There’s probably not a single person in the Anglophone world who has not heard of this – the first book in the hugely popular Songs of Ice and Fire fantasy book series. If you haven’t read the book, you’ve probably seen the series or heard somebody rave incessantly about it. It was one of the first books I bought on Kindle when I got my first device three years ago and it’s taken me this long to get around to feeling the urge to read it. I initially started it this spring but quickly put it down again as I was completely failing to absorb it. Better luck this time around though, so what’s the verdict?
Like any modern fantasy series, it has to be big. This is what often puts me off of fantasy – the fact that it feels never-ending and how ten books pass where nothing really happens. Seeing the box sets of this series, I really hope that isn’t the case for Songs of Ice and Fire, because largely, it’s flawed but not all that bad. When I shelved it earlier in the year I felt my previous complaints about fantasy were justified but I was reassured that I should really give it a go.
Another complaint I have about fantasy is just how one dimensional the characters and plots are, and how flat and overly-familiar the world is. Thankfully, though the characters here are largely familiar – they are not really one dimensional. Sure, you have some tropes in there but these characters have a little more depth and they develop over the course of this monster length book. They are not immediately intriguing (with the exception of one or two), but Martin goes to great pains to open up his characters gradually as the plot develops. It’s how they unravel, rather than how they are written, that I found most engaging.
This is not entirely ground-breaking, as I said much of it is on familiar territory and if you read a lot of fantasy you will feel pretty comfortable in the world, even if it feels that it has a few more layers than what you might be used to. it is easy to read – if a little uninspiring. Some fantasy text can be overly dense. Sadly, it also makes the narrative feel flat and the world wasted for underwhelming text.
Yet it may feel quite fresh too. The world of Westeros feels as carefully crafted as Middle Earth and we are – in this book – shown three very different places.
We are shown The Wall, an enormous 700ft tall structure of ice and stone that stretches for hundreds of miles. What lies beyond it? Jon Snow wants to find out so he joints the military order known as The Nights Watch.
In the Land of the Seven Kingdoms we learn of the Starks and the Lannisters, particularly the intriguing dwarf that Peter Dinklage has made world famous in his television portrayal – Tyrion. It’s a medieval power, strong and brutal, philosophical and respectful of the traditions of the world.
Finally in Pentos, a city to the east of Westeros there is more political intrigue as the daughter of a dethroned king is married off to a minor (yet powerful) warlord in order that the family can reclaim the throne of Westeros. A war is definitely on the way here and the events in these seemingly (at least at first) unrelated places sets the series on its course.
Though not uneventful, I feel that so much could have been cut out of this story because for too long too little actually happens. I feel I will probably be proven right if I go on and read the rest of the series – I may yet read them but I’m not in a hurry to do so. Anyone want to tell me how much better they get?
3/5 from me.