I have freely admitted that before the HBO series "Game of Thrones," I was not familiar with George R. R. Martin's work. Truly, sometimes my ignorance is just breathtaking.
Once the television series began, I was quickly hooked. It was a rich and fascinating story of families, betrayal, loyalty, human perfidy and cruelty, heroic deeds, all laid over with a mysterious threat to the civilization of the seven kingdoms of Martin's world. The acting was good and the production values outstanding. It was, in short, a very good series. What of the books from which the tale came? I had to find out for myself.
What I have found in reading the first book of the Song of Ice and Fire series is that the television series was very true to the book. All the characters and all the action that were part of the series are there in the book. It is an amazing read.
Martin has created a mythical land that seems as though it might have been real in some dim and distant past, perhaps the time we call the Middle Ages. In this world, summers can last for decades and winters for a lifetime or more. We enter the world at a time of summer. It has been summer for many years but now winter is creeping back. Strange things are happening in the haunted forests of the North, beyond "The Wall."
The great family which rules in the North, closest to the lands beyond the Wall, is the Starks, led by Eddard (Ned) Stark, a man to whom honor, family, and loyalty to friends are everything. While sinister and supernatural forces are gathering in the frozen lands beyond the Wall, news of equally sinister events in the South reaches Ned Stark at his home in Winterfell. The Hand of the King, the man charged with seeing that the commands of the king are carried out, has died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Now the king needs a new Hand and he calls on his old friend Ned to fill the office.
Ned is well and truly in the middle. Danger from the North and from the South leaves him filled with foreboding. He has no desire to leave Winterfell and his family, but one cannot say "no" to the king. In the end, he heads South with the king and his entourage, taking his two young daughters with him, so that they will have the advantage of acquaintanceship at the king's court. The reader has a premonition here (even if she hadn't seen the series) that this will not end well for Ned, an honorable man thrown into a pit of poisonous vipers and (Spoiler alert!) it doesn't.
Martin makes his fantasy world come alive with his wonderfully intricate descriptions of pageants and plots, the contrast between the harsh and unyielding lives of the North, where "Winter is coming" is more than just the Stark family's catchphrase, and the epicurean kingdom of the South, where food and wine are plentiful and where the great houses play the game of thrones for keeps.
Martin has created some wonderfully interesting characters that the reader comes to care about and is invested in. Chief among these, of course, is Ned Stark, but there is also his bastard son, Jon Snow and his younger daughter, Arya, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, his other four children. There is Daenerys (Dany), the last of the Targaryens, the old dynasty that had been overthrown by the great families when the outrages of the mad king Aerys II had become too much to bear. Dany and her knight, Ser Jorah Mormont, are fascinating creations and I'm sure we will hear more from them. And then there is Tyrion Lannister, the second son of the great house of Lannister, a dwarf and a cynic who seems a near match for Ned Stark when it comes to honor.
Characters that one cares about, great action, lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror - it's all here. And more! I can't wait to see what happens next, so I'm heading right into the next book in the series, A Clash of Kings.