But who am I kidding -- I love long novels and after about 100 pages, I was solidly hooked on this one. Of course there is the obligatory map at the beginning of the book guiding us through the imaginary kingdom, and a host of appendices giving family histories, genealogies, and alliances, but don't let that get you down. Martin makes it so easy to love: supernatural elements are just hinted at, or talked about as stories from the distant past; the present is full of violence and sex and political intrigue; and most of the story is more like straightforward adventure than mystical old fantasy.
The basic plot is something like this: Seven formerly independent kingdoms have been ruled over by a single king for three centuries. The first of these kings was a Targaryen, of the House of the Dragon, and his family stayed in power until a rebellion, about a dozen years ago, killed all of them but two exiled children, and put Robert Baratheon on the throne. Robert's best friend and fellow warrior is the Lord of Winterfell, the northernmost kingdom, Eddard Stark, and most of this first book comes to us from the perspective of Eddard, his wife, his two daughters, and three of his sons. When Robert calls Eddard south to rule at court as the Hand of the King, his family is divided and their comfortable (and peaceful) lives in the North are forever changed.
Shit, that makes it sound like a crappy fantasy novel. But I swear it is way more compelling than it sounds! For example, there are super creepy vampire/zombie-type creatures called The Others, extra smart and vicious direwolves, a nice sprinkling of sex, and tons and tons of unexpected death and betrayal. Martin is not afraid to hurt or kill off his characters, even ones that seem essential to the story, and I like that aura of unpredictable tragedy. He also writes an awesome villain.
It is unsurprising that this has been made into an HBO series, and while I haven't seen any of it, I'm sure it looks great. Martin has a way with landscapes and locations that ease the transition from book to film. A few of my favorites:
- A gigantic ice wall, built up over the centuries, dividing the northernmost kingdom from the untamed land "Beyond the Wall."
- The road leading to the central camp for a nomadic Eastern people, flanked on both sides with the statues and icons of the people they have conquered.
- An isolated castle so high on a mountain that no horses can reach it -- you have to crawl up or be hoisted in a bucket. And the dungeon cells aren't underneath -- they line a tower, are missing their outside wall, and have floors that are slightly tilted down towards a fall off the mountain.