It’s been 20 years since A Game of Thrones hit the bookshelves. It’s had a transformative effect on the world of Fantasy, partly down to the huge success of the HBO Series. But when I first read it, in the late 1990s, it was just another fantasy novel. Few people knew then what it would become.
It’s fair to say that Martin has no better in terms of character creation. That said, the first novel of A Song of Ice and Fire is, to some extent, a different experience to the later books in the series, never mind the TV version. The series is known for many things: its huge scope, including the number of characters; the author’s willingness to kill off many of his characters, at regular intervals, with no sentimentality; the ‘grey’ nature of his characters, with a lack of simple good/evil characterisation; then of course the sex and violence, which is more apparent in the TV series than the original books.
These characteristics had not fully appeared in the first novel, however. Yes, there is already a big cast of characters, but the POV is pretty focused on the Stark family, the only notable exceptions being Tyrion and Daenerys. This makes A Game of Thrones a more tightly written affair than some of its successors, and allows the reader to engage with the storyline. The death toll is not so high. And while the grey areas are already there, from my perspective as a reader, I was soon rooting for the Starks, who were effectively the ‘good guys’. Around them was created a fascinating support cast, but they were the protagonists.
It has been interesting to see how the series has developed. The role of the Stark family has remained important, but it has undoubtedly been watered down. Other characters have barged their way into the story, taking it in new directions, some of which, I think, were not in the author’s original plan.
Martin took the classic, medieval-inspired fantasy world, and made it bigger, more densely populated, and more real than anyone had done before. That he was able to provide this scale and still deliver a killer story is perhaps his greatest achievement.
Most of the action takes place in Westeros, a kingdom recently united after a vicious civil war. The cracks in this unity are already beginning to show, however. Meanwhile, the Daenerys storyline reveals that there are many more realms beyond Westeros. Sometimes, there are so many other lands, with so little connection to the events in Westeros, that the scale of the world can seem too big.
At this point, the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is barely fantastical at all. There are no pointy eared elves, or fairies flying about, or wizards with long grey beards. The only dwarf is…well… a real dwarf, not a member of a fantastical race. It’s easy to forget how many of the staples of fantasy fiction were culled by Martin. In so doing, he modernised the genre and opened it to a new group of fans. That’s not to say that wizards, elves and dwarves have had their day—far from it. But it he did, in effect, introduce a new sub-genre, that tends to be called grimdark.
Of course, Martin didn’t do away with magic, not at all. He didn’t do away with an evil menace either, for surely that is the white walkers who live beyond the Wall. But he revelled in flawed characters, making difficult decisions in a cruel world they had no control over, a world not unlike our own.
Hmm. Where to start? There are so many plot lines. A central one is the political struggle for the Iron Throne. Then there is the supernatural threat to Westeros itself. But in some respects, the series resembles a soap opera, with multiple characters and storylines all interwoven into one whole. Of course, a harsher critic might suggest that Martin has failed to interweave said storylines and somewhat lost control of the project. It has become so complex, that Martin’s original vision of a trilogy is long gone and the series has yet to be completed, some twenty years after the release of the first book. Maybe it never will in the author’s lifetime. This is both a tribute to the scale of the project and a flaw and source of frustration to fans.
A Game of Thrones is a seminal, must-read novel for fantasy fans. I remember reading it all those years ago. I wouldn’t call the book an inspiration: I was in my mid-twenties when I read it. I had already picked up the fantasy bug from earlier novelists and was toying with my own ideas for a fantasy story. But it set a benchmark. It made me rethink my ideas. Not necessarily to create something the same, or as large: trying to do that could send a mere mortal mad. Just to make my own story better. All fantasy writers are now operating in a post A Game of Thrones world. The genre is no longer the same. How many books can you say that about?