A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin (1996)
Winter is coming, but the Seven Kingdoms don't seem very bothered about it. While the men of the Black Watch stare at the northern wastes and its unknown dangers from their gigantic wall of ice, the lords of the kingdoms to the south play at a game of thrones to determine who will rule over the others. For 15 years after slayer the Mad King, King Robert has sat on the Iron Throne, but the mysterious death of his first minister, the King's Hand, as set into motion events that will through the realm into civil war. Caught in the middle of this is Robert's old friend Lord Eddard Stark, who is selected to replace his dead predecessor. It's an unwelcome appointment, as Eddard would rather remain in his home of Winterfell with his family and he finds that Robert is not the man he used to be. Worse, Eddard and the entire Stark family soon find themselves caught in a web of mystery and intrigue as Eddard tries to get to the bottom of what is going on while keeping his honour and those he loves safe.
A Game of Thrones is the first volume of George R R Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series. As such, it is the sort of book I dislike on first principles. I'm never keen on airport doorstop novels and have little relish for ploughing through 700 pages only to discover that it ends with "To be continued" I dislike it even more when the series is still continuing after five massive volumes. Either Martin has an incredible plot mapped out in great detail or he's winging it and I'd hate to have to flip 30,000 pages to find a train wreck at the end.
That being said, Thrones is a definite improvement on the HBO series that it spawned. Where the television incarnation is confusing and I often felt like I'd forgotten to bring my study guide, the novel delves far enough into back story and the characters to clue me in on the plot. It also makes more sense because the story telling is tighter, there's no budget to restrict the action and the book is mercifully free of gratuitous naked boobies and homoerotic shaving scenes.
It's not badly written. In fact, Martin's style is disciplined and his main characters are nicely handled, though second tier cast and below blur together in a maddening fashion. The main problem is that there is just too much going on and much of it is needless. There are entire plots that have nothing to do with the main action and could easily have been dropped. Others are like over-laboured set ups that could have been achieved much more economically with a few lines of dialogue and one is merely distracting. This is a pity because Martin's main plot lines are very good. What he should have done is taken one of the plots, Eddard's or that of the dwarf Tyrion (the only really interesting character) and used that as the basis of a single, smaller book. I'd have been happy to read a 200 page novel about Eddard's mystery solving or Tyrion's attempts to stay alive in hostile territory, but mashed together with a load of filler until it tips out at 750 pages? No, thank you.
Some might council patience and point out that it's part of a larger story like The Lord of the Rings. To this, I'd remind them that LOTR was one book broken into three by the publisher and that even in a multi-volume series it is reasonable to expect each one to be self-standing. Cliff hangers are fine, but wondering what the deuce dragon girl has to do with anything else in the story is too much, sorry.
The best take on the whole thing, a coffee stand sign I saw that said, "Winter is coming–So, why not warm up with an egg nog latte?" Every problem is an opportunity.