I could go on about this book for quite a while, but I’ll try to make this short, because it all boils down to this: it’s good. Really good.
The basic premise: It’s about 14 years after (most of) the nobility of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros (that’s the continent) rebelled against the insane King Aerys (II) Targaryen, killed him and (almost) his entire family, and put Robert Baratheon on the Iron Throne. Robert travels to Winterfell, the seat of House Stark, to appoint his friend Eddard “Ned” Stark the Hand of the King (the guy who actually runs the kingdom while the king goes off boozing and whoring). Troubled by the suspiciously sudden death of the previous Hand, the upcoming winter (oh, by the way, seasons last multiple years in this world. WTF?) and the signs that things are not only bad, but about to get much, much worse, Ned accepts the job, inadvertently setting off a chain of events that might mean the destruction of his house and the entire kingdom.
That, of course, is grossly oversimplified, and it really only covers the first few chapters, but it’s a start. One of the things I found most interesting about the book (later explored more in A Clash of Kings and presumably the rest of the series) is the fact that most people (in Westeros, anyway) consider magic to be gone from the world, even though there were dragons and shapeshifters and magi mere centuries ago. In fact, the book opens with members of the Night’s Watch being killed by really scary undead called the Others, and by the end it’s fairly clear that magic is definitely real and usable. This allows the world to have fantastical elements without undermining the reality and grit of the setting (magic is rare and dangerous, so everybody has to really work for their power, but it’s still present, which means that there’s always a possibility of some really crazy shit happening, which indeed it does).
Another great thing about Westeros is the aforementioned grit, or, I should say, shit. This is a setting that is not afraid to be dirty. It’s full of whores and bastards (both literal and metaphorical, although I can’t think of anyone who’s both in A Game of Thrones) , thieves and rapists and liars and general scum. There is not a single purely heroic character in this novel. That’s partly because most of the characters are assholes to some extent, between cheating on their spouses, being cruel to their siblings, killing innocent children, shamelessly lying and betraying, being arrogant or just killing people indirectly. It’s also because the world George R. R. Martin has created is so unfair that trying to be a good person (or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time) is a great way to either get killed or make the political situation a lot worse (or, hey, both!).
What’s surprising, given the above, is how sympathetic and interesting Martin has managed to make his characters. This is largely due to the fact that the story is told from the point of view of many, many different characters. There are (reportedly) 31 narrators in the series so far, nine in A Game of Thrones. Everyone looks better through their own eyes, where you can see their reasoning. This is particularly effective in the case of characters who would otherwise be portrayed (unjustly) as straight villains, like Tyrion Lannister (who is foreshadowed to be a villain very early in the book but actually turns out to be a decent guy, judged against most of the characters) and (mini-spoiler) Daenerys Targaryen, who would probably be seen as unimportant and unsympathetic if we didn’t have her POV.
Bottom line: There’s something about this book series that reminds me of Lord of the Rings. Maybe it’s the dragons. Maybe it’s Samwell Tarly (he’s about as similar to Samwise Gamgee as his name is). Maybe it’s the sheer awesomeness, or the sadness. But what’s different is that A Game of Thrones has political machinations instead of battles (it has those as well), moral complexity instead of black-and-while fantastic racism, and a kingdom tearing itself apart from the inside while facing threats from the outside instead of an epic battle of good and evil. It’s sort of like our current political problems, translated into fantasy. All we have to do is wait for the dragons to come from China to take over the country.
Holy shit, this was published in 1996. George R. R. Martin is clearly psychic.
[Featured image: iceandfire.wikia.com.]