“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” Queen Cersei Lannister tells Ned Stark, hand and old friend to her husband King Robert Baratheon. This is just past the halfway point of A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series, and things have finally started to get rolling after hundreds of pages of painstaking setup. Ned has confronted Cersei with his suspicion that her twin brother Jaime Lannister is her lover and that Jaime is in fact the father of her three children, not Robert. But before he can go to King Robert with this information, Robert is killed by a boar while hunting drunk—after drinking wine likely dispensed by Lannister operatives. When Ned tries to declare that Cersei’s son Joffrey is not the true heir to the throne, swords are drawn, with Cersei’s faction emerging victorious and arresting Ned as a traitor. These being the days before DNA tests, Ned doesn’t have much recourse.
Ned’s perhaps misguided dedication to honor, which, in addition to inciting his challenge to Cersei, will lead to him confessing treason in an effort to save his family, ends up causing more problems for the rest of his family than it solves. His two daughters, Arya and Sansa, are with him at the king’s castle when the fighting breaks out; polar opposites, Arya the tomboy and budding warrior escapes, while Sansa, an aspiring lady who always remembers her courtesies, remains at the castle, betrothed to Joffrey and coerced by Cersei into writing her mother and brother at their home castle of Winterfell asking them to bend their knee to Joffrey. When Joffrey’s promise of mercy for her father Ned turns out to be chopping Ned’s head off as opposed to a more painful death, Sansa is trapped, betrothed to the man who killed her father.
Meanwhile, Ned’s son Rob masses forces to make war on the Lannisters, capturing Jaime and defeating his army thanks to clever battle strategies despite his youth (largely thanks to the advice of his mother Catelyn). In Jaime’s absence, Lord Tywin Lannister sends his next son, the less esteemed dwarf Tyrion, to oversee Joffrey’s rule, which is getting out of hand thanks to the young king’s immaturity and impetuousness.
Earlier in the narrative, Catelyn’s men took Tyrion the dwarf prisoner for a failed attempt to stab her middle son Bran; Tyrion’s distinctive dragon-bone dagger was found at the scene, but he insists he was framed. (It was Jaime, not Tyrion, who sent someone to kill Bran after Bran survived Jaime’s throwing him out a high window after he saw Jaime having sex with Cersei.) Catelyn takes Tyrion to her sister Lyssa’s castle—Tyrion managing to help save Catelyn from raping marauders along the way—but Tyrion talks his way into a trial by might, earning his freedom by paying a knight to stand for him. He’s back with his lord father by the time the war between the Starks and the Lannisters starts, making one wonder what the significance of this particular thread is; one imagines that Catelyn’s debt to Tyrion will come into play at some point, though it doesn’t in the first book. But from having been taken captive Tyrion winds up with several free fighters serving him that he trusts more than his family’s men, which could also become relevant.
Then there’s Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard son raised with the family at Winterfell, beloved by his half-siblings but despised by Catelyn, who takes the oath to join the Night’s Watch for life, where, guarding the Wall, he has an encounter with one of the Others, the inhuman creatures closing in from the surrounding woods. The book’s Prologue is a scene of the Others slaughtering a trio of apparently random riders, seeming to set up the main conflict as one between the Others and people, but this is the conflict that must be central to the larger narrative of the whole series rather than that of the first book, whose central conflict is the war between the Starks and the Lannisters for control of the Seven Kingdoms. Jon Snow attempts to flee the Watch to fight in the war against the Lannisters to avenge his father, but is detained by his Night’s Watch brothers and made to see he serves a more important function on the Wall, protecting against the Others.
The final narrative thread, and at this point the most disconnected from the rest, is that of Daenarys, the rightful heir to the throne of the Seven Kingdoms as the last of the line that’s “the blood of the dragon,” the Targaryens of the Old Dynasty, the line the throne was taken from in a war waged by the Lannisters and the Baratheons before the series started. Daenarys’ brother is killed by the same Dotharki warrior clan he’s married her into in an attempt to reconsolidate their family’s lost power. In the only intersection of this thread with the rest of the book, before King Rob is killed by the boar, he plots to have Daenarys killed upon hearing she’s pregnant with a son because he fears the son will challenge his right to the throne—but the plot fails. Daenarys is at first scared of the Dotharki and her warrior husband Carl Drogo, but soon adapts to her new role. When Drogo is on his deathbed from a battle wound, Daenarys resorts to a maegi’s blood magic to bring him back, losing their unborn son when she fails to understand the maegi’s edict that life can only be bought with death. The Drogo that’s brought back is a mere husk of Drogo, so she kills him and places the three dragon’s eggs that were her bridal gifts on his funeral pyre, which burns intensely until it cracks the eggs, and the book ends with Daenarys suckling baby dragons, which until then had been dead for hundreds of years.
The chapters are arranged around different character’s perspectives, showing that Martin values character as much as plot, which might well be what has made the series so wildly successful amid its sea of competitors in the fantasy genre. The point of view characters are Ned and Catelyn, parents of the Stark family, their middle son Bran, their daughters Arya and Sansa, Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenarys Targaryen. It’s often said about the show that you can’t get attached to characters because they’ll die, but only one of the POV characters, Ned, dies in the first book. Interestingly, Ned and Catelyn’s oldest son Rob, who plays a fairly critical role in battle, and at the end when he refuses to restore peace, does not get a point of view. And Tyrion is the only Lannister to get one, most likely because Cersei and Jaime are too purely evil. Tyrion is sympathetic because he’s not a flawless warrior—though he does hold his own in more than one intense battle scene—and likable due to his dark sense of humor; he complicates the Lannisters being unequivocal villains and is a wild card whose loyalty might not remain to his immediate family.
Despite some melodramatic scenes, like Catelyn saying goodbye to her dying father, the writing is undeniably good at both the sentence and character levels. Take this passage:
It seemed a thousand years ago that Catelyn Stark had carried her infant son out of Riverrun, crossing the Tumblestone in a small boat to begin their journey north to Winterfell. And it was across the Tumblestone that they came home now, though the boy wore plate and mail in place of swaddling clothes.
The action that’s necessary to convey at this point in the narrative is that they’re finally heading back toward Winterfell. This passage conveys that, but so much more: the character’s emotional state regarding this journey, and how the past and present occupy an almost permanent juxtaposition in her mind, as it’s apt to in a mother’s. This is the opening line of a chapter that will culminate in Catelyn’s attempting to convince a meeting of men to restore peace with the Lannisters despite what they’ve done to her husband, while Rob will take a stand independent of her influence to say he will never make peace with them, a contrast that’s perfectly symbolized and foreshadowed in that opening that juxtaposes swaddling clothes with plate and mail to highlight their simultaneous proximity and distance.
And in this male-centric fantasy world, kudos to Martin for managing to evenly distribute gender among his POV characters, four female, four male. And it seems that Martin is commenting on sexism in this ancient society rather than mindlessly perpetuating it in this exchange:
“You are a woman, my lady,” the Greatjon rumbled in his deep voice. “Women do not understand these things.”
“You are the gentle sex,” said Lord Karstark, with the lines of grief fresh on his face. “A man has a need for vengeance.”
“Give me Cersei Lannister, Lord Karstark, and you would see how gentle a woman can be,” Catelyn replied.