George R.R. Martin’s A GAME OF THRONES, book one in his Song of Ice and Fire cycle, is about the various families that make up the Seven Kingdoms on the continent of Westeros, particularly the Starks of Winterfell. The main character most of the action revolves around is Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, whose home of Winterfell is so far north that snow often falls in the summer and their pithy family phrase is the matter-of-fact “Winter is Coming.” These words, and the character of Ned Stark in particular, have a great deal to do with the coming problems in the Seven Kingdoms. Stark’s canny plays at the “game of thrones” may save the realm as a whole — or damn it utterly.
You see, Ned Stark is the rarest of the rare: a truly honest man who doesn’t want power. He loves Winterfell, his wife Catelyn, his children Robb, Sansa, Arya, Brandon (called “Bran”) and Rickon, and his bastard son Jon Snow. But when King Robert Baratheon comes to call, Ned must become the Hand of the King (the King’s Chief Counselor, second in power only to the King himself) as the former Hand died under mysterious circumstances and Robert doesn’t know who to trust anymore. That Ned and Robert are long-time friends, and fought together to take the Seven Kingdoms fifteen-plus years ago from the corrupt and vicious Aerys Targaryen, is part of why Ned feels he cannot turn Robert down even though he would rather do anything else than accept.
Now, there are other powerful families that must be accounted for along with the Starks and Baratheons. First among these other families are the Lannisters. There’s Cersei Lannister, Robert Baratheon’s Queen, who’s beautiful, avaricious, and completely amoral. Next, there’s consummate fighter Jaime (pronounced “Jamie”) Lannister, called “the Kingslayer” because while a member of the Kingsguard sworn to protect Aerys Targaryen, he instead slew him due to that king’s insanity. Jaime is not too wise when it comes to love, especially as he can’t seem to keep his hands off his own sister. Cersei and Jaime’s father, Tywin, is no better; he’s cold, ruthless and despotic, whose only redeeming social value lies in his inordinate wealth and his gifts as a military strategist.
Yet all is not lost with the Lannisters, as the youngest son of Tywin Lannister, Tyrion, is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the whole Song of Ice and Fire cycle due to Tyrion’s physical limitations (he’s a dwarf) and how he gets past them. Tyrion features a razor-sharp wit and an intellect to match, is partial to “cripples, bastards and other wild things” because of his personal situation, and loves the company of women but has to settle for whores instead as he knows he’s not exactly a prime physical specimen. Tyrion is the one Lannister who can be trusted wholeheartedly to do what the Lannisters say they always do: pay his debts.
Next, there’s the exiled Targaryens, Viserys (called the “Beggar King,” a very embittered individual willing to do anything in order to claim the throne he knows should be his) and his much-younger sister Daenerys, called “Stormborn.” Viserys has a plan to put himself on the throne of the Seven Kingdoms, a plan that requires him selling his thirteen-year-old sister — er, marrying off his sister — to Khal Drogo of the Dothraki, one of a race of horse lords (think: Mongols); Viserys is not a sympathetic character for obvious reasons.
And then there’s the Wall — a cold, inhospitable place in the far North that defends against Wildings (bands of freemen and women who refuse to accept anyone’s authority but their own) and changelings — magical creatures that most of the people of the Seven Kingdoms believe no longer exist. Yet both the Wildlings and the changelings are on the march, with pitifully few men of the “Night’s Watch” left to resist (these men “take the Black” in order to guard the Wall and keep the rest of the Seven Kingdoms safe; some take this life because it’s the only honorable path left to them, while most go to the Wall as their choice is either immediate execution or the Wall). Few are listening to the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Mormont, as to the immediate threat; Ned Stark is one of those few, partially because his own brother, Benjen, has kept Ned apprised for years about the Watch due to Benjen being a Ranger for them who keeps track of the Wildings and tries to keep track of the changelings.
The sheer scale of the Seven Kingdoms is why Ned’s struggle is so daunting. Ned’s an honest man — honest to a fault — and he’ll do what he can to keep the peace, but things are extremely bad and getting worse and he knows it. Ned finds out that Robert and his queen, Cersei, don’t like each other; worse yet, Robert doesn’t like the “ruling” part of Kingship, and sticks all that onto Ned’s broad shoulders. Then, there’s the Heir to the Throne, Joffrey, a stuck-up adolescent mess that’s made worse by his mother encouraging his worst impulses; how will this child ever keep the peace once Robert is dead? And as if all that wasn’t enough, there’s still the mystery of what happened to Jon Arryn, the previous Hand — was he murdered, and if so, why? And will Ned himself be in danger once he, too, figures out what Jon Arryn knew?
The story is told in fits and starts, with various characters taking up the narrative (Daenerys gets a chapter, then Arya, then Ned, then Catelyn, not necessarily in that order) and it jumps around in time and place a great deal. While this makes it tougher for the reader to stay on track and understand what’s going on, Martin somehow manages to make the narrative more cohesive out of this apparent chaos — not less — due to the diversity of viewpoints. And it makes Ned Stark’s choices all the more difficult, because he is the only one in the kingdom who knows all the players well enough to perhaps keep the peace a little while longer if he plays all his cards right.
Because this is what the “game of thrones” means — it’s life or death, a “game” with very real consequences, as Cersei Lannister points out on page 488:
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
So, what happens to Ned Stark and his wife, Catelyn? What about his children, including bastard Jon Snow who ends up “taking the Black” and serving on the Wall? What about those Lannisters — can they overcome their father long enough to do any good for anyone? What will be the final disposition of Viserys? And will poor Daenerys find any happiness with her Dothraki horse lord? These questions will be answered, but in turn raise even more questions that will be featured in the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire series.**
This is an absorbing, dramatic read that has enthralled millions of readers to the point that it’s now an HBO series (season two of GAME OF THRONES will take up where the second book, A CLASH OF KINGS, starts), and it’s blindingly obvious why. There’s great, true-to-life characterization. There’s bawdy humor and blind ambition. There’s sex, and a lot of it. There’s betrayal at every turn, and only a few honest men around to try to keep the peace — aside from Tyrion and Ned, the most sympathetic figure in the book has to be Varys the Eunuch, Master of Whisperers (the King’s Spy), who only wants the realm to be peaceful, prosperous, and whole and works toward that end regardless of whomever holds the throne — with all of this riveting the attention to the point it’s hard to put the book down.
This is a quasi-medieval feudalistic epic fantasy that is an enthralling read and deserves its A-plus rating and high standing among fantasy fans. So go grab it now, then watch the HBO series when it returns in 2012; you’ll be glad you did.
– reviewed by Barb
** Note: Three other Martin novels in this series will be reviewed in the days and weeks to come here at Shiny Book Review. But in case you can’t wait, Wikipedia has something here to get you started, while there’s a great Web site called Westeros.org that’ll be glad to point you in whatever direction you wish to go. Or if you wish a more encyclopedic knowledge, try the Tower of the Hand site instead.