[This may be the last fiction book review I do for a while. As part of my continuing education in Hebrew, I have committed at least the month of November to only reading Hebrew fiction. Given my skills in that language are at the ‘Janet and John go to school‘ level, you may well imagine this is not a course of action I have taken lightly nor enthusiastically. But. I. Must. Do. It. (Did you get the gritted teeth feeling, there?) So, meanwhile, enjoy.]
This is the first part of a fabulously successful fantasy series (now up to five books) which started in the late 1990s, grabbed a following, and then was given a rebirth by the 2011 launch of an HBO TV series. I have not seen it, but the general impression is that HBO did their usual high quality job.
In a nutshell, the story is one of several families (or houses or dynasties) competing for power – the throne – by the standard methods of war, politics, diplomacy, bribery, alliances, treaties and treachery. In this world – of seasons lasting years – there is a north-south divide, and an even further northern wall to keep out unknown dangers lurking beyond. Winter is on its way.
The technology is roughly medieval, and, at least in this volume, the influence of witchcraft and sorcery is kept almost completely in the background as an atmospheric threat. Almost.
So, it is swords and sorcery, following a tried and tested formula. But is it any good?
Well, beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all that, I rate as one of the better examples of the genre. (This is my third reading of this book, and I have read through the whole lot twice before. That is one measure.) What do I like about it? Martin’s characters are a mix of cardboard and complex. Fortunately, the balance is in favor of the latter. More, the story is so fricking complex to match – largely because of the extended family relationships, marriages and so on, that it is sometimes difficult to remember who these people are. There is a good appendix to help the reader out, but it would have been a better service to readers to put this at the start! But, strangely, this mix works well. Martin takes real Medieval patronage and chivalry, and builds his world of relationships around it. In other words, Martin succeeds at building a believable world. Because of that, the characters – even the cardboard type – come across as more authentic.
The violence and the skullduggery is done with a flourish, but Martin rarely softens the blow. In fact, his style involves short chapter after short chapter, shifting the storytelling perspective with a kind of continual cliff hanger ending each time, to keep the tension high. It’s like a series of old cinema vintage, but free of corn and fluff.
If you like fantasy, you will enjoy this book. There’s nothing especially novel or revolutionary about it. However, it delivers pure entertainment and acts as one of the best, most solid starting points of a fantasy series, ever. Sure, some of the more modern fantasy writers have shaken free of some of the shackles Martin stayed with, but Game of Thrones is still a fine piece of work. Martin poured his soul into the creation of his world, and it is a privilege to be able to experience it. If, however, you are not a fan of fantasy, maybe this will convert you. But do check out the appendix!