Since the creation of the first three novels of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, inevitable comparisons have been made, a great deal between him and another revered author and pioneer of the fantasy epic: J. R. R. Tolkien. The two men do have some things in common — both have two middle names that start with R, for instance. However, one might suggest that a fairer comparison might be made between A Song of Ice and Fire and Tennyson’s Idylls, the deliciously soapy medieval human drama that have made these books such a compelling and addictive read. While The Lord of the Rings had its own narrative element, its focus was primarily on plot, on that desperate goal to destroy the One Ring. A Song of Ice and Fire, with its first three enormous, and highly detailed novels, quickly establishes that its complex narrative is built on the back of its characters.
Employing a cast of thousands, with more than a dozen leading players and families and schemers for power, at the start it may seem a daunting task to remember them all. Fear not, however; the precise characterization quickly sorts out those who are integral to the storyline, and those destined to be spear-carriers and crow fodder. At the start of A Game of Thrones, Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, finds five abandoned direwolf pups in the snow, one for each of his trueborn children, and a sixth albino pup for his bastard. Each of his children — Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Rickon, and bastard Jon Snow — claim one of the cubs as companions, little realizing how important the direwolves will be to them when their world starts to change.
King Robert Baratheon and his retinue arrive at Winterfell in order to appoint Ned Stark as the King’s Hand, Robert’s most trusted advisor. During the visit, Bran is thrown from a window and crippled after witnessing something he shouldn’t have, and his mother Catelyn suspects the powerful relatives of Queen Cersei, of House Lannister. Reluctant to leave his home, but loath to leave his friend Robert to the influence of the Lannisters, Ned leaves with Robert for King’s Landing, taking his daughters Arya and Sansa with him. Jon, tired of a bastard’s treatment, leaves to join the Night’s Watch, a brotherhood of men sworn to guard the north from the near-legendary horrors that lurk in its colder corners. Bran and Rickon are left at Winterfell, but after a clumsy catspaw makes a failed attempt to silence Bran with the blade of a dagger, Catelyn departs Winterfell as well to find out why House Lannister wants her young son dead.
Separated but not alone, the Starks are forced to contend with clashing politics, murder, incest, and treacherous magics. Ned discovers Robert’s mishandling of the crown has allowed the ambitious Lannisters to take advantage of him and might have been involved with the death of the previous Hand. Jon arrives at the Wall of the Night’s Watch to find the warriors wary after several brothers fail to return from missions. Catelyn suspects that Tyrion Lannister, the deformed dwarf brother of Queen Cersei, is responsible for the attempt on her son’s life, and creates tension between the Starks and the crown when she takes him as a hostage. Meanwhile, an ocean away, Viserys and Daenerys Stormborn, the only surviving children of the former King of the Seven Kingdoms (who was overthrown by Robert and Ned Stark years ago), are plotting their return to power from exile.
Whereas Tolkien kept the narrative of The Lord of the Rings on a more or less single-minded track (destroy the One Ring!), Martin’s story stretches far and wide very quickly, all details and subplots and tangles and conspiracies, which explains the enormous length of the novels. Meticulously organized, he maintains several narratives at once, juggling from one point of view to the next, scarcely letting one plot drop before picking up another, creating a consistent sense of suspense and excitement from start to finish, but also leaving the books with a daunting amount of content.
A Clash of Kings, the second novel, revolves around the appearance of a bright red comet in the sky. By this time, Robert is dead, and the power vacuum that results spawns five claimants to the throne, each of whom is inclined to interpret the comet as a divine sign of their legitimacy. In the last novel, Ned Stark was executed for treason, after his attempts to prove that Robert’s heir Joffrey was really the child of an incestuous union between Cersei and her twin brother Jaime were suppressed. Many still believe that Joffrey is Robert’s son and the rightful King, and believe the comet, its red tail the same crimson as the Lannister banner, is a sign of the gods’ approval. However, the realm is still threatened from within by starving and resentful peasants, and Tyrion is ordered by his family to maintain the royal facade of benevolent and efficient rule.
However, King Robert’s younger brother Stannis is told by his priestess/sorceress Melisandre that the fiery comet is the work of the god R’hllor, the Lord of Light, proclaiming him as the saviour of the kingdom and rightful ruler. This clashes with the beliefs of the youngest Baratheon boy, Prince Renly, who also seeks the throne by right of his superior army. On the other hand, the power of Ned Stark’s son Robb’s army has strength of its own, the strength of northmen who have proclaimed Robb the King in the North, and seek to be separate from the southern provinces. Across the ocean, the comet is believed to be the herald of the dragons that Daenerys has resurrected and seeks to use to further her own power. She is no longer simply an exiled princess now, but the Mother of Dragons, the Unburnt, and her desire to reclaim the Seven Kingdoms burns just as hotly as before.
The politics of the Seven Kingdoms mean nothing to Jon and the other members of the Night’s Watch, who by taking their vows have removed themselves from the everyday squabbles of the realm, for their true purpose is to guard the mighty Wall of ice that guards the Kingdoms from the creatures of the north. As the comet sears the heavens, it becomes increasingly certain that Others, deadly magical creatures from forgotten history, are not nearly as legendary as they seemed, and that the Night’s Watch has become too undermanned to maintain the Wall’s protection indefinitely.
In this and the later novels, the magic becomes more evident. Snatches are mentioned in A Game of Thrones, passing mentions of dragons, flaming swords, men slaughtered by unseen horrors only to rise again with fiendish intent. Upon the birth of Daenerys’ dragons, however, the wonders of the world have returned in full force, and magic becomes much more real than before. Magicians, alchemists, and wizards who could only perform paltry tricks find their powers greatly enhanced beyond the point of simple illusion. The novels use the existence of the fantastic as an element of the narrative, not as a crutch. There is no secret magic weapon, or portal, or key that will solve everyone’s problems. If anything, the fantastic only complicates things further. The magic depends entirely on the character of the person who uses it — character takes precedent over power. Crippled Bran discovers he has the power to share a mind with his direwolf, Summer, and in so doing forgets his own physical limitations. Ned Stark’s other children also experience an unearthly bond with the direwolves they were given, all except for girlish, naïve Sansa, whose wolf was killed early on and finds she has to tread the waters of royal politics alone and unaided.
Events escalate in the third novel, A Storm of Swords. Bran and Rickon and a few of their trusted companions are forced to flee when Winterfell is conquered through treachery, but are believed to be dead after the traitor mounts the flayed heads of two anonymous boys on the walls to fool his enemies. Arya, the forgotten daughter of Ned Stark who escaped the Lannister’s clutches in the first novel, is still wandering around on her own in the hopes of finding her surviving family members and avenging her father’s death, and the list of her enemies grows longer every day. Robb, King in the North, has never lost a battle yet, but Catelyn still fears that her son’s armies are paltry compared to the numbers loyal to King Joffrey, especially after the majority of Prince Renly’s army bends the knee to the Lannisters after Renly is murdered. Davos, loyal knight to King Stannis, fears for his king’s soul, primarily because he believes that the red sorceress Melisandre is responsible for Renly’s assassination and has sinister intentions of her own. Daenerys, meanwhile, has used her wits and her dragons to secure herself a number of loyal followers, and makes a mission to abolish slavery in the foreign cities. Lastly, beyond the Wall, Jon has embarked upon an undercover mission among the fierce northern wildlings who seek to destroy the Wall, on the orders of his commander, whom he was forced to kill.
Martin has created a fresh, exciting world with the Seven Kingdoms and beyond, and added a few new twists. On this world, summers and winters alike can last for years at time. During these three novels, a summer ten years old is drawing gradually to a close, with portents that the winter to come will be longer, darker, and more frightening than any before experienced. King Stannis and his Melisandre, as well as the brothers of the Night’s Watch, come to believe this means that a dark horror out of the far north is planning to come out of hiding, but the other characters and subplots remain oblivious to the approaching doom that could very well overshadow all of their own petty battles for power, glory, and fame. There is a Tolkienesque sense of an encroaching, ancient evil bent on world domination, but A Song of Ice and Fire departs from the style that J. R. R. Tolkien used.
The Lord of the Rings was plot-based, with a single goal in mind, to be undertaken at the end after many obstacles. There were the forces of good, who were virtuous and true and loyal for the most part, who sought to aid Frodo in the destruction of the ring, and there were the forces of evil who were black-hearted and irredeemable and lacking any humanity.
Not so in A Song of Ice and Fire. The story is fuelled by the real, very human dramas of its multitudes of characters. There are dozens of primary and secondary characters, but they are more than a family name and a carefully-written backstory. In all of the personages of A Song of Ice and Fire, there are maybe two people who could possibly be labelled as completely evil. The rest are a mixed bag of grey and beige — although some become darker than others, while some lighten as we come to know them. Jaime, brother and lover of Cersei, remains a rarely-seen caricature of villainy in the first two novels, but redeems himself considerably once the reader is allowed to slip into his shoes with Martin’s excellent rendering of point-of-view. Nobody’s perfect in A Song of Ice and Fire. Sansa, who’s spent her youth believing life is what one hears in a song, soon learns to her dismay that there are few knights whose hearts are entirely pure and virtuous, few villains who breath fire while remaining incapable of experiencing love and honour, and few retainers who could not be swayed towards either side with the right amount of coin.
It is hard not to be impressed by the vastness of the world that Martin has written into being: everything from the names of the noble families, to those of their retainers, to the colours and emblems of their banners, is exquisitely described. The names do tend to blur and run into each other on numerous occasions. A reader with a sharp memory for detail will have an easier time enjoying these books than a forgetful one, it’s true. However, the complexity draws the reader in. This is not a simplified war with all the knights in white hats on one side and all the rogues with black hats on the other. The world we live in is messy and confusing and varied, and so is the world in A Song of Ice and Fire. The future for both remains tantalizingly unpredictable.
(Bantam Spectra, 1996)
(Bantam Spectra, 1999)
(Bantam Spectra, 2000)