[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f there is one television show guaranteed to make me drop everything for the great magic box, it has to be Game of Thrones. A masterful fantasy drama, it is full of intrigue and compelling characters, it has also introduced me to one of my favourite series of all time, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Yes, I freely admit it. The show got me hooked on the novels. Sorry to disappoint the book purists.
I thought that reading the first book – from which the show took its name with the minor adjustment of dropping the article A from the front – after it was already spoiled for me was going to be a bore. It was only my obsession with reading each series completely that prevented me from directly picking up the second book, A Clash of Kings. As it turns out, it was not a decision I would regret.
Martin’s world was extraordinary. The sheer scale of it could very well rival Tolkein’s, and it was much easier to follow. What made it such a joy to read was that despite its magical aspects – the dragons, the witches, the shadow babies and the zombified White Walkers – it was surprisingly grounded. The characters felt real and so did the actual conflict that was central to the plot. If there was no element of fantasy, it would have read as a convincing pseudo-history of medieval Europe. The fact that important characters were just as likely to die as anyone else made it all the more believable.
To be fair, this is praise that can be given to the show as well as the books. Some might even argue that features such as the linear chronology of the show makes it better than the sometimes convoluted nature of its source material. However, as someone who has experienced both sides of the debate, having had the first book “spoiled” by the television show and having subsequent seasons “spoiled” by the books, I can confidently say that each is its own unique experience. And, with the show getting as much attention as it does, I am here to tell you why you should pick up the books too.
For starters, there are more characters. In order to streamline the episodes, HBO had to cut down some key people and merge others in order to let the story continue at the pace they needed. While this works on screen, the expansive world on paper allows for a larger collection of characters, each of whom is surprisingly unique. It also makes Westeros a richer world from the very start. We do not have to wait several books to meet the Tyrells or the Martells, for instance; we know of them from the very beginning.
Another aspect of the books that follows directly from having a wider cast of characters is that there is a more complex backstory to the entire universe. With regards to the show, we are aware of the fact that the Baratheons are new to the throne, having defeated the Targaryens during Robert’s Rebellion. But beyond a few facts that are only brought up when they are relevant to the plot, we do not really know about anything that happened before the first episode. By contrast, the books have a rich history that makes the intrigue and back-stabbing all the more compelling. Over the course of the five books published so far, we not only get a complete sense of the plot that is happening in the narrative present but we also have substantial information about the decades immediately preceding it as well as fascinating chunks of Westerosi lore and history.
No one can fault the show for creating suspense. When the biggest stars and most important characters are the likeliest to die, there is no sense of security. But one thing the book manages to do even better is use sub-plots and a non-linear timeline to throw in red herrings. Due to the time constraints and the shortened cast (and perhaps the budget), the show is not able to delve into the smaller storylines. This is not a problem with the on-screen universe – and Martin himself has signed off on all the changes – but a quick look at the books is enough to show that there are a few things that would make the narrative even stronger if they could have been included.
All of which is not to say that Martin has created a perfect universe. There are definite flaws in the novels. And if there is one element of the show that is indeed superior to its written counterparts, it is that all the characters on-screen are allowed to develop in front of the audience equally, as opposed to having them introduced through the point of view of other characters, which is how the books are presented. Perhaps the best part about A Song of Ice and Fire is that reading it does not ruin the viewing experience. Yes, the plot is revealed, but the show is its own beast and can be enjoyed as a separate work of art. So remember, my sweet summer child. Winter is coming and you better start reading.