Monday, May 10, 2010

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

Five years ago I joined my first raiding guild in WoW. It was named "Fire and Blood" and its leaders were named Rhaegar and Lyanna. When I asked them where their beautiful names came from they told me they were from the "A song of Ice and Fire" series. Now, years later, I've picked up a copy of the first book in the series. The cover has great quotes from some of my favourite fantasy writers such as Feist, Wurts and Hobb. I was very curious to find out if the book really is the best fantasy series created this decade.

The story takes place in the fictional Seven Kingdoms. These kingdoms have been reigned by the Targaryen family for centuries. Their reign ended fifteen years ago when they were overthrown and the throne was claimed by the new, current king, Robert Baratheon. The kingdom remains united but there's a frail peace. The alliances formed in the war aren't forgotten so easily and it will take only a small fire to set the kingdom ablaze. The book follows a number of highborn persons as the wick to set it all of is growing shorter and shorter.

There's a huge cast of characters, the appendix contains twenty-five (!) pages giving us an overview of who is who. Luckily, we're only seeing the story through the eyes of a handful and these can be divided in three camps. The main part of the book follows the Stark family. They're the rulers of the harsh, northern regions of the country. Eddard Stark, the honest lord of the region is asked to advise his old friend, the king. His girls, Sansa and Arya follow him to the royal court while his sons, Bran and Robb are left to reign Winterfell. Jon, his bastard son is sent off to join the black garde, watchers of the northernmost region of the kingdom. Eddard and his son, Robb are both honest men. They're the kind of rulers who would cut of their own hand when they stole something. But how far will their honesty lead them in  a royal court filled with treacherous snakes? Sansa is the cute, naive one. She's in love with prince Joffrey and she dreams that he will take her away on his great, white horse and ride of into the sunset. Arya on the other hand would rather be a boy. She enjoys playing with the boys and she'd much rather be a warrior than a princess.

Opposed to the Starks are their arch enemies, the Lannisters. Cersei Lannister is the queen of the kingdom. Her major interest lays in making sure that her son, the heir to the kingdom can raise to the throne as fast as possible. Anyone standing in her way can better order a coffin. Even the king himself can better grow a pair of eyes on his back. Tyrion is the black sheep of the family. Or rather, a black lamb as he's only dwarf sized. What he's missing in length he's more than making up for with his tongue and he's delivering some of the most witty dialogues in the book

And finally, to the far east we're following the last of the Targaryens, the overthrown kings, Viserys and his sister Draenerys, nicknamed Dany. Viserys thinks of nothing but retaking the kingdom through force. He's even willing to sell his sister to the "barbarian" horselords of the plains. Dany, still a child of thirteen, is following her brother blindly. The horselords are clearly inspired by the Mongols of our medieval times. They're nomads travelling great distances living of the land and their horses. And they're only following the strongest leader. Luckily for the west, they're also divided in smaller tribes and only a great leader can unite them. But if that were to happen, their fighting style could crush everyone. Hit and run tactics using a bow and horse trampled all over Europe 800 years ago. Draenerys, being married to the greatest of these horselords is trying to convince her king to do just that to the Seven Kingdoms...

Unlike the eastern tribes where the leader is the strongest one the western kingdoms have a hereditary system. It quickly becomes obvious that not all the lords in the realm are as courageous as the Starks or as cunning as the Lannisters. Fifteen years ago the previous king Aerys, the mad king was overthrown. And in the southern realms the Arryn queen is still breastfeeding her seven year old prince and treating him like a porcelain doll. And just when their country needs a strong leader, king Robert obviously isn't up to the job. He's hunting and partying every day while his counsel leads the country. It's nice to see cast where not everyone is a hero or villain but where everyone has his own flaws and strengths. The characters feel less like typical fantasy persons but more like the cast of a Roman court.

The book is driven by a great caste and all of these persons are driven by their own history. The book is filled with a rich, historic background. Bit by bit we're seeing what happened fifteen years ago and how it affects them. Viserys is vengeance-mad and wants to reclaim the kingdom by all means. If we find out how the Usurpers killed his mother and slashed his baby brothers skull to a wall then it's not hard to figure out why he's like that. And seeing how the alliances were fifteen years ago it's no wonder that there's such animosity between the different factions who are officially at peace. The history is so interesting that I'd love to read a prequel about the events that happened back when the Mad King was overthrown.

Overall, this is a great read. It's filled with great characters which drive the story to a logical conclusion. If there's one point of criticism it's that not all characters were equally interesting. Of course it's hard to be as witty as Tyrion or as innocent as Arya, my two favourite persons. Eddard and Sansa Stark were too honest and serious for my liking. But as this is a book in multiple parts I'm sure that this will be solved in its sequels. At the end of the book Sansa has surely lost her naivete and her innocence. As such, I'm more than looking forward to reading the sequel!

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