The Importance of George R. R. Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire'
George R. R. Martin has become a huge voice in the fantasy genre. By now, many of you will have seen the HBO series, A Game of Thrones, based on his A Song of Ice and Fire series of (New York Times Bestselling) novels. The series has become a massive success, but more importantly, it’s redefining our expectations of the genre.
Martin is not a new name in the field by any means. He’s been publishing since the 1970s and has won most of the field’s top honors. He’s written widely, not only within science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but also did a stint writing for television, primarily for the rebooted Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. A Song of Ice and Fire, then, comes on the heels of many years of honing his craft, and that experience shows.
My first encounter with George R. R. Martin’s fiction came through the Wild Cards series, shared world books edited by Martin. I was a huge fan of comic books growing up, and when, as a teen, I heard about a series that treated superheroes in an adult manner, I knew I had to read it. It took me years, including a trip to a Montreal comic shop, to collect all of the books in the series, but I eventually did. Martin, as editor, helped to ensure that the different stories and characters, written by different authors, all came together to tell an overarching story. Martin also wrote several characters and threads in the books.
The series occasionally substituted a novel, and it sometimes diverged too far into “adult” territory, gleefully indulging in its sexual depravity, but it did what it promised. It treated superheroes realistically, positing a common origin for all of these wondrous beings, and taking a frank look at what might happen as a result. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a solid attempt and I’m certain that Martin worked hard to keep the separate stories aligned and part of a narrative arc.
For those interested in checking them out, the first two books in the original series, Wild Cards and Aces High, have been rereleased by Tor, and a new series, covering a new generation, has also begun.
That’s all well and good, but what does it have to do with A Song of Ice and Fire?
What George R. R. Martin brought to the superhero genre in the Wild Cards series is somewhat analogous to what he did for the epic fantasy genre with A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin has infused his series with a healthy dose of realism and taken a more adult approach to the story.
In many ways, A Song of Ice and Fire is just one of many series of Big Fat Fantasy books. Its scale and scope are no different from a lot of other books out there. It has knights (oh, does it have knights) and it has dragons. But what Martin excels at is subverting our expectations, turning the conventions of the genre on their heads. It can be an unsettling tactic, but also engaging.
*Spoilers for at least the first book/season follow, so beware.*
In turns of realism, Martin’s Westeros feels far more historical than many other fantasy worlds. There are no elves and dwarves, for example (well, one so-called dwarf, but you know what I mean). It’s based heavily on medieval Europe and its surroundings. The first book, in fact, reads more like a historical novel than a traditional fantasy, something I think helped it reach a wider audience.
Martin also doesn’t rely too much on magic, either. Sure, there are dragons, and what some people call spells, but he manages to tread that fine line between real magic and superstition. I don’t doubt that there are some magical things going on, but where they begin and end, I’m not exactly sure. In my opinion, Martin gives us just enough to keep the world strange and unpredictable, but not enough to distract from the story.
But Martin’s mastery goes beyond that. He defies some of the character arcs that we’ve come to expect in fantasy novels. In A Game of Thrones, for example, many people take Ned Stark to be the “main character,” despite being one of many viewpoint characters in the book. Ned certainly is one of the most honorable characters in the series, if a little naive. Yet, as many people found out to their dismay in the first season of A Game of Thrones, Ned doesn’t even last out the first book. The one potential hero, who fantasy conventions would lead us to believe would be pivotal in the main conflict, is executed with no chance to fight back.
We learn very quickly that no characters are safe. New readers are told by series veterans not to get too attached to anyone. The amount of death in the books is staggering compared to other series. And even better, it’s not just gratuitous. In many cases, the death means something and provokes an emotional response. Ned’s death, as mentioned, is one of those moments. Another comes in a later book and is even more crushing (and I’ll avoid spoiling it).
Moral absolutes have no place in these books. Jaime Lannister quickly establishes himself as a major douchebag when he pushes little Bran out of a window, an action which robs Bran of the use of his legs. I was certain that there was no way I could like Jaime. Yet now that we’ve seen Jaime’s POV and learned more about his background, he’s become a far more sympathetic character, indeed one of my favorite characters to read, if not someone I would want to have a drink with.
And that’s another great thing about these books - everyone is a shade of grey. There are few characters whose actions are only noble, or only treacherous. Even the characters I love most make questionable decisions. Even the most hateful characters have redemptive moments. It can be unsettling -- there’s no comfort to be had in a character having an alignment, to use a D&D term -- but it’s also provocative. It makes you think. Do I really like this character? What about when she did this unspeakable thing? Why does he have to be such a bastard sometimes?
Oh, and the choices. Even when the characters think they’re acting for the greater good, the choices that they make often cause more harm. These are tremendously flawed characters in a world as flawed as they are. Much of the conflict in the series, for example, comes from the issue of succession. Robert Baratheon’s overthrow of the Targaryens, justified as it might have been from a moral stance, sets into motion a series of events that leads to everyone fighting over the throne. I’m still not sure if I believe he did the right thing, though I understand his reasons for doing so.
The world is a brutal one, and sadly reflects the brutality of our own history. Soldiers, and others, commit atrocities in the wake of battle. There’s torture, rape and subtler forms of horror. Some passages can be hard to read, to be honest. But these elements are necessary, I think, to establish the world. These are the things that happen during war, even in our modern world, and to omit them would be to present a world in half-measures. And once again, that brutal reality causes us to examine our own thoughts and feelings. Despite much of fantasy being labeled as escapist fiction, Martin’s series isn’t.
I’m not saying that the books are perfect -- there are issues of race, and gender -- but I believe that what Martin’s attempting to do, and mostly succeeding with, is admirable. His approach not only helps to reset the boundaries of what epic fantasy can do, but what good fiction can do. I’d like to see future epic fantasy writers push those boundaries even further, shake up our expectations even more. I find the prospect exciting.
I’m interested in what you readers think of the series. For those who have read epic fantasy, does A Song of Ice and Fire stand out for you? For those new to the genre, what attracted you to the series? Feel free to sound off in the comments.
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