My brother, Ben, has been bugging me to read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series since HBO debuted its television adaptation, A Game of Thrones. I had given Ben a boxed set of the first four books for his birthday, and he insisted I borrow the set when he had finished reading them all a few weeks later. And so it sat, a conversation piece on my entertainment center for close to a year and a half until he finally made me give it back before Michel and I moved to Chicago earlier this summer.
As Michel and I were finishing up our packing, I found a gift card to Half Price Books, a present from a former student. Many of you know my massive hatred for Half Price (it has nothing to do with their prices, simply their complete and utter refusal to utilize any sort of organization and inventory system, but that is an argument for another time), but it was free book money, so off I went. With a family vacation to Colorado planned shortly after the big move, I decided I had found the perfect time to launch into Martin’s epic saga. Lo and behold, my local Half Price Books had one copy of A Game of Thrones in near perfect condition.
I started with the appendix. Tip: Don’t start with the appendix. It is a list of all the characters, by house, with an as complete a lineage for each character as is germane to Martin’s story. It is 24 pages long. I panicked. I turned to my brother who said, “Forget the appendix. Just start reading. You’ll figure out the characters really quickly.” He was right. There are still a few minor characters and a few more practically insignificant characters who I get mixed up, but Martin brilliantly structures the story so that major players are easily recognized and remembered. My inner English teacher thrilled at the names designed to connect groups of characters. (My students and I always appreciate any perceived mnemonic devices, whether intentional by the author or not.) It was no big deal.
And it was amazing. Talk about world building. Martin’s Westeros is a complex, fully-realized geographic locale, and its Seven Kingdoms are distinctly yet cohesively drawn. Martin does not spend a lot of time explaining each place and each person to you. There is a map in the front and the aforementioned dreaded appendix of characters in the back, but otherwise he plunks the reader down in medias res and expects the reader to catch up quickly. I appreciate that. It’s different from something like Harry Potter, where we are discovering the world along the protagonist. In this kind of book, where the world exists, already discovered, before the reader, I want to be trusted to figure it out, and if the author has done his or her job in building the world, I will. So kudos, Mr. Martin.
Additionally, Martin has structured the book in such a way that the characters are not only easy to remember but also are real people. Each chapter is from the perspective of one of a handful of characters, and the narrative thread is not necessarily linear, depending on whose chapter we are in. So for example, we might be seeing the journey from Winterfell from Ned’s perspective followed by Daenerys’s wedding from her perspective followed by life around Winterfell from Bran’s perspective and so forth. This builds tension and a desire in the reader to keep going, to find out what happens to Ned, Dany, Bran, and the others. It’s a more sophisticated and skilled version of ending each chapter with an obvious cliff-hanger, and it allows these characters to become real people. I absolutely HATE Sansa. I could not end my nightly reading on a Sansa chapter or I’d likely go to bed angry. I love Arya, empathize with Catelyn, and am entertained by Tyrion, bored by Ned, affectionately irritated by Jon. Each voice is so completely individualized that I have a totally distinct reaction to each character. That is quite the talent, to be able to juggle so many fully and authentically voiced characters successfully.
Finally, it’s just a great story! It harkens back to the epics of Tolkien and Lewis, of even the old songs and epic poems like Beowulf, yet there is a unique quality to the story. Martin takes the traditional epic novel tropes and tweaks and cuts out and creates anew. It is an absolutely gripping read, even when nothing seems to be happening. As Ben says, “Nothing happens and everything happens.” It’s very true. I read about 650 of the 810 pages during our 5 days on vacation. I slowed down once I was back in the real world as there was less time to read, but still, every time I opened the book, I wanted to just keep going. It’s that good. It’s also one of those books that should be a communal experience: one of the best parts was getting to a truly shocking or exciting moment, looking at Ben and saying, “Woah.” He’d grin, ask where I was, and then respond, “Yeah!” Not a super verbal sibling bonding experience, but a sibling bonding experience just the same. It’s not as satisfying an exchange over texts.
I have a few books that have been patiently waiting to be read, and so I will bid farewell to Westeros for a little while. However, I look forward eagerly to the next installment. And by the way, I’ve only seen the first episode and about five minutes of the last episode of Season 1 of HBO’s Game of Thrones. I’m so glad I’m reading the books first!