I think that a very strong argument can be
made that George R.R. Martinís A Song of Ice and Fire is the
finest work of epic fantasy since J.R.R. Tolkien first defined
the genre with THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
And thatís pretty much the only
comparison which can be made between Martinís emerging
masterpiece and Tolkienís classic.
Where Tolkien is a romantic, Martin is a
realist. Where Tolkien is evocatively poetic, Martin is
powerfully blunt. Where Tolkien is mythic, Martin is historical.
This reaction covers the first three books
in the series: A GAME OF THRONES, A CLASH OF KINGS, and A STORM
OF SWORDS. The fourth book, titled A FEAST OF CROWS, is
scheduled to come out later this year. (Of course, it was also
scheduled to come out last year. So donít hold your breath.)
The series is not done, and so it would be premature to judge it
as a whole. But I will say this: If Martin finishes as he has
begun, he will have crafted the first work to truly redefine
what epic fantasy is capable of since Frodo passed out of Middle
(Iíve also heard this series described as
ďa fantasy version of the Wars of the RoseĒ. Having read the
books, I feel compelled to report that this is only true in the
vaguest of all possible senses. It would be roughly equivalent
to saying that THE LORD OF THE RINGS is ďa fantasy version of
Hereís what I like:
First, the series is simply not
predictable. Based on a long experience with extruded fantasy
products, you may think you know where the plot is going
from page oneÖ but you donít. (No, really. You donít.) And
the effect never ends: As you read on, youíll be wrong in your
guesses more often than not. And Martin isnít so foolish as to
have nothing turn out the way you would expect: Just
enough threads carry themselves in out in a traditional fashion
that you cannot even rest assured in the unexpected.
Second, the depth and breadth of
world-building is staggering. Martinís Westeros is no pale
copy of Middle Earth with the names scratched off and written
over. Nor is it a poorly disguised historical analogue. Nor a
paper-thin construction whose scope is wholly spent with the
first revelation. No, with Westeros Martin has made an onion:
And with each chapter and volume he peels back a new layer.
Third, injuries have meaningful,
long-lasting effects. Scars linger, old wounds ache, and even
bruises make their presence felt. And when people die, the death
is tangible and real, with the least trace of romanticism. (The
only seeming exception here are missing teeth: Martin seems to
have a fetish for knocking teeth out of his characters during
fights, yet the lack never seems to be commented upon again.
Perhaps there is a magical orthodontist running around
Fourth, Martin does a very good job of
putting you inside the heads of many different characters, each
of whom has a unique outlook on the world. As the series begins,
heís not quite as good as Cherryh at this Ė Martin lets you
look through their eyes; Cherryh lets you crawl inside their
skin Ė but as the series progresses I see his skill with this
growing more and more.
Finally, these are just damn fine books. If
youíve been thinking to yourself ďIíd like to read a
really good bookĒ, then this is what youíre looking for.
There are two minor complaints I would lay
against the series as a whole:
First, the timeline is a little vague and
seems to be very flexible. Travel times, in particular, seem to
elongate for effect when necessary, throwing off the
relationship between various plot streams.
Second, Martin falls into the trap of
recapping information and plot from previous volumes in each new
volume. Iím not sure why authors of series like this feel a
need to do this. The recaps would seem to suggest that each book
can be read individually. But they canít and they wonít, so
why pretend? Itís only frustrating to those of us who start
with Book One and read from there. In other words, itís
frustrating to all of us.
To elaborate on these general thoughts a
The first two volumes are of a piece in my
mind: The first is a crafty mystery and the second is a powerful
war story, both set against a backdrop of byzantine intrigue and
feudal politics. Both are excellent and nearly flawless.
The third volume, on the other hand, seems
to tail off a bit. Itís not an exceptional decline by any
stretch of the imagination Ė indeed, if this book were not
preceded by the other two, it would be barely be mentionable.
But weaknesses do begin to appear here which were not previously
present in the series: Crudity which was once an effective
evocation of Martinís world begins slipping into simple shock
value and occasional titillation. The violence and pain suffered
by his characters becomes arbitrary, rather than arising
naturally from their circumstances. A weird running ďjokeĒ
appears. A mandatory rule of ďa character must piss their
pants once every fifteen pagesĒ is instituted. Several
characters become mired at the beginning of the book and their
plot threads begin to drag. An increasing proportion of the
action begins slipping into flashbacks, being told instead of
shown. Chapters begin ending with false, melodramatic
Just strange, little stuff. Nothing major.
Nothing which cripples the work. But enough minor irritants to
consistently distract (particularly during the first third of
On the other hand, the third volume also
takes all of the strengths of the series and deepens them: The
world becomes richer. The characters become more compelling. The
plot grips you even tighter than before.
And hereís the most important thing to
This is a brilliant series. Brilliant and
painful and beautiful and stunning. Literally stunning. There
are points in reading it when I found my mouth hanging agape, in
If you have not yet found this series, find
it now. If you have been avoiding it skeptically as yet another
poorly done set of fantasy doorstops, stop cheating yourself. If
it is already on your reading list, move it to the top.
In short: Read it. Read it now.
GAME OF THRONES: A+
CLASH OF KINGS: A+
STORM OF SWORDS: A