I think that a very strong argument can be made that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is the finest work of epic fantasy since J.R.R. Tolkien first defined the genre with The Lord of the Rings.
And that’s pretty much the only comparison which can be made between Martin’s emerging masterpiece and Tolkien’s classic.
Where Tolkien is a romantic, Martin is a realist. Where Tolkien is evocatively poetic, Martin is powerfully blunt. Where Tolkien is mythic, Martin is historical.
This reaction covers the first three books in the series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. The fourth book, titled A Feast of Crows, is scheduled to come out later this year. (Of course, it was also scheduled to come out last year. So don’t hold your breath.) The series is not done, and so it would be premature to judge it as a whole. But I will say this: If Martin finishes as he has begun, he will have crafted the first work to truly redefine what epic fantasy is capable of since Frodo passed out of Middle Earth.
(I’ve also heard this series described as “a fantasy version of the Wars of the Rose”. Having read the books, I feel compelled to report that this is only true in the vaguest of all possible senses. It would be roughly equivalent to saying that The Lord of the Rings is “a fantasy version of The Sting”.)
Here’s what I like:
First, the series is simply not predictable. Based on a long experience with extruded fantasy products, you may think you know where the plot is going from page one… but you don’t. (No, really. You don’t.) And the effect never ends: As you read on, you’ll be wrong in your guesses more often than not. And Martin isn’t so foolish as to have nothing turn out the way you would expect: Just enough threads carry themselves in out in a traditional fashion that you cannot even rest assured in the unexpected.
Second, the depth and breadth of world-building is staggering. Martin’s Westeros is no pale copy of Middle Earth with the names scratched off and written over. Nor is it a poorly disguised historical analogue. Nor a paper-thin construction whose scope is wholly spent with the first revelation. No, with Westeros Martin has made an onion: And with each chapter and volume he peels back a new layer.
Third, injuries have meaningful, long-lasting effects. Scars linger, old wounds ache, and even bruises make their presence felt. And when people die, the death is tangible and real, without the least trace of romanticism. (The only seeming exception here are missing teeth: Martin seems to have a fetish for knocking teeth out of his characters during fights, yet the lack never seems to be commented upon again. Perhaps there is a magical orthodontist running around backstage.)
Fourth, Martin does a very good job of putting you inside the heads of many different characters, each of whom has a unique outlook on the world. As the series begins, he’s not quite as good as Cherryh at this – Martin lets you look through their eyes; Cherryh lets you crawl inside their skin – but as the series progresses I see his skill with this growing more and more.
Finally, these are just damn fine books. If you’ve been thinking to yourself “I’d like to read a really good book”, then this is what you’re looking for.
There are two minor complaints I would lay against the series as a whole:
First, the timeline is a little vague and seems to be very flexible. Travel times, in particular, seem to elongate for effect when necessary, throwing off the relationship between various plot streams.
Second, Martin falls into the trap of recapping information and plot from previous volumes in each new volume. I’m not sure why authors of series like this feel a need to do this. The recaps would seem to suggest that each book can be read individually. But they can’t and they won’t, so why pretend? It’s only frustrating to those of us who start with Book One and read from there. In other words, it’s frustrating to all of us.
To elaborate on these general thoughts a little more:
The first two volumes are of a piece in my mind: The first is a crafty mystery and the second is a powerful war story, both set against a backdrop of byzantine intrigue and feudal politics. Both are excellent and nearly flawless.
The third volume, on the other hand, seems to tail off a bit. It’s not an exceptional decline by any stretch of the imagination – indeed, if this book were not preceded by the other two, it would be barely be mentionable. But weaknesses do begin to appear here which were not previously present in the series: Crudity which was once an effective evocation of Martin’s world begins slipping into simple shock value and occasional titillation. The violence and pain suffered by his characters becomes arbitrary, rather than arising naturally from their circumstances. A weird running “joke” appears. A mandatory rule of “a character must piss their pants once every fifteen pages” is instituted. Several characters become mired at the beginning of the book and their plot threads begin to drag. An increasing proportion of the action begins slipping into flashbacks, being told instead of shown. Chapters begin ending with false, melodramatic cliffhangers.
Just strange, little stuff. Nothing major. Nothing which cripples the work. But enough minor irritants to consistently distract (particularly during the first third of the book).
On the other hand, the third volume also takes all of the strengths of the series and deepens them: The world becomes richer. The characters become more compelling. The plot grips you even tighter than before.
And here’s the most important thing to understand:
This is a brilliant series. Brilliant and painful and beautiful and stunning. Literally stunning. There are points in reading it when I found my mouth hanging agape, in sheer shock.
If you have not yet found this series, find it now. If you have been avoiding it skeptically as yet another poorly done set of fantasy doorstops, stop cheating yourself. If it is already on your reading list, move it to the top.
In short: Read it. Read it now.
A GAME OF THRONES: A+
A CLASH OF KINGS: A+
A STORM OF SWORDS: A
George R.R. Martin
Published: 1996 / 1999 / 2000
Cover Price: $7.99
ISBNs: 0-553-57340-3 / 0-553-57990-8 / 0-553-57342-X