Summary: 8.5/10, very good.
For our very first review we’re gonna be looking at one of my favorite book series, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Throughout this review we’ll be referring to it as ASOIAF.
While Tolkien will always remain, in my mind, the king and creator of modern high fantasy Martin has proved himself a worthy and talented successor. His so far uncompleted seven volume work is, in a word, superb.
Attempting to summarize the plot in a reasonable length is probably a lost cause, so I will merely give you the basics. The world of ASOIAF has two main continents, Westeros and Essos. Westeros is a reflection of high-medieval Europe, and Essos is an equivalent projection of Asia. The world seems at once achingly familiar and shockingly different. Seasons change only every couple years, with the story beginning near the end of the longest summer in recent memory. Winters are very harsh, especially in the North.
Things in Westeros are not going well. A brutal war is ravaging the land, and only begins to unwind just as winter officially begins. Meanwhile, old enemies invade from across the sea, and more come down from the North.
Essos is also in turmoil. A certain Queen is the variable, disrupting the status quo and severely inhibiting the slave trade. However, Essos is for the most part in better shape than Westeros.
Martin writes with an engaging and flexible style, and makes ample and effective usage of symbolism and imagery, the cornerstones of effective story-telling. The story is told in first person, and rotates by chapters between narrators. This allows Martin to explore conflicts from multiple angles and adds numerous complex aspects to every character, rather than the one-dimensional perspective of a single narrator. There are over a dozen narrators, and manifold backup characters. Keeping track of them all is no easy task, and is made doubly difficult because one must remember each character’s status and family, as they are critical to the storyline. Making a chart of characters may be necessary if you are unused to tracking many interwoven storylines.
Speaking of, the plot of ASOIAF is at once divergent and converging, seeming to flex between different threads and a single cloth. Keeping track of the chronology is sometimes more difficult than remembering the characters! Because the characters are separated by huge distances, Martin is often forced to fudge chronological order when it comes to chapters. If you are having trouble figuring out what is going on making or finding a timeline can be very helpful, just beware of spoilers!
For the most part the fantastical elements of the world are kept contained. The world feels very real and plausible, and as a student of history and medieval enthusiast the political situation and military actions of most characters are perfectly understandable. Perhaps the only significant hiccup when it comes to world building is the religions of Westeros. To me, they seem indescribably off and implausible. That said, it doesn’t much detract from the storytelling.
On the same note, ASOIAF is gritty and often depressing. Characters die suddenly and without warning. While the majority of characters are part of the noble elite Martin takes pains to give the perspective of the common people during war. Horrible crimes are commonplace and normalized. Through this lens Martin dives into a myriad of themes. I would list them, but I would rather the reader discover them for themselves. I believe they are more powerful and profound when stumbled upon in person.
One of the best things about Martin’s construction of the world is that he masterfully avoids dumping mountains of exposition on you at every opportunity. All the background feels natural. People have continuously complained about the ‘gratuitous’ sex in ASOIAF, but it is actually rather tame and far from gratuitous. Sex never just comes up for no reason, it is inserted deliberately and is vital for advancing the plot.
I cannot recommend GRRM’s crowning achievement enough. It is an excellent saga of high fantasy and more than worthy of a read. It’s a lot to read, but it’s more than worth it.