I haven’t delved into fantasy reading since my youthful days enjoying Deltora Quest and The Hobbit, but recently one series has eaten my brain. Notably more adult than the aforementioned titles, George R. R. Martin’s phenomenally successful A Song of Ice and Fire has completely hooked me, an intoxication shared with my father and the topic of much conversation. I think the rest of the family is growing a bit tired of it, to be honest, but there is no rest for the readers.
Or the viewers, as anyone who has watched the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones will know. May I take the chance to say that I adore what that studio does, taking the budget and detail of a film and dedicating it to a long-running series, acknowledging that some stories are better told in television format and not crushed into movies (even if they do get three billion sequels) and that the television format can in fact support such a level of grandeur. They do, of course, make sure that their shows have as wide an audience as possible to pay for all this by filling them with fan service (read: a good dose of boobs every episode), but that is part of the package.
In any case, it is interesting to note that a fantasy series has become so wildly popular in this era of hard-bitten realists. But then again, fantasy can never go out of style, being the utmost form of escapism: we’ve had a fine example of this recently in the form of the hugely successful Skyrim, latest in the Elder Scrolls games which let the audience literally escape into the fictional world. There’s also The Hobbit, making its way around the world and drawing massive audiences (and not just to look at Aidan Turner’s pretty face, though that helps too), and its predecessors The Lord of the Rings trilogy which raked in academy awards and love.
So fantasy is still popular, if a little nerdy (and what’s wrong with that? Pah), which then reshapes the question to what makes ASOIAF stand out and attract its own overflowing and enthusiastic fanbase?
Let me begin by pointing out the elephant in the room: it is high fantasy on par with Tolkien in terms of majesty, but Martin’s story flows a different way to a lot of the genre. For one thing, fantasy’s conflicts are often very black and white: a great evil rises in the east and the heroes must band together to combat it, saving the world. It’s very good vs. bad, clear and easy to understand, wherein ASOIAF the lines between good and evil are not so much blurred as non-existent. The villains are very difficult to distinguish as no one is completely evil, though there are plenty that you want to slap in the face, however at the same time you find yourself interested deeply in their many layers of motives.
Perspective in the story switches between multiple characters, all of which can be dubbed as protagonists, but even then they have their flaws and range from innocent to questionable to affably dastardly. Nobody is completely good or completely bad, they are all just human beings each with their own motivations and plans and ways of playing the game.
The series has a very human heart, with magic and monsters a far-off and extinct concept that really only hangs around the fringes of the world and the narrative. The fantastical element comes in with the setting, colossal and meticulously thought out, and feeling intoxicatingly real. Martin’s descriptive language is not as florid as the Wildes and Fitzgeralds and Morgensterns that I adore so, and his prose can be blunt and jarring at times, but for the most part it just bumps along happily and carries the reader with it through this immense and intricate world that he has created. The books are easy to read without being simple, a type of magic in itself which is a sure way to bestsellerdom.
It always fascinates me how much effort and imagination fantasy authors put into their settings, with thousands of years of history planned out and the intricacies of multiple religions and cultures, colliding and crossing over and coexisting and reminding the reader that history and humanity are not stagnant things, they are constantly changed and chafed by civil wars and natural disasters, political conflicts and migrations and conquests. Human nature powers the change of history as it powers Westeros and the story, which brings me back to the characters.
The diversity and depth of the protagonists is pretty amazing, with sweet, naïve and bubbly eleven-year-old Sansa sighing wistfully and being a proper young lady one chapter, and the conniving and snarky dwarf Tyrion Lannister scheming his way out of trouble the next. And then the young bastard Jon in the icy north just trying to work out how his place in the world as a young man, and his father fighting with his conscience and honour in the corrupt and decadent royal court in the sweltering south. Then there’s Daenerys the parable of overcoming oppression in the bizarre and wild land across the sea, reminding us all that the problems we had when we were fourteen were diddly squat in the grand scheme of things (sadly her chapters fell few and far between, and I wanted more exploration of her character and her side of the story, but you can’t have everything. Sigh).
That is one of the things that can be shocking about the series, the youth of some of the characters. A lot of them were aged up in the show, for the purposes of hiring actors (not that the kids aren’t exceptionally talented, like, dude) and possible legal issues. It is, one of many in the series, a brutal reminder that you got on with things young in a medieval setting, because you’d be dead by the time you were forty (unless you were especially badass, and there are a fair few of those wandering around too). People die, a lot. Even main characters played by famous actors who would, in normal circumstances in the wonderful world of TV Land, be granted immortality. Not so in ASOIAF. Everyone is human, flawed, and terrifyingly mortal.
The cast of characters is enormous, and it’s hard to believe that anyone could keep track of them all, but it’s easy enough to follow the switching of the perspectives, which is done frequently enough to share the time vaguely equally between storylines and characters. So if you find yourself particularly detesting a set of them (which you will) your raging heart will have a break soon enough and you won’t find yourself or your blood pressure bombarded.
As the honourable and dastardly characters and the icy and steaming settings are switched between and balanced, so too are the political intrigue and dance of deceptions between the great Houses scaled against scenes of battle and action, for those who have more of a taste for that: there’s something for everyone, sweeping multiple demographics of interest, another trick to wide appeal and popularity.
Basically, the story bundles you up and carries you off from the prologue of the first book, rolling along and carting the reader through the ever-expanding and very solid world that the story resides in, entranced by the settings and rich history and the intriguing interactions and conflicts between characters. It doesn’t hurl you into action too rudely but lulls the reader in a fascinated sense of security as the story continues for many hundreds of pages, gathering intrigue and the possibility for plots, which is just as entrancing and less exhausting than chaining them to the back of the story and then sending it tearing off into the distance (like, say, The Hunger Games did. I’m still tired from the relentless slog through the third book).
They are very interesting and engrossing books, vivid without burying you in descriptive language but instead using the characters to give the world a human heart and empathetic connections. You will find yourself powering happily through great wads of pages even if you can be a notoriously slow reader and don’t usually read fantasy (i.e. yours truly). The question of their popularity and its adaptation has been answered, and it’s a rather simple one in the end: they’re good books, intelligent without being overcomplicated, appealing to those who adore high fantasy as well as the grit of political thrillers and the drama of family struggles, and the story is sprawling and captivating and makes you genuinely wonder how in the world it’s all going to end.
Now if you’ll excuse me, A Clash of Kings is sitting expectantly on my desk. I wish you all a happy New Year and safe holiday, and posting shall resume in 2013, if I haven’t been found dead underneath one of these books.