Before he began the mammoth series A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin wrote for television, penning episodes of the 1980s reboot of The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman. He also created and maintains the Wild Cards shared universe, editing anthologies of short stories set there.
So Martin was already adept at the long-form serial before he began Song of Ice and Fire. Serialized storytelling is a hard art to master (one I’m frankly frightened of!), and I’m in awe of writers who can master it. Dickens was one such master. The release of the end of Great Expectations to London by ferry was akin to the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or the fevered watch parties for series finales of shows like Lost.
A Game of Thrones, the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, belies Martin’s serial heritage in one important aspect: it is the first part of a much longer story, not a book self-contained with comfortable resolutions. Chapters end on cliffhangers; the novel ends only with the longest breathing space Martin could create, a brief pause in the hell that is Westeros.
The form serial has two big strengths: ongoing character development and the exploration of themes at length. Martin uses both to his advantage.
And oh, what characters!
Westeros is a dark medieval world, a vast continent where seasons last years. To the north lies a frozen wasteland, long guarded by the Wall, patrolled and maintained by the draftees of the Night’s Watch. Westeros is beset by war after war, fought over by proud noble houses; only recently has a ten-year peace (and an equally long summer) been brokered by King Robert Barathon. One of these noble families is a misfit: house Stark, ruling the northern lands of Winterfell, with a wolf for a coat of arms and the dire motto “Winter is Coming.” Spartan, no-nonsense house Stark stands apart from the rich, scheming Lannisters, the proud, newly risen Barratheons, and the fallen, inbred Targaryens.
Yet even in this lonely house is a loner: Jon Snow, a bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark. Hated by Eddard’s wife Catelyn, he chooses to go to the Wall than to stay in a society where there is no place for him. The identity of his mother is a central mystery, one which I hope Martin never answers (and perhaps never will).
Tyrion Lannister is a brilliant dwarf and the most morally ambiguous character in the series. He takes a liking to “bastards and broken things” (such as Jon Snow), himself alive only by his high-born status, his wits and his silver tongue. He is an uneven mix of ruthlessness and compassion, a man who can love with one hand and stab with the other. He remains my favorite character after one-and-a-half books into the series.
Lonely Arya, youngest daughter of Eddard Stark, is a tomboy in a society that takes to them none too kindly. Her disdain for courtly and “womanly” things draws the ire of her older sister Sansa, but is loved by the rest of her family, including Jon Snow, who gives her a sword for a parting gift. She soon takes up swordfighting, and puts her skills to use to survive.
Lowest and loneliest of all is Danaerys Targaryen, little sister to the vain, abusive Viserys. Her father was the mad king Aerys, whom Robert Baratheon defeated to claim the Iron Throne. Viserys arranges a marriage betwen her and Khal Drogo, a leader of the nomadic horse lords across the Narrow Sea from Westeros. She quickly learns how to manipulate those around her to keep herself alive, and is the hardiest character so far.
The series, and this book in particular, is about the shattering of a family, the fall of the house of Stark. Like Rome, it takes more than a day to undo this noble house, done in my small, well-placed blows. One day following an execution, Eddard Stark finds a bad portent: a dead mother direwolf, the symbol of their house, stabbed with a stag antler, the symbol of house Barratheon. She left a littler six wolf cubs, one for each of the Stark children (including a mute albino for Jon Snow, the loner). The next day, King Robert Baratheon arrives at Winterfell and asks Eddard to become the Hand of the King. Eddard accepts against his better judgment.
Soon the family is split between Winterfell and King’s Landing, where Robert Baratheon reigns from the sharp, unforgiving Iron Throne. Eddard investigates the death of the prior Hand, coming to a conclusion that indicts Cersei Lannister, Robert’s queen. Meanwhile, precocious son Bran takes a suspicious fall, and mother Catelyn suspects Tyrion Lannister. She believes Bran overheard something he shouldn’t have, and that Tyrion had him killed. And far to the north, Jon Snow enters the service of the Watch and soon finds himself fighting terrifying creatures once thought mere legend.
And the decade-long summer Westeros comes to an end, to be soon followed by an even longer, deadly winter.
No one save Jon Snow heeds the coming winter and its ill portents, instead embroiling themselves in court intrigue. Caught in a web of deceipt, Eddard soon discovers that he cannot act out of honor any longer, that doing the smart thing (something the Lannisters do well) really is better than doing the right thing, and he pays a hefty price for the lesson. Tyrion is caught up in the struggle between the Lannisters and the Starks, framed for an attempted murder he didn’t commit. After ten years of peace, Westeros is once again thrown into a bloody war, the Lannisters fighting Starks, and Robert’s brothers Renly and Stannis stirring from their keeps.
And an ocean away, bereft, widowed Danaerys Targaryen hatches three dragons, long thought to be extinct, resurrecting the might of the house Targaryen.
A Game of Thrones offers no resolution to any of these plots, because the book was never meant to be self-contained. Martin’s training in serialized drama led him to write the book more like a season of television episodes. The satisfaction you find here is that of his excellent characterization, his detailed and sometimes heartbreaking portrayal of life in an unforgiving world, of dreams clung to and shattered heartlessly; you end the book hungry for more. At the end, no one can stop winter from coming, and everyone will suffer who isn’t prepared, especially for what might creep over the enormous Wall at the edge of the world.