five-stars

With A Song of Ice and Fire George R.R. Martin did for the fantasy genre what Sergio Leone did for western films. It is not the first fantasy to be gritty and realistic, but it is the one that shattered the mold of Tolkien clones, bringing epic fantasy as a whole into a more grown-up age. Since HBO has started airing its adaptation Game of Thrones, the series has become a cultural phenomenon that extends far beyond the traditional science fiction and fantasy world.

Like many of the fantasy novels and series that preceded it, Ice & Fire is set in a medieval analogue secondary world. There are kings and queens, knights with swords and horses, lords and ladies and their subjects. The main story is set on the continent of Westeros, in the Seven Kingdoms. Hundreds of years before, the Seven Kingdoms were conquered and united by the Targaryans, a dynasty from the now-dead Valyrian Empire. Fifteen years before the start of A Game of Thrones the Targaryans were overthrown during Robert’s Rebellion. Now, political machinations and the death of King Robert start a power struggle and a civil war. To the north, a great Wall of ice and snow has separated the civilization in the south from the wilds of the north for thousands of years. The ancient order of the Night’s Watch mans the Wall and must now contend with an army of Wildings, pulled together by a charismatic king and the fear of an even greater menace that is reawakening. Across the Narrow Sea, an exiled Targaryan plots to return to Westeros and retake the Seven Kingdoms.

At the start, the fantasy tropes seem pretty straightforward, if a bit gritty. We are introduced to our protagonists, who are honorable and good, and their antagonists, who are dishonorable and bad. There are forces of light and dark–though not explicitly labeled that way. Little by little, Martin starts to subvert that formula. He uses a third person limited point-of-view narrative with each chapter being shown from the limited perspective of one character. By getting inside the heads of different characters in turn, we find out that events and motivations are often very different from what we initially assumed. All of our narrators are unreliable, if only because none of them has the full story. Martin skillfully blends each of the characters’ perspectives, memories, and shared stories to form the larger narrative in the minds of the readers and to hint that there is much more to the story than we are explicitly told.

Many of the places, cultures, and events in the series have some inspiration from history. This is a treat for history buffs who can spot the influences. It also sets up a common theme throughout the series: Power and the use of power. Being a feudal society, wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few at the top. When those with power and wealth feud with each other, it is the peasants and lower classes who pay most of the price and suffer the most. Even an “honorable” decision by an honorable lord can result in devastating war and the deaths of thousands or millions of people who were just in the way.

The series and its author have taken some criticism since the release of the fourth and fifth books. The narrative did not have the same vibrancy as in previous volumes and the lengthy delays between publication of recent volumes have frustrated many readers. For the former criticism, strong concluding volumes in the series can erase any concerns about narrative. However, the latter issue is valid and concerning. With the fifth season of Game of Thrones, the TV show has caught up with the books and will almost certainly end before the books do. While the show has deviated some from the books, the eventual conclusion cannot be too different from that of the books. Also, some of the changes in the show in later seasons have arguably improved upon the source material in the fourth and fifth books. In response to angry fans who were frustrated by the delays, Neil Gaiman famously wrote that “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.” However, if the concluding volumes of this series are not released soon, they may become something far worse: irrelevant.

What Makes it Epic Grit:

  • Adventure and Wonder: Like most medieval secondary world fantasies, readers travel with the characters across continents and seas to experience all of their strangeness and wonders.
  • Believable Characters: The characters may be the strongest aspect of this series.
  • Real Consequences: So… yeah. People die in these books. Not just red shirts, but people who you have grown to like. Bad stuff happens to good people–and bad people. Hell, bad stuff happens to everybody.
  • Epic in Scope: There’s big wars, big conquests, and an army of others who seem set upon the destruction of humanity.
  • Subverts “Good versus Evil” Tropes: Yup.
  • Different Perspectives: Even with a huge cast of characters, you can’t help but to inhabit each of them and feel empathy for even some of the most hardened scoundrels.

Verdict: five-stars

Even if the concluding books are never published this excellent series should be on your must-read list.

Review: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. MartinA Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire #1
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 1996
Type: Doorstop Novel
five-stars

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Review: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. MartinA Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire #2
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 1999
Type: Doorstop Novel
five-stars

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Review: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. MartinA Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire #3
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 2000
Type: Doorstop Novel
five-stars

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Review: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. MartinA Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire #4
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 2005
Type: Doorstop Novel
four-stars

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Review: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. MartinA Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire #5
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 2011
Type: Doorstop Novel
four-half-stars

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Review: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. MartinThe Princess and The Queen by George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 2013
Type: Novella
three-stars

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Included in the Dangerous Women anthology edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.

Review: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. MartinThe Rogue Prince by George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 2014
Type: Novella
three-stars

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Included in the Rogues anthology edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.

Review: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. MartinA Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R.R. Martin
Series: The Tales of Dunk and Egg
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 2015
Type: Omnibus Collection
four-half-stars

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