Bookbanter Column: Get Lost in a Good Fantasy Series Part 6: A Song of Ice and Fire (September 21, 2012)

Little did George R. R. Martin originally know that when he started writing A Game of Thrones, the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, changing from an idea in his head to something real on paper, that it would become such a bestseller and so popular with readers around the world.

Now with the success of the HBO series, even more people are turning to reading the books for the first time.

But it can be pretty intimidating facing that premiere heavy hardcover tome or that weighty fat paperback for the first time as you begin the series, so here’s a rough breakdown of what happens in the books.

While Martin had originally intended for the series to be trilogy and soon realized it was going to be much longer, the planned length is now seven books, with five books now released and two more to go.

One hopes Martin can reach the end of the series before the HBO TV show catches up with him.

 A Game of Thrones: Journey to Westeros for the first time, with A Game of Thrones, but beware for winter is coming.

In the first of George R. R. Martin’s landmark, epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, readers will be introduced to a complex world of many lands and many families, with many characters, but have no fear for Martin tells the story from unique viewpoints of different members of different families, forcing the reader to fit the different pieces of the story together, creating the overall puzzle of plot.  Readers will be reminded of everything they love about great fantasy stories, whether they be simple or epic; as well as discovering why George R. R. Martin has earned the title of the “American Tolkien.”

In the world of Westeros, there are Seven Kingdoms, long ago independent, now united under the Iron Throne, but those named king never seem to last long in this world of corrupt, power-hungry families.  There are two main families which readers are first introduced to: the Starks and the Lanisters, emulating the Wars of the Roses with the Yorks and Lancasters.  With the Starks there is proud and strong Ned, who is to be the King’s Hand to Robert Baratheon, and his determined and caring wife, Catelyn.  The sons are Rob, the eldest, Jon Snow, a bastard, Bran who suffers a debilitating accident, and Rickon who is too young to really understand what is going on.  The daughters are Sansa, who is a young, fair maiden always looking for her knight in shining armor to whisk her off her feet; and Arya, who is boyish and wants to learn how to fight with a sword, ride a horse into battle, and defend herself.  The Lannisters are a different type of family, constantly looking for gain whether it is with land, riches, or power.  At the head of the household is the aging Lord Tywin, with his children: the beautiful, blond and blue-eyed Jaime and his twin Cersei – who share much more than a sibling affection – and little Tyrion, a dwarf who has had to fight for everything in his entire life.  Cersei is wife to the king, Robert Baratheon, and together they have young Joffrey, heir to the throne, along with Tommen and Myrcella.

While tension builds between the families at King’s landing, far to the north lies the Wall – 700 feet tall and 300 miles long, protecting the Seven Kingdoms from the evils of the far north.  There lies myth and legends of demons and ghouls, as well as a landless king.  It is here John Snow is sent.  To the east in the Free Cities is Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, the last surviving children of King Aerys II, looking to one day take back the throne that is rightfully theirs.

A Game of Thrones is fantasy at its very best, with lots of complex, interesting characters; moving storylines filled with tension and adventure; a detailed and varied world that is well explored; and an underlying question of who is truly good and who is truly evil in this harsh world.

A Clash of Kings: To the north beyond the wall the wildlings are amassing behind a man known as Mance Rayder, the so-called King-beyond-the-wall, as they prepare to attack the wall and infiltrate Westeros.  All that stands in their way is the weak army of the Night’s Watch, as this small number of the men in black with Jon Snow head out to put a stop to them.  In this saga, Snow will learn of this Mance Rayder, as well as one of the wildlings whom he becomes close to.

Far to the east across the waters, Daenerys Targaryen continues to rebuild her own army in a bid to take back the kingdom of Westeros and her royal lineage.  She travels with her consort to the renowned trading city of Qarth where she will face the ultimate test with powerful warlocks and the House of the Undying.  Meanwhile her three dragons continue to grow and become stronger and more deadly.

And in the heart of Westeros the war rages on.  Young Joffrey is arrogant, cruel, and impetuous, feeling he is in his birthright to be king of all the lands, while rumors run amuck of an incestuous relationship spawning this possibly illegitimate ruler.  Joffrey rules from King’s Landing with the might and support of the house of Lannister.  To the west is Robb Stark, the King of the North, looking to unite his lands and protect his people.  So far he has never lost a battle, but gains little ground in the ongoing war.  On the island of Dragonstone sits Stannis, the eldest brother of the surviving Baratheon family, feeling he is the rightful heir, while advised by the red priestess of R’hllor, Melisandre.  His biggest contender is his younger brother who currently holds Storm’s End and the larger army.  And finally, to the far west on the Iron Islands, a new contender decides to take the stage and declare himself king, one Balon Greyjoy.

But it is not these squabbling kings that keep readers hooked, but Martin’s work in diverse viewpoints from unique, unforgettable characters that you either learn to love or hate or perhaps both.  Over hundreds of pages, readers begin to hate those they loved, while loving those they detested, as Martin swings his unstoppable scythe pendulum, not knowing who will come beneath the blade next.  A Clash of Kings culminates with a mighty battle at King’s Landing that will leave many dead and a world in shambles, as the survivors look once again for personal gain, while readers will be left hungry for more.

A Storm of Swords: To the north Jon Snow has infiltrated the wildings, looking to get close to Mance Rayder, the king-beyond-the-wall, and find out when they plan to attack the Night’s Watch, but he will find his loyalties challenged as he must fight and decide where his allegiances lie.  Then there is the storyline of Bran, one of the Stark children, who is traveling to the north to find his brother.  Theon Greyjoy now controls Winterfell through lies, deception and competing against his more popular sister for the love and support of his father, King Balon Greyjoy.  Meanwhile, Arya Stark continues to get pulled back and forth from bad character to worse character, but because of her smarts and cunning she is able to scrape through alive.  Jaime Lannister is let go to travel back to King’s Landing under the protection of Brienne of Tarth with the hope that the Lannisters will free Sansa Stark.

As for the war, things are not going well, but then that really depends on whose side you’re on.  Robb Stark continues to win battles but make little headway in the war, but after falling for a girl who looks after him when he is wounded and marries her, he must meet with the Freys to soothe their relations.  His uncle, Edmure Tully, will wed one of the Frey daughters and all will be well, it is hoped.  Robb’s mother, Catelyn, doesn’t trust Lord Walder Frey, as she travels with her son, grieving over the loss of her father.  But the Tully’s have something fiendish in store for them.  Meanwhile in King’s Landing Joffrey rules in his cruel, childish way, while his uncle Tyrion, the dwarf, continues to fight with his sister, Joffrey’s mother, Cersei; then their father, Lord Tywin, arrives to upset the balance and organize things in his own way.

Far to the east, Daenerys Targaryen returns to Pentos by sea in search of an army.  She finds one in the Unsullied, a slave army, but she must give over one of her dragons for the thousands of slaves.  Daenerys has a plan and soon has her army which she immediately frees from slavery, making them unstoppable soldiers who will never defy an order.  As she travels across the land, looking to grow her army and power and create peace among these peoples, she discovers two of her closes retinue are traitors and must decide what she will do with them.

A Storm of Swords is Martin at his best, as the events and actions that have been building in the previous books are brought to a harsh fruition, and the author continues to reveal what makes his series so unique.  Some character storylines go on for too long and could use some heavy editing to shorten them down, or perhaps have been cut entirely as little seems to happen, while others are simply riveting, even when involving two character viewpoints covering the same event.  At the end, just as with the first two books, readers will be left impatiently wanting more.

A Feast for Crows: Readers of the first three A Song of Ice and Fire books – A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords – will notice a trend with them: the page count is steadily increasing with each book.  It seems like there must be a breaking point when it simply won’t be possible to bind that many pages into one book . . . well, that’s exactly what happened with the fourth book of A Song of Ice and Fire.  George R. R. Martin was given an ultimatum from his publisher that the book needed to be divided into multiple volumes.  The resulting A Feast for Crows only features a limited number of the main characters readers have become familiar with in the earlier books, as well as a number of newer ones as further lands and parts of Westeros are explored and revealed for the first time.

The War of the Five Kings is coming to a close, as many of the rulers readers have come to know are now dead, or fled for their lives.  King Tommen now rules at King’s Landing, though under the guise of his mother, Cersei Lannister, who has finally gotten her lifelong wish to rule the realm.  She fills her cabinet with loyal elders who soon fail in their duty and she becomes ferociously angry, suspecting and suspicious of everyone, driving herself to incessant drinking.  Then there is Margaery Tyrell, who is married to her son, the king, who she believes is looking to take over the realm as queen and do goodness knows what.

Meanwhile, Jaime has had enough of his sister and leaves to make what reparations he can to the kingdom, to regain control over the Riverlands in the name of Lannister and the realm.  Brienne is in search of Sansa, to free her from whatever perils she is in, fulfilling an oath she promised.  In the Eyrie, Sansa remains seemingly trapped by Littlefinger who conducts himself in a very strange way with her.  In the Iron Islands, the king Balon Greyjoy is dead by a freak accident, and now begins the long and laborious process of choosing a successor, as Balon’s children come home to claim the throne, including his tough and determined daughter, Asha.  Far to the south, in the lands of Dorne, unrest is stirring as new contenders look to play a part in taking the throne, through Myrcella Baratheon who is told she has every right to the throne as her brother Tommen does.  Finally to the east is Arya who is learning and training in the ways of the people of Braavos, while Samwell Tarly travels on his own journey to Oldtown to become the new Maester for the Night’s Watch, and travels to Braavos along the way, meeting with Arya.

A Dance with Dragons: In the North, around the Wall, King Stannis Baratheon seems to spend a lot of time trying to decide what to do with no real power or army to use, while listening to Lady Melisandre, who continues to spout enigmatic prophecies that make little sense; yet readers do get to enjoy a chapter from her viewpoint for the first time.  Meanwhile, Jon Snow is elected as the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, as he must deal with not just enemies beyond the Wall, but also amongst the very men he leads and is in charge of.  He works with the wildlings, bringing them south of the wall to bolster his forces in preparation for a possible attack from the Others; it seems to be an interesting act of diplomacy, but goes on for far too many pages, with little action or continuing story taking place.

Much of the rest of the book takes place to the far east.  Martin has provided a couple of new maps, but nothing so clearly defined and comprehendible as the great continent of Westeros.  Tyrion flees to Pentos, drowning himself in wine.  He is forced to join with a group traveling to Meereen, along with the apparently not so dead prince Aegon Targaryen.  Tyrion – as he always does – manages to get involved in a whole variety of adventures, including the meeting of another dwarf, and a female no less!

Daenerys is the character that seems most put through the ringer in this book; much like Cercei was in A Feast for Crows.  She is no longer the tough, proud, defiant woman that everyone feared, and not just because she has three growing dragons.  Having conquered Meereen, she should be the unstoppable, unquestionable queen that she is, and yet insurrection is afoot and Daenerys cannot seem to decide what to do; perhaps it is because she has become obsessed and besotted with one of her soldiers and seems to be able to think of little else when he is nearby, and yet he is of lower class and cannot possibly be her husband.  The black dragon, Drogon, meanwhile is running rampant through the countryside as growing “teenage” dragons do, and Daenerys has no idea how to control him.

Finally there is Quentyn Martell, Prince of Dorne, whose story comes from nowhere as we follow his trek across the lands to Meereen, where he hopes to woo Daenerys by enslaving one of her dragons.  It does not end well for him.  Interspersed throughout the lengthy book are other POV chapters from the likes of Bran Stark, Davos Seaworth, Reek (who is in fact the very not dead Theon Greyjoy), Arya Stark, Victarion Greyjoy, as well as some surprise cameos from Jaime and Cercei Lannister.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

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