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
Anyone can die. Anyone. Seriously, anyone.
Adult to the point of being pornographic
Five books in, and he's still not done