'A Game of Thrones' by George R. R. Martin (1996)

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones: Book One of A Song of Ice and Fire (London: Harper Voyager, 2011), 801pp


Whilst the Song of Ice and Fire books of course have their own pre-existing following, I imagine that many people now deciding to read this book will do so due to the success of the television series Game of Thrones, as I did. Therefore, I will not provide an ordinary review but try to give my impressions of the book as someone who had already been exposed to the television adaptation. Consequently, there may be spoilers for those who haven't seen the show.

It is inevitable that, having been exposed to the series, it would inform my experiences here. I found the book rather quick to read (considering its sizeable length) as I already knew how the plot would progress, so I never lost my way. The interpretations provided in the series (how characters and locations look, for example) also served as a crutch in my reading. I do not consider this a negative point, as whilst the book is its own monster, it does closely resemble the series, in both plot direction and dialogue (George R. R. Martin is heavily involved in the show's production). As a fan of the series, I did find a few minor details in the book jarring. Most notably, many characters are much younger in the book, for example Jon Snow (here fourteen years of age), Sansa (here eleven) and Joffrey (here twelve). I found their often-mature actions and dialogue to be rather dissonant to their ages; the show is an improvement in that regard. It is even more disconcerting than in the series that Daenerys is married to Drogo at just thirteen years of age, and it is harder to accept Robb Stark as a new Alexander when in the book he is a mere fifteen year old.

Where the book has a clear advantage is that it can go into more depth than is capable in a television series. The lore of the Seven Kingdoms is fleshed out in the book (but doesn't bore you with it for pages and pages as, for example, some of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien do) and you find out more about why certain things mentioned in the series - the First Men, the Andals, the children of the forest, how House Targaryen fell, etc. - are important. The battle scenes are also are longer and more in-depth than in the series, where budgetary constraints limited the ability to stage large set-piece battles. With the written word, there are no such constraints, and consequently the large battle scenes are meatier than their on-screen counterparts. For example, remember the 'battle' in season one where Tyrion Lannister is knocked out and we cut to the aftermath of the battlefield when he regains consciousness, without seeing any actual fighting? In the book, it is a fully-described battle; the same goes for the lifting of the siege of Riverrun and the capture of Jaime Lannister.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to say whether the book or the television series is better, as they are both so alike as to be almost twins. The book came first, of course, and rightly takes credit for building such a rich fantasy world, and for creating such intriguing characters and plotting. But the television series was a useful crutch for me and has done an excellent job of recreating the book. I would say, however, that the show is very faithful to the events of the book, so don't pick this up expecting a substantially different story to what is presented in the show. Some adaptations only loosely interpret the story (have you seen World War Z? What happened there?) and consequently, you can have fun noting the differences between book and film/television. This is not one of those books, but it is immensely entertaining nonetheless. It is the best fantasy work since Tolkien, perhaps even surpassing him. Whereas Tolkien dealt in black-and-white, good-and-evil, George R. R. Martin chooses to delve into the morally gray area. Indeed, if not for the talk of dragons and the strange place names, one could easily see this as historical fiction, set in the age of kings and emperors from ancient Rome or the rise and fall of various European monarchies. Martin has taken the best of these historical flavours and infused them into his own carefully-crafted world; it makes for a deliciously satisfying read.