A Game of Thrones is like The Lord of the Rings meets the nightly news. It's got all the things you want in an epic fantasy novel: knights, castles, war, barbarians, strange gods, made-up languages, and even dragons (sort of). But it also has sex, murder, conspiracy, mutilation, incest, rape, and worst of all, lice. So, if you picked up this book hoping for an escape into an anxiety-free land of enchantment and chivalry, then you're probably going to be disappointed: A Game of Thrones may be fantasy, but it's also very real.
A Game of Thrones is the first book in George R.R. Martin's fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, which is currently five books long and not yet complete. (Check out the "Brain Snacks" for some fan angst over that fact.) This first novel tells the story of a medieval-like fantasy land that's different from what we're used to in this type of book: you're not going to get wizards throwing magical fireballs and you're certainly not going to find absolutely evil demons fighting against perfect heroes.
Instead, what we read is a lot more like our own history: there's a civil war, and the characters you like don't always do the right thing (and don't always win). Unlike other fantasy stories, where people worry about dragons (The Hobbit, we're looking at you), people in Martin's world worry about infection and poison and debts that they owe.
On top of its real-but-fantastical content, we also love A Game of Thrones because of how it's set-up: each chapter is told through the eyes of some particular character, from a young child to an exiled princess. Each of these characters gets several chapters to share their story, so we get to know these characters pretty well while still hearing the story from all angles. (See our discussion of "Narrative Technique" for more on that.)
Martin had been a writer almost all his life: he sold his first professional story when he was just twenty-one (so, if you're procrastinating about writing your fantasy epic, get to work). He also had a gig as a Hollywood writer, but itching for something different, he started to write A Game of Thrones in 1991, between projects. Clearly, Martin let himself write a giant, epic story – the kind of story that he couldn't write when he was working for Hollywood, the kind of story that would be too expensive for Hollywood to make. Go ahead, Hollywood, we dare you.
Oh wait. In 2011, HBO actually turned A Game of Thrones into huge, expensive TV series. Though the book wasn't a mega-hit when it first came out in 1996, the whole HBO thing helped quite a bit. And in addition to the highest honor of being made into a TV show, A Game of Thrones won the 1997 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel; and the Daenerys chapters won a Hugo Award for Best Novella when they were printed separately as "Blood of the Dragon." Not bad.
We hope your school or workplace isn't run by people who keep dragons as pets; but except for that and a few other things, the world of A Game of Thrones looks a lot like the world today. That's right – the big ol' fantasy novel is really quite, well, real. Just hear us out.
George R.R. Martin's novel may not be about your upcoming math test or annual employee review, but this book is about people doing the following things:
This is a story about being put into situations where you may want to act heroically (or just effectively), but where it's not always clear how to go about doing that. And because we read this story from multiple points of view, it helps us remember that everyone – even the villains in our own lives – have their own conflicts and baggage.
So in many ways, A Game of Thrones gets us thinking about our own lives. Because when it comes down to it, this is a story about ordinary, everyday life. Plus dragons.