In a day and age where door-stopper fantasy series with no apparent endings are hitting the bestseller lists, it’s often hard to consider new entries into this particular sub-genre with any seriousness. After all, if Robert Jordan or Terry Goodkind are the heights of the field, what’s the point of trying anything else? But each book (or series) should be judged on its own merits - and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire proves that there’s still room for diamonds among the rough.
The first book in the series (for a long while planned as six volumes, but the exigencies of the publishing world now make seven the likelier number) is the award-winning A Game of Thrones. Describing it isn’t easy, because a short summary will miss one of the precious facets of the work. But here’s an attempt to give the feel:
Imagine a feudal kingdom on a massive continent in a world filled with many cultures and half-legendary lands, all connected together through an ancient history. Imagine a time where dragons once lived but magic is now dwindling,where the seasons can be long or short, bringing glorious summers or terrible winters that last years at a time. Imagine an iron throne from which seven kingdoms are ruled, with false knights and true all gathered about it in hopes of blood or glory or profit, and shadows behind it pushing the pieces that make up the game of thrones.
That’s the book for you, in a nut-shell. But if you want something more specific, try this:
The story starts with a frightening prologue that tells us who the truest enemies are, and then turns suddenly to the castle of Winterfell from which the Starks rule the North for King Robert on his Iron Throne far to the south. A man is executed and on that bloody day direwolf pups are found next to the dead body of a huge direwolf, killed by a broken antler in her neck. There just happens to be pup one for every son and daughter of Lord Eddard Stark, including his bastard Jon Snow, and that strange coincidence may not be so coincidential after all. On that same day, more blood comes when news arrives that Lord Eddard’s childhood fosterer and friend Jon Arryn, the man who had rebelled against the Mad King to protect him and Robert, has died after serving faithfully as the Hand of the King, the chancellor of the realm. Slowly the history is revealed, piece-by-piece like a jigsaw puzzle forming into place haphazardly, and layers of events are formed that mold the lives of all the characters.
What follows is a tumult surrounded by the distant tremor of fear that comes when we hear the Stark motto, "Winter is Coming", a reminder that there’s a great danger that almost no one is paying attention to. Politics, murders, conspiracies. Tournaments, love, hatred. War, battle, trials. Disaster and victory. And that’s not the half of it,as a parallel but separate storyline follows Daenerys Targaryen, Stormborn, the last daughter of the dragonkings who had ruled the Seven Kingdoms for three hundred years who wants the kingdom Robert the Usurper stole from her family. Wed to a barbarian khal with an army of 40,000 nomadic warriors, she goes from childhood to adulthood in a harrowing journey that follows her progression further and further from the things she knew and towards momentous events that will shake the world.
It’s one of the best fantasies written in the last forty years, and it can stand proudly up there right next to The Lord of the Rings. Where that great work is inspired by epic legends and myth, this one is grounded in history and reality as we know it rather than reality as we might want it to be. You’ll find it hard to find flat villains who exist solely to perpetrate their villainy, because they don’t exist, and while the heroes are more numerous they’re all flawed. Eddard Stark, for example, is the epitome of decency and honour, but he’s unsubtle and the tasks he take on are more over-his-head than he could possibly imagine. It should be no surprise to say that in a world filled with so much grey, happy endings may be far and few, instead becoming ambiguous or even terrible. Good people die, as do bad people, and the wicked win as many victories as the good.
If you want something written in a straightforward manner, without political intrigues, without bloody battles or frank language and sexual situations, without a huge cast of characters and more than a few point-of-view characters whose, then A Game of Thrones may not be for you. But if you want something that will shake you up, that will surprise you and shock you, leaving you elated and angry and sad by the turn of the page, then give it a try, as we’re confident you’re unlikely to be disappointed.