Dunc reads: A personal history with A Song of Ice and Fire

Today brings the release of A Dance with Dragons, the latest edition to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASoIaF) series. This is the biggest fantasy novel of the year, and one fans have been waiting six years for – more, if you count that the last book didn’t have several fan-favorite characters.

I’ve been reading the series since the beginning, and it’s one of my favorites. I don’t even mind the waiting. (Well, only a little. As odd as this may sound coming from a Star Wars novel fan, I do generally believe in quality over quantity.)

(This post will contain no spoilers for A Dance With Dragons – I won’t have the book until this evening – and virtually none for the previous books.)

In 1996, I was aware of A Game of Thrones, though I’d never heard of George R. R. Martin before. The book was getting a lot of buzz, though I can’t quite recall where (AOL? Newsgroups? Those little pamphlet newsletters from Waldenbooks and D. Dalton’s?) I do remember reading the review in Publisher’s Weekly in the break room of the little suburban library where I worked throughout high school.

I remember being the first to check it out when it arrived, reading the first chapter, and being completely bored with it.

I should note that I never had a whole lot of luck with your standard Big Fat Fantasy novels of the 80’s and 90’s: Pretty much anything inspired by Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, etc., just didn’t cut it for me. (I wouldn’t actually read Tolkien until after I got dragged to see The Two Towers movie, but that’s another post entirely.) Elves and dwarves and dudes in armor and no women getting speaking parts until you’re more than half through the damn thing? No thanks. I like fantasy, but a lot of high fantasy just makes my eyes roll to this day.

So I read the prologue and first chapter, got ‘a bunch of dudes and some kind of zombie thing,’ and bailed.

A few weeks later, the book was back on the shelf (the library’s adult patrons were mostly adorable old ladies who read mysteries) and I gave it another try. This time, I stuck it out, and A Game of Thrones became one of those books that I have nearly read to death; the kind of book where, if I pick it up as a paperback, I will notice when the words are flowing wrong on the page. (Yes, that kind of creeps me out, too.) Basically, I loved it.

Over the next few years, I read them all as they came out – until the ending of A Storm of Swords, the third book, royally pissed me off. (Note to those who’ve read it: It wasn’t the wedding.) I didn’t read the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, until it had been out in paperback for more than a year. Surprisingly enough, I loved it – and it completely restored my faith in the series.

I just finished a massive reread of all four books, my first since I got Crows in 2007, and it only reaffirmed how much I enjoy them.

I’ve seen ASoIaF dismissed as ‘grimdark‘ and I suppose for some it’s true. This is not Tolkien. The good guys don’t always win. At least 2/3rds of the characters you may grow to love in A Game of Thrones may not survive. There is blood and whores and the knights aren’t always honorable.

But I’ll also tell you, to put this in some context, I thought the New Jedi Order series was a disaster. It was dark and adult, which many of us were clamoring for after the Bantam era, but it was also a befuddled patchwork of authors and characterizations and villains (and some heroes) who just weren’t interesting enough to me to carry a storyline for nineteen books and five years.

You can disagree with me on the NJO, of course – plenty do. But the NJO isn’t my point, not really, because I don’t mind the ugliness – if the characters are strong enough to hold my interest. And that, I think, is where GRRM really shines.

I implore you to give the books a try, if you haven’t already. Hell, you can even wait for the first season of the HBO series to come out on DVD – it’s surprisingly faithful, but I warn you – it will only make you want to read more.

4 Replies to “Dunc reads: A personal history with A Song of Ice and Fire

  1. I’ve been told by several people that I need to read this series…but the “grimdark” aspects of it make me hesitate. I’m not sure I would enjoy it, and I haven’t worked up to taking that risk yet.

  2. I’ve come to enjoy the “grimdark” aspect of stories in a way I didn’t when I was younger. I’ve learned that “happily ever after” isn’t always attainable, and it isn’t always believable. I still like reading a variety of stories with a variety of endings, but I love that the characters here are rich and complex, that the good guys don’t always win, and the bad guys don’t always get published. It makes you really invested in the story. I remember reading the novel of The Princess Bride back in high school, and I was surprised because it had parts that were very different from the movie. The author’s note at the end said, “life isn’t fair, it’s just fairer than death, that’s all” and it’s something that really stuck with me. Try it, you’ll like it.

  3. I feel the same way about high fantasy – I’m not sure I’ve really read anything that would qualify. But I have ‘Game of Thrones’ as a Book on CD on hold at the library and I’m hoping it arrives in time for my drive to Maine later this month. :)

Comments are closed.