Of course fantasy readers will gravitate towards this series. My shelves are clogged with Tolkien, Donaldson, Eddings, Williams and Kay, and I have had a copy of the first novel in this series since it was published in paperback.

Random House, 1996

But readers of the historical saga will be smitten too: take Galsworthy and Dunnett and add an element of the fantastic. Quarrels about inheritance? As much like Dickens and Trollope as Tolkien (and, really, I haven’t seen a single elf yet).

The appeal of G.R.R. Martin’s series rests in the complicated relationships between the expansive cast of characters as much as in the creation of the land and its peoples.

Readers keep turning the pages not because they want to see what magic will unfold next (at least not in this first volume) but because they want to see which alliances are maintained, which are forged anew, and which are devastated.

And, yet there is something magickal about the story.

“…Dany had always heard that the east was different.”

In the sense that the unknown embodies a sense of wonder.

“It was said that manticores prowled the islands of the Jade Sea, that basilisks infested the jungles of Yi Ti, that spellsingers, warlocks, and aeromancers practiced their arts openly in Asshai, while shadowbinders and bloodmages worked terrible sorceries in the black of night. Why shouldn’t there be dragons too?”

The land of far and away is always filled with fantastic possibilities.

But Dany is only imagining dragons; she is most preoccupied with her daily struggle to maintain and assert her position in her community, with an erratically behaved brother who plans to offer her as a bride in whichever union he deems most auspicious.

(Surely if there was a spell to ward that off, she would have cast it.)

Still, there are portions of the novel that read like a combination of begats and purple-prosed adventure tales.

Readers who lack patience for these passages will not persist through the 800+ pages of the first volume of this series:

“And above it all, frowning down from Aegon’s high hill, was the Red Keep; seven huge drum-towers crowned with iron ramparts, an immense grim barbican, vaulted halls and covered bridges, barracks and dungeons and granaries, massive curtain walls studded with archers’ nests, all fashioned of pale red stone. Aegon the Conqueror had commanded it built. His son Maegor the Cruel had seen it completed. Afterward he had taken the heads of every stonemason, woodworker, and builder who had labored on it. Only the blood of the dragon would ever know the secrets of the fortress the Dragonlords had built, he vowed.”

But, for the most part, readers accept these, alongside passages like the following:

‘”What was he doing that they had to kill him?’
‘Asking questions,’ [someone] said, slipping out the door.”

They will accept descriptions of equipment like this:

“In gloved hands were held all manner of weapons: longswords and lances and sharpened scythes, spiked clubs and daggers and heavy iron mauls. At their head rode a big man in a striped shadowskin cloak, armed with a two-handed greatsword.”

Setting the scene is vitally important, but readers will turn the pages, not because of details like this, or the recounting of construction and travels or memories of past alliances, but because…

“[w]hen you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

If there is no middle ground, it’s likely because most readers will spend the bulk of their time hovering at the beginnings and ends of these volumes; in the middle ground, it’s all about turning pages and moving onwards.

Have you read this volume?* Did you read it before HBO got on the scene? Were you surprised to enjoy it? Are you surprised by the surge in popularity?

*Thanks to Vasilly, who finally convinced me to boost this one up the stack, after years of saying “someday”.