Gritty and hard-core, blink and you'll miss it fantasy elements with a strong supporting cast (and plot twists you'll never see coming), "A Game of Thrones" is a cure for the "been there, done that" you see all too often in fantasy.
I don't know if I'll do a full review, as there are only so many ways of saying, "I liked this!" and "This worked well!" Suffice it to say that I enjoyed myself with this book and will be reading more. Oh, and I'm definitely watching the HBO series now!
The King's Hand, Lord Arryn, has died, and Eddard Stark is chosen by his good friend, the King of Westeros himself, Robert, to take Lord Arryn's place. It's not a position he wants, but one he feels called to take - and to find out how and why Lord Arryn died. Meanwhile, the Targaryen siblings, Viserys and Daenerys, make an alliance with the Dothraki people when Dany marries Drogo with the goal of taking back Westeros.
(Let me just say, writing that plot summary was TOUGH. Not only did I have to scour Wiki for all the names and connections - because I listened to the audiobook - but I also had to figure out how to "dilute" the story to its barest elements so it didn't become five miles long.)
I was probably one of the last people on the planet who has neither seen an episode of the HBO series nor read any of the books. I honestly never thought I'd start up this series; there are loads of fantasy series I've been somewhat interested in starting (Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, Terry Brook's Shannara series, Raymond Feist's Magician series, and Goodkind's Sword of Truth series are only a few of the ones) and never got enough guts to actually try to start the massive 10+ book series.
But EVERYONE was talking about this series, about how good it was, the plot twists, the characters, the story, etc. And so, I finally broke down and got the audiobook.
The version I had was narrated by Roy Avers (I initially thought it was Robert Avery, but my memory is terrible, apparently!). He does a good enough job - telling the story well, with emotion and some distinct voices. He isn't of the same caliber as, say, Davina Porter or John Glover or Ron Perlman or Sandra Burr pre-Shelters of Stone, but he's definitely better than the others I've heard, reading their lines, apparently bored out of their minds.
But what really stunned me was Martin's skill. He created these three-dimensional, flawed characters, set them about in this world (with their own misconceptions and misunderstanding the situation that is obvious to the readers) and lets them go. It's obvious he has a plan for where this is going, but it feels so organic, as the characters follow that path to the end.
Favorite characters include Catelyn, Sansa, Daenerys, Eddard, and Tyrion. Even my lesser favorites, such as Arya and Bran, are still well-drawn characters, fascinating in their thoughts and interactions with others. All the characters are unique; all of them have their own personalities; all of them are strong and weak in their own way.
THIS is how you construct characters - particularly female characters. Some authors think that to make a strong female character, you must squeeze her in tight leather and put two swords in her hands, as she unemotionally fights a wall of bad guys. This is not the world of A Game of Thrones. Catelyn is a different woman from Sansa who is different from Arya who is different from Daenerys who is different from Lysa and so on and so forth. Each one is strong in her own right, whether it be for fighting skills, wisdom, strength of character, or some other skill.
The story, as I touched on above, is well crafted. Martin doesn't force events to happen, but it's still obvious he has a plan. His world also makes sense - sure, it could be confusing to a newbie, like myself, because it is so lacking on the fantasy element, but I think that's part of its charm. We get so inundated with fantasy, that backing off on those elements gives us more guts, more raw emotion. If someone dies in these books, we don't think, "Ah, he'll be back in a couple pages." No, my friends, he is DEAD. Dead as dead can be dead.
For people who are entertaining the thought of reading, take heed: there is violence in this book. There is sex. There is some language, such as the dropping of the c-word. In some places, it's pretty raw and gruesome; even the scenes that aren't explicit can be difficult to swallow, such as the talk of rape and brutal murders. But never once did I think Martin was condoning it. I thought he was merely showing these people as they were: the good parts AND the bad parts. He didn't use the rape device cheaply, as I've seen numerous times, but he also didn't shy away from using it at all. Just a warning, in case you are uneasy of such things.
Lots of praise - so why no five stars? I'm holding out on that fifth star because I feel that Martin has more in store for this series, because I don't want to cap it out at 5 and expect every subsequent one to keep that rating, and because I don't feel like passing out my 5 stars too eagerly. But regardless of that final star, this was a great book, very entertaining and enjoyable. I can't wait to watch the HBO series and I am eager to start on Book 2.