Summer solstice has come and gone, and that can only mean one thing: it’s time to tackle that summer reading list. Most summer reading lists (if you plan on reading anything at all) tend to fall into two categories: the Classics-I’ve-been-meaning-to-read-for-years, and the Trash-I’ll-probably-read instead.
You know which list is yours, whether you’re staring with some trepidation at the 600+ pages of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or if you’re already breezing through the Twilight series for the seven hundredth time.
Each list has its virtues. Sure, I feel a duty to give a shout-out to the Classics—books such as The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and Swann’s Way, that remain relevant to our lives 50 to 100 years after they were written.
But as a human being, I’ll admit that more often than not I tend to gravitate toward the Trash side of the spectrum (although not Stephanie Meyers’ brand).
To resolve this tension I’ve decided to embark on a quest for a new kind of summer reading, a melding of Classics and Trash, or Trashics, if you will. Weeks of searching have led me to the first book I think meets the criteria: George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.
You may already be a fan of the classic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, to which this first book belongs. Or it could be you’ve watched the new HBO adaptation, which wrapped up its first season this past Sunday. I belong to the latter camp, and I have to say that while the show is fantastic, I’ve discovered that the book is even better.
A quick disclaimer: I’m a former fantasy junkie. I got hooked on fantasy books at an early age, and although I hadn’t read one for years, that passion is still in my blood. Fantasy isn’t for everyone, I know, but A Game of Thrones isn’t your typical fantasy.
A Game of Thrones introduces readers to the country of Westeros, home to seven kingdoms that teeter on the brink of civil war. There’s plenty of intrigue, backstabbing, romance, and heroics; there are swords with names, mystic visions, lords and ladies, bastards and assassins, knights and kings. All of these elements might consign the book to the Trash category. But A Game of Thrones also offers a profound meditation on the effecs of power on individuals rich and poor. It poses age-old questions about whether power always corrupts; whether morality can survive in times of war; and whether good can endure evil.
To carry forth his plot, Martin creates a compelling cast of characters, from the noble Lord Eddard Stark to the boozy, whoring King Robert Baratheon; from the sweet, naïve Sansa Stark to the steely Queen Cersei Lannister.
Martin’s characters are complex human beings who develop in surprising ways over the course of the book.
Martin also isn’t afraid to let bad things happen to good characters. You’ll find by the end of A Game of Thrones that some of your favorite characters have been emotionally abused, physically crippled, or even killed.
This is no Harry Potter; major characters meet sudden, frequently unjust ends. It’s that grittiness that gives the book its edge, and makes it so unpredictable and addictive.
Also unlike Harry Potter, there are no deus-ex-machina spells, no wise wizards or all-powerful forces of evil. There’s hardly any magic, and no dragons — at least not live ones. Instead there’s a richly imagined Dark Ages world devolving into the chaos of war. There are human beings caught in the crossfire, forced to choose between honor, love, and life.
At its heart, A Game of Thrones is a classic portrait of the cost of war, and the enduring need for peace. If that doesn’t qualify it for the Trashics Summer Reading List, I don’t know what will.
Katie Vane recently earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter College.