A Song of Fire and Ice – Not the fantasy series you’d expect

I just finished reading the Game of Thrones series (more accurately called A Song of Ice and Fire) up to the most recent book, which is book 5.  I’m cursing myself a little for even starting this series, not because it isn’t any good, but because it is very good (with the exception of book 4, which was not on par with the others).  That means that I now need to wait patiently for the next book to come out, and given Martin’s track record that could be quite a few years.  By that time I expect that I will have forgotten everything that happened in the first five books and I may need to read this epic (and epically long) series all over again.

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This series is unusual from typical fantasy series in a few ways, though it is undeniably part of the fantasy genre.  Martin has portrayed a world that seems and feels at times more like an historical series than a fantasy one and there are a number of reasons for that.

First of all, there are no true heroes.  Like the real world, there are good guys and bad guys, but as we get to know the characters we see them in shades of grey.  The characters who are too good and too moral often end up meeting a bitter end, while the bad guys succeed – or fail as well.  Like real life, these characters (whether good are bad) are making the best decisions they can given the circumstances and taking the consequences that life dishes out to them.  That means that unlike typical fantasy novels where you know that the good guys will prevail in the end but don’t know how they will accomplish their win, in Martin’s series you’re often not sure of who you should root for.  If you do root for someone, chances are they will be killed off or some other tragedy will befall them.  This can be a bit frustrating for the reader, because I think the reader really wants someone to root for.  At the same time, it keeps the book exciting because the outcomes are never predictable.

Martin pays keen attention to detail in his books and uses these details to create a world that has its own consistent rules.  Defining the rules of the world and then sticking with them is one of the best ways to create a believable setting for the story and I think Martin does this impeccably.  The rules of the world are informed by research in heraldic Britain and make the story feel that much like historical fiction.  The world rules are not called out specifically, but are shown through Martin’s vivid descriptions.  Like Buffy and Ann McGaffrey’s Pern series, which are other examples of excellent world building, Martin does this really well.

Lastly, Martin’s pacing make the story seems to unfold at almost a real world pace.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  I think it serves to make the characters feel very real, and the same with the story.  However, it also makes the books very long.  There are certainly times in the series where I wished an editor had gone in and red-lined whole sections of the books (especially in book 4 A Feast for Crows, which is a sprawling mess of characters you aren’t really interested in and by far the weakest link the series).  I’m a fast reader, so I can zoom through repetitive or unnecessary material, but for slower readers I would imagine some of the repetitive or pointless chapters would stall the enjoyment – especially once you see that there are still 600 or more pages ahead of you.

Pros

  1. Masterful world building
  2. Realistic relationships and dialogue
  3. Characters are human rather than stereotypes
  4. Martin is not afraid to take a period specific stance (by which I mean he addresses rape and other atrocities in a historical realistic way rather than trying to make it more palatable to a modern audience)
  5. Complex plot with compelling rising and falling action

Cons

  1. Needs editing to be tighter and shorter (particularly after book 1, with special attention paid to book 4)
  2. It would be nice if every character your rooted for didn’t have something nasty happen to them
  3. He takes too long to write the books – by the time the next two come out I will have forgotten most of the complexity of the plot
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Comments
10 Responses to “A Song of Fire and Ice – Not the fantasy series you’d expect”
  1. Paige S. says:

    I disagree about book four. Most people agree with you, and I think Tyrion’s absence has a lot to do with the negative feelings toward it. But the Cersei chapters were great.
    I think what sets Martin apart from other authors is his willingness to kill off any character at any time. I won’t mention names because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’ve never seen an author throw so many curve balls in one series. I think he’s worth the wait.

    • bahia says:

      Hi Paige, thanks for you comment. I personally found Cersei’s chapters very repetitive. I felt like they were all pretty much the same without advancing the story that much. She had quite a few chapters and I think it was too many. If he had consolidated her story I think the book would have been much stronger. I liked the chapters with Jaimie, Arya, and Sam the best. I liked Breanne as well, but as with Cersei I felt there was a bit of repetition there. My main complaint with book 4 however was that he introduced a whole bunch of new characters, while at the same time only focusing on a few of the characters we were used to. While his other books made me immediately want to read the next one, when I put down 4 I just felt kind of Meh and didn’t feel a compulsion to read the next one because I felt 4 was a bit tedious in parts. I did miss Tyrion, but what I think would have improved it was if he had tightened the story and made it shorter I wouldn’t have had that feeling about it.

      I’m definitely excited about reading the next two books, and as frustrating as it is when you kills of characters you love it really does make the world feel more real (reminds me of Buffy in that way). It’s going to be very hard to wait for the next books because I really want to know what happens next! I’m hoping he’ll write the next two in less time than he’s taken between the books in the past. If I have to wait another 10 years to find out what happens I’m going to be very sad!

  2. I also recently finished reading these books and I found the something bad always happened to be pretty repetitive. And While it’s a great story with interesting characters. I found the books to be a pretty frustrating read. Diving headfirst in to characters you’ve never met you spend every other chapter wondering Who the Hell are these people and what on earth is going on. In that way it might benefit from rereading. but truthfully even though I did enjoy it, I am not reading these book again.

    • bahia says:

      Book 4 was particularly bad in having too many random characters that I didn’t care about, and I definitely know what you mean about it being a little too much of people dying. It’s not predictable, but I agree that it’s frustrating to get emotionally invested in a character and then having them die. I always end up feeling cheated. Still, while I was reading these I just couldn’t put them down and I’m dying to know what happens next.

  3. I confess to being one of the few fantasy fans that hasn’t read all of George R R Martin’s books yet. I gather that he is the chief contender for the Tolkien title and if his work is less than perfect, it has a similar completeness and integrity to Tolkien? The series was apparently based loosely on the Wars of the Roses. I am glad you didn’t give too much away as I intend to start reading them soon. I have seen the DVD boxed set of the TV serialisation and was reminded of Frank Herbert’s original Dune trilogy. The Tyrion character steals the show. I was hoping he would end up sitting the throne but please don’t tell me! I am currently proof-reading my second novel ‘The Warrior’s Return’, sequel to ‘The First Warrior’ ,which has just been published on amazon for kindle, so finding time to read is difficult and from what you say the series demands an investment of time. It was very interesting to read how fans feel about an extended series and the death of key characters.

    • bahia says:

      Thanks for commenting and good luck on your next novel!

      I haven’t seen the Game of Thrones TV shows yet, but it seems that Tyrion is the most interesting character both in the books and in the show. My understanding is that season 1 sticks very closely to the books, but season 2 diverges a lot. I’m surprised that this is the case because as the complexity of the story grows I imagine it would need to be tightened up a bit for TV. The series does indeed require a lot of investment because it’s so long, and it’s pretty hard to put down. If you haven’t started, you may want to wait until Martin finishes writing the next two books before starting it. I’m a bit sad that I have to wait to find out what happens (I just finished book 5 and I have no idea what the outcome will be!).

      My perspective about the death of key characters is that it’s not a bad thing. In fact, I find it kind of refreshing. But Martin does it a whole lot – and I think if you do it too much it can be difficult to for the reader because every time a character seems like they will succeed they die. Then it becomes frustrating. I think Joss Whedon strikes a good balance of this. In the Buffy and Angel series specifically characters that are main characters do die, but he balances it out well. It happens just like life, but the instances are few and far between.

  4. By coincidence I have to admit to being a fan of Buffy! Did I really tape record all of the shows for VCR back then – those and the X-Files… and Xena Warrior Princess… and New Adventures of Superman… and…

    Anyway, I felt that the interesting thing about the Buffy series and some of the others mentioned was how they related to real life almost the way the soaps do, particularly teenage real life, due to the target audience, even if they did end up appealing to a much wider one. Sorry to hear that George R R Martin has them dropping like flies, possibly because the Wars of the Roses was a bit like that, with lots of family feuding. The son of whoever would be out to avenge the execution of his father by whoever after whatever battle. I am looking forward to reading the books as soon as time permits, which is far from certain. It may well be that the others you mention are out before I do!

    • bahia says:

      One thing that interesting about Martin, I think, is how much you care about the characters even through you can’t related to their trails and tributions because they are so out of context to modern day experience. I think because the way that the characters think and feel about their situations and the way they react to them is what we can identify with even if the context isn’t.

      Buffy on the other hand certainly does connect with modern day life and experience in very real ways. I just rewatched the first season after many years and I was impressed with how well it held up even though I haven’t been a high school student in quite a long time.

      I actually think you’d do well to wait until the Song of Fire and Ice series is finished to even begin it so that you can move through the story without the need to wait. Just fit it in eventually :)

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