SERIES REVIEW: A Song of Fire and Ice: Volumes 1 to 3. George R. R. Martin (US:Bantam Spectra/UK: Voyager)

 (Fantasy, High Fantasy, Political Drama, Strong Characters, Ripping Yarn, Post Modern, Series)

 Grade: ΓGood book within the genre.  Solid story, good characters, if you like this genre, read this book.

In brief (or not so brief in this case):

I know, review a whole series as if it is a single book?  But in this case, my comments are tied to it specifically because it is a series. This review follows only books one to three, I’ll do each book separately thereafter.  To that end…

SIX YEARS?  You write a page turning, serial story and leave a gap between publishing of SIX YEARS? 

The first three volumes of this innovative and gripping story immediately caught my attention and I eagerly awaited each new installment as it was published (Six years?  Really?). A very dark, character driven tale told through multiple viewpoints that add depth to both heroes and villains throughout its very long course.  It immediately caught my enthusiasm through both the very compelling POVs and because it was in this manner, the first truly post-modern/post colonial fantasy I’d seen. 

It has believable and compelling characters set in an interesting world, with lots of action that punctuates the politics and personal stories of its many characters.  I would give this a higher rating, save only a few key flaws that make it a bit less accessible to those who are not already Fantasy readers.

The most important drawback for non-fantasy fans is that it is told over an uncertain number of very long volumes.  The Song of Ice and Fire is a serial cliffhanger in the extreme; none of the books stand alone.  You do not have any closure at the end of any of them, you have to have read all the previous volumes to understand the story. Imagine trying to understand Lost by coming into it in the middle of season two… or picking up a daytime soap opera at random one Wednesday morning. With four books in print and no sign of it ending… picking up this series means making a long term commitment. Joe-average reader is not willing to even commit to a book of 80K words, not to mention one where one volume on it’s own has over 1200 pages. This drawback to the general reader is exponentially increased when you realize that the gap between publishing books three and four was SIX YEARS. 

Still, if you do like that element of story telling (which I most definitely do), this is one of the best serial fantasy tales I have ever read… 

Setting:

Set in a High Fantasy world with a magic system that does not include D&D style spell casters (i.e. wizards who throw fireballs) or Tolkienesque non-humans (i.e. no elves, dwarves, orcs or other demi-human creatures), but does include dragons and undead.  The story follows the political complexities between the multiple power factions that exist in a medievalesque kingdom that very vaguely resembles the geography of the UK (in that it is divided into three sections: The South, the North and Scotland… er… sorry: Beyond the Wall).  The personal and nasty actions of some characters set in motion a series of events that result in a very violent civil war and an epic story.

In Depth:

I read the first volume in this series, A Game of Thrones, when it came out back in the late 1990’s and was immediately enthralled by this series.  Not only did it have compelling characters whose personal stories pulled me through each chapter, the style in which the tale unfolds was also interesting. Each chapter is told from a different character’s point-of-view, hardly unique, but the ‘soap operatic’ manner in which the scene cuts occur leads to a cliffhanger element that kept you turning the pages as you learned to care about even the most villainous of people.

When book three came out in 2000, I immediately bought it and had finished the enormous tome (1216 pages in this book alone)  in about a week.  Then I waited, patiently, for the next installment.  Six months later I began checking for book four to arrive. I knew I was being overly optimistic, but I was that eager to read on, so I kept checking each month for its arrival.  I continued to do this for about three years, once a month, every month.  Eventually I began checking every three months, then six months, and after a couple of years I just stopped looking all together. 

Eventually, in 2006, I was given A Feast for Crows for my birthday.  I hadn’t even known it had come out.  Still, I was pleased and looked forward to picking up the tales of characters whose lives I had once known all the intimate details of.  The problem was, six years had past, and I couldn’t quite remember those details anymore. 

As a result, when the book started up following the story line of completely tertiary characters, I was just pissed off.  I mean, I really had been a megafan, but after six years, I couldn’t even remember which of the main characters was still alive (he does kill them off with startling regularity), not to mention the finer details of a character who had previously only appeared in one or two of the billion-and-a-half chapters I had read over half-a-decade before. 

A friend suggested I simply re-read the previous book, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s over 1200 pages… I do have a life.  Kinda… 

So I just put it down again and vaguely wondered why I was ever so enthralled by this world in the first place. 

Then a few weeks ago, I saw that the series was available as an audio-book.  As that I found I had lots of time to listen to stories (though not necessarily read them), I came up with a plan: I would listen to a sample of the chapters while doing other things and so jar my memory as to what was happening.  If I enjoyed it again, I would pick up A Feast for Crows once more and continue the saga.

After about two chapters I remembered why I loved the series.  I was immediately drawn back into this master story teller’s world.  I was completely enthralled with the grand and petty details of the lives of the men and women whose stories were being told.  I loved it.  I was there.  Now, I’ve picked the story back up and am continuing… eager to find out what happens to Jon, Bran, Sansa, Tyrion…. etc. Yet first, I have to plow through several chapters of background characters… grrrr…..

Perhaps most important for me (though not necessarily for you) I learned important lessons for my own books:

  1. Never wait six years between publishing serial volumes
  2. Write each as a stand alone if possible
  3. Even if I remember all the details of the stories I’m writing, even uber-fans may well forget.
  4. …and most importantly: if I break the previous rules… give a synopsis of events so far at the start of the book.  In fact, maybe do that regardless.
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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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3 Responses to SERIES REVIEW: A Song of Fire and Ice: Volumes 1 to 3. George R. R. Martin (US:Bantam Spectra/UK: Voyager)

  1. Thomas Evans says:

    As an addendum to a reply to a different review, I would cast George RR Martin as one of the few, if only Post-Colonial Fantasy novels… particularly because post modern use of multple main protaganists, it tendency to turn heros into villians and visa versa (even individuals who it has set up as heroic or villainous), and its commentary of the presence of a single authoritative kingdom that unites different culturals (a standard feature of the desired state in most fantasy novels).

  2. …and most importantly: if I break the previous rules… give a synopsis of events so far at the start of the book. In fact, maybe do that regardless.

    I want to tell you to not do this, but I’ll settle for please be very cautious about this. I’ve seen this done horribly in The Burning City–the best thing to do is to have it crop up organically when it applies to the story at hand.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Oh I completely agree with you, but in the case of this series, there are SOOOOO many subplots going on and character, that one really must do something to remind me who people are. I couldn’t remember who the hell Theron Greyjoy was when I first came back upon him. Hell, I couldn’t even remember which of the Starks was alive.

      Just a cast of primary characters would do…

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