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What can fantasy do without magic?,
This review is from: A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1) (Mass Market Paperback)
That doesn't mean there is no magic in "A Game of Thrones." There is some, and more as the series flows on. But this first book is primarily historical fantasy, occurring in a world with incredibly long seasons, dragons, and warrior-queens, but still recognizably based on the history of England, especially the Wars of the Roses.
It is Martin's triumph that he transforms this world into something of his own creation, and his writing talent has all the magic he needs.
This first book follows the adventures of eight viewpoint characters: six of the Stark family, one of the Lannister family that opposes them, and one of the deposed Targaryen royal dynasty. The storylines intersect and then spin away again. Characters who are in close contact at one point may meet each other again, or scatter to opposite ends of the Seven Kingdoms. And at least one storyline, that of Daenerys Targaryen, takes place on another continent altogether, only brushed by political decisions in the Kingdoms.
This can make sorting out the plot confusing at first, but one of the grand things about it is that the plot does not focus on a hero and heroine, making all the rest of the viewpoint characters into sidekicks. *All* of these characters are part of the plot, and all of them have something important to say and do. One could argue that Lord Eddard Stark, who stands at the heart of most of the political action and is searching frantically for one of the book's main family secrets, is the hero, but the struggle of his wife to find out who nearly killed her son is just as important. So is his ... son's adventure on the Wall, and Tyrion Lannister's travel- both willing and unwilling- south and back north, and Dany's arranged marriage to a barbarian prince. Martin is an expert at making each character the center of his or her own universe, a hero or heroine in his or her own eyes.
And none of them are evil. Though we receive indications that a vast inhuman threat, in the form of a long winter, will soon descend on the Seven Kingdoms, there is no Dark Lord sitting on a throne and laughing. There are ordinary people, who may happen to be a bit crazy, but who are also following human motives such as trying to protect their children. The political intrigue spins out of those motivations, rather than out of forced advance of plot. This is yet another thing that makes the story such a breath of fresh air. Some of the characters may well be advancing along the lines of destiny, but they often don't know it.
Yet another thing the large absence of magic and destiny does is to make it more strange when it appears. Blood magic, foreseeing the future, and the bonds between the Stark children and their direwolves might seem commonplace bits of magic in a "normal" fantasy setting; in this one, they gleam like jewels in their settings. This helps to restore the sense of wonder that fantasies strive for and so rarely achieve.
This book is not perfect, of course. At times, Martin's making of human characters worked a little too well for me; one character, Sansa Stark, remains essentially a shallow and helpless pawn throughout the story, and it was nearly impossible for me to sympathize with her. At the same time, I was sure I was meant to sympathize with her. Such things make for an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. There were also some transparent tropes and very obvious symbolism, such as the dead direwolf the Starks find. Martin could be setting these up just to destroy them, but at other times he handles them delicately enough that I felt required to take them seriously. I was left unsure what to think or feel.
However, this book is a living, breathing thing, and some discomfort with living, breathing things is normal. And a great number of what I perceived as flaws here are worked out as the series progresses.
Martin has spun glory with 'A Song of Ice and Fire,' and this is only the first tapestry off his loom.