Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones)

A Song of Ice and Fire: the series (Source:

I finally read Game of Thrones and all the other four books that make up George R. R. Martin’s acclaimed (and quite exasperating for many) series , A Song of Ice and Fire.

I am not quite sure how to begin and take this review forward. So, fair warning – this is likely to be a rambling post.

There are five books in the series – so far. Yes, you have got me right. So far. There are more to come but as loads of the series’ followers all over the world will attest, you just have to settle in for a long, long wait which can extend upto five years. Since, the last book came out in 2011 (the first released in late nineties), chances are the next one (titled Winds of Winter) may see the light of the day only around 2015. Sigh. At least, I read the first five back-to-back unlike those who  have been following the series since the first book came out.

The series begins with Game of Thrones. This is the name which has been given to the HBO adaptation also, though now they are into the third season and into the second book, A Clash of Kings. And truly the name, Game of Thrones, can be well extended to the entire series, because it is above all the constant struggle for power in a medieval fantasy world which is nearly savage in its customs and lifestyles and where the paranormal is an uneasy reality.

At the heart of it all are the Starks. They are nobles, based in Winterfell, the northernmost boundary of the Westeros, a conglomeration of Seven Kingdoms. This is a world where winter can lasts for decades and so can summer. The latter is the time for harvest and preparation for the devastating winter, which can strike unpredictably and lay the entire kingdoms to waste. Eddard Stark is the lord of Winterfell, when the series opens. He is appointed King’s Hand (Westerosi equivalent of Prime Minister) by his old friend and the king, Robert Baratheon. He is the man, who Eddard helped lead a rebellion against mad king Aerys, the blood of Dragons. Eddard is not interested in the politics that  await him in King’s Landing, the capital, but is urged to go by his wife Catelyn, lest Robert take offence. And all hell then breaks loose. 

Meanwhile, on the Wall (almost a throwback to Gaiman's Stardust) – a last snow frontier that keeps the Others (a species that is some form of dead men walking, though most people disbelieve their existence) and the wildlings men who live beyond laws in the – wild, ofcourse. There are a group of men, who protect the wall, called the crows by common men because of their black ensemble. This the place where common criminals are sent and the younger sons and men in exile. They cannot marry, they cannot sleep with women and they cannot be lords with inheritance. 

And across the sea are the exotic lands to the east, where slavers abound, feudalism survives with a suave barbarity. And that is where, Daenerys, the daughter of slain mad king Aerys is coming into her own.

To tell you anymore would be giving away the plot and the innumerable twists and turns.

The books abound with characters that are so many shades of grey that you would not realize when the villains turn into heroes and vice versa. The motives and machinations of all the characters are always suspect and you cannot trust anyone, even as a reader. The only family which stands with certain integrity throughout are the Starks but even they have their flaws and for which they pay dearly. Then you have the Lannisters, the family of Robert’s scheming and ambitious queen, Cersei. You start out hating them all but as the books progress, you are no longer sure of your footing with regards to your feelings for some of them. Jaime Lannister, Cersei’s twin, would be a case in point. Tyrion, their dwarf brother, might be Martin’s greatest creation among all the giants.

It is a harsh and cruel world, where political intrigue is never far from surface and as more than one character will tell you, the game of thrones is not for the trusting, as Eddard Stark and his family discover. The characters are detailed and nuanced. And there are so many threads that you never know which one is going to get tangled where. The books are written from a limited third person perspective. So, while the first couple of books are written from the POV of the major characters but as books increase in number, Martin resorts to the time-honoured tradition of dawdling and stretching out his books, by introducing the perspectives of newer and minor characters. Sometimes, I felt like just screaming – get on with it, will you? He hams and haws and gets into the minutiae of meals, the dresses, the speech patterns, the geography, the journey and the histories that no one is interested in. And to top it all, he delights in shocking you and breaking your heart. Of course, you do not expect him to write a fairy tale with happily ever-afters but there is so little fairness that it starts getting to you after the first two books or so.

Martin as a writer, is impressive. His imagination is rich and his greatest strength is the characterization. Very few fantasy writers can create characters which seem real. And his do. I am sure, if we looked around, we would see their echoes in our own politicians, celebs, friends and colleagues. He is also adept at using motifs and symbols to build in the tension. The sigils that  represent the various noble houses say quite a bit about their descendants. The animal motifs are especially powerful. The direwolf (a bigger, stronger variant of the wild wolves) stands for the uprightness and the bravery of Starks while the Lannisters are symbolized by lions, who are proud but unexpectedly cunning and sly – not your standard tropes used for lions in literature.

I am now interested in watching the TV series, which I believe is very true to the books – a rarity as far as TV or movie adaptations go.

Final verdict: read it but if you have not begun, wait for Martin to finish.

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