Bantam Spectra, 2011 reprint of 1996 original, 864 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-553-57340-4
When it comes to long-form epic fantasy, I have no scruples relying on social proof as a reading guide. I’ll make my own damned reading decision with shorter books or in genres I like, but if I have to read a 5,000+ pages epic fantasy when I don’t particularly like either long-form stories or epic fantasy, it better be worth my time. It’s been a fixture on the Hugo nomination ballot? It’s a New York Times best-seller? It has a monstrously big fan following? It led to an HBO mini-series? Those are all reassuring hints telling me that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series, as launched by A Game of Thrones, is better than the usual fantasy swill that I’ve become allergic to.
I’ve had the first four books on my shelves for years now, but it took the HBO series and an extended amount of time spent at home to convince me to pull the trigger and start reading. I have a few rules of thumbs when it comes to selecting books to read, and A Game of Thrones pitted two of them in a match to the finish. Should “Read the book as soon as you can after seeing the movie” win over “Don’t read a series until all the books are out”? Well, sure. It’s not as if the last volume will be published before 2018 anyway…
And let’s make one thing clear: The HBO series couldn’t be a better advertisement for the book. Adapted with a surprising faithfulness to the source material, it’s a monumental ten-hour achievement that manages to portray an epic fantasy with dozens of characters and sweeping events within the scope of a TV series budget. SF/Fantasy fans are used to reading books while understanding that they could never be adapted for the screen, but this is an exception. The casting is perfect (something that becomes clearer after reading the book), the advantages of a lengthy miniseries over a motion picture are cleverly exploited (by featuring depth of characters, density of plotting and a rhythm that has time to breathe) and it shows just enough to make would-be readers about the extra depth that the book could contain. By the time the bittersweet conclusion of the first season rolls, it’s hard to take a look at Martin’s series lying on the bookshelf and resist the impulsion to read the first volume and rush through the subsequent books.
The first surprise is the lack of surprise. Or, rather, it’s the satisfaction of seeing how closely the series has adhered to the novel. There are a few changes, of course: Most of the young characters are even younger in the book (something that works better on the page that on-screen), the book is told in tight point-of-view that restricts the omniscient viewpoint of the series, and some scenes feel noticeably looser in the book, as if the series had tightened the bolts of an unwieldy mess of plots and sub-plots.
But more significant are the similarities: Fans of the series will immediately recognize the characters, events and complex lineages that end up forming the backbone of the series. The density of back-story that this first volume has to explain is such that having seen the series pays off almost immediately in the first few pages: References that would be meaningless to first-time reader are immediately understood, enhancing the immersion in this new universe.
Commenting the story on its own merit, it’s now clear that Martin, when this first volume was published in 1996, was trying to deliver a somewhat grittier take on heroic fantasy than many of his colleagues. The universe of A Song of Ice and Fire is tough and unsympathetic toward its heroes. One of them falls because he is too moral for his surroundings; he even disgraces himself in vain in a bid to gain mercy for himself and his family. Another dies of infection following a relatively minor wound. This is a universe with stillborns, prostitutes, self-deluding would-be princesses and very little explicit magic despite hints that the world used to be far more interesting in this regard. Most of the book is centered toward palace intrigue writ large, with warring factions being set up and lined for a fall. (If the series had an earnest subtitle, it would be something like “Problems with the concept of hereditary succession, with many examples.”) The temptation to be attached to characters is tempered by the suspicion that Martin is only too ready to kill them off at the slightest opportunity.
In short, A Game of Thrones takes familiar elements of classical epic fantasy and re-uses them competently. The density of awe-inspiring wonders is less here than in other series, but the attention to characters, the depth of the imagined mythology and family lineage, the deceptively easy prose all combine to produce a smooth reading experience. This is about as good as long-form epic fantasy ever gets, so it’s no big wonder if the series has gained such a popular following inside and outside the usual fantasy circles: It’s good, it’s handled with skill and (it always helps) it’s now even further enhanced by its TV adaptation.
The result is good enough to make me ignore my usual “don’t read books before the last volume is out” guideline. It’s a roaring start to a promising series, and I’ve got four more books to go before I’m as caught up with it than the other fans. Onward!