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A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

Review by Mike

The series so far (6 books when completed?):
A Game of Thrones (1996)
A Clash of Kings (1998)
A Storm of Swords (2000)
A Feast for Crows (planned for Spring 2003).

High fantasy.

For hundreds of years the Targaryens ruled the Seven Kingdoms, supported by fire-breathing dragons, but the dragons all died, and finally the madness of King Aerys made other powerful families take up arms against them. An alliance between the Baratheons and the Starks won the war that followed, but the people involved paid a grievous cost.

About fifteen years after the civil war GRRM picks up the thread. Robert Baratheon is still king, but the crown sits heavy on his brow. The Hand of the King has been murdered, and with nobody else he can trust, King Robert once again turns to Ned Stark for help. But the enmities between the most influential families are still there, and a complicated political game is about to start. At the same time the last Tarragon children, who fled the Seven Kingdoms when their father was brought down, are growing up and taking steps to regain their kingdom.

All this happens when winter is drawing close after a summer that has lasted more than a decade. Long summers are normally followed by even longer winters, and this time the omens speak of a winter the likes of which has not been seen for thousands of years. Maybe long and cold enough to wake the terror that lurks beyond the Great Wall, the northern border of the kingdom…

The Seven Kingdoms (or Westeros as it is sometimes called) are _extremely_ medieval, more so than in most fantasy. Often it feels like something right out of Ivanhoe or some other tale about knights. Still, there are differences. The existence of mythological beasts, even though the dragons appear to be extinct, for one thing. Then we also have magic. It is not central to the story (yet at least) and far from described in detail, but it is there in the background. Finally there is an enemy who is out to destroy humankind, and in the end this series will probably lead up to a gigantic struggle between Light and Dark. In other words, this is a pretty standard fantasy world.

Martin certainly believes in a multi-POV approach. (The chapters are even named after the current POV.) We are acquainted with the thoughts of 8-10 persons in every book, and the deeds of numerous other characters, some central to the story, others less important. It is impossible to keep all the names of the various nobles in your head, but I guess that is not important anyway.

This approach is both a strength and a weakness. On the positive side, the characters show a lot of depth and different personalities, which makes for an interesting read. On the other hand, it sometimes slows down the action a bit and it certainly adds pages to the books. Also, reading the chapters about the characters you’re not interested in can be a bit on the boring side.

This series definitely has one of the most complex plots I’ve ever come across, at least when it comes to political intrigue. It is extremely well done, but sometimes it feels like GRRM is trying a bit too hard to dazzle you with unexpected plot development, making it feel somewhat staged.

Also, it does seem like all the scheming between the powerful families is taking over the main purpose of the story. After three thick books we are not much closer to the fight between “Ice and Fire” that is foreshadowed. Sure, the foundation has been laid, but not much else. I guess this is why this series has been growing beyond the initial plans for a total of three or four books.

Martin is a very skilled author, no doubt about that. The balance between character insight and story pacing is excellent in most of the POV’s. I especially like how he sometimes lets the reader see important events concerning one character through the eyes of another character. The only complaint I have is that he occasionally gets a bit carried away with the descriptions of stuff. Not to the point that Robert Jordan goes with women’s clothing, thank God. *g*

I’m impressed. The book jackets are full the usual crap about “a major new name in the fantasy field,” but this time it is true. I was a bit disappointed towards the end of Clash and in the beginning of ASoS, when the story didn’t seem to get anywhere, but then it picked up speed again. The grade goes:

A Game of Thrones - 4.5 amulets
A Clash of Kings - 3.5 amulets
A Storm of Swords - 4.5 amulets.

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