Thoughts on A Song of Ice and Fire

As I have mentioned before, I am not, generally, a fan of high fantasy novels. Tolkien, sure (although it took me longer than I'd care to admit to get through Lord of the Rings), but most of my excursions into fantasy have been of the light fantasy variety. When J. Bradford DeLong recommended A Game of Thrones, I approached the recommendation skeptically, but nonetheless decided to follow it. I'm glad that I did, because, thus far, A Song of Ice and Fire, of which A Game of Thrones is the first book, is one of the best series I've ever read.

To start, this is the sort of fantasy that you can enjoy even if you aren't a fan of fantasy. It discards much of the fantasy baggage of magic and faeries in favor of a strong focus on politics and interpersonal relationships. This is not to say that there is no magic, just that it's relegated to the background thus far. The story, as far as I can piece it together, is that once there were dragons all over the place in the world, and with them came magic. But dragons are now extinct and magic has been slowly dying out. Only a few magical things remain, on the far periphery of the land, and they're rare enough that most people treat claims of magic with a heavy skepticism. But strange things are afoot on the mysterious eastern continent, and magic is slowly ebbing back into the world, though the people of Westeros are too busy playing at war to notice it.

And it is this war making that is the major focus of the novels. The books take place in the land of Westeros (which looks strangely like England), known colloquially as the Seven Kingdoms. Here, again, you have to piece together the details of the story, but the short version is that for a long time the land was divided into seven kingdoms. Then the Targaryen family invaded, conquered all of the kingdoms, and set themselves up as the rulers of all the lands of Westeros. Things stayed as they were for hundreds of years, until Robert Baratheon led a revolt against House Targaryen. Most of the Targaryens were slaughtered; the only survivors were two of the Targaryen children, who escaped to the eastern continent. Robert then declared himself the new King of Westeros, and House Baratheon its new ruling house. Fifteen years pass, and we arrive at the start of the first novel. Robert has become a fat, slovenly drunk, though, we suspect, still good at heart. He's in over his head as king, however, and he calls on his old friend from the revolution, Lord Eddard of House Stark, to become the King's Hand (think Prime Minister) and help him deal with the day-to-day troubles of kingdom management, which are now too much for him, and his scheming wife Cersei, of the Lannister clan. But, as you might imagine, all is not well. Despite the current peace and seeming prosperity, there are signs of impending troubles. Winter, as they say, is coming.

The book is told in an interesting style. Chapters are given the name of the character whose perspective they are told from, and Martin freely skips between characters hundreds (or thousands) of miles away from one another. It's interesting because something major will happen in, say, King's Landing, and it will take two or three chapters for a character in Winterfell to hear about it. He has a roster of about 8 characters that he switches between, and he varies it up enough that you can generally keep the plot threads fresh (though I can attest that this can be a beastly series to put down for a month or two and then come back to). By telling the story in many locations and from many perspectives, Martin allows for a grander scope than would otherwise be possible. And by bringing us back to the same narrative characters, he helps us forge bonds with many characters and get to know them more personally.

These are long books, but they're fast reads. A Game of Thrones is about 800 pages. A Clash of Kings is 900 pages or so. A Storm of Swords is 1150, and he switched to a smaller font size, so each page is more dense than the previous books. A Feast for Crows was going to be over 1600 pages, but he cut off a big chunk of it to include in the next book. This, in turn, means that a saga that was once going to be told in four books, and then six, has now expanded to a projected seven books. Current estimates are that Martin will finally pull the story down at around 7,000 pages, so this is not a good series if you have book commitment issues. At the same time, these books are quick reads. Martin comes to novel writing from television. When writing dramatic television, you have to learn to design plots on the Scheherazade principle: give your audience a climax just before the required commercial break, and force them to come back for the resolution. Martin makes sure the plot is constantly moving. It's not that we don't get character development, but he makes sure that every chapter has a purpose that advances the plot. And he spins his story compellingly, so you stay interested throughout all of the thousands of pages.

It also helps that he has likeable, well-developed characters. As mentioned, he tells the story from many perspectives (with characters entering and leaving the narrative core) and this helps the reader to bond with more characters than if he just focused on one hero or one group. Above all, and here I mush gush like the squealing fanboy that I am, I love Tyrion Lannister. The Imp! The dwarf son of the evil Tywin Lannister! Brother to Cersei Lannister, the scheming queen, and Jaime Lannister, the callous and narcissistic Kingslayer. Uncle to the petulant Prince Joffrey. He's spawned of evil, he looks evil (the Evil Dwarf is one of the classic stock villains of Medieval literature) and throughout the novels thus far he works selflessly to advance evil. And yet... He's essentially a good guy. He's loyal to the Lannister family because they're family and family comes first, but he's basically decent, though cynical. Tyrion approaches problems with a subtler touch than his almost comically evil siblings, and because he realizes that beating the people into loving you often isn't the best tactic, he's far more effective than his brethren. Tyrion is great because you can't read a Tyrion chapter without rooting for him, then as soon as you're done you think "God damn it! If Tyrion had stayed out of it and left his scheming sister to stew in her own juices, the Starks would have won by now." Tyrion is a valuable asset to House Lannister because he's such a good person, and if Tyrion were in control of House Lannister they wouldn't even be the problem that they are. But, of course, he's not in charge. Everyone hates him, especially his family, because he's a malformed dwarf. But still he works to serve their ends, because family comes first.

Enough of that. Some caveats. First, an analogy: I'm a Democrat (So's George R.R. Martin, by the way). Many of my readers are, too. Surely many of you recall the feeling of dread on Election Day last November. The feeling that events beyond your control were conspiring to do really bad things, and you were utterly helpless to stop them. You could only sit back and watch the large-scale nation-wide slow-motion train wreck. If you read these books, starting about a third of the way through the first book, you will begin to feel that exact feeling, and it will never let up. It will only grow worse as you move through. Early on you learn that Martin isn't afraid to let terrible things happen to his characters. You will constantly feel that doom is about to descend on the people you know and love. Any good moments are overshadowed by the sense that a horrible payoff is just around the corner. Sorry to be so melodramatic here, but Martin does a great job of getting you emotionally involved with characters, only to sucker punch you in the gut. Fairly warned be ye, says I.

Another thing: John Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. They're narrative characters from the start. But John Snow is hundreds of miles from the main action of the novels, and Daenerys is thousands of miles away (and doesn't know anyone involved in the main plot). They'll be important. Eventually. But, 2000 pages into the saga, they aren't important yet, and this gets annoying. You're moving through the plot at a good pace and then WHAM! you have to stop everything for a John Snow chapter. I was moving rapidly through the books, then took a several month break when I came to a John Snow-Daenerys-John Snow sequence. Again, I know that eventually they'll be important, and their chapters can be interesting, but it's irksome to get involved in the main plot, then have to drop everything to see how Daenerys is doing off in the East or how John Snow fares in his forays beyond The Wall.

The one other thing that bears mentioning is the appendices. These are pretty much limited to lists of the members of the Great Houses and their relationship to the heads of the houses. They are incredibly useful. You will find yourself consulting these charts nearly constantly at the beginning, because there are hundreds of characters. Eventually you start remembering who everyone is, but even after reading thousands of pages of the books I still have to peek at the back to refresh my memory occasionally. One other note about the house lists in the back: do not, under any circumstances, glance at the house lists for later books before you have finished the books before it. The house list for each book reflects the state of the houses as of the start of the book. But things happen. Characters die, characters join houses, characters switch sides. The house lists of books you haven't gotten to yet are giant spoilers. Just a warning.

All told, gripping and fun. I highly recommend them. Now, if only Martin could speed up the writing process a bit. Or at least keep his target from moving further and further away from him. Reading these books as they come out feels like Xeno's Paradox given life.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on November 22, 2005 1:29 AM.

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