I have endured a love-hate relationship with the Fantasy genre for some time and the fault lies squarely on the shoulders of many of its authors. Why anyone would choose to work with a genre where the potential settings are limitless only to then produce a Lord Of The Rings clone (whether in plot or due to the declining elf population) or a story devoid of excitement and energy is beyond me. Sorting the wheat from the chaff, as with all genre fiction, is a task and a half. But it is with more than simple relief that I name A Game Of Thrones not just the best fantasy novel I have ever read but also one of the best books I have read full stop.
The plot of AGOT is diverse and full of so many characters and twists that summarising it is tricky, especially if you are trying to make it sound readable and not give anything away. At it's core it is a tale of the political and military mechanacians of the fictional land of Westeros, the title referring to the power-play by which various factions seek to control or regain or protect the throne. But winter is coming and while a beggar king seeks an agreement with the horse lords for the reclamation of his kingdom, ancient powers are stirring beyond the northern wall...
Told through the shifting perspectives of several key characters, on paper the tale should be even more dull than the average tolkein clone given that its story is often political and centres predominantly on human characters in a quasi-medieval setting. Martin demonstrates with great skill a fact I have always held true; everything you write need not be completely original if you are doing something original and exciting with it. The freshness of the tale is not in the broad brushstrokes of the world but in its detail. An example is his use of seasons, where winter and summer can last many years as if the planet was stuck in some erratic orbit, and from that creation the rules and political structures of the world follow and cause temperamental differences between the frost-bitten stubborn Starks and their more mutable gold encrusted adversaries. You can almost see how each part of the setting was created and the logic behind it, both in terms of an author creating a book and the organic evolution of a living breathing group of countries.
Martin gives us a feast of memorable characters, partly because many are slightly caricaturish in nature (the bastard, the stubborn but honourable night, the tom-boy little girl to name a few) but mainly because the insight into the minds of the viewpoint characters makes you feel close empathy with them, usually right before they meet with tragedy.
The darker side of life and the black irony that go with it is certainly a place Martin loves to explore with uncompromising zeal. To describe it as a dark tale would be an understatement, it tugs at your heart from multiple angles and messes with traditional notions of good and evil, chivalry and in particular the nature and consequence of heroism. By the end you are sure there can be no happy endings for anyone, and moreover you are unclear as to who you would wish to give such an ending if you held the quill.
And while succinctness is not a skill in high evidence, every word of AGOT is an absolutely joy to read. Martin utilises his extensive vocabulary to poetic effect throughout the novel and while it is not true to call it an effortless read it is a rewarding one. Certain sections of the book (one involving a crow springs to mind) are among the most powerfully written and emotively imaged I have ever read. In this high skill, Martin reminds me very much of Thomas Harris, possible my favourite novelist of all time.
If it has a flaw, AGOT could be criticised for failing to reach a tangible conclusion to events by the time it ends despite being over 700 pages in length. I appreciate this is largely because it is the start of a larger saga but there is a sense in which book one rolls into book two and the division between them is quite arbitrary. In reality by the time you are half way through you will have already ordered the next book in the series and will just want to know what happens next. This is a tale as much about the journey as the destination, writing at its most artful.
There are easier books to read out there but few so engaging. Despite its length you reach critical mass eventually where you simply cannot wait to see what happens next. There is no wastage or half-composed paragraphs either; everything sings and I think it says a lot that the recent HBO series has chosen to stick very closely to it for both plot and dialogue. This is a must read and while I appreciate the genre will appeal to some more than others this is still one of the few books I would recommend to absolutely anyone.