George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series starts with betrayal, execution, and a subtly magical bond between animals and people. After A Game of Thrones and most of A Clash of Kings, I have to conclude that it will not let up. We join the tale when the strands are well enfolded, lines of allegiance and affinity blurred and shifting. I read the story and thrill in the narrative, and despair for humanity.
It is a very human tale, setting and animal intelligence notwithstanding. Sure, there are dragons, but unlike in Martin’s partial namesake and obvious forebear Tolkien’s great works, the motives of people, regardless of access to magical power, are the chief cause of misery.
And Martin shapes that misery like a glassblower, with hammer, tongs, and breath. He twists a character’s fond hopes into wanton disregard for consequences, another’s protective instincts into acts that must be hidden from view at the cost of war and kingdom. There are no guiltless characters. Even the most blameless are wracked by guilt for smaller injuries, perceived and real, to relatives, friends, and allies living and dead.
This would all be terribly gloomy and uninteresting if the characters did not seem so terrifically human. They are not made human by being equally bad and good, or by appealing equally to the moral compass of any group of readers. They are made human by doing good and bad things for real reasons. Prince Joffrey is an insufferable prick, for example, and hugely more important in his own eyes even than his greatest manipulators’, but the way he became that is hinted at from his introduction. Nowhere is his bad behavior blamed on his parents’ frosty marriage or the laxness of guidance for a firstborn prince, but we know the type.
The good characters, too, are bad. Some make foolish choices (Jon Snow at the Skirling Pass in A Clash of Kings, for instance. Yet they make foolish choices for intelligible reasons. I despair of Sansa Stark becoming a whole person before she is destroyed, yet Martin seems to be developing a depth there, perhaps only later to kill her off or make her a pawn in an evil scheme. (Another evil scheme, I mean.)
The Lannisters are almost wholly awful, but fascinating to watch. The narrative is full without much of the father Tywin, but he looms menacingly throughout the second book in the series, promising at any moment to burst on the scene – and burn it to the ground. The daughter Cersei never seems to begin to promise a hint of humanity without redoubling her utter awfulness on the rebound. Her twin brother is less subtly awful, yet fascinating to watch. I think other readers may like me keep hoping he gets some comeuppance that sticks.
The other Lannister brother is the most interesting by far of them. Along with the Stark bastard Jon Snow and his trueborn sister Arya, he moves the story through switchbacks and over precipices. The way the three of them literally traverse space in the narrative seems brighter and sharper as well. Many characters end up somewhere distant, but it seems Jon, Arya, and Tyrion have the most interesting journeys.
Martin is a master not only of plot twists involving a cast of thousands, but also of descriptions of place. I was looking at a service stairway in a Chicago subway on my way back from a business trip today, and realized that it was grey, grimy and worn, probably cool and dry to the touch. I realized that my own places – the places I’ve written about in drafts and stuttering starts – lack the fullness of detail that allows readers to imagine themselves doing what the character is doing.
It may be this or it may be the contingent and frail morals of the characters, and it is more likely both, that brings the impossible stories to life.
This is a more significant accomplishment in the case of the part of the story that takes place off the map supplied in the front of the first two books. I can’t decide why I think Martin provides a map, in some detail, of the small continent of Westeros, while having a significant chunk of the story take place across the Narrow Sea, as it’s called in the narrative (but not labeled on the map).
Perhaps it’s because readers are to think of the events and people there as more exotic, but that seems shallow when compared to Martin’s other devices.
It may be that Martin’s map reflects the view of many of his characters, that over-the-seas is unknown, and denies us a view of it as terra cognita. It may also be related to the prevailing view of magic.
This is one of the issues that, to me, bedevils fantasy. Because magic is so widely considered a childlike interest in our culture (at least, magic not cloaked in widely accepted religious faiths), can a fantasy writer appeal to mature audiences with stories about dragons and spells and wizards and potions?
I think the answer lies somewhere near the observation that all of these magical story elements and more exist in the Song of Ice and Fire series. However, many characters major and minor disbelieve, or are skeptical, or come to question their faiths, despite the evidence in the books of such magics. It is a world in which, to borrow phrases and concepts from Janet Rowling, the wizarding community and muggles live side-by-side, aware of each other, and often sliding across the boundaries.
I have a few more chapters left, and then I have to make a fateful decision. Do I continue to race through the available volumes in the series, ensuring that I’ll finish reading years before Martin can come out with another epic volume of this epic, or do I break the spell and read the next book in the pile? This is a hard one.