I am not generally speaking a fan of fantasy writing. That is not to say that I don’t read any of it ever – I read the Harry Potter series because I started reading it when I was ten and felt like I grew up with it. I read Discworld as a teenager because I liked the satire and let’s be honest, Terry Pratchett is fairly hilarious. I read Lord of the Rings more or less as a challenge – it took over a year. Still, as a proportion of my reading (and I think we can all agree that I read a lot), fantasy as a genre plays a remarkably small part. Still, I absolutely loved this.
I have been dimly aware of Game of Thrones over the past few years but had an idea it was either a computer game or a trading card game – as it turns out I was partly right but just not about the origins. In writing A Song of Ice and Fire, George R R Martin has created an incredibly detailed saga, from Game of Thrones onwards there are around five books and each with the approximate dimensions of a brick. I vaguely thought that the highly celebrated HBO TV series was something to do with a computer game – a friend pointed out in an impressed tone of voice that it was lucky that HBO had managed to cast Sean Bean since he looked so like the man on the cover of the book. This made me laugh for quite a while and so I bought my own copy, and with that I learnt all about the world of A Song of Ice and Fire – I read it non-stop and have now started the second one. I’m slightly scared that I’ll end up reading the whole lot.
For those who don’t know – Game of Thrones is basically a fantasy-world version of the Wars of the Roses which as you might imagine, really appealed to me. Seven families compete for the Crown of Westeros, the main family are the Starks, led by Ned (played by Sean Bean). He is Lord of Winterfell, happily married to Catelyn, father to Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran and young Rickon. Also in the background is young John Snow, Ned’s bastard child who is the same age as Robb. Awkward. King of Westeros is Robert Barantheon, who Ned loves as a brother. Fifteen years prior to the opening, Robert led a popular uprising against the Tagaryen family, who had previous ruled for seven centuries. This was in no small part because Rhaegar Tagaryen had apparently abducted Ned’s sister Lyanna who was betrothed to Robert – when Ned’s father and brother objected to her disappearance, they were beheaded by the King, Ned took over the fight but did not find Lyanna until she was on her deathbed. And yes, for people who have read the series, I agree with the conspiracy theory on that one (R+L=J). Oh my goodness, I am so very close to becoming a geek.
I’m half-way joking there but I could see the appeal of the fantasy genre after reading this. I thought it was all about wizards and dragons but I could see that in many ways it just means setting oneself free from the binds of historical accuracy. You can’t be scolded for writing something which is historically inaccurate if you’re the one who’s made up the history. This world is drawn with great attention to detail, I always like a detailed back story and I have been caught up by the inter-relationships between the houses and that there is a very convincing culture as a backdrop. Even the religion system does actually make sense as a faith where other fantasy stories end up with rather ridiculous deities – belief is allowed to have a real importance to the characters in this series.
I started to explain all of the ins and outs of the plot but I realised that there wasn’t really any point – it’s very complicated to keep track of, one of those where you have to keep referring to the twenty page appendix which explains who the heck everyone is. I liked this because I felt it had really captured the atmosphere of the medieval age – the muck, the stench and the constant threat of death. I remember talking to a friend about Richard III and his probable guilt in the death of his nephews, yet I understood why he had to do it – as Cersei says to Ned in this book, in the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. When the choice is as stark (no pun intended) as that, hand-wringing is worse than pointless, it will get you killed. (To clarify – I’m not saying that I would be capable of murder myself, but then I’m not someone trying to hold down a throne in a politically unstable time period.)
I wasn’t entirely sure about the way Martin presents his women – I had a hard time warming to Catelyn, largely because of the things she said to her husband’s bastard Jon Snow. She was not a Good Stepmother … it’s funny how the Brothers Grimm loved their mother so rewrote bad mothers in fairy tales to being stepmothers but I do think that they have set an unhelpful stereotype. Similarly, I wasn’t keen on Sansa or Arya early on because it’s a bit of a cliché – Sansa the stupid pretty one and then Arya the clever one who would rather be a boy. Again though, I thought that Martin had painted a world that was chillingly realistic in that men would fete one woman as the Queen of Love and Beauty at a tournament and then without remorse go on to rape and murder another while nobody thought anything of it. That was the middle ages, in the age of courtly love, a woman could have poems written to her but then if the wind blew the other way then anything might befall her.
So – I would recommend A Game of Thrones and were the television series more widely available, I would totally watch it. A Song of Ice and Fire takes fantasy beyond a Tolkien-esque world of elves and dwarves etc. and moves to a world that is politically alive. The great men play the game of thrones but you can only play to win. The beauty of this series is that although many of the characters can appear to be clichéd, I still care about what happens to them and Martin manages to tease out the back story without it ever becoming forced. So, I read on. There’s still a long way to go before the finish line.
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