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Review: A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin

Ever since George R.R. Martin announced that the fifth installment of his A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance With Dragons, would be released on July 12, I’ve been eagerly awaiting a return to the machinations of the Starks and the Lannisters. So there was nothing for it but to reread the series to refresh my memory.

The first four books are

  1. A Game of Thrones — finished March 22, 2011
  2. A Clash of Kings  — finished April 5, 2011
  3. A Storm of Swords — finished April 19, 2011
  4. A Feast for Crows — finished April 28, 2011

I read all four books in just over a month, but I’d suggest that would not have been typical for a first read through since they are very dense, complex, and you’ll likely want to savor the journey.

Note that all 4 books are available for the Kindle and at the time of this blog post can be purchased together in a single Kindle file (although I have read some complaints that it can become a bit unwieldy due to the size of the text). Hundreds of reviews for these books can be found on the internet, so I am just going to make a few brief comments about why I particularly enjoy them.

Complexity

For me, good worldbuilding must include historical depth, half-truths and mis-remembered legendary history, and enough background flavor.  A Song of Ice and Fire has all of these. The backstory of the waves of rulership over the lands, legends of a previous heroic age, and the sheer number of characters (both primary and tangential) add to the sense of “reality”. In fact, in some sections it is almost impossible to piece together the past without visiting a wiki where someone has documented the fragmentary mentions of each event.

Too, Martin does a good job portraying many events from many different viewpoints and rumor, which makes sense in an age of often difficult communication, the desire to spin events for the common people, and partisan agendas.

Gray characterization

Often, high or epic fantasy draws too strict of a line between good and bad characters. While good characters may occasionally make a mistake or have to atone for a single act of stupidity or anger, they are sometimes so good that their actions are almost predictable and boring. Evil characters are often the Dark-Lord-cackling-as-he-tortures-a-bunny stereotype. Not so here. So many of the characters (Tyrion, Jaime, Robert, just to name a few) are at times noble, moral, loyal, gentle, kind but also ruthless, cruel, deceitful, murderous, and lewd. Not only does this create a multi-dimensional personality, but the reader is never sure which side they should be rooting for.

When I originally read the first 2 books, my favorite character was Bran Stark. But upon re-reading, I now most enjoy the chapters focusing on Tyrion Lannister, “the imp”, and Cersei Lannister, the queen (even though she might be closer to stereotypical evil, her imperious and underhanded actions are fun to watch).

Body count and disfigurement

The reader can never be sure if a favorite character, even one who is a POV character, will be alive or whole in the next chapter. Martin kills off kings, scions, children, criminals, deserters, and commoners without discrimination. And, those he doesn’t outright kill, he maims or lames. War is real, and war isn’t pretty.

Plot and intrigue are more important than magic

Although magic becomes more prevalent as you read through the series, I never felt it was the primary focus. Instead, the books are more about different factions vying for power, taking the opportunity of war and chaos to further their own ends or revenge themselves on an earlier wrong, playing both sides against each other, and overturning the natural order of the ruling class. When magic is used, it doesn’t feel like a lazy plot devise.

Do be warned that the language is coarse at times and that the books portray some adult themes.

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