A Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin is book one of A Song of Ice and Fire which features in my top ten favourite books of all time. This is the third time I’ve read it and this time I was able to get past the awe and look at the writing. Well, sometimes. There was still a lot of awe; I love this book and its sequels. I can’t wait for the next one, A Dance of Dragons, and I can’t wait for the HBO series coming next year.
So, getting over the love, what did I notice about the writing? First of all, there’s a lot of backstory in the early chapters. It’s very tightly related to the story of the novel and is actually quite sparing. There’s enough to create the sense of a large world with a rich history, without overwhelming current events. It’s usually done a few sentences at a time to add detail but occasionally, one of the POV characters spends a few pages reminiscing. There are two things that I think makes this amount of backstory work. One, chapters are organised by POV and there are a lot of POV characters. This means that each character can give a bit of backstory relevant to them and that past events can be perceived differently by different people. The reader gets to piece together backstory from several versions of the same event. The second thing is that the backstory stays relevant to the POV character. They only tell the reader what matters to them. Every piece of exposition is doing at least two jobs; it’s adding backstory as well as giving characterisation or world building.
The other thing that Martin does really well is characters. His POV characters are great but one expects that. It’s the little characters, the ones that only appear once or twice, the ones that only have a tiny role. They are invested with as much personality and uniqueness as any of the main characters. There is not one that is a cardboard, cookie-cutter character.
He also has a lot of description in the novel. His locations are vividly realised. Again, this information isn’t dropped on us in one lump. Each character has something to say about where they are which builds up to a detailed, solid setting. The description is put to work to support characterisation and theme. I noticed that I tend to skip over description as a reader, as I want to get to the action, so I tried to slow down and pay attention to the descriptive writing. It’s made me think a lot about how I can improve that in my work-in-progress.
All in all, this is a masterpiece, from one of the greatest fantasy writers there is. I loved it as much the third time round as I did the first time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.