All the hype about the HBO series Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, sent me to the library to discover the first book, titled A Game of Thrones (1991). I finished the 600+-page novel a couple of weeks ago and was somewhat surprised how much I enjoyed it. The story is engaging from the first page and was often difficult to put down, but I was finishing it in the last weeks of school, so, alas, I had to succumb to sleep or grading those final exams. In my experience few authors have truly mastered giving characters really distinctive voices and personalities. There are surely others but Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible comes to mind. Each of the Price daughters sounds nothing like the other. I think Martin is in the same league here in terms of characterization and voice. Whether it is a seven-year-old boy who must come to terms with his immobility (Bran), a thirteen-year old princess who must step out of her brother's cruel shadow (Dany), an honorable 30-something Lord who reluctantly accepts the offer to become hand of the king (Ned), or a dwarf who compensates wit for his lack of height, Martin imbues each of these and many others with richness and distinctiveness. His characters are all flawed. None are purely good nor are any purely evil (well, maybe that is debatable). These are characters who are real, who are human. You know you love a book when something happens to a character or a character does soemthing (and I'm thinking of a couple of examples), and you are shouting at the book: "No!" or "Don't do that, please, please!"
Another admirable quality is the array of interesting and complex female characters. So often in fantasy stories do female characters (if they exist at all) get minimized or placed in cliche roles like prostitute or loving wife. Martin has a prostitute and a loving wife but they are interesting, intelligent, powerful, and not at all stereotypical.
Martin also has a distinctive style and uses several clever idiomatic expressions such as "he's not yet a man grown" or "take the black" or "unleash the dragon." For me great writing has little to do with plot or characterization. Greatness is in the language. And Martin writes with a poetic, even classical, quality that takes the reader to a whole new world.
There were a few minor issues I had with it, though. I found it a bit odd that the novel begins with a vidid and haunting supernatural scene but no other supernatural or fantastical element occurs for another 500 pages. In other words, the supernatural seemed rather inorganic to an otherwise highly political and realistic book. I'm assuming Martin will return to these supernatural elements in his later books, several of which he has already published but I haven't yet read. On a related note, the dragon witchcraft scene at the end was a bit odd in relation to the rest of the story.
I did also watch the first season of the HBO series, and I liked it. But the book is much better. The series is very faithful, but they do add some elements. For instance, they make the king's brother gay and give him a lover. I guess I don't have a problem with that; it was just a little surprising. The question I kept wondering is, why do they always have to make movies out of great books? Why can't people just read the book?
All in all, a great read.