In 2011, a new show began on Sky, called A Game of Thrones. Starring Sean Bean, it looked like an absorbing fantasy epic, yet as with many shows I forgot to watch the first episode and never managed to catch up. Yet the show brought to my attention the series of novels upon which it was based – George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire.
The first novel in the series is A Song Of Ice And Fire. Set in a land called Westeros, known as the Seven Kingdoms, it follows a number of characters through the beginning of troubled times. The main characters are the Stark family, with Eddard, or Ned, at its head as Lord of Winterfell. He is an old friend of the King, Robert Baratheon, and is summoned to serve him following the death of his right-hand man, Jon Arryn, the King’s Hand. But Jon’s death may have been no accident, and the chief suspects are the Lannisters, family of Queen Cersei.
The opening of A Song Of Ice And Fire sets the tone for the novel. In addition to the politics, there are other problems facing the Seven Kingdoms, which are only percieved by a few and dismissed as myth by others. The Seven Kingdoms are protected by the brothers of the Night Watch who guard the Wall, and they know the danger and evil which lurks on the other side. Winter is coming, after a ten year summer.
The opening of the novel introduces us to some passing characters as they come face to face with what is on the other side of the Wall. Yet what is interesting is that this is the only time in the novel when this is seen – the fear of what is there is felt by other characters throughout, but they remain unaware of what is truly out there. We, the readers, have a greater knowledge than the characters. Martin uses the introduction of A Song Of Ice And Fire to set the scene for presumably the whole series, yet it may be some time before what is revealed in this introduction becomes a central part of the story.
The main storyline of A Song Of Ice And Fire is complex and multi-layered, with a different character leading each chapter, all written in the third person. This is mainly the Stark family, although there are some others. The story is completely absorbing, and utterly compelling – each character never says enough, so you want their section to continue. But then you get involved in the aspect of the story being told by the next character, and the same thing happens with them.
The world of A Song Of Ice And Fire has a somewhat medieval flavour to it. The Stark family are lords of Winterfell, their seat being the castle of Winterfell in the north. Life is not easy for them, or for the people living in settlements around them. The capital, King’s Landing, is different but still medieval. This is the seat of the king, and while he lives in reasonable opulence, the town is crowded, dirty and dangerous. He hosts tournaments with jousting for his knights, watched over by the king’s guard who keep order in the town. All the settings are painted so vividly by Martin’s words that they seem to jump out of the page, but the sense of place is helped even further by his writing style. His style is at one with the story and place he has created, with characters talking in a style which would not be out of place in medieval England. Even the third person narrative passages are in a similar style, which helps transport you to the Seven Kingdoms.
For me, there is an obvious comparison to make for A Song Of Ice And Fire. I’m sure this has been made many times but I will make it anyway – The Lord Of The Rings. The most famous fantasy epic of all time is also set in a different yet recognisable world, and has the same medieval feel to it. J. R. R. Tolkien’s writing immediately takes the reader into Middle Earth and leaves you there to lose yourself in the story.
While I am reluctant to say anything along the lines of George R. R Martin being the new Tolkien, it seems inevitable that A Song Of Ice And Fire will be set alongside The Lord Of The Rings for comparison. The good news is that it comes out of the comparison looking very good. That doesn’t mean that Martin’s work is better, but simply that it holds its own and can stand beside Tolkien without looking weak. I would not go so far as to say A Song Of Ice And Fire is equal to The Lord Of The Rings, but it is an excellent work which fans of Tolkien will not be disappointed by.
So, you can guess the conclusion to this review, but I’ll write it anyway. I loved A Song Of Ice And Fire. As a longtime fan of The Lord Of The Rings, I am delighted to have found another epic like it, and can’t wait to continue reading the series.
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