Hello, my dear strangers!
I wish I had never watched the show. I wish I didn’t know what was going to happen, at least partly, in the later books. While reading the first one, I kept trying to act surprised and to receive all of the information with a fresh set of eyes. I guess I did kind of jump on the bandwagon with this one. I just wish I had read the books first and then got on with the show. In any case, I’ll try to review the book with as much distance and objectivity as I can muster.
A Game of Thrones is set in a mythical, medievalish land and the action takes place mostly on the continent of Westeros, though there is some action happening on the continent of Essos as well. The narrative is told largely through the perspectives of eight main characters, with one standing out as the protagonist – Ned Stark. He is a stout man, virtuous, righteous and bold, living his life by an honour code and a set of strict rules. He rules as Lord of Winterfell and warden of the North, the North being one of the seven kingdoms in Westeros ruled from the capital of Kingslanding, where Ned’s close friend Robert Baratheon sits on the Iron Throne. The action starts when Robert’s Hand of the King, Jon Arryn, a man who virtually raised both Robert and Ned, suddenly dies, prompting the king to travel up north and bestow the honour on his old friend. Travelling with him are his Queen, Cersei of the house Lannister, her brothers – the brave Jaime known as the Kingslayer for killing the former tyrannical king and the studious and intelligent Tyrion, a dwarf hated by his family, as well as the royal children, including Joffrey, the odious heir with few, if any, redeemable qualities.
Old feuds, bad reputations and the clashing of moralities make this an uneasy gathering, with the strict, somewhat grim Northerners wary of strangers taking an immediate dislike of the sly Lannisters and with Ned struggling to accept his new responsibilities as the Hand of the King, which would mean he would have to leave his family and move to Kingslanding. The real turning point happens when Bran, Ned’s young son and one of the viewpoint characters, falls of off the ramparts and loses his ability to walk. Bran is uncertain how the fall happened and can’t remember much, but the readers know that he was pushed to his death by Jaime Lannister, having caught him and the Queen, his sister, making love. A cutthroat is soon sent after Bran, further muddying the waters and deepening the bad blood and the mistrust between the two great families.
Other viewpoint characters include Catelyn, Ned’s wife, a strong woman who dotes on her children and bravely fights off the cutthroat, all whilst taking it upon herself to investigate her son’s mysterious fall; Sansa, her eldest daughter, a typically naive girl who believes real life resembles the songs of romance with brave and handsome knights wooing beautiful maidens and who quickly develops an interest in Joffrey; Arya, Catelyn and Ned’s youngest daughter, a tomboy at odds with the conventional gender roles who prefers spending her time practising archery than sitting bowed before her needlework, who always speaks her mind and frequently clashes with her sister; Jon, Ned’s bastard son who doesn’t carry the name of Stark due to his illegitimacy and feels the full weight of his father’s sins on his young shoulders, including Catelyn’s cruel treatment, prompting him to seek a place in the Night’s Watch, an ancient order situated at the gigantic wall built thousands of years prior to protect the realm from the dangers lurking in the northernmost corners of the continent, such as the indigenous peoples known as Wildlings and the Others, a magical race long thought to be extinct.
Most of what we know about the Queen’s family, the Lannisters, comes greatly from the viewpoint of the Starks, whose sense of honour and righteousness makes them paint a less than flattering image of the Southerners. They take Cersei as a cold woman, Jaime as an Oathbreaker who murdered his own king and their father – Tywin, the richest man in Westeros, as a sly manipulator. However, readers are allowed a more detailed image of the great family through the eyes of one of their own. Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf shunned by his family, is an intelligent man who constantly has to prove his own worth. After the business in Winterfell is concluded, he travels north to see the Wall along with Jon who “takes the black”, a popular phrase for those joining the Night’s Watch. On his journey south, however, Tyrion is captured by Catelyn and learns that he is being held accountable for the attempt on Bran’s life. After being taken to Lysa, Jon Arryn’s widow and Catelyn’s deranged sister, he manages to escape with his life only because of his superior wits and cunning. The bad blood between the Lannisters and the Starks was already there to begin with, but the resentment keeps growing on either side and escalates into war following one cataclysmic event.
Spoiler alert (Is this really a spoiler twenty-one years after the release of the book and six years after the premiere of the show?) Jon Arryn’s puzzling death keeps bothering Ned who, after arriving to Kingslanding with Sansa and Arya, witnesses just how much turmoil the country is in and realises that his friend isn’t the same man he used to be and that, while Robert may be a good man, he’s a far cry from a good king. After copious research, Catelyn’s allegations against Tyrion, some help from Varys and Littlefinger, two members of the King’s Council and master schemers and some blunt words spoken by his daughters, Ned finally realises the truth Jon Arryn died for – Robert’s three children are not really his. They are Cersei and Jaime’s illegitimate children, the incestuous relationship serving as more than enough to explain Joffrey’s sadistic nature and utter lack of conscience. In a series of misfortunate events, Ned confronts the Queen, then goes on to accuse her in front of the entire court, leading to his imprisonment. King Robert dies in a hunt, left without knowing the truth and with his death, Ned remains without the only friend in the strange southern capital. His imprisonment leads his eldest son, Robb, a boy of fourteen, to take up arms against the Lannisters, engulfing the country in civil war.
But the real clincher happens when Ned decides to confess to his alleged treason in order to save his daughters who have been left at the mercy of Lannisters. Arya manages to escape their clutches and spends some time surviving in the tough streets of Kingslanding, while Sansa finally realises what a true monster Joffrey is when he refuses his mother’s advice to strip Ned of his titles, lands and claims and send him to the Night’s Watch and instead beheads him, an event both Sansa and Arya get to witness. The readers of the book are left speechless, the watchers of the show are left speechless, the entire realm of fantasy lovers is left speechless, for how could this happen and who could behead a man such as Ned Stark? It almost seems as though George R. R. Martin was trying to mock the ingrained ideals and notions that have so far defined the fantasy genre. The righteous guy with a strict code of honour always wins and the good always prevail over the evil ones. Not the case here. Even though Ned wasn’t the only viewpoint character, his righteousness, noble nature, honesty and selflessness have made many readers picture him as the novel’s main protagonist, the one who would live and the one whose strength and bravery would prevail over the enemy’s cunning, less honourable ways and ultimately lead his family into victory. The author purposely let us fall in love with him and we singled him out as the Hero, only to have him taken away, killed off in gruesome fashion, his task unfinished. It wasn’t supposed to happen and it is one of the many elements that make George Martin a revolutionary of the fantasy genre. His characters are morally grey, his heroes die and his villains get to dance of their graves. It is what some have referred to as “low fantasy”, as opposed to, say – The Lord of the Rings, which would be “high fantasy”. It is a world in which magic exists and plays an important role, but in which the emphasis is largely on the characters themselves, the characters who never embody pure good or pure evil, but whose grey moral natures and questionable choices drive the story onwards.
Another character worth examining more is Jon Snow. After joining the Night’s Watch, an order with a strict set of rules in which desertion is punishable by death, Jon finds himself torn. His father has been imprisoned, wrongfully accused of treason and decapitated. Jon struggles to accept his fate. Should he ride off to aid Robb in the war against the Lannisters, risking rejection and death, or stay with his new brethren? The answer comes one night when a corpse of a deceased brother of the Night’s Watch becomes reanimated and attacks the Lord Commander. Jon and his brothers realise that there may be a bigger threat lurking beyond the Wall, the so-called Others, an ancient race of icy, zombie-like creatures with the ability to reanimate the dead. The Night’s Watch isn’t sure what to make of this, but the readers learn in the prologue that the threat is very much real. However, Jon’s own uncle Benjen and his party have disappeared beyond the Wall and the Lord Commander isn’t content with just sitting around, with no information whatsoever. He organises an expedition party and asks Jon to join him beyond the Wall.
If Westeros resembles medieval Europe, or even more precisely – medieval England, then Essos, a larger continent which lies on the east across the Narrow Sea, represents a more exotic location, with a sundry of different nations, customs and ways of life. The morals are looser over there, the people even grittier and tougher and the life-spans even shorter. Whereas Westeros is a more unified continent with a structured system, a seat of power and well-established rules one might associate with medieval England, then Essos represents a lawless continent where tribes pillage, slavery exists in abundance and justice is an abstract notion. Its weather, various peoples, fashion and geography make one associate it with Africa or Asia, so – a completely different world to Westeros in values and way of life.
A small portion of the action takes place in Essos, through the viewpoint of Daenerys, a young girl from the fallen house of Targaryen. Remember Jaime Lannister, the Oathbreaker, the Kingslayer? Well, the tyrannical king he murdered was Aerys Targaryen, commonly known as the Mad King. With his death came the fall of his entire house, with the exception of his youngest children – Daenerys and her vicious older brother Viserys. Viserys longs to take back the throne from Robert, whom he calls the Usurper, but has nothing to take it back with – no army, no ships to cross the Narrow Sea, no support and no financial means. He has nothing, except the gift of a great name and a beautiful sister he plans to trade for an army. He marries Daenerys off to a powerful Khal, a title given to the chief or a king, if you will, of the notoriously savage Dothraki people. The Dothraki have many tribes and many Khals. They live outdoors, spend most of their lives on horseback, follow a strange religion and are utterly barbaric, raiding entire villages, looting, raping, taking slaves and burning cities as they go. Naturally, Daenerys, who was brought up in a Westerosi way, feels apprehensive about marrying the warlord at the forefront of such people, a man twice her age who doesn’t speak the Common Tongue and shares none of her values. She marries him anyway, because Khal Drogo’s khalasar is huge and would provide her brother with enough resources to take back the Seven Kingdoms.
Over the time however, Daenerys learns to adjust to her new husband and her new way of life. Unlike Viserys, she learns the language and embraces the customs of her new people. Her brother’s defiance and haughtiness prevent him from making himself meaningful in the eyes of Khal Drogo and his plan backfires. Daenerys comes to break free of his control and cruelty and starts carving out her own personality, determined to become more than just a trophy wife. Her ancestors had at one point conquered the Seven Kingdoms with dragons, but the creatures have since become extinct. However, one of her many wedding gifts include three fossilised dragon eggs which… Well, honestly, why would there be dragon eggs in the story if they’re not supposed to hatch? Not much of a spoiler, really.
There is something primitively beautiful about Martin’s descriptions of the Dothraki and their way of life, something that I couldn’t help but admire. Yes, it is a tough culture where people show no shame and where no societal norms exist to curtail their wild nature. They are utterly unapologetic about their actions, pillaging and raping and burning as they go, walking around naked, eating tough food, living astride a horse and making love under the stars. I’m not saying I could survive in that environment or that I’d even like to try, but there is something liberating and beautiful about them, a sense of pride and freedom and a notion that people need not complicate things with rules and restraints, something old-school that takes things back to their natural, primitive, yet effective manner.
Martin’s style is simply breathtaking. The way he describes and seamlessly drives the narrative on while keeping track of numerous characters and their perspectives is… Well, frankly, it’s the kind of thing that makes aspiring writers like myself despair, the kind of thing that makes us almost embarrassed to get back to our own work, the kind of thing that makes us doubt our ability and talent and makes us want to scrap our projects and resign from writing until we’ve found an idea as original and innovative as A Game of Thrones. In a nutshell, he is an amazing writer.
So, where does this leave us? Ned and Robert are dead, Joffrey has taken the throne, Robb and Catelyn are waging war against the Lannisters, Tyrion is sent to the frontlines by his odious father, Jaime is captured as a prisoner of war, Sansa is in Kingslanding enduring daily torture by Joffrey, Arya escapes the capital with the new recruits for the Night’s Watch, Bran is paralysed and starts having strange dreams which may carry a deeper meaning, Jon is going beyond the Wall and Daenerys loses a family, but gains three baby dragons. What does this all mean? It means I can’t wait to get my hands on A Clash of Kings.
Keep reading 🙂