George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is widely hailed by fans of fantasy fiction and its fame has been greatly enhanced when it was dramatized by HBO in the TV series Game of Thrones. It is reported to be the most pirated show on the internet and has won legions of avid fans.
Martin is a splendid wordsmith, whose skillful dialogs have an earthy feel that brings the characters to life and fleshes out the character of the protagonists. The writing is skillful and Martin delights in archaic meanings of words like “tine” (a fork), “tot” (a small cup) and “cog” (a type of ship) that have fallen out of usage in order to cast a medieval feel.
Martin is a superb world-builder who constructs cultures, classes and religions which are convincing in their gritty baseness. Although the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is filled with myths of honor, chivalry and sacred oaths, the characters often carry out horribly brutal acts and make morally ambiguous decisions despite their best efforts to live according to the ideals of their society. Although some characters are clearly marked as the “good guys” and others as the “bad guys” at the beginning of the story, Martin is careful to paint them all in shades of gray so they become multidimensional characters who are capable of shockingly cruel actions and tender love. Even the evil and the conniving characters become sympathetically human over the course of the series, since the love, greed, jealousy and power which drives them is becomes understandable. At the same time, the books are filled with torture, sexual abuse and crude jokes whose very brutality is jarring and difficult to digest at times.
Martin is clearly inspired by historical peoples, but he adds unique elements of his own, so his imaginary continent of Westeros becomes a distinctive place in its own rite. Martin draws from the Vikings to create the Ironmen, from the Mongols to create the Kahl, from the Romans and Atlantis to create the Valyrians and from late medieval Western Europe for Westeros. Some characters struggle against the sexism, ethnocentrism, and the rigid hierarchy but these ideas are so embedded in the culture that they are generally accepted by most of the characters without question. In other words, it is the type of world that people today would find very constraining and backward. A Song of Ice and Fire is a marked contrast to most fantasy fiction which are simplistic tales filled with flights of magic, romanticism, utopianism and epic battles of good vs evil. The gritty realism and complexity of Westeros is almost repulsive, albeit captivating and certain to keep you reading late into the night.
I found Game of Thrones, the first book in the series, so captivating that I was unable to put it down, despite the bewildering array of characters and difficulty of placing all the geography in my head. After plowing through 5 volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, I now have the character set and the geography firmly grounded, yet I find myself wondering if there is any point to reading the series. It seems to be taking on a soap opera quality with no end in sight, as if George Martin simply wants to drag out the complicated plot lines as long as possible for more royalties on book sales. The whole fourth volume could be cut out entirely, since it seems to be filled with side plots of minor characters who really aren’t central to the story. Characters like the Hound, the Mountain, and Brienne seem wholly extraneous yet they absorb many chapters of endless intrigue. The whole Dornish kingdom could be eliminated with little loss to the story line. The story seems to be just one plot twist after another, to endlessly drag the reader on, asking “what happens next?” It has the refreshing quality that Martin kills off central characters so subsequent volumes are not an endless rehashing of the same characters. Nonetheless, you are never really sure that a character is dead until several hundred pages later, because some characters are only reported as dead, and others like Cathryn Stark come back from the dead, although there seems to be little point to her resurrection since she plays almost no role in the fourth and fifth volumes. As the fifth volume closes, the reader is left hanging, wondering if John Snow is really dead or did he survive his multiple stab wounds. The readers are left hanging until 2015 when Martin is scheduled release the sixth volume.
The endless twist-a-plot seems to be building to an eventual confrontation of fiery dragons coming from the hot south and the icy undead coming from the wintry north, but the final denouement looks to be several volumes into the future with many fascinating but pointless intrigues by the Lannisters, Baratheons, Starks, Tyrells, Martels, Freys and Tullys to fill the interim.
Despite all Martin’s patent skill as a writer and the clever complexity of his world-building, A Song of Ice and Fire is little more than plot. After 5 volumes, there is little exploration of deeper themes in the book. Even the marvelous religions that Martin creates are little more than backdrops to Martin’s imaginary world rather than an exploration of the deeper mysteries that lead to any understanding. There is a stylistic beauty to Martin’s writing, but all of Martin’s rich vocabulary, skillful dialog and subtle references does not lead to a literary masterpiece. Like so much of fantasy fiction, the point seems to be to simply escape from the world in which we live, without offering us much insight to make our world richer by having read it. Constructing another world can be useful if it serves as an alter mundo thats serves as a foil to contrast with our own world, but the purpose of A Song of Ice and Fire is mere escapism rather than comparative reflection.
The one redeeming aspect to the whole series seems to be its exploration of the multiple facets of humanity. A Song of Ice and Fire shows how fundamentally decent people can carry out brutality and acts of destruction, while even the most self-interested are capable of selfless acts of love. It is questionable whether it is worth reading thousands of pages to achieve that insight, but it is certainly a heady escape with skillful writing and fascinating plotlines to obscure the lack of literary depth which underlies it.