A Game of Thrones by GRR Martin

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.

 

Characters

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.

Worldbuilding

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.

Plot

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.

Conclusion

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?

Fantasy Maps

Like a lot of fantasy series, especially those set in a secondary world, my books will include a map. It is a map of the continent of Dalriya, where the series is set. Above you can see the full version, designed by Streetlight Graphics. Maps and fantasy series go hand in hand—so much so, that for some it has become a cliché. Joe Abercrombie made something of a punk rock statement by not including maps in his First Law trilogy. You can read his opinion piece on the question of maps on his website, here. For Abercombie, it seems to boil down to maps ‘getting in the way’ of the characters and their immediate story. And it has to be said, Abercrombie does character and story extremely bloody well.

I, however, am in the pro-map camp. Here are my musings on it.

 

Maps and Readers

When I read a fantasy book, I like to have a map to refer to, certainly when the action takes place over a large area. When I read Lord of the Rings, I pored over the pull-out map. I remember vividly, too, the detailed maps in David Eddings’ Belgariad series. They made these worlds more alive and made the experience of reading the book more immersive. If I had got my ruler out and started measuring how far the characters walked each day, tabulating my findings into a spreadsheet, then yeah, maybe that would have been a distraction. But I didn’t do that. Honestly, I didn’t. But I like maps. I like historical maps. If I’m playing a boardgame, and the board is a map, you can be pretty sure I will be sitting there as happy as a pig in muck.

BUT. Some people don’t like maps. They might sneer, or at the very least raise an eyebrow. Thing is, people who think a map is horribly clichéd, probably aren’t going to like my series anyway. It’s a fantasy series, and has a good portion of that genre’s tropes in there somewhere. Ergo, I don’t have to worry about such people. For those who do enjoy the genre, chances are they’ll appreciate a map. And anyway, it comes free. You don’t HAVE to look at the bloody thing, do you?

 

Maps and Writers

Perhaps more important, is the use of a map for a writer. I have no doubt that Joe Abercrombie has a map or two in his draw somewhere, even if he chose not to feature them in his book. Why? Because the secondary world he created was so believable, he must have spent some time thinking about how it all worked. When a writer hasn’t given it much thought, it becomes all too obvious to the reader. That’s when a fantasy fan might sneer, or at least raise an eyebrow.

And that is the connection between fantasy and maps. The fantasy author has had to create a whole new world as a setting for their story. As well as great characters and plot, fantasy fans want to see great worldbuilding. Having a map in front of me, made me ask some questions of the world I had created.

How long will it take my characters to get from A to B? Will they have to cross a river, or go through rough terrain, to get there?

What kind of government does this country have? What kind of religion? How many people live there? How wealthy are they? What do people do for a living?

What kind of relationship does this country have with its neighbour?

What is the history of this continent? Presumably, three hundred years ago, the map would have looked different?

This can give your world the illusion of reality, and allow your reader to enjoy the story. Not that your reader wants to, or should be told ALL of these things. They need to have the sense that there are answers to these questions, without being told all the boring detail. That would certainly get in the way of the story.