Winter is coming: a review of A Game of Thrones

How small the difference between victory and defeat, between life and death.

Not all books muster up to the hype surrounding them. The Night Circus was one such example—a beautiful debut, but unpolished in many ways. George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first entry in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, meets its praise full-on.

To be frank, I didn’t know what to expect from A Game of Thrones. I knew Martin had developed a reputation as a merciless writer, so I avoided reviews as usual to keep spoilers and impressions at bay. I also understood the HBO series was popular, but fantasy shows aren’t always made of the best stuff.

Reading the first book was an interesting experience because my boyfriend was starting a different fantasy series at the same time. Every complaint he had about the unrealistic writing, and every silly sentence I would see overloaded with Great Things in Capital Letters and Goofy Names, were refreshingly absent in Martin’s book. Where the other series lacked believable character motivations, A Game of Thrones gave me them in excess. These characters are so clearly positioned in opposition to one another, or conversely in alliance, that betrayals and back-stabbings are the only natural courses to take.

The first chapter perfectly demonstrates Martin’s skill as a fantasy writer: He knows how to use the world and, more importantly, the environment at hand. He crafts descriptions that feel authentic to the characters’ surroundings, and through them gives credibility to events. The whispered things that dwell outside the Wall are fit for the trees and cold and dark that they call home.

Martin also has a talent for bringing importance to every chapter, and he never fails to remind us of the misogynistic, war-hardened land and its brutal politics. That’s where the book takes its title from, after all: the different ruling classes and their endless games.

A Game of Thrones is a grounded, convincing tale because Martin introduces fantastic elements little by little, rather than all at once. There’s no magical prophecies or chosen ones, but there is a direwolf with a stag antler pierced through its body—an evil omen if one ever existed.

The writing never grows dull, although the middle does bend under its own weight as the author leads us toward the final act. He doesn’t make the mistake of focusing too heavily on the ending, so as to sacrifice story, but he could have cut a couple hundred pages.

The book itself bridges the divide between adult and children’s fantasy, focusing on explicit scenes of sex and violence in one chapter and the squabbles and pride of youth in another, and its presence in both worlds makes it all the more interesting.

Martin, a careful and wise writer who tends to characters as closely as plot, writes the beginnings of a tale not meant for the weak of heart. Characters suffer. You’ll dread the consequences … much like those tangled up in the war themselves.

17 thoughts on “Winter is coming: a review of A Game of Thrones

  1. Terrific! I’m so glad you posted this today. Amazon keeps suggesting this for me, and I keep putting it aside for later, but it sounds like I need to grab it. Good thing, I just finished another book….

    I wish you could review all the books they recommend for me Stephanie…

    :)

  2. Your review makes me even more excited to read the series. However, I have to tackle American Psycho and Paper Towns first.

  3. I am happy that you enjoyed the book. It is one of the few sic-fi series that I recommend to my friends because the characters are so relatable. I love Martin’s writing, but I wish he didn’t write so slow. It takes 2-3 years to complete one book.

    • Martin is a superb fantasy writer from what I’ve read so far. I know the wait can be hard, but it’s worth being patient. Martin isn’t a commercial writer—by taking his time, he’s showing that he’s more committed to the quality of his writing than to the payout. Finishing a book is hard work for anyone, let alone someone writing 800+ pages of prose! It takes years to perfect what’s written, not to mention put ink to paper to begin with.

      • This is one of the reasons why I love Martin’s books and his short stories. You can appreciate the time and effort put into the writing, to make the story stand out from other writers.

      • I know Martin’s written a lot of stories before A Song of Ice and Fire. Do you have any favorites, Elizabeth? Thanks for your comments!

      • The Ice Dragon and the In the House of the Worm. Both are very short stories. These are two of the recents ones I have read. It is very hard to pick a favorite.

  4. I started to read it, but I had to stop (and waiting to restart) because I just got so bored/distracted… it felt to me like reading a history book a touch, with too many moving parts and characters to keep track of. (To reinforce this feeling, I’ve been bored stiff with the HBO show too.)

    This isn’t to say I will end up hating it… I’m just not loving his writing style, and all I can think of the whole time I’m reading this series (or watching the TV show) is how much better Terry Brooks’ Shannara series is at doing the same thing.

    If you want truly epic storytelling- something that outdoes Lord of the Rings, even- you’re going to want to start with the Sword of Shannara series. (Good news: There’s now like 20 books in the Shannara franchise so the greatness never stops coming!)

    I will restart Game of Thrones (and keep watching the TV show) but so far I’m in the minority… I’m not swept up in it like I hoped I would be. That said, enough people with good taste are in so much love with it, I will keep giving it a shot. >_<

    • Haha! Thanks for your honesty, Jaym. No book, no matter how good it’s said to be, can please everyone.

      Game of Thrones does have a lot of characters to keep track of, but I found this issue worked itself out the more I read, so I didn’t consider it a problem. Fantasy books tend to have a lot of characters and alliances by nature. As for the history complaint, maybe war storytelling just bores you? Who knows! In any case, don’t worry about it—read what you love, not what you’re supposed to love.

      I’ll be sure to look up the series you recommended and add the first book to my wish list. :)

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