Fantasy: The Epic Genius of
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series
by Jude Joseph Lovell
The writer George R.R. Martin has managed to pull off a true miracle. If you think he’s finished the last two, long-awaited novels in his magisterial A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series and delivered them to his publisher, perhaps it is you who should be spinning fantasy tales.
No, far be it from me to have the scoop on these books’ arrival. What I mean is, Martin has managed to elevate the entire fantasy genre into something much more than it has ever been. He has lifted fantasy to a new perch among the loftiest peaks of the American literary landscape. The only possible comparison would be the great Ursula K. LeGuin, author of the famous EarthSea novels (also recommended).
If you like fiction but are disinclined to fantasy, allow me to make the case for an exception. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is not just catnip for nerds who like wearing cloaks on weekends or attending weird conventions. It’s essential reading for anyone who loves full immersion into a great story. And I would argue that it is not only one of the towering achievements of American literature, but even one of the great intellectual feats of modern times.
A Song of Ice and Fire consists of a planned seven novels, five currently available. They concern a dramatic age of upheaval set in the fictional countries of Westeros and Essos, vaguely resembling the British Isles. The focus is on three major storylines: a dynamic power struggle between several families for the possession of the Iron Throne, belonging to the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros; the rising threat of a supernatural race of beings called the Others from above the northern border of Westeros; and the adventures of one very ambitious young woman, the daughter of a former occupant of the Iron Throne, in the neighboring land of Essos—who may be staging a grand return.
Make no mistake, Martin’s saga is fantasy at its purest. As such, it includes the major tropes of the genre: kings, queens, knights, battles, swords, horses, bloodletting, magic, poison, fire, ice, and, of course, dragons. There is no modern technology, no air travel, no internet. This may make the books unappealing to many. Furthermore, the novels run long (700 to 1,100 pages) and contain hundreds of characters, which also may daunt some. No judgment here upon those who choose to pass on these grounds.
But for readers willing to take a chance on what may still be considered a fringe genre, Martin’s grand story is rife with merit and, for my money, a fine investment of reading time that can yield numerous rewards.
First, it is simply a phenomenal yarn—richly immersive, the ultimate form of escapism. For those willing to dive into their great breadth and complexity, reading A Song of Ice and Fire novel can make the workaday world seem far removed. Secondly, while the full saga does contain countless characters, each novel is told from the perspective of a limited group, rotating between the points of view of each. This approach brings us closer to the core figures of the narrative, people we grow to love or hate, and it smartly keeps the scenery of this vast landscape shifting.
Additionally, a reader notices after a while that Martin keeps the action at a simmer through long stretches that are just interesting enough to maintain our attention, but also lull us into a safe, almost contented state of mind. But once or twice in each book, at moments that seem precisely calibrated, the action explodes in such a way as to knock us out of our chairs. When this happens, Martin rewards our efforts to keep pace.
For example, the second volume of this series, A Clash of Kings, features a gigantic naval battle, thrilling and literally explosive, that makes J.R.R. Tolkien’s famed Battle of the Five Armies in The Hobbit look like a scuffle you and your friends once had at recess. Or, there’s the now infamous “Red Wedding” sequence that highlights A Storm of Swords, the third volume—one of the most shocking nuptial episodes in literary history. Martin carefully plots and executes these sequences with relish, but also with tremendous industry.
What’s really remarkable about the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and why I recommend them to all adult readers, is their thorough grasp of their primary subject: us. These novels boil down to a quest for one thing: power. As such, they can sometimes seem quite cynical, and neophytes should know they are loaded with violence, sex, and human cruelty. But there’s no denying that they benefit from Martin’s decades of experience in storytelling for various media, going back to the 1970s, and his deep understanding of what makes us all flawed but compelling creatures.
In this way, the books of the A Song of Ice and Fire eclipse their closest rivals in fantasy and enter the vaunted company of such literary accomplishments as Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy (Wolf Hall and its sequels) or even the historian Robert A. Caro’s much decorated biographical study of President Lyndon B. Johnson, both of which are gripping studies in the accumulation of power.
As one character notes in A Feast for Crows, Martin’s fourth volume: “History is a wheel, for the nature of man is fundamentally unchanging.” Martin has done what few writers ever could. He’s reinvented it, with spectacular originality. With good fortune, his wheel will keep right on turning, carrying us all to the end of this staggering feat of the imagination.
Watercolor by JR Korpa @korpa (Spain)
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.