A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Illustrations by 18 different artists
Published in 1996; 2016 20th Anniversary Illustrated Edition
“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.”
There are few fantasy series that have made such an impact in the 21st century as the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. Ironically, the series began in 1996 with the release of A Game of Thrones, but didn’t receive mainstream attention outside of the genre until it was adapted into the HBO show that has garnered dozens of accolades and millions of viewers. Focusing on the lives of men and women living in a fictional world, A Game of Thrones takes the first step in a long, winding epic that turned the genre on its head and has made a lasting mark in Western pop culture.
The main characters come from the Great Houses, and A Game of Thrones focuses primarily on House Stark: Lord Eddard “Ned”, his wife Catelyn, sons Robb, Bran and Rickon, daughters Sansa and Arya, and his bastard son, Jon Snow. Ned is the lord of Winterfell, a castle in the north of Westeros and is summoned by his old friend, Robert Baratheon, who is now king. Robert travels with his wife, Cersei Lannister, her twin brother Jaime, and his three children in addition to a lengthy train of servants. Ned is asked to come with to the city of King’s Landing in the south to become the Hand of the King, a lord who acts in the king’s stead and as an adviser, after the previous Hand died. Ned does this through his love of his friend and their mutual history, but heading south begins a chain of events that brings many lives and families to their end.
Though many protagonists often find themselves miraculously impervious to death in most fantasy novels, no one is safe in Westeros. A Game of Thrones was really one of the first major fantasy novels to kill main characters on a wider scale within the very first book of a series, and sets itself apart not only because it dares to do so, but because of how well it works. The book is one of subverting stereotypes and it does so on multiple levels. Moral ambiguity rules King’s Landing where there is no place for honor and the strong survive while the weak perish. Ned’s honor, nobility, and sense of justice put him at odds with the political players in the capital and, as such, he becomes imperiled.
Loss of innocence is another theme that is found throughout the story; young characters are forced into the dangerous world of adults and many of the main characters are only teenagers. This is most blatantly illustrated through Sansa, Ned’s oldest daughter. She has expectations of heroes and chivalrous knights who put honor above all else, but only comes to find the self-serving men of King’s Landing. It is Sansa who carries these old tropes from fairy tales and fantasy stories that Martin seeks to crush in his epic.
Martin is an expert at world building that has a rich history and references many past events that took place in Westeros in order to add credibility to the world. However, this can sometimes be overdone. I found myself skipping some descriptions of lords who happen to be in the same room as the main characters and their superfluous backstories. There are also a lot of names that are spelled very similarly, and many have the same names as the historical figures in the world, so it becomes confusing as to whether Brandon refers to Brandon the Builder, Ned’s brother Brandon Stark, or his son, Brandon “Bran” Stark. Martin also maintains the pace throughout the book by ending each chapter with a cliffhanger; since each chapter switches to a different character, this heightens the amount of suspense since the reader doesn’t know when they will get the next part of that character’s story.
This edition was made to celebrate the 20th anniversary of A Game of Thrones and features absolutely gorgeous illustrations. A black and white picture that has to do with something mentioned in the subsequent part of the story is present at the beginning of each chapter, and there are colored prints strewn throughout the book as well. As mentioned above, each chapter is from a different character’s perspective; however, the different narrators have their own tones, but all are told from the 3rd person in order to maintain consistency. In addition to the wonderful art and world building, Martin is a master of description and takes it upon himself to write about the most succulent smorgasbords and mouth-watering morsels during the multiple feasts that take place. Martin also writes about scents quite a bit; almost to the point that it sticks out because it is either often overlooked by authors or done without success.
I first read A Game of Thrones in anticipation of the HBO series shortly before it was released, and I wish that I were able to read it as I did then rather than replacing the mental images of the actors in my head when reading the book’s differing descriptions. That being said, I jumped at the chance to own a copy of this beautifully rendered edition due to the amount of art that brings Martin’s vivid world to life. His writing isn’t perfect, there are some stylistic terms used that are questionable, but the overall impact of the story is one of astounding talent. There is a reason that this series has been as successful as it is, regardless of the HBO adaptation, and the proof is in the (description of the) pudding.
Verdict: 5 delectable descriptions of food out of 5
Recommended for: Adults, fans of fantasy loosely inspired by historic events, those who enjoy becoming hungry while reading, fans of well-written description, those who enjoy genre tropes being subverted, and you!
Not recommended for: Children, the great houses of Westeros, those who play the game of thrones but don’t win, those who become attached to characters they read about, those who enjoy genre tropes, or those who have watched the HBO series (they are almost direct adaptations with a few aesthetic differences and the inclusion of “sexposition”…I’m not going to explain it).