Winter is Coming

Far north, where the air is always gelid and snow blankets the ground forever, a formidable wall was built thousands of years ago, now permanently covered in ice, separating the human realm from the Others’ world.  The Wall is guarded by an army of sworn celibate  soldiers – the Black Brothers (the title indicative of the color of their clothes,  head to toe) –  and the woods alongside   inhabited by dire wolves, children of the forest , wildlings, old gods  and, unfortunately, as of lately…  the Others; those who should have remained north of the wall.

The characters are so numerous, and all of them so key to the story, that the chapters are named after many of them – Eddard; Sansa; Bran; Arya; Jon, Tyrion; Catelyn. Things in the near future happen on the morrow instead of tomorrow; people don’t simply eat breakfast – they break their fast; messages are delivered by ravens, dragons existed in a past that is hundreds of years old,   and summer may last several years.   They all know the meaning of an extended summer though  and brace themselves for what’s ahead.

Those are only a few of the many novelties with which A Game of Thrones will greet its readers. It may take a while for the reader to adjust to its different concepts and expressions.  Author George R. R. Martin edits his own books and if that sounded strange and laborious to me in the beginning, now it makes all the sense in this world.  Game of Thrones’ peculiar text would have driven an editor mad.

I read the prologue and chapter I of the first volume (the series, named A Song of Ice and Fire, encompasses five thick volumes) with hesitation. Fantasy, modern or medieval,   is not my favorite genre anymore – I tend to associate it with the likes of Lord of the Rings  and after watching the first episode of Game of Thrones’ first season on HBO, despite the high quality of the production and excellent cast, I held on to my stubbornness: fantasy is not for me. Besides, everybody in the story keeps saying, winter is coming, and that is something I don’t like to be reminded of so often…

I turned off the TV and started on chapter II.  And kept reading until almost three in the morning!   A week and four hundred pages  later,  I went back to the HBO show, watched the first episode of the first season again and enjoyed it much better this time around,  now that I knew and understood the plot and the characters in depth. The writers who tackled the enormously risky and, I presume, endlessly satisfying task, of turning George R. R. Martin’s work into a TV show are phenomenal.   It’s a monumental job, by author and screenwriters. I would gladly dedicate an entire Emmy awards ceremony to Game of Thrones winners only, so magnificently done it is.

Back in George Martin’s  world, children grow  fast:  Boys, when they have the right skills and strength of character,  can command entire armies at the age of sixteen and girls are often given in marriage before they reach their fifteenth  name day – which means birthday in the common tongue of the Seven Kingdoms over which Robert Baratheon reigns. Not without trouble it is,   mostly created by his wife Cersey, daughter of powerful  Ser Tiwyn Lannister – leader of  the wealthiest family in all  Seven Kingdoms –  and sister to Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, a   seemingly invincible knight  and  cruel trouble-maker.

Unaware of the deaths and disappearances  taking place alongside  the wall and the frightening identity of the killers, everything was going reasonably well for Lord Eddard Stark (King Robert’s best friend), and the Stark clan (wife and  kids) living in  their beloved Winterfell, a castle or fortress or holdfast built over subterranean hot springs so everybody can take a warm bath. My kind of medieval fortress! On the pages where we are first introduced to Lord Stark and his sons (two girls would be added later), they find a dead female dire wolf in the woods and the kids eagerly convince  Dad to let them keep her six pups.  Each of those six  animals will play an important role in the fate of  Lord Stark’s children.  A dire wolf, by the way, is a real animal, a huge mammal, distant cousin of our dogs and modern wolves,  that lived   on earth  thousands of  years ago, says some Google web page. I had no idea.

All was well until King Robert’s  Hand ( the King’s Hand is a type of prime minister, highly regarded and feared) died. The deeper Eddard looks into it, the more he is convinced The Hand was murdered  in King’s Landing,  in the south, where the royals reside, and  Robert decided Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell was to be his new Hand. To complicate things further, Robert also dictates  that Eddard’s  pretty  daughter Sansa was to solidify the love between Starks and  Baratheons by  marrying  his  son, Prince Joffrey,  when both had come of age.  Robert Baratheon knows he can’t  trust anybody in his own court  and needs the strength of loyal Eddard Stark.

Away from both Winterfell and King’s Landing, across the Narrow Sea, in  a place of nomad tribes where fierce horse riders rule – a  land of endless warm plains – trouble is brewing. In exile and fighting for their lives, siblings Viserys and Daenerys, son and daughter of the Targaryen king overthrown by Robert Baratheon, plot to regain their lost kingdom and titles. They are  the blood of the dragon in Viserys’ words, dreaming of a triumphant return to King’s Landing,  supported by  an army forty thousand strong. For that he sold his sister Daenerys,  a young  girl of fourteen with silver hair,   to the Dothraki  leader  Khal Drogo,  but she may be a dragon herself and events take another unexpected and violent turn. To  realistically portray the barbaric Dothraki , George R.R. Martin spared no effort – he even created their own language, as the Dothraki tribes don’t speak the common tongue of  the Seven Kingdoms.  It looked good in the book and it felt even better on  the TV show, where the foreign words gain voices and expressions and gestures (and English subtitles), sounding  believable also thanks to such competent acting.

The eight hundred pages in  my paperback went by in a blink of an eye. Every time the conductor announced our arrival at Center City Suburban Station, my stop, I wished the train could ride forever so I did not have to stop reading .It was not until  the second half of it though that the actual expression game of thrones came to life.  Lannisters and Targaryens   have golden and silvered hair, while Baratheons are dark. As mundane as it may sound, that’s crucial information  in  A  Game of Thrones . Starks have brown hair and long faces and the Tullys all have chestnut -colored hair.

Speaking of the Starks , strong and brave Lord Eddard  of Winterfell may be, but as the King’s Hand he is no match for  the intrigue and deceit rampant  in Robert’s court.  Seriously ill, depressed and fearful for his two daughters,  confused by the news that his wife Catelyn had imprisoned the queen’s brother (his name is Tyrion and he is allegedly involved with a murder attempt back in Winterfell during the king’s visit), Eddard  makes the big mistake of having an honest conversation with queen Cersei. Little did  Stark know how high a price opening his heart to Robert’s powerful wife was to cost. Among the king’s  family and counselors (the king’s  Small Council would require two blog posts at least for me to be able to convey half their corruption), honor, duty and loyalty have little if any value. Lord Stark is not cut for dirty politics. Cersey mocks him and then adds, in the game of thrones, you play or you die.

What an imagination, I thought,  marveling at the intricate story and complex characters. Writing one single volume as thick and involving as  A Game of Thrones would already be a great accomplishment; let alone five, as thick as the first, as good or even better than it.  Some  of my favorite characters in Game of Thrones died violent deaths. I’m heart-broken they will never make it to the future volumes but their sons and daughters live on and I’m sure we will be remembering them in  pages to come. Others, who started humbly and small, grew to be formidable. I have a special preference for Tyrion Lannister, brother of Jaime and  queen Cersei. Compared to  his handsome and physically perfect brother Jaime,  Tyrion has a serious handicap but the scenes and dialogues in which he is represent  the book’s best because of his witty tongue. Hopefully, Tyrion Lannister will stay around for a while. He makes me laugh and think. And the more I think, the more I enjoy the character.

Like I once saw it happen  with Girl with Dragon Tattoo (dragons again!), people notice  I am  reading Game of Thrones on the train and next thing I know they are pouring their hearts out to me, describing how they adore the entire series, the beloved characters, their admiration for the author’s creativity and talent to make such an incredible world  feel real;  how they enjoy watching the HBO series, and, inevitably, how  the books are better than the show after all.

If I had to pick  one only thing to love in  A Game of Thrones it would have to be the way each little detail of the story has a purpose and how the author follows through with it. Nothing is thrown into the plot that does not hold a special significance; a raison d’être.  I’m in awe  at the character and plot planning it   must have required from  the author to keep track of each individual and his or her personal trajectory , personality traits, past thoughts and words, and how it affects the entire story.  Nothing I can write here will be a truly good enough description of how great George R. R. Martin’s work is. I had read a few fantasy series in years past, like Dune and The Mists of Avalon, but A Game of Thrones is many worlds apart, literally.

Yesterday I finished the last page of the first volume. It works as a stand-alone book, if you don’t wish to keep reading the series. But I doubt anybody who has lived through the trials and tribulations of the Stark kids   and their dire wolves, the Braratheons, the Lannisters, of Khal Drogo and his silver haired princess Daenerys and her maniacal brother, the Black Brothers at The Wall and many others, will be able to stay away from the sequel.

Winter is definitely coming (if super storm Sandy was just a sample of what lies ahed) and I intend to spend it turning the one thousand pages of the next volume, A Clash of Kings.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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