“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”–Cersei Lannister
This is a primer for the handful of holdouts who have not yet seen the HBO series Game of Thrones, nor read any of the A Song of Ice and Fire books on which the series is based. Now that I’ve finally read the first three books–A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords, I know why fans are gaga over the series. After reading the books, I just had to watch the series.
A Song of Ice and Fire has the elements that are common to all great stories, foremost of which is an interesting central plot. In this case, it is a fight for the throne.
Orbiting this central plot are unbelievably rich characters who you love, or love to hate, or both love and hate. I noted that the favorite of many is Tyrion Lannister, which is played by Peter Dinklage in the TV series. My favorite is Arya Stark. Other favorites that the author noted are Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen.
You may have heard that there are too many characters in this series. That is true. Along the way, you may wonder, “Who’s that again?” That person, or that family, may have merely been mentioned in passing, causing us to think that they are just part of the extras. And then, somewhere down the line, they turn out to have an important role to play. Okay, let me tell you now, if you intend to read the book or watch the series, do not dismiss the Martells, the Florents, Roose Bolton, Janos Flynt, the Tyrells, Ser Eric Dondarrion, and Ser Barristan Selmy.
The major characters are easy to remember, numerous though they are. That is because George R. R. Martin is very good at creating characters who feel so real that you cannot forget them. Take for instance how a man describes the very principled Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell. “You wear your honor like a suit of armor, Stark. You think it keeps you safe, but all it does is weigh you down and make it hard for you to move.” And right there, you wonder if you should respect him for his honor, or pity him for his inflexibility. Whichever way you feel, you will remember him for his integrity.
The author also shows a healthy respect for women and their abilities. There are ladylike ladies with cunning, or a sense of duty, or the wisdom to give war counsel, or elicit loyalty. And there are also fighting ladies who are strong, or try to be, or rise to the need.
But be cautioned. Do not get attached to any of the characters, noble and honorable they may be. Because one of the things that makes this series stand out is the fact that no one is safe. I mean it. No one. Though the setting is reminiscent of Arthurian legends, or Lord of the Rings, the similarity ends there. The storyline goes off into tangents more complicated than good versus evil. The life of any of the characters hangs on a knife’s edge, and can be kept or lost due to smarts, whim, or just random luck. So, get ready with your oh no‘s. Get ready to be shocked.
After all, this is war. This is the chaos that ensues after centuries of dynastic peace, when a bloodline spawns an unfit ruler, causing nobles to revolt, and powerful families to claw for power.
“It is no matter to them (the common people) if the high lords play their game of thrones so long as they are left in peace.”–Ser Jorah Mormont
Aside from having the most unpredictable storyline I have ever encountered in my long life as a bookworm, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books also has one of my favorite elements: wit. Most of it comes from Tyrion Lannister, the character half as tall as most men, but twice as smart. His life was under threat in an inn, when the innkeeper begged, “Don’t kill him here!” Which Tyrion followed up with, “Don’t kill him anywhere.”
As you go on to books two and three, or seasons two and three, more characters are getting in their own witty one-liners, all the better to break the tension of wars, intrigues and plottings that are going on.
And then, there is the author’s skill in weaving words into a picturesque tapestry:
- A mountain that even mountains looked up to.
- In the dawn light, the army of Lord Tywin Lannister unfolded like an iron rose, thorns gleaming.
- …glowing embers rising on the smoke, to float away into the darkness like so many newborn fireflies.
Oh, such elegant play of words. This is the kind of pleasure you can get only from reading books. Such artistry has no place on the screen, and is therefore sacrificed for visual storytelling (which has its own merits).
However, book or screen, gore is gore. Violence is violence. And sex is sex. I don’t relish any of these, and actually skip over these parts. The descriptions are very raw and gritty, detailing the pillaging, the raping, the killing, the coarseness and the vulgarity, the brutality and the cruelty. Okay, I read some of the passages, that is why I know. But while watching the DVD, I looked away.
Despite my weak stomach for such, I am well into the fourth book. I understand that the setting, though it is in some fantasy world called Westeros, is the equivalent of medieval times, when lives were valued only as far as they serve the crown, and knights were utterly loyal to the commands of their kings.
“Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?”–Lord Varys
And forsooth, here be dragons. And magic. And wights, dark shadows, and skin walkers. But they are not central to the story. Though classified among the fantasy genre, the plot of Game of Thrones is carried by realistic human strengths and weaknesses rather than by supernatural forces.
The series may have been inspired by familiar all-time bestsellers, but the genius of George R. R. Martin is that non of it sounds re-hashed. Not once did I think that I’ve read this before, or that I’ve seen this before. The series feels completely fresh. Completely new. There is nothing I can compare it to. It stands on its own as a landmark series that others will be copying.
For a new fan like me, I can only be excited that there are to be two more books in the series, making a total of seven for the series. The last two have not yet been published, but they already have titles: The Winds of Winter, and A Dream of Spring. And in the event that something happens to author George R. R. Martin before he completes books six and seven, he has already shared with the HBO creators his vision of how the story will end. Oooh, precious secrets.
Despite my aversion to violence and gore, A Song of Ice and Fire is just so good that I admit to being a raving fan. Fifty million copies sold speaks volumes (pun intended). So does fifteen million viewers on HBO.
So join the game, and share our excitement as we all find out if our favorite character will die, or live to win the game of thrones.