I chose A GAME OF THRONES to kick off my Wyrd & Wonder grimdark theme because it was the first grimdark book I ever read and, with its complex characters and lack of pretensions it remains, to this day, the finest book in the genre in my humble opinion. The story starts out by introducing us to Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, as he receives a letter from his sister-in-law Lady Lysa Arryn, whose recently-deceased husband Jon Arryn, Lord of the Vale and Hand of the King, she suspects of being murdered by House Lannister. From this relatively simple premise Martin takes us on an epic journey into the heart of the political machinations and intrigue of the various dynastic houses of the Seven Kingdoms and the inter-personal relationships that define the framework of power under its feudal system, as it’s plunged into chaos and instability while the various houses and dynasties vie for power.
Now, I’m gonna do something a little different with this review. The first bit will be the normal (but still tip top quality, obv), spoiler-free book review I usually do, but the second bit is gonna be absolutely spoilerific. That’s cos I think that to really dig into the nuts and bolts of what makes this such a fantastic grimdark book it’s necessary to talk about specifics. Don’t worry though, I’ll provide ample warning when I’m about to start throwing spoilers around, so you can still read the first part without fear if you want to avoid them.
There’s a hundred places I could start with this review, but as a reader who values character above all else, let’s start there. We see the story unfold through multiple viewpoint characters, most of whom are various members of House Stark; Lord Eddard; his wife Lady Catelyn; his trueborn children Arya, Sansa and Bran and his bastard son Jon Snow. The other two viewpoint characters are Tyrion Lannister, know as The Imp, the black swan of the Lannister family, and Daenerys Targaryen, the young exiled princess of the deposed royal dynasty of House Targaryen. Sounds potentially overwhelming I know, but bear with me, because every one of these characters is fantastic and it’s precisely the complexity of character combined with the depth of the world that makes this book so engaging.
Lord Eddard and Sansa Stark are perhaps my favourite characters to view the grimdarkness of this book through, because it’s through their viewpoints that we see how A Game of Thrones upends the traditional notions of high fantasy; of good versus evil; of truth, honour, justice and chivalry. It’s where I differ from some opinions that grimdark is nothing but nihilism and ‘morally grey’ (read ‘villainous’) characters doing awful things. Actually, right from the first chapter we’re introduced to Lord Eddard as a man of honour, a ruler committed to truth and justice, and he remains so throughout the book. There are good people in grimdark, but the point is that, in contradiction to the classic fantasy of Tolkien etc, commitment to these values doesn’t necessarily get them anywhere. The good guys aren’t guaranteed their victory and a steadfast commitment to the values of honour and justice are more likely to get them killed than they are to guarantee the inevitable demise of the forces of evil. Where Tolkien’s Aragorn inspired his followers and regained his rightful throne by exemplifying the virtues of the noble kings of yore, many of the nobles in Martin’s world rule variously through fear, cruelty, gold, cloak and dagger intrigue and, above all, power. King Robert Baratheon, for example, is anything but noble. His story begins with a degree of romantic flair, leading a rebellion against the previous Targaryen king when his true love was kidnapped and his friend’s family murdered at court, but his story soon descends into the tale of a drunken womaniser who was more interested in conquering the realm than he was in ruling it after the fact. Though, from my reading of Robert, Lyanna was never really his true love; rather she was his teenage infatuation forever frozen in time as his unspoiled idea of perfect love. Now, I didn’t set out in this paragraph to make this point but that’s one example of the depth of characterisation Martin achieves in this book. My thoughts on the true nature of Robert’s complex feelings towards Lyanna are never directly stated as such, it’s just an opinion I’ve formed based on reading between the lines of his behaviour as a character and as a person. There are very few books where I can watch how a character speaks and acts and form opinions about them by reading into the subtleties of the interplay between their dialogue and behaviour, but I get this with so many of the characters in this book. Robert Baratheon isn’t even a viewpoint character and yet I almost feel like I know him intimately.
But I digress. I was trying to move on to talk about Sansa. I loved Sansa’s chapters when I reread the book for this review. I didn’t realise it first time round, but her chapters are actually the essence of grimdark fantasy. Near the beginning of the book Sansa Stark is betrothed to Prince Joffrey, the son of King Robert Baratheon and his wife Queen Cersei Lannister. Sansa is awed by her betrothal to a prince and loses herself in dreams of living out a romantic fantasy with her valiant and noble prince, like in the stories she reads. ‘The stories’ are what makes Sansa’s chapters so devastating; she’s lost in fantasy tales of tall, beautiful kings and princes vanquishing vicious monsters and evil wizards, riding to the rescue of their beloved queens and princesses. She’s so lost in these fantasies that she’s wilfully blind to the acts of arbitrary cruelty Prince Joffrey is prone to. At least to begin with. One clever thing about this is it makes the mention of the world’s lore directly relevant to the book’s immediate themes and to the way Sansa views the world. This passage for example:
She gazed at Joffrey worshipfully. He was so gallant, she thought. The way he had rescued her from Ser Ilyn and the Hound, why, it was almost like the songs, like the time Serwyn of the Mirror Shield saved the Princess Daeryssa from the giants, or Prince Aemon the Dragonknight championing Queen Naerys’s honor against evil Ser Morgil’s slanders.
These stories aren’t just some stale passage of lore drudged up as an excuse to wax lyrical abut the world Martin has created. Instead they create a stark contrast between what Sansa has been led to believe about people in power being noble and good, deserving of their elevated standing, versus the reality of the cruelty and injustice she sees them exhibit on a day to day basis. It’s hard not to see these in-world stories as references to the sanitised high fantasy stories of our own world, with their clearly demarcated heroes and villains and the inevitable victory of good over evil. Many of Sansa’s chapters begin with displays of her naïve expectations and then proceed to show them crashing up against the harsh reality and they’re just perfect examples of how revolutionary grimdark was in its early days. Of course storytelling now has adopted so many of the conventions of grimdark fantasy that it’s sometimes hard to remember that morality wasn’t always presented in such shades of grey in mainstream fiction and (while I’m not a scholar of fiction so this is largely just conjecture) in my opinion George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books are hugely influential in marking that shift in storytelling.
I’ll admit, the first time I read this book I didn’t get it for a while; it was so different from all the other fantasy I’d ever read and I wasn’t prepared for how much it defied those genre conventions. But on this second reading there were so many little bits I picked up on that targeted those expectations and tropes and put them to the sword. One fantastic scene features a group of wildling bandits who set upon one of the nobles. They’re described as filthy, carrying rusted spears and wearing patched, mismatched rags. I couldn’t help but think of the romanticised outlaws of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men and compare them to these toothless, half-starved bandits roaming the forest, praying on rich and poor alike. I had similar thoughts about the Night’s Watch, a military order stationed in the far north of the kingdom to keep the wildlings (and other, more nefarious creatures) at bay. Eddard’s bastard son Jon Snow volunteers himself to join the Watch with notions of seeking honour and prestige. Instead, what he finds is a dilapidated and shrinking force made up mostly of criminals and low lives. Indeed, some of these ‘criminals’ are wrongly-convicted, sent to the Wall merely to save the pride of the their liege lords. Truth is it doesn’t really matter if they’re guilty or not, the commoners are subject to the whims and power of the lords while many of of the high-ranking nobles commit the most heinous crimes with impunity. When Arya meets Yoren, the recruitment master for the Night’s Watch, she’s horrified and confused to see not a shining and honourable knight, but a rough man dressed in stinking clothes.
The character development in this book really is phenomenal. I’ve barely mentioned Daenerys Targaryen, and this is the perfect moment to delve into her character arc (without any spoilers at this point, don’t worry). When we first meet Daenerys she’s spent most of her life travelling among the Free Cities with her brother Viserys, who now heads the dynasty that King Robert and his rebellion overthrew and has a very legitimate claim to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms. Viserys is also a grade A piece of shit; in Daenerys’ first chapter we find out he’s just arranged for a Pentoshi merchant to sell Daenerys as a bride to a Dothraki khal in exchange for an army he hopes to use to reconquer the throne. He’s proud and jealous and, above all, cruel. Daenerys has clearly spent all her young life living in fear and awe of him. And not without reason; he is after all the last surviving member of House Targaryen and, in her view, the rightful king. And the Targaryens as an institution have a certain aura around them; their ancestors were known to command dragons in battle and the blood of High Valyria runs in their veins. In many ways they were proud and aloof, elevated above other noble houses who they viewed as lesser. So we see Daenerys with this spark of pride in her ancestry, but also fear and reverence for her brother who controls her in all things, using her as little more than a tool to regain what their family has lost. I’m not going to comment on her character arc, suffice to say, she is not like this by the end of the book. But it’s the way Martin writes her as her story develops that so impressive. We see her in her key moments of transformation; we see her attitude to her brother slowly change as the defects of his character and circumstances are laid before her and we see her self-confidence grow, even as she undergoes quite the brutal journey, personally, emotionally and geographically. There are a lot of characters in this book so it’s simply not feasible to go through each of their journeys, as much as I’d love to, so I’m going to rein it in here. But I just want to hammer home how well each character is developed; Daenerys isn’t an outlier in this respect, every character is shaped by and responds to events around them in such complex, subtle and dynamic ways. It’s truly impressive to read.
One final thing before I move on to the spoilery section. I’ve spent most of this already lengthy (sorry not sorry) review talking about character (which is fine, because that’s undoubtedly the central pillar of this story’s genius), but the world and it’s various dynasties are the supporting pillars that provide the framework for their conflict and the sandbox where that conflict plays out. A Game of Thrones is a story about power and intrigue, and the ‘game’ aspect is central. Watching the story unfold really is like watching a complex game of multi-sided chess where you never really know if or when the various players are going to stab each other in the back. I’m an absolute sucker for stories with court intrigue and power games and various factions manoeuvring to rig the game in their favour, but I often end up not quite satisfied with a lot of books that attempt to do it. Not so with this book, it’s a story that really digs into the weeds of intrigue, shifting alliances and power. From the start we see House Baratheon and its steadfast alliance with the Starks, bound together by the personal relationship between King Robert and Lord Eddard and their shared history of revolt against House Targaryen. Robert is however married to a Lannister, Queen Cersei (and oh my god how have I not talked about Cersei?), who has her own secrets and personal plans that we get to see unfold as the plot thickens. The Lannisters are a powerful family headed by the patriarch Lord Tywin Lannister, Warden of the West and Lord of Casterly Rock. Under his shrewd and calculating leadership they have remained powerful under the rule of Targaryen and Baratheon alike. Their allegiance is ever-shifting however and, perhaps despite appearances they are ruthlessly committed only to the continued power and prosperity of House Lannister. As another aside, I love how everyone has their own plans and schemes, but they all bump up against the plots and schemes of others, so nothing is ever straightforward and their is often conflict within factions and dynasties that adds a further layer of complexity to the intrigue.
I just wrote and deleted a massive paragraph detailing a bunch of the specific factions and their historic grievances and power struggles against each other, but it’s just self-indulgent at this point hahaha, so I’m going to wind my neck in and bring this to a close. The only important part really is this: so much of what drives the many plot threads and character conflicts of this story are the personal relationships between the various lords and their vassals. So if you get a kick out of dynastic factions, cloak and dagger, Machiavellian manoeuvring and backstabbing then you absolutely need to read this book, it’s just perfect. Thus ends the spoiler-free section and all I can say is, this is one of my favourite books of all time, it’s damn near perfection and (coming from me) that is high praise indeed.
Beyond this point there be spoilers! Proceed with caution.
Ok so we finally get to the spoilery section. I’ve actually managed to say most of what I wanted to say without letting too many cats out of their bags, but there are a few extra things I want to comment on. One of the nuances I really enjoyed was how Eddard Stark’s steadfast commitment to ‘doing the honourable thing’ isn’t presented without its own problems. After King Robert is killed and Ned is preparing to let the world know of Joffrey’s illegitimacy and invite Stannis Baratheon to take the throne, the visit he receives from Petyr Baelish (aka Littlefinger) and the conversation they have is very illuminating and shows how Ned isn’t the straightforward hero we’d perhaps like to believe. Littlefinger might be acting in his own selfish best interest, but he has a very valid point when he explains to Ned that exposing Joffrey and inviting Stannis to King’s Landing will plunge the realm into chaos and war, resulting in untold death and suffering. Ned accepts this, and yet he’s still committed to it, simply because Stannis is the ‘rightful’ heir. It makes you wonder, had Joffrey been Robert’s legitimate heir, would Ned have simply gone along with it despite Joffrey’s cruelty and the Lannister’s seemingly endless hunger for power? Perhaps not. He did after all take part in Robert’s rebellion against Aerys Targaryen due to the perceived injustices he was responsible for (another part of Ned’s history that makes him somewhat of a hypocrite when it comes to who is the ‘rightful’ king), but it’s something we’re left to wonder. Of course, amidst all this there is the ever-present possibility that, for all his talk of honour, Ned is still undeniably acting in the best interests of himself and his family. He suspects the Lannisters have already made an attempt on Bran’s life and effectively hold Sansa and Arya hostage if he can’t get them back to Winterfell. The same is true for his motivations in joining Robert’s rebellion. It was his own sister Lyanna who was supposedly kidnapped by Rhaegar Targaryen. The gods only know what crimes of ‘the mad king’ he’d been willing to overlook up until that point.
One of the scenes I couldn’t really discuss in the spoiler-free section that perfectly highlights what I mean by honour not being rewarded in grimdark is when Varys the spymaster visits Ned as he languishes in a dungeon after being accused of treason against the king. Varys is trying to convince him to admit to the charges against him and bend the knee to Joffrey, in order to undermine any potential claim from Stannis, which Ned (at this point) refuses to do.
“Ah,” said Varys. “To be sure. You are an honest and honorable man, Lord Eddard. Ofttimes, I forget that. I have met so few of them in my life.” He glanced around the cell. “When I see what honesty and honor have won you, I understand why.”
That’s it. In just a few lines Varys distils everything about grimdark as a genre. Unscrupulous people can (and often do) win. Honourable men land themselves in a dungeon. Of course earlier on in the spoiler-free section I said that Ned remains steadfast throughout the book. Obviously that’s not strictly true and the sad part about all this is that the Lannisters do ultimately break Ned. He stands in front of Baelor’s Sept and confesses his treason in front of half the population of King’s Landing, only to be executed regardless. I love the controversy over this particular character death. You can probably tell I’m firmly on board with it, I think it’s fantastic storytelling, and not just for its shock value (personally I find shock-seeking storytelling cheap and ineffective actually) but Ned’s death actually serves to propel the plot forward. It means that Robb Stark is now very unlikely to sue for peace, having also just captured Jaime Lannister and broken the siege of Riverrun, ultimately leading him to declare himself the King in the North and break away from the kingdom; it means that Stannis refuses to ally with the Starks because he refuses to accept a fractured realm; and it means Tywin Lannister sees fit to directly interfere in the ruling of King’s Landing because of what he sees as Joffrey’s folly, sending Tyrion to act as Hand of the King while he continues waging war against Stark and his allies, setting the scene for more conflict among the elites, councillors and factions in King’s Landing.
Honestly I could talk about this book and it’s complexities forever, but unless I put a stop to it now I fear I might do just that. If you’ve got to this point the likelihood is you’ve already read the book and have your own opinions already (and also the stamina of a bull to read so much of my bullshit) and I’d love to hear them. Let me know what you think about any aspect of this book, in any amount of granular detail. I’m more than happy to get in the weeds.
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