23 Mar 2011

Book Report: A Song of Ice and Fire

Last Fall I was finally able to dive into George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga! It's been on my reading radar for a while, but you know what it's like: so much to read, so little time (and money)! Fortunately a friend of mine in Liège had the first 4 books in the series and since I hadn't taken any books over there with me (so as to not weigh down a suitcase that was then going to New Zealand...), plenty of time to catch up!

I jotted down some notes about each of the books just after I'd read them (had planned on writing this MUCH sooner), but quick impression from several months later: WOW! Intense, complex, very careful attention to detail... and when is the 5th book coming out?!?!?! PLEASE!!! (I hear this summer)

I'm going to try not to give away too many details (avoidance of spoilers, if you want more details click on the book titles to go to individual wikipedia pages), but a key thing to remember about this epic tale of the kingdom of Westeros (where seasons last years) would be that although at the beginning it is a bit difficult to follow due to a fractured narrative (each chapter tells a part of the story from the point of view of a different character, Wikipedia tells me that so far we have heard the voices of 25 different characters), in reality there are three main narratives. The main storyline is centred on the disputes between claimants to the Iron Throne and the right to rule the kingdom, with some factions declaring a return to independence (since centuries before the tale begins Westeros was actually 7 kingdoms). It's all quite bloody and treacherous, worthy of the Borgias or any other Renaissance family feud... The second narrative is darker, scarier... It's the tale of the men of the Night's Watch, who dedicate their lives to defending the Wall, a huge barrier of ice that separates the northernmost part of the continent from the rest of the kingdom. The north is populated by the "Others" and subject to an entirely different set of rules (like the dead not necessarily remaining dead!). The third tale is that of Daenerys Stormborn, last of the Targaryens, the dragon kings of Westeros (who conquered the previous 7 kingdoms once upon a time). We follow her life in exile as she tries to find support to return and reclaim the kingdom, with three secret weapons which could make all the difference...

Just to complicate things a bit, I'm going to embed some videos from YouTube to illustrate this world, these characters. I'm really excited and looking forward to seeing this world come to life in April when HBO launches the series Game of Thrones based on these novels. A rich fantasy world come to life, with some amazing actors? Count me in!!! ;o) 

And now, without further ado, I give you:

Boy was it hard to put this one down! True, the fact that I got it on a Friday made it easier to stay up half the night reading, but I feel I would have grasped at any free moment to dive back into it anyway!
The characters are all very well drawn and fleshed out, and except for those who are intentionally kept more in the shadows, their personalities and motivations are quite clear. I particularly appreciated Lord Eddard Stark (and can't wait to see Sean Bean bring him to life on HBO!) and his son Jon Snow. Bran and Arya are also a delight! :o)

The court intrigues, Khal Drogo and the Dothraki society... all are described in intricate detail, all make sense. I truly appreciated Varys's crowning (well met!). And the dragons... oh the dragons!!! Desperate for the next volume.

Events pick up pretty much right after the end of the previous novel. We get better insight into two main characters, Cersei and Catelyn, and it's surprising to realise the resemblances between them: both are fiercely protective mothers.
It was harder to get lost in the story than in the first one because the narrative feels more fractured. We're experiencing the tale through the eyes of more characters than before, so it's a bit more disjointed. And yet all these so very different characters are what guide us through this elaborate tapestry. A richly developed world with complex characters present with warts and all. We get to see the shades of grey, and appreciate / like certain characters a lot more than we thought possible upon first meeting them. The various stories come closer together at the end, and with the fates of favourite characters left unknown... I was desperate to get hold of the next book! :D
I particularly liked the link between the birth of the dragons and the reawakening of magic in this world! Dragons have always been described as inherently magical creatures, so it's fitting they should be a source of magic.

Book 3 (published in 2 volumes): A Storm of Swords
The first volume still feels a bit slow at the beginning, but about halfway through the pace picks up and when you've finished it you can't help but pick up the second volume and jump right in! Even the element that nagged me the most in the first book - the Daenerys chapters, because I felt they were interrupting the main narrative too much - all of the sudden took on a life of their own and made me want to get back to her chapters so I could see how events would play out!
Also interesting was that when you see the "bad guys" through their own eyes, they weren't so bad any more! This is definitely a story about shades of grey. Tywin is still nasty and Cersei a bitch, but Jaime takes on deeper shades and Tyrion gets even better! My favourites are still Arya Stark and Jon Snow. Where will the tale go next? Martin is expanding his reach quite a bit... This one feels much bloodier than the previous, the Red Wedding is a shock to all!
I couldn't help feeling sorry for Sansa (who annoyed me to no end when I first met her). Unlike Arya she doesn't seem able to get hold of her destiny, even her actions. Things happen TO her. Her one decision - which probably saved her life - has brought her even more trouble with that snake!

Hey! Where's everybody gone?!?!?! Half our characters are missing!!! No Jon, no Dany, no Tyrion... :s
Apparently the book was growing too long so instead of stopping everybody's story halfway through, the author decided to leave half the characters for the next book to be published a year later (except that was years ago!). At least with fewer characters to keep track of, the passage from one chapter to another is less jarring than in previous books. We also get a chance to look in on characters that we hadn't focused on much before (Sam, Brienne...) and a get a deeper insight into others (Cersei - just as disagreable as ever, Jaime - whom I'm definitely growing fond of!). At least one of my favourites - Arya - gets plenty of page time. The messes she gets herself into... it's a miracle she keeps surviving!
Another change: some chapters aren't named after the person narrating, but places. And the story opens out again a bit more.

This whole saga is definitely a very intricate tapestry, woven very carefully together so they all fit just right to craft the complete final picture. How on earth does he keep track of it all? If I have to wait too long for the next book I'm going to have to re-read all of these just to remember who's who, what their connections to each other are and how their lives are intertwined and where their story was left off... In any case, bring on Book 5: A Dance With Dragons, I can't wait! :D


  1. Well, now I have a whole bunch of new books and a new author to explore! Thank you, Cris!

  2. I read the first book ages ago when I got a free copy and enjoyed it, but somehow never felt moved to read the others. I'm really looking forward to the TV series (if I find a way to watch it!) and if I enjoy that, maybe it'll inspire me to go back to the books!

  3. I started the first book and either my attention span or my enthusiasm just petered out. I may have to pick it back up and try again. I already know you have good taste in books, so that's a recommendation! I may see if I can get them on my Nook.

  4. If you like complex characters and situations then you'll enjoy these DJan!

    Juliette, Nicky... I'd recommend giving them another go! Although I'll admit the 2nd wasn't my favourite, but I couldn't put the 1st one down!


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