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Friday
Mar272009

« In Which George R.R. Martin Sings His Song of Ice and Fire »

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Winter Is Coming

by ALEX CARNEVALE

There are many great houses in The Song of Ice and Fire, American SFF writer George R.R. Martin's magnificent fantasy series. One house looms largest: House Targaryen. Over a thousand years ago, the Targaryens were expelled from Valyria by the Doom, a primitive environmental catastrophe.

With a full continent an ocean away full of natural resources, they desired the land, named Westeros, and resolved to dominate it. The place they wished to conquer looks like this:

A political map of Westeros. Look familiar?

The Targaryens waited 100 years to build their strength, and with three dragons and a small, loyal army, they conquered seven of the eight kingdoms on this continent. Westeros belonged to House Targaryen.

Flash forward 1000 years, when the events of A Song of Ice and Fire begin. What blood you are once meant something on Earth, and it still does in the seven kingdoms of Westeros. Blood is the guiding principle of everything in the Seven Kingdoms, and inheritance of rule is a tricky, dangerous business. So the author of the world of unparalleled magnificence, George R. R. Martin, called the first book (of a planned seven) A Game of Thrones.

Martin wrote fantasy and science fiction to varying levels of acclaim before A Song of Ice and Fire. (He also worked in Hollywood for years; now he lives a rich man in New Mexico.) Currently in the middle of writing his ultimate masterpiece, it's easy to look back on his earlier work and see how the kernels of genius were fermented.

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Martin's talent for world-building was evident in his most honored work before A Song of Ice and Fire, the novella A Song for Lya, where two doomed telepaths navigate a shaky future. His novella Sandkings became the pilot episode of Showtime's version of The Outer Limits, and his vampire novel Fevre Dream proved he could handle horror as well as science fiction. It's amazing he finds any time at all to write as he's one of many SFF writers to keep an enthusiastic blog.

Other authors get bogged down in the intracacies of a society and forget the importance of the individual, or else their imagination is not sufficient for the characters they invest so much in. Martin balances the two with equal aplomb, cutting to the emotional core without getting bogged down in setting or plot.

Martin is at his best as a dabbler, putting his toes into the shallow ends of science fiction, fantasy, and realistic fiction. Though he had worked in both fantasy and science fiction before, Martin had never attempted something so vast. Since he's writing something complex, difficult and uber-successful, he has a greater challenge being put to him than those who laid the groundwork in the genre.

Tolkien was smart and inventive, but he could also be rather boring, like any good college professor. C.S. Lewis was too pious, and not very much of a writer. In fact, it's Martin's style that brings it all together, much like in Tolkien's more direct descendant, Robert Jordan.

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James Oliver Rigney Jr. was a Vietnam vet who, writing under the name Robert Jordan, created a character named Rand al'Thor and dragged him around a richly detailed world of hard fantasy. As fine as The Wheel of Time series is -- it's a massive achievement -- on some level, it's not adult fantasy. Despite serious themes and evocative characters, there's little in the way of sex and protagonists rarely perish, especially in crowds. This is not the way of George R.R. Martin.

In Martin's world, the action begins after the trauma, the life after the death. Composing the most horrifying chapters of the series in the third (and best) volume A Storm of Swords, Martin has confessed that he put off the writing of them: they were the most difficult thing he ever had to set to paper. The problem anyone writing a fantasy today has is the issue of magic.

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It's kind of the reason Tim Kring's Heroes turned into the most terrible show ever constructed - characters become too powerful, and they are just ciphers meant to do another cool thing.

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The pioneer of using magic just right was Jack Vance, whose autobiography comes out later this year. Vance's Dying Earth novels were wildly ahead of their time, so much so that they inspired the entire Dungeons and Dragons system of magic. (Martin's taken a good deal of shit from his readers for working on an anthology of Vance-inspired writing instead of the long-delayed fifth novel in the series, A Dance for Dragons.)

As much as GRRM admires Vance, he's not so keen to make magical elements the center of his world. Some of his characters have abilities, but they are exaggerated versions of what lies inside real people. (He had to be convinced to include dragons in the final work, and we can be glad he did it in a most inventive fashion.)

In A Song of Ice and Fire, it does not really matter how big or small you are - you'll be cut down to size either way. Men are assassinated, dead in duels, in war, crippled, maimed, amputated, impaled. It is no good being a man, and since the women are the survivors of the catastrophe, it's no great shakes for them either.

While women dominate A Song of Ice and Fire - a turnabout that Robert Jordan experimented so successfully with the magical Aes Sedai - children are also key. GRRM has said they are the most difficult to write, but that is why they are so important here.

a detailed map of the capital city of WesterosA child is born in a world, any world, with a long history. His learning of that history is piecemeal, and he must decipher it completely to know how to live. For Americans, that is some other history, for the most part. But for the sons and daughters of Westeros, their lives depend on the facts of that past.

The parallels are obvious and many. We forget how frail life is, we forget that mere chance either keeps presidents alive or leaves the First Lady holding a lifeless body.

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The Iron Throne is the seat of power in Westeros, and it is made up of hundreds of swords of dead men who fell to the Targaryens in war. With sharp ends poking out everywhere, the idea is that it should not be easy for a man to sit the throne. Here it is good and bad to be king, a lesson we'd do well to apply to our own chief executives, who spend as much time going to Bulls games as they do running the country.

1000 years later, with some 17 kings Targaryen having ruled Westeros, sworn knight of the Kingsguard Jaime Lannister slaughtered Mad King Aerys Targaryen to prevent him from burning the capital city of King's Landing to the ground. For the genocide he spared the city, Jaime will be known as Kingslayer until the end of his days.

Without ceremony, the line of Targaryen rule ends, and Robert Baratheon takes the throne.

In his shadow rise House Lannister and House Stark, the rough elements of York and Lancaster. This is a history lesson, in A Game of Thrones it's a lesson of a different kind than you're probably used to. It is events of twenty years before A Game of Thrones on which much of the actions turns. Martin has described what he shows to his readers as the tip of a larger iceberg. That iceberg is the events that brought about the end of the Targaryen reign in Westeros, called Robert's Rebellion or The War of the Usurper.

Twenty years later, Robert Baratheon is a blustering fool, but he is also still the King. He comes from the capital to the northern castle of Winterfell to ask Neddard Stark to be the Hand of the King, the man who carries out the laws of the realm and so forth. The last Hand, Jon Arryn, has recently died under mysterious circumstances.

This is just the set-up. A Game of Thrones is equal parts murder mystery and tragedy, comedy and epic. It is virtually everything you could want from a book and alternate universe. The future that awaits both Neddard and Robert is far from kingly, and in the ensuing bloodshed, the Stark children (the real protagonists) are thrown across Westeros to learn lessons they could never come to while waited on by servants. The oldest Stark is Robb, destined to take up his father's mantle. The others are permitted to live more interesting lives, some staying at Winterfell with their mother Catelyn, and others journeying along with Lord Stark to King's Landing.

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Martin is doing the work of every good historian, except he is making it all up besides. He follows in the footsteps of another historical novelist who dabbled in both fact and fiction, Thomas Costain. This famous Canadian wrote lively action-packed histories of England, capturing the small details that answer the "why" of history better than the large ones. The past unfolds at an unrelenting pace, and few have wielded power as consistently as the monarchs of England.

A Song of Ice and Fire is a grayer version of events than you can find in the black and white world of most fantasy. There is no House Slytherin, no Shadow taking over the world. There are invaders from the North, but they are more dream than reality - heroes aren't required to put them down, just men with swords.

The Lannisters are the enemies when the series begins: represented by lions, with flowing blond hair and blue eyes. Their motto - a Lannister always pays his debts - evokes as much menace as it does honor. The Lannisters felt slighted by the Targaryens so their youngest and strongest joined the King's Guard and slaughtered a king. Simple irritation can change events entirely, one word could doom a kingdom, or seven of them.

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It is these small little variations in life that create the history, and it is easy to say this or that is inevitable. A mere man's birth was enough to claim the lives of the majority of Europe's Jews. It was not going to happen. It did happen.

tyrion lannister in his sky cell

Even the faithful and moral Starks have flaws. Patriarch Neddard Stark sired a child out of wedlock. Some would toss their bastards aside, but Ned brought his back from the war. As was the custom of the north, the child took the surname of Snow. Rather than stay with a mother who despises her husband's indiscretion, or have the shame a bastard would in the court of King's Landing, Jon Snow chooses another path.

Any man may take the black of the Night's Watch, but any who does is permitted no wife and no children. Perched atop on massive wall of ice that borders the northern border of the continent, men of the Night's Watch man the Wall, which stands over 300 feet high. The dead are coming back to life in the North, and they bring winter with them. As the creators of the upcoming HBO adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire pitched the series to executives, this is The Sopranos in Middle-Earth.

This fall promises the release of A Dance With Dragons, the events of which run parallel to the last printed volume, A Feast for Crows. Until then we will have to satisfy ourselves with the collectible card game, the board game, the two prequels, and a realistic looking model sword.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here.

 

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Reader Comments (22)

i think you're being kind to thomas b costain here, he is a historian of the harlequin variety, given to ripped bodices but not the heaving wares inside.
great discussion of grr martin, one of the few fantasy authors to break out of the hackneyed everything ends well cliché framework 90% of fantasy falls into. the parallels to the yorkist/lancastrian wars are one of the highlights of this series for mine.

March 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteratrain

This fall promises the release of A Dance With Dragons

Though to be fair, every fall for the last four years has promised the release of a Dance of Dragons.

I read the first book in my second year at university. That was in 1997. And now we're still waiting for book five which might come out before the end of 2009 (though experience suggests otherwise).

I adore the books, but at this rate he's going to die before he finishes the series. Unlike with Wheel of Time, that'll actually be annoying.

May 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Cannon

Ah, don't hate on Costain, atrain. No one should go to him for The Way It Really Was, but as far as retelling the stories of English history -- which have their own value -- his Plantagenet books are fine stuff. William the Marshal ROCKS!

June 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnderson

I found your blog through checking our own mentions, but man. Well done. This is one of the best written introductions to the series that I have read. I'll be bookmarking it to share with others when they ask me about ASOIAF.

July 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterValyrian Steel

Oh, I hate to be That Guy. But his name is Eddard, shortened to Ned, and not Neddard.

Otherwise, excellent article. It whets my appetite even further for the fifth book, which may or may not be released in this decade.

August 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSara N.

Thanks Valyrian Steel! I love your swords, they're so awesome.

As for Ned Stark's true name, I admit defeat.

August 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteralex

Wow great ilustrations..inspiration and beauty. Jämför priser

December 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJämför priser

A somewhat pedantic note:

The Doom of Valyria was more like 400 years prior to the events of the books. The Targaryens ruled in Dragonstone then for about a century before Aegon, his sisters and his three dragons conquered most of Westeros. The Targaryens then ruled for almost 300 years (not 1000) before Robert's Rebellion removed them from power.

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December 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterh1n1vaccine.net

Great site! Love that you posted the really good maps. Will def bookmark. Quick note... I know the series is so epic it's hard to keep track of all the details... But Jaime Lannister aka the Kingslayer is the eldest son (The dwarf Tyrion is the youngest) and Jamie joined the Kingsguard (minor spoiler alert) to avoid the marriage his father was arranging for him (knights of the kings guard are not permitted to marry). The 3rd book A Storm of Swords explores his reasons for breaking his oath and killing the king, but for once it actually wasn't Lannister plot. But you are right in the point about irritation being cause enough for bloodshed.

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March 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterzombie movies
Targaryens ruled in Dragonstone then for about a century before Aegon, his sisters and his three dragons conquered most of Westeros
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