a dance of dragons

Weekend Read: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

Winter is coming, and so at last is the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s massive fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s been a gap of more than five years, a wait that has made many of his fans testy, but this Tuesday the wait is over and A Dance of Dragons hits the streets. It’s supposed to be a brick of a book, clocking in with eleven storylines, sixteen viewpoints, and over a thousand pages. To prepare yourself, hole up this weekend with the previous four books and prepare to immerse yourself in the world Martin has created. That’s certainly what I’m going to do. You want some reading for the weekend? Here’s the mother of all weekend reads.

Hard to say what it’s about, really. I could talk for hours, and only be done with half the plotlines. Suffice it to say that there’s a medieval throne in a country kind of like England; some people want the throne and others try to prevent them from getting it and they all go to war, while the common folk just keep their heads down and all the while a darker threat is looming in the north, which is the land of things that go bump in the night. Politics, murder, war, love, battle, rape, poison, backstabbing, scheming, treachery–these books have it all.

Hate fantasy? A Song of Ice and Fire is fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy. Martin lays on the magic with a light touch; he relies on character and plot to move the story along rather than The Force or any magic ring. If one of his characters is strung up from a tree (ahem, George, you left her there at the end of the Book 4 and you’d better resolve it quick because I don’t want to leave her hanging there another half-decade while you write Book 5) then she’ll have to get down with wits, strength, or good old-fashioned luck because no magical gizmo is going to show up and save her in deus ex machina fashion. There’s magic in these books but it’s unpredictable, chancy, dangerous, and rare–just like any other force of nature.

Hate fantasy and love historical fiction? No problem. Sly references to real history abound. There’s a war between two families called the Starks and the Lannisters–Yorks and Lancasters, anybody? There’s a deposed royal family living in exile across the water–the deposed Stuarts, anybody? There’s a womanizing drunk of a king and his beautiful but ambitious blond wife; check and check for Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. The continent is England-shaped, albeit much larger, and there’s even a massive ice wall running through the top just like Hadrian’s Wall dividing England and Scotland. There’s a loyal lord who loses a head much like Richard Duke of York, and another lord who turns traitor much like the lord who betrayed Richard II at the Battle of Bosworth. A Song of Ice and Fire is kind of like the Wars of the Roses, only with colder winters and a dragon or three.

If you’re daunted by the sheer size of the books, which admittedly are doorstoppers, start with the TV series. HBO gave the first book, Game of Thrones, the full treatment: vast budget, huge cast, gorgeous costumes, stunning sets, stirring music, and expert CGI. That’ll take you through the first book, and then you’ll be stuck like the rest of us, waiting for Season 2 to come out in ten months. At least next Tuesday the next book comes out.

It might tide me over.