This fantasy novel is the first book of a projected seven in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, and a long one in its own right. It follows the byzantine machinations of the lords of the “Seven Kingdoms” and related realms. The main action is in three parts. At The Wall (capital T, capital W), the largest structure ever built and the line of defense manned by the Nights’s Watch against the wild lands to the far north. In the capital of King’s Landing and in threads branching out from that location. Finally, on the plains of the lands beyond the Narrow Sea, where the scion of an overthrown king finds her path among the Dothraki horselords.
The setting is fantasy with swords, castles and fair maidens. But this is not fantasy with elves and dwarves and halflings and all those other tropes. The world is firmly human. While supernatural events do occur, they are not the main thrust of the story. The world is gritty and uncaring, without the majesty often found in this genre. There is incest, murder, torture, sex, prostitution and adultery, even more so than in the real world. Noble lords are not so noble and double standards are the norm. Personally I found the whole thing very refreshing as I’m not a huge fan of typical fantasy fare. An interesting and important wrinkle is the fact that seasons are not regular. Summers and winters can last for years. The novel is set late in a long summer as “winter is coming”. This adds a sense of impending doom to the proceedings.
The plot is very complex, especially if you include the rich history that serves as a backdrop. Many of the main characters participated in the rebellion that overthrew the old king, with effects of those events still lingering.
To clarify things, Martin very cleverly uses multiple point of view characters to tell the story, with each chapter taking up the thread seen from that character’s eyes. All the chapters are in the third person but the only what the viewpoint character experiences is related. While a great lord like Eddard Stark sees the world through an honorable warrior’s eyes, his daughter Sansa sees it as an ingenue. Aided by this device and the excellent characterizations, I was never confused about the main characters or what their relationships were.
Needless to say, while there is some conclusion at the end of the novel, the story is left very much unfinished.
Note: A Song of Ice and Fire has been made into a TV series entitled “Game of Thrones“.