22 May 2011

A Song of Fire and Ice: Book and Series

To be sure, I’m late to the party. But if you’ve followed the blog this far... Well, we punctuality is not a primary concern for us here at Collected Nonsense, let’s just say. We exist outside of conventional time and space.

Quite a few years ago, George R. R. Martin started publishing the fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire (I only started reading them last summer). They’re good. They’re not great literature, perhaps, but they are very good, and fantasy literature that’s not trash is rare enough. This one’s also serious, on top of that.

You see, for whatever reason, most fantasy isn’t good. And on those rare instances that it is, it’s usually not serious.

ASOIAF is unique in this way: It is fairly well-written (by standards of mainstream literature, not just fantasy!) and the characters are very well developed, believable, and realistic. It is very similar to Tolkien’s work, I think, in its conception (though consequently, in quality, too) – Tolkien drew inspiration from Beowulf and early English and Scandinavian literary tradition, and constructed a body of myth which was not only very detailed, but also very coherent in how its elements fit in with each other. On top of that he added an epic story which truly felt like it belonged.

As far as I can gather, GRRM has something of an obsession with the history of medieval Europe, especially the Wars of the Roses. We don’t get huge, delicious appendices like in LotR explaining every aspect of the world’s history, but each faction and culture in the world of ASOIAF has a very rich body of tradition. It influences the way characters think, the way they speak, the way they act by a great deal, and together with the occasional bard’s song we learn a lot about the world anyway.

The thoroughness with which the world has been developed is on par with Tolkien’s work. The extent to which the events of the books are influenced by history, both short term (past 50 years or so) and long term (millennia) exceeds it. From the opening chapters of the first book, there is a sense of inevitability to the plot- everything happens for a reason: Everything is in some great or small way a consequence of something else. That’s not to say the characters are hopelessly devoid of initiative. To be sure, true ability to drive events isn’t a quality everybody has, but the story is not pointless in the sense that there is only one way things can go.

On the other hand, ASOIAF is very different from LotR in how the story is told. LotR is an epic, it’s the legend that will be sung generations after everyone’s forgotten what the fight was for. ASOIAF is the real deal. No effort is made to conceal how petty, spiteful, ignoble people are, and how ugly their actions become. It’s very base, brutal and unscrupulous. I’m not even sure I would call it truly realist, real people aren’t such awful jerks. But then again real people don’t exist in such awful circumstances, so who’s to say?

So in a nutshell, yeah, ASOIAF is like LotR, but gritty as hell. It’s good. Read it, they’re doorstoppers but they’re worth it. But that’s not why I said I’m late. There’s a TV series based on the books.

Yup, that's Boromir.

 A few hours after I post this, the sixth episode will be shown. Now, normally, I’d be saddened. TV adaptations suck. But GRRM is part of the creative process on this, the cast is picked well and they work perfectly, and the damn thing isn’t just good, it’s better than the books. As for what it’s actually like, if you liked, say, Rome this should be right up your alley.

So I decided, I’ll make an episode by episode analysis of it. There are lots of reasons why ASOIAF is great, and it sounds like a nice format to write about those in. Unfortunately, I can’t bother dancing around the plot, so expect spoilers all over the place for the episode the post is about. On the flipside, the people who have read the books and know everything that will happen still enjoy the hell out of it, and it’s not like spoiling one episode will make much difference in the long run.

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