Goodkind, Feist, Eddings, Salvatore, Brooks, Williams, Donaldson, Jordan, etc., etc., the list of post-Tolkien imitat—err, I mean, writers—goes on and on. All are largely dependent on, and therefore derivative of, J.R.R.’s version of epic fantasy. Elves, broken swords, trollocs—sorry, trolls—evil lords, quests for numinous objects, ancient prophecies, farm boys turned kings, dragons, and ideas on and on fill these writers’ stories, original material a paucity. In 1996 another R.R., George R.R., came along and smashed this mold. Tolkien-esque only in scope, A Game of Thrones is epic fantasy for a new generation.
Iconoclast, A Game of Throne’s firm footing in realism is the biggest difference separating Martin from other writers in the genre. His cast of characters real-to-life not larger-than, the story’s source material is War of the Roses instead of Norse myth. Eddard Stark, one of the main protagonists, has many a blemish on his record, among them a bastard son. But even more realistic are his and the other characters’ motives. Caught in larger circumstances, the Stark family, as well as Lannister, Barratheon, and Martell families, find themselves reacting to rather than shaping events. Despite holding positions of power, their choices are most often less than optimum, no outcome guaranteed. Such is life in our world, as in Martin’s.
A Game of Thrones is primarily the story of the Stark family and its attempts to retain their legacy and unity as events in Westeros, the fantasy setting of the book, begin spinning out of control. The king, Robert Barratheon, a drunk, licentious man, cares not to become involved in the decay of the political and social structure of his kingdom and asks Eddard to become the King’s Hand, his second in command. Eddard, though reluctantly accepting the offer, sets about righting the ills of the kingdom according to a sense of propriety instilled in him by his forefathers. He tackles the economic, political, and religious issues with verve, trying to balance affairs with the deviant council he chairs in the king’s stead. But with myriad families and cabals, lords and bastard sons planning and plotting their piece of the monarchial pie, Eddard’s hope of righting the sinking kingdom quickly fades and survival becomes the name of the game—you know which.
But the story does not focus solely on Eddard. The appendices containing an extensive list of dramatis personae, the King’s Hand only marginally occupies the main character role. Each chapter devoted to a specific viewpoint, several of Eddard’s children, as well as members of a rival family, the Lannisters, flesh out the cast. In fact, characterization is the main strength of the novel. Though they number many, Martin is able to give each viewpoint a voice of their own. Though at times extreme in a sensational fashion, it’s always an affective voice. Contextually, readers will truly hate some while fall head over heels in love with others. Prince Joffrey is one for the gallows while Arya’s tomboy antics will have readers holding their breath over her every move.
If this amount of plot is not enough, there is a secondary storyline occurring on another continent to rival the interest of events on Westeros. Extracted and compiled into a novella, the story of the exiled queen, Daenerys Targaryen, and her plight to retake the throne from the Seven Kingdoms was so good as to win a Hugo. Arranged to be married to Dothraki warlord (think Genghis Khan), the events of Daenerys’ life take one unpredictable turn after another as she and her brother attempt to rebuild a base of power for a return to retake their beloved Westeros. However, like events in the lives of Eddard, his and the other families, things do not always pan out as intended for Daenerys.
The setting of Westeros, when viewed objectively, is not particularly unique save the Wall. The shape even similar, it could be Robin Hood’s England. Where Martin makes the world his own is by developing the history of the people populating it. Underpinning the novel and giving it depth, events which brought things to their current state of affairs are related to the reader in full detail. The Battle of the Trident, only a few decades past, divides the factions currently vying for the throne. Discussed on many occasions, each viewpoint has its own take on how events transpired that day. Who was on who’s side, who killed who and how, are not forgotten, the accounts not always in agreement. This story within a story—its own mythos—continually evolves as events in the present unravel and brings readers into closer contact with the characters—a brilliant play by Martin.
In the end, A Game of Thrones is epic fantasy in the mode of realism rather than myth. Events of the supernatural do occur, but they are few and far between. (Martin has been quoted as saying he prefers to sprinkle his fantasy like salt and pepper rather than pour it on the reader.) On the whole, it is the story of people—high to low—fighting to survive as radical change sweeps a land. Medieval in feel, kings, queens, knights, jousts, castles, and swords are the medium, but peasants, farmer's boys (not the typical fantasy farmer's boy), and the generally lesser known players all have a stake. Rich details and characterization, though occasionally operatic in simplicity, flesh out the medium into a vivid story worthy of the term “epic”. Though many of the plot devices have been tried-true in mainstream literature, there are few readers who pick up the novel and remain unaffected. Regardless of the final success of A Song of Ice and Fire (there are still two or three books to be written in the series), A Game of Thrones will be regarded as the standout of post-Tolkien fantasy, as without it, writers like Abercrombie, Morgan, Ruckley, and Lynch simply wouldn’t exist.
(An afterword on the television series: HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones is less than average. Some of the acting is quality, including Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, and Mark Addy who occupy their roles with subtlety. However, most of the actors are either cutting their teeth in the film industry or are simply bad. The sets and props are among the best a tv series can offer, but no matter how well you dress a turkey, it’s still a turkey. Watching the show it’s obvious the producers believe that sensationalism sells. Nearly every episode from the book has been altered to feature nudity, swearing, erotic scenes, and moments of the operatic—tears and tension—that embarrass the intelligent viewer. (Renly, for example, has been made homosexual to garner alternate viewership.) Far from prudish, I complain only that the most blunt tools possible are being used to get viewers: sex and melodrama. Do yourself a favor and read the book instead. At least the operatic elements are diluted by the mythos of Westeros the characters are embedded within.)