Like roughly 20 million other people, I am currently obsessed with the Song of Ice and Fire books. I’m within a hundred pages of the end of A Dance with Dragons, the latest volume to be published, which means I’ve waded through roughly 5,000 pages of the most sprawling fantasy series ever created…and I only want more.
The Plot: The Song of Ice and Fire series (A Dance with Dragons is the fifth book) follows the power struggles of various ruling families on the two major continents of a fantasy world. The setting is largely modeled on feudal medieval Europe, with a large dash of whatever else Martin found interesting. Each chapter shifts POV between any of over a dozen major characters.
The Author: George R. R. Martin (not to be confused with George Martin, producer for the Beatles) has written several fantasy novels outside the series, as well as short stories and spin-off novels set in the Ice & Fire world. He also works in screenwriting, including writing episodes of the TV series based on the Ice & Fire novels. I haven’t read any of his works beyond the series(yet).
Why It’s Awesome: First of all, you have to be impressed by anyone who can plot a series this complex, with this much political intrigue and this many PAGES. Martin also does a magnificent job of writing from multiple points of view. The narrating characters include men, women, children, elders, fighters, cowards…basically any character type you can put a name to. Each voice is unique and authentic, and each character holds your sympathy while they narrate…even when their goal is to find and kill the previous narrator. The books are worth a read if only to admire Martin’s craft.
I love these books personally because it’s been so long since I read a really good, straight-up high fantasy. (Current fashion in fantasy seems to be fairy tales with a twist.) It’s also been a long time since I read a fantasy series that did NOT borrow anything from Tolkien. The weirwoods with their carved faces perhaps have a shadow of the Ents to them, but that’s as far as it goes. Martin obviously did a lot of research before he wrote, and like the best fiction writers he grounds his stories in fact. He’ll not only tell you that a character gave a feast; he’ll tell you what they served, why they chose it and whether it was any good.
On a deeper level, the series as a whole is a great meditation on human nature and power. Power is used, abused, sought, fought for, abandoned, and explored in all its permutations. There are good rulers who make bad decisions, good soldiers who make bad kings, characters who make the right decisions for the wrong reasons and vice versa…and often the characters with the least visible effect turn out to be the ones pulling all the strings. There’s an amazing college paper waiting to happen.
And honestly? The Song of Ice & Fire series is a just plain good read. It’s well-written, inventive, and suspenseful, with enough magic to keep us fantasy fans interested and enough reality to keep it grounded. I was hooked after the very first chapter of the first book, which I made the mistake of reading alone and at night. It scared the poop out of me, and once it was done I knew I HAD to find out what happened next…even if I read it under the blankets.
Why It’s Not Awesome: I guess you can tell from above that I’m pretty much in love with these books. That said, a couple criticisms: first, the complexity of the plot. I’m guessing there are over a hundred named characters in the series, plus more than a dozen “houses” (families), each with its own traditions, sigils, etc. etc. I have no earthly idea how George R.R. Martin keeps track of them all. The only way I got through the books was to abandon my attempt to keep track of each and every character and focus on the names that cropped up the most. That meant missing out on a few of the subtleties, but I have no idea how else to read these without taking notes.
My other criticism: sex and violence. Not so much the sex, which is generally presented with frankness rather than an attempt at titillation. These are NOT YA BOOKS by any means. Of course, a sex scene can tell you a great deal about a character (what they’re doing/with who/why), but Martin certainly doesn’t shy away from it. The violence is also pretty heavy. These are books about conflict in a medieval setting, so you can expect major sword fights and the resultant loss of heads, limbs, etc. but in my opinion it occasionally veers into the unnecessary.
A Word About the TV Show: The Song of Ice & Fire books have been made into an HBO TV show titled Game of Thrones, about to start airing its second season. Overall it’s an excellent adaptation, with a few of the minor characters whittled out (which makes the plot somewhat easier to follow). The acting is superb and the production values are through the roof, but it’s been sexed up for TV to the point that it sometimes detracts from the dialogue.
Final Judgment: 5,000 pages have never gone by so fast. If you’re a fantasy fan, you need to read this series.