Sunday, 23 December 2012

Thoughts on reading (George R R Martin)

Like his hordes of fans, I'm absorbed in George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series of epic fantasy novels (many people may be more aware of the TV dramatisation Game of Thrones, the title of which is taken from the first book in the series) I have just finished reading Dance of Dragons and like many I will be waiting patiently for the final two novels in the series, Winds of Winter and Dream of Spring. There are a lot of people commenting on these books and publishing their thoughts; I thought I would share some of mine.

The Song of Ice and Fire is epic dark fantasy, with obvious inspiration from varied sources such as Shakespearean tragedy; the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's historical fiction, most notably The White Company; J.R.R Tolkien's work and Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels; not to mention Martin's contemporaries such as Raymond E.Feist and Anne McCaffrey. The pseudo-medieval setting and culture is very familiar in fantasy fiction. What makes this series stand out though is the mighty scale and sheer ambition of Martin's imagination. He has created a vast and vivid Fantasy world, a War and Peace of fantasy novels; different continents populated by flawed, complex characters; a world with its own history and religions. The reader finds themselves caring passionately about the main character's gripping adventures and possible fates. The cast includes a lengthy array of sorcerers, priests, soldiers, knights, heirs, Kings, Queens, Lords, servants, sell-swords, skin-changers, warriors, maids, slaves, merchants, pirates, dragons, princes, princesses and numerous aristocratic Houses. Plots and subplots are set against a dark and dangerous backdrop.

The story of A Song of Ice and Fire takes place on the continents Westeros and Essos, with a history of thousands of years. The series is told in the third person by point of view characters, who number over thirty by the fifth novel. Three principle plots become interwoven: the political intrigue and battle (the "Game of Thrones") for control of Westeros by several aristocratic Houses; the rising threat of the previously dormant supernatural and zombie-like Others dwelling beyond an immense wall of ice on Westeros' northern border; and the growing ambition of Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled daughter of a king murdered in a civil war shortly before her birth, to return to Westeros with her fire-breathing dragons and claim her rightful throne.

The scope of Martin's achievement is deeply impressive. He has been working on the series for almost twenty years now. The number of plot threads that he is weaving together and juggling is quite incredible.  As an aspiring author, I admire (and am quite envious of) his ability to keep so many plot threads dangling while the reader continues to be hooked by his epic tale.  Some people have criticised him for the expanding length of the series and killing off major characters- I disagree, I think these aspects are integral to the success and popularity of the books (and the TV series). So many of Martin's characters are interesting because they are damaged- mentally/emotionally or physically, and sometimes both. My favourite character, Tyrion Lannister, is a perfect example of this but this is reflected in other characters: his siblings Cersei and Jaime; Davos Seaworth; Jon Snow; Theon Greyjoy and many others.

I will say very little about the detail of the plots as I see no sense in giving away the story in this article and revealing spoilers- there's absolutely no fun in that, and the beauty of these novels lies in their delicious unexpected plot twists and surprises. There is a real sense of the sinister; of evil and treachery in these books. Martin's world is ravaged; often mysterious and cruel.

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