A Book Every King Should Read

Game of Thrones (Song of Ice & Fire)
by George R. R. Martin
1997 Penguin Random House

Game of Thrones Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin.jpg

George R. R. Martin, screenwriter, editor and epic fantasist, has so far delivered four of the seven volumes planned in his sweeping A Song of Ice and Fire saga. Book five, A Dance with Dragons, has been eagerly anticipated by fans for at least three years now. Ideally, it will arrive in time for the Spring 2011 premiere of HBO’s television series based on Martin’s books. Those books feature the family of Eddard “Ned” Stark, Lord of Winterfell, as he contends with the machinations of rival House Lannister to the south and a supernatural menace in the frozen wastes to the north.

A Game of Thrones, the first book of the series (and the basis for season one of the television show, starring Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey), opens with King Robert Baratheon paying a visit to Ned Stark, a man he loves more than his own brothers. With him he brings his knights of the Kings-guard, his queen Cersei Lannister, their three children and her two brothers. But why? Deep in the Stark family tombs, with statues of their beloved dead looking on, Baratheon explains:

“I am surrounded by flatterers and fools. It can drive a man to madness, Ned. Half of them don’t dare tell me the truth, and the other half can’t find it. There are nights that I wish we had lost [the battle] at the Trident. Ah, no, not truly, but…”

“I understand,” said Ned softly.

Robert looked at him. “I think you do. If so, you are the only one, my old friend.” He smiled.

“Lord Eddard Stark, I would name you the Hand of the King.”

This is the decisive action that, while not explosive in itself, lays dynamite for the consequences to come. Jon Arryn, Robert’s previous Hand, has recently died. The position is coveted by lords of every major house, including the Lannisters; The Hand of the King

was the second-most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms. He spoke with the king’s voice, commanded the king’s armies, drafted the king’s laws. At times, he even sat upon the Iron Throne to dispense the king’s justice, when the king was absent, or sick, or otherwise indisposed.

It sounds like with Robert dodging the fools and yes-men of his court, Ned would be the King. Our protagonist realizes this, thanks his friend for the honor, and hastily demurs. He does so knowing that Robert’s brothers, Stannis and Renly, could each do the job, albeit with less of the King’s favor.

In the scene above, Martin paints for us the humble heroism characteristic of the Starks — which he quickly follows with overreaching evil of the Lannisters. It begins as Ned’s precocious seven-year-old Brandon climbs along the upper battlements of his father’s castle. Doing so is the boy’s hobby, so he’s quite nimble. When he reaches his favorite haunt, a tall, broken tower, he begins to overhear a conversation that he knows he shouldn’t:

“You’re as blind as Robert,” the woman was saying.

“If you mean I say the same thing, yes,” the man said. “I see a man who would sooner die than betray his king…”

Bran was suddenly very frightened. He wanted nothing so much as to go back the way he had come, to find his brothers. Only what would he tell them? He had to get closer, Bran realized. He had to see who was talking.

The man sighed. “You should think less about the future and more about the pleasures at hand.”

“Stop that!” the woman said. Bran heard the sudden slap of flesh on flesh, then the man’s laughter.

But by the time Bran can see the conspirators through a window, they are naked, with faces obscured in what he understands to be agony:

…because the woman started to moan, low in her throat.

“Stop it,” she said, “stop it, stop it. Oh, please…”

But her voice was low and weak, and she did not push him away. Her hands buried themselves in his hair, his tangled golden hair, and pulled his face down to her breast.

One might think they’ve picked up one of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel novels, about a young woman named Phedre who is cursed to find pleasure in pain. Alas, the above is our first glimpse of twin siblings Ser Jaime Lannister and Queen Cersei, who have sired in secret the three children that King Robert believes to be his own.

Shocked to recognize the Queen, Bran unknowingly makes a sound. The twins reach the window in a flash, and Ser Jaime offers his hand. The boy takes it and sits relieved on the sill. Ser Jaime’s next line, however, is, “The things I do for love.” He then pushes Bran off the ledge, into the courtyard, leaving him crippled.

Original cover illustration by Stephen Youll for A Game of Thrones

Original cover illustration by Stephen Youll for A Game of Thrones

On a surface level, Martin’s characters and plots read like the bubble and pop of a soap opera. Two more of Ned Stark’s five children, Jon and Sansa for example, are paradigms of the noble bastard and the rich bitch. When Jon is exiled to the northern barrier of solid ice named The Wall and forced to join the chaste Brotherhood, he suffers the demands of cantankerous Lord Mormont with nary a whimper. And radiant Sansa, flush with prospects of high marriage, never fails to torment her tomboyish younger sister Arya, whether they’re dining, sewing or mixing with the Baratheons. Yet it is Martin’s sculpture of these personalities over time, their slow evolution away from archetype, that comes to dazzle the reader and enables the series to soar. As in real life, so too in these books, shallow first impressions give way to deeper realizations.

Few of today’s modern fantasy writers have both the subtlety of craft and the faith in their fans’ patience to do what Martin does. For starters, he is at the low end of the magical spectrum: supernatural occurrences are mainly historical, seldom happening within his pages. A Game of Thrones has, three hundred pages in, a pair of zombies. Then, four hundred pages later, three infant dragons hatch. Two quick instances separated by oceans of build-up. Active wizardry and battles with inhuman creatures – the absolute staples of so much in the fantasy genre – do not drive the story. They are the barest filigree in Martin’s world.

His contemporaries, gleefully stretching their imaginations, sit elsewhere in the spectrum. Holding a tidy, exceptional niche in the middle-ground is David Farland and the Runelords saga. His is a magical system where physical and mental traits are traded among individuals through branding with runes of something called blood metal. The results include super-strength, speed and stamina. There is also a race of gigantic, insect-like sorcerers, and a woman made of green flame whose timidity belies her destructive potential. But (and this is critical for readability) Farland’s fantasy elements remain quantifiable. His characters, fleshed-out with aplomb if not brilliance, never become puppets within their set pieces. Their individual actions lead the narrative. Tension builds in knowing they can be killed.

Less accessible than Runelords is the hulking Malazan series by Steven Erikson. At the furthest extreme of the magical spectrum, Erikson’s entire universe roars down a conceptual autobahn, leaving readers flattened in its wake. There are human magic users, gods and goddesses, soldiers and seers- also, exotic races of Erikson’s own devising. But he often stages their violent, chaotic interactions across multiple realities, doing more to set the tone than advance the plot. This habit banishes any sense of drama to a swamp of hyper-scenarios. While we invest in his characters, see them meet up, travel together, laugh, fight- they are never tested. Their humanity- our connection to them- is undermined because the stakes are unclear.

Erikson’s critical fault is that little that’s sympathetic emerges from his cataclysmic backdrops. Unless you’ve read all else the fantasy genre has to offer, you’re likely to be fatigued by his penchant for self-indulgence. Not so with Martin. What his novels lack in monstrosities and spell-weaving, they make up in electrifying character arcs. Days after finishing A Storm of Swords (Book Three), I found myself thinking of Jon, Sansa, and others like the dwarf Tyrion Lannister. This is where I should call these characters my friends. And yet, it seems a simplification.

Original Cover illustration by Stephen Youll for A Clash of Kings

Original Cover illustration by Stephen Youll for A Clash of Kings

Because Martin loves to complicate things. Ser Jaime Lannister is introduced as merely a scheming lecher. Then, after his killing of Robert Baratheon proves him to be the most detestable character in the cast, his doom becomes a nectar we crave. When he loses his dashing good looks and his sword hand at the beginning of A Storm of Swords, we cheer. The book has us racing for his point-of-view chapters to see what will befall him next. And indeed, he goes on for the bulk of the story to suffer one indignity after another, and through all of it we are putty in Martin’s hands.

Ser Jaime’s captor is Brienne of Tarth, loyal to the Starks. She has been tasked by the Lady Catelyn Stark to deliver Ser Jaime safely to the Lannisters’ southern stronghold in exchange for Sansa and Arya. And she is so deadly serious about the assignment that Jaime actually comes to pity her. He realizes she’s a knightly spirit trapped in female form, making her an outcast and them kindred of a kind. Near the end of their journey south, when he has a chance to save her from arena combat against a bear, he does so.

At this point, we aren’t quite as ravenous for Ser Jaime’s demise as we are for the reunion with his sister Cersei, thoughts of whom helped him survive. And how will he and Brienne part ways, now that Martin has morphed him from a fiend to a student of gratitude? Their last scene together serves as a grace-note after this exchange with his sister:

“This was folly.” Cersei pulled her gown straight. “With Father in the castle… Jaime, we must be careful.”

“I am sick of being careful. The Targaryens wed brother to sister, why shouldn’t we do the same? Marry me, Cersei. Stand up before the realm and say it’s me you want. We’ll have our own wedding feast, and make another son in place of Joffrey.”

She drew back. “That’s not funny.”

“Do you hear me chuckling?”

Worse still:

“…Let Father sit the throne. All I want is you.”

He made to touch her cheek. Old habits die hard, and it was his right hand he lifted.

Cersei recoiled from his stump. “Don’t… don’t talk like this. You’re scaring me, Jaime. Don’t be stupid. One wrong word and you’ll cost us everything. What did they do to you?”

“They cut off my hand.”

“No, it’s more. You’ve changed.” She backed off a step. “We’ll talk later. On the morrow. I have Sansa Stark’s maids in a tower cell, I need to question them… you should go to Father.”

“I crossed a thousand leagues to come to you, and lost the best part of me along the way. Don’t tell me to leave.”

“Leave me,” she repeated, turning away.

With a few hundred pages devoted to his narrative alone, there’s no question that Ser Jaime Lannister is a living, breathing entity, with further growth to come. In the context of a story several thousand pages long, his trajectory is marvelous to behold. And such is the case with just about all of Martin’s dozen principles, who by the third volume have so far beaten the odds of vicious clan warfare.

Never mind hunting for Martin’s peers in modern fantasy literature (Robert Jordan comes closest, if only for having inaugurated the modern trend of unlimited sagas). The breadth of his canvas is comparable to Deadwood and The Wire. A given season of each television show is a dense, subtle interweave of character and slow-burning plot. Various camps, heroic and villainous, are established, with every social strata represented. But the campers seldom stay rooted in place. They are rebounded by cruel fate through of fields of gray. They must also grind against those who simply have no humanity. This, as Martin is fully aware, often proves riveting:

…Tyrion presented him with their own gift: a huge old book called Lives of Four Kings, bound in leather and gorgeously illuminated. The king leafed through it with no interest. “And what is this, Uncle?”

A book. Sansa wondered if Joffrey moved those fat wormy lips of his when he read.

“Grand Maester Kaeth’s history of the reigns of Daeron the Young Dragon, Baelor the Blessed, Aegon the Unworthy, and Daeron the Good,” her small husband answered.

“A book every king should read, Your Grace,” said Ser Kevan.

“My father had no time for books.” Joffrey shoved the tome across the table.

“If you read less, Uncle Imp, perhaps Lady Sansa would have a baby in her belly by now.” He laughed… and when the king laughs, the court laughs with him.

“Don’t be sad, Sansa, once I’ve gotten Queen Margaery with child I’ll visit your bedchamber and show my little uncle how it’s done.”

His next birthday gift being a sword, thirteen-year-old King Joffrey brings it down:

…in a savage two-handed slice, onto the book that Tyrion had given him. The heavy leather cover parted at a stroke.

“Sharp! I told you, I am no stranger to Valyrian steel.”

It took him half a dozen further cuts to hack the thick tome apart, and the boy was breathless by the time he was done. Sansa could feel her husband struggling with his fury.

The sampling above, like those before it, catches Martin in the act of toughening his protagonists. Sansa Stark is only twelve, and has been forced to marry Cersei’s older brother, Tyrion the dwarf. Cersei knows that a pairing will punish them simultaneously; the haughty girl will never accept the dwarf, and the his noble streak will prevent him from challenging the arrangement, though it makes him miserable.

Martin excels at these tortured character matches. In his hands, the device never grows stale because it is always in strict service to the plot. Take the example of Arya Stark, aged ten, and the disfigured knight Sandor Clegane. Also called the Hound, Clegane is disgraceful, murderous and hideously burned on one side of his face. He and Arya spend the majority of A Storm of Swords traveling west, toward the Lannisters’ stronghold. Though he threatens to beat her, he must guard her life if Cersei is to reward him. By this point in the third book, the Stark family has been scattered to the winds, and those few remaining at home in the north rule precariously. Martin amplifies the plight of Arya and her clan by surrounding the senses:

The rain was falling from a black iron sky, pricking the green and brown torrent with ten thousand swords. It must be a mile across, Arya thought. The tops of half a hundred trees poked up out of the swirling waters, their limbs clutching for the sky like the arms of drowning men. Thick mats of sodden leaves choked the shoreline, and farther out in the channel she glimpsed something pale and swollen, a deer or perhaps a dead horse, moving swiftly downstream. There was a sound too, a low rumble at the edge of hearing, like the sound a dog makes just before he growls.

During the dismal trek, Clegane uses Arya’s boyishness to ease their passage, swindling and maiming anyone stupid enough to think they could be father and son. And while she won’t admit it, she learns valuable lessons from him, such as the occasional gift of mercy. Toward the end of their travels together, the Hound is made drunk by three hooligans attempting to steal Arya. A melee ensues, and everyone receives mortal wounds but her. When he instructs her to slip a blade into the heart of a suffering squire, she does so. Soon enough, however, the Hound sits under a tree requiring mercy himself. Arya instead leaves him for the wolves. Then she tries to sell his horse:

Arya bit her lip. “Does that mean you won’t buy her?”

The woman chuckled. “It means you’ll take what I give you, sweetling. Else we go down to the castle, and maybe you get nothing. Or even hanged, for stealing some good knight’s horse.”

A half dozen other… folks were around, going about their business, so Arya knew she couldn’t kill the woman. Instead she had to bite her lip and let herself be cheated. The purse she got was pitifully flat, and when she asked for more for the saddle and bridle and blanket, the woman just laughed at her.

She never would have cheated the Hound, she thought, during the long walk back to the docks.

I love that last line. It comes at the end of a string of chapters in which Arya plots Clegane’s demise at every turn. She owes him payback for murdering a stable-boy she’d been friends with, and many others besides. Her actions elegantly emphasize that mercy must be deserved.

The line is from a chapter named after her, and like chapters devoted to Jaime, Sansa and the others, her italicized thoughts pepper the dialogue and exposition. Frequently, someone’s thoughts amend or contrast with the unfolding action. When we learn that someone keeps a secret or hides their feelings, an extra current of tension runs along the pages and into our fingers. Frank Herbert used this technique to spectacular effect in the original Dune series. Here, Martin has perfected it. It helps him layer in the motif that hope may only filter into his world intermittently, like sunlight through the treetops.

Do we get so much from one italicized line? Yes. It’s initially made clear that Arya could kill the stranger, fattening her purse and ending the casual threat against her life. Only circumstance prevents it. A more cynical writer, after placing Arya before the moral chasm, might have opted for a shocking outcome. But Martin knows that’s the simpler road. The Hound kept Arya alive by employing a savage code. It’s not a code the girl completely understands, but for her to think what she does, at the very moment she does, trumpets her admiration for the Hound’s abilities.

Occasionally, A Song of Ice and Fire does take the simpler road, preferring purity to moral murk. There are two cases, at opposite poles from each other. Brandon Stark, crippled by Jaime for his eavesdropping, represents the series’ ultimate sense of innocence. After his encounter with the Lannisters, we find him convalescing in his father’s castle. There, the boy dreams that a crow is teaching him to fly. Later, when it’s decided that he’s well enough to move, the oafish stable-hand Hodor (able only to speak his own name) carries Bran on his back, in a basket where the boy’s useless legs won’t come to harm. It’s from this position, his sharp Stark mind active again, that Bran realizes he can literally assume the viewpoint of other living creatures. He practices with his pet wolf Summer, slipping through the woods, learning the secrets privy to a night creature, gaining a degree of influence. Eventually, when danger commands it, he’s able to slip into Hodor’s mind and urge the man-child to action.

Empathizing with animals, and thereby achieving a superior stance among men, is a grand old theme in the fantasy genre. T.H. White illuminates the idea awesomely in The Once and Future King, where Merlyn transforms the young Wart into a falcon, an owl, a goose, an ant. As an adult, King Arthur is a more excellent and just ruler because of the lessons learned outside of himself. His education continues in The Book of Merlyn, convening in his dotage with a talking badger, goat, owl and dog.

Original cover illustration by Stephen Youll for A Storm of Swords

Original cover illustration by Stephen Youll for A Storm of Swords

This brings us to Martin’s use of dragons, and to Brandon’s opposite number, the vengeance obsessed Dany Targaryen. The fourteen-year-old princess is known as the Stormborn, since she was in utero while her family fled the western continent, losers in an epic struggle for the throne. Hers is a narrative of mounting dread, as she begins in A Game of Thrones the victim of her abusive elder brother Viserys. By the end of the first book, he’s been dispatched and she’s already a widow who has miscarried. In her possession, however, are three so-called dragon eggs. They are indistinguishable from colored stones. Legend states that only fire can hatch them.

Dany cooked the eggs once, in a brazier, and nothing happened. But when she adds them to her husband’s funeral pyre, earth-shattering cracks follow from the towering flames. She soon steps into the smoldering ash-pile after them. Her hair and clothes are burnt away, but three young dragons come to adorn her uninjured form. The bodyguards, soldiers and handmaidens accompanying her quickly kneel.

Throughout the next two volumes, Martin uses the dragons sparingly. They grow one scale at a time, and don’t prove deadly to anyone until A Storm of Swords. This is also the volume where Dany starts using the game-changing beasts to build her army. Her plan is to destroy Robert Baratheon and retake the throne stolen from her family.

This slow build-up of magical elements makes A Song of Ice and Fire ideal for small-screen adaptation. The first season, if faithful to A Game of Thrones, will call for little in the way of budget-draining special effects. Even subsequent seasons, drawing on the next few novels, have nothing as complex as the least battle in any of the Lord of the Rings films.

A hitch exists, however, that will prove quite embarrassing if the show is successful. The first three volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire were published in two year intervals starting in 1996. Then, Martin worked on A Feast for Crows for five years. A Dance with Dragons, underway presumably since then, has been delayed multiple times, and is now slated for a December 2012 release. Two subsequent books are planned to end the series. What will HBO do if, after four or five seasons, our author proves true to form and there is no new volume to adapt?

Justin Hickey was an editor at Open Letters Monthly, and writes regularly for Kirkus Reviews.