So much hype. So much publicity. So many, many pages. What better book to take on holiday than Game of Thrones, the first instalment of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. But did it live up to expectations? Well, I have already read the second book, and bought the third. So, yes.
This is a work of High Fantasy, set in a medieval, feudal world in which seasons last for years and the Stark family hold the northernmost lands in the kingdom. The novel begins in the ninth year of summer with King Robert’s visit to Eddard Stark, a childhood friend, who was instrumental in fighting the war that ended with Robert on the Iron Throne. Robert, tired with everything that comes with being the King except for getting what he wants, needs Eddard to be his ‘Hand’. As the King eloquently puts it - what the King eats, the Hand shits. From here the novel spins out into a much wider world full of spies and subterfuge, where death is only a sudden sword stroke away. As the Stark family motto tells us, ‘winter is coming’, and as the season changes so too does the balance of power.
The novel is told in third person (he or she) but with a shifting character focus each chapter. Martin uses this well, narrating the same events from opposing sides. Sometimes, in building up to a crucial piece of the plot, it is only after you have read two or three chapters that you can put the pieces together. The Stark family take up the majority of chapters: Eddard, his wife Catelyn and the children - both his bastard son and the ‘trueborn’. Eddard is loyal, pious and kind; the classic hero every fantasy novel needs. However Martin does not keep things one sided. We also follow an exiled princess, and a personal favourite, Tyrion Lannister, devious brother-in-law of the King. While the Lannisters are the ‘bad guys’ in this book, Tyrion is just enough of an outcast in his own family, and given such an intelligent and witty mind, that you can like him. Martin is adept at making you feel for characters who are not necessarily likable. Sansa the eldest Stark daughter is unbearably prim, but throughout the second novel I found myself reading her chapters with a sense of dread at the helpless position she is placed in.
Martin imbues the books with a sense of history. Events in the past are defining the loyalties in current politics. With so many characters and competing storylines, never mind the world building, these books are dense, but I think Martin does well to keep the narrative clear and easy to follow. But beware there is no neat ending. The fifth book has just been published and more are supposedly coming. My main concern is: Martin, don’t go all Robert Jordan on us. The books are large, but I think a fairly easy read for their size. However if they are too daunting, there is always the HBO series. Sean Bean is in it and that’s never going to hurt.