“When you play the game of thrones, you win or die.” Those famous words from the Queen prove all to true in George R.R. Martin’s fantastical A Song of Ice and Fire series. But in Westeros, even those who win must continue to play the game or else they, too, may die.
The first book, A Game of Thrones, begins with a death. Jon Arryn, the king’s Hand, has mysteriously died and his wife sends a note to her sister, Lady Catelyn Stark of Winterfell in the North. The Starks are the protagonists of the series and are probably the only honorable people left in Westeros (a world where deceit reigns). King Robert Baratheon (with his Queen and court in tow) comes to Lord Eddard (a longtime friend) and asks that he become the new Hand. Robert reluctantly agrees at the behest of his wife and decides to use his position to discover the true cause of Jon Arryn’s death.
During the King’s visit, Eddard’s young son Bran (who has a passion for climbing the walls and towers of Winterfell) discovers that Queen Cersei is having sex with her twin brother Jaime Lannister, who subsequently pushes the boy out of the tower’s window (leaving him in coma). As Eddard prepares to go back to King’s Landing with his two daughters, Sansa and Arya, his brother takes his bastard son Jon Snow to the Wall to join the Night’s Watch. And the eldest Stark boy is left in charge of Winterfell after a second attempt is made on Bran’s life and Catelyn heads to King’s Landing to warn her husband of imminent danger. Thus, the Stark family is split up, never to be fully reunited again.
The world of Westeros is a cesspool of political plotting and battles for the iron throne. No one is ever safe for very long because no one is trustworthy. Martin has a gift for storytelling and a fully realized and imaginative world as his playground. Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view (a storytelling device that he uses masterfully). And most interesting to note is his choice of characters. The characters are either women (Lady Cately and her daughters Sansa and Arya along with the Targaryen girl, Daenerys) or cripples (Bran loses the use of his legs after his fall, Jon is a bastard, and Tyrion ins the impaired Lannister dwarf), which is unusual for a story about men battling to be king. But Martin uses these characters’ perspectives to reveal more the world around them than we would have learned from the kings and knights fighting for control. In fact, Eddard is the only character that is an able-bodied man, but his unyielding honesty and trust in people certainly makes him a cripple in King’s Landing.
A Game of Thrones introduces a massive world and not even the index of characters at the end helps prevent the reader from getting a little confused at times. But it is very evident that Martin has a plan for the characters and he keeps track of every little plot point he introduces (even if they take three books to come to fruition). Aside from the game of thrones in the Seven Kingdom, there is trouble brewing elsewhere. In the Northern wilderness (from which the Wall was built to protect the rest of Westeros), ancient forces are reawakening; and the Night’s Watch (the men in charge of the Wall) is not at all prepared. And across the sea, Daenerys and her brother Viserys are the only true remaining heirs to the iron throne, which was usurped by Robert Baratheon. In those uncivilized regions, they are playing their own game of thrones to take back the iron throne that is rightfully theirs.