It might seem a little odd to be reviewing books that have been available for the best part of the past decade. However, with the renewed interest in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, “A Song of Ice and Fire”, thanks to a Home Box Office (HBO) television adaptation (A Game Of Thrones – season one in Canada and season two in the US) and the publication of the fifth book in the series, A Dance With Dragons, I decided it might be time to see what all the fuss was about. After all, the books were written by the manTime Magazine had referred to as the “American Tolkien” and I’ve been a fan of the original’s work for decades. Even given Times’ reputation for hyperbole it had to mean there was something worth reading in the series.
So, in order to see what all the fuss was about I bought Game of Thrones 4-Book Box Set, put out by Random House Canada in the spring of 2011, containing the first four books in the series: A Game Of Thrones, A Clash Of Kings, A Feast For Crows and A Storm Of Swords. Set in a world roughly equivalent to our history’s Dark Age where the majority scrabble to eke out an existence from the land or from what little money a skilled tradesperson can demand, and a minority rule through inherited wealth and military prowess, “A Song Of Ice And Fire” takes readers from the throne rooms to the whore houses of Martin’s invented world of the Seven Kingdoms and the lands surrounding it, to detail the struggle for control of its Iron Throne. While there is a wide world beyond the realm of the Seven Kingdoms, the majority of the action takes place in one of three geographical locales: the far north of the kingdom where a small band of warriors, The Night’s Watch, man The Wall that keeps uncivilized tribes people (and if the myths are true other, less human, foes) at bay; and the kingdom itself, which is a seething cauldron of plots and counter-plots as various factions strive for control of the throne and the Free Cities where the scion of the former ruling family looks to find the means to regain the throne her family lost.
Book One, Game Of Thrones, introduces us to all the main players, the world they inhabit, and also shakes out the various plot lines the series will continue to follow through the first four books. Rather then following the standard format of telling a story through the eyes of characters representing one perspective, Martin chooses to try and tell his tale from as many angles as possible. In each book he has chosen to follow a specific collection of characters who represent as many sides of the story as possible. He then proceeds to switch back and forth between those characters with each chapter. As a result readers, over the course of each book and cumulatively over the course of the series, get to know the main characters far more intimately then is usual for this type of story. For not only do we see them through the eyes of others, we also step inside their heads and hear their version of events. It’s amazing how what one person sees as a strength in his or her self is seen by others as a means to defeat them.
Even more fascinating is how Martin is able to use this format to change our opinion of a character. Someone who is depicted as vain, venal, and indolent by others turns out to be far more complex and multifaceted than anyone else ever gave him credit for when we finally meet him. The eldest son of the wealthiest family in the kingdoms, Jamie Lannister, has been decried as a breaker of oaths and a king slayer since he killed the king he was meant to be guarding. While others, like Ned Stark, head of another powerful family and enemy of the Lannister clan, claim he dishonoured himself, when Jamie tells the reader why he killed the king — even though he knew he would be cursed and damned — we see him in a far better light.