I’m currently reading A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin — I’ve just started the first volume of A Dance with Dragons — and I must say that I’m enjoying it immensely. There is a wealth of descriptive detail in the prose that paints vivid pictures of the vast setting of the series. The most obvious point of comparison would be the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the semblance is only superficial.
Where Tolkien is concerned with the fight of good against evil and maintains a strong focus on his small band of heroic protagonists, Martin weaves a dance through shifting sands of uncertainty in which his extensive cast of characters behave in all too human ways, driven by self-interest, belief, revenge, lust and even, occasionally, honor. Lord of the Rings is a fairy tale where right triumphs over wrong, battles are glorious and deaths are either heroic sacrifices or the well-deserved reward for treachery. By contrast in Ice and Fire the characters are individuals, each with their own motivations, capable of anything within their own personal bounds. There is a moral ambiguity to many of the acts and the reader must decide for themselves where the characters stand. Battles are not big set pieces, regardless of their importance to the progression of the story; instead they are confused, claustrophobic, noisy, bloody melees where no single character has anything but a limited view of his immediate surroundings and plans are but chaff in the winds of chaos.
I’m in danger of making it sound impenetrably tangled and directionless but that is not the case. Martin handles the multiple threads of the story with assurance on several levels, from the interplay between individuals up to the scale of nations and dynasties. As in life, one can never know what goes on in somebody’s head, and while ofttimes his characters will behave predictably they are quite capable of springing surprises. It is said that art reflects life, and if that is true then Martin has ground and polished his mirror to perfection. As many reviewers have commented you can find parallels with many periods of history in these books. The most obvious because of similarities in the society — absolute monarchs, feudal lords, armored mounted knights — are to the European dynastic wars of the Middle Ages, not least the English Wars of the Roses. However his world is as diverse as our own and other cultures echo the likes of the Norse, the nomadic Scythians, or even the traders of the ancient east who traveled the Silk Road.
I find it staggering that one person could conceive a work of such magnitude and maintain such consistency across so many points of view. For me the only disappointing aspect is that the series is still unfinished: a work in progress. I ought to say before I finish that I’ve not watched the HBO adaptation so I cannot comment myself on its fidelity (although I’ve heard positive reports). I’m not in any rush to see it although I expect I would enjoy it well enough: I’m too enthralled by the books for now, and no matter how good an adaptation may be (I greatly enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies) I always value the written word.