Rereading ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’

Life’s been a little rough recently. So I’ve been reading for comfort – something easy to read, that I won’t get through quickly, and that keeps me entertained.

A Song of Ice and Fire was perfect. I started re-reading sometime in January with the first book, A Game of Thrones, and a few nights ago I just finished off the latest published edition, A Dance of Dragons. The timing is good too, as there’s an outside chance that George R R Martin may get another volume (The Winds of Winter) published this year. Oh, and season six of the TV show has just kicked off.

A Song of Ice and Fire really is an amazing piece of writing, on many levels. If you like good fantasy, this is absolutely worth it.

One of the things it does brilliantly is to convey a world that’s very real, and gritty. In parts, it’s the small things:

Confusion and clangor ruled the castle. Men stood on the beds of wagons loading casks of wine, sacks of flour, and bundles of new-fletched arrows. Smiths straightened swords, knocked dents from breastplates, and shoed destriers and pack mules alike. Mail shirts were tossed in barrels of sand and rolled across the lumpy surface of the Flowstone Yard to scour them clean. Weese’s women had twenty cloaks to mend, a hundred more to wash. The high and humble crowded into the sept together to pray. Outside the walls, tents and pavilions were coming down. Squires tossed pails of water over cookfires, while soldiers took out their oilstones to give their blades one last good lick. The noise was a swelling tide: horses blowing and whickering, lords shouting commands, men-at-arms trading curses, camp followers squabbling. 

This is a world filled with confusion and dirt. It’s also a world filled with treachery, betrayal and deceit. In fact, it often feels as though for Martin the chief vice is naivety, and the highest virtue is cunning and realism. When so many fantasy stories hang on an implicit idea of justice, a resolution where order is restored, that leaves a faint pang of longing for justice, a hope that it still exists in the world of GoT. There’s a sense of rightness when Joffrey dies, finally, having ordered Ned Stark’s death so long ago. But for the most part justice is sorely absent; the characters we might think of as just, or right die unheeded, along with thousands of others.

Another thing Martin does well is to give a sense of wonder. It’s there in the history of the places, a world that feels so inhabited that archaeologists could spend lifetimes there. The magic he creates is never spelt out, but always mysterious, something around the next corner – so he avoids falling into the trap of engineering it.

His use of different viewpoints is deft, and it works. It lets him show us different characters, and sympathise with them to different extents, or in different ways, as they misunderstand and hate each other. It is, in that sense, a perhaps more postmodern piece, with no single character who anchors the narrative in the way that Sam does in Lord of the Rings. 

We can know, to some extent, the central question driving Martin’s narrative, because he told us, in a letter he wrote while pitching the series:

Each of the conflicts presents a major threat … my imaginary realm, the Seven Kingdoms, and and to the lives of the principal characters. 

The first threat grows from the emnity between the great houses of Lannister and Stark as it plays out in a cycle of plot, counterplot, ambition, murder, and revenge, with the iron throne of the Seven Kingdoms as the ultimate prize …

While the lion of Lannister and the direwolf of Stark snarl and scrap, however, a second and greater threat takes shape across the narrow sea, where the Dothraki horselords mass their barbarian hordes for a great invasion of the Seven Kingdoms, led by the fierce and beautiful Daenerys Stormborn, the last of the Targaryen dragonlords … 

The greatest danger of all, however, comes from the north, from the icy wastes beyond the Wall, where half-forgotten demons out of legend, the inhuman others, raise cold legions of the undead and the neverborn and prepare to ride down on the winds of winter to extinguish everything that we would call “life”. The only thing that stands between the Seven Kingdoms and an endless night is the Wall, and a handful of men in black called the Night’s Watch.

It’s gripping stuff, and it’s a neat set of concentric challenges, each posing a real threat to the survival of the Seven Kingdoms. Since that initial conception for a trilogy though, it seems he’s up to a planned seven, and running far behind schedule. In part, that seems to reflect Martin’s gift for creating drama at every turn. Every new scene, context or character he turns his mind to seems to open up new possibilities and intrigues, rather than concluding storylines. It helps contribute to the richness of the world of the Seven Kingdoms, but it also means there’s a very real risk Martin may not make it.

Which would be a sad moment. A Song of Ice and Fire is easily one of the best fantasy series written, and I’m keen to see how it ends. Yes, there’s the TV show, but that’s already diverged enough that I feel it’s a parallel universe, an alternative piece of art, rather than the same narrative. I want to read the rest of the books – and if you like good fantasy and haven’t already, you’ll want to as well.

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