Wednesday, 12 September 2001

George R.R. Martin: A Game of Thrones (1996)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1996
Review number: 942

Most fantasy novels ignore politics almost entirely, relying on devices such as magic to ensure, say, the succession of a long lost heir. Even when the political arena is portrayed, it is usually part of a background which is a sanitised version of medieval Europe and is made anodyne and unconvincing as a result. Martin's fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire is different; it takes the savage and complex world of medieval politics and makes it the main theme of his story.

The Baratheon family has recently become the ruling dynasty of the Seven Kingdoms following a civil war which ended with the defeat and death of the previous, insane king and the decimation of his family. King Robert is far from secure, with Targaryen princes alive in exile and powerful families within the kingdoms making them hard to rule, especially as the tedious business of actually ruling is less to his taste than the fighting for the throne.

The politics here involve assassination, war, false accusation, political marriages, bribery and corruption. They are characterised strongly by the personalities involved - ruthless, honourable, timid, clever and stupid. This is typical of real world medieval politics where so much of the way that power worked was connected to the individual character and their reputation (being considered an unlucky commander, for example, made military failure more likely in the future as others became unwilling to ally themselves). The missing element is religion; this is far more a personal matter than it was in Christendom, and even the adherence of the northern Stark family to older gods is tolerated.

The novel has, like many fantasies, been compared to Tolkien, but the interest in politics makes it seem to me to be more like Frank Herbert's Dune. The writing of Machiavelli is also clearly an influence. The important quality of the writing in A Game of Thrones is that it is very well characterised, so that the reader cares about the political manoeuvring. It is an excellent piece of truly grown up fantasy.

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