Author: George R.R. Martin
I’ve been curious about this since the series first launched on HBO and I got to see the first episode for free, but I wanted to read the book before watching the series. It’s taken a while. I’ve been listening to the audiobook for months! It just goes on and on and on and on. It’s not uninteresting at all, but it’s such a mammoth tale that it feels like there is no conclusion.
It’s a difficult book/series to describe. It’s a fantasy like Lord of the Rings but in a more Medieval setting, with knights and kings, battles and betrayals, and plenty of blood and sex. There’s magic and supernatural stuff, but in this first book that’s mostly only hinted at (I suspect that more is coming later in the series). It’s basically a sprawling epic with thousands of characters (and this is just the first book).
To give you a brief overview of the myriad characters we have three basic groups of people:
- Queen Lanister, her son and twin brother, and her other relatives and friends, who are trying to take over the throne.
- Lord Ned Stark and his many children (ranging in age from 9 to 15), who rule the wintery land of the North. He’s been asked by his old friend, the King, to become the King’s “Hand” (his right-hand man) after the previous Hand died (we later learn it was murder).
- A brother and his thirteen-year-old sister who are distant exile, the last of their line, and apparently the original heirs to the throne who were defeated. As the novel starts the brother sells his sister to be the wife of a wealthy savage (he has 100,000 men on horses) in exchange for an army that he will lead to defeat the current king and regain his family’s throne.
What works is the awesome level of detail and vivid world history in the story. The characters are all three-dimensional and the verisimilitude of the setting is amazing. There’s eons of history to draw from, multiple cultures with their own traditions and languages, and very real conflicts. The writing is excellent, and the plots are as intricate and fascinating as spiderwebs.
The main flaw I note is the one that nagged me throughout this book, and sadly, even after I finally finished it: the question of why. Why was this written? What is the point? What am I supposed to get out of it? Is this mere entertainment or is there a higher purpose?
While it’s wonderful to have such well-rounded and non-black-and-white characters, this series does not really give us clearcut heroes. Pretty much everyone is somewhat evil or at least it seems that way. I suppose that’s more like real-life, but it makes for depressing reading. There’s no one really to cheer or root for, and I really have no idea where the series is going (and in a way, nor do I much care since I can’t cheer for any particular character). There are people in the stories that I like and admire, and there are some that are wonderfully bad, and most of the characters are very interesting — but there’s really nothing here for me to sink my teeth and say, “Ah ha! This is who the story is about.”
Now it’s very possible that the story is just so massive (we’re up to five huge books now, out of a planned seven) that such a core character will be revealed later in the series, but I’m sure I don’t have the patience for that. While I like complexity and realism, there is a limit. This book left me dead inside. While it is fascinating and entertaining, and I’m curious what will happen to the various people, I just don’t care enough about anything. The world the story is set in is distant and strange, and I’m honestly not even sure if these people are human. They’re violent, nasty, and cruel, and the world they live in is violent, nasty, and cruel. There are wars and beheadings and maimings and rapes and murders and very little in the way of anything nice. There are some innocent children in the story, but they don’t stay that way for long in such an environment.
Ultimately the questions I had when I started reading this are still unanswered. Why was this written? What am I supposed to get out of it? It is mere entertainment? At least with a traditional good-versus-evil story we know who to root for and why. This is just nasty people stabbing equally nasty people in the back.
Now I do like the way the book sets things up for the future: we’ve got a lord with a bunch of children that each are having their own adventures, and I’m fascinated to watch them grow up and see what becomes of them. But that’s the big picture. Judging this book by itself, it’s woefully incomplete despite being a zillion pages long.
That said, I have started watching the TV series and while I see some differences — plot points condensed, new scenes written to give us information in a different way, and typical arbitrary changes for unknown reasons — I am enjoying the TV version far more than the book. It moves at a faster pace and yet it’s more understandable. The book is so vast with so many characters that I have trouble keeping track of who is related to who and what the relationships are, especially when certain people go for hundreds of pages without a mention, while the TV series makes that much more clear.
I’m glad I read the book, but I don’t recommend it except for the most avid readers. For most people the TV show is far more accessible. I basically could have watched all 30+ hours of the three years of the TV show in the time to took me to listen to this one book! So watch the show — I really like it — and if you’re infatuated with this world you can always explore the books later.