Back in April, I announced I was going to read every one of this year’s Hugo-nominated novels, so that I could vote responsibly. No big deal, normally. No big deal, had I already read books 1-4 of A Song of Ice and Fire. Alas, I had not.
So that’s what I began doing back in April. I am just now finishing up A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in the series, and nominated for this year’s award. As I finish the book, I become anxious. What will it be like to leave Westeros (and Essos), after dwelling so long there? It seems to have permeated my very existence.
Wow, what a world. A huge cast of interesting characters, plot firmly rooted in that characterization, and a masterpiece of world-building. One thing that strikes me: the big things George R. R. Martin is doing so right in this saga are built on the foundation of little itty-bitty details, details that shine like a Valyrian sword.
Big Thing: Major theme of humanity’s struggle for a just and lawful society amidst a harsh and brutal society not unlike in our own northern European middle ages.
Little Thing: One of the first events in the first book is honest, honorable Lord Eddard Stark chopping off the head of a deserter. He makes a point that he refuses to employ a headsman, because if a lord is passing judgment that a man’s head needs chopping off, that lord should have the guts to do the deed himself. The reader is immediately wrenched from her modern notions of justice, due process, honor, right, and wrong. In case we’ve missed the point, Lord Ned dispatches an innocent dire wolf puppy on the orders of his sovereign. And yet, he’s the good guy…
Big Thing: …which brings up the issue of the grayness of the characters. With a few exceptions, each main character–honorable or not–has blood on his hands. Every character’s actions are understandable at some level, even when deplorable. Martin made a brave decision to tell this from multiple, first-person, points of view. That means we have about 147 POVs going on here. (No, not an actual count.) Madness. Yet, it works.
Little Thing: I love how evil Queen Cersei gets stuff wrong. She’s smart, but not as smart as she thinks she is. She’s a complete cynic, and she mistakes that cynicism for common sense. She therefore believes that she and the Seven Kingdoms have nothing to fear from beyond the wall. She, as well as the other Lannisters, believe dragons cannot return. She is arrogant as well, and mistakes that arrogance for authority. She believes she controls that which she does not. She arms the septons, and is shocked by the results of that action.
Big Thing: Turning the conventions of heroic fantasy on their heads.
Little Thing(s): How sparingly magic is used. What we would see as supernatural exists, but it does not dominate. We are not even certain it is supernatural in the literal sense, so a part of nature does it seems. It feels a bit like magical realism at times, so blended into the fabric of life we barely notice it.
Big Thing: Religion. There is more than one religion here. We have the Seven, the Old Gods, the Drowned God, R’hllor, Mother Rhoyne, and more religions in the lands to the east. The religious practices resonate with real-life religions, but are not analagous with them. Oh, and there are atheists and agnostics, too.
My Utterly Favorite Little Detail Concerning a religion: To be baptized into the faith of the Drowned God, you are immersed in water until you actually drown. Then you are pulled out and given CPR. This is a successful baptism. I find that detail absolutely hilarious.
Big Thing: A Song of Ice and Fire is a big, complicated, fantastic story in a believable, accessible world.
Little Thing: Anything in the world that doesn’t have to be big, complicated, and fantastic remains recognizable and unapologetically mundane. Horses are horses, not some horse analog. The animals not currently in our world either once were (mammoths, dire wolves), or are firmly planted in our mythology (giants, dragons). The food doesn’t have to be explained either. It’s roasted wild boar, or peaches, or even pine nuts. Well, sometimes it’s horse, too. We are asked to strain our brains only on the necessary items, which are many. Thank you, George. You made my brain work, but you did not kill it.
Will my daughter ever call me, “My Lady Mother?” If I call my husband “My Sun-and-Stars,” will he think I’m being sarcastic? When my three cockatiels ride on my shoulders, could they be my dragons? Will they breathe fire? (They already hiss and bite.)
No, yes, no, and no. Yet reading A Song of Ice and Fire, Books 1-5, made me believe that all might happen.