Following Tuesday’s game blog, I wanted to take some time here to explore the epic setting of that game, and look at the series of novels from George RR Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. This is by no means intended as an exhaustive account, or a detailed review, but more my various ramblings on the books that have been released to date.
I first came upon these books in the winter of 2011, after a few weeks of my friend Tony singing their praises. I bought the first four in paperback (amounting to five books, due to book three being split in half) and, after a fairly tough start, began to really enjoy them. I stopped reading at the conclusion to book three that Christmas, and it took some time to get going with book four in the new year – indeed, I’ve never seemed to reacquire the interest I had for the first three parts, something I largely attribute to the fact that books four and five are just too sprawling and, well, dull by comparison.
Let’s take a look into some more depth, though.
A Game of Thrones introduces us to the cast, predominantly centred on Westeros. Through the opening chapters we learn that the Targaryen family had ruled the land for centuries, having united the seven warring kingdoms in the near-mythic past, but had recently been ousted in a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark. Robert found himself as king, while Eddard had returned to his ancestral holdings of Winterfell in the north. The Targaryens had largely been killed, but two children had escaped across the sea to the east, where they began to plot their return to power.
Over the course of the novel, we see Daenarys Targaryen mature into a woman who is willing to take control of her own destiny, and while most of her earlier scenes had left me almost cringing with the misogynist brutality heaped upon her, I found myself cheering her on almost above all the rest. In Westeros, plots and schemes are uncovered as we see Cersei Lannister implicated in the death of her husband Robert, and when Eddard – newly appointed as the King’s Hand – begins to sniff around for the truth, he is summarily executed. Cersei has her son Joffrey Baratheon crowned, intending to be the power behind the throne.
There are all manner of schemes and plot twists in the novel that really captivate the reader, and the sense of history is really palpable. This is not just some fantasy story set in a pseudo-middle ages, with knights and ladies, kings and castles. This is a land where things have happened, people have done things, and the ramifications of these events are being felt in various ways for years after the fact. It’s easy to see the heroes and the villains at first glance, but the more you read, the more these lines become blurred.
A Clash of Kings explores more of the land and the people, and deepens the intrigue surrounding the Iron Throne as Robert’s brothers, Stannis and Renly, each lay a claim to the throne over Joffrey. In addition, Eddard’s son Robb is proclaimed as King in the North, and the irascible Balon Greyjoy takes his cue from this to declare his fiefdom of the Iron Islands a separate kingdom. The ensuing War of the Five Kings is prosecuted as much on land as it is in the Small Council, and the intrigue deepens.
As much as A Game of Thrones saw the world in turmoil, A Clash of Kings sees things really go to hell. The two younger Stark children begin exciting storylines of their own, as we follow Bran in his mystical journey with the Reed children. The fortunes of their mother Catelyn aren’t much better, when she is implicated in the murder of Renly Baratheon. With Sansa as an effective hostage in King’s Landing, and Arya wandering the riverlands posing as a boy, it seems the Stark fortunes rest solely on Robb, off prosecuting the war against the Lannisters. With Winterfell unguarded, Theon Greyjoy captures the castle to try to impress his father, but falls to the Stark bannermen of House Bolton. The book ends with the massive Battle of Blackwater Bay, a huge set-piece battle that involves most of the major players. At the other end of the kingdom, a massive force of wildlings comes together to march on The Wall, while in the east, Daenarys continues her quest to amass forces to assist in regaining the throne of Westeros.
The book is sprawling, don’t get me wrong – that precis does absolutely no justice to it whatsoever. However, it’s still very much contained, and despite its length, remains readable.
A Storm of Swords, split in two for publication in paperback, is a still more massive undertaking than its predecessor. The War of the Five Kings is brought to a conclusion when all but Stannis are killed in one way or another. Balon Greyjoy falls to his death from a bridge, while Robb is murdered at the infamous Red Wedding of his uncle Edmure Tully, in revenge for a perceived slight on House Frey for Robb marrying Jayne Westerling. Joffrey is then poisoned at his own wedding feast to Margaery Tyrell, his uncle Tyrion implicated in the death. Tyrion escapes with the help of his brother Jaime, and flees east after killing his father Tywin. Roose Bolton has been made the lord of the north to replace Robb Stark, and Stannis travels north to The Wall at the urging of his priestess-adviser Melisandre. There, the pack of wildlings is discovered to be fleeing from some horrible menace known simply as The Others. The book ends with the dead Catelyn Stark reanimated as Lady Stoneheart, leading the Brotherhood Without Banners on retaliatory strikes against the Lannisters and Freys in the Riverlands.
The bodycount on this one is immense. The Red Wedding aside, the closing chapters of the novel feel almost like the author was attempting to bring about closure through death on many of the characters, and definitely feels like drawing a line under the events of the opening trilogy.
A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons take place following these events, following the fates of the characters who are now scattered to the winds. We get to meet the Martells of Dorne, my personal favourites in the series thus far, largely because of the sense of history that comes with them. The Martell family had historically been closely tied to the Targaryens, and as such we learn more about the rebellion. I also really enjoy the exoticism of Dorne – while the free cities of Essos are undoubtedly exotic, they feel more like Morocco to Dorne’s Spain – it’s exotic without being too foreign, somehow (I’m in the UK, remember, so that analogy probably won’t transfer well outside these shores!)
These two books are, however, long. While the series had been long up to this point, these books really feel like they’re being dragged out, and I think that’s in part due to the fact that they are split geographically, with the events of A Feast for Crows following a select few of the point-of-view characters, while A Dance With Dragons runs concurrently for about two thirds, and deals with the remaining narrators. While we had a good mix in the earlier novels, here it is watered down to leave the sense of time slowing down. It’s also inevitable, given that any book at the halfway point will need to breathe, as the reader has been presented with the strands of intrigue, and now needs the ending set up.
I also feel that one of George RR Martin’s greatest strengths is also his greatest weakness here. The man is very good at capturing the essence of a scene, and making us shiver with the snow beyond the wall or bake in the heat of Mereen. As such, particularly with A Dance With Dragons, the book feels cold somehow, and there’s only so much of that that I can take in one sitting. As a result, I really struggled with these later books. While it’s also true that unnecessary details bog the plot down, with a narrative of this calibre, it’s inevitable that we’re going to be a bit lost as we begin to move in for the finale.
I haven’t really mentioned much on the subject of the brutality of the series, but I suppose it’s worth a mention. The story is pretty grim, and there are scores of gruesome murders, capped of course with the deeply disturbing Red Wedding, which sees, among other things, Robb and his direwolf killed, the wolf’s head sewn onto his body and his crown nailed to it. Sometimes I was left pretty aghast at these things, because they do tend to feel too unnecessary after a while. Yes, we get it, the Red Wedding was an atrocity, we don’t need to know how every single guest was killed in the greatest of detail. There is, of course, also a lot of sex in these books, and often the two go hand in hand. Do we need such a level of sexual violence? I’m not so sure. Martin has been dubbed “the American Tolkien”, which I’m sure was meant to impress upon us the epic sweep of the story, because that’s really where the comparisons end. It’s difficult to classify A Song of Ice and Fire as fantasy when more often than not it comes across as a kind of historical fiction – it just so happens there is a supernatural element coming through with the Others and the limited mentions of quasi-magic. Oh, and the dragons.
In the main, Martin’s novels tend to gritty realism than high fantasy, and I often get the impression that the violence and the sex is meant to legitimise these books somehow, almost as if to say it’s not a tale of dragons and swashbuckling if there’s a scene of incestuous rape included as well. Sure, the middle ages were a brutal time, but my argument against such gratuitous violence has always been, if the world-building is good enough, we’ll be convinced that it’s real without the need for pulverized heads or mutilated genitals. I can never quite take it seriously, in the end, seeing such things as more a desensitizing catalogue of violence than having any real meaning to the story. “Oh, bucket of rats to the stomach, set them on fire and watch them burrow through the torso? Different…” There’s no sense of danger, it’s just another scene of senseless torture in a whole parade of other senseless acts of torture. Meh.
But overall, there is a really great story in there, and it’s well worth discovering. If you’ve only been watching the show, then you’re missing out on a whole lot!