After a hiatus from SF and fantasy fiction writing spent working in television, George R.R. Martin came home. And — who'd have thunk it? — he threw his hat into the epic fantasy ring with jaw-dropping results, beating Brooks, Jordan, Goodkind, et al at their own game with the effortless confidence of a consummate, seasoned pro. It's as if he simply shrugged, cracked his knuckles and said to himself, "I guess I better show these kids how it's done."
A Game of Thrones is a knockout, a bullseye, a touchdown, a home run with bases loaded. A gargantuan fantasy saga set in a world where seasons last years, it earns the right to be called an epic by virtue of its sweeping and engrossing story, and the most believable and human cast of characters to populate a fantasy this side of Guy Gavriel Kay. Sure, it's a bit of a chore to keep track of all of them, but Martin rewards stalwart readers with the kind of storytelling most fantasy writers can only dream of pulling off. Multiple plotlines abound, intrigues pile upon intrigues, and virtually none of it flags or falters despite the book's nearly 900-page length. While many authors seem to think that all you have to do to write an epic fantasy is make it really, really long, Martin knows you've gotta fill all those pages with a narrative that engaginges your readers' hearts and minds, their empathy and their intellect, and keeps them glued.
Martin's epic is set in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, on a world in which summers can last a decade or more, and winters nearly a century. Eddard Stark is lord of the Keep of Winterfell, who finds himself hosting a surprise visit from his old friend and king of all the realm, Robert Baratheon. Eddard once aided Robert in an uprising against the ruling Targaryens, and only he seems aware just how dangerous Robert's queen, Cersei Lannister, and indeed the entire Lannister House, really is. Cersei has designs upon the throne for her snot of a son, Joffrey, and will evidently stop at nothing to achieve her ends. King Robert asks Eddard to take the position of King's Hand — sort of like his prime minister — as the previous hand, Jon Arryn, has met with an untimely death. Eddard accepts only out of duty, for his wife Catelyn has told him that her sister, Arryn's widow, is convinced Queen Cersei is behind his poisoning. Robert, though he dislikes his wife, remains blissfully ignorant of the extent of her intrigues.
Eddard's appointment begins under a cloud. One of his youngest sons, Bran, nearly dies in a horrible fall that leaves him paralyzed and comatose, and which we know was no accident. Bran has inadvertently stumbled upon one of Cersei's darkest secrets, and nearly pays with his life. After Eddard is miles away from Winterfell, at court in King's Landing, Bran awakens from his stupor, and though he cannot remember what it was he saw, Catelyn and the eldest Stark son, Robb, are now convinced that the Lannisters are up to absolutely no good. Catelyn hurries off to King's Landing to warn her husband, leaving Robb in charge of Winterfell, a 15-year-old boy suddenly thrust into the position of Lord.
It is easy to forget just how hard it is in a novel to create a living, breathing, fully three-dimensional character until you see it done by a genuinely gifted talent. Among the more memorable players in this game are Tyrion Lannister, the black sheep of the Lannister clan, stunted by dwarfism. At first the one member of Cersei's family remotely sympathetic to the Starks, he finds himself swept up in the growing turmoil between the two families until all of his skills at conniving must be brought to bear simply to stay alive. Jon Snow, a bastard son of Eddard's, rejected by Catelyn, joins the Night's Watch, a legion whose duty it is to guard an immense wall far to the north, beyond which lies a fearsome supernatural threat to the Seven Kingdoms. And in a fascinating subplot, we meet princess Daenerys Targaryen, one of the last surviving heirs to that unseated regime. Living in exile in a land far across the ocean (the book doesn't even provide a map to it) and having been wedded to a savage but noble warlord, she dreams of returning to her homeland one day and seeing the Targaryen name and its power restored.
Martin has an ability to go for the gut that most of his contemporaries in the fantasy genre simply lack, because they also happen to lack his character development skills. Whether in its bloody and savage battle scenes or in its intimate portrayal of the bonds of family and brotherhood, A Game of Thrones has a raw emotional force that hits you where it counts while avoiding the graphic excesses of, say, Terry Goodkind. Much of the time you do feel you're being manipulated — there are certain characters you simply want to see die in the most agonizing possible way, and occasionally Martin pays off — but it's being done so expertly you don't mind.
There is an exhilarating quality to this story that has been absent in fantasy, which has in turns been stultifed by literary pretensions or hamstrung by recursive, self-referential humor, for who knows how long. Martin's tale mostly dispenses with such post-Tolkien clichés as wizards and elves and spells and dark lords, turning its focus to real people and only hinting at supernatural or mystical goings-on behind the scenes. Thus the whole saga feels more like historical fiction than formula fantasy. In spite of its length, one factor for which I criticize epic fantasies on general principle most of the time, the book almost never flags in its pace. Martin's conceit of finishing most of his chapters with a cliffhanger keeps you wired, athough the multicharacter and multiplot nature of the story can make it terribly frustrating when you're presented with a shocking turn of events only to be suddenly thrust into another scene, without being able to get any sort of resolution for another 60 or so pages. But mostly, Martin balances his story well, leaving, in the end, only a few characters' narratives lacking closure — a situation successfully calculated to have you clamoring for the next book.
Dazzling in the scope of its legendry and in its heartfelt humanity, A Game of Thrones signals the onset of perhaps the most significant work of fantasy since Bilbo found the One Ring. True, that is a claim that critics and readers have made time and time again about virtually every fantasy saga to see print, but until now, in all honesty, it's been hyperbole. With A Song of Ice and Fire, it may well be true. This is one that will go beyond the status of bestseller into honest-to-goodness classic.