Long ago in days untold
Were ruled by lords of greed
Maidens fair, with gold they dared
To bare their wombs that bleed
Kings And Queens and guillotines
Taking lives denied
Starch and parchments laid the laws
When bishops took the ride only to deceive
It’s difficult trying to get one’s head around the vastness of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” There is a reason many call him “the American Tolkien.” The breadth and scope of it are like nothing most American authors have dared – certainly not modern ones. The only other comparison that works is Frank Herbert and his science-fiction Dune saga – and there we are taking of a series that spanned thousands of years and galaxies. And yet, at the core of it, “A Song of Ice and Fire” and its books, A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, the upcoming A Dance with Dragons and the two still-hoped-for remaining books are far more humanistic than Herbert’s work. They both deal with the clashing of aristocratic clans and the rising and falling of monarchies, but their focus is completely different.
By the way, I call this a “summation” because it’s unfair to call it a “review.” Yes, there are four books out and another is to be released this June, but much like Tolkien’s work or any kind of episodic television storyline, they’re parts of one whole. And this whole is not yet complete. To pass final judgment on it would be unfair – it’s not like artists have gotten the first parts right and then screwed up the ending. (Looking at you, George Lucas).
“A Song of Ice and Fire” deals with the feuding houses of Westeros as they vie for the Iron Throne – and dominion over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros – even as three great threats slowly build in the distance. The books are told in a first-person point of view through the eyes of various characters; most notably the members of the northern House Stark – Lord Eddard, Lady Catelyn and their children – as honor forces them out of their home and towards the world of political intrigue at the court of King Robert I of House Baratheon and Queen Cersei of House Lannister. That’s the short short version of the plot. More happens obviously, but I’d hate to spoil it. Suffice it to say: battles are fought, people die, tragedies occur and humanity is found in the unlikeliest of corners.
The first major difference between this series and most other fantasy works is that there are no dark lords or elves or dwarves. Well, there is one dwarf and he is a major character at that. But so many of the traditional, Tolkien trappings are absent. There is no magic at the start and there is little of it throughout the series – but when it appears it does so at major moments and in unexpected ways. All the accustomed conceits of fantasy are not present. This world is one of mundane humans by and large and they are the ones who cause all of the problems.
Another major difference from other fantasy works is that this series doesn’t ignore the hardships and horrors that the “game of thrones” causes on the people of Westeros. Martin uses several characters to lay bare how little the aristocracy cares for the troubles of farmers and peasants. Men are drafted into armies with nothing more than clubs or farming equipment as weapons. Crops and towns are burned. Children and old folk are killed. Women and girls, noble and common alike, are raped. It gets to the point that it becomes impossible to distinguish “good guys” from “bad guys” as all sides willingly take their turns raping and pillaging their enemies’ lands in the name of tactics, vengeance or lust.
Perhaps the greatest lesson that this series has to highlight is the power that the decisions and experiences made in childhood have over our lives. As I said, the Stark children, play a major role in this story – the oldest being 16 and the youngest, 4. Not just they but Prince Joffrey Baratheon, Theon Greyjoy, Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen and other characters that feature strongly in this story are barely out of childhood. Still, their choices and actions carry as much weight as any adult in their own lives and in the greater world around them. Being 9 years old doesn’t spare one from the dangers of this world and responsibility easily shifts to them when parents inevitably pass away.
This is further displayed in how many characters still carry the grudges and scars of childhood into their adult lives. The relationship between King Robert and Lord Eddard is one colored by their childhood friendship and the bond made over Robert’s love for Eddard’s dead sister, Lyanna. Lady Catelyn’s relationship with both her sister, Lady Lisa Arryn, and the King’s money man, Peter Baelish, is another example. Or the relationship between the aforementioned dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, and his family. What comes to be revealed is that so many of the actions and choices these characters make are tied to their interactions they’ve had years, even decades, ago. And when you consider it, it’s not so different as to how high school affected us in our modern world.
Perhaps the best attribute I can give to Martin’s writing is that it’s very cinematic. And it should be for a guy who has worked in Hollywood writing for TV shows. It’s tough to not picture the Battle at the Wall and see something like the battles Peter Jackson filmed for his “Lord of the Rings” movies. Or to read the chapters of the Red Wedding and not sense a similarity to The Godfather and its more Machiavellian moments. Martin does a great job of giving you enough to care for his characters and then making it quite clear that anyone can go at any moment.
Is the series perfect? No. Martin takes an incredible pleasure in telling you what every character is having for every one of their meals. And he loves describing each noble’s crest and armor in such detail to the point that whole paragraphs can appear devoted to just heraldry. Even with the appendices at the end of every book that manage to fill this out and spell out who is still alive and dead, the constant description of crests still finds its way on the books. Oh, and of course, there’s the problem with timeliness. A Feast for Crows came out in 2005 after being split from A Dance with Dragons. It still took six years for A Dance with Dragons to come out. And, as I said, two more books are still planned to finish the story – rumored to be titled The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. The hope is that those books will be forthcoming as the new HBO series based on the series will likely attract new people to find the original books and join the clamor for an ending. Poor George Martin is going to have an army outside his front door soon if the show is as successful as everyone thinks it’ll be.
Furthermore, this is a fantasy series that is meant for adults. Martin does not shy away from depicting the gruesome acts of war or the displays of sexuality by its characters. Within the first few chapters, there’s violence against children as well as incest depicted. Major characters die in gruesome ways and are tortured in equally painful ways. That should not detract adults from reading the series, but be aware that this is in there and don’t just hand it to your children to read because it’s just fantasy books.
I can’t recommend this series enough if you’re into fantasy, political intrigue or fiction. What Martin has done is weave a tale that speaks to our time and is timeless at the same time. Good people are forced into evil situations. The noble spend so much time worried about their own scheming that they ignore so many warning signs of greater dangers. In the end, it all boils down to what you are willing to believe, whom you are willing to trust and what truly matters. As the Starks are fond of saying, “winter is coming.” The problem is that winter is always coming and no one seems to worry that they’ll be caught outside in the cold.
Living times of knights and mares
Raising swords for maidens fair
Sneer at death, fear only loss of pride