A Song of Ice and Fire

By George R. R. Martin. Series includes A Game of Thrones, published in 1996; A Clash of Kings, published in 1998; A Storm of Swords, published in 2000; and A Feast for Crows, published in 2005.

The studio exec overseeing HBO’s upcoming adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s sprawling epic-in-progress into a serial TV drama is fond of claiming that the series isn’t really high fantasy. His motive is obvious—HBO doesn’t want A Game of Thrones (the TV show’s title) to be consigned to the genre ghetto, seen only by fanboys—but there’s still something to what he’s saying. Despite the presence of dragons and wights and other mythical beasts, Martin’s world rarely feels alien to our own. In part, that’s because the creatures and magic are on the periphery, but more significantly, it’s because, fair or not (probably not), fantasy has a reputation for drawing bright white lines between Good and Evil, and Martin refuses to do so. In the Song of Ice and Fire books, sympathetic characters feel compelled to do terrible things, and unsympathetic characters have admirable qualities. No one has a clear Hero’s Quest to follow, and everyone encounters awful questions for which there are no easy answers. The world is complicated, muddy, and deeply unfair. Even dragons can’t make such a familiar world feel entirely like fantasy.

The books are set mostly in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, united for centuries under a single ruler but now collapsing into civil war. Dynastic struggles, political intrigue, and religious turmoil turn Westeros against itself just as a mysterious new threat (or, more precisely, a very old threat) looms on the northernmost reaches of the continent.

Under the arc of that saga, countless smaller stories spin out. Each chapter follows the perspective of a single character, usually one with a very limited understanding of the broader scope of what’s happening, which often leaves readers to piece events together. That process can be frustrating but fascinating as Martin shifts back and forth among a dozen or so characters in each book. It’s hard not to wince when a favorite character’s chapter ends and you don’t know when you’ll return to him next, but Martin’s writing is so immersive that plunging onward with a different character usually carries its own rewards.

Martin’s choices of which characters to follow are interesting in their own right. He never writes from the perspective of a king or some other obvious player in the action but rather chooses those just to the side of the principle players. The king’s closest adviser, a rogue knight, a princess in exile, the bastard son of a nobleman, the widow of a convicted highborn traitor—these people are part of the larger struggles, whether they want to be or not, but they have their own dreams, too, even as they are buffeted by forces outside their control. It’s like watching a chess game featuring rows of unruly pawns subject to the whims of the chess player yet not always content to stay where they are placed.

What’s more, Martin writes from the perspective of women and girls just as often as writes from the perspective of men and boys, and he pays them the all-too-rare compliment of portraying them as human beings, just as complex and flawed and diverse as their male counterparts. Westeros (which resembles Western Europe’s medieval feudal society) is a harsh, unforgiving place for women, and it’s interesting to see the different ways in which they deal with it.

—Interesting, but often painful. Martin is pitiless in his storytelling, subjecting his many characters to dramatic reversals of fortune and killing off many without warning. Even the perspective characters aren’t safe from death. The many knotted subplots twist in unexpected ways. Nothing seems preordained.

The storytelling is so tangled, so sprawling, in fact, that one might wonder whether Martin has a complete handle on it. A Song of Ice and Fire is supposed to be a seven-book series, but the increasingly spaced out publication dates suggest that he’s run into some difficulties sorting through the middle of the saga. We’ve seen this kind of thing with TV shows, where the mythology collapses in on itself as it spins out of the creators’ control, but I remain hopeful about Song. Books aren’t subject to many of the vagaries of TV series (aging child actors, limited budgets, imposed deadlines), and Martin insists he’s committed to seeing Song through, resolving the persistent mysteries of the epic, and reaching the conclusion he’s known all along.

And I, for one, will be thrilled to read the next book, whenever it comes out. (A Dance with Dragons has been promised for years now.) I’m eager to see what’s next for Tyrion and Daenerys and Jon and Arya, among others, but I also enjoy simply delving about in the world Martin has created. A Song of Ice and Fire is so fully imagined—customs, history, religions, mythology—that every page seems to feature new details to sharpen the picture in my mind. In its way, despite the sometimes shocking turns of events, the series has been perfect summer reading: dynamic and compelling, breezy without being vapid, wonderfully imaginative—fantasy at its best.