03 December 2010

George R.R. Martin's A song of Ice and Fire series

I figured I should dedicate one blog post to GRR Martin's fantasy book series "A song of Ice and Fire" to further explain the universe of those books and the spinoff products this series has generated so far.

Just like H.P. Lovecraft have an impact on popular culture with his weird tales, I think it's safe to say that GRR Martin is riding a wave of success in the fantasy literature department similar to what Frank Herbert did for sci-fi literature with his Dune series. I would dare to say that the "A song of Ice and Fire" is the equal to the "Dune" series in many respects, both stories have great character, fantastic political intrigue, lots of backstabbing, characters you care for will die - A LOT, the epic storytelling of great events and a turmoil of plots being spun together, the always greater threat lurking around the corner once the previous threat has been taken care of.

This is both good and bad. GRR Martin has planned for 7 book in this series, so far 4 has been released, a 5th is almost ready - but the slow pace between books make for a loooong wait, and the author seem to enjoy his celebrity status a bit too much, wasting precious time on touring instead of finishing his work, There is a great risk we will never see an end to this series just like with Dune.

I still think the qualities outweigh the flaws, at least up to a  certain point of the series where I found myself thinking "damn, with this guy dead I'm not particularly interested anymore".


GRR Martin's work takes place in a gritty pretty realistic fantasy universe of "Westeros", the fantasy setting is pretty much made up of the completely made up continent and kingdoms not so much of "orcses and fairies and wizards farting fireballs at each other" as you've come to expect from the mainstream fantasy genre. Instead we get a pretty European dark ages feel to the story and the characters. The human race is the only race present in the series, there are freaks and weird peoples but they are not really in the story that much. We get strange creatures but that's pretty much it. The continent of Westeros is very similar to the British islands minus Ireland. This season cycle in this world is also messed up with summers and winters lasting years, and when the book series starts it is the end of a very long summer which means a very long winter will follow.

There are more similarities with the British islands, for instance there is something that oozes of "Hadrians wall" to the very north of Westeros. A huge wall of brick and ice built to keep the wild peoples of the barren north out from raiding the southern provinces.

The political landscape is very similar to the "War of the Roses", the main conflict of the series so far is one between house Lannister (house Lancaster similarities in name and color - Red) and that of house Stark (pretty much your house York with the color - White). These two families will go to war with each other in the series, throwing the entire continent into a conflict and making the other "houses" join in on both sides to support whom they think will give them the best benefits from being a king.

The backstory to the series is that there was a despotic ruler of house Targaryen who was seen as "mad", and who was murdered by Jaime Lannister of house Lannister. The crown went to house Baratheon by distant relations. Robert Baratheon who became the new king joined with the rich house Lannister by marriage. House Lannister who are utterly corrupt and despotic, insane and rotten to the bone are expert manipulators and used the marriage to the crown to strengthen their power and soon take control of the crown themselves. Events in the first book throw the 7 kingdoms into war as the Lannister activities are brought to house Stark, making the two houses declare war upon each other.

Without adding spoilers, the first 3 books which I listened to unabridged in audiobook form (great when you are sitting and painting miniatures) are quite excellent. There are many plots in motion:

- Threat from the North and the wild peoples attacking the great wall.
- The political struggle of the 7 Kingdoms
- Armed conflict for the crown between Stark and Lannister
- Descendants to house Targaryen rallying support to invade Westeros and reclaim the crown
- The character development of several main characters taking unexpected turns
- The possibility to hatch, grow and train dragons which were supposed to be extinct
- Old alliances crumbling and lots of backstabbing

There are of course "shortcomings". My main source of annoyance is GRR Martin's fondness of killing off "good" (well fleshed out - not necessarily good in a moral sense) characters. And he does it a lot. Sure it adds a sense that "anyone could die - no one is safe", but over the course of the 3 books I've listened to he killed at least 2 characters I was really fond off and maimed a 3rd rendering him useless. Luckily there are a lot of really well fleshed out and interesting characters for all houses within the book series.

The other thing is my personal opinion but telling the truth - GRR Martin is a perv. The book series is very adult in its content and themes. This isn't your typical Wizards of the Coast publication, there are sick and twisted themes here as well, and Martin's fondness of writing very graphic sexual situation describing the intercourse between young women while he himself is an old fart is not the strongest argument for starting to read the book series. People are screwing around in a mix of your generic HBO sex scenes and raw porn. Thankfully these explicit overly detailed descriptions of sex are few enough not to detract the reader from the actual story - some of these scenes ARE necessary to further the plot but there is still no reason to write them that way.

And speaking of HBO, HBO is currently working on a TV series adaptation of the first novel "A Game of Thrones" which should air next year. So if you thought the gratuitous amounts of "tits and ass" in HBO's current show "Boardwalk Empire" (which I think is even more over the top than Rome ever was) is too much then you may want to skip this one. On the other hand, how often to we get to see an epic fantasy series? The casting for the first season which will be based on the first book looks promising, and HBO got the budget not to screw things up visually at least. Yes that is Sean Bean! ->


And of course there is a lot of boardgame material created from GRR Martin's work. Fantasy Flight Games seems to have jumped on the rights right away and have given use "A Game of Thrones" which is a strategy game where players take the role of one of the 7 houses and fight it out for the "Iron Throne"/rule of the realm.

Then we have the game I'm currently writing a review for, "Battles of Westeros" making 2 players take control over the Stark or Lannister armies as they bleed it other try on the battlefields of the books.

There is also a collectable card game, though I'm not overly fond of that particular type of games as I always end up feeling dyslexic as I try to keep all the information in my head while trying to imagine what is "really happening" when cards are played.

I also found a miniature company that has released an entire range of A song of Ice and Fire miniatures depicting pretty much all the main characters of the series so far. Check this link for more info http://www.darkswordminiatures.com/mainwebsite_html/grrm.htm

I do recommend getting the books that are out so far, or at least start with the first two, "A game of thrones" and "Clash of Kings" - if you are painting miniatures frequently you can do what I did and just have it on in the background as you paint, makes time go by faster while saving time due to multitasking. If nothing else just to get to know the rich characters that populate this world.


6 comments:

  1. Tycker jag du ska göra, fixa det på ljudbok och lyssna igenom iaf dem 3 första böckerna :-)

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  2. If you think George R. R. Martin's a perv, then you're honestly not well-read. Yes, graphic sexual situations can be uncomfortable, but they're a part of life. More and more authors nowadays are willing to write in that gritty, realistic style that adds realism to a work and just because Mr. Martin chooses to doesn't make him a pervert.

    Oh, and I tried to comment via my LJ account, but it didn't work, sorry about that.

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  3. To me there is a difference in describing sex and describing everything in hardcore pornographic detail. I have actually not encountered this type of descriptions in any books I've read before I read GRR Martin.

    He also comes off as a perv on his personal blog where he describes how he had to take a shower after watching the casting of the hooker whom Tyrion makes a camp follower in the first book for the HBO TV series. I honestly think GRR Martin identifies himself with the Tyrion character and lives out his fantasies through him.

    I'm not having any problem with sexual content- when it's called for, when it pushes the story along or outright porn. But I'm a person who find sex scenes thrown in for the shock value rather nonsensical and think it lowers the value of the story in the book/movie/tv show if it’s not justified.

    Like in the TV show Boardwalk Empire, I stopped counting tits after the 3rd episode, there sure were scenes that were needed to propel character development but when you see extras having sex without reason that's just lame. All the pointless sex also made me stop watching True Blood, as it ended up being a porn with a bad story.

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  4. Thank you, Anatoli, for voicing what I've been feeling as I read the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series: GRRM is living out his sexual fantasies through his writing, and an editor should have stepped in and suggested a few deletions to keep the story balanced.

    IMO, it's impossible to read these books without noticing that the graphic depictions of sexual activity all involve extremely young and/or beautiful women. You could create a drinking game out of every time a young girl's nipples and pubic hair are described, or every use of the word "wet" as attributed to Shae, Daenerys, or Ygritte during sex. The beautiful female characters even masturbate, and sometimes have sex with each other. Meanwhile, the male characters are limited to having a "manhood" (sometimes it's boldly described as "hard"), and the older female characters never have sex at all unless it's for comic purposes, e.g., Lysa and Littlefinger.

    I'm an adult, and I don't mind reading about graphic sex - sometimes I even it on purpose. When GRRM writes sex scenes, however, I can't help but feel he gets lost in his own daydreams and forgets he's writing a novel. His sexual descriptions of the girls/women should either be tamed, or his sexual descriptions of the men should be more detailed. Even if he chooses for his older female characters to be sexless, he needs to be reminded that the younger characters exist to further the plot, not as an outlet for his Penthouse Forum fantasies. It's one thing to tell readers that Sansa Stark was stripped in public by Joffrey, or that she undressed for Tyrion, but quite another to turn those incidents into a reason to wax poetic about her breasts.

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  5. I don't think we're in minority CynicalDog, speaking to friends who have read the novel as well gave me the impression that everyone sees thru GRR Martin when it comes to this aspect of writing.

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