It might seem a little odd to be reviewing books that have been available for the best part of the past decade. However, with the renewed interest in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, “A Song of Ice and Fire”, thanks to a Home Box Office (HBO) television adaptation (A Game Of Thrones – season one in Canada and season two in the US) and the publication of the fifth book in the series, A Dance With Dragons, I decided it might be time to see what all the fuss was about. After all, the books were written by the manTime Magazine had referred to as the “American Tolkien” and I’ve been a fan of the original’s work for decades. Even given Times’ reputation for hyperbole it had to mean there was something worth reading in the series.
So, in order to see what all the fuss was about I bought Game of Thrones 4-Book Box Set, put out by Random House Canada in the spring of 2011, containing the first four books in the series: A Game Of Thrones, A Clash Of Kings, A Feast For Crows and A Storm Of Swords. Set in a world roughly equivalent to our history’s Dark Age where the majority scrabble to eke out an existence from the land or from what little money a skilled tradesperson can demand, and a minority rule through inherited wealth and military prowess, “A Song Of Ice And Fire” takes readers from the throne rooms to the whore houses of Martin’s invented world of the Seven Kingdoms and the lands surrounding it, to detail the struggle for control of its Iron Throne. While there is a wide world beyond the realm of the Seven Kingdoms, the majority of the action takes place in one of three geographical locales: the far north of the kingdom where a small band of warriors, The Night’s Watch, man The Wall that keeps uncivilized tribes people (and if the myths are true other, less human, foes) at bay; and the kingdom itself, which is a seething cauldron of plots and counter-plots as various factions strive for control of the throne and the Free Cities where the scion of the former ruling family looks to find the means to regain the throne her family lost.
Book One, Game Of Thrones, introduces us to all the main players, the world they inhabit, and also shakes out the various plot lines the series will continue to follow through the first four books. Rather then following the standard format of telling a story through the eyes of characters representing one perspective, Martin chooses to try and tell his tale from as many angles as possible. In each book he has chosen to follow a specific collection of characters who represent as many sides of the story as possible. He then proceeds to switch back and forth between those characters with each chapter. As a result readers, over the course of each book and cumulatively over the course of the series, get to know the main characters far more intimately then is usual for this type of story. For not only do we see them through the eyes of others, we also step inside their heads and hear their version of events. It’s amazing how what one person sees as a strength in his or her self is seen by others as a means to defeat them.
Even more fascinating is how Martin is able to use this format to change our opinion of a character. Someone who is depicted as vain, venal, and indolent by others turns out to be far more complex and multifaceted than anyone else ever gave him credit for when we finally meet him. The eldest son of the wealthiest family in the kingdoms, Jamie Lannister, has been decried as a breaker of oaths and a king slayer since he killed the king he was meant to be guarding. While others, like Ned Stark, head of another powerful family and enemy of the Lannister clan, claim he dishonoured himself, when Jamie tells the reader why he killed the king — even though he knew he would be cursed and damned — we see him in a far better light.
The same applies to the aforementioned Ned Stark and his family, who are all central figures in the struggle for power in the Seven Kingdoms. A descendant of one of the oldest families in the kingdom, and ruler of the far north in the king’s name, Ned Stark initially comes across as your typical tragic hero. Yet for all his supposed nobility and honour, his adherence to the code governing knights is — because of his actions — so inflexible it blinds him to both the realities of the world he lives in and how others suffer. It’s his inability to see the world as anything other than black and white which leads to both his own downfall and the kingdom’s descent into civil war.
Initially we are sympathetic to him, seeing how easily others are able to manipulate him because his reactions are so predictable. However, the more we learn about other people and see the history of the land through their eyes, the more we realize how flawed he was and how his simplistic view of the world was unfair and unjust. Of course Ned Stark and Jamie Lannister aren’t the only characters whose stories we follow. And with each, whether Ned’s wife and children (Catelyn, his youngest son Bran, his two daughters, Sansa and Arya, and illegitimate son Jon Snow); other members of the Lannister family (Tryion Jamie’s dwarf brother and their sister Cersei, Queen and then Queen mother/regent of the Seven Kingdoms); or any one of a number other major and minor players in the struggle for power; we learn more about the land and the history behind the current conflict and the other currents of power at work in this world.
While this rather novel approach does serve to give readers a better than average understanding of the characters in the series, in the end it also ends up being the series’ biggest limitation. While the details offered up by each character are interesting enough to hold your attention, after a while it begins to feel like too much minutiae and not enough focus is being paid to the big picture. In spite of there being any number of battles and fights, and countless plot twists involving betrayal and counter-betrayals, we are never able to fully appreciate their scope as we always see them through the narrow focus of one person’s perspective. It’s like trying to see a panoramic view using a magnifying glass which only lets you focus on one small area at a time.
Only on very rare occasions does Martin give readers the distance required to appreciate the full sweep of events. As a result, even the most momentous of battles and happenings feel trivial and I began to feel like I was endlessly waiting for something important to happen. The few times the author allowed action to begin to take place he’d leave readers hanging and end a chapter. However, instead of coming back and picking up the action where it left off, the story would would move on and we’d find the characters somewhere else. Instead of experiencing the events begun earlier directly, we have to make due with the characters’ memories which makes them far less immediate and reduces any impact they might have had. This has the unfortunate result of making the books more like history texts than fiction.
While the first four books in the series A Song Of Ice And Fire are well written and are populated by a fascinating collection of characters, the sum of its parts doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole. While the idea of constantly switching focus from character to character is interesting enough, not enough has been done to tie the different perspectives together for it to have the flow required for a story of this length to have any sense of continuity. Having purchased the box set I waded through all four books, but by the third volume, Storm Of Swords, I found myself caring less and less about certain story lines and skimming the sections I found more tedious and have no real desire to read the most recently published fifth book. These are not bad books, or poorly written by any means, but the comparison with Tolkien is without basis and does Martin no favours. All it does is heighten a reader’s expectations and makes the books that much more disappointing.