A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin


I’ve had my eye on the Song of Ice and Fire series for quite a while. I bought A Game of Thrones at least a year ago but it’s been sitting on my shelves* since then because it just looked too big and heavy and intimidating to pick up. I’ve been reading a lot of Icelandic sagas and while I think they’re worth the effort, they are a lot of effort. They’re like the Icelandic equivalent of Shakespeare –  a good couple of hundred years older but stories that form part of the culture and history of the country, written in an old and tough language that has just enough similarity to the modern language to be able to read with a little difficulty, full of murder and romance and humour, stories that have clung on and remained relevant despite their age. The Icelandic sagas, I stubbornly maintain, are a huge influence on modern fantasy. I refuse to believe that the Lord of the Rings would be anything like it is if Tolkien hadn’t been so keen on the Nordic stories and there’s a very obvious blueprint for the Middle Earth stories in the Volsung Saga – a cursed ring, a dragon guarding treasure and a broken sword re-forged just to start with. Do read Volsung Saga. It’s amazing – truly one of my favourite books that I’ve read in the last five years. And Tolkien has had a huge influence on modern fantasy, whether it’s people emulating his style and his world or deliberately going in the opposite direction.

My point is that I was expecting A Game of Thrones to feel a bit like the Icelandic sagas, Njal’s Saga in particular. Njal’s Saga is one I found particularly hard work. It’s one of Iceland’s Big Three, it’s possibly the most popular and it’s the one I enjoyed least. It’s about two best friends, Njal and Gunnar, and the first chunk is about the terrible wives they take, who promptly start a war, murdering members of the other’s household while Njal and Gunnar grit their teeth and swear their wives’ feud is not going to affect their friendship. But then it descends into endless murdering and even worse, a huge long legal battle. That’s pretty much what I expected of A Game of Thrones. But everyone was talking about it, whether because they’d read the books or because they were watching the TV series and I was feeling increasingly left out. What finally broke me was finishing the massive book I’d spent the best part of two months on and picking up a new one (The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan, if you must know) because the moment I did, I wished I’d started A Game of Thrones instead. I don’t know why that broke me, I only knew that suddenly I didn’t have a vague hope of reading it at some point but instead a desperate desire to read it now.

I’m so glad I gave into what was effectively peer pressure. I realised within the first two pages that this was far more readable than I’d ever expected, welcoming and easy, rich but rarely uncomfortably dense. I think I’d expected it to be never-ending war but the war and the fighting didn’t begin until surprisingly late and it took its time to introduce characters that you could actually get to know. The character-per-chapter format worked absolutely fine for me – it’s a huge story and it made perfect sense to go around the world, seeing what was going on with each person as it progressed.

When I first bought it, I looked at the character lists and was instantly put off but it was much easier than I expected, partly because I’d seen someone offer the advice of something along the lines of “don’t worry about remembering all the minor characters”, partly because the characters’ names were far easier than the endless lists you get in sagas and partly because I’ve seen so many pictures from the TV series that I already had an idea of who some of them were. Not that you can get much more than a face and a name from that – the nature of the various Lannisters in particular took me by surprise and Maester Aemon had me squeaking at my desk after lunch on Friday. I’m not quite ready to pledge allegience to House Targaryen quite yet but given that I’ve worn a little silver dragon around my neck since I was about sixteen, I’m inclined to. But I’ve heard George RR Martin does the “shades of grey” thing and therefore, on the basis of one book in a series of eventually seven (I think), it’s not time just yet to decide who’s good and evil because I bet it all looks very different later on.

In the meantime, this book tickles the same part of me that fell in love with TH White’s Once and Future King when I was ten or so – I reread the whole thing in my tiny tent in Iceland last summer and dreamed incessantly about knights and battles and while the characters are obviously completely different in A Game of Thrones, it feels like it has a similar soul. It’s certainly similar enough to have also had me dreaming about it twice – once something about snow that I couldn’t really remember the next day and once about the Stark children in my house murdering people. Bear in mind there are only two other books in my entire life that I’ve dreamed about and those were both nightmares (Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets when I was about fourteen and far too old to be scared by kids’ books, don’t laugh at me for that, and Christopher Brookmyre’s Pandaemonium in 2011 when I was definitely too old to be scared by a book. It was the skull-and-spine mace that did it for me).

Finally, I think I can’t not mention how vividly I can see some of this. I didn’t even know Robb Stark existed but I can see him so clearly in my mind. Jon Snow too, and he doesn’t look anything like Kit Harington. I felt like I was actually at the Eyrie and I could see straight out of the sky cells. Arya is wonderful – I can identify quite strongly with Arya, and you know what? I actually really love that despite doing the very non-traditional, non-feminine thing – wearing fighting leathers, learning to use a sword, refusing to wear a dress and brush her hair and so on, she’s still adamant that she’s a girl. That delights me because, particularly when you live in a world where girls are expected to look and be and act traditionally feminine, it would be very easy to start trying to identify as a boy and she doesn’t, she recognises that there’s no reason why a girl can’t do these things as well. Oh, and Dany, I love you so much but you were so stupid to not realise what else would be involved in the price. I generally don’t see things coming but I saw that and you were a fool not to.

I have just one major problem with this series. Because I bought the first book quite a while ago, it’s been living separately from the rest of the series, which I only bought last week in a panicked moment of “I do like this series after all, I do want to read the rest of them and I want the whole series to match so I need to buy them all right now before the traditional covers disappear!”. Now that it’s rejoined the rest of them, I’ve discovered A Game of Thrones is shorter and narrower but fatter than its siblings. So that’s my complaint, that despite my best efforts, my set of books doesn’t match perfectly. Still, it matches a lot better than my Gentleman Bastard books, of which one is a fairly standard size paperback, one is a giant heavyweight paperback and one is a hardback (it’s a Scott Lynch series, read it, it’s awesome – The Lies of Locke Lamora is my absolute favourite book of the last ten years beyond any doubt).

And now I’ve told you everything I feel about A Game of Thrones (except – dragons! There were dragons! I wasn’t entirely expecting actual dragons!) and everything I’ve felt about all the other books I’ve ever read, I shall away.

*in one of the several piles at the bottom of my shelves, having run out of space on the shelves themselves about a decade ago


Icelandic sagas


Yesterday I finished Njal’s Saga – or the Saga of Burnt Njal, if you prefer – a book I first started four months ago. I very rarely struggle with a book for so long. I either finish it much more quickly or I abandon it. But under the circumstances, I had to finish it. It’s an Icelandic saga, written in around the thirteenth century, one of the longest ones, one of the best known and one of the best loved. It deserved the effort to finish it.

However, it does contain entirely too much of stuff like this:

Thorkel Bully had set up that booth. He was the son of Thorgeir the Godi, the son of Tjorvi, the son of Thorkel the Long, and his mother was Thorunn, the daughter of Thorstein, the son of Sigmund, the son of Gnupa-Bard. Thorkel Bully’s mother was Gudrid; she was the daughter of Thorkel the Black from Hleidrargard, the son of Thorir Snepil, the son of Ketil Brimil, the son of Ornolf, the son of Bjornolf, the son of Grim Hairy-cheeks, the son of Ketil Haeng, the son of Hallbjorn Half-troll.

A lot of very similar names, a lot of family trees thrown in there and a cast of hundreds make it very difficult to keep track of who’s who and who’s on whose side. Basically, the plot is that two families feud because one man married a psycho who hates the wife of his best friend. Various friends, relatives and neighbours get dragged in until virtually the whole of Iceland is in on it. Then, after 150 chapters, the survivors go off to Orkney and then Dublin and fight a battle to kill King Brian. Coming after names like the above, Gizur the White, Gunnar of Hliðarendi, Skarphedin Njalsson, Lambi Sigurdsson, Mord Valdarsson etc, Brian is a bit of a culture shock.

It’s the third saga I’ve read, my favourite by a long way being the Volsung Saga, and I’ve concluded that where things always go wrong is with a bad marriage. Every single time someone marries someone they shouldn’t. And then things like this happen:

Man: Can I marry your daughter?
Father: Only if she doesn’t mind. Daughter, would you like to marry him?
Woman: No, he’s a bastard and I hate him. But I recognise that in this day and age, if you order me to, I have no choice.
Father: Good! I order you to!

Supposedly, the match is good politically and financially. No. No, it’s not. Because a marriage that begins like that invariably results in multiple murders. Other than occasionally going off on a tedious tangent about the correct legalities, Icelandic sagas tend to be quite fun, action-packed, blood-soaked epics but life would be easier for the characters if they recognised that the trouble always begins with an arranged marriage.

I recommend the Volsung Saga, by the way. It’s virtually the blueprint for the Lord of the Rings, containing a broken sword reforged, glowing swords, a cursed ring, dwarves, Valkyries, talking birds, a dragon guarding a hoard of gold, werewolves, Old Norse rap battles, incest, infanticide, Odin stirring up trouble every few chapters, Loki getting into trouble, magic horses descended from Loki, a pregnancy that lasts six years, cannibalism, prophetic dreams and of course, feuds. And remember, it predates Tolkien by nearly a millennium, before you start thinking it sounds a bit derivative. No one knows exactly who it was written by but I’m fairly sure it passed through the hands of Snorri Sturluson at some point – an Icelandic politician and writer (the only saga writer known by name) who was born in the twelfth century. This book, which is so little known in the English-speaking world, has had a bigger influence on modern fantasy literature than you can imagine. I don’t think George R R Martin ever read any of the sagas but the impression I get from A Song of Ice and Fire (without actually having got around to reading any of it yet) is that the Laxadal Saga and Njal’s Saga are a fairly similar sort of thing.

So in short, if you like any kind of fantasy, there’s probably an Icelandic saga out there to suit you.