George R. R. Martin has been called "The American Tolkien," and with good reason. His sweeping epic, A Song of Ice and Fire rivals that of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, yet Martin's fantasy does not easily fall within the accepted norms of fantasy literature. The first book in this series, A Game of Thrones, reads more like historical fantastic fiction than a stereotypical fantasy novel. Gone are wizards, elves, and orcs, and in their place is a story of political intrigue that writhes in a mix of heartbreaking agony coupled with storytelling ecstasy.
What sets this story apart from many in its genre is the scent of realism that pervades every chapter. The noble House of Stark that is at the center of the tale is at once noble yet deeply flawed. The Lannister family that most strongly opposes them is wonderfully wicked, yet itself possesses its own nobility. The story is further populated by families and individuals each with their own agenda, and whose side each of these ends up on is mercurial and apt to change by the time the next page is turned.
This book is definitely not for younger readers. This dense and highly complex tale is rife with situations that place it well beyond what might be considered appropriate for the younger set, yet within the context of the story, none of the incidents are out of place. This chronicle has a gritty realism that helps it to resonate with a "historical accuracy" of sorts in regards to what would be considered "acceptable" for the medieval period, especially when it comes to the behaviors and attitudes of the men and their society towards women. The book has had various accusations of misogyny leveled at it and for good reason: many of the men within this story have a long way to go in regards to the respectful treatment of women within their society, yet two of the most noble and admirable characters in the book (if not the only truly noble and admirable characters in the story) are female.
This is the kind of story where the grit gets stuck in your teeth...and you like it. Corpses reek of death; prison cells stink of urine, sweat and more; the same man is capable of the noblest of heroic acts and the most craven and depraved of behaviors, and it is this struggle within themselves that defines who they are.
What appear to be rather disparate threads are woven together as the story progresses, yet Martin leaves enough loose threads to lead the reader towards the second installment, A Clash of Kings. The suspense within the story seemingly resides on the struggle of various factions against one another, yet a threat from beyond the man-made ice wall in the north looms in the background, silent and sure; meanwhile, an unexpected twist in the fortunes of the men and in what they know, or think they know, of their world, offers yet more moves in this chronicle that often feels like a chess game played by the gods in which all of the men are pawns.
From Bantam Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Shop local and independent...it makes a difference!)