A Song of Ice and Fire

In the midst of moving into our new home and reviewing yet another terrible book for Nelson (review forthcoming as soon as I can stomach finishing the book), I went to the library and picked up A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin.

A Game of Thrones is the first of seven novels called “A Song of Ice and Fire.” It was first published in 1995, and has been followed by four sequels, with the remaining two novels yet to be published.

Being a highly critical fan of fantasy literature, I’ve finished little of what I have started. I find most fantasy literature to be unoriginal rehashing of J.R.R. Tolkien and a handful of other authors. The exceptions to the rule that I’ve encountered thus far are Stephen R. Donaldson’s original “Thomas Covenant” trilogy and Robert Holstock’s “Mythago Wood” cycle.

To that list, I can now add at least the first couple books of “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Donaldson infamously stripped his fantasy world of any reality, making his protagonist a completely unlikeable character. Holstock visited the fantasy world as our own myths and legends mingled with our psychological issues. Martin takes an entirely different tact.

“A Song of Ice and Fire” is set on a planet where winters and summers last for decades. To the north, there is a 700-foot tall Wall that protects the Seven Kingdoms from the chilling, untamed wild-beyond-the-wall. When winter comes, these terrors descend on the Kingdoms and spare no one (the ICE of the title).

The story itself revolves around a huge cast, and keeping everyone straight is a bit of a challenge. There are all kinds of backstories that Martin reveals in bits and pieces.

  • There are Eddard and Catelyn Stark and their six children, as well as Eddard’s bastard son Jon Snow. Each of the children have a direwolf, a large, fiercely loyal beast. Eddard’s sister, Lyanna, was killed by the Targayren’s, which prompted he and his friend Robert to lead a rebellion and depose the king.
  • Then there are their rivals, the Lannisters – Twyin and his children, Jaime, Cercei and the dward Tyrion. Cercei is married to Eddard’s childhood friend, Robert, who is also king of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Cercei has three children, all by her brother Jaime (gross!).
  • And then there are the children of the deposed king – Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen. The Targayren are “The Dragon Kings” (hence the FIRE of the title) who first united the Seven Kingdoms but now have been deposed because of the mad actions of the last of their line, Aerys II and his son Rhaegar.
  • There are also a couple dozen vassal houses, a group of religious leaders called Maesters, an under-appreciated group of warriors called the Night Watch.

Add to the cast the First Men, the children of the people, the wildlings and their king-beyond-the-wall Mance Rayder, the Others, and a cast of mercenaries, shipwrights and even distant horselords. There are intrigues and betrayals, disastrous tragedies, and stories of redemption. Just when you think you’re safe, some main character gets killed – no one is safe. And I love that about Martin’s writing. I love not knowing if a character I like is going to make it. The story is non-linear and disruptive. It keeps you guessing.

In complexity, the story thus far dwarfs (no pun intended) the world of “The Lord of the Rings” although it does not have the humanizing influence of the Hobbits, which still makes LOTR a superior universe. But all in all, I would say that “A Song of Ice and Fire” is far superior to much of fantasy literature, and I am looking forward to getting into the second book, A Clash of Kings.

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