‘Said the crow to the raven…’ October 5, 2009Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
Tags: a song of ice and fire, books, fangirl, fantasy novels, george r r martin, reviews
(Vaguely spoilery for A Song of Ice and Fire.) I’m always on the lookout for new fantasy series, preferably of books that go beyond the usual cliches. I’ve read enough about elves, dwarves, swords, sorcery and dragons to last me a lifetime, and gritty, urban vampire-werewolf crime-fighting only held my attention for a few months before I realised how appalling most of the writing was and how difficult it was to find ‘urban fantasy’ that wasn’t Anita Blake-style paranormal romance. I still hold a great deal of affection for Celtic and historical fantasy, but it’s usually so sweet-natured (unless written by Sara Douglass) that after a while I feel like I’ve overdosed on toffee and caramel.
So this summer I thought I’d try out George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I’m surprised it took me so long. I first became aware of ASoIaF (there’s a clunky abbreviation!) when Jo Walton linked to a series of redesigned fantasy book covers, supposedly with titles that accurately described the books. ASoIaF was retitled ‘Knights Who Say Fuck’. This made me giggle a bit, but then I forgot the series again until Neil Gaiman made his infamous blog post berating a Martin fan who was getting impatient at Martin’s seeming inability to complete the series: ‘Look,’ wrote Gaiman, ‘George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.’ Martin was clearly a writer who aroused strong reactions (and, apparently, caused me to swear twice on this blog, something I try not to do). Then one of my friends on TRoH started reading the series and posting about it, and I knew it was time to do the same myself.
I adored it. So much so that I devoured all five books in about a week (and they devoured my bank account). I joined the legion of impatient fans desperate for Martin to overcome the writer’s block he’s been suffering while struggling to complete the sixth book, A Dance With Dragons, although, as a fan of Isobelle Carmody (who began her Obernewtyn series in the 80s and is yet to complete it) I’m a little more understanding than most.
But what is so special about ASoIaF? Isn’t it just another vaguely historical, swords and sorcery epic fantasy? There are dragons and a ‘dark power brewing in the North’, after all, but there the resemblance to paint-by-numbers epic fantasy ends. ASoIaF is loosely based on the Wars of the Roses, one of the most violent, fratricidal, betrayal-filled periods of English history. The thing that has always struck me about the Wars of the Roses was their pointlessness. It was as if the country went insane for 100 years, experienced an orgy of killing, intrigue and backstabbing until all of the original combatants were dead, and then a victor who had sat back and enjoyed the show climbed over the corpses to get the prize. The struggles left the country reeling, ruined and disoriented, although the deaths of so many of the nobility would lead to great social mobility and change.
In ASoIaF, however, we haven’t got to the end of the battles yet. Martin appears to be wrapping up one of his main arcs (involving his versions of the Yorkists and Lancastrians, the Starks and Lannisters) and moving on to another arc involving Daenerys Targaryen, the Henry Tudor figure. Readers who have stuck with the series for the first five books have been treated to thousands of pages of death, battle, torment and brutality. ASoIaF is certainly not for the faint-hearted or the weak-stomached. A friend of mine warned me before I began reading that Martin was not averse to killing off main characters, and that no character was safe. There were moments where I was on the verge of tearing the book up, I was so angry with the injustice of what Martin was putting his characters through.
But at the same time, that injustice and emotional manipulation is what makes the series so refreshing. Martin has broken one of the cardinal rules of epic fantasy: moral uprightness does not protect a character from death. In most other fantasy series of this style, if a character’s cause is just and he or she is a good person, he or she survives. At worst, a character might die heroically, knowing he or she has ushered in a newer, better order. Martin doesn’t treat his readers like escapist idiots. Good women are abused and murdered, protective mothers see their sons die before their eyes and even children travel across the country, tortured, taken advantage of, emotionally abused, only to have their every hope and dream dashed before their eyes. Most importantly, people who put honour and morality and compassion before reason suffer the logical consequences of a dishonourable, immoral and cruel world.
This is the absolute opposite of what normally happens in fantasy novels, where such people are rewarded for their positive qualities. Martin also doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of war. Every battle he describes is followed by pages of narrative outlining the suffering meted out to the unfortunate peasants who happen to live nearby the site of the battle. Martin’s choices show great respect for fantasy readers, who are often dismissed as soft-hearted, dreamy fantasists, people who read speculative fiction for ‘escapism’.
There’s no escape here. Readers looking for a nice story about elves and dragons, with black and white morality and glorious heroism will be sadly disappointed. Those who like their fantasy to provide a window into reality will feel right at home.