A Game of Thrones
by George R. R. Martin
Published in 1996
Published by Bantam Books
This little-known novel has found a small following since its publication. It is a happy story of people who behave morally and never get hurt and cute puppies who definitely never get their heads chopped off. I found the novel unrealistic because nothing bad happens to anyone important and major characters never get killed. If you're lucky, you might be able to find information about the plot online, but you'll have to search hard because the book really isn't widely known.
I'm generally wary of big fat novels with lots of sequels. Sometimes I like to pretend sequels don't exist. For example, I read Dan Simmons' Hyperion, enjoyed it, and then decided that my enjoyment of the novel would not possibly be improved by picking up the sequels, despite (because of?) the fact that Hyperion ends on a cliffhanger and leaves about a zillion unanswered questions. Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle I treated as one long novel spaced across three hefty volumes. As for Harry Potter, I waited until the last novel was out and then I just read all seven in one go. I found them to be enjoyable reads, but I'll admit I also felt that I needed to be up to speed for pop culture literacy purposes.
As it is for Game of Thrones. I haven't seen the HBO series yet (although my big George R. R. Martin fan of a sister-in-law will probably correct that soon enough), and I came to the first book partially unspoiled. (I already knew about the most shocking character death in the first book, but I didn't know precisely when or how it would happen.)
Part of why I finally picked up A Game of Thrones is a determination to acquaint myself with the plot on my terms, despite the fact that the English-speaking pop-cultural universe seems determined to bombard me with spoilers. I want to learn that Khal Drogo is actually Joffrey's father through my own reading, not because somebody spilled the beans on Facebook.
I expected lots and lots of characters. I got lots and lots of characters. My only problem with keeping loads of characters straight in my head is that I often have trouble telling which ones are going to be important and which ones I don't need to pay as much attention to. I think I was a couple of chapters past Littlefinger's introduction before I realized that he was actually an extremely important character whom I should be devoting mental space to following.
I expected loads of violence. I got loads of violence. When a certain first-tier major character was badly hurt early on in the book and spent a couple of chapters in a coma, I wrote him off for dead immediately, thinking, Wow. They really weren't kidding about nobody in these books being safe. I was too quick to pronounce him dead (so far) but there isn't a single character living at the end of the first book who I don't expect to be beheaded, disembowelled, dissolved in molten gold, thrown off a mountain, drowned, frozen to death, eaten by wolves, or impaled on a spike by the time the series draws to a close.
Based on Internet chatter, I expected lots of sex. As for what I got, while the novel's not prudish by any means, it contains no more sex than many other novels written for an adult audience. I suspect the issue here is not that the books are particularly full of sexual content; it's the HBO series, and the manner in which the series uses and presents sex to the audience, that's prompted all the chattering. (There's a lot of talk about how the TV series deals with sex, not all of it positive. I'll have thought of my own once I actually watch the TV series.)
So what do I take away from the novel?
Well, the absolute centrality of the importance of bloodlines to the mindset of the characters. Who you are is determined by who your parents were. Period. Now, of course that's nothing new. Not only is it how people organized real-world societies for hundreds and hundreds of years, you also see the same attitude pervading even modern fiction that doesn't take place in a pseudo-historical setting -- Star Wars, for instance
But in A Game of Thrones it's hammered home, again and again, that this is how these people think. For instance, I almost could have liked first-tier major character Catelyn Stark, but she ruined any sympathy I might've had for her through her hatred of her husband's illegitimate son, ultra-squeaky-clean-good-guy Jon Snow, for no reason other than the fact that he dared grow up in the same building that she lived in. But then, treating Jon with civility would probably be about as alien a concept to her as, say, instituting a democratic form of government at Winterfell and having the next leader of the North elected from among the peasantry. These people are Not Of Our Culture.
Also, as with Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, I'm fascinated by the political maneuvering. Politics and intrigue takes up a larger chunk of A Game of Thrones than Robinson's Mars books; I hope the subsequent books continue the habit. I like courtly drama and backstabbings and betrayals as long as they don't happen to me in real life; last year I read Shan Sa's Empress, a novelized account of the real-life Chinese ruler and seventh-century badass Empress Wu which was full of remarkably similar intrigue, and quite enjoyed it.
I also like that, despite the presence of dragons and ice zombies on the periphery, the main thread of the narrative is completely devoid of magic or supernatural happenings or anything that doesn't exist in our world. I respect that, although I'm aware that we'll be seeing plenty more magic and dragons in future books.
I'll have to continue reading George R. R. Martin's books, so as not to be spoiled when someone with loose lips blabs that Daenerys is really Tyrion's mother.