I really need to stop reading George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire
(often referred to as Game of Thrones
after the HBO series based on the novels). Not because of the gratuitous sex, the stomach-turning violence, or the fact that my favourite characters keep dying – I’m quite fine with all that. The problem is that the whole series is so damn addictive I’m getting nothing else done.
I have several friends who have read the books, and almost all of them have blown through them at record speed, forsaking sleep, spouses, work and children in the process. Even Salman Rushdie admits to the addictive quality of the HBO show. In an interview after the first season, he said, “It was garbage, yet very addictive garbage – because there’s lots of violence, all the women take their clothes off all the time, and it’s kind of fun. In the end, it’s well-produced trash, but there’s room for that, too.”
Personally, I think neither the TV series nor the books are trash, but I suppose Salman is entitled to his opinion. For those of you who have been living in a vacuum cleaner and don’t know what the series is about, it’s a work of epic fantasy set in a vaguely medieval world. It is massive in scale, involves a huge cast of characters, and is thick with political intrigue, war, and magic. Here are just a few of the things I love about it:
1. Gratuitous sex and violence
Okay, I’m being slightly tongue-in-cheek, and I don’t watch the HBO series because
of this, but for those of us with strong stomachs and a healthy respect for human sexuality, it certainly doesn’t take away from the story. Salman Rushdie might call it trash, I call it damn fine television. If graphic sex and violence aren’t your cup of tea, the books are much more palatable. Now that that’s out of the way …
2. Strong female characters
The series is set in a pseudo-medieval world, and as such women are for the most part treated like chattel: they’re married off for political or financial reasons, given very little say in any important decisions, and valued primarily for their ability to bear sons. There is also plenty of violence against women, something many a blogger and a few of my friends have taken issue with. They’re right, but there is also plenty of violence against men. The world Martin has built is one filled with violence and injustice, especially against the weak and ‘low born’, but never is it condoned or glorified – it just is. However, despite the massive challenges faced by the women in the world in which Martin has set them, several very strong female characters emerge, characters who struggle, who fight, who are anything but passive, creating their own destiny and that of those around them.
3. Complex and sympathetic characters
There are no stereotypes in Martin’s world. As in life, no one is completely good, or completely evil. Take Jaime Lannister, for example. In the first book, Jaime pushes an 8-year-old boy out of a window to hide the incestuous affair he’s having with his sister. The boy is crippled forever. But by the end of book three, you come to see how deep and genuine Jaime’s love is for his sister, and how he is capable of acts of great heroism and selfless compassion. Theon Greyjoy also comes across as a villain on the surface, doing some truly appalling things, but Martin shows us how inside he is still a rejected and unloved child, and it is this overwhelming desire to win his father’s love that drives his madness. Even Cersei Lannister, who is without a doubt an evil bitch, is not without merit. Her brother Tyrion puts it aptly in the HBO version of the tale: “You love your children. It’s your one redeeming quality – that, and your cheekbones.” Although she is capable of heinous things, Martin makes sure we know what is driving her – her love for her children, her desire to protect them, her burning sense of injustice that she was born a woman and as such is “sold like a horse to be ridden whenever her drunk husband should choose,” while her twin brother is heir to the family lands and titles. With almost every single character there is a glimpse into their inner suffering that causes them to do the things they do, and allows the reader to feel compassion for them – or at least to understand them a little.
4. Horrible things happen to everyone MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT.
You could almost hear the collective jaw drop when they sliced off Ned Stark’s head at the end of Book 1/Season 1. I mean, wasn’t he the PROTAGONIST? Did that really just happen? From that point on, you know that no one is safe. Every character you know and love and sympathize with could be dead – or worse – on the next page. I LOVE THIS. Too often I read books that try to be suspenseful but aren’t really because you know that in the end the hero will prevail. Not in this case. There are no guarantees, no safety net. Anything can and does happen to the people you love. It’s quite horrifying, really. But I love it because it is a metaphor for real life. The good guys don’t always win. Being noble and upright does not guarantee you success, or even happiness. Suffering touches us all.
So in a nutshell: A Song of Ice and Fire
is violent, complex, and heartbreaking. And I can’t put it down.
(pictures courtesy of HBO)
Jodi McIsaac is the author of Through the Door
, the first book in a new urban fantasy series inspired by Celtic mythology. Buy it now on Amazon