If Anyone Ever Gets In Your Face For Liking Fantasy Novels, This Is The Book You Clobber Them Over The Head With
When I was about thirteen, my mum and dad gave me a copy of “The Lord of the Rings” for Christmas. I think it’s safe to say that I soon became completely obsessed. I read my original copy until it fell to pieces, then read three more copies to total destruction. I read the appendices. I read the introduction. I re-read “The Hobbit”, and then went back and re-considered “The Lord of the Rings” in the light of its prequel. I even tried to read “The Silmarillion”, and got a surprisingly long way into it before finally accepting that it really wasn’t going to happen.
This was in the days before the Internet, so I managed not to shame myself by writing reams of terrible gawky fan-fiction and then posting them in a public place, but just so we’re clear; the only reason it didn’t happen was because no-one told me such things were possible.
Oh, I loved that book so much, I did. And then when the films came out, I re-read it, and it all went sort of wrong.
Things that, I now realise, are clearly all sorts of wrong with Lord of the Rings
1. The bad guys have no real motivation. They are just evil because, um, because they’re evil. The end.
2. Generally speaking, how good-looking you are correlates perfectly with how good a person you are.
3. Generally speaking, what sort of person you are will be determined almost entirely by what sort of person your parents were.
4. If you’re a woman, you will only be important if you’re beautiful. And even if you’re beautiful, you won’t be that important.
5. “Love” is just something that happens when two people who have the right sort of noble ancestry are left alone together in a suitably poetic setting for longer than about four seconds. There will no requirement for shared experiences or direct conversation.
6. If you’re a woman, you will not be allowed to get married until your father gives you permission. This will be true even if you have been alive for thousands of years.
7. If you come from a superior, long-lived race, it will be totally acceptable for you to spend most of your life blethering on about how much better everything was in the Olden Days. This will be considered as the height of sophisticated melancholy and not at all annoying. No-one will ever tell you to shut up.
8. When engaged in the reckless slaughter of other sentient beings, said reckless slaughter will become totally justified as long as you sing in an epic manner while completing your mission of destruction.
9. When you have a long journey to undertake, the best way to complete it is on foot through enemy territory. This is true even if you have access to super-fast horses and / or gigantic eagles capable of carrying people for long distances and over difficult, waterless terrain.
10. Hereditary monarchy is the apex of societal achievement, and implementing it will instantly lead to maximum happiness, prettier babies, better beer and simply terrific weather throughout the realm.
Wait, what – ? Who mentioned “Lord of the Rings”? Why are you making me talk about this stuff anyway? This was supposed to be a review of George RR Martin’s “A Song and Ice and Fire” – a Fantasy epic totally unlike “Lord of the Rings”, and which has restored my flagging faith in the capacity of Fantasy series to be simultaneously Fantastic, and also…fantastic.
“A Song of Ice and Fire” is a still-to-be-finished sequence of novels (“A Game of Thrones”, “A Clash of Kings”, “A Storm of Swords”, “A Feast for Crows” and “A Dance with Dragons”) set in and round the land of Westeros, where summer and winter both last for years at a time. Westeros consists of many, many fiefdoms of various sizes, currently united under the rule of the hotly-contested Iron Throne. To the North, a gigantic wall of ice hundreds of feet high keeps out the Wildlings and other bad guys.
It seems sort of insane to try and summarise the plot of a series that’s currently running at about 5,000 pages and still isn’t finished, but I’ll have a go. First, Westeros is collapsing into civil war as all the minor kings compete for the Iron Throne. Second, the sole surviving heir of the last-but-one monarch – a beautiful girl called Daenerys Targaryen – has managed to hatch out three Dragon’s eggs and is planning to reclaim her birthright. And thirdly, a terrible winter is coming, and Winter means the arrival of The Others – terrible undead Zombie type creatures who live(?) beyond the Wall and are massing for an attack.
I’ve probably made this series sound like a bad mash-up of every other Fantasy series you’ve ever thrown at the wall in disgust at its formulaic characters, crappy stereotypes, unrealistic fight scenes, stilted dialogue and general failure to be as good as “Lord of the Rings” (look, who keeps mentioning “Lord of the Rings” anyway? It’s getting very annoying). Trust me; it isn’t. This is the Fantasy series I recommend to people who think they don’t like Fantasy, because it’s completely brilliant, but in a completely different way to the other, more compulsory Fantasy novel written by that odd professor type who also had “RR” in his name somewhere.
Top Ten Reasons Why “A Song Of Ice And Fire” is both brilliant, and nothing like “Lord of the Rings”
1. There are no good guys and bad guys. There are just a bunch of guys.
No, really, go with me on this. The big problem with most Fantasy stories is that you know how they’re going to turn out. An assorted collection of good people go on a seemingly impossible quest to defeat some bad people – possibly because of some sort of unexpected Speshul Destiny which has been passed on to one of more of them by an inconvenient relative. They wander the land for a bit, have some cool adventures, collect a few magical objects, learn some stuff, make new friends. And eventually, they defeat the bad guys, exactly like you always knew they would, because, well, because that’s just how it works, m’kay?
I read quite a lot of Fantasy, and I like to think I’m pretty good at spotting outcomes. I have read five thousand pages of “A Song of Ice and Fire”, and I still can’t make any real prediction about how it’s going to turn out. Well, okay; I’m pretty sure it won’t end with “And then The Others ate the soul of the last surviving human, and all of Westeros was laid waste and Spring never came again”. But other than that? I got nothing. My number one pick for final control of the Iron Throne is currently not even on the right continent. My number two pick got his about two and a half books in, number three is at severe risk of dying of plague, and number four is currently in unknown condition after being possibly assassinated by his own men. Most of my rank outsiders are fighting amongst themselves, and my ridiculous long-shot appears to have died off-screen.
Also, almost everyone who is trying to come out as Top King (or Queen) is convinced they have a manifest destiny to rule, most of them have some sort of prophecy to back this up and all of them genuinely think they have the moral high ground. There are no people trying to be in charge just because they’re Officially Evil. I have given up on trying to call this one. I’m actually going to have to wait and see.
2. People die, like, all the time, and it’s permanent.
Generally speaking, in traditional fantasy stories, none of the people you like will die. There might be one main character who ends up dead in the end, but his death will be clearly signalled from the start, and he was kind of an idiot anyway, so you’re okay with it.
George RR Martin is famous for regularly killing off important characters – even the really cool ones who’ve been with you from the start and who you secretly sort of fancy. Also, they won’t always die in a sensible or meaningful way. Sometimes they die in big set-piece events. Sometimes they die fighting battles you’d sort of assumed they were going to win. Sometimes they die from seemingly insignificant wounds. Sometimes they die in stupid arguments in pubs.
Also, these characters stay dead. There’s none of this long-time-I-fell, naked-I-was-sent-back, perfect-resurrection nonsense in Westeros. On the odd occasion when someone goes to the tremendous trouble of bringing back a dead person, the results are utterly terrifying.
3. Eventually, you find yourself sympathising with almost every character in the book.
Two of the least appealing characters in the series are Jaime and Cersei Lannister – beautiful blonde twins whose first act in the book is to throw a small boy off a high tower, to prevent him from telling Cersei’s husband Robert that she’s secretly having sex with her brother and all of Robert’s kids are actually Jaime’s. That’s sort of a hard position to recover from. But even this vile couple aren’t vile all the time. As well as sleeping with his sister and pushing small children off high places, Jaime also risks his life to save his (female) captor from rape and torture. Cersei…well, being honest, there’s not much to say for Cersei’s behaviour. But then she was forced to marry a man she can hardly stand the sight of, so at least there’s an explanation.
4. No elves. Not one.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve really had about all I can stand of long-lived pointy-eared warriors telling me how much better life was when they were in charge and how they can’t wait to get off this awful continent and go live somewhere better – all the while flaunting their exceptional beauty and immaculate poetic sensibilities in my inferior human face.
I mean, okay, fair point. Humanity is flawed, okay? We’re greedy and rapacious and venal and easily distracted. I get it. The elves are right. It’s still annoying.
In “A Song of Ice and Fire”, we’re pretty much in a humans-only zone. Tyrion Lannister is routinely described as a dwarf, but in the sense of “is a person with dwarfism” rather than “is a whole separate race who are mysteriously much cooler than we are”. There are a few non-human sentient beings among the Wildlings near the Wall. But they don’t write poetry, or go on and on and on and on and on and on and on about how much they can’t wait to get on a boat and leave, so I’m prepared to put up with them.
5. Pleasingly earthy vocabulary
I’ve written before about the distressing tendency of Fantasy authors to write about sex using far too many euphemisms and capital letters – as if our ancestors spent all their time thinking up beautiful flowery phrases for one another’s genitals. Not here. A spade is a spade, a penis is a cock, a vagina is a cunt.
Also, no-one’s all that hung up on doing stuff in private. Excretion isn’t that much less public (or more rude) than ingestion, and copulation isn’t much less discreet than either of these. Which, in a world of chamber-pots and body-servants, makes total sense.
6. Realistic aftermath of battles
Remember that bit in “Lord of the Rings” where everyone looked out over the battlefield outside Minas Tirith and reeled in horror at the sheer reeking awfulness of all those dead bodies? No, neither do I, because Tolkien completely glosses over it. It’s like the Corpse Gnomes just come along in the night and clear up all the mess before it can start rotting away and giving everyone cholera.
If anything, Martin goes a little bit too far the other way in describing the yacky maggoty awfulness of trying to clean up after several thousand simultaneous violent deaths. There’s definitely a limit to the number of descriptions of unburied corpses that any novel needs to contain, and it’s possible “A Song of Ice and Fire” exceeds this total. But hey, at least we’re not trying to pretend it’s possible to clear away thousands of dead bodies without any visible effort and no need to bury anyone.
7. If two characters happen to be in the same rough geographical area, and it would be really, really good for them both to meet each other, it’s still more than possible they won’t actually manage to make contact
In books and films, all you have to do to find someone you want to meet up with is be on the same planet. In real life, we can manage to miss each other in a crowded bar. I really sort of love that Martin’s characters repeatedly pass each other on battlefields, gaze at each other across rivers, mistake each other for enemies, get confused by people who look a bit like other people, and generally just behave like normal human beings, living in a very big world with very poor transportation.
8. There be dragons. And the dragons be bastards
It’s a personal thing, but this is a personal review, so I’m going to say it; friendly talking dragons in adult novels do my head in. For kids, fair enough, but for grown-ups – come on. Dragons are flying fire-breathing lizards. They’re pretty much your dictionary definition of reptilian apex predator. And I refuse to acknowledge the existence of a reptilian apex predator that doesn’t want to eat people.
As of the end of book five, Daenerys’s three dragons are big, moody, badly-trained and have taken to eating people. Not out of some deep sense of injustice and a desire to put the world to rights (or not as far as we can tell, anyhow…these dragons, thank the Gods, are of the non-talking variety). It’s just that they don’t make any real distinction between meaty snacks on four legs, and meaty snacks on two legs. I like that.
9. I can read the books without needing to refer to the genealogies
Some writers seem to feel that, when creating gigantic casts of characters, rather than make them all distinctive and memorable, you can just provide a massive list at the back for readers to refer to. When I am King, these writers will be taken outside and shot for the good of humanity.
Because I don’t especially want a foot of High Fantasy novels on my bookshelves, I went for the Kindle versions. Then I looked again at what I’d just bought, and wondered if I’d made the right choice. Kindle books are great for space-saving, but not so good when you want to flick through to the back to check up on exactly who it was who just got slaughtered in battle and why you’re supposed to care.
I haven’t counted, but I’m pretty sure “A Song of Ice and Fire” has more characters than any other book I’ve read, including “Lord of the Rings” (shut up, Wesley!) and “Gone with the Wind”. If there was ever a series where I was going to want to refer to the genealogies at the back, this was the one. I never have to refer to the genealogies, because Martin is the kind of writer who prefers to create distinctive and memorable characters rather than writing a shopping-list.
10. George RR Martin is refusing to be hurried
The last four Harry Potter books are like an object lesson in why it’s a terrible idea to put pressure on authors to produce massive, epic blockbusters to a ludicrous deadline. Martin is now officially horribly late with “The Winds of Winter”. His explanation, magnificently, is that he wants it to actually be good. And personally, I think that’s brilliant. I’d much rather wait another year, or even another five years, and have a book the author’s pleased with, than have a badly-edited first draft riddled with adverbs. George, in the extremely unlikely event that you’re reading this, I’m really, really, really looking forward to the next instalment. But I get why you want to take your time.
Just, you know…please don’t die before you finish, you know? Because that would seriously upset me.
“A Song of Ice and Fire” is available from Amazon as either a shelf-load of books or a series of digital files. But personally I think the most satisfying way to buy it would be to hunt down all the editions second-hand from charity shops. In fact I sort of wish that’s what I’d done now. Damn it.