Ah, we come to the end of 1997, and we just happen to come upon a novel with a high profile televisions adaptation debuting on HBO over the weekend. Okay, I shuffled the schedule a little bit to get this in here, but not much!
George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is one of the biggest sensations in fantasy from the past fifteen years not named Harry Potter. It certainly built up quite a cache within the geek community. At six or seven books, averaging about a thousand pages each, it’s not the longest high fantasy series of all time, but it’s up there. It certainly gives Martin room to stretch out and tell a very epic story, to the extent that this first volume feels like 800 pages of prologue.
Martin has created a relatively gritty world, where many of the fantasy elements, like dragons, mages, legendary warriors, and “children of the forest,” are pushed to the fringes. The novel’s little person, rather than coming from some separate race of dwarves or hobbits, is a human with a genetic condition. Most of the novel focuses on the political maneuverings of a few of the world’s noble families. We especially focus on the noble Starks from the north, and the scheming Lannisters. Eddard Stark is a close friend of the King, and becomes his Hand (sort of a Chief of Staff), while Cersei Lannister is the King’s wife. Eddard’s five legitimate children find themselves caught up in this contest, as do Cersei’s brothers, including Tyrion, the aforementioned little person. Meanwhile, Eddard’s bastard son Jon Snow takes a position on the northern Wall, a frontier beyond which mystical forces are perhaps marshalling for an invasion as a decades-long winter threatens to descend on the world. We also see Daenerys, the daughter of the previous domineering king, whom the Starks and Lannisters had overthrown. She marries into a grounp of Mongol-like nomads in an attempt to marshal an army to retake the throne for her family. Each chapter follows one of the eight or so main characters as the political situation slowly falls apart within and the threats grow from without.
Martin’s prose isn’t fancy, but it’s quite effective. He can establish a scene with rich details, or he can move things along at a quick pace when necessary. He’s created a very rich world with some compelling characters, and it’s easy to see why these books are so popular. However, I have to say that I didn’t quite love this novel as much as I wanted to, but I’m not sure it’s Martin’s fault. As I’ve been realizing since I read the Riddlemaster trilogy, High Fantasy doesn’t do much for me these days. I’m not going to say I’ve grown out of High Fantasy, because that sounds more judgmental than I mean to be. I guess I’d say that High Fantasy and I have grown apart. For instance, even though I admired the detailed character work that Martin does here, which really does the most to set this fantasy series apart from others, I didn’t like many of the characters. The Starks’ high fallutin’ nobility, their obsession with honor and loyalty, were all somewhat alienating. The only characters I related to on any level were Tyrion, Jon Snow, and maybe Eddard’s proto-feminist daughter Arya. All of them are as alienated from this society by conditions of their birth as I would feel. Martin deserves a lot of credit for creating these outsider characters to question the values of his medieval society – values which are too often unexamined in other fantasy works. But, that doesn’t change the fact that this novel made me spend a solid 500 or more pages with characters I didn’t find particularly interesting. I will say that there were some very captivating bits near the end where they began to delve deeper into the world’s mythology that I really enjoyed, and the final chapter contained a pretty great twist.
It’s an impressive book, and I’m looking forward to the HBO adaptation. I also want to read more…eventually. The next two volumes also won the Locus Fantasy award, in ’99 and ’01, but I think I may wait a while longer before I dig back in…