Game of Thrones Books: the phenomenon
Political metaphors don’t come much more pointed than the Iron Throne, the seat of the kings of Westeros in George R R Martin’s sprawling fantasy sequence in game of thrones book 1 A Song of Ice and Fire. Forged from a thousand captured daggers and swords, the vast metal chair is designed to prick and goad its calmest occupants and slice the unwary to ribbons. One aspirant gloomily remarks on “the barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up and melted. It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease.”
The US television company HBO knows a good thing when it sees it, so it’s perhaps no surprise that its marketing team seized on the Iron Throne as a marketing tool for A Game of Thrones, its recent series (shown here on Sky Atlantic) dramatising the first novel in Martin’s sequence. Replicas of the dismal edifice, bristling with weaponry like militarised porcupines, did the rounds of America’s major cities. Some were mounted on bicycle rickshaws in New York. Another model recently embarked on a tour of Spain.
The Throne did its job, even if the uninitiated were more likely to mistake it for something from the cover of a Slayer album. After just one episode of the series, HBO was pleased enough with the series’ audience figures to commission another run. Readers of Martin’s source novels, though, may well have been chilled to see this grim symbol of hubris and the corruption of power paraded through the centres of American power and the streets of austerity Europe – or they may just have taken it as confirmation that these books are an epic for our times.
Written by the son of a New Jersey longshoreman who became frustrated with “always knowing the end” of novels set in real historical periods, A Song of Ice and Fire is not on the surface an obvious candidate for the breakout success it has enjoyed. It takes place in a barbarous medieval world, full of people whose names (Eddard, Robb, Marq) look like accidents with a spellchecker. It draws inspiration from the savage political infighting of the Wars of the Roses, and it incorporates several elements that have become de rigueur in fantasy novels: swords with names, mythical beasts, daring deeds of arms and acres of heaving naked flesh.
But the books also have a cynic’s heart, a brutally modern take on human nature and a highly contemporary interest in relative morality, hierarchical injustice and bad faith – not to mention some effortless large-scale storytelling and a cliffhanger at the end of every other chapter. Assuming the groaning pile of superlatives already heaped on the series can bear another, they are fantasy fiction’s equivalent to The Wire.
Game of Thrones Books, series and games