“The High Septon once told me that as we sin, so do we suffer. If that’s true… tell me… why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?”
George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones may be the most “realistic” fantasy novel I’ve ever read. It’s extremely well-detailed, emotionally gripping, endlessly surprising without being improbable, and unflinchingly dark. This is no children’s fairy tale, but a deeply troubling and moving epic, full of violence, brutality and sex, but also honor, valor and humor. Driven by its characters more than its plot, it gives us images of humanity at its best and (more often) worst.
Though set in a fictional world rather like Middle-Earth, there are no elves or dwarves or orcs, in fact little supernatural activity of any kind. But if there is no magic object to find or destroy, there is also no single villain to expose and defeat. The action is driven by the intrigues and wars of seven kingdoms, none of which are fully innocent nor guilty. The attention is on the Stark family, who mostly try to be noble, with varying levels of success, as they face off against the Lannisters, who mostly range from arrogant to conniving to downright wicked. If in most other series the Lannisters would be nothing more than the hissable villains, though, Martin refuses to let us hate them all. In fact, the most entertaining character of all is a Lannister.
The book allows for a spiritual dimension to the world–both giving piety a central role in many of its characters’ lives and in hinting at monsters on the edge of the world–but it is men and women who are most to be honored and feared here. The gods are real–or maybe they’re not–but it is the selfish and selfless, cowardly and courageous decisions of human beings that drive this story, often to heartbreaking ends. There may be a dark evil force on the horizon, but there is unquestionably one in the human heart, turning friends against one another, and twisting even honor and loyalty to ruin, while the wicked walk free and seize power.
The story is told through the eyes of several different characters (each in separate chapters), which pays off beautifully, giving the book a great deal of psychological depth. At times, though, Martin makes surprising choices about which character to follow at key points. This is never more obvious than when he refuses to give us a first-person view of the two climactic battles in the book. The first is experienced through a person too far away to see more than fragments. The second and decisive one is even further removed, as we only hear of it as it is described to a character on the losing side, well after the fact.
At first this seems disappointingly anticlimactic, but maybe that was the point, as it prevents us from feeling too smugly victorious, ignoring the trail of blood that led there. Unlike so many other fantasy books I’ve read, the emotional climax for me came not at the turning of a battle, but in a quiet decision to give up vengeance for honor and solitude for brotherhood, a decision that almost no one else saw.
And more than anything, that is what makes the book so enjoyable, despite its darkness: that there are still people left–broken and flawed though they are–who will choose nobility and justice even if it kills them. And unlike in most books of this sort, it often does.