Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Several years ago, after taking a sabbatical, Robert Silverberg returned to speculative fiction with the highly successful fantasy epic Lord Valentine's Castle. George R.R. Martin seems to have followed Silverberg's example with his own entry in the epic fantasy field: A Game of Thrones.
The world of A Game of Thrones is loosely based on fifteenth century Wars of the Roses England, right down to the the map of the Seven Kingdoms ruled by the usurper king Robert Baratheon. Although Robert and Eddard Stark, around whose family the novel revolves, have been friends throughout their lives, they have grown apart since the war that placed Robert on the throne. Eddard is content to remain with his family in the North, but King Robert has called him south to become the King's Hand.
At the beginning of the novel, many of the characters, particularly the Starks of Winterfell, are sympathetic. Ill fortunate and politics seem to plague the Starks to the extent that the novel is somewhat manipulative in causing us to start to expect evil to happen to nearly all of the Starks. At the same time, the Starks' political enemies are painted as unrepentant which makes them caricatures if evil rather than characters, which is too bad because Martin goes to great lengths to portray the political situation which puts those characters, most notably the Lannisters, into their positions. With a little more effort, he could have made their characters more realistic and move A Game of Thrones further away from the genre's norms.
Unfortunately, many of the likable characters do not remain particularly likable throughout the novel. If he replaced them with other sympathetic characters, the novel would have worked better. As it is, the reader moves from dreading the moment when something bad happens to the Starks to not particularly caring that they may not live out a rosy life.
Martin does break with a lot of High Fantasy's accepted tropes. Although it appears that some form of magic exists in the world, no great magics are performed. In fact, except for the imaginary realm and the existance of recently extinct dragons, A Game of Thrones could almost be a straight historical novel.
Martin's strength in A Game of Thrones is his ability to portray a realistic and complex political situation. An early example of this comes when Eddard is first summoned to attend the small council upon his arrival in King's Landing. Although the council scene is relatively innocuous, the political situation following the council, between Eddard and Ser Baelish, is as complex and Machiavellian as anything that follows.
The complex political situation translates to complexity of plot. Since A Game of Thrones is only the first book of a projected trilogy, Martin has a lot of groundwork to lay for plots for the upcoming novels. In many ways, A Game of Thrones seems to be a prologue to the remainder of the series. A lot happens in A Game of Thrones, and the final situation is vastly different from the beginning of the novel, it still feels as if Martin has yet to really set the trilogy's action in motion.
At times, Martin's writing style is reminiscent of a juvenile. This may be due, in part, to the youth of so many of his protagonists. This tone, however, is completely incongruous with graphic violence and sex in other scenes. In fact, their juxtaposition serves to highlight the mature nature of the violence.
Martin's characterization problems are not fatal because so much of the novel is plot driven rather than character driven. Furthermore, his characters are well drawn, just not particularly sympathetic when all is said and done. A Clash of Kings, the sequel to A Game of Thrones, due out later this year, should do many more interesting things with the basic storyline of A Game of Thrones, and will, hopefully, redefine the characters to more sympathetic natures.
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