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Read Lately: A Song Of Ice And Fire

November 11, 2010

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.

19 comments

  1. Great job on the write up! I LOVE this series and consider it the best one I’ve ever read… and I’ve read a few.

    The character development is the best part of the series. GRRM is awesome when it comes to that and his willingness to kill one of the main characters to advance the story is one of the things that keeps you on the edge of your seat. I can’t wait for the HBO series, it looks great so far. I hope they follow the series closely and don’t deviate from it too much. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the series so much, sad you have to wait like the rest of us for the next book… 🙂


    • Yeah, it was great, though I’m scared I may have ruined the genre for myself now. It’s going to be hard not to compare every fantasy novel I read in the future to this series 😛


      • Yeah, it’s sort of ruined me too. Thankfully, there are a couple of more books coming (eventually)…

        Check out The Warded Man if you haven’t. Lighter reading, but very good.


      • I’ll take a look, thanks for the suggestion!


  2. You’re one of us now… grab some cofee and come cry with us. I do agree that Feast for crows do drag at points but it’s all so soon forgiven.

    I’m betting on Lannister taking over the world! 😛


    • As long as it’s not Cersei Lannister! Tyrion though, I can live with 😀


      • +1 for Tyrion!


  3. I’ve been meaning to check out a game of thrones since i heard HBO was putting together the series, haven’t gotten around to it.


    • Yeah I would say go for it! And the show looks really good. I was interested before but now that I’ve read the books, I just can’t wait.


  4. I prefer a little magic in my fantasy at least, so I’m more of a Steven Erikson fan myself.

    Still, I am looking forward to the HBO series next year. It should translate well to the screen since you don’t have to worry too much about FX.


    • It’s true, from what I saw from the promos, the show looks fantastic. The production values are going to be huge even without the need for CGI effects, though I wonder how they will handle the dragons once they get there…


  5. You have perfectly summed up my feelings, both positive and negative, about this series. I don’t read a lot of fantasy any more because books like this have ruined it for me. At the same time, the way this story has sprawled is driving me mad. GRRM is so in love with his characters, just like Robert Jordan was.

    I have to ask, have you read Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series? I loved those books.


    • Nope, I have not read that series (though a part of my brain seems to recall reading other stuff by Tad Williams). Do you recommend it? Perhaps it’s more to add to my to-read list 😛


      • I actually would recommend them. I’m not a fan of his later works (I thought his Otherland series had a great start then went completely off the rails), but The Dragonbone Chair was a bolt from the blue for me. And the two followups, Stone Of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower, were great as well. He did a neat little bit of world building as well that I enjoyed.


      • I’ll do some research and see what I think. God knows my to-read list is long enough already, but I can’t say no to awesome books!


  6. I really, really love the Song of Ice and Fire saga and, like you, I like darker fantasy or in general books that can surprise me. The problem with reading traditional “happy” fantasy is that you know nothing “bad” will ever happen to the main characters so it’s impossible for me to feel emotional about them. In George R.R. Martin’s books a main character could die at any time which really creates an air of suspense 🙂

    I didn’t enjoy his last book as much as the first few because he focused on only one half of the characters. Plus, I’m also worried that I can’t remember anything that’s happened and won’t be able to reconnect with the new novel when (if) it comes out. Shame 😦


    • Yeah, that’s a valid concern Gordon. I usually try to re-read a series before the new book in that series comes out, sort of to catch up.. but this one… I don’t know. Seems like a lot of catching up 🙂


      • Yeah this isn’t a series where you can just read the last book and “catch up” 😛 The books are like one huge long story! :O


    • I chuckled a little when I read Martin’s short note at the end of the last book about how he had planned in releasing the next half “soon”…five years later and still nada. I really can’t wait to read it now; all my favorite characters should be covered, Tyrion and Bran etc. 🙂



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