I know I keep telling this story over and over, and I feel like I've been talking about those books I consider "formative" to my interest in fantasy and science fiction rather a lot lately—probably because I've been re-reading some of them. So apologies if the anecdotes have become tiresome. Nevertheless, it is necessary in this case for the wavey lines of flashback to cascade down your computer screen, for A Song of Ice and Fire played such a big role in kindling my love for fantasy that it would be criminal not to examine it in this light.
My tastes as a child ran decidedly toward mysteries: first I devoured the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, then I discovered Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I read Lord of the Rings in grades five and six, along with Dune, but I view those experiences as separate from when I truly became enchanted with science fiction and fantasy a year later. They were mere dalliances, flirtations with the field prior to my actual deflowering. I read them and enjoyed them, but they did not inspire me to read more widely in their respective genres.
That all changed in grade seven. A classmate and friend lent me a massive book containing the first three volumes of The Belgariad, by David Eddings. It blew my mind, and with all the enthusiasm an impressionable 12-year-old boy can muster, I thought it was the best thing ever. My evaluation of the series' quality has mellowed over the years, but I cannot discount the importance it has as my gateway book into fantasy. After I devoured The Belgariad, I was like a zombie starved for braaaaains. I needed something more, and my local library delivered up to me exactly what I wanted.
I read the first three books in the Ice and Fire series in their hardcover editions. It would be an exaggeration to say I could barely lift them, but they definitely stood out from your average hardcover novel, and are much more remarkable than the mass market paperback edition I read this time. The sheer doorstopper physicality of these books made an impression on me that lasts to this day.
A Game of Thrones and the two sequels that existed at the time were not my first foray into fantasy, nor were they what got me hooked on the genre. They were the crucial second series that cemented my love of fantasy, confirming to me that I had made the right choice. The intrigue among the characters fascinated me, and I couldn't wait to see what happened to them next. (I do not recall what I thought about the sexuality, if indeed I noticed it at all.) And, as with The Belgariad, I brought my unhoned ideas of literary quality to the table when I read A Game of Thrones, and I'm sure I thought it was among the best books I've ever read.
So we come, in the most direct route possible however meandering it may seem, to my point. I do not still rank these books among "the best I've ever read;" I'm lucky enough to have read quite a few good books since then. Although I still love this series and really enjoyed re-reading this book, my adult self is better equipped to evaluate it critically. That's why I re-read books that made a difference for me as a child or adolescent, such as this one, A Wizard of Earthsea, and Fifth Business. I don't do it to destroy the illusions I hold about how great they are but to put my childhood admiration for them in a context my adult self can understand. The story I told above is a great memory, but it's just a story. It's not what actually happened, just a fragmentary recollection of how it might have happened. I have romanticized not just books themselves but their place in my younger life, and this is a way of bringing them down off their pedestal and making them more real to me.
A Game of Thrones is also kind of a reality check for the romanticization of medieval fantasy in general. The book is not so much realistic—it is, after all, set in an alternative world where there be dragons—but the way Martin depicts life in a medieval setting is a lot more reminiscent of British historical fiction than classic epic fantasy. It's one thing to have a story set in a monarchy with knights and nobility and peasantry; it's quite another to claim one's setting is "medieval" or "feudal" in a true sense of those words. Reading this book, I'm reminded of something David Brin wrote in his afterword for Glory Season:
While I have the floor, here's a question that's been bothering me for some time. Why do so few writers of heroic or epic fantasy ever deal with the fundamental quandary of their novels . . . that so many of them take place in cultures that are rigid, hierarchical, stratified, and in essence oppressive? What is so appealing about feudalism, that so many free citizens of an educated commonwealth like ours love reading about and picturing life under hereditary lords?
I remember thinking at the time, and I still think, that Brin's entirely right to question the status quo in this way. I don't know if there is a proper name for this type of folly—we could call it "the pastoral illusion" after all those people who think we should return to "a better way of life" by returning to a past level of technology—but it is not present in A Game of Thrones. Life in the Seven Kingdoms is not all that pleasant by our standards, and it mostly has to do with a fundamental lack of freedom—a lack of choice.
I have come to understand, in no small part thanks to my awesome Medieval & Tudor Drama prof, how fundamentally different life was in a feudal society compared to what we experience today. The cognitive dissonance Brin finds so distasteful is a result of our attempts to map our own cultural conceptions onto feudal society. In particular, our Enlightenment-driven ideas about individuality and self-determination often tend to get in the way. It goes deeper, however, extending beyond how we live to how we think. The society of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros captures this lack of individual choice by showing us the obligations the characters have to their family, their positions, and the realm itself.
The Stark children are a great example. Robb Stark is destined to succeed his father as Lord of Winterfell, and he seems rather suited to the role. His brother Bran suffers a fall that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. This shatters Bran's life and his understanding of his place in the world. Westeros has precious few slots in society for thinkers and sedentary people, and the masculine role is very much one of activity, and for nobility, fighting and hunting. Bran will never be a warrior now. He has alternatives, of course, which Eddard Stark lists for Arya when she asks what Bran can do now. Then she asks:
"Can I be a king's councillor and build castles and become the High Septon?"
"You," Ned said, kissing her lightly on the brow, "will marry a king and rule his castle, and your sons will be knights and princes and lords and, yes, perhaps even a High Septon."
Arya screwed up her face. "No," she said, "that's Sansa." She folded up her right leg and resumed her balancing. Ned sighed and left her there.
Arya, bless her heart, does not want to conform to the role of women among Westeros nobility. It's not that women are powerless—Cersei Lannister and Catelyn Stark belie that idea—but they have to be very careful in how they wield their power, for there is quite a bit of misogyny present even among the "good" characters, like King Robert. The phrase "just a woman" and its ilk gets repeated throughout the book. Women have power, but they lack the respect (or fear) that accompanies such power when wielded overtly, martially.
Sansa Stark is almost the exact opposite of her younger sister. And while it's impossible not to have a special place in one's heart for Arya, who is well on her way to being a Lady of War, I also feel for Sansa. She's not likeable: she's naive, selfish, and self-absorbed. Yet she almost feels as if he's a stand-in for the reader: she's constantly looking for a hero, and every time she thinks she has found him, her hopes are betrayed. Joffrey is not Prince Charming; Ser Loras Tyrell is not the chivalrous knight in shining armour; her father cannot save her. There are no heroes in A Game of Thrones, just fallible human beings.
This is a book which truly embraces the idea of an ensemble cast. Some characters shine more than others, but there is no single character one can isolate as "the main character" or "the hero." I won't go so far as to suggest that every character is morally ambiguous or that there are no protagonists or antagonists. The conflict is pretty clearly between House Stark and House Lannister. The former are the "good guys" who stand for truth, honour, etc.; the latter are "the bad guys" who manipulate, deceive, betray, and so on. Martin makes us want to cheer for the Starks and boo the Lannisters—but that doesn't mean the Starks are all good people who only do good things and who are above manipulation or deceit. In many ways, they remind me of Houses Atreides and Harkonnen from Dune. There's the same mixture of epic scope with intimate family relationships.
The conflict also draws from the real-life Wars of the Roses. Martin, like Bernard Cornwell, portrays not only the harsh realities of feudal society in terms of relationships and choice but also the political instability often present in such systems of governance. I'm enamoured with British history, because it's just so juicy, and if you read enough about it, one of the overwhelming themes is one of fragility. The country gets invaded quite often, kings fall, new dynasties arise, and then those ones fall too. The idea of a single, unified army is a myth; armies consist of a few knights but mostly conscripts whose day jobs are much less militant, and the conscripts are loyal to their lords, not to the king. Martin reminds us of this fact several times throughout A Game of Thrones, notably in the relationship between Robb Stark and the force he raises to march upon the Lannisters. Later, when Arya overhears a conversation among some common people about King Robert, we are reminded that these folk don't really care who is king. One ruler will likely be just as bad as another.
So the causes for which the nobility, and in particular House Stark, fight are actually rather divorced from the concerns of the common people. Toward the end of A Game of Thrones, Lord Eddard has to choose between supporting a false claimant to the throne, which would save his family and supposedly preserve the stability of Westeros, or supporting the "rightful" king, even though he's probably not the best guy for the job. I love this dilemma, and I love Martin for putting Eddard in this situation where there are no good choices. It's great to see characters forced to choose between two bad alternatives—and it's even better if the character can somehow come up with a third option.
Eddard's choice, as I'll call it, brings to mind two things. Firstly, nobody in power today got there unless that person or a predecessor took power from someone else. Today's "rightful" leaders are yesterday's revolutionaries; history makes this abundantly clear. Eddard considers House Baratheon the "rightful" ruling house of Westeros—this is after he was instrumental in the rebellion against the previous "rightful" kings, the Targaryens. Viserys Targaryen, likewise, considers himself the rightful king of Westeros and is rather bitter about it. Secondly, in the chaos that quickly unfolds throughout A Game of Thrones, Martin has created a delightful downward spiral of events. The kingdom is well on its way to civil war before Eddard's choice, and any suggestion that by choosing to support one claimant to the throne over another he'll be preserving the stability of Westeros is a lie. Hence, fragility: a chain of events that starts with minor skirmishes among the noble houses turns into all-out civil war. A confluence of independent choices made by characters scattered across the Seven Kingdoms makes matters worse.
For all my praise about Martin's depiction of medieval society and its political intrigue, A Game of Thrones is curiously deficient in its portrayal of religion. Oh, we get the exposition. There are two religions in Westeros: the "old gods" are still prevalent in the North and are worshipped through the trees of a godswood; the seven gods are worshipped in aptly-named churches called "septs." Religion is not absent from A Game of Thrones, but its presence and its influence on the state of affairs is a lot more subdued than I would expect in an otherwise full-featured work of fantasy such as this. The High Septon gets mentioned a few times and shows up once or twice, and that's it. Does the church have money? Does it exert influence on matters of state? How did it feel about the deposition of the Targaryens?
Viserys Targaryen might be my least favourite character in A Game of Thrones because he is so obviously mad. The first few chapters featuring Viserys and Daenerys are a little painful, since the dynamic between them is both obvious and creepy. I sympathize with Daenerys, for she's about to get prostituted by her brother in return for an army, and she's only thirteen years old (not that prostituting one's siblings is acceptable at any age). And Daenerys undergoes considerable growth in this book, quickly becoming a formidable person who embraces her sex and sexuality and heritage with gusto. There is nothing sympathetic about Viserys. He's just insane. While I sympathize with Daenerys and, to some extent, even like her, I can't help but hope she fails at her plans to retake Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms, because that just means more bloodshed.
The unfortunate and wonderful truth about what George R.R. Martin has wrought, however, is that there will necessarily be more bloodshed. There is no way all the characters I like can escape unscathed or even alive from the madness that has descended upon them. The way shall indeed be steep and thorny and almost as tough for us as readers as it will be for the characters.
I'm probably a GRRM fanboy. I love this series, both because of its associations with my youth and its depiction of medieval society. Keep all those things in mind, though, if you consider my enjoyment a recommendation. This is a long book—and by no means a perfect one—so as well as being a doorstopper, it embodies the idea that "your mileage may vary." As with plenty of popular titles, A Game of Thrones suffers from its hype as well as benefiting; I think a lot of people build up an idea about this book in their minds, and when it fails to conform to that idea, they become disillusioned and kick it to the curb.
I'm just as guilty for building up illusions of what this book is and isn't, though in my case it's because I read the first three books in grade seven and haven't returned to them since. Re-reading A Game of Thrones was mostly a happy experience; plenty of times I found myself giggling gleefully or scowling at some turn of events. It's also been useful, because now I am free from the burden of memory and hazy recollection: when I talk about this book, and when I laud it, I can do it with the confidence instilled by having read it recently and finding it every bit as good as it was the first time around. A Game of Thrones isn't the best book ever written (it probably won't even make this year's top ten list), but it still holds a special place in my heart. Ultimately, it helped encourage me to continue reading fantasy. If it weren't for this book, I probably wouldn't be the person I am today.
To call something the exemplar for an entire genre is foolish and snobbish, and although I am at times both, I am seldom both at the same time. I think it's fair to say that A Song of Ice and Fire has had an influence on fantasy comparable to Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. Neither is the master template for the genre, however, and I won't join the fanboys who call it such. There's something special about A Game of Thrones that keeps people coming back and keeps people reading, despite the notorious lengths of the books and lengths of time between publication. Whether that brand of special matches your personal brand of madness will have to be for you to decide.