3) A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin
I don’t often re-read books, especially very long ones, especially the first in a series of very long books. But I know that sooner or later, the next book in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is going to come out, and I was concerned when I read the most recent one that I had forgotten who some of the characters were; and anyway I enjoyed the book so much on first reading, which must be over five years ago now, that I wanted to see if it stood the test of time.
And it does. Part of the charm is the rapidly shifting perspective, with each chapter of a few pages detailing events from the viewpoint of Eddard Stark, aide to King Robert, or one of Eddard’s six children, or the dwarf nobleman Tyrion Lannister, or Daenerys Targaryen, heiress to King Robert’s deposed predecessor. Part of it also is that within that volatile framework, the story in this volume is basically a contrast of the disintegration of Eddard Stark’s career, family and life with the upward trend of Daenerys’ fortunes – though the latter undergo a twist at the end of the book.
The other tension that runs through the book – a theme which as far as I remember re-emerges only in the most recent volume to the same extent – is the tension between the ideals of honour and chivalry held by Eddard and by his daughter Sansa, and the Realpolitik of the dynastic struggle into which they are plunged, the game of thrones that gives the book its title, with perhaps only Tyrion Lannister being the direct viewpoint character for the more cynical approach, though of course it comes up in almost every conversation.
And despite the book’s strong fantasy credentials, in fact the the tools used in the game of thrones are steel and poison, largely. In Westeros, the setting of the story for most of our characters, I think the only obvious intrusion of magic is Jon Stark’s encounter with zombies from the frozen North. Daenerys, on another continent, encounters more magic and supernatural events than the other characters combined, including in the book’s stunning denouement.
The background is especially well realised. Martin has successfully combined the standard knights-in-armour setting with a sense of cultural distance, by the cheap but effective trick of slightly altering spellings – so we have “Eddard” rather than “Edward”, “Catelyn” rather than “Catherine”, and, most effectively, knights are dubbed “Ser” rather than “Sir”. Daenerys, in exile across the water, encounters a bewildering variety of other cultures, and will go on to encounter more in future books. There are hints of the religious diversity which becomes a major theme of later volumes. And against all this human geography, climate change is on its way; as Eddard Stark’s family motto would have it, “Winter Is Coming”.
Another advantage of re-reading is that I know what is going to happen. First time round I think I read the books so fast, wanting to know who was going to be killed next, that I missed details that turned out to be important, like why exactly Jonah Mormont was exiled, and who Samwell Tarly was. I’m also now more than ever certain that Jon Snow is really not Eddard’s son but his nephew, from the vague hints we are given. And the shallowness of Eddard’s enemies comes across even more clearly – they are motivated only by the desire for power, and not with any sense of what they want to do with it, which is why despite their apparent victory in the game of thrones in this volume, we have the sense that they are riding for a fall later in the series.
Anyway, I won’t rush to reread volume two, but I won’t put it off too long either.