Sunday 29 April 2012

Review: A Song of Ice and Fire

I'm pretty niggardly with new books. This isn't because I'm a tightwad; or at least, it isn't just because I'm a tightwad. Otherwise I'd just get them second hand, or from the library like I do with books I'm probably only going to read once and don't want badly enough to fork out cash. The main reason is so that I don't run out of books I really want to read. In particular, when I find a series I particularly like, I ration myself to one book at Christmas and one for my birthday, which conveniently falls approximately halfway round the year form Christmas. And I stick to this.

So when I finished the second book of A Song of Ice and Fire and within a day was on Amazon ordering the third, you can guess that I was pretty gripped by it.

I have to admit being a little put off George R. R. Martin when I noticed how he styles himself: although it appears that he does indeed have two middle names, both beginning with R, not many authors put middle initials on their cover at all, and it still looks a bit like ripping off Tolkien. But it's the only thing that does.

Ice and Fire gets compared to Lord of the Rings a lot, but I don't think it really should be. Yes, it's a fantasy series set in a world with pre-gunpowder technology and magic, and there's a lot of fighting going on. But it's not really the same kind of story at all. It's on a different level: much more about the people, some of whom are doing what might be termed mighty deeds, than the mighty deeds, which are done by some people since that's the traditional way for deeds of any sort to get done. And about power struggles and politics, petty grudges and love polygons of varying complexity more than about saving the world. Although there are hints of the world possibly needing saving at some point, but we're three books in and the power struggles certainly seem to be the main point.

It's a little like the bastard child of LoTR and Eastenders.

Warning: some spoilers for the first three books (up to the end of A Storm of Swords part 1) ahead

The world feels real, with all kinds of different races and cultures - and it absolutely doesn't take anything away that some of them are clearly modelled on real cultures. And the characters are incredible. There's so many of them that the look-up tables in the back of each book are close to a vital resource, and every one of them is real and 3d, and when it comes to back-story, emotion and motivation, Martin is more lavish than Joffrey's wedding planner.

Every faction, and just about every character, has a fair bite at the apple of the reader's sympathies, and I'm left wondering if I really ought to be rooting for the Starks at all. They were the first characters whose point of view we shared, and haven't done anything especially evil. But we've seen nearly everyone's PoV, more than half haven't done anything especially evil, and from the point of view of the myriad of factions, not a single one is obviously right or obviously wrong, and the clear view we had from the first few chapters is hopelessly muddied.

There are almost no characters still living who I could still really call 'bad guys' - There's Vargo Stoat et al, but they're not really important, just allying themselves to whichever faction seems to be winning; likewise a few of the wildlings seem pretty nasty types, but the wildlinga as a faction aren't clearly more bad than anyone else; and Gregor Clegane, but he's really just a servant doing the dirty work, and at least they're all honest about being bastards. There's Ramsay Bolton/Snow, who could possibly turn out to be important but most likely is just a little bastard, in both senses, doing a little wickedness off his own bat. There's Joffrey, who probably will play a big part, but for now he's not really important in himself, just a spoiled little boy who no-one dares teach not to pull the wings off flies - although his uncle occasionally tries. I'm liking Beric Dondarrion less every word I hear about him, but the world isn't divided into nice people and antagonists.
The only important people who I could honestly say are 'bad' are Cersei and Melisandre, and I'm getting less sure about Melisandre.

They all have their plots and schemes, their bad points and good points. Maybe they have a reputation for brutality, but it turns out they're somewhat traumatised and, fairly understandably, bitter and consumed by hatred, but seem to have a vaguely decent heart that they'd rather most people didn't see. Perhaps they don't seem to have any good points at all, but when you consider what they went through as a child, on top of being a product of umpteen generations of what might be termed the Ancient Egyptian school of royal marriages, it's hard to blame them, and in any case they died rather more horribly than anyone deserves. Or they forswear oaths, betray their friends, murder children, and fancy their sisters, but it's clear they're a very conflicted and unhappy bunny indeed. Or they forswear oaths, fancy their sisters, and fling children out of windows, not to mention sit whining in the bath as though left-handedness wasn't a thing, but when you see their point of view, they've been caught between a number of rocks and a fair few hard places.

The plots, the politics, the alliegences and rivalries, the clashing cultures, and everything else is beautifully and diligently done, and with almost no inconsistencies so far - a horse changes sex between the first and second books, and it seems a little odd that a king has to wait until his fianc√©e hits puberty, but an apparently quite unimportant couple can wed before one of them is old enough to speak. That's almost as good as Tolkien - the shadow of one inconsistency, but only implausible, not an actual contradiction - and a lot better than a lot of authors manage across three fairly chunky paperbacks.

The thing about this series, for me, is that it's not really one story at all, it's a whole world in all its complexity, and it's absolutely fascinating. So much so that I may find myself giving in to temptation and buying the fourth book now. Heartily recommended, anyway.

- one last thing: please no spoilers in the comments about the fourth book (or third part two, or whatever) onwards in the comments. Cheers. :)

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