Saturday, July 23, 2011

Book Series Review - Song of Ice and Fire

I was going to write this review last night, but I was busy. Then I was going to write it today, and I was busy again. So I'm finally getting to it, and I have to confess what I was doing when I was so busy - I was reading a book.

For those of you who have not managed to hear all the hubbub about A Song of Ice and Fire, possibly because you live in the hills of Kentucky and only have Internet access when you vacation in a town with more people than pigs, this is a fantasy series that has gotten so much critical acclaim that HBO decided to turn it into a TV show. It's a fictional land with fictional people and an absolutely ludicrous amount of killing, maiming and sexual deviancy. So it's pretty entertaining.

My wife bought me the first book, A Game of Thrones, for Christmas a few years ago. I had never even heard of it, but two weeks later I was out buying the next two. Then I had to wait for the fourth book, and then I had to wait five years for the fifth, because George RR Martin was off somewhere doing lines of cocaine off the backsides of Thai hookers. He had enough time to work on the TV show, apparently, but not enough to write the damned book.

The thing about the Song of Ice and Fire series is that it's not fantasy the way you're used to it. You're used to elves and orcs and fireball-tossing wizards, and that's not in here (I should note that there are dwarfs, but they prefer to be called 'little people'). What is in here is a huge, well-developed world with an enormous history and just enough magic that when you see it, you'll end up telling yourself there's a logical explanation for it. The tale spins out more like a deeply engrossing history than you expect in a novel.

What it means to follow a fantastical history is that all the elements you expect to see in a novel are gone. There's great story-telling, sure, but there are no bad guys getting their just rewards or happy endings that tie up everything with a neat little bow. There are no characters with plot protection, and nobody gets killed just to ramp up the tension. Just as history doesn't care if you were really attached to Abe Lincoln, George Martin writes a story that is intensely believable because anyone can die at any time for any reason. A little like real life.

In fact, as you progress from A Game of Thrones to A Clash of Kings and into A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows, you'll begin to really realize that the heroes can die, the villains can win, and a happy ending for most of the characters would be to survive until the book is over. If you're constantly waiting for justice to prevail and good to overcome evil, go read those Harry Potter books again. This is not a story for kids.

It's especially not a child's bedtime story because apart from all the death and war and what-not, A Song of Ice and Fire includes an amount of nearly pornographic material that borders on the illegal. There are 14-year-old girls getting knocked up by grown men, brothers sleeping with sisters, and more than one description of a very ugly penis (although Martin always calls it a 'member', like the pecker was in a rotary club).

One big-shot book reviewer said that Martin is the American Tolkien. If that's true, then America should be a little embarrassed. These books are fantastic, and I find them exceptionally enjoyable, and I dare say I'm hooked. I've read each of them at least twice (except for the one I'm reading now), and they're some of the best fantasy I've ever read. I'm wishing I was done with this review so I could go back and read more.

But they're not Tolkien. For one thing, Tolkien was far more original. Since the Middle Earth saga, every fantasy tale starts with Tolkien and goes from there. Tolkien is the gold standard for fantasy, because his creations were so compelling, so exciting, so imaginative that nobody has been able to top them. Martin obviously starts with Tolkien and goes from there. Before Martin and every other fantasy writer, there was Tolkien. Before Tolkien, all we had was The Brothers Grimm.

For another thing, Tolkien wrote stories that came alive as you read, and he never once had to describe a man's junk to make you interested in the story. There are no salacious tales of lesbian love affairs or underage rapes. Honestly, as I read Martin's books, I tend to believe that he's a pretty twisted old man. It's one thing to have a barbarian warrior deflower a maiden who should still be in junior high. It's another to describe the scene in so much detail that trashy romance novels look like Goosebumps books. There's a reason that HBO made it a TV show, and not, say, the Disney Channel.

I could keep going, but my point is, Martin's books are good, but they are nowhere near as universally accessible as Tolkien, and calling Martin the American Tolkien is either a big nut-kick to America or one hell of a slight to Tolkien. However, while I would not recommend A Song of Ice and Fire to anyone with a weak stomach or sensitivity to explicit sex, I still think they're pretty damned awesome. They're full of political intrigue and thrilling swordplay, exciting chases and mighty battles. From time to time, we even see some actual supernatural phenomena, and it's all the more fascinating because it is so rare.

I could keep talking about how much I love A Song of Ice and Fire, but the fifth book is waiting for me and I can no longer resist. If you want to know how awesome these books really are, you'll have to just go get the first one and see for yourself.


Exceptionally readable and tough to put down
Incredibly believable
Anyone can die. Anyone. Seriously, anyone.

Adult to the point of being pornographic
Five books in, and he's still not done


Anonymous said...

I think you've convinced me to finally give these all a read. Been needing something to do with all my unused gift cards anyway.

Sue G said...

"then I had to wait five years for the fifth, because George RR Martin was off somewhere doing lines of cocaine off the backsides of Thai hookers"

LOL. And you also have to love the fake "projected release dates" from freaking Amazon. Toying with you and then crushing you.

HEH said...

Another review I'm glad to read here. I agree with your pros and cons. Martin's matter-of-fact descriptions of the different cultures of this fantasy world remind me of Jack Vance's style. The description of the wedding of the 14-year old girl (I can't recall her name) to the guy in the horse-culture (what's his name!) was detailed, believable, and frank in its violence and sex and I couldn't put the book down because of it.

I'm currently reading the first book and up to about page 500. These hefty novels take me a while to read and I can only attempt them in the summer time. Volume 2 will have to wait until the following summer.

I'm looking forward to the finishing the book and hopefully viewing the HBO series sometime. Looking at some of the actors chosen for the series, some see to hit the mark (King Robert especially), while others seem an odd choice (Eddard Stark and the Tyrion), but I'm sure they're quite adequate in their performance.

A said...

As someone who has only seen the HBO series and not read the books, it seems the show got the pornographic stuff down pat.

It's also a fantastic show, too, I guess.

eWabbie said...

Love the books but some of the chapters you have to force yourself through which is not too hard since you know a great chapter is probably coming up. Also did you notice there are no green vegtables in his world. (which you know because he loves to tell you all about the food and how the juice runs down everyones chin)

HEH said...

eWabbie, so true about some chapters lulling and the food description. I noticed Martin also loves to dress many of his fighting-proned characters in boiled leather!

Matt Drake said...

Yeah, there are a preponderance of people in boiled leather eating very juicy meat or drinking like slobs. That's probably how they break their fast before they examine their members.

wtjbatman said...

This book is a mummer's farce. Nothing is resolved, the plot is barely advanced. To Martin, words are wind. All he can write about now is cock and cunny.

Winter is coming.

Sharon said...

It must be noted that the HBO series sort of adjusted the ages of some of the kids up a few years to avoid the child porn laws, I'm sure.

Todd said...

Well, to be fair I think that you'd have to adjust a few ages upward in most historical 'romances' as well.

Ziggi said...

I'm not a big Tolkien fan, all his stuff is too fluffy for me, and whilst Martin reminds me of Tolkien in that he uses the fantasy genre, I'd say that Martin is more Herbert (the author of Dune) than Tolkien

Anonymous said...

OK I'm done now. Read all 5 since this review came out. Bleh.

best sellers said...

You're absolutely right about Tolkien. He is the master of Fantasy novels that will never be duplicated. That being said: I love this series and can't wait for the next one. Hope it isn't another 6 years or I'll have to read them all again.

buy books online said...

I absolutely loved this review. Martin's series of novels is fantastic.