Or as its known by its literary name, A Song of Fire and Ice. This is the series which inspired the recent HBO series, named after the first novel in the series, and which is apparently destined to keep that name for the duration of the show. After watching the first season, I was inspired to pick up the second book, then I was inspired to buy the Kindle set of all four books. And then the author George RR Martin released the fifth book in the series and two more are planned… Wow. I tell ya, this series could go on forever! But apparently, that’s the thing about these books. As many fans have told me, his work is expected to take the same route as Wheel of Time. Aptly named, because it just keeps rolling on and on and on…
But I digress. A while back I decided I would tackle this series and give it a full review. Having loved the miniseries, I sought to delve into the source material and get a sense of what it was all about. And of course, I wanted to see where the story was going and what would come of all the characters, and I was quite pleased. While Martin’s notorious characteristics as a writer – his level of detail, his willingness to kill of main characters, his ability to really flesh out a storyline – were all abundantly apparent in later installments, I also found examples of his strengths in abundance. These included, but were not limited to, his ability to create rich, engrossing worlds, his drawing on historical sources, his ability to make readers emphasize and identify with characters, and his ability to keep people guessing. I tell ya, nothing about these stories seems predictable! The downside of that last aspect is, people keep dying, and not always the ones you hope will! But in the plus column, it keeps the reader on their toes!
Down to specifics: George RR Martin was already famous before writing A Song of Fire and Ice. During the 1980’s, he worked in Hollywood as a writer for such shows as The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. His early fantasy novel, The Ice Dragon, became a best-selling children’s novel. However, it was with A Game of Thrones and subsequent novels that his fame as a fantasy author was cemented, earning him the nickname, “The American Tolkien”. This is an appropriate description, given the fact that the depth and breadth of his fantasy novels are rivaled by only The Lord of the Rings. Several differences have been noted, however. For starters, his stories are much more gritty and realistic. Fantasy elements – that is to say, supernatural things like magic, dragons and mythical creatures – appear sparingly and only as the story progresses. And, as I’ve already mentioned twice, he kills his main characters! In short, Martin’s books revolve around realistic human characters and their goings on, with all the sex, violence, betrayal and intrigue that that entails!
The world of George RR Martin is a fictitious world set in a medieval period, hence why it falls into the genre of medieval fantasy. In this world, something transpired long ago known as “The Doom”, which has had the effect of making the seasons longer. Summer and Winter, for reasons no one can explain, last years instead of months. The coming of winter is a time of fear since it means that the White Walkers, a supernatural force from the frozen north, will be returning to threaten the Seven Kingdoms. As the story opens, a particularly long summer is coming to an end, and in the north, dark forces appear to be on the move. Further south, throughout the land known as Westeros, King Robert “the Usurper” is facing a conspiracy within his own Kingdom which could lead to another civil war (the last one is what made him king). Meanwhile, on the nearby continent of Essos, the exiled Targaryens are plotting their return to Westeros. The deposed heir, Viserys Targaryen, is planning on marrying his sister, Daenerys, to a Dothraki warlord named Khal Drogo. This marriage, he hopes, will provide him with the army he needs to return to Westeros and reclaim the Iron Throne.
The first novel thusly opens with these three story lines and ends with all three being poised on a cliffhanger note. At the Wall in the north, the giant ice-barrier that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the north, the Wildlings are apparently fleeing their villages, prompting the Night’s Watch to go and investigate. When only one man returns, he claims to have witness White Walkers, but is executed for desertion. Meanwhile, Lord Eddard Stark, Warden of the North and head of House Stark, is visited by King Robert, the man he helped become king. Robert needs a new Hand of the King, seeing as how his old one, Lord John Arryn, has died suddenly. Ned agrees and travels to King’s Landing to take up the role, and quickly become privy to the conspiracy that took his predecessor. Meanwhile, on the continent, Viserys succeeds in wedding his sister to Khal Drogo, an arrangement which begins to backfire on him when he realizes that Drogo and Daenerys are actually falling in love with each other, and are perhaps planning on cutting him out of the deal.
(Spoiler alert!): Things come together as John Snow, Lord Eddard’s bastard son, joins the Night’s Watch and begins to witness for himself what is happening the North. An attack by wights, the resurrected bodies of people killed by White Walkers, begin attacking the Wall itself. After his own uncle fails to return from a patrol beyond the Wall, Lord Mormont prepares a campaign to go north in force and meet the threat head on. For John, this means turning his back on the troubles of his family to the south. When news reaches him that his father might be in danger and his half-brothers riding to war, he is tempted to desert and ride to their aide. But as a sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch, he is bound by honor to serve until death, even at the expense of his true family.
At King’s Landing, Eddard soon uncovers the conspiracy that claimed the life of John Arryn and even involves an assassination attempted on his own son. It seems that the Queen, Cersei Lannister, is engaged in an incestuous relationship with her brother Jaime, who is one of Robert’s Kingsgaurd. Before he can inform King Robert, Robert is crippled during a hunting expedition and dies shortly thereafter. Eddard is forced to move quickly to ensure that Joffrey, Cersei’s eldest son, does not take the throne. However, his attempts are thwarted when Lord Petyr Baelish, the Master of Coin, betrays him to the Queen. Eddard is executed by the brutal and stupid Joffrey, and his daughter – Sansa, who was betrothed to him – is now his hostage. Ned’s youngest daughter, Arya, escapes with the help of a Night’s Watch brother who disguises her as a boy recruit, and they travel north together. In response to his father’s death Ned’s oldest son, Robb Stark, declares war on the king and mobilizes every house in the north to march on King’s Landing. They are joined from forces to the far south, led by Robert’s brothers, Renly and Stannis who were next in line to the throne. However, rather than declare their fealty to either of Robert’s brothers, Robb’s bannerman declare him “King in the North”, using this war as a pretext to declare independence from the south.
On the continent, Drogo and Daenerys fall in love and she learns that she is pregnant with his heir. This, plus the fact that his sister is able to stand up to him now, leads Viserys to force the issue with Drogo. During a feast, a drunken Viserys threatens Drogo by declaring that he’s taking his sister back and will cut his son to be right out of her belly. Unless of course he gets what he wants, which is the golden crown he covets. Drogo responds by having his men break Viserys’ arm and then hold him down while he prepares a pot of molten gold which he proceeds to pour on Viserys’ head. His promise of “a golden crown” is thus fulfilled! Free of her abusive brother, Daenerys tries to convince Drogo to take the Iron Throne for their son, but Drogo is reluctant, until a would-be assassin sent by Robert’s court tries to poison Daenerys. Enraged, Drogo declares that he will conquer and ravage Westeros, but unfortunately succumbs to a festering wound during combat with one of his own men. Daenerys tries to save him using a slave’s witchcraft, but is betrayed and loses her son as well. Most of the Dothraki move on, and she is left with just a small host, her advisor Jorah Mormont, and the dragon’s eggs he gave her as a wedding gift. When she burns Drogo on a funeral pyre, she walks into the flames with the eggs, and miraculously survives! The Dragonborn, which all Targaryens are said to descend from, are immune to fire, and the eggs hatch to become the first dragons the world has seen in generations. Mormont and her host declare their loyalty to her, the true Dragonborn, and plot to reclaim Westeros with her!
Thus ends book I. And as I said, one can see the influence of real at work almost right away. On the one hand, Westeros is clearly styled on the British Isles, its northern/southern divide clearly an allegory for the divide between the English south, and the Scottish North. The Wall is clearly analogous to Hadrian’s Wall, the barrier that kept the “northern barbarians” at bay during the Roman occupation of Britain, and which serves a similar function in the book. The continent of Essos is also a clear reference to the European mainland, the Dothraki styled on the Huns or Mongols (invading horsemen from the East), whereas the free cities and slave cities are inspired by Asia Minor and its vast, ancient metropolises (more on that in book II). And of course, the royal intrigue, the very concept of the “Game of Thrones” – a reference to the never ending fight to claim the crown – is a fitting rendition of the actual royal intrigues taken from medieval history. Much like real wars of succession, it is loaded with secret alliances, plots, backstabbing, and of course, bloody civil war.
And the miniseries did a very good job of adapting all this to television. Naturally, any adaptation of Martin’s work would be hard pressed to adapt all the interwoven storylines, detail and events that characterize his writing. Still, the HBO miniseries did a pretty good job of getting all the relevant info in, making time for secondary perspectives without moving too far away from the main characters. And of course, there was the shocking scene where Eddard Stark is killed, much to the chagrin of television audiences who don’t expect main characters to die. Yes, that was masterfully done too. I myself was appalled and even angry at first, but respected them all the more for doing it. It’s what’s in the book and you can’t go changing major elements just because the audience might object. I hope they keep this in mind come season two. Rumor has it Jason Momoa is hoping they’ll bring Drogo back from the dead. Clearly he hasn’t read the books!
Furthermore, the casting was SUPERB! Sean Bean, a man who brings a touch of awesomeness to just about everything he does, was perfect as Eddard Stark. Mark Addy was also superb as King Robert, capturing his pudgy, teddy bear exterior and his bitter, angry personality! Lena Headey, of Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles and 300 fame, achieved a sort of perfection in the role of Cersei. I’m telling you, you seriously think she’s an evil bitch after seeing her in this, a tribute to her acting talent! Jason Momoa, who went on to play Conan in the remake of the Schwarzenegger classic, fit the bill perfectly as Khal Drogo. He was brutish, strong, manly and scary, but also endearing and loving at times. A good thing too, since the Conan remake kind of sucked! Emilia Clarke, a relative newcomer to the acting scene, was nevertheless very convincing as Daenarys, capturing both her frailty and quiet strength quite well. And last, but certainly not least, was Peter Dinklage, who played the role of the dwarf Tyrion Lannister to absolute perfection! Seriously, this guy has the best lines of the entire series as the rude, crude, but brilliant and bawdy black sheep of the Lannister clan. You love him, love to hate him, and sympathize with him, even when you’re shaking his head at his antics!
The rest of the cast, which is just too extensive to mention, was similarly awesome. Understandable given the fact that most of them are classically trained actors, people who cut their teeth doing Shakespeare and are therefore accustomed to performing epic roles. I wish I could do them all justice, but like I said, too many to count! I hope its enough just to say they were awesome!
And like most fans of the book and miniseries, I can’t wait for season two. The book was quite spectacular, picking up where book I one left off with war on the horizon and major battle in the works. And word is, cast and crew had a real hard time adapting the damn thing, it was just so epic in scope! But that only ensures that the outcome is likely to be that much more awesome to behold! A Game of Thrones, everybody. Read it, watch it, and then read book II because the series will be back soon! Not soon enough…
Stay tuned for my review of book II, A Clash of Kings, coming up next!