It’s been a long time since I sat down to read an epic high-fantasy series. Too often, these books end up being blatant Tolkien rip-offs, with a clever variant or two to keep things interesting. With the recent popularity of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” TV show, however, one series has emerged at the forefront of the American cultural consciousness: the “Song of Ice and Fire” series, by George R.R. Martin. After TIME labeled him “the American Tolkien,” I was skeptical…but thought the books were worth a try.
The series (planned to be seven books, five of which have been released) is set on the continent of Westeros – geographically similar to the UK. The lands of Westeros are subdivided into seven kingdoms, each of which is ruled by a “Great House.” Among these Houses are the noble Starks, the cunning Lannisters, and the royal Baratheons.
As the series progresses, two major plotlines emerge: the struggle for ultimate political power between the seven houses, and the constant threat of invasion by the monstrous “Others” of the north. Succinctly summarizing Martin’s story would go far beyond the scope of this review (and necessarily involve heavy spoilers), but suffice it to say that the books remain compelling even after 3,500 pages.
Martin is a brilliant writer. He successfully juggles multiple points of view per book, while simultaneously managing to give each character their own unique voice. By any metric, his prose is far superior to many of his contemporaries in the genre. Accounts of the mythic world unfold with fluid lyricism, without ever lapsing into Tolkienesque descriptive tedium (yes, I know that’s heresy), and a ruthlessly fast-paced plot consistently engages the reader.
Martin is known – and often derided – for his tendency to kill off popular characters. This, however, makes “A Song of Ice and Fire” incredibly gripping: if heroes aren’t genuinely vulnerable, there’s little reason to cheer when they succeed. In Martin’s viscerally lifelike world, no one is safe.
Any discussion of “A Song of Ice and Fire” will inevitably raise questions regarding the TV show, “Game of Thrones.” The HBO adaptation is notorious for its graphic content – and while Martin’s books certainly contain plenty of depravity, the show (from what I’ve seen of it) certainly exaggerates this.
The multiple-viewpoint style employed by Martin results in differing reactions to immoral behavior: a corrupt character may attend a brothel (and engage in what that entails), while a noble man of honor feels disgust and revulsion at the very idea. By unfolding the story through stream-of-consciousness techniques, Martin sheds light on the inner thoughts and emotions of his characters. Just as in life, a character’s response to moral darkness is contingent on their personal convictions. It’s probably fair to say, though, that immorality isn’t objectively glamorized.
This brings up an interesting question: can it be healthy to appreciate a fictional work that, by its very narrative structure, forces one to engage with diseased minds? I think the answer is a qualified “yes.”
In a very real sense, Martin is telling multiple stories within one overarching “meta-plot.” Some of these stories have deep moral flaws, but these flaws stem primarily from the characters telling them. If one were to read the inmost thoughts of several world leaders – say, Barack Obama, David Cameron, Hu Jintao, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – one might very well be exposed to moral darkness. Throughout his opus, Martin leaves the question of ethical judgment up to the reader (which may be a strength or a weakness, depending on one’s perspective).
All that being said, however, this is definitely a series intended for mature readers. Martin’s world – which draws much of its stylistic inspiration from real-world history – contains brutal violence, sexuality, strong language, moral ambiguity, and pervasive cynicism. Many will be turned off by the frank portrayal of these elements (and to be entirely fair, at times these become excessive). The books are excellent reading and remarkably thought-provoking, but certainly feature their share of human vice.
Whether or not “A Song of Ice and Fire” embraces a single overarching worldview is unclear. Martin does, however, address religious issues: the three predominant faiths in Westeros are each patterned after real-world belief systems. The “old gods,” worshiped in tree groves, clearly derive from ancient pagan/animistic traditions. The ritualized faith of the “new gods” – specifically, the worship of a deity that reveals itself in seven aspects, yet exists as one god – is obviously rebadged Catholicism. And finally, the dualistic “Faith of R’hllor, the Lord of Light and Shadow” draws inspiration from Zoroastrianism.
This subtext provides a fascinating backdrop for the events which unfold, but is criminally underutilized. Almost without exception, major plot developments occur because of military victories, acts of treason, or forged alliances…throughout the series, the importance of ideological conflict never truly takes center stage. Given Martin’s propensity for rooting his novels in history, this deficit is somewhat surprising. The Reformation – which initially began as a theological dispute over church doctrine – led to centuries of bloody conflict between states. In Martin’s world, however, all is reducible to raw power (to an almost Machiavellian extent). This makes for pulse-pounding reading, but lacks depth; in reality, ideas – even more than the insatiable lust to dominate – have been shown to catalyze action.
So are the books worth reading?
It depends. Fans of “traditional” fantasy may find Martin’s realistic/historical storytelling dull. Those expecting a “clean” story will be horrified by the vivid depictions of evil on display. On the other hand, those who appreciate political intrigue will find the books eminently compelling…and inquiring minds will appreciate the thorny questions the series raises.
Not everyone will enjoy “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Even critics, however, must cede that it is an outstanding work of prose. On both stylistic and thematic levels, Martin draws on a rich tradition of history, myth, and legend – then makes the story uniquely his own. And that, in an increasingly simplistic and derivative genre, is a remarkable accomplishment.
An intense, dark exploration of humanity through the eyes of a mythmaker. Martin fully deserves the title “American Tolkien.”