A Game of Thrones discussion questions

The first Book Club episode is coming soon! We are covering A Game of Thrones, just the first novel, not the entire series.

In anticipation of the show, I am posting the discussion questions we will cover here.

First and foremost, if you have not read the novel. There will be SPOILERS. For the folks who may have read the whole series, keep the discussion focused on the first book, since many (including me) may still be in the process of reading the other books.

Feel free to respond to any of the questions here on the forums, if they interest you! OR, you can leave us a voicemail on our Skype account (account name: thespiel).  Especially Question #6, we may try to include some listener responses on the show.

Here are the questions:

1. Simplest question first, whose story is it?

2. What does the author gain by breaking up the main narrative into 8 different stories?

3. A Game of Thrones seems to fly in the face of several traditional fantasy literary themes or devices. What does the author gain by separating his story from these time-tested tropes?

4. The Seasons shape the novel in no small way. The shift from Summer to Winter in Westeros is more than a matter of weather patterns. How do the Seasons help define warring houses and their famillies?

5. “When you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die” Cersei claims early in the novel. There are consequences (often severe and final) when you question or try to claim power. However, the events of the story would seem to show plenty of room for partial victories and less than total defeat. Is a playing a Game of Thrones an all or nothing proposition?  OR is the question implied but unasked by the Night Watch equally valid: the only way to really win is not to play?

6. Softball question: What was the most influential factor in drawing you in or turning you off the novel? Pick a passage, a character, a scene, an idea. Use it to illustrate your point.


Quick thoughts:

1. I think the story ultimately belongs to Daenerys.  Can she restore the Targaryen dynasty and restore her family's glory?

2. I think it gives the story a more epic feeling. 

3. The story seems more real to me since there is little magic in the series. 

4. Obviously summer=Lannister and winter=Stark. With winter approaching I thought House Stark would gain power at Lannister's expense but we know how that turns out.

5. The events so far lead me to agree with Cersei.

6. Eddard's death is what hooked me in to the series.  Until then I thought he would triumph over the Lannisters and either become king or put Stannis on the throne.




I'm just going to answer questions 1 & 6 since they have similar answers for me.

I think this story belongs to the children. To a certain extent, they are all caught up in the game the adults are playing, and then eventually, they start to play their roles, though not in a perfectly predictable way, which I appreciate. This is also what really drew me into the book. I loved the pairing of the wolves with the children in one of the earliest scenes. I also think the characters are really compelling and interesting, especially Jon, Arya, and Dany, though the others become more interesting throughout the first book. In the face of really horrible things happening to these children, they show courage and loyalty, and act more maturely than the adults.


Here are my thoughts for the book club. Something of a brain dump so excuse the grammar and spelling .....


Q1. Simplest question first ? Hmm ... i'm not so sure.

I don't think that it is any individual's story. Yes, there is a lot of focus on the Starks, but overall I would suggest that it transcends the individual characters and is more the story of a realm teetering on the brink.

Q2. I think breaking the narrative up into multiple different 'voices' allows the author to observe events from alternative perspectives as well as pulling together different storylines. I like the fact that some of these different strands remain distinct even at the the close of the novel; There are effects happening that are yet to impact each other but are of equal importance.

At the same time I do feel like George RR Martin could have done more to vary the voices he uses. There is an over emphasis on the Stark family when events in Westeros are unfolding. 

The Lannisters are only ever represented by the thoughts and actions of Tyrion, but he is the more sympathetic of the characters of that House. I think it would have been more interesting to get into the minds of Jaime Lannister or Queen Cersei, earlier in the book, to offer a real counterpoint to the Stark world view. (think of "The Collector", by John Fowles, where the same events are narrated twice by the kidnapper and kidnapped)

Q3. I'm not sure that I'm enough of an expert on Fantasy literary devices to comment - but I think that the book works particularly well because it is not really an alien world to the reader. The medieval setting is recognisable to all. The location is kind of immaterial.

What 'magic' there is tends to be subdued and more a matter of mythology to the characters involved. As a result Westeros becomes instantly believable as a place. 

Q4. The Westeros seasons are intriguing - it seems that Summers last for decades and the lengths of the Winters are variable. I can't help wondering what kind of orbit the planet is in.

I love the concept of a 'summer child'. Many of the younger characters in the book have no notion of what a Winter can be like because they have not lived long enough. At 14 you can be a king but still not seen the snow falling in Winter. Awesome.

Living in the Northern wastes, The Starks clearly understand what it means when 'Winter is Coming'. The author leads you down the garden path with this one because the impression is given that the coming of Winter herald the ascendency of the Starks. Hah! Not so!

I'm not sure the other houses are really 'Summer houses', as such, but they seem to have a blissful ignorance of how things are going to change and are happy to play their 'Game of Thrones' while the elements are gathering.

Q5. I guess it depends what you mean by "partial victories". Littlefinger does not covert the throne (or maybe he does) - I would argue that he coverts the power behind. In that sense he has scored the victory conditions he sought.

I think Cersei was highlighting that as soon as you get involved in the politics of court, you're either going to get what you want or end up dead. Seems like a fair observation to me. I'd love to play her at Diplomacy.

Q6. I only read the novel because of this book club but I'm glad I did. The story is very readable but intelligently written. What has really impressed me is the ruthlessness with which Martin treats his characters - in many ways he reminds me of John Irvine there, happily dispatching his major characters in the middle of a novel.

I also really enjoyed the twists in the plot. On so many occasions, as the reader, I was convinced that I knew what was going to happen - only to have my expectations confounded. More dead ends in this labyrinth of a novel than I've seen in a while.

I, for one, was convinced that Daenerys' unborn son was going to become the major character in coming books. But, no, he's swept aside and we have the stunning finale of Khal Drogo's funeral pyre and it's Daenerys herself, the stormborn, who comes out as the new Khal (or Khaleesi). That chapter, for me, was one of the most vivid I have read in a long while.

(along with the beheading of Eddard Stark. If it ever gets made into a film that bit will be in slow motion as the camera pans from a smug Joffrey, to an astounded Cersei across to a hysterical Sansa)

But there are also some little touches, in the book, which I felt were really deftly handled.

Eddard Stark is portrayed as this man of honour; butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. We are encouraged to sympathise with him and his family.

Whilst he languishes in the dungeon Varys, the eunuch, comes to see him and one of the off hand things he says is "why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?"

That one line gave a sudden perspective shift. Eddard was as much a part of the problem as Cersei or any of the Lannisters. The common people really didn't care who was sitting on the Iron Throne but they were the ones watching their villages burn. Again.

It felt like a nice revolutionary whisper in a book focusing on the wheeling and dealing of the elite. Maybe that's just me :-) 


I sure wish the game was as good as the book. But i guess you'll come to that next episode.

 Incidentally I thought it interesting that the book has maps of Westeros (both North and South) but nothing of the Free Cities, of Pentos and the Dothraki lands.

This small touch instantly made some locations more mysterious, more foreign. 

 Like Steerpike, I read the novel because of the upcoming Spiel episode, and I'm very glad I did. George R.R. Martin is an excellent writer. I've read some fairly average fantasy novels, in terms of writing, but he's definitely up near the top. I only finished reading the novel today so with it fresh in my mind, here are my thoughts:

 1. I think it’s the story of the good guys. They are the characters that you can empathise with as they face their evil foes. Even Tyrion, while still a Lannister and on the “evil” side elicits a degree of sympathy due to his physical stature and comic relief.  Each of the characters we follow are ultimately honourable, which I would guess is a deliberate decision by the author.


2. Breaking the narrative up is nothing new in the epic fantasy/sci-fi genre. It reminds me a lot of Peter F Hamilton’s novels, with many different stories intertwining. It serves to give us different perspectives on the story, while simultaneously frustrating us when it jumps away from one character’s story that we’ve just got into.


I think it also serves to help us understand the motives of multiple characters better. Sure, he could have written the novel in the 3rd person omniscient but writing in the 3rd person limited gives us a closer bond with each characters, and makes all the more impact when they suffer.



3. By “time-tested tropes” I presume you mean something along the lines of orcs, elves, wizards, magic. By sticking mostly to the equivalent of medieval Earth, the author can draw us into a world we can better understand. I for one prefer this style of novel where there are no orcs or elves, and where magic plays a very small role.


While I’m on that topic (and pre-empting question 6) the most disappointing aspect of the novel for me was the whole dragon magic at the end. While I am OK with dragons in this story, and even appreciated the wights attacking the Wall,  what I though detracted from the story was the mumbo jumbo of the maegi woman and the apparent fire-retardantness of Dany. Oh, and what was up with the dragons suckling at her breasts? Seriously? That was just wrong. I understand it served to shake up the whole story and give a springboard for the sequel but it just seemed ridiculous in a novel that was, up to that point, extremely down to earth.



4. I see the Seasons serve more as an overall guide to the progression of the story than anything else. Obviously, there’s the whole change to Winter tying in nicely with the Stark’s motto, but more than that I think it’s there to provide an ominous foreboding. Winter is associated with the cold and darkness, and in somewhat of a contradiction it’s the good guys who are set up to take advantage. Well, we hope…



5. A deep question. I think it really depends on how much each character has invested in “the game” as to whether it is solely the live or die alternative that exists.  Not everyone who plays the game falls into one of those extreme categories, but certainly for someone like Cersei that’s the way the game is played. She has invested so much of herself into the game that these are the only real alternatives, and she imposes them on those who join her in the game.


Incidentally, I understand the whole not-playing-at-all of the Black Brothers, but it is still somewhat of a cop out.


6. As I said earlier, the Dany and the dragons thing at the end was a turn off. However, it is outweighed by the strength of the rest of the novel. It takes a great author to suck you into a world where the good guys are continually turned back by evil. Each time you think everything is going to work out for the Starks, the Lannisters manage to trump them. It is this hook that keeps me engaged, as well as really caring about the characters we follow, particularly Arya. And just so we’re not totally overwhelmed, the author gives the good guys a victory towards the end so that there’s enough hope to carry on with the series. And I will definitely be continuing with the series now.


 Hi Fahren

I was quite interested by your comments around Dany and the dragons - for me this was a really powerful scene and did not break the rhythm, or the construct of the world, at all. In the same way that the Starks are portrayed as being at one with the wolves, so the line of Targaryen is with the dragons (Kings Landing oozes with the dragon past).

Surely the way the individual dire wolves are nurtured by the Stark children is little different? OK - I get the bit about suckling at the breast being a little 'wrong' but I thought this an intriguing notion. Literature is littered with humans who are suckled by animals (Romulus and Remus, the founders of ancient Rome; Mowgli, the man child in Kipling's Jungle book; Tarzan etc) - I found it a deft twist that this time the humans were suckling the beast.

Of course, we all have different perspectives on these things - just saying it worked for me :-) 

The meagi woman was a bit odd - but still an interesting character to me. I thought she was going to play a big part in the enfolding story but, in typical RR Marten style, she was built up and then bumped off. But I think he inclusion helped flesh out the notion of other religions in the world - I guess something more akin to voodoo as we would understand it, (or, actually, misunderstand it but that's a whole different thread). Her raising of the dead did not seem any more out of the ordinary than the wights attacking the wall.

If indeed that's what she did. Perhaps she was just a charlatan.

I like the way the book (and books) are building the lore of the land. The new gods and the 'old gods' seem to coexist in the minds of many of the characters - but then there is this other strange religion in the Free Cities and perhaps a third (which seem to be a reflection of christianity) appearing in the second book. Hey, but no spoilers :-)


Are the Starks the good guys ? I'm not so sure.

 I hadn't considered the Starks' bonds with their direwolves in that way, but you're right - the wolves are more than just faithful pets. I guess there is an underlying "magic" of sorts that creates these bonds. Intriguing. 

Regarding Dany, I didn't so much have a problem with her having dragons (in fact I was hoping that the dragon eggs would indeed turn out to contain real dragons) - I just wasn't keen on the way the scene with the fire played out. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing how her character progresses.

Does your avatar mean the Steerpike line has an affinity with lions? :-)

 I certainly always choose the lion tokens when I play Tigris and Euphrates :-)

And I always play red when I can (I get confused otherwise).


So.. a lion.. and crimson... perhaps I have a natural affinity for the Lannisters

 Some additional thoughts following your comments on the Book Club episode:

When Bran survived the fall I was quite disappointed. It felt like a cop out. However the author redeemed himself with the splendid dispatching of Ned Stark. Perhaps the Bran scene was there to soften us up? Lead us into the feeling that major characters would not be disposed of.....


Arya. Did she really have the least number of chapters? (Only you, Stephen, would be so geeky to count them!). That's astonishing because as a character she was far more multi-dimensional than her sister Sansa who, if she was in Star Trek, would simply be the 'female love interest'.

Really, I would have put money on Arya having more chapters than Sansa.


Looking at the 'fantasy tropes', the notion of the lack of "the Quest" is something that had not occurred to me. Interesting. You could argue that, in line with the nature of the book (ie a book about people), there are multiple 'personal quests' being pursued.

Ed is seeking the truth behind Jon Arryan's death. Catelyn is seeking the person behind the attempted murder of Bran. Jon Snow is seeking himself (yeah, corny) and his uncle. Viserys - and later Danaerys - is seeking the restoration, of his line, to the throne.

Talking of which, how could you possibly miss Danaerys and the Dothraki out of your summarisation? Those were some of my favourite parts of the book.


[Book Two, Spoiler Alert]

Your notion that the only way to win the Game of Thrones, is not to play gets slightly torpedoed in book two. Try telling Yoren of the Night Watch that he can remain outside the House squabbles. Or Ser Alliser when he attends and is humiliated, by Tyrion, at the court of Joffrey.

Some cracking stuff still to come :-)

I think Bran's fall is a great setup for Ned's fate. Since Bran doesn't die the way we would expect, it makes the finality of Ned's death all the more powerful. Martin needs to ease us into his worldview, to show how his fantasy world will stand apart from others. I don't think it would have been as effective if he had killed Bran outright early on.

I was shocked by Arya's chapter count, too. But it shows how good Martin is at allowing us to get to know the characters from other people's point of view.

The important quests seem to be internal ones, I agree.

I had some talking points on Danaerys and the Dothraki but I couldn't wedge them into the structure of the mini-lecture I was hell-bent on doing. I feel badly we gave them short shrift and it wasn't intentional. We did touch on the dragons and Drogo's death paralleling Ned's at least!

I suppose winning is really not the issue at all if you're a  player in the game of thrones. It's really more a matter of survival and at what cost.

 ... while this does seem to be typical of the genre, I believe there are quite a few works (short stories and novels alike) that break this mold.  Particularly, there's been a rash of good (and perhaps not so good) young adult "fantasy" novels which have little to do with medievalism, knights, kings, swords, etc.  Harry Potter, His Dark Materials (Golden Compass, et al) are just a few examples.  Also, widening the net to include graphic novels really shakes things up, exposing a huge array of sources that tend to eschew the typical sword and sorcery stereotype in favor of painting something that looks more like our own reality with the brush of magic.

That said, I'd propose that what makes Martin's use of this "typical" fantasy trait so powerful is that he strips away all the romantic illusions painted by so many other genre fantasies, by bringing a complexity and gritty harshness to his world that many of us would recognize from the modern world.

Curious if either of you have read any Gene Wolfe?


I'm still plowing through the episode (yeah, been busy), but while listening to the guys talk about what makes a fantasy I was definitely in disagreement about the medieval thing as well. While it's one of the tropes that does get played out in the genre quite a lot, you're right in that SO much fantasy is not based in that style. 

IMO both sci-fi and fantasy differ from other fiction in that they posit a "what if" based on past, present or future events that includes some sort of element that isn't part of our current physical world. Sci-fi generally posits its elements in undiscovered or speculated science (aliens, warp drive, time travel, etc), while fantasy posits its elements in mysticism (magic and myth). AGoT steeps its world in the myth more than the magic: while magic is an element it's (as you say) mostly offstage, but the myth of that magic is a real force in character interactions. The medieval trappings are only the historical period chosen, but they're not the definition of the genre to me.

For some excellent non-medieval fantasy I would recomment Her Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik. It's Victorian England with dragons: completely fantasy but different time setting. Also you might look at Dies the Fire by SM Stirling. It's a series based in the present, but I would solidly classify it as fantasy, espeically the further you progress into it.

I didn't mean to suggest that all fantasy had to use the medieval trope and I probably misspoke if I gave that impression. What I meant to suggest was that while Martin seeks to distance himself from so many fantasy tropes, at some point he *has* to embrace some of the typical fantasy tropes in order for it to be recognizable as a fantasy at all. In his case, the medieval trope is the one that he embraces. In the case of modern fantasists, they break from the medieval trope but embrace magic and mysticism to a greater degree.

There's also a new genre/literary category called Slipstream fiction which borrows from both fantasy and science fiction to form a kind of hybrid genre. Many of the modern day fantasies could easily slip into this category to a greater or lesser extend, I think.

Thanks for the book reccommendations. In the modern fantasy category, I really enjoyed Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness trilogy.

Gene Wolf is a genius. I respect and admire his work a lot. He's an author that certainly fits within the slipstream category today since he incorporates elements from both f & sf liberally throughout his works.

I have to say I am happy to read this thread/post. I was so disturbed by the comment that all fantasy had to be medieval (that was what I thought you were saying on the podcast) because I never thought of it that way. All the novels I ever tried to write I considered fantasy because they included things like my own interpretation of magic and fantastical elements, but they were never set in medieval worlds.

So I'm glad to know that's not what you meant and that there are fantasy books out there. I do agree that it's a trope and one that Martin uses in a typical way in the book. But I didn't hold that against him while I was reading...

OK, the message I posted yesterday has mysteriously vanished.  I'm not about to recreate it.  (sigh)  Here's something else then.



For those interested, I enjoyed George R.R. Martin’s books so much and the wait became so great, that I sought out similar books.  I can’t say that I’ve ever actually found anything I felt was really the same, but I did get some “related” authors from Wikipedia.


Scott Lynch :  His first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, was great.  It’s the story of Locke Lamora, a conman/grifter, set in a fantasy setting with subdued magical trappings.  While it was good, I fail to see any connection between it and A Song of Ice & Fire.  Unfortunately, I found his second book, Red Seas Under Red Skies, to be horrible.  It’s as if he didn’t know which story he wanted to tell next so he mixed them together, unsuccessfully in my opinion.  Despite that, I will very likely read the third book, The Republic of Thieves.


Joe Abercrombie : I read his entire The First Law trilogy, but it was really nothing but average fantasy fare.  Again, I don’t see where any comparison lies.


Scott Bakker :  I still haven’t made it to his The Prince of Nothing books, but I will!


Steven Erikson :  The Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen are easily my best find of the lot.  I’d still be hesitant to draw too many comparisons to A Song of Ice & Fire, but there ARE many characters with different agendas and you can’t ever be certain who’s “safe”.  Each volume is a self-contained story, although the same characters do show up at times and there’s a linear progression through the series so I’d still recommend reading them in order (the first is Gardens of the Moon).  There’s a real sense of history in these books, although not to the boring extent of J.R.R. Tolkien.


George R.R. Martin : Lest I forget, there are also two novellas set in the world of Westeros in a time before the events in the main series.  The Hedge Knight & The Sworn Sword are competent but not especially interesting as they lack most of what makes the main series so good.



First, sorry you lost your original post. I know how frustrating that is!

I don't know Lynch, Amerbcrombie, or Bakker. Excellent! More books to add to my to-read pile. :)

I have to say, Stephen and Dave, this podcast really made my day and makes me feel bright and happy to be a donating Spieler.  I had a horrible set of things happen today and it ended up in a rather long trip in the car.  I managed to plow through this entire episode, and hearing your discussion on the first book was a great escape for me.  You both made some terrific points that I am still reviewing in my head tonight.

Congratulations on entering into this new realm, it really sets your podcast apart and also amplifies what is so great about it at the same time.

- "Love Shack"


Many thanks, Rik.

So glad we could provide you a respite from the real world. Hope things are improving for you.

The show has me wondering about a number of things (and I haven't finished it yet)...

Westerns often have a strong good v evil theme, along with heroes, quests, and the occasional uber-creature.   It has a strong, identifiable setting, such as the medeival Europe feel that typical fantasy frequently has.  However, it also lacks the "epic" feel, since it is tied to a history wherein the characters cannot reshape that history.  Does this and the lack of magic and magical beasts lessen its appeal?  Is it the American fantasy genre?

As for AGOT, I do think there are a couple of things that the first person multiple approach to the writing does in addition to what is mentioned.  At least at times, it gives the story more of a sword and sorcery flavor, with Arya or Jon Snow being as intimate to us as Fafyrd and Gray Mouser.  Yet, we don't lose the epic tale.  At the same time, while each character has intimacy, they are expendable with no impact to the storytelling.

I haven't played the game.  The books have actually left me wanting to play Warrior Knights.


I do see what you're getting at here, but I'm not sure I can follow you all the way there. First, I'm not sure having characters play out their stories against the backdrop of known history denies them an epic stature. Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind; history itself is quite the sweeping epic. Indeed under the Merriam-Webster definition of "epic", the given example is "the winning of the west was a great American epic". Secondly, the fictionalized west always had a passing relationship with history at best; it's certainly mythic and its fantasy informed those that followed. After all, Gene Roddenberry started out on Have Gun, Will Travel before pitching his "wagon train to the stars"; the cantina sequence from Star Wars is a just an old fashioned saloon shootout in fancy dress and Stephen King has fused the western to the fantasy genre in a pretty big way (I personally can't really recommend the man's later work, but millions apparently disagree.)

I do however get what you're saying about how a real-world setting limits an author's ability to reinvent that own world by his or her own rules, at least without straying into the genre of alternative history and there are plenty of those. (Heck I can't fire up my steam-powered heat ray without blowing off somebody's begoggled top hat these days.) And yes, an author that can balance that sort of world creation with sustained narrative drive (or failing that sweep it all into an appendix where readers may explore it at their leisure as did Tolkien) provides a terrific ride.

Weirdly you make me think of Joyce's Ulysses, which maps a day in the life of a relatively ordinary outsider against the sweeping fantasy epic of The Odyssey, the point being that the adventure of our daily lives- the adventure we never bother to notice that we're having- is itself an epic undertaking. Which makes me remember that the person who pointed that out to me and led me to read the book was Robert Anton Wilson. Which makes me think of another book to game possibility; imagine the conversation if The Spiel took on Illuminatus!

HIstorical fiction shares many traits/tropes in common with fantasy and science fiction. Chief among them is being able to disorient the reader and re-orient the reader in to a world familiar yet different than the one they live in. Westerns certainly fit this idead to a tee. We think we know the world of the old west, but the authors vision and description gives us a new way to see it.

Your point is interesting in that we exercise so much false nostalgia about certain places and time periods. They take on almost mythic qualities in the modern imagination. Or at least they did at one time. I don't think you can call them fantasies in a literary sense of the word, but I think our culture has created a fantasy version of the West and writers tap into this and speak to it.

I guess I was defining "epic" as "world changing".  AGOT, LOTR - all of these have the heroes change the course of history.  Westerns can't do that unless it ties to existing history (historical fiction) or is an alternative history.  However, if you define "epic" as "grand", I would have to agree. 

I have not read too much of the first book yet, but I have two comments on your six questions.

I like your third question, but I would argue that distinct good and evil are not at all necessary to fantasy.  Perhaps they were in certain periods of history, but classic fairy tales (as you point out) as well as modern fantasy fiction often eschew clear delineations between good and evil.

As to the sixth question, the thing that is turning me OFF to this book so far (which is why I'm having trouble finishing it) is that Martin is just not a very good writer.  I am reminded of Harry Potter.  Like Rowling, Martin comes up with interesting, well-developed characters, intriguing situations and storylines, but is just bad when it comes to wordsmithing.

People at times quote Shakespeare without even remembering to which play they are referring.  The reason is that the writing itself is filled with stellar wordplay.  There are fantasy authors like Jack Vance who are gifted with words.  There are many other who are very solid and provide satisfying prose, such as Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and even more pulpy authors like Howard and Moorcock.  Martin's dialogue is clumsy and hackneyed.  His sentence structure is poor and his word choices are repetitive and bland.  Disappointing.