It probably looks, for those who follow this blog, as if I’ve given up reading, or at least given up reviewing books. But the fact is that I’ve been absorbed in a single book series since the middle of June, and have waited till I read all five books before posting a review.
The series is, of course, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, well-known for many years to avid fantasy readers and now known to a far wider audience through the HBO TV series Game of Thrones. I’d never picked up the series, having it vaguely confused in my mind with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (“Which is the one where the fans dogpiled the author for not writing the next book fast enough? And which is the one where the guy died before he could finish the series?” In case you’re wondering, the George R.R. Martin books are the first of those … GRRM is still very much alive, though not writing fast enough to please some of his fans). I’m a fantasy reader, but a picky rather than a voracious one: there’s lots of fantasy I don’t like and I rarely feel compelled to start a series that’s not even finished yet.
But the buzz over the TV series got me interested. Not that I saw the series; I’m so out of the loop on cable TV that not only do I not have HBO, I have nothing beyond our two basic, static-filled stations, and TV comes to me only months after the fact, in packaged DVD form. But this series was so pervasive in pop culture that I kept hearing about it — online, from people at work, everywhere. Apparently it’s advertised pretty widely too, because when I said I was reading A Game of Thrones, my kids, who watch more TV than I do but certainly have never seen HBO, both said in unison: “In the game of thrones, you win … or you die!!!” They’d seen the ads.
The amazing thing was that everyone seemed to think the series was pretty good. And I love living in an era when it’s possible to make great, believable TV and movie adaptations of fantasy novels. So I got intrigued and thought I’d check out the books, so that if I liked them I could watch season 1 of the series when it came out on DVD.
And I liked them. I did.
I liked them a lot, although I don’t think I’m going to end up being one of those obsessed fans who pickets GRRM’s house to make him finish the sixth book, The Winds of Winter, faster so we can find out what happened to all our favourite characters, especially one who may or may not have been dead at the end of A Dance With Dragons. (That’s not a spoiler. GRRM has more is-s/he-dead-or-isn’t-s/he fakeouts than any writer I’ve ever read. You can’t get through a book without two or three people either dying, appearing to die, or making people believe they’ve died).
A Song of Ice and Fire is a huge, sprawling series about a medieval-Europe type world where the unexpected death of a king leaves several rival claimants fighting for the throne. The initial conflict is in many ways remeniscent of the Wars of the Roses in England, and initially it’s the semi-historical human and political element that dominates, with magical and supernatural elements being less important — though these become far more central as the books continue. The series’ greatest strength and its greatest weakness is the huge, sprawling cast of characters with widely diverging storylines. It’s a strength in that the diversity and complexity of the story feels absolutely real and believable — far too many fantasy series reduce characters and conflicts to simple black and white, whereas with Martin its all shades of gray, and the character you thought was a villain may turn out to be sympathetic — or vice versa.
It’s a weakness because the alternating points of view mean that readers may not find out what happened to a favourite character for many chapters — or even an entire book — while slogging through the storylines of characters they don’t find as engaging. It also concerns the readers who got stroppy with GRRM over the six-year publication gap between A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. The author is 62, and the originally-planned trilogy has stretched from three to five to seven planned books: Martin has now gone on record as saying an eighth book is not out of the question. The fear that he may have created a story too large and complex to finish is not baseless, and with a writer who loves to end books on cliffhangers, this is a very real fear for avid readers.
I found myself completely engrossed in each of the five books while I read them, and will definitely watch the series when I can get it on DVD. Will I become an obsessive fan who haunts GRRM with “Write faster!” messages? Probably not. In terms of literary skill and depth of character development, he’s not on a par with my two favourite fantasy writers, Robin Hobb and Guy Gavriel Kay, but he is good and highly readable as long as you’ve got some patience. As far as writing quality and my level of engagement as a reader are concerned, reading this series reminds me most of the experience of reading David Eddings’ Belgariad back in the 80s — although that series had the great advantage of being finished and boxed before I ever picked it up!
Yes, I’ll definitely be waiting for book 6 … and hoping I don’t have to wait till 2017 to find out what happens to Jon Snow, Dany Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister and a host of other characters whose stories I’ve followed with interest over the last 5 books.