Book Review: A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1) by George R. R. Martin
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire (Book #1 of 7)
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, Grimdark Fantasy
Pages: 896 pages (20th Anniversary Illustrated UK edition)
Published: 1st August 1996 by Bantam Spectra (US) & Voyager Books (UK)
A totally magnificent start to a seminal epic fantasy series. If you love watching the first season of Game of Thrones, you’re most likely going to love reading A Game of Thrones.
Like countless readers around the world, I probably wouldn’t have known about A Song of Ice and Fire without its TV series adaptation: Game of Thrones. I’ve been following the TV series since the release of its first episode; I was utterly captivated by the originality of the storyline and characters. Upon finishing the first season of the TV show, I immediately picked up A Game of Thrones, and honestly? I couldn’t finish it; I put it down about a quarter into the book. It wasn’t because the book was bad per se; it was because the TV show—at least the first season—did such a spectacular job of adapting the first installment of A Song of Ice and Fire. When my first entrance into a series is through a well-produced TV series/movies adaptation which I ended up loving, I often find the original material—usually novels—to be inferior because I already know how the main story will go down. It’s the biggest reason why I struggled to finish The Fellowship of the Ring, and unfortunately, it’s also the reason why I couldn’t finish A Game of Thrones back then. Fast forward to now, years have passed since my first attempt at reading A Game of Thrones. I’m finally able to finish it, and I also loved it so much; I craved for more by the end of it.
“… a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”
Was there even anything new with the book once you have watched the first season? Not so much. There’s Ned’s dream and the differences in character’s ages; the age of the characters—especially The Starks and Daenerys—in the novel shocked me because they’re so much younger than they’re portrayed in the TV show. Then there’s also the fact that the book has more intricate world-building and history explained; story-wise, almost everything else was the same. On Goodreads, during the time of writing this review, A Game of Thrones has about 50,000 reviews and almost 2,000,000 ratings; I doubt anything I say about it will add anything substantial to what’s been said before. I have watched all the episodes in TV shows, and I pretty much know what the general plotline of the main series is all about. But I’ll keep this review strictly narrowed to the reasons why—in my opinion—A Game of Thrones and the first season of the TV show reached its phenomenal fame.
Picture: A Game of Thrones by Marc Simonetti
There’s immense strength in the unpredictability of Martin’s storytelling style. Martin is a storyteller that doesn’t follow the classic fantasy norm. A Song of Ice and Fire achieved something much greater instead; it has practically shaped modern fantasy. Sure, the series wouldn’t have reached its worldwide fame without the HBO adaptation of the series, but that doesn’t have any influence on the long-standing—and ever-growing—praises for the books. Just observe the amount of inaccurate “if you love Game of Thrones you will love this” or “George R. R. Martin/Game of Thrones meets whoever/whatever” blurbs invading the current fantasy market; they’re uncountable.
“Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.”
Personally speaking, Martin brought a lot of something refreshing to the fantasy genre. Instead of writing a high fantasy comprised of magical battles and creatures, Martin did the opposite; magic and fantastical beings were relatively minimal, and unbelievably, he successfully nailed it. A Game of Thrones is not a story of good versus evil; it depicted a realistically grim story where the characters were morally flawed, grey, and the evilest beings in the world may not be The Others or dragons, but human after all. The good doesn’t always win, and the bad could brutally triumph. Martin explored this deeply and brilliantly within the bloody dispute and politics over the Iron Throne—the seat of the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms.
“Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?”
In the battle for the throne, no one is safe, not even the virtuous ones; the good and honorable ones frequently suffer more. The sense of unpredictability and danger sparked from Martin’s freedom and bravery to hurt and kill off the crucial main characters in the series—after making his readers care for them—brought an intensity that can only be found in very few of my favorite fantasy series. And get this, the majority of these authors claimed Martin as one of their main inspirations.
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
There’s this meme that has been spreading around the internet. This meme compared George R. R. Martin to Steven Erikson. Erikson himself has stated that he’s not competing with Martin with his fantasy, and I have no idea how this even became a meme in the first place. I’m talking about this picture:
I strongly disagree with this meme. Don’t get me wrong; Malazan Book of the Fallen is one of my top favorite series of all time. However, the main strength of the series—by far—doesn’t lie in its character’s death. Honestly speaking, by book 5 or 6 of Malazan Book of the Fallen, the impact of the character’s death in the series has decreased significantly. Sometimes, I even eye-rolled when he killed off a character in the second half of the series; Erikson had an obsession with this particular plot device, and I was proven right over and over again. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Martin is a brutal author; he’s merciless towards his characters. But more importantly, ANY of the characters he decided to kill off frequently resulted in a massive and jaw-dropping impact that heavily affect the character’s decision and storyline progression.
“What is honor compared to a woman’s love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms . . . or the memory of a brother’s smile? Wind and words. Wind and words. We are only human, and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our great tragedy.”
If you’ve watched the first season, is it still necessary to read the first installment of A Song of Ice and Fire? What exactly is the biggest reason to read A Game of Thrones after watching the first season of the TV show? I wouldn’t say that it’s required to do it, but you’re most likely going to love the reading experience, and you’ll also get more out of it as I did. I’ve said it at the beginning of this review, I’m a very critical person when it comes to experiencing the original material of an adaptation I truly loved. However, I was simply too immersed in this read, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of reading it. And it’s all due to Martin’s impeccable narrative, characterizations, and world-building.
Picture: The Night’s Watch Oath by Didier Graffet
Character’s internal thoughts and world-building are two factors—from my perspective—that the TV show won’t be able to capture perfectly; they haven’t managed it to this day, and I doubt they will be able to with only one season left. Every character in the book was extremely well-developed. Although each new chapter always follows a different character’s POV than its previous one, all of them were superbly compelling and crucial to read. Reading A Game of Thrones brought a clearer and better understanding of the characterizations. That shouldn’t come as a surprise; they’re two different mediums of storytelling, and this is one of the main advantages of reading a novel than watching a movie/TV series. The nuances in the character’s thoughts, personalities, and motivations made them more human and believable. All POV chapters in A Game of Thrones were written efficiently and effectively. Martin colored his characters with distinctive voices terrifically that every single dialogue and action felt like an addictive dance of inspiring and memorable words.
“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
The world-building was outstandingly intricate and immersive. A Song of Ice and Fire is a complex epic fantasy with multi-layered world-building; history upon history, accompanied with character’s connections that sprawled throughout the world. I mean it, if you’re not a fan of a massive fantasy world with detailed histories, politics, and many characters, you might want to prepare yourself before getting into this book. I do, however, believe that the complex and sprawling world that Martin created is somehow quite accessible to many fantasy readers.
“A lord must learn that sometimes words can accomplish what swords cannot.”
After you finished the novel, a realization will dawn that the main story and chaos have only just begun. A Game of Thrones is an absolutely stunning beginning to an incomplete legendary fantasy series. I’m seriously holding myself back here; the novel’s strengths and why this book/series is so special and important for modern fantasy will need at least another thousand words to elaborate. But I doubt I need to; practically every fantasy reader these days knows about the existence of A Game of Thrones. The worldwide fame of this series speaks for itself already; quality stays. I recommend this novel with all my heart to every epic fantasy reader. The intricacies of the plot, characterizations, and world-building are worth your utmost attention; the maximum depth of them can only be achieved by reading the book, nowhere else. I feel like I’ve gotten to know the characters and world further after reading A Game of Thrones, and I’m undeniably excited to continue reading A Song of Ice and Fire. Currently, A Song of Ice and Fire remain frozen in an incomplete—most likely won’t ever be finished—status, but that doesn’t matter; reading this series is irresistible to me. Even if A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t end up fully composed, I’m confident I’m happier to have read the series than not. That’s how incredible A Game of Thrones is.
“The things I do for love.”
Sidenote regarding the 20th Anniversary Illustrated Edition:
The 20th Anniversary Illustrated Edition is freaking gorgeous, and its production value is high; no doubt about that. However, I strongly recommend you to read this edition only if you have watched the first season of the TV series or you’re on your reread. If you’re a newcomer to the story, I suggest reading the prose-only edition instead. This edition is beautiful; each chapter begins with a black and white illustration done by highly praised artists in the industry. I mean it, each art could’ve worked as a cover art due to its beauty and quality, even when most of the arts aren’t original to this edition. But this is also the main problem of this edition. Most of the art appeared at the start of a chapter, and they have a strong tendency of giving spoilers, or at least hints, of what’s to come in the particular chapter. Not to mention that a lot of the colored artworks are placed on the wrong page. An event happened in a chapter, but the colored artwork of that scene could appear in the next or previous chapter, which frankly just doesn’t make any sense. Because of all these, I think it would be best if a complete newcomer to the series read the text-only edition.
Pictures: Two examples of Magali Villeneuve’s illustrations for A Game of Thrones: 20th Anniversary Illustrated Edition. Pictures are taken from her Twitter account and official website.
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2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1) by George R. R. Martin”
Incredible review, Petrik! I started watching GoT pretty late, probably around early 2017. And I regret I didn’t watch it sooner! I spent the whole two weeks to finished the entire seasons and I was completely blown away. Maybe I should read the books this year.
Thank you so much, Vinny! Oh that’s quite late, but hey, better late than never! I’m glad you ended up loving the TV series though! I can’t wait for the final season this year!!! As for reading the book, I really recommend it but there’s no rush. Might as well wait until the TV series is done in June. 🙂