a-game-of-thronesReleased: 1996

Book one in the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, A Game of Thrones has become the hot topic of the literary world in the last couple of years, thanks in no small part to the huge popularity its namesake TV series has enjoyed. Delve deeper into the prose however, and what you’ll find is the beginning of a series that can stand on its own two feet as a literary heavyweight.

The story charts the fortunes of the Stark family: the modest and honourable Ned, his dutiful wife Catelyn and their children Robb, Jon, Sansa, Arya, Brandon and Rickon. Ned is granted the position Hand of the King, and must protect the kingdom as it is threatened by rival claims to the throne, whilst simultaneously struggling in his duties as a father and a husband.

Ned is a compelling character, and his struggles as a family man make for absorbing reading. He can only watch as his new position must mean his family is split across the kingdom, and as he slowly loses control over his family, his own life is endangered as he begins to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Hand.

Focussing the story around Ned and his family is a smart move, as all too often with fantasy series, lots of characters can make for confusing reading, and whilst this novel does include many characters, it rarely feels like the grip on the story has been lost.

It becomes evident reading this that whilst Ned is probably the closest thing George R R Martin has to a ‘main’ character in part one, it is his bastard son Jon and the troublesome dwarf Tyrion Lannister that are the most fascinating characters. What both Jon and Tyrion share is the underdog status of their respective situations. Jon is the bastard child of a man notorious for his honour and his close family, whilst Tyrion must live up to his father’s great expectations and his brother’s fine reputation. Martin has a real gift for exploring the struggles of these disadvantaged characters, and no doubt as the series progresses it is their fortunes which will become ever more fascinating.

Readers should be wary of becoming too attached to any one person however, as Martin seems to take great pleasure in killing off anyone without a moment’s notice. It’s an interesting ploy, and one which would certainly bring a wry smile to the face of the man himself, but sometimes it can be too sudden, and at the expense of sustaining the mood of their peril.

What Martin has created here is the beginnings to a fascinating series exploring the themes of honour, war, family, death and adolescence. The world he creates is bleak but engaging, and like any great fantasy series should, it contains maps prefacing the story. Part one, like the following parts, is a big read at almost 800 pages, but doesn’t feel as such when reading it. The comparisons to J R R Tolkien are made often but reading this, it is clear why. He shares the same passion for immersing the reader in fascinating landscapes, and submerging his characters in a heavy layer of peril. The real test for Martin will be whether as a series it can maintain the momentum created in this epic, but like Tolkien, Terry Practchett and Joe Abercrombie, Martin’s place as one of the world’s leading fantasy writers should be confirmed with this masterpiece.

★★★★