|My copy looks nowhere near this cool|
If I had a magic portal to visit any world in the fantasy genre; we can call this the “Fantastica Gate”, I’d be sure to steer clear of Westeros or any of the outlying kingdoms in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. I’m bound to get raped, or stabbed in the back by my brother or best friend. With the exception of the Stark family, people in Song of Ice and Fire aren’t very nice, which makes for a gritty and, some may argue, “realistic” fantasy series. I put that last part in quotes because I do not share Martin’s dour view of the world. Now before you start jumping down my throat in protest, allow me to offer a few caveats: I realize Westeros is fictional, but being myself a writer and creator of worlds, I feel that I have a more intimate understanding into Martin’s thought process; I know it’s impossible for a writer to divorce himself entirely from his work. If you spend a lot of time talking about rape and murder, you either have some sick fetishes (hopefully not) or those things color your world view. After all, great fiction gets at the heart of reality, mines the essence of existence, and in this way is often more “true” than non-fiction. For ardent fans, Song of Ice and Fire feels more real than other fantasies because of its cynicism. Fighting for idealistic principles like love or faith or honor is simply naive. There are no true heroes in Westeros because there are none in real life. Fairy tales exist to mask the horrors of reality. What we have in Martin is the hard truth laid bare: knights raping and murdering at their leisure, kings killing and torturing women and children, and soldiers abandoning their post at the first sign of battle going awry. Song of Ice and Fire accurately reflects the real world. Or so some would argue.
My graduate studies were in ancient and medieval history. I know of the genocide perpetrated by the Roman Empire, the massacres of Genghis Khan, the genital torture by Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes, the raping of Muslim women during the Crusades and the burning of “witches” during the Spanish Inquisition; I studied things that would turn George R.R. Martin’s stomach. Once, I wanted to give my novel a touch of real world torture, since whips are so cliche, but what I found in my research sickened and dissuaded me. Never mind water boarding . . . terrible as that is . . . there isn’t a hero in all the fictional multiverse who could deal with real medieval torture. Put Westley from A Princess Bride on the “butt pyramid” and see how quick he gives up on true love. During inquisition times, heretics who resisted conversion to Christianity at the hands of Catholics often died afterward. Point is, I know real life isn’t a Disney fairy tale, except when it is. I experienced the magic of a first kiss when I met my wife. Medieval fiction, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Le Morte d’ Arthur and The Canterbury Tales, shows us a more diverse world than Martin lets on. The brilliance of Geoffrey Chaucer’s epic anthology, written in the 14th century, is that it reveals the worst humanity has to offer but also the best and most spiritually uplifting. The fact that chivalry was developed at all attests to the fact that many people believed in and practiced altruism. For every Caligula, there is a Jesus, for every Pol Pot a Buddha, for every Stalin a Gandhi. The world we live in is, at times, shockingly horrific, but there is just as much good to balance it out; and as history proves, good wins over evil in the end. Case in point, during the 1930’s, two people came into positions of influence, Hitler and Disney, but where is Hitler today? I have yet to visit Naziland.
It’s this essential lack of goodness, this cynicism, that I find so off-putting in Martin’s novels. When the women in King’s Landing go into hiding to avoid getting raped, with an executioner on standby in case the invading force should find them, Sansa tells Queen Cersei, “A true knight would never harm women and children,” to which Cersei replies, and I paraphrase, “how naive you are.” But is Sansa naive or Cersei? If it were Alexander the Great or Saladin outside the city, the women would have little to worry about. In my view, Westeros is an overly terrible place to find yourself, or Martin just focuses on only the worst aspects of it. It would be easier to overlook the tragic parts if the book spent more time on the characters you care about, mainly the Stark family. So many pages come before you get to someone like Aria (my favorite character) that I often found myself wishing for an abridged version.
I’ll be honest, I gave up on A Clash of Kings in 2006, but started again after watching the HBO series. The show, being a show, moves at a much quicker pace, so the problem of length and focus isn’t as pronounced. But in going back to the book, I’ve come to broaden my outlook as to what constitutes good fiction. Now that I know what to expect, the fact that the books do not conclude doesn’t bother me. I’ve also realized that A Song of Ice and Fire is not meant to be an action/adventure, and barely counts as fantasy. It is a protracted political drama/soap opera. My wife was jarred by a scene in the show where a “shadow” creature materializes to murder someone; she felt it was out of place, since there is so little magic beforehand. Whatever the pros and cons for A Game of Thrones (read my 2006 review here) the same apply for A Clash of Kings. There’s still a glut of words, overemphasis on world building, and more characters that I can possibly remember or have the capacity to care about, but there is also superb writing style, immersive drama, and Tolkienesque realism. Martin’s greatest strength is in coming up with the places, characters and historic details for his series, which makes him the envy of any writer working in the genre. There is nothing particularly unique about A Song of Ice and Fire, other than it may be the most epic story ever put to paper.
Overall, the pros outweigh the cons, though many of the “harsh realities” continue to be off putting. If time is a problem, or if you’re not much of a reader, the TV show may be a better option. As for me, I’ll be picking up the next in the series, A Storm of Swords, with crossed fingers that some Jesus like character will come along to inspire compassion in Westeros, or that, at least, the most evil people (I am looking at you Joffrey) will get their comeuppance.