I count George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books among my favourite fantasy novels. I don’t think many fantasy series can match them for drama, plot twists, and the sheer size of the world, its history and its kaleidoscope of characters. As anyone who indulges in any form of geekery probably knows, this has been a good year for readers of Martin’s books, with the delayed fifth novel, A Dance with Dragons, and the first season of the TV adaptation, Game of Thrones, being released. Here are my (mildly spoilery) thoughts on both.
I’ll talk about the TV series first, and say that I enjoyed it a great deal. I thought that the characters were, for the most part, excellently portrayed – particularly Viserys, Tyrion, Arya, Tywin, and Joffrey. I can’t deny getting a kick out of seeing fantasy adapted so well, and with such strong marketing behind it. And I was pleased at the reception; I think (with some notable exceptions) there was a minimum of the sneering but-it’s-fantasy-therefore-it’s-shit-and-we-can-mock-you-for-liking-it nonsense that accompanies many things fantasy. Despite knowing the story, I found the final two episodes of the adaptation truly gripping, and felt they captured the epic feel of events beautifully. But. But, but, but. I had a bit of a problem with one scene, which unfortunately soured my viewing somewhat.
Drogo and Dany. On their wedding night, this TV adaptation had Drogo rape Dany. This was not what happened in the book (as has been much discussed elsewhere.) The entire tone of the scene was different: in essence, Dany did not agree – she was forced. I think deviations from the source material are unavoidable when adapting a work of this size, and are to be expected when translating something from one medium to another. But unfortunately, this was a pretty pivotal change, and I don’t buy the explanation that it was necessary because of the constraints of fitting a complex relationship arc into a ten-part TV series. Rather, it felt like a little bit of extra visual drama to end the episode with. This rape changes the entire dynamic of Drogo and Dany’s relationship, even in a world as brutal as Martin’s, which is littered with examples of brutality towards and suppression of women. The problem is, in the novel, part of the reason Daenerys eventually fell in love with her husband is because he was kinder to her than the only other man she had known closely – Viserys. In the book, Drogo’s (relative) gentleness was in stark contrast to Viserys’ cruelty, and was a nice piece of irony given that Drogo was the “barbarian.” This eventually allowed Dany to see Viserys for the psychotic, deluded tyrant he was, and to begin to stand up to him when, hitherto, he was all she’d known. But in the show, this was largely washed away by a scene I feel they could have done very differently. It really is such a shame because otherwise, I loved the show, but I felt this event made Daenerys much more of a victim than she seemed in the books, and completely skewed the relationship which defines her character, and her rise to power thereafter.
Now I’ll talk about A Dance With Dragons, which I loved. I know some people found it long-winded, and believe there are too many characters, and that the storylines are spiralling out of control. To those people I say: yeah, and what? Because I like all the detail. I like immersing myself in the complex world Martin has created. And I like the cast of thousands. In these books, history has a tangible impact on the present, and is more than just static back-story. Which is why I never feel weighed down by detail, even when I can’t remember who the heck someone is. I just enjoy being swept up in a world that feels so real and so well-rounded. I also believe that in this volume more than any other, the various strands to the story seem to be coming together.
I think what differentiates Martin’s sprawling world from other sprawling fantasy worlds is that there are definite stakes here. Characters die (meaningfully – not just for shock value), and are brutalised (with lasting consequences.) I can think of few authors as willing to kill their darlings as Martin is. The stakes are what make these books, because quite literally no horror is beyond possibility. This book contains cannibalism, rape, torture (psychological and physical), bestiality, child abuse, and war – none of which felt gratuitous, but much of which was genuinely disturbing. I have to say, when I started this book, I’d forgotten quite how bleak and brutal Martin’s world is, particularly towards women. But despite its brutality, there are still characters you can root for – a thing other books of a similar tone often lack.
Particularly notable for me was Theon’s character arc. I loved Theon’s little internal rhyme – Reek, Reek it rhymes with…– which was at first a source of circling dread that added to the psychological claustrophobia of his chapters, but eventually became his mantra for reclaiming his identity. I enjoyed the many chapters detailing the lands of the east (despite the ongoing Orientalism.) It’s interesting that, since the TV adaptation, a number of people I know have expressed a sudden interest in reading these books – even without having watched the show itself. It’s great to see people who otherwise wouldn’t touch fantasy becoming more interested in it. I hope it continues.
If for some reason you haven’t sampled Martin’s work, do so. Do so at once.
Edit: I’ve just read two interersting posts on gender in ASOIAF, via the Westeros website. The first, here, also discusses race in the series. The second, here, is a response to the first. Both are well worth a read, and in my opinion contain valid points.
Edit: Here’s another good piece on gender and race in the series.