A Song of Ice and Fire

1: A Game of Thrones
2: A Clash of Kings
3: A Storm of Swords

George R.R. Martin

HarperCollins 1996, 1998, 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005 http://dannyreviews.com/
There is much in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire that follows the conventions of the fantasy genre, sometimes quite narrowly. But Martin also offers much that is novel, as well as some twists on familiar cliches, and his work stands head and shoulders above the mass of multi-volume fantasy series.

The plot is complicated and convoluted and I don't want to give any spoilers, so I won't attempt a real summary. Inhuman but humanoid "Others" from the north are moving towards the ice Wall that protects the kingdom of Westeros, but the kingdom has fragmented as different claimants to the throne compete and no one has time to listen to warnings about threats known only from old stories... Meanwhile, the last heir to the fallen dynasty that had ruled Westeros for three hundred years — and once knew how to breed dragons — is wandering the continent.

The fantastic elements have, in the series so far, been relatively limited. Where many fantasy novels present an idealised "Middle Ages", unrecognisable to the historian, Martin has clearly done some serious reading. He also understands the limitations of history as a source for fiction. His world is gritty, with rough edges, shades of grey, and real world complexities.

The world of A Song of Ice and Fire is high medieval, with mounted knights wearing plate armour, tourneys, feudal relations, and so forth. It even has a vague geographical resemblance to Europe — Westeros is an island in the north-west with a Wall resembling Hadrian's, there's a river "Rhoyne", and so forth. There are no simple correspondences, however, and other parts of the world draw more on the ancient Mediterranean and Asia — we have a butcher named Cleon who rises to a position of power, nomads sweeping across the plains, and so forth.

As in many fantasy novels, much of the interest comes from the battles and campaigns. Here Martin conveys something of the messiness and unpleasantness of medieval warfare: large battles are a hideous mess, with little control by leaders, while small-scale raids and skirmishes are continuous. Feuds, rapes, mutilations, betrayals, and casual slaughter are normal. (Anyone who thinks this is unrealistic should read something about the career of Simon de Montfort, or some of the less savoury popes.) While almost all his central characters are from the ruling elite, Martin conveys something of the effects of war on ordinary people and certainly does nothing to glamourise it. And the political machinations are similarly compelling.

Not everything is so convincing, however. Westeros sports a hodge-podge of different religions, the mix of which doesn't seem sociologically plausible. And the religious beliefs and practices of individuals aren't always psychologically convincing. But this is a common problem faced by fantasists using medieval settings from which the Catholic Church has been excised.

The presence of magic and prophecy is well handled: Martin avoids pointless explanations of the unexplainable, but there is an internal logic to the forces at work, which aren't just arbitrary. These are, however, inevitably less coherent than those elements with a medieval reality to draw on, and here the very convincingness of the rest of Martin's creation makes them stand out. Some of the fantastic elements are potentially awkward, while the events outside Westeros seem more fantastic (though this perhaps reflects the perception of the Orient in Britain in the medieval period).

This background is never dumped on the reader in expository passages, however, but appears naturally out of the story. And, world-building concerns aside, A Song of Ice and Fire is a rattling good yarn, with a complex interwoven plot sporting some elements of mystery and plenty of surprises. It also has an involving and appealing set of characters.

Many of Martin's central protagonists are children or teenagers, some of whom seem almost designed to appeal to different groups of readers. In an early scene the Stark family, from the northern lordship closest to the Wall, comes across a dead direwolf, whose six wolf pups are adopted by the children. These children provide four of the (so far) enduring "points of view" of the series. They include a warrior leader, a bastard son who becomes a fighter and a leader, a cripple who acquires shaman-like powers, a young tomboy who finds herself in the underworld of assassins and mercenaries, and a "princess" who has to understand the power struggles of marriages and alliances to survive.

But A Song of Ice and Fire is written for adults, not children. Martin moves the point of view around between over a dozen characters, introducing new ones as the series progresses, and there are some real surprises. Switches in perspective make figures who had previously seemed highly unpleasant appear in a new light. And several times a character is introduced and given enough flesh and form that we feel we know them, only to die suddenly, often brutally. There's no shying away from the presence of death.

Some people have complained about the explicit sex in A Song of Ice and Fire, but it's actually fairly tame and never gratuitous. Many of the characters are shaped by confusions over their sexuality and sex plays a central role in the plot: one young king marries unwisely, bringing ruin upon his family; another is a misogynistic sadist; an otherwise calculating schemer nurses a passion from his youth; and so forth.


A Song of Ice and Fire is unfinished, with three volumes of a planned six out so far. It is already a notable addition to the body of fantasy literature, but its long-term standing will depend on how Martin brings it to a conclusion.

The plot and its threads have to be resolved in a way that is narratively satisfying but not contrived or facile, leaving a world which remains complex and ambiguous. The maturing of the protagonists, especially the juvenile ones, may be a challenge. And the fantastic elements that so far have been on the fringes of the world — most notably Others and dragons — are moving towards centre stage, where it will be harder to hide problems with their construction. Hopefully they will remain within the outlines drawn so far, without invocations of new powers or a weakening of the stark realism of the series so far.

We will have to see. The fourth volume, A Feast for Crows, is finally out now, five years after the third volume, but hopefully volumes five and six will be quicker upon its heels. Newcomers really should hang on till the series is complete before starting it — I normally avoid unfinished series myself — but feel free to join us in the wait.

October 2005

External links:
A Game of Thrones
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
A Clash of Kings
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
A Storm of Swords
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- George R.R. Martin - Legends
- more fantasy
%T A Game of Thrones
%Y A Song of Ice and Fire
%V 1
%A Martin, George R.R.
%I HarperCollins
%D 1996
%O paperback
%G ISBN 000647988X
%P 835pp

%T A Clash of Kings
%Y A Song of Ice and Fire
%V 2
%A Martin, George R.R.
%I HarperCollins
%D 1998
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0006479898
%P 741pp

%T A Storm of Swords
%Y A Song of Ice and Fire
%V 3
%A Martin, George R.R.
%I HarperCollins
%D 2000
%O paperback
%G ISBN 000710197X
%P 975pp