“If you play the game of thrones, you win, or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Ever since J.R.R. Tolkien invented modern High Fantasy over 60 years ago, the genre has become a bestseller staple — even though far too many books have more or less copied and watered down “The Lord of The Rings.” But then came George R.R. Martin who used to write more science fiction than fantasy, who laid the foundation for his unparalleled “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series with 1996’s “A Game of Thrones” that has been fascinating millions in the form of the television series “Game of Thrones” since 2011. But why? What’s so special about these books and the show?
Most works of High Fantasy — especially the aforementioned trivial copies of Tolkien — have a clear good-vs.-evil scheme: there are glorious heroes and sinister villains who fight each other, and eventually the heroes win. Pretty predictable and Hollywood cliché. This is one of the respects in which Martin’s series is different: the brutal and in parts magical world of the continents Westeros and Essos ist inhabited by ordinary people. All of them have their strengths and their weaknesses, their virtues and their vices, and they must make far-reaching decisions based upon insufficient and often contradictory information that literally are about life and death. They’re people like us, people living today, whose motivations we can often comprehend.
Of the planned seven volumes, five have been published so far:
- A Game of Thrones
- A Clash of Kings
- A Storm of Swords
- A Feast for Crows
- A Dance with Dragons
The last two volumes that fans have been desperately waiting for will be called “The Winds of Winter” and “A Dream of Spring.”
The cheapest way to get the first five volumes is a box set. There is also a lavishly illustrated edition of the first volume for the 20th anniversary.
Apart from the main volumes, there are two more recommendable books about the world of ice and fire: the huge, pseudo-historical illustrated book “The World of Ice and Fire,” and “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” a collection of three novellas (so far) about the knight Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire “Egg” (the future King Aegon V Targaryen) that is set about 90 years before the events of the novels and planned to be continued at a later date. Finally, there are two short stories that take place a few more years before the adventures of Dunk & Egg: the first is “The Princess and the Queen” about a Targaryen war of succession that has been called “The Dance of the Dragons” in the history of the Seven Kingdoms, published in the anthology “Dangerous Women,” edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. The other short story is called “The Rogue Prince” and can be found the the anthology”Rogues” by the same editors; it works as a kind of prequel or sidequel to “The Princess and the Queen.”
What is it all about?
Almost three hundred years ago, the Seven Kingdoms of the continent Westeros were conquered by the Targaryen dynasty of monarchs who were originally from the neighbouring continent of Essos, to be more exact from Valyria, an area that has become uninhabitable after a huge catastrophe (“the doom of Valyria”). Fourteen years before the events of the first novel, the last Targaryen King, “Mad King” Aerys II, was dethroned and killed in a civil war, and since then, Robert Baratheon has been sitting on the throne. The years since Aerys’s death have been peaceful so far, but at the beginning of the story, several disasters are imminent: in a political plot, Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King (a kind of viceroy) was murdered, and Robert fears for his own life. At the same time, a winter that can last for many years (probably due to magic) is approaching, and in the Far North, the White Walkers, a kind of zombie army, are waking up. The latter happens beyond the Wall that was once built to save the Seven Kingdoms from the sinister powers on the other side and that is guarded by the Nights Watch.
Robert travels to the Realm of the North (south of the Wall) with all of the royal household to ask the Warden of the North, his old friend Eddard “Ned” Stark, to become the new Hand of the King. He is accompanied, among others, by his wife Cersei of the very rich and power-hungry Lannister family, the three children Joffrey (the crown prince), Myrcella, and Tommen, the Queen’s siblings: her twin brother Jaime (a knight who belongs to the seven members of the Kingsguard) and her dwarfish younger brother Tyrion (called The Imp), a clever, well-read hedonist with a sharp tongue that often endangers him. There are rumours about the illegitimate birth of Cersei’s children, and very soon we learn that, first, they are more than rumours and, second, that Jon Arryn’s death is probably connected to this fact.
At the same time in neighbouring Essos: Viserys Targaryen, the surviving younger son of Mad King Aerys, sells (you have to call it that) his sister Daenerys to the horse lord Khal Drogo who marries her. Despite this, mildly put, unfavourable beginning of their marriage, the two genuinely fall in love with each other, and Dany evolves from a timid girl to a self-confident ruler. She suffers treason, setbacks, and military defeats, but doesn’t give up on her goal: to reconquer the Seven Kingdoms.
There’s no need to tell you more about the plot because for the few who don’t know anything about it, that wouldn’t be possible without spoilers, and for those who have watched the derivative work in the form of the popular television series “Game of Thrones,” it would be boring, especially because the first season follows the first book quite accurately; greater deviations only happen later, and in its sixth season that aired recently, the series has partly surpassed the plot of the books that have been published so far.
History meets Fantasy
The world building of the series of novels and the side volumes is incredible. Even though there are fantasy elements like dragons and White Walkers, the world and its most important events are based upon events of British, European, and world history. For instance, the central conflict in Westeros has been compared to the “Wars of the Roses,” a succession war in England between 1450 and 1480. Even the names of the Royal Houses that fought for predominance are similar: York and Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses, Stark and Lannister in Westeros. Other, often quite gory and cruel, events have historical roots. For example, there is the infamous “Red Wedding” in volume 3, a wedding during which many guests are murdered for political reasons. In our world, there was an event called the “Black Dinner” where similar things happened. Aegon Targaryen, a foreigner who conquered Westeros, is similar to William the Conqueror (and “Targaryen” even sounds a bit like “Plantagenet”), even though the latter obviously didn’t have any dragons in his army.
While Westeros more or less resembles Britain (with Dorne on its Southern end that is merely inspired by medieval Spain), Essos contains a vast collection of cultures inspired by examples in South-Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East, from ancient to Renaissance times. Another important source of inspiration, for sure, are the works of William Shakespeare who took similar liberties using historical sources to tell timeless tales of power and powerlessness, war and peace, or hate and love.
A very exciting part of the novels is the narrative perspective: instead of an omniscient narrator, there is a mixed choir of point-of-view characters; in the first three volumes, the titles of all chapters are simply the names of their respective protagonists. We as readers only know what these characters know, but we can try and piece together the bigger picture from the polyphony. And in a way you might find yourself rooting for dislikeable characters like the power-hungry Queen Cersei or Theon Greyjoy who is originally from the Iron Islands (a kind of Viking culture), but grew up as a (well-treated) hostage of the Starks after his father’s insurrection attempt. The most fascinating, however, are the strong woman and girl characters who all find their own ways to establish themselves in a male-dominated and misogynistic world. But there are few real protagonists — someone who just seemed to be an important main character might end up dead in the moment; almost no one is safe.
To conclude: an absolute reading recommendation for this giant, overwhelming panorama of history, fantasy, and human passions. I’m looking forward to reading volume 6 that will hopefully be out in the next few months. And of course to watching season 7 of the HBO series that will start on June 26, 2017.
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