A General Reaction to the Series
By the end of A Storm of Swords, the third book in George RR Martin's sprawling series, collectively titled A Song of Ice and Fire, Arya Stark has freed herself from a feverish and possibly dying Hound; Sansa Stark has survived an attempt on her life by the insane Lysa Arryn (who is herself thrown through the Moon Door by her newly minted husband, Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish); Jaime Lannister has lost a hand but found his way back to King's Landing and rejoined the Kingsguard thanks to Brienne of Tarth; Jon Snow has been made Lord Commander of the Night's Watch in place of old, betrayed Jeor Mormont; Catelyn Stark has been killed at the Red Wedding and thrown naked into a river—only to come back as a horrible, half-decayed revenant at the very end of the book; Catelyn's son Robb has been killed at the same event, his head cut off and replaced by the head of his direwolf, Grey Wind; Tyrion Lannister has escaped imprisonment, strangled his betraying whore Shae, shot his imperious father Tywin with a crossbow while Dad was taking a dump, and presumably fled King's Landing with the aid of the treacherous Varys "The Spider"; Brandon Stark has reached the Nightfort and discovered the Black Gate through the Wall, along with his companions Jojen and Meera Reed, as well as the craven Samwell Tarly, friend of Jon Snow. Meanwhile, in Essos, Daenerys Targaryen has conquered city after city in her quest to return to Westeros as that land's rightful queen. Her three young dragons grow apace but are not yet large enough to be ridden. She has dismissed Ser Jorah Mormont from her service after discovering that he had been feeding information to King's Landing about her movements; she has kept Ser Barristan Selmy with her, despite feeling he had betrayed her, too; his betrayal was accompanied by sincere contrition whereas, in Dany's opinion, Jorah Mormont's had been marked by arrogance. Does that about cover it?
Oh, wait—you don't know any of these place names? The Wall, the Nightfort, the Black Gate, King's Landing, Westeros, Essos, and so on? You don't know any of these people? Eddard, Catelyn, Sansa, Arya, Robb, Brandon, Littlefinger, Robert, Cersei, Jaime, Tyrion, Varys, Brienne, Jon, Samwell, Barristan the Bold, Jorah Mormont, Daenerys? Then I suppose I should start at the beginning.
GRR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is currently a five-book "grimdark fantasy" series (soon to expand to seven books—possibly to eight, if the rumors are true) set on a world with strangely paced seasons—seasons that can last for years. The physical laws of this world are otherwise familiar to us, but there is magic, and there are magical (or at least alien) creatures and plants. It's a world of Darwinian struggle, with kings and kingdoms (and one lone, young queen-to-be) striving against each other, each armed with plots, plans, and ambitions. We're introduced to the Starks early on: their patriarch is Lord Eddard Stark, who is quickly made Hand of the King. The king, in this case, is Robert Baratheon, who sits upon the Iron Throne—an uncomfortable and even dangerous chair made of melted-down swords—at King's Landing. At the beginning of the series, Robert, once a fearsome warrior, has grown fat and given in to his vices—drinking and whoring—while his wife Cersei Lannister engages in an incestuous and adulterous relationship with her brother Jaime Lannister, a renowned fighter (NB: Martin's story is full of renowned fighters, most of whom never have the chance to meet and measure themselves against each other). While the Baratheons and Lannisters are visiting Winterfell, the northland home of the Starks, Jaime pushes young Brandon Stark out a window when Brandon accidentally catches Jaime and Cersei having sex. Brandon isn't killed, however: he's paralyzed, and this may or may not have consequences later on.
Both Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark die fairly early in the story; Eddard, who had had evil premonitions upon learning he was to become the King's Hand, knew he would travel south to King's Landing and not return. He ends up confessing to treason and getting beheaded despite the wishes of his daughter Sansa, who is betrothed to Joffrey Baratheon, the cruel and suspiciously blond "son" of Robert (but in truth the issue of the incestuous bond between platinum-headed Queen Cersei and her equally golden-haired brother Ser Jaime: Jaime is Joffrey's true father, which relates to why Jaime tried to kill Brandon: to keep the incest a secret). Much of the rest of the story follows members of the ever-more-frayed Stark family as they go on separate adventures; the story also follows the misadventures of Tyrion Lannister—a witty and resourceful dwarf who is the shame of his father Tywin—and Jaime Lannister, a generally arrogant and despicable fellow whose lone virtue is that he loves and cares for Tyrion. Last but not least, the series tracks the rise of Daenerys "Stormborn" Targaryen, a girl who possesses some inherent magical might that makes her proof from conflagration (one of her titles is "The Unburnt") and thus a natural friend and caregiver to dragons—of which there are, apparently, only three left in the entire world: all of them hers.
There's so much to talk about, when it comes to this complex series, that I'm not quite sure where to begin. Perhaps I'll begin with a general reaction, then, and that reaction must begin with a confession: I had a hell of a hard time getting into the first book. Martin doesn't seem to care that his readers need to take time to digest this world that he's building for us; he piles on the names of people and places, mentioning only in passing how they're all connected, and we're left to figure out these relationships, and their significance, as the plot grinds ever forward. That was easily the hardest thing for me to swallow: the unrelenting avalanche of goddamn proper nouns. At the very beginning of the story, I had no idea whom to care for, whom to root for. Martin, perhaps to his credit, doesn't make that sort of choice easy for us, either: characters that seem disgusting and vicious and treacherous at the beginning often reveal themselves to be more complex and sympathetic as the story unfolds. (The aforementioned Jaime Lannister is a good case in point: I hated Jaime for two-and-a-half books, but became more sympathetic when he lost a hand and rescued his brother Tyrion from the black cell in King's Landing.) A positive way to look at Martin's project is to say that the man in no way insults the reader's intelligence: the reader has to catch up to him, not the other way around.
Martin's series has been called "grimdark" fantasy because of its gritty, rough-edged nature: the author doesn't shrink from matters of rape and incest, nor does he shy away from frank depictions of blood and gore, especially in the heat of battle. Martin doesn't take perverse delight in detailed descriptions of stomach-turning events; he merely relays them matter-of-factly, often in a neutral tone reminiscent of Tom Clancy's workmanlike, unadorned style. He does, in my opinion, sling the word "cunt" around a bit too freely, but I've noticed that Martin's choice of swear words is generally restricted to Anglo-Saxonisms* that play up the association between his fantasy world and that of medieval-era western Europe. (I'll talk more about Martin's prose in my next essay.)
Martin does a good job of maintaining the reader's interest through unpredictability. As the running joke goes, there are two things you can never know in A Song of Ice and Fire: who the main character is supposed to be, and what's going to happen next. Because Martin has thrown so many pieces onto the chessboard, he has created a truly complex world that is, as I've taken to calling it, a matrix of asymmetries, in which forces never push at each other directly, and karma (i.e., cosmic justice) is never as obvious or as linear as we'd like it to be. Here's what I mean:
The Lannisters are married to the Baratheons; Robert Baratheon is best buddies with Eddard Stark, but Robert's wife Cersei is an enemy of the Starks (as becomes more obvious as the plot unfolds). Jaime Lannister has pushed little Brandon Stark out a window, crippling the boy; Tyrion Lannister, by contrast, gets along quite well with Jon Snow, Eddard Stark's bastard son. Eddard cares deeply for Jon, but Catelyn Stark, Eddard's wife, can't stand the teen—for justifiable reasons that have nothing to do with Jon's noble, honorable character. Robert Baratheon, in his heyday, killed Rhaegar Targaryen in the Battle of the Trident (a confluence of rivers) by crushing his armored chest in with a war hammer; Jaime Lannister earned the name "Kingslayer" by killing "Mad King" Aerys Targaryen. Rhaegar's young sister Daenerys Targaryen shares her other brother Viserys's visions of reclaiming all the seven kingdoms of Westeros, but she's on the other side of the Narrow Sea in Essos, initially as the wife of Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo. Drogo kills the vain Viserys; when Drogo himself dies and his army is scattered, Daenerys establishes her own humble retinue of soldiers and "smallfolk" (one of Martin's favorite terms) and becomes a khaleesi, a type of queen. Her eventual goal is to return to Westeros to claim her rightful seat as imperatrix of the Seven Kingdoms, but even after three books, we're a long way from that happening. Daenerys (or "Dany," as she's nicknamed) has hatched her dragons, whom she dotes on as a mother would. All of this is quite complex, and I haven't even mentioned the machinations of Littlefinger and Varys or the strong women of Dorne, all of whom are doing their best to move their own chess pieces.
So, overall, the books have become more readable as time has gone on. The first book was a struggle to get through, but now that I'm familiar with most of Martin's fictional universe, it won't be hard to go back and reread the series from the beginning. I like the fact that Martin keeps his characters' motivations small and understandable; this is a welcome contrast to the cosmic motivations of the characters in Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series. Donaldson's fantasy is high and operatic, but Martin's is of a lower-brow variety that is engaging on its own terms. Future essays will discuss Martin's universe in more detail, including things like the role of magic and exotic creatures. For the moment, though, these were my initial impressions. Taken in its entirety, Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is a real page-turner, propelled by its unpredictability and massive cast of point-of-view characters. I'm a couple hundred pages into the fourth book, now; much of the adventuring is taking place in Braavos, which is proving to be a more mystical region than I would have given it credit for being. Arya Stark has met Samwell Tarly, but neither knows who the other is, so they don't know that their common link is Jon Snow (Arya is Jon's half-sister; Samwell is Jon's "brother" in the Night's Watch). We'll just have to see how things unroll from here.
*See, for example, the etymology of "cunt" here.