I know, I know. How am I just getting around to this? As usual, I can only point at my groaning TBR shelf and jabber incoherently. I had actually never heard of it until the television show started and I was confronted with the promo image of Sean Bean sitting wearily on a throne made of swords. That got my attention, for obvious reasons. I’ve yet to see the show, given my well-documented position on watching adaptations before reading their original sources, but I’m told its incredible. With stars like Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage, I don’t doubt it…. Martin is of the opinion that anytime a character is placed in danger, you should fear for their safety. Characters die. Minor ones, and major ones. Frequently. Anyway, I’ll do my best to be spoiler-free here. This is one of those series where that matters….
A Song Of Ice And Fire takes us to Westeros, a fantasy realm where the seasons wax and wane unreliably, somehow tied to the ebb and flow of magic within the world. In this land, summer can last a decade…and winter can last a lifetime. The series is written in third-person, with each chapter being from the perspective of one of an enormous cast of characters. Eddard “Ned” Stark is lord of Winterfell and the northern half of Westeros, a sparsely-peopled expanse where it is not uncommon to see a light snow even on a summer morning. He and the king, Robert Baratheon, were raised together, closer than brothers, and together deposed the Mad King Aerys Targaryen fifteen years ago before placing Robert on the throne. Now Ned is summoned south to court to serve as Robert’s right hand. It’s a position he has no desire for, but doesn’t trust anyone else to guard his friend’s back and get to the bottom of some troubling questions. Ned was one of my favorite characters in the book, largely because he was the only truly honorable man in the entire book, though that may change as his children grow older. Oldest son Robb (age fourteen) doesn’t actually get his own POV chapters, but is nevertheless an important character as he tries to fill his father’s absent shoes. Ned’s younger son Bran served as one of the more surprising characters, becoming far more interesting than I had expected a lad of seven to be, but I can’t say why without spoilers. Additionally, Ned’s daughters serve as frequent narrators, both the naive eleven-year-old Sansa and her nine-year-old tomboy sister Arya. I liked Arya a lot, but Sansa’s ill-fated naivete had me ready to throw the book across the room in frustration at times. Future books should see less of that, sadly for her. Ned’s wife Catelyn Stark also serves as a narrator for large portions of the story, initially holding down the fort in Winterfell before setting off on her own journey for reasons that are redacted here. Ned’s illegitimate son Jon Snow* (age fourteen, same as Robb) travels north to the Wall and joins the Night Watch, keeping a lonely vigil against the supposedly-legendary threat of the Others, despite the fact that they’ve not been seen for thousands of years. One of my favorite characters of all was the dwarf Tyrion Lannister despite the fact that he stands opposed to most of my other favorites for most of the book. The twisted, ugly youngest son of lord Tywin Lannister, Tyrion is under no delusions about his situation in life. His sister, the queen Cersei, hates him. His father blames him for his mother’s death in childbirth. Only Jaime, Cersei’s twin, treats him with any measure of decency. Unable to compete in the field of physical combat due to his stature and deformities, Tyrion has developed his mind as his best weapon, and unleashes it on all he encounters. His are all the best lines, and it is incredibly obvious who Martin’s favorite character is. Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen, thirteen-year-old daughter of the deposed king, will have her own tangentially-related adventures as her brother marries her off to a nomadic horse-lord in an attempt to secure an army with which to reclaim Westeros. Despite the lack of overlap in this branch, Danaerys is set to become another favorite. Her adventures are not yet having any effect on Westeros as a whole, aside from some tension at court as news reaches them, but that will certainly change as the series nears its end….
Wow. What can I say about this? Martin’s prose is incredible, and I fully intend to further explore his bibliography both within and without this series. I love the use of multiple viewpoints, and the unreliable nature of these narrators adds an interesting factor to the narrative. Characters can be mistaken, and there are several scenes that are positively heartbreaking because we the reader know something the character doesn’t yet…and finding out could literally kill them. Plus, the information we’re given is all filtered through their perceptions–while there is little doubt that Aerys Targaryen was a lunatic, there are a couple tantalizing hints that his son Rhaegar was not nearly as vile a man as Robert and Ned believe him to be, and that the “kidnapping” of Ned’s sister that sparked the rebellion wasn’t quite as non-consensual as they believe. Occasionally you want to grab a character and shake them, force them to pay attention to vital information that is being disregarded because they have no idea of its significance, but of course that is impossible. Martin’s characters are also masterfully realized. Every single one that we spend significant time with is a fully-rounded, complex human being, and you sympathize with them. I even felt sorry for Cersei, albeit briefly, and the Hound keeps showing a core of deep humanity and compassion beneath his ruthlessness. If he didn’t work for the snotty little turd Joffrey I could probably come to like him…. The worldbuilding here is stellar, and I absolutely love the sense of history you get from the narrative. Positively Tolkienesque, and that’s a definite compliment. While this is fantasy, it’s not your typical romp. You can usually be assured that the protagonist will not only survive but triumph; not here. “In life, the monsters win.” Most fantasy is defined by the many different species, especially elves and dwarfs, but the only dwarf here is Tyrion, a dwarf in the historical sense–I’m not sure what the politically correct term is these days, I’m pretty sure “midget” is now considered derogatory, but I could be wrong. No elves either, the Children Of The Forrest are said to be long extinct. Of course, so were the Others, the White Walkers, and that turned out to be wishful thinking. Maybe the Children and the Giants still exist north of the Wall, but they don’t make much of an appearance here. There are elements of so-called “High Fantasy,” but the book is primarily a historical fantasy. Magic only slowly seeps in, starting off as largely dismissed by our protagonists and inexorably revealing itself to be alive and well. Dragons. Clairvoyance. Frozen wights that can resurrect the dead and turn them on their friends. As summer ends and magic grows powerful once again, one thing is clear: Winter is coming.
CONTENT:R-rated language, present but not gratuitous. Strong violence, often disturbing, and occasionally directed at animals. There’s a fair amount of sexual content, though its not rendered in unnecessary detail. This does, however, extend to some socially reprehensible acts such as incest and underage sex, along with quite a bit of discussion of prostitution and illegitimate children. There’s some magic, as noted, but I would class it as more fantasy-based than occultic, at least thus far.
*There’s a theory regarding Jon Snow’s true parentage that is widely regarded as the only good explanation for a number of inconsistencies that come up over time, but I’ll not be that guy and spoil the experience. Google it if you need to.