A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (1996) 801 p.

I tried reading the Wheel of Time series in university, and gave up around the fifth book, due to sheer and unrelenting tedium. I’ve been meaning to give traditional fantasy another crack recently, and it was a toss-up between this and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. With the recent TV adaptation surging in popularity, it seemed like it was really time for A Game of Thrones. In the last few weeks of my bookstore job, I think I alone sold about 100 copies of this book.

I didn’t absolutely love it, but I liked it quite a bit, and a lot more than I expected to. Martin’s series, which now stand at five thick novels and counting, is fantasy of the complex political plotting genre, full of dynasties and power struggles and betrayals and so on. It takes place in the usual medieval European fantasy setting, one where the old king was overthrown a few years back and replaced with a new one from one of the noble houses. Much of the book revolves around the Stark family, the rulers of a northern sub-kingdom, and the new king recruiting his old friend Lord Eddard Stark to begrudgingly serve as a right-hand man amid the complex political intrigues of the southern capital.

Martin’s world is a pretty generic fantasy setting, minus overt magic, and I didn’t find him particularly creative in traditional fantasy terms. There are a few striking creations – the enormous wall of ice which protects the kingdom from something it no longer quite remembers is one, and I especially liked the “sky cells” in the dungeon of a castle set halfway up an enormous mountain, where a character is imprisoned in a room with a wall open to a sheer drop, with a slightly sloping floor. One story thread is set in a culture inspired by Central Asia, which is a refreshing change. But most of the book is in the same Tolkien/European style fantasy setting used by a thousand other series, and there were a few things that were downright lazy: the currency is “gold pieces,” knights are titled “Ser” rather than “Sir,” and – most egregiously of all, as far as I’m concerned – the language used across the kingdom is called “the Common Tongue.”

All of this is redeemed by the fact that Martin is a much better writer than most fantasy hacks – certainly better than Jordan, the only other fantasy writer I have much knowledge of. Martin’s prose, while not amazing, is polished and competent, and his characters are well developed; in particular, his villains inspired utter loathing in me, while still seeming believable, which is hard to pull off. And Martin is good at doing things the reader doesn’t expect – there’s a shocking scene near the beginning of the book, where something happens to a viewpoint character, which made it clear that this was going to be a series where no character is safe.

Most impressive of all is how he manages the flow of the story. In 800+ pages I never once felt that the book was bloated, that the plot was moving too slowly or too quickly, or that I was bored or reluctant to read it. I can’t recall the last time I read a brick of a novel that was so well-paced and deceptively readable. Even Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an overall better book than this, was slow to start and lagged at the end.

Generic fantasy involving political struggles between various houses, with detailed information on their fictional lineages and banners and so on, is typically the kind of fiction I avoid. But a good writer can make anything work, and Martin absolutely makes A Game of Thrones work. I’d certainly recommend this book, with the caveat that it’s not self-contained – it’s obviously the beginning of a lengthy saga, and you have to be prepared to make the time investment to read the whole series. But if they hold up to the standard set by the first book, I’m quite happy to do so.

A Game of Thrones at The Book Depository