Monday, June 8, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 5

     Every historian has a genre or two they enjoy other than history books to break the monotony. I dabble in science-fiction/fantasy and have several series which I have enjoyed over the years. So I will bring up their reviews every fifth week. I will begin with George Martin's Saga of Fire and Ice which is the basis of the Game of Thrones show on HBO. 
Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam Spectra, 1996. 856 ppg.

            The opening volume of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice is a hard hitting, no holds barred, gritty and utterly realistic fantasy novel that captures the reader’s imagination. He transports them to the lands beyond the Wall, an immense barrier of ice magically constructed to bar something unknown from entering the lands of the South, as well as the sprawling continents of Westeros and Essos. From there he introduces hundreds of characters who in many ways defy the high fantasy formulas. These are not the mighty heroes with clearly defined places on the side of good or evil. These are men and women who are confronted with real life choices making decisions that feature extreme shades of grey.

            Martin’s writing style is one that stems from the R.A. Salvatore books in which he writes short chapters from the viewpoint of one character before changing to that of another one. The result is a book that moves at a fairly quick pace and does not lock onto any one character or event for an extended period of time. The reader’s attention is constantly renewed as the scenes change before they have a chance to be bored with them. This reflects Martin’s work in television and the changing scenes and character sequences which hold viewers to the screen. While some may find this discomforting, Martin’s fans do not.

            This style of writing may have helped contribute to the creation of the HBO series Game of Thrones which derives its origins from this book and the series. Martin’s bloody pages have definitely generated some intense fandom in ways no other fantasy novel has before. This is definitely not Tolkien with its clearly defined good and evil roles. Good does not always triumph. In fact, one of the major plots has a character who is representative of honor being executed for being honorable. Martin constantly twists these concepts around which reflects our own real world leaders and their decisions which often reflect their interests, but affect our lives. 

            Some are dismayed with what they call excessive brutality of the novel. Death stalks the pages and major characters die just as readily as minor ones. Rape is a common fate for women as men claim them as prizes. Arranged marriages are standard for many of the nobility. This reflects real history in which marrying for love only came about recently in the 19th century. Martin is on record as stating he wanted to create a series where the reality of history was reflected in the pages. In that endeavor he certainly struck gold. Real history is violent and death was well known to everyone. Our modern present, especially in the First World perspective is tame compared to what happened in the past. Martin demonstrates that quite well.

            I for one do question the length of the books. I think Martin might have been better off to break each of them into two different books and to flesh out some minor characters. When books approach 1000 pages they can be intimidating. The short chapters go a long way to make them better reads, but I question just how daunting the size of the books appears to some of his potential audience. It also might help the insane time lengths between the novels. As a case in point, five volumes have been published between 1996 and 2011. Two more are planned which with Martin’s speed may take until 2025 to be complete. With the HBO series already reaching the end of the 5th season, upcoming seasons may reveal things that ruin the books for readers who came to the series with the HBO show.

            Martin’s epic fantasy has been valuable to the genre as a whole. He is credited with promoting an interest in the field and even changing it from high to epic with his focus on realism. Unlike Tolkien, Game of Thrones features many adult themes which make them unsuitable for young adults. Adultery, incest, murder, prostitution, rape, executions, assassinations, and child abuse occur frequently. Girls are married and engaging in sexual activity by the time they have their first period which historically was seen as the boundary between childhood and adulthood. While some decry this in Martin’s work, it is historically sound for much of human history as are the adult themes. He also does not spare religion, although that is something that is more prevalent in later volumes. 

            The result is a very dark and sprawling fantasy volume which grips reader’s attention spans. While some may not like the point of view chapters or violent themes, many see them as echoes of the past and elements which bring the novels to life. The constant threat of death to any character is also a feature that both attracts and repels readers as favorites fall to the wayside and are replaced by others. No one is safe in this novel or any of them for that matter. In fact, the deaths of major characters is a major part of the plot lines and helps drive them along. In that respect Martin is unique. All in all, a very good book to read. 

 A far cry from the old Dragonslayer movie of the 80s thanks to modern technology. It is good to see dragons wreaking havoc!

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