When it comes to fiction, I have a pretty eclectic taste. My interests come and go like the wind and every once in a while I’ll latch on to a new topic or genre and devour anything I can get my hands on. Lately, I appear to have been bitten by the epic fantasy bug, because I can’t seem to get enough of it. And it was this new obsession that led me to A Song of Ice and Fire, a series of novels written by George R. R. Martin.
Indeed, the first book A Game of Thrones appeared enough times on “Best Fantasy” lists to warrant my attention as I was doing my research and contemplating what to read. Recommendations from people who are more knowledgeable than me on the topic of epic fantasy also came in droves. SoIaF is definitely a great series, I gathered from all the opinions. The only thing I should be wary of, however, is that it is as of yet unfinished. That normally doesn’t faze me, so I went ahead and loaded the four existing novels into my reader.
Now that a month has passed and I’ve finished reading them all, I’m finally starting to realize why people sought to warn me about holding back from reading the series until it is complete. When I first began A Game of Thrones, I think I expected each book to be a self-contained tale in a larger, overarching story, the way I’ve seen many other authors handle their long, multi-novel projects. I quickly learned that this was not the case here. Looking back, it would be difficult if not impossible to discern a clear beginning, middle, and end to each novel, as the events from one seem to flow seamlessly into the next.
Because of this, I couldn’t stop reading. I’d originally planned to take my time with this series, spacing out the four installments between other books I had in my to-read list, but the story was so good I just had to know what happened next. So, slave to immediate gratification that I am, I ended up reading them all back-to-back. Now here I am, all caught up and hungering for more, sharing in the despair of a legion of SoIaF fans waiting impatiently for the next book to come out. But the series was worth the read though, and I was warned, so I really can’t complain that much. I also determined early on that talking about each novel by itself would not be easy, so I decided to wait until I had read all four before weighing in with my thoughts.
No danger of any spoilers here. In any case, the plot is so convoluted and involves enough key players to fill a small town that I’m not even going to attempt a real summary. Suffice to say the story is as epic as epic gets. No fewer than three main storylines unfold across a gritty world heavily inspired by Medieval history and Feudalism, each rife with tales of royal scandal, political intrigue and grisly battle scenes as principal families across the land of Westeros wage bloody war over a throne.
Make no mistake; these novels are written for adults and not for the faint of heart. Personally, that’s the way I like it. I don’t mind dark themes or a little conflict in my books, and I won’t shy away from excessive violence especially when it’s done for the sake of realism. Pick up any book about the customs and traditions of war in the Middle Ages and you will see that for all the talk of chivalry, Medieval warfare was brutal. I’ve also come across reviews from people who were turned off by the sex, but I actually thought it was pretty tame. Certainly nowhere near as explicit or gratuitous than anything I’ve ever pulled off the shelves from the romance section.
I also remember recently watching an HBO featurette for the upcoming Game of Thrones TV series (based on these novels) and seeing George R. R. Martin say that too much magic can ruin fantasy, and I have to say I wholeheartedly agree. I’m not a fan of excessive magic, and for this reason I usually prefer fantasies that are heavier on the realistic elements and decline to read anything that deals too much with wizards, elves or magic spells, etc. Admittedly, I got a little worried at the first mention of dragons, but overall I found that magic is well handled in SoIaF — just a touch, and not too much.
Possibly the best part about these books, however, is the character development. Martin tells the story through multiple viewpoints, with each chapter switching back and forth between various characters. I found this format kept me on my toes. A few characters endeared themselves to me immediately; I found I could hardly wait to proceed with the the story so I could catch up with them again. Others I wasn’t so very fond of. Still, one thing that still amazes me is how my opinions of the characters kept constantly changing — and I mean this in a good way. One moment I would be rooting against some vile, malicious brute, and the next I’d be cheering them on. Each character has their own strengths and flaws and over time they are shaped by the events happening around them, but when they evolve it’s done naturally and more importantly, very realistically.
Which is why it’s such a shock whenever someone dies. Without a doubt, death is all over these books. Love them or hate them, it’s always a shame when it happens to a key character. Whether you perceive them as hero or villain, I felt that each character’s presence made the story that much richer. Martin can spend the better part of a novel painstakingly crafting each facet of a character’s personality in order to bring them to life in the reader’s mind, only to strike them down later on in the story, sometimes in the most horrific of ways. It’s no easier even when you see it coming. Honestly, I feel like no one is truly safe in this series, which is particularly surprising when I consider how much time and effort is invested into developing each character.
Still, there are plenty other characters to keep track of and more seem to be added with each book, and the sheer size of the ensemble cast might be a turn off for some. I don’t mind books with a lot of characters, but at some point even I had to wonder if all the characters we had to keep up with was why I felt parts of A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows (the third and fourth book, respectively) started to drag. I only hope that when the next volume A Dance with Dragons finally releases, all the complexities of the plot and relationships between characters will still be somewhat fresh in my mind. I understand it’s been quite a few years.