Books by George R.R. Martin
Book Review by Nicholas Haberling
Like most people I became aware of the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin through HBO’s Game of Thrones. While binge watching five seasons in preparation for season six, I began looking up the various characters on the show and found that some have very different outcomes in the books compared to the TV series. With that in mind I finally decided to dive into the books and after a little over a year I finally finished the series (with multiple interruptions from other books). While the series is still ongoing, once you get to the most recent book you feel like you are reading about a world with its own detailed history and complex set of revolving characters.
There are a number of plots throughout A Song of Ice and Fire and it is difficult to determine what the core element is. In my opinion though you can break it down into two major plots with their corresponding threads. First is the Battle for the Iron Throne. In Westeros, whoever sits upon the Iron Throne rules The Seven Kingdoms. At the start of the series this happens to be King Robert Baratheon who took the crown from the “Mad King.” After Robert and his best friend Eddard Stark’s death, the realm is thrown into a massive civil war. As of the fifth book, this war is still ongoing with Stannis Baratheon fighting in the North and new players from House Targaryen having landed in the Stormlands. Despite being stranded in Essos, Daenerys Targaryen is also part of this plotline since she wishes to sit upon the Iron Throne as well.
The second major plot element is what I call the Conflict beyond the Wall. This deals with matters of the Night’s Watch, the Wildlings and the rise of the Others (White Walkers in the show). Initially the Conflict beyond the Wall was completely separate from the Battle for the Iron Throne, but as the series progressed the two plot lines have become increasingly intertwined with Stannis’ arrival in the North. As I mentioned before, A Song of Ice and Fire has various other subplots, but in my opinion most of them fall in neatly within the two major categories I outlined above.
It is no secret that the TV series Game of Thrones is merciless when it comes to killing off characters and that trait began with the novels. With that in mind there aren’t many characters who have survived all five books which makes defining characters for the entire series difficult. Instead I will discuss the four major houses of the series and perhaps dive into individual characters.
For thousands of years House Stark has ruled the North. If they have a single defining characteristic it is their commitment to honorable conduct regardless of the problems it will create for them further down the line. It is easy to cheer for House Stark throughout the series but I wouldn’t recommend getting too attached to any single Stark.
Notable characters: Eddard Stark, Robb Stark, Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark.
The Lannisters are the richest family in Westeros and also the most nuanced. They are willing to do whatever it takes to win and stay in power. Tyrion is easily a fan favorite since from the start of the series he is both contemplative and nowhere near as ruthless as his other family members. As the series progresses there is significant character development for Jamie and you may even begin to respect Tywin’s motives, if not how he achieves them. However, you will never like Cersei. No one does.
Notable characters: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Jamie Lannister, Tywin Lannister.
House Baratheon is the official ruling House of Westeros in the series thus far (spoiler alert: dubious claim). Their reign began two decades prior to the start of the series when Robert Baratheon took the throne after winning Robert’s Rebellion. Since Robert’s death, Stannis Baratheon has been fighting a lonely war to honor his claim to the Iron Throne. Like the Starks, Stannis has a rigid code of conduct concerning punishment, but will do anything it takes to sit upon the Iron Throne.
Notable characters: Robert Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon (It is his last name).
For nearly three hundred years House Targaryen ruled The Seven Kingdoms. However, after losing the throne in Robert’s Rebellion, the remnants of House Targaryen have been biding their time on the continent of Essos. The primary character we follow from this great house is Daenerys Targaryen. With her three dragons it is easy to cheer for Daenerys and her team of advisors. But you always have to wonder whether or not she will descend into that “Targaryen Madness” the book often alludes to.
Notable characters: Daenerys Targaryen
Growing up I enjoyed reading fantasy books such as the Harry Potter and Eragon series. However, there is a huge difference between the structure of these books and A Song of Ice and Fire. Harry Potter for instance, may face adversity in his battle against Voldemort, but is unlikely to have any serious consequences or have friends die horribly (Sirius Black and Snape had light deaths compared to Thrones). Even in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker loses an arm it serves more as an allusion to him potentially becoming like Darth Vader rather than being a serious disfigurement.
This is not the case in A Song of Ice and Fire. Like most pieces of great fiction there are major lessons hidden behind the story and they are not of the Harry Potter variety. First is that actions have consequences. This is a rule we are all taught as children but A Song of Ice and Fire says this with a punctuation mark. Every decision we make will impact us and others in one way or another. That decision, even the morally right one, can have negative real world consequences. Not to mention that choosing “A” may limit/alter our options when we get to place “B”.
Second, we must always be mindful of other people’s objectives. You are unlikely to meet someone who will work against your plans with the sociopathic tenacity of Cersei or Petyr Baelish, but there will always be competition. In your own battle for the Iron Throne (promotion, starting spot on a sports team, etc) how will you achieve victory? Will you work harder, develop more skills, or declare a trial by combat? In the real world there is generally very little malice behind every day competition but you should still develop tools/skills to ensure victory.
Now, should you read the A Song of Ice and Fire series? I think if you are a fan of fantasy or at least open to the genre you should read these books. It is unlikely you will be intimidated by the large page count and A Song of Ice and Fire is the most mainstream series I can think of aside from Lord of the Rings. Also, if you are a fan of the TV series I would give the books a shot. They definitely aren’t required reading to understanding the show, especially after season three, but it can be entertaining seeing the differences between the TV show and books. If you don’t watch the TV series and aren’t into the fantasy genre I probably wouldn’t recommend A Song of Ice and Fire since it’s quite a time commitment. But then again, it is easily the flagship for fantasy novels.