The story is slow-moving, and it took a while for me to really get a grip on what was going on. Here are the basics: A lot of people would like to take King Robert's throne. Meanwhile, the many-year-long Summer is showing signs of ending soon - the danger and horrors of Winter will soon be upon everyone.
It's probably better if I list some of the characters and their part of the story instead of trying to explain the plot in more detail.
- Ned Stark - He is honorable, which, in his world, is pretty much a character flaw. King Robert names him the King's Hand, a position he reluctantly accepts. As the King's Hand, he speaks for the king when the king is absent for whatever reason.
- King Robert - He took the throne after he killed the previous king's heir. Although he used to be a great warrior, time has softened him, and now all he wants to do is hunt, drink, and sleep around. He's married to Cersei Lannister.
- Arya Stark - Ned's youngest daughter. She's a tomboy and would like nothing better to learn to fight like her brothers.
- Sansa Stark - Ned's eldest daughter. She would like nothing better than to marry Prince Joffrey, who, from her perspective, is a storybook prince.
- Catelyn Stark - Ned's wife. Cracks a little when an attempt is made on the life of one of her children, but gets a grip later on and leaves to investigate the assassination attempt, as well as what the Lannisters might be up to.
- Daenerys - The daughter of the previous heir to the throne, who King Robert slew in order to take the throne. Her brother, Viserys, arranges for her to marry Drogo, a Dothraki barbarian king.
- Jon Snow - Ned's bastard son, who yearns for proper recognition as one of Ned's sons. Although he was raised with Ned's other children, he is constantly aware of his status as a bastard. Catelyn does not like him. He joins the Night's Watch, a sort of military order that guards the Wall.
- Tyrion Lannister - A dwarf, brother to Jaime Lannister and Queen Cersei. I think Jaime is the only member of his family he is at all close to.
It's been ages since I last read any epic fantasy – in fact, I think I was in high school – so I was a little worried about starting this. As slow as my reading speed has been lately, did I really want to start an 800-page monster, with more to come? Happily, I found my epic fantasy legs pretty quickly. I had a few days when I didn't feel like reading, but, when I did, I plowed through 50-200 pages in a single sitting. Not half bad for someone who's currently having attention span issues with a 200-page book.
I should mention that I have yet to see the TV series. I started reading this mainly to get a feel for whether the TV series might be worth spending money on (I decided it was), and then I didn't want to start watching the first season until after I had finished the first book, out of fear that I'd lose reading steam otherwise. If you're looking for comparisons between the book and the TV series, I can't do that (yet).
This book is not going to be for everyone. There are lots and lots of characters, many of whom have names that start with J, T, or R, and it doesn't help that some of those characters are named after each other. The story follows at least 8 POV characters and is slow-moving. It takes a while (for me, at least 200 pages) to get a grip on who everyone is, what's going on, and how everything intersects.
Even so, I got hooked pretty quickly. I started off interested in the direwolves and got sucked in by the many storyline and the world, which is not a place anyone in their right mind would want to live. This is the kind of place where, if you are at all good and honorable, you'll probably die horribly. Everything is slathered in intrigue, and there is the constant reminder that “Winter is coming.” In our world, winter can be horrible, but at least it's relatively brief. Here, Summer can last for years, and Winter can go on for a decade or more. Plus, Winter brings with it strange and terrifying things, like zombies.
It doesn't pay to get too attached to any one character, because pretty much anyone can die. I remember the point at which is occurred to me that, since the book is from so many characters' perspectives, not even POV characters are safe. Lots and lots of people die, either in battle or via horrific executions. Whereas sex is not described in detail, violence is, so if you have a weak stomach for that sort of thing, this book may not be for you. I have a stronger stomach for gore in books than I do for gore in movies or TV, so I'm a little nervous about seeing certain scenes in the show.
I'm also nervous about how the rapes will be handled. I don't remember there being a lot of rapes in the book, but what rapes there were were awful. Particularly near the end. My skin crawled, even without really detailed descriptions. It didn't help that, when one particular (female) character expressed horror at the rapes going on around her, other characters (all male) could barely comprehend what her problem was. And at least one of those male characters was supposed to be seen as a decent person, or as decent as people can be in the world of this book.
The huge cast of characters meant that there was someone for pretty much everyone to like or hate. My favorite characters to hate were Viserys, for his constant entitled whining and his treatment of his sister, and Joffrey, for pretty much everything he did. I also hated Sansa, mostly because she was so painfully, awfully naive and stupid. If important things hadn't been happening around her, I'd have skipped her POV chapters entirely. It was hard to imagine how Ned and Catelyn could possibly have created someone like her – none of their other children were nearly as dense.
As far as the characters I liked...I should first mention that the situations they were in were often more vivid than the characters themselves, so I “liked” characters in a muffled sort of way. What I mean is, I didn't want to see certain characters die, but, if they had died, their deaths wouldn't have wrecked me emotionally. Also, except for maybe some of the children, hardly any of the characters were truly good people – even the characters I would describe as good and honorable were more a lighter shade of gray than anything.
Jon was bitter and kind of full of himself at times, but I still liked him (and Ghost, his direwolf). Although I hated most of the Lannister family, Tyrion Lannister was one of my favorite characters – his POV chapters were fun to read because his “voice” was so appealing. As a dwarf, he knew his position in this world wasn't the best and tried to maintain a certain amount of humor about it all. He could fight, but not nearly as well as some, so he depended a lot upon his wits and survival instincts. Daenerys was young (14 throughout most of the book – I do hope she's older in the TV series, because ick) and used to being under her not-quite-stable brother's control. I cheered as she gradually gained and learned to use her own power and influence. It would have been nice, though, if most of her power had been truly her own and not gained primarily through sex and her marriage to Drogo. I have high hopes for her in the next book, though.
I didn't get past the fourth book of either Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series or Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series, so I don't expect to finish this series. However, I do plan on at least reading the next book, and I'm going to give the first season of the TV series a shot. There is something spellbinding about watching all these characters chug along towards what often feels like will be their doom.
Women get a raw deal in the world of this book. Yes, there are some strong women, but they are often the “strong women behind the strong men.” Queen Cersei is abused by King Robert, even as she tries to control him and pull strings behind his back. Catelyn is knowledgeable enough to act as her eldest son's adviser, but no one even thinks to suggest that she lead people into battle instead of her son (I'm sure the strong and manly warriors would have viewed that as an insult ::rolls eyes::). Her husband Ned asks that she live peaceably under the same roof as Jon, his bastard son, even though Jon is a constant reminder of the woman Ned loved and a time when Ned was unfaithful.
Women, in general, are a way for men to make alliances. To be fair, men, too, must also quietly submit to marrying women they don't know, but they have a better chance of getting to choose which woman they marry, and they also have power in their own right. Daenerys, for example, didn't have any power until she gained some via her marriage to Drogo. This power was not her power, but Drogo's power, and without him she'd have been just as powerless as she was prior to her marriage (until the event that occurs at the end of the book).
Then there's the whole "most women aren't trained to use weapons" thing. Ned grudgingly arranges for Arya to be trained to fight, but her experience is rare. You'd think women would at least be trained in the basics of fighting, so that they could help defend the castle if all the best male warriors were called away, but no. It seemed like an enormous waste of potential to me.
None of this ruined the book for me, but I still felt it was worth bringing up, and it didn't seem like quite enough for a separate post.
A couple maps, plus an appendix that lists each of the characters, arranged according to their houses. The appendix also includes a bit of information about each house.
- The Eye of the World (book) by Robert Jordan - I think this was the first epic fiction I ever tried. I remember it being kind of a slog, although a slog that I somehow also enjoyed. I can barely recall any of the characters or what happened in the books, though. What I do remember of the series, I remember in relation to Terry Goodkind's books. Which leads me to Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series...
- Wizard's First Rule (book) by Terry Goodkind - Again, as with Robert Jordan's book, I can barely remember any of the characters or what happened, and what I do remember might involve some cross-over with Jordan's stuff. I remember thinking that this series seemed an awful lot like Jordan's, only more enjoyable. The writing wasn't so much of a slog.
- Lord Foul's Bane (book) by Stephen R. Donaldson - Another epic fantasy series. I've haven't read it, although it's sitting on my TBR pile. From what I can tell, you either love it or hate it. The big sticking point seems to be whether readers can accept a main character is absolutely, positively not a hero. As in, he rapes someone and is generally unpleasant.
- Tigana (book) by Guy Gavriel Kay - This one sounds like it might be a good fit for those who'd like lots of characters, political strife, and characters who are less black and white and more shades of gray. I think it's a standalone, but it's a long one, and one four-star review I saw said that the first 200 pages were kind of boring.