Readers of this blog have probably read my recent posts on large fantasy series and enjoyed them but, at the same time, they’ve been asking themselves the question: “These are all very good series, but what about the big one? Why are you avoiding tackling that one?”
Depending on who one talks to, there are only two possible definitions of “the big one” in this context. The first group are what I call the genre traditionalists, and they’re talking about Papa Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings, after all, was the series that started the modern popularity of doorstop fantasy books.
This first group will likely be satisfied by the fact that I’ve been commenting on the History of Middle Earth series, so that leaves the other big one. The one on HBO that your friend who would never pick up a fantasy book for any reason keeps pestering you about. The one that has become a central part of popular culture.
Yes, that one.
What the rest of the world calls A Game of Thrones is known to long-time fantasy readers as A Song of Ice and Fire.
I’ve been reading it since long before the TV show started and you will not be surprised to learn that I have an opinion which, having recently finished reading A Dance with Dragons, I will foist upon you.
A little background first. I started reading this series in the early 2000s because I had recently started reading both the Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth and was enjoying both. I knew that George R. R. Martin’s series was supposed to be the one that completed what was then the holy trinity (having read them all, my opinion is that The Sword of Truth, though certainly good, is a step beneath the other two).
So I read A Game of Thrones and was immediately hooked. Here was a writer who created a brutal world in which the weak didn’t somehow overcome – the weak were prey to the strong, just like in real life. And no character, no matter how beloved, was safe. Martin wasn’t killing off token main characters for emotional effect–he was going through characters that were supposed to be critical at a spectacular rate.
I put down that first book in disbelief. There were conventions in fantasy. The assistant pig-herder was supposed to overcome incredible odds to become the king o the land. In this series, though, Martin, had he written an assistant pig-herder, would have had the poor lad run into a large knight having a bad day, who would have eviscerated him and left him for the birds to peck on while still barely alive. So much for that trope. Had the pig herder been a young girl, he might have had the knight kill all her family and then sell her into slavery on the next boat, never to be heard from again.
That lack of sentimentality meant that you had to keep reading. Though the author might not have feelings for his characters, the reader most definitely did. We wanted to know whether the ones we like survive. And in many cases, they didn’t. Stronger characters did, even if they were less likable.
Another thing that makes this series attractive is that the author isn’t trying to be the morality police. Whether you are a noble soul who wants the best for others or a despicable rapist who rules through terror makes no difference at all in your odds of survival. In fact, the second character might live longer, as he is clearly a stronger man more suited to that particular jungle. Again, just like in real life.
In hindsight a series that sets aside conventions about what can be written about and what can’t and who can and cannot die is a no-brainer. People can use this to escape a culture that insists on punishing people according to its modern morality and see a realistic depiction of a medieval society. Can you imagine a character in this one prissily saying: “please leave aside your toxic masculinity”? The mountain would cleave him or her in two without even stopping to discuss it, and that is so refreshing, it’s hard to put into words.
Another advantage is that this can’t be imitated. The whole point and differentiator of ASoIaF is that it defied conventions. That’s what earned it the massive readership is enjoys. Anyone coming after this will elicit shrugs and accusations of being derivative.
Also, there’s a second reason we only need one of these: while it’s fun to escape from the overly protective nature of today’s society for a while, too much realism can also be a downer. Those conventions in fantasy exist for a reason: people like them and it’s fun and comfortable to know the rules and to read about how the good guys, in the end, will win the day and most of the beloved characters will be there to see it.
As for A Dance with Dragons, my feeling is that, over the last couple of books, I see Martin softening a bit. He’s letting characters survive stuff that would have killed them in the earlier installments. That may have been his plan from the outset, or he may be reacting to pressure from fans of the series… or, and one can hope, he’s planning some kind of massive bloodbath at the end.
Whatever the reason, I only have one favor to ask: can someone please feed that annoying dwarf to one of the dragons? Thanks!
Gustavo Bondoni has recently been named a finalist in the Jim Baen Memorial Award, which has him truly excited. He is also the author of Siege, a well-received space opera novel about human survival in extremis.