No. I’m not really a fantasy fan. Yes, it’s true, I’m quite squeamish. No, I never did make it through the entire Lord of the Rings.
So….? Here I am on a cloudy afternoon in New York, shaking my head clear of an epic battle in the Seven Kingdoms. My head’s full of direwolves and wildlings, Winterfell and King’s Landing, Starks and Lannisters and the ever-compelling Danaerys Targaryen of the silver hair. And more than anything else, full of admiration for George R.R. Martin’s story-telling genius. A Song of Ice and Fire is 700 pages long and I slowed down at the end. Just didn’t want it to stop.
There’s been a lot of ink, real and virtual, spilled on the subject of these books so I’ll be brief. Anybody — let’s see, would that be 13 million people? — who’s watched the series knows how well Martin controls his intricate narrative, switching among protagonists and story lines but providing enough personal characteristics and sensory cues so that we know where we are and what’s at stake. Is it warm? Are the characters wearing silk? Are they clean? Or grubby, bloody, and limping, festooned with scraps of fur? Yes, there’s some confusion — seven is a lot of kingdoms to keep straight — but the basic struggle between the righteous, chilly, even priggish Starks and the wealthy, handsome, corrupt Lannisters makes a great frame for this first book. (With little blonde Dany offstage, as it were, being refined.)
But what I enjoyed most, over and over again, was Martin’s inventive pleasure in his genre. Maybe the Game of Thrones series is like the Wars of the Roses on acid, or reflected in a fun-house mirror, so that much is familiar but much is also twisted. And the embroidery, the cleverness, the homage to history is so much fun. For instance, the famous Iron Throne everyone’s fighting for — about halfway through the book we get a description of this uncomfortable seat:
The Iron Throne was full of traps for the unwary. The songs said it had taken a thousand blades to make it, heated white-hot in the furnace breath of Balerion the Black Dread… The end of it was this hunched black beast made of razor edges and barbs and ribbons of sharp metal; a chair that could kill a man, and had, if the stories could be believed.
“Balerion the Black Dread,” of course! Whatever or whoever he/it was… So many details like this are simultaneously playful and heart-felt, allusive and meant literally. And, as you can see, the writing is good. Vivid, lively, sometimes supercharged, inventive. Just one example; late in the novel Catelyn Stark witnesses a battle led by her son Robb, and Martin sets it in a thick wood and describes it through sound alone. Because, after all, how many ways can you talk about the sight of a battle-axe crashing through a helmet, etc. etc.
Another point, made so vividly in the TV series, is that Martin believes in strong women of all kinds. There are bitches and witches and mothers and females in armor, intelligent whores and…. who even knows what Dany actually is. The Unburnt is one of her titles. These women, though outnumbered, are absolutely the equals of men. Maybe there’s an amazonian regiment in future books.
And now that I’ve emerged a little bit from the spell I can appreciate the virtuosity in Martin’s story-telling. All that heraldry (every time we meet a knight, his colors and his flag are described)! The judicious mix of magic and naturalism, the faint shudder of the uncanny, the tiny touch of sentiment in the name of Rickon Stark’s direwolf, Shaggydog… every time I think about Shaggydog I want to cry. The stakes are high here and Martin kills off beloved characters left and right.
“Winter is coming,” we are warned. No telling what will happen in Volume 2.