlds. He would also attend the first conventions of science fiction, fantasy and comic books. Martin would become a successful novelist writing many popular books. However, his novel The Armageddon Rag commercially failed forcing Martin into the world of television. Martin would write for the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone before being a main writer and producer on the series Beauty & The Beast starring Ron Perleman (Hellboy) and Linda Hamilton (The Terminator). His time in Hollywood was frustrating as he struggled with budgetary limits and censorship. Yet, Martin attributes writing for television as improving his craft as a writer. Television’s requirements made Martin write snappier dialogue which would be incorporated into his writing. His chapters also will frequently end with a captivating cliffhanger typically found in a TV show. While working on several television projects Martin began working on a science fiction novel. While that novel was being developed he was captivated by the image of a boy finding several direwolf pups in the snow. He quickly began to develop this world and soon found himself deep in his first book of an originally planned trilogy entitled A Song of Ice and Fire. The first book of his series A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, it would spawn several sequel books, a spinoff series of novellas, an impressive source book, an upcoming fictional-history of the Kings preceding A Game of Thrones, and a series of graphic novel adaptions. There was also a TV adaptation of the books made, but that’s a discussion for another time, after all whose seen that?
The story of A Game of Thrones begins with horrid creatures of legend, known as “the Others” attacking a band of men from the Night’s Watch who are meant to guard a massive border wall between the civilized world and the wild. The Others kill a brave knight only for the knight to rise from the dead and slay his former comrade. But when the lone survivor from this encounter returns to the civilized world, he is executed by the main character Ned Stark as a deserter. All of the man’s pleas of Others and wights are brushed off as lies and madness. The world of Westeros is a world that once was full of magic and dragons. But those days have long passed. Most of A Game of Thrones reads less like a fantasy novel and more as a historical fiction novel set in the middle-ages. While characters like Bran Stark delight in hearing the tales of magic known as the Age of Heroes it is a day long gone. Break-out character Tyrion Lannister delicately ridicules the Night’s Watch insistence that they protect the Seven Kingdoms from more than the tribal warriors known as the wildlings. It is the first of many prominent deconstructions that Martin chooses as his backdrop for his book. In an age of science and reason, magic is typically regarded with skepticism. This is the world that the characters of Martin’s fantasy world inhabit. It is a world where magic and mythical beasts are regarded as legends. Even when there are skulls of dragons in the dungeons they are dismissed as having died off long ago. Magic, monsters and in many ways fantasy itself has died off Martin’s world.
In this world bereft of magic, we follow the journey of Ned Stark and his family. Although readers can be tempted to call Ned the “hero” of the story, that is dangerously misleading. Ned Stark is the main character who has a strong moral code that is often found in many fantasy heroes. But Martin’s world is a far more realistic setting where there is no clear “right or wrong”. Martin has been oft compared to JRR Tolkein, and while he does not object to being dubbed “the American Tolkein” he has specified that the key difference between Tolkein’s fantasy and Martin’s fantasy is their portrayal of evil. Tolkein’s evil is literal and clear. The orcs of Mordor and Isengard are evil and wear black armor. Martin refuses to offer clear-cut villains and heroes. Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon led a rebellion in their youth against the King Aerys Targaryen. To Stark and most of Westeros they are seen as liberators from a Mad King. But readers also follow Dany and her brother Viserys, the rightful heirs to the kingdom, who constantly view Robert as a usurper and think of him as a terrifying mad warrior. A Game of Thrones is a book that magnificently captures how subjective life can truly be. Every character offers a unique perspective on the events that transpire throughout the book. Each point-of-view often comes with biases that cause the characters to ignore or misinterpret the meaning behind certain events. From the endearingly naïve Sansa Stark, to the shrewd and sarcastic Tyrion Lannister, each character offers readers a chance to see the world of Westeros from an entirely different life experience. We follow the more typical fantasy stories of young ladies of court and gallant knights via Sansa and Ned. But we also follow the perspective of the dregs of society with Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow and the dwarf Tyrion Lannister who is both highborn and despised for his abnormality.
Martin’s canvas of characters is vast and can be daunting at times, as is his incredibly detailed descriptions of locations and people’s clothes. However, the plot and dialogue are gripping as we follow Ned Stark’s enter a world of intrigue. Ned Stark is a noble and good-hearted man who enters a world of intrigue and deceit. In times of war Ned’s vantage was clear. Now he is forced to deal with rival factions all vying for power. The imminent threat of war looms as Ned tries to rule as a just man. Deconstruction is often used in association with Martin’s work and it is appropriate. In most fantasy stories there is a common presumption that a good man can make a good ruler. But in A Game of Thrones, Ned Stark struggles with managing finances, maintaining peace and order, and is slow to understand the threats against the King and his family. Robert Baratheon was a born general, but he has grown fat and miserable as King. Although readers can certainly be enthralled and root for Dany’s quest to regain her throne, a pivotal scene involves Ned, Robert and members of his council debating assassinating her. The crime is monstrous, but many on the council, somewhat persuasively, point out that Dany is too dangerous as her gathering of an army could lead to thousands dying. Is one person’s birthright enough to justify the death of thousands? These are the dilemmas at play in A Game of Thrones, what is the right thing to do in a morally ambivalent world? George RR Martin puts all of his characters through difficult tests, and their fates are certainly surprising and will frustrate some readers for the turn of events. Martin’s prose is very enjoyable and he creates one captivating novel that will certainly thrill anyone in the mood for realistic portrayals of politics and betrayal in a world of the living dead, blood magic and dragon eggs.