Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ice and Fire and insomnia

I was severely sleep-deprived the whole month of June because I got insanely hooked on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. I plowed through the first 3 books (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords), downloaded and watched all 10 episodes of the HBO adaptation series Game of Thrones, and finished reading the 4th book, A Feast for Crows, in time for the July release of the 5th installment, A Dance with Dragons. I got to the epilogue about 2 weeks ago, and when I was done, I wanted to tear my hair out at the thought that it might take years until the 6th book comes out. I am so caught up in the story and so enamored of the characters, it's crazy. Not since Harry Potter have I been this emotionally invested in a literary series.

A Song of Ice and Fire is the sweeping saga of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, set in an ancient time of sorcery and mythical beasts: direwolves, snow zombies, mammoths, changelings, and of course, dragons. But above all, it's an epic tale of human foibles and failings, lusts and loves, faiths and feuds, ambitions and aberrations.
Martin populates his universe with kings, queens, knights, warriors, squires, pages, maesters, septons, sellswords, eunuchs, whores, bastards-- highborn or low, everyone is flawed, but no one is beyond redemption either. Moreover, no one is SAFE from Martin's merciless pen, as he ruthlessly writes off characters, even important and beloved ones, with abrupt, shocking deaths. As a result, though part of a genre that's normally steeped in the abnormal, Ice and Fire has a brutal realism to it. There's that wonderful humanity yes, and it's easy to fall in love with the characters, but there's nothing sentimental about Martin's work.

People like comparing Martin's Ice and Fire with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, but with all due respect to the great Tolkien, I find Martin's work much more enjoyable, not only because it's infinitely more reader-friendly (Tolkien could cure an insomniac with a couple of pages), but also because it has far stronger characterization. While LOTR is quest-centric, Ice and Fire is egocentric in that it really focuses on the people in the story. Tolkien uses up paragraphs to describe every tree and rock and blade of grass the Fellowship of the Ring pass on their way to Mordor; Martin takes great pains to describe a knight's cloak in detail:
the color, the material, the trim, the length, all the way down to the shape of the clasp and what metal it's made of (and sometimes it's not even a knight with a significant role). In this way, each player in the story comes alive through vividly painted verbal portraits, and it is so easy to not only identify, but identify WITH the characters.

At the heart of Ice and Fire are the major houses or families involved in the power struggle for the Iron Throne, the ruling seat of the Seven Kingdoms. The Starks of Winterfell are central figures throughout the series, and are generally perceived to be the good guys, while the Lannisters of Casterly Rock are the baddies. But I hesitate to label anyone as an outright villain, because as I mentioned already, no one is absolutely evil or purely good in Martin's universe (well, maybe except for a handful of truly deranged psychos). My favorites come from different houses, and some only grew on me after 2 or 3 books. I will not enumerate them here for fear of spoiling anyone's reading experience (i.e. revealing which characters are still alive by book 5), suffice it to say some have already been made to kick the bucket by their heartless creator (boo!).

Besides, the true enemy in Ice and Fire isn't a particular house, but "the Others", undead creatures that walk the wintery woods beyond the Wall, a formidably high structure erected to keep unwanted elements out of Westeros. However, since the humans are busy playing their game of thrones, the real threat to the kingdoms mounts unheeded as winter (and in Westeros winter can last years) draws nearer.

Even with this otherworldly touch, as well as some other supernatural/occult elements, Martin's landmark series is still firmly grounded in the harsh realities of humanity, and I often forget that I'm reading something from the fantasy genre. In spite of the medieval setting, the themes, particularly the politics, are very modern. Thus, the appeal to modern readers, even non-fans of fantasy lit, is understandable. And so damn irresistible.

I cannot rave enough about A Song of Ice and Fire, so I'd better stop myself here before I go on a full-blown fangirl gushfest. My parting shot would be that I strongly recommend people to read the books prior to watching the HBO series in order to get a better appreciation of Martin's creation, which translates so well into television but is infinitely richer in text. Then again, if you value your sleep, perhaps it would be wiser not to pick up any of Martin's books at all. I've still got the eyebags to prove it.


At Tuesday, September 13, 2011, Anonymous Christa said...

I've not yet started on Clash of Kings, though my UK edition is on reserve at Fully Booked. :) Had to wait a while since they ran out and had to order again. I have that till Feast for Crows reserved, in case all the UK editions get taken up. :) Haha. Addicted much?

Also, I agree with what you said about Tolkien curing insomnia. I was just like that when I read his 2nd book. Hobbit and Book1 was nice, but Book2 just drawled on too much.

Lastly, have you read Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto? :) It just came out but I've only read the first 30 or so pages.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2011, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

Hi Christa! I've never read Sotto, is she good? :) I'm currently reading The Hunger Games trilogy, felt like I needed something light after John Banville's rather somber "The Infinities".

At Thursday, September 15, 2011, Anonymous Christa said...

This is her first book. She's a Filipino so they are really trying to get her work out. The book is okay, interesting concept, though her writing style is somewhat...fanfiction like? Just a lot of detail. Book is suppose to be inspired by Time Traveler's Wife. :)

I heard that The Hunger Games is nice. Might just borrow copies from friends since I have no cash to spend on it. A Song of Ice and Fire has left me without cash. XD


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