?Ed’s Note: You all know that once I finally read A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, I immediately became one of those guys that had to tell everybody how awesome it is. For some reason, this series seems to have this effect on people — I got into the books because my friend and occasional TR writer Sean T. Collins preached the series’ greatness in the same way (as did several other TR readers), and Sean had another friend who told him he had to read the books, and so on.
Now, many of you who haven’t been outright annoyed with my fawning over the series have asked me in the comments and elsewhere, “Are the books really that good?” The answer is yes. The follow-up question, “Why are they so good?” requires a much longer answer, but it’s one I’d wanted to provide. Then I remembered Sean had pretty much already written down an answer — with his permission, I’m publishing an edited-for-TR-style version of his absolutely spoiler-free “Playing a Game of Thrones: Why you should read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series” essay (you can read the original version here). Honestly, he does a much better job of explaining than I ever could why every nerd should at least give these books a shot. — Rob
10) Is It By No Means a Typical Fantasy Series
A Song of Ice and Fire takes place primarily in Westeros, which ranges from an arctic climate up north to a Mediterranean one down south and has similar cultural lines of demarcation. It was once divided up into Seven Kingdoms, each ruled by great families, or Houses. But for centuries now, the whole continent has been united under one ruling King. However, about 15 years or so before the story begins, a group of powerful Houses banded together to overthrow the current king, who had gone insane, thus ending the kingdom’s first and up until that point only dynasty.
Westeros is your basic, roughly medieval-European epic fantasy setting, albeit one with far, far fewer overt trappings of fantasy than, say The Lord of the Rings — humans are the only game in town in terms of races, and we’re several generations removed from the last time magic/sorcery or mythical creatures like dragons were a going concern. The main fantastical feature when the story begins is how the flow of seasons work: Summer and winter can each last for years, decades even, before shifting unpredictably. Simply put, if you’re the kind of person who can’t stand elves and orcs and dwarves and wise old wizards, they won’t be around to turn you off out of hand.
However, when there is fantasy, it’s exciting and strange and awesome, in the original sense of the word. Such as The Wall, a 700-foot-tall barrier made totally of ice that stretches from sea to sea, that separate the seven kingdoms and the uncivilized wastelands to the North. Thousands of years ago some kind of supernatural menace came out of the North to threaten the Seven Kingdoms, and the Wall was constructed after mankind’s victory to keep the threat from coming back. By now it’s been so long that the organization tasked with maintaining the wall is a neglected, ragtag band, ill-prepared for… whatever it is that seems to be going on out there.
9) The Raw Plot Is Enormously Engrossing
It’s 15 years after Mad King Aerys of House Targaryen was overthrown by an alliance of nobles who were either burned by his cruelty or hungry for power of their own, or some combination thereof. The leader of the alliance, Robert Baratheon, has been king ever since, supported by his wife’s hugely influential, hugely assholish family, House Lannister. But when his mentor and right-hand man dies (or is murdered — no one’s really sure), Robert, who seems well-intentioned but by now is kind of a drunk and glutton and horndog and not a very good king, heads north to seek the help of his best friend, Eddard Stark, who has command of the kingdom’s distinctly unglamorous northernmost area. A Game of Thrones primarily chronicles the conflicts between House Stark and House Lannister as Ned, as he’s known to his friends, tries to help out King Robert and get to the bottom of the mystery of their mutual mentor’s death, and some other shady goings-on as well.
But meanwhile, two threats are brewing beyond the kingdom’s borders and outside the struggle for power and influence surrounding the rival Houses. The danger brewing north of the Wall is one of these threats, and the other lies overseas, where the only two survivors of the overthrow of House Targaryen, a boy named Viserys and a girl named Danaerys, have hit their teenage years and are trying to mount a comeback. Even though Aerys was a major creep, and Viserys is no great shakes either, if the two of them get the right backers and the right soldiers, they could present a major threat to the new rulers of their old kingdom, who know they’re out there but have no idea how to find them.
Basically, there’s a dynastic struggle that encompasses a murder mystery, a conspiracy, shifting and secret alliances, political machinations — and then brewing underneath it all, two major external threats. You find yourself wanting almost desperately to get to the bottom of it all, and Martin is a strong enough writer to keep adding elements without drowning out the ones that hooked you in the first place. A good comparison here might be Lost, where each time you hit the ground level of the until-then central strain of antagonism, the creators yanked the rug out and revealed another beneath it. The shape and scope of the story is perpetually enriching and expanding.
8) The Story Is Driven by Realistic Human Conflicts
Martin has said that the series’ central struggle for power — the titular game of thrones played by various important people we meet — was inspired by England’s real-world War of the Roses, with its complex web of family loyalties and regional rivalries and so on. In terms of narrative fiction, I think the closest comparison is The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. A Game of Thrones combines the first film’s story of rival families violently jockeying for supremacy amid all sorts of complex conspiracies and alliances with the second film’s story of the very serious, very smart leader of one of those families trying to uncover the origin of a plot against him and his. The point is that we’re very far from rote Joseph Campbell hero’s-journey fantasy storytelling, with some dude learning it’s his destiny to defeat the Dark Lord. If you’re sick of that sort of thing, you’ll find a lot more to hook you here. This goes double if you’re the sort of person who’s ever enjoyed fictional or non-fictional war epics or gangster stories. “The Sopranos with swords” really is a pretty dead-on way to describe what’s going on here.
7) The Characters Are Incredibly, Realistically Human as Well
The story isn’t just set in a (relatively) realistic world, driven by realistic human conflicts, and featuring realistic human behavior — it’s powered by relatable human relationships, emotions, drives, desires, and even mistakes. I’ve written about this at length before in somewhat spoiler-y fashion, but to recap it here, so much of what happens in these books hinges on the personal relationships between the characters, and the way old grudges or old friendships cloud judgment and lead to poor decisions. Perfectly well-intentioned, innately noble characters can’t stand other perfectly well-intentioned, innately noble characters for various reasons that are all too familiar — long-ago affairs, half-forgotten insults, petty jealousies. Characters will know full well that their family is a collection of really awful people, but they’ll still do their level best to help out because hey, it’s family, and it’s psychologically and emotionally tough as hell to leave your family behind. In other words, like all of the best HBO shows did with their respective genres — The Sopranos with the mafia, Deadwood with Westerns, The Wire with cop shows — A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t just surface revisionism, it’s bringing the full weight of richness of literary fiction to genre entertainment.
6) The Way the Story Is Told Is Extremely Addictive
Each chapter focuses on a particular character, whose name serves as that chapter’s title, and the characters rotate throughout the book(s). This has the effect of embroiling you in a particular character’s situation or storyline, then immediately popping you over into another’s, so that you find yourself racing through the chapters to get to the next one starring the person you’re interested in — and then getting interested in the ones you’re reading in the interim, and repeating the process over and over. It’s rather brilliant.
5) It’s Still Sexy and Violent
Another reason “The Sopranos with swords” works, and probably one of the big reasons HBO decides to make a TV series based on the books: There’s graphic language, violence, and sex. If you’re the sort of person who’s complained that Tolkien’s world is too sexless and bloodless to really care about, believe me, you won’t be voicing similar complaints here. It’s simply Martin writing fantasy the way other writers would write about any other world full of human beings who kill each other and have sex and get pissed off. It’s refreshing.
4) …But It’s Never Shock for Shock’s Sake
This one’s important: There’s basically nothing glorious or badass whatsoever about violence as portrayed in these books. Most great fantasies don’t skimp on the emotional consequences of being enmeshed in these great struggles — the scouring of the Shire and Frodo’s departure are obviously the beating heart of The Lord of the Rings just for starters — but I don’t think I’ve ever read a heroic fiction that so relentlessly drives home how war and violence immiserate and degrade everyone who participates in them. There’s a haunting flashback in the first volume that in other hands would have been a depiction of some great and glorious last stand, but Martin imbues it so thoroughly with a sense of great sadness and loss and waste and terror. It’s beautiful and really humanistic. Martin, as it turns out, was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War; I know that doesn’t necessarily reveal a fundamental truth about him beyond “he really didn’t want to go to Vietnam,” but in reading these books, I think his draft board made the right call. That said, much like the fantasy, when there is action and violence, it’s really strong and really heart-pounding.
3) The Writing Is Genuinely Good
I think Martin’s a pretty strong prose craftsman. There are a few groaners in there, especially in the first book (I think there are two warm fires in the hearth that couldn’t chase away the coldness in Character X and Y’s hearts, for example), but let’s just say that my day-job sees a lot of SF/F pass across my desk and some of it is embarrassingly badly written. Martin knows his way around the typewriter.
2) It’s Truly Epic in Scope
It’s amazing how a series packed with so much payoff, book by book and chapter by chapter, still manages to have held off on resolving some of its biggest and most compelling storylines. This is hard to articulate without spoiling the grand arcs of the narrative, but having read all four currently existing volumes, I can tell you that Martin is playing an impressively long game. Seeds planted in the first volume are carefully cultivated and tended to for multiple books and multiple years and multiple thousands of pages; some have blossomed spectacularly, while others, amazingly, still lurk under the surface, ready to spring forth. When you’ve read enough to get a sense of how that might happen, you realize just how stunning the scope of Martin’s story really is. Best of all, I think that this long game — the way major elements are kept on the down low for years, only to erupt who knows when and to god knows what end — ties in with maybe the central theme of the series. To say more would be to spoil the surprise. Speaking of which…
1) It Will Absolutely Surprise You
This series contain big surprises, as shocking and powerful as any I’ve read or seen in any work of narrative fiction ever. Stuff that’s on the level of all-time gut-punches like “I did it thirty-five minutes ago” or “You are the dead.” You want to stay as spoiler-free as possible about these books, that’s all I’ll say. Like, if you start reading them, don’t even read the back-cover or inside-flap blurbs. (Seriously, DON’T.) This is not to say that if you know the surprises, you won’t enjoy the books — I knew one of ’em and still loved it, — but man oh man. There’s one part that had me so stunned and upset I literally lost sleep over it, and sat there rereading the chapter, sure I must have missed something or somehow gotten what I’d read wrong. I didn’t. It was awesome.