As time progresses, and the literary cannon grows and grows, every new writer born in some ways gets the short end of the stick. Why? Because so many ideas have been taken, some so worn out that they get labeled as “tropes” or “clichés.” Thus, modern writers often have the burden of having to find something original in a world in which so many things have been done before. Some make entire careers out of finding ways of subverting tropes, being antithetical, and therefore exciting. This is certainly the case with George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin takes the well-worn genre that grew out of the Middle Ages and peaked with Tolkien, and turns it on its head, making for a thrilling read.
One of the unwritten rules of fantasy, at last before Martin came along, was that the hero prevails. He beats the odds. It can be tough, but he makes it out alright in the end. Perhaps he experiences loss, the death of a sidekick or a horse or a friend, but he does not perish. This is not so in A Game of Thrones. Here, much like in real life, no one is safe. In that sense, this high fantasy novel reads a lot more like the turbulence of reality than many other, less inventive books. The novel ends with the beheading of a character who is set up, in every preceding page, as the hero. Martin impresses upon his reader that everyone has flaws, even the hero, and he does not get any special treatment in the randomness of fate.
A Game of Thrones further subverts the fantasy genre with its treatment of characters. The book refuses to vilify or venerate any one character. Instead, Martin allows you to understand the motivations of each character in turn, so that even if you don’t agree with their actions, you cannot blatantly hate them. By the end of the novel, the reader is left sympathizing with a man who closes the first chapter by pushing a seven-year-old boy out of a window. Only someone as adept as Martin can paint two sides of a person that well.
Finally, the novel’s female characters serve as a potent way to subvert traditional fantasy tropes. In most high fantasy, the women do not have their own agendas. They are tools, playthings, and trophies for the men who ride horses and fight wars and move them conveniently around the chess board of their own lives. This is not so in Martin’s book. While the novel is set in medieval times and thus realistically portrays appropriate historical subjugation of women, Martin balances this with determined female characters who not only have goals, but also the ruthless will to make those goals a reality. Like all his male characters, these women are nuanced, not just good or bad. One of the most popular characters in the sprawling cast is the young Daenerys Targaryan, who, sold into marriage by the brother, becomes empowered to gather an army in preparation to reconquer the Seven Kingdoms, which she views as her birthright. Another, incredibly three-dimensional character is Cersei Lannister, who, as wife of the king, is unhappy with her secondary status in the kingdom, and whose thirst for power and militant protection of her children often paint her hands red with blood. We are horrified by her, but we reluctantly admire her, and in hard times, we sympathize with her.
The book is split into differing perspectives, mostly of the main, clashing families of Stark and Lannister. It is also long, perhaps longer than it needs to be, but the world it builds is so colorful and riveting that you probably won’t find yourself complaining. Martin will not coddle his reader, which makes the book somewhat of a rollercoaster, with nail-biting climaxes and brutal deaths, but in the end, entirely worth it. Make sure the sequel is close at hand!
A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)
Author: George R. R. Martin
Publisher: Bantam Books
Publication Date: August 1996
Reviewer: Sarisha Kurup is a senior at The Harker School in San Jose, CA.