It’s been over five years since I first sat down to read George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, fuelled by the esteem I held the then-very-good Game of Thrones in. I don’t recall what first sparked me to watch that first episode, but whatever it was is responsible for one of the most significant creative and personal influences of my life so far. Picking up the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire again (for the third time) after the emotional turmoil of The Bells, it was like a warm hug from an old friend.
Jon Arryn, Hand of the King, has died, and the king is venturing north to see his old friend Lord Eddard Stark once again. It is quaint how this entire saga began with, as producer Bryan Cogman put it, a man going to his old buddy’s house for dinner: between the prophecies and political intrigue lies a story about relationships, of people being forced to make the hardest possible choices in the most undesirable of circumstances. It was only in this reading that I fully appreciated Martin’s ability to swoop in and out of character’s heads, writing, essentially, multiple different novels in one. Nobody responds to events in the same way, nobody has the same opinions as other characters, and the reader is consistently forced to check themselves and their assumptions about what makes men and women good, and evil. It’s not enough to identify poor decision-making on behalf of a character – Martin wants us to understand that our choices and behaviour can be objectively wrong, but that doesn’t render one without reason. Sansa’s decision to tell Queen Cersei that Ned was secretly planning to return to Winterfell with her and Sansa was stupid, but Sansa did it because she (thought she) was in love with Prince Joffrey, and didn’t want to leave him. It makes sense, which is the most consistently refreshing thing about A Game of Thrones and, indeed, the entirety of ASOIAF: pretty much every development makes perfect sense, unlike what can be said for, well, pretty much every other franchise.
If anything, A Game of Thrones feels like a simpler time. Martin’s prose is fresh and concise, convincingly interweaving between fundamentally different stories and styles – one moment we are in the midst of puberty blues, the next it’s melancholy and magic. I’d forgotten how many events are not explicitly described, rather recalled later on by the characters. A twenty-three-year-old characteristic of Martin’s, before A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons were to be bogged down in painstaking details. Not so here: A Game of Thrones moves at a breakneck pace, helped along by the fact it’s arguably the only entry in the saga to be an explicit genre piece. A murder mystery, with its drip-drop of information told across a disparate cast of characters without the necessary access to all of the information, is ripe drama. Of particular note are the lengths Martin goes to convince the reader that Tyrion Lannister really is behind Bran’s attempted murder, as well as the portrayal of the Battle of the Whispering Wood, its multi-POV telling keeping the reader guessing and guessing as to who they should root for and who can actually win.
Rereading a good book can be immensely satisfying; there were so many details I had forgotten in this book alone. How Tyrion promises the Vale of Arryn to the Stone Crows (something that deserved a mention in the Season 8 finale), the entire character of Marillion, the offhand mention of dragons in Asshai, the Tyrell plot to replace Cersei with Margaery because they think she looks like Lyanna Stark. Or how moments take on a new form in hindsight, such as Grand Maester Pycelle’s then-abhorrent musing that it may be “wiser, even kinder, that Daenerys Targaryen should die now so that tens of thousands might live?” Was he right? Probably.
I very much look forward to continuing my reread of A Song of Ice and Fire.