Like many people today, I’m a big fan of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice & Fire” series. The books are both a delight and a terror as Martin builds a tremendously brutal, violent and uncaring landscape upon which he populates his characters. Like the best of the fantasy genre, a great deal of the work goes into building that landscape – the cities and nations of Westeros and Essos, the history that colors the various points of views and pressures that each of the characters must contend with, the intricacies of their societies and the rules that give power and take it away.
However, unless you’re the most devoted GRRM fan, it’s unlikely that you’ve the encyclopedic knowledge of when which Targaryen ruled the Seven Kingdoms, where Lys is in relation to Slaver’s Bay, who killed whom during Robert’s Rebellion or just what a shadowbinder is. Here’s where Elio M. García, Jr. and Linda Antonsson – the creators of the popular Westeros.org website – often came in. They provided a lot of the background information and have even helped Martin himself in keeping facts straight when he got himself tangled onto his own world. Not surprising, they are co-writers with Martin in this latest venture: a pseudo-encyclopedia of this fantasy world.
Taking the guise of a epic compilation by Maester Yandel of the Citadel, The World of Ice & Fire provides a history of sorts to the various realms of Westeros and Essos. From the Dawn Age through the Age of Heroes and onto the Conquest of Aegon Targaryen and finally the Rebellion of Robert Baratheon, Maester Yandel traces the various “sources” to reveal the backstory of the lands of Ice & Fire. Then, the book begins speaking of the various kingdoms and their key houses before finally touching on the various free cities of Essos – from Braavos to Asshai by the Shadow. Along the way, he also speaks on some of the more famous figures, factions and even weapons that factor into the story.
The first thing that should be said is that this is an exhaustive book. I’ve said the word “encyclopedic” twice with a reason. It’s a book that’s meant to fill in a lot of the gaps and holes that fans may have developed if they haven’t combed through the various works in “A Song of Ice & Fire” as well as other works like the “Dunk & Egg” series. But it also goes even further, providing a veritable treasure trove of answers regarding the world and the influences upon our characters. Ever heard of the Dance of the Dragons? It’s detailed here. Know who the Sword in the Morning was? He’s profiled here. And they’re done for their own sake as much as they’re done to help fans build connections to the current story and to favorite characters.
But in a neat twist, given that this is a book being written by a character that exists within the world of the series, it’s written by that character’s own limited and biased point-of-view. As opposed to just a factual book written by the authors that touches on everything the audience knows, Maester Yandel’s work is full of a Citadel maester’s beliefs and concepts. So he dismisses the “higher mysteries” (magic) and the creatures of legend like the Children of the Forest, the giants and the White Walkers/Others as long distant legends.
It’s an intriguing twist. The World of Ice & Fire is sometimes willing to skip big events that fans have wondered about – the kidnapping and fate of Lyanna Stark for one. It also follows that a maester, writing something to favor King Tommen rewrites things a bit. He says the murders of Elia Martell and her children were done by the command of King Aerys as the city fell or even done by Elia herself. The Afterword hints at recent events, like the deaths of Robert and Joffrey, the War of the Five Kings and the tales of dragons reborn. But Yandel is not there and cannot know what events are going on at King’s Landing or Slaver’s Bay or Beyond the Wall. So those stories are not part of his book.
Obviously, this book is aimed at fans of both Game of Thrones and “A Song of Ice & Fire” readers. But are you enough of a fan to want to plow through the history of the Targaryen kings? To read about the Riverlands and The Reach and all the various Kingdoms? Martin, Garcia and Antonsson are not holding any hands here. It’s a good read for those who love world building, history and this particular fantasy universe and want to read more about the characters and legends so often mentioned in both books and shows. I have to say it’s not for a casual reader, even though it is engrossing.
I also have to say that this book is sumptuous. Here’s where I’ll make my small plea to not get the ebook, in spite of the ease and cost, or even the audiobook. I’m going to ask that you buy the actual hardcover edition. Yes, if you get it from your local shop, it’s suggested price is $50. But Amazon has it for half that price. And it is worth it. This is a heavy tome, with a gorgeous cover, rich illustrations and a wonderful binding. You really have to get the hardcover over other options.
What The World of Ice & Fire does is that it provides an exercise on which we can look at our history books and tales. How much of it is really true? Where have the right words been used to rewrite a hero unto a villain? Or exonerate a criminal from his heinous crimes? What has been lost or forgotten simply because it upset a pious king or a bloodthirsty madman? We say history is written by the victors, but if the victors are illiterate or do not write their own victories down, then who does? And would their writers be as kind onto them? Or would they write it to paint them as tyrants and killers?