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.