Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book review of "A Song of Ice and Fire" aka the series that the "Game of Thrones" tv show is based upon (in other words, why I haven't been around)

I thought that I didn’t have time to read fiction. I thought being a mother and scientist sucked all the time away. I turns out that I do have time to indulge in fiction. . . as long as I give up blogging, blog-reading, reading the newspaper, looking at my children, talking to my husband. . . I’ve spent the last few months in a daze, sucked into the universe created by George R. R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire series (the basis for the HBO series A Game of Thrones). The series has gotten so much hype this year that I fell for it and started the first novel this summer. More than 4000 pages later (that’s not a joke), I finished the fifth and latest novel this week. Guess what? The hype is totally deserved.

The publisher summaries on the backs of these novels are vague. I understand why—they’re difficult books to describe. Epic fantasy in a medieval-based world? That sounds so clich├ęd. It is a medieval-based world, the story is epic in scope, and there are elements of fantasy. . . But for large parts of the series, the fantasy elements are pushed to the edge. High-stakes political intrigue—diabolical and brutal, the “game of thrones”—takes center stage. Much of the first novel feels less like fantasy than incredibly gritty and detailed medieval history. This isn’t the medieval world of Tolkien or his early imitators—no happy peasant villages where the common folk are all well-fed and literate. Many of the knights in this series are as likely to rape a maiden as to rescue her. The caste system of feudalism is rigid. And men really do shit themselves in battle.

But on the edges of this harsh feudal world, the fantastical lurks. There are blue-eyed zombies (called “wights”) in the frozen north. There are the zombies’ mysterious makers and commanders, known as the Others. The reader comes to understand that the Others and their zombies are the real threat to the realm, but the kings and would-be kings are too busy fighting for power and tearing the realm apart with their wars to take heed of the threat. Across the sea, an exiled queen plots to invade the realm and claim her family's throne. And above all, winter is coming. In this world, winter can last years.

A Song of Ice and Fire is like a glorious mash-up of genres and themes. There’s war, and coming-of-age arcs, and political intrigue; straight-up action adventure and horror; lots of witty dialogue and cinematic flourishes. And in a story remarkable for its seeming “realism,” every now and then there comes an infusion of pure myth. There is one haunting scene in the third book that involves a rescue by a flock of ravens. It’s a startling, dream-like scene, evocative as any image from the Brothers Grimm or ancient myth.

But it’s the characters that really sell this story. The plotting is intricate and brilliant. The world-building is complex and fully-realized. But the characters. . . oh, my. Did I once write a blog post raving about how taken I was with the characters in the Hunger Games? I did, but I knew nothing. The characters in George R. R. Martin’s world are developed with a complexity and vividness that I’ve rarely seen. During the course of this series, he can take a character that you hate at the beginning, and then two books later switch to that character’s narrative viewpoint and make you fall in love. He can take a character that you already love and make you fall even harder than you thought possible. Of all the characters in these books (and there is a named cast of hundreds, with the narration told from the viewpoints of no less than twenty), I am most taken with the character of Jon Snow. Bastard-born son of a great lord, Jon Snow is a boy looking for his place in a world with little regard for bastards. In a world where there is little of black and white, where every decision is haunted by moral ambiguity, Jon Snow is—as described in a fan forum—“one of the lightest shades of gray.” He is one of the few undeniable heroes. Yet he’s no bland goody-goody, and much more than your standard-issue hero fare. His character is complex and multi-layered. When we first meet him, he’s only fourteen years old: proud and insecure, controlled yet rash, ambitious and hungry for glory. And he’s also kind and noble-hearted, with the courage of a lion* and all the integrity and honor of his great father. Watching the boy grow to a man is one of the chief pleasures of this series.

The author has the diabolical habit of piling up cliff-hangers at the end of each book. The end of the fifth installment, Dance with Dragons, is no exception, and ends with the worst, most diabolical cliff-hanger yet. I understand that George R. R. Martin took five years between the third and fourth books, and six years between the fourth and fifth. I am fervently hoping that the HBO series will light a fire and force him to move more quickly with the last two planned installments of his series.

And, um, now I’m bereft. I feel like a big hole has opened up in my life. Without another book of A Song of Ice and Fire to read, what am I to do late at night? Read science?


*or, er, direwolf. For those of you familar with the story.

15 comments:

Alyssa said...

Wow! I had absolutely no interest in reading these books until now. Thank you!

The bean-mom said...

Anon--Thanks for your comment! I deleted it so as not to spoil anything for Alyssa or anyone else who hasn't yet read the series. My take: that particular beloved character is not dead. No way. Or that's what I am telling myself.

To quote Margarey Tyrell in a Feast for Crows: DYING IS NOT DEAD!

And Alyssa--thanks! I'm a total proselytizer for these books now, glad to hear I got your interest =) I admit this post was inspired by some of your recent book reviews =)

Mrfuzzybear said...

"A Song of Ice and Fire is like a glorious mash-up of genres and themes"

This is very true I can see some parallels between certain point of views in A Song of Ice And Fire and other classics such as 'Beauty And The Beast',Frankenstein etc.

Its also really fun to try to guess what's going to happen next as the author leaves plenty of little clues and hints of what lies ahead.

The bean-mom said...

"Its also really fun to try to guess what's going to happen next as the author leaves plenty of little clues and hints of what lies ahead."

Yup, one of the best parts about the books. I'm itching to re-read from the very beginning just to see all the clues and foreshadowings I missed the first time around...

Anonymous said...

oh yeah, sorry about the spoiling. I just read that part last week and was SOOO upset. those books break your heart!

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Hmm - a certain husband might just be getting this for Christmas now! Thanks!

p.s. Captcha is mobsta - LOL!

The bean-mom said...

Cath--I would love to get my husband into the books, but he's not about to touch these door-stoppers...

Anon--he's not dead! Repeat: he's not dead! (Though Mr. Martin is a bastard).

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Update: OMG HE LOVED IT!!! I've barely got two words out of him since Christmas morning, and I've just had to go to the local book store on my lunch break to get the second book because he finished the first one last night and was distraught!

Now I get to start reading the first one! See you in October...

The bean-mom said...

Oooh, thanks for the update, Cath! Now he gets to look forward to another 4,00 pages or so =) See you back on the Internets in October...

I'm embarassed to admit this, but I've just started re-reading the whole damn thing again from the beginning =)

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Loving it so far! So much intrigue! So many possibilities! And I'm less than a quarter of the way through the first book!

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Anonymous said...

I've been looking for a new series to read. After HP, Outlander and a few other series I feel a bit empty without new characters to fall in love with. After reading your review I ordered game of thrones about five minutes ago. Thank you! I'm very excited!

Anonymous said...

If Tolkien had been blackmailed into writing an action movie screenplay stripped of any poetry, it would have come out much better.
Yes it's fantasy, but that's it.
Stop comparing it to Tolkien, it makes no sense.

Akshay said...

@Last comment: Tolkien might have been god of detail. Sure he created languages. Sure his worlds were awesome. But his characters were mostly black or white. And his stories bland at times. And that's neither real nor the most entertaining it can get. That why Martin scores. Utopia would have been Tolkien's detail and Martin's plot twists and grey characters

ASOIAF_FAN said...

@Anon
Tolkien wrote boring books for children, when you grow up you'll understand that some people want to read books where human beings behave like real human beings, even in Fantasy.