Reviewed by Doug Brown
For those of you who have been following George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, I'll just say "It's official — Dances with Dragons is coming out July 12!!! Woo Hoo!!" and you can stop reading (and preferably go preorder it on Powells.com).
For the rest of you, I quit reading fantasy back in college. Part of it was finally having enough of a science education that suspension of disbelief was becoming more and more difficult. Part of it was that most fantasy books appeared to be aimed at virginal readers of teenage emotional maturity. Mostly it was realizing that they all had the same plot: one day while hunting in the woods, adopted loner in small vale town finds the long-lost amulet/stone/sword of legendary king/wizard. Ominous dark-clad strangers begin appearing, including old wise man X/10th-level-magic-user Y, who leads hero away from small town after the dark strangers kill loner's proxy family. Along the way, a multicultural/multispecies band of followers accumulates, including one dwarf and one elf who hate each other but become close friends (making it all the more poignant when the dwarf dies in the elf's arms during the final battle). A princess is almost always involved, though she's sometimes in disguise until dramatically revealing herself, resulting in hero feeling like a fool for having kissed her. At end of story, during the final battle, the hero discovers the power to use the Hub Cap of Pontiac was in him all along — he just had to believe in himself. Yurgh. Been there, read that, sold it back to Powell's.
So when people started recommending the Song of Ice and Fire books, I nodded, made vague statements like, "I should look for those," and promptly didn't. I loved Martin's early short story Sandkings (it was years before I could blindly reach around a corner and flick on a light switch), but a fantasy series? No thanks. Then my sister bought A Game of Thrones and forced it upon me. I figured I would read enough of it so that I could tell her, "This is why I don't like fantasy." So I read. And read. And waited for it to become fantasy. Instead, it just kept being this amazingly complex story of politics and intrigue that just happens to be set in a medieval-type realm. Magic does exist in this world, but it is rare, and it never miraculously saves the hero in the nick of time. Dragons used to exist, but haven't been seen for many years. This is a story about people; no Manichean good guys and bad guys, just complicated people with complicated motives. All the characters have arcs, not just the hero.
Oh yeah, and another thing — there is no hero. Martin has no time or patience for the storytelling cliché of certain characters being inviolate. Every time you think you've figured out who the main character is, they abruptly get killed. No drawn out two-page death scenes with teary-eyed observers so that we know an important plot point just happened. In one sentence a major character will suddenly be dead. You'll just be reading along, and between a capital letter and a period the world unexpectedly turns sideways and inverts. You're left shouting at the pages, "He/she can't be dead." But, as in real life, your words are futile. Sometimes important plot points and battles even happen off-camera, mentioned almost in passing when someone reads a message delivered by raven. It may seem like I'm complaining, but I actually tip my hat to Martin for having the stones to tell the story his way, conventions be damned. It might be periodically frustrating, but it is never predictable, and that's a good thing.
In short, Piers Anthony this ain't. The series owes more to Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter, with brutal battles and characters torn between honor, duty, and doing what they feel is right. While excellently written and exhibiting that elusive can't-put-it-down quality, this is not a series for people who are daunted by big books. The shortest book so far has just over 800 pages, and the first four books together comprise almost 4,000 pages. Should you elect to get started with the series, this is a world you will be living in for some time (particularly given Martin's annoying tardiness in completing books -- we've been waiting five years for Dances with Dragons). And thus far, it is well worth the stay.
P.S. Also remember, the Game of Thrones miniseries starts on HBO April 17.
Books mentioned in this post