A Game of Thrones (1996) by George R. R. Martin
I'd heard nothing but good things about George R. R. Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series of books, of which four out of a planned seven books have been published thus far. It's earned a reputation for embracing an anti-Tolkien style of fantasy that is more grounded in reality, with only subtle undercurrents of fantasy. I bought the first part, 'A Game of Thrones', just to see how much I liked it. About half way through the book, I bought the remaining three in the series; yeah, I dug it.
Among the significant traits of 'A Game of Thrones' are its complex plot and smorgasbord of characters, which makes it quite hard to summarize without losing a lot of the essential detail that gives the story its depth. With that little caveat out of the way, I shall attempt to summarize. The story takes place in a continent / land called Westeros (a place where summers and winters can last for years at a stretch), also known as the Seven Kingdoms, which is ruled by the King Robert Baratheon. He and his lifelong friend Eddard Stark, Lord of the Northern realm, together with several other houses overthrew the previous (supposedly 'mad') king years earlier. When the King's 'Hand' (second in command and guy who does most of the work) dies, King Robert names the reluctant Eddard as his successor. Eddard is convinced by his wife Catelyn that he should accept and go to the capital King's Landing, leaving most of his family behind, because of the belief that the Lannister family (to whom the King's wife belongs) killed the previous Hand and are plotting to seize power - by being in the thick of things, Eddard might be able to discover the truth. Doing so, however, puts his family in danger, including his two sons Robb and Bran and his two daughters Arya and Sansa.
Meanwhile, there's trouble brewing in the North, beyond the massive Wall that's designed to keep out the near mythical 'Others' (not the ones from Lost). The ranks of the Night's Watch, a community of men sworn to defending the Wall, have grown thin; with winter approaching and strange occurrences taking place beyond the Wall, they are in desperate need of men. And far to the East, on another continent, two children of the former king live in exile but plot to reclaim their Kingdom by allying themselves (by marriage) with a powerful warrior tribe.
That just about scratches the surface of what's going on. At over 800 pages, there's a lot of incident, although Martin is sometimes guilty of dragging things out a bit. There are many sub stories and plotlines that take place; what I was most impressed by was how well they all tie in together naturally without feeling contrived. Everything is interconnected, and what happens in one plot line affects the others as a matter of logical consequence. The story is dense with detail and a history full of allegiances, strategic marriages, and betrayals, all of which affect the way events play out in the present. The different cultures are also delineated quite well, with much of the detail being evocative of medieval Europe. Tonally the book is quite dark and foreboding, with only the occasional moment of levity. There's an air of brutal capriciousness to the world Martin creates where you feel that anything can happen, which makes the book unpredictable and exciting.
The narrative is driven by a mixture of plot and character - a lot of things happen outside of the hands of the characters, but where they do get involved the characters' actions are believable based on what we know of them. The main characters are given a fair bit of depth - the book uses a style of following one of a select group of characters in each chapter; these characters are Eddard, Catelyn, Arya, Sansa, Bran, Jon Snow (a bastard child of Eddard's who joins the Night's Watch), Tyrrion Lannister (a crafty, put-upon dwarf), and Daenerys Targaryen (daughter of the former King of the Seven Kingdoms). Each chapter presents events from that particular character's point of view, including their thoughts and perspectives. The tendency to have a cliffhanger ending in each chapter can be quite frustrating with this writing style however, because it leaves one waiting for a while before that character's story thread is picked up again in a subsequent chapter.
There's not much in the way of action in the book, with most of it composed of conversations and thoughts. The book moves along at a fair pace after a fairly slow initial buildup. Most chapters aren't overly long; understandable, given the substantial number of storylines that Martin has to keep jumping back and forth from. The writing is clear and engaging and things really get moving in the second half of the book; I found myself reading the last half of the book in around a third of the time as the first. Despite arriving at a fairly satisfactory and climactic conclusion, Martin still leaves a lot left hanging in the air, with stories set up for the second part in the series.
I've mentioned a lot of positives about the book, but it's not without its flaws. As I mentioned earlier, Martin tends to drag things out sometimes (kind of like this post!), and a lot of what happens feels like set up for later books, meaning that its significance can only be truly assessed in context once the entire tale is told (or once the relevant story arcs conclude in one of the subsequent books). Another major flaw is the two dimensional nature of the villains of the piece, who behave like caricatures to a distracting level at times. A main character who suffers from a similar two dimensional fate is Sansa Stark, whose chapters I enjoyed the least of all. Sansa felt like a character created merely to facilitate certain events late in the book, and it was difficult to buy into her characterization.
All in all though, despite those niggling flaws, 'A Game of Thrones' is an excellent book that is clearly fantasy while being blatant in its avoidance of fantasy clichés. I was drawn in slowly from the outset and by the end was completely invested in the goings on in Westeros. I imagine I'll be reading the next book in the series fairly soon.