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. 

Wild Cards

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.

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.

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.

Image of Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season (DVD)
Director:
Starring: Harry Lloyd, Mark Addy, Alfie Allen, Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage
Rating: Unrated (Not Rated)
Image of A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)
Author: George R.R. Martin
Price: $10.80
Publisher: Bantam (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 720 pages
Image of Wild Cards I: Expanded Edition
Author: George R. R. Martin, Wild Cards Trust
Price: $11.59
Publisher: Tor Books (2010)
Binding: Paperback, 496 pages
Rajan Khanna

Column by Rajan Khanna

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, reviewer and narrator. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships, is due to be released in October 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at Tor.com and LitReactor.com and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed Magazine. Rajan lives in New York where he's a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is www.rajankhanna.com and he tweets, @rajanyk.

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Comments

Sam Sturdivant's picture
Sam Sturdivant from Hayward, Ca is reading Murphy April 6, 2012 - 2:22pm

I haven't read the books yet, but I'm looking forward to picking them up this summer. Typically, I avoid the Fantasy genre like the plague, but I have a co-worker who blew though all of the books ridiculously fast and then turned me on to the show, which I really dig. Your article touched on many things I already assumed I would like about the books, and am now definitely looking forward to having the time to read them.

Limbless K9's picture
Limbless K9 from Oregon is reading Wraeththu April 6, 2012 - 5:16pm

I love the fantasy genre and was burnt out on it. I was looking for recommendations for good fantasy books and A Game of Thrones popped up as a result. Good god it was fantastic. It took classic fantasy tropes and threw them out the window. All in all the series is fantastic and the show is great too. 

derekberry's picture
derekberry from South Carolina is reading Eating Animals April 6, 2012 - 5:46pm

Essential fantasy reading. Scratch that. ESSENTIAL READING.

rajanyk's picture
rajanyk April 6, 2012 - 6:35pm

@Limbless K9 - that's how I felt, too, about epic fantasy. I grew up reading all these big fat fantasy books and when I hit adulthood I just felt burned out on them. I didn't think anyone had anything new to say. Then I discovered Martin and I realized that wasn't true. I'm glad. I'm still trying out recommendations that people give me, but now they have something pretty difficult to live up to.

Limbless K9's picture
Limbless K9 from Oregon is reading Wraeththu April 6, 2012 - 6:46pm

@Rajanyk- The genre really did seem pretty exhausted. It was always predictable. I remember my friend told me to read The Night Angel trilogy because it was so amazing, but in all honesty it was just more of the same. The Kingkiller Chronicles ("The Name of the Wind" and "The Wise Man's Fear") is my other go to fantasy series. I haven't read the second book yet though. I'm re-reading the first with my girlfriend first. I recommend it although it's nothing like Martin. The writing is beautiful though. It's by Patrick Rothfuss if you're interested. 

rajanyk's picture
rajanyk April 6, 2012 - 7:05pm

@Limbless K9 - my girlfriend has been telling me to read the Rothfuss books for ages. I have a copy so I should get to it soon. Though I wouldn't mind waiting for another book in the series to come out. I hate waiting.

Limbless K9's picture
Limbless K9 from Oregon is reading Wraeththu April 6, 2012 - 7:22pm

@Rajanyk- Oh the first one is wonderful. You'll be waiting a little bit for the third and final book to come out. Rothuss is pretty much a perfectionist when it comes to his writing. I say probably two to three years before the final book comes out. The Name of the Wind is definitely my favorite book. 

Sharon3's picture
Sharon3 from Seattle is reading Gone Girl April 6, 2012 - 8:23pm

You touched on the thing I really enjoyed about the books; namely, the characters being neither good nor bad, but a mixture (like most of us are). I hated Jaime and his arrogance and waited for his comeuppance every turn of the page, and now I'm almost pulling for him (almost, it is a grudging like; I am firmly rooting for House Stark). Though I am still fond of Arya, even with all she's done. I love that I don't know what kind of people the characters will end up being.

Amber Clark_2's picture
Amber Clark_2 from UK is reading The Darkening Dream - Andy Gavin April 7, 2012 - 1:34am

Completely addicted to these books, couldnt put them down and now anxiously waiting for the next one to come out, watching the TV series in the meantime. Wholly recommend these to anyone thinking about reading them.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like April 7, 2012 - 9:29am

Throwing genre tropes out the window only to replace them with dirty "realism" -- is that actually admirable, or even unusual?  Does it require any skill whatsoever?  I think one could argue those tropes are (at least halfway) gone already. 

I'm not talking trash on Martin; I'm sure the books deserve at least some of the praise they receive, but there must be more to their appeal than the common-enough tactic of genre subversion, right?

Limbless K9's picture
Limbless K9 from Oregon is reading Wraeththu April 7, 2012 - 6:47pm

@J.Y. - Actually his story is just simply amazing. It weaves plots together effortlessly and has unpredictable events and actions. I've rarely realized I was reading a book while I read Martin's books. The fact that they throw out usual tropes is refreshing which makes the books even more interesting than they already are. I think it does take skill to take classic tropes and either turn them on their head or throw them out. You have to throw out everything that's pretty much inherently known about a genre and start fresh which isn't necessarily easy when you're targeting a niche reading group. I imagine it happens with Mystery, Romance, and Science Fiction too. People who read a certain genre are going to get tired of reading the same thing over and over again so when somebody does something original, and does that original something well, people take notice. 

rajanyk's picture
rajanyk April 7, 2012 - 9:07pm

@J.Y. I'll agree that there's more to them than just subversion. They're well-written, they have engaging plots, and as mentioned, the characters are just fascinating. There are some arcs and characters that drag compared to others, but he's crafted this massive, intricate story in a well-constructed world. Like others have mentioned, it's a great story. My focus was just on what made it stand out from other epic fantasy and what other writers can draw from it.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like April 8, 2012 - 12:14am

You both make it sound worthwhile.  I have a sort of knee-jerk reaction to talk of conventions being subverted, etc.  I mean Conan was basically amoral and he's been around for 80 years.  (Not that the old pulp stories have the sort of depth you guys are talking about.)

Limbless K9's picture
Limbless K9 from Oregon is reading Wraeththu April 8, 2012 - 1:20am

It really is a fantastic series. Definitely worthwhile. 

Pin's picture
Pin April 10, 2012 - 3:36pm

Raj: I also enjoy George R. R. Martin, but I think that his performance of Gritty Real Fantasy is more Gritty than it is Real. That is to say, Martin and his fans have a tendency to problematically excuse a systemic tendency to misogyny with the claim that he is only "being real"-- when what he actually is being is sensationalist. The 19th century realist novel, as a form, has always tended toward that sort of gritty underside: Dickens famously veers from realism into sopperies of sentiment, Hardy into shocking true-crime sensation, and regional writers into sadistic depictions of domestic violence. Now, I don't want to say that sensationalist violence is necessarily *evil*-- but it becomes particularly problematic when we come to believe it's somehow got a unique claim on authenticity or the Real.

What Martin *does* shine at, IMO, is amazingly comprehensive and compelling worldbuilding, particularly military and political worldbuilding-- and also some damn fine horror writing. (You know nothing, Jon Snow.)

I just wish he would get a grip on that creepy urge toward lovingly graphic depictions of misogyny!

(This is apintrix btw)

Vinny Mannering's picture
Vinny Mannering from Boston, MA. USA is reading On Fiction Writing April 12, 2012 - 8:59am

@Pin: That's the first decent description I've read of the much maligned "gender issues" in ASOIAF. Not being a huge history buff (or even the most avid fantasy/Martin reader), I have a hard time seeing why everyone has rushed to slap a "misgonyst" tag onto this series. From most of "reasoning" of read, it seems like more a latent indictment of the genre that has unjustly been foisted onto Martin's work. Martin, for his part, has numerous strong female characters, including two I can think of off-hand (Arya and Brienne) that shirk the commonly accepted place of women in Westeros. There's Dany, too, but I'm utterly bored by her story*. 

I also think it is completely unfair to refer to Martin's depictions of domestic violence (or sexual violence, or general violence) as "lovingly graphic" or misogynstic. The only passages I've been given pause at were depictions of wounds (he does seem to love pus). And though there are frequent accounts of rape, they are rarely described beyond the word "rape," or the Westerosi PC euphemism of "being taken." 

It seems to me that there is just more rape, violence and male domination in these books than what mainstream readers are used to reading. Or maybe I'm just a product of violent video games, TV, et cetera and my mind has been thoroughly poisoned and desensitized.

As a final point: from the purpose of story-telling, what exactly is wrong with misogyny or racism? Why is there this push that every story needs "strong characters" and "diversity?" Granted, I am a white male, and I'm sure if I was not I would get sick of every story being about a white male protagonist(s), but isn't the idea behind reading these books (and something that Rajan talk about in this article) to find the relatable points in the character's humanity (i.e. their shades of grey)? Maybe Martin is more "gritty" than he is "real," but... so what?

 

* I'm only 250 pages into A Feast For Crows.