George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones, Book One of A Song of Ice and Fire (Bantam Spectra, 1996)

"When you play the game of thrones you win or you die. There is no middle ground." So says Queen Cersei of the House Lannister, wife of King Robert I Baratheon. No middle ground indeed. This book will either take you by storm or leave you stranded, confused, lost in a web of plots and counter-plots, in dire need of a roadmap. A Game of Thrones follows eight main characters: six members of the House Stark, Tyrion, Imp of the House Lannister, and Daenarys Targaryen, exiled daughter of a dead king. Fortunately, a roadmap is provided.

The appendix to this first novel proves nearly as useful as the map inset in the front of the book. The appendix lists the major and minor characters in detail, sorting them by House, with bits of history for each. A timeline for the Seven Kingdoms and how they came to be united under one king is also provided, and heraldic sigil for each house is also included. This level of detail plays out in the body of the book as well, forming a tapestry of words through which a marvelous world can be seen.

George R. R. Martin might be heir to J. R. R. Tolkien, only I would be hesitant to loan this book out to children. A Game of Thrones (indeed all of A Song of Ice and Fire) explores some very mature subjects. It describes in unflinching detail the most powerful scenes in contemporary fantasy today, and plays with your expectations and emotions along the way, all in a land where summer can last for decades at times, and where winter can last even longer.

For while Ned Stark, Hand of the King, seeks the truth of his predecessors death, his bastard son Jon Snow discovers that the dead can walk when it's cold enough. And as the motto of House Stark says, 'Winter is Coming.'

At times pure horror, other places very much a dark ages mystery, this novel is only the first in a planned six volume fantasy epic that will surely be the envy of every other author in the genre. Like the comet that blazes across the sky at the end of these pages, George R. R. Martin's writing in this series illuminates the entire field of fantasy epics in what might be the crowning glory of this master storyteller.

[Wes Unruh]

Visit George R. R. Martin's Website, or see The Blood of Ice and Fire, "an Unauthorized Site that acts as an encyclopedia, where you can set your own spoiler levels."