george r.r. martin

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.

Teaser Tuesday

What with the release of Daughters of Rome, the subsequent guest blog tour, and the days of preparation for/debauchery during/recovery from the Historical Novel Society Conference, it has been a looooooooong time since I’ve posted a snippet for Teaser Tuesday. Today it’s very simple:

“Winter is coming.”

— from Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin; book one in his epic “A Song Of Ice And Fire.” Book five, A Dance With Dragons, at last comes out next week after a delay of more than five years, and I for one will be first in line. I’m spending the week rereading the previous four books, including Game of Thrones, and I recommend historical fiction lovers to do the same: this is fantasy that even fantasy haters will like. Parallels to real history abound, and to make matters better, HBO just wrapped Season 1 of a blood-drenched, mind-bogglingly lavish, eye-poppingly sexy, superbly acted Game of Thrones TV show.

Come back on Friday to read my full review.

Coming Soon In 2011 . . .

I used to think there was nothing better than finding a terrific new book that I’ve never read before. Wrong. Even better than that is finding a terrific new book that I’ve never read before, then discovering that it is the first of a series and two more books in the series are already out and another is being released in four months with more books to follow. That is pure heaven. And one way or another, it has been a great year for fiction series. Here are a few books I’m looking forward to in 2011, after being left on tenterhooks by the last installment in the series . . .

1. Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Series.”

Cornwell is just about my favorite historical fiction author out there, and the Saxon Series is his latest smash hit. Revolving around the reign of Alfred the Great in the days when Vikings were still rampaging all over England, Cornwell focuses not on the devout and humorless Alfred as he tries to put a nation together but on Alfred’s most heroic (and reluctant) ally: Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Viking-raised warlord with an unstoppable talent for killing on the battlefield, and an equally unstoppable bent for trouble off it. Cornwell’s last installment The Burning Land left Uhtred bereft of the woman he loves but burying his troubles in his favorite hobby–killing enemies. The next Uhtred book should be out sometime this fall.

2. Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files.”

I’m usually a lukewarm fan when it comes to urban fantasy, but Jim Butcher got me hook line and sinker. His Dresden Files are expansive, complex, and always funny, a rare quality in fantasy. Harry Dresden is a professional wizard in modern-day Chicago with a gift for pissing off various forces of darkness, and a complete disability to back down from a fight. His “Have staff, will smite” attitude and steady stream of snarky one-liners has carried him through twelve books to date, and the last, Changes, was the most harrowing yet. Harry has lost everything, including his life . . . or has he? The last page of Changes is one long maddening cliffhanger, thankfully to be solved on April 5, 2011 by the next volume in the Dresden Files, titled Ghost Story.

3. Sara Poole’s “Poison” series.

Sara Poole is a new author I found this year with her novel Poison, a lush and unflinching look at the Italian Renaissance and the always fascinating Borgia family through the eyes of a very unusual heroine. Francesca is the Borgia family’s professional in-house poisoner, a young and deceptively demure-faced girl whose day job is to keep the Borgias alive and their enemies dead. Francesca had me riveted from the first page when she got her job by poisoning her predecessor and then calmly explaining how she did it; a heroine so amoral and yet so centered is a delight. I will be first in line on June 7, 2011 when The Borgia Betrayal is released–the second installment of Francesca’s adventures now that her Borgia master has become Pope.

4. Michael Grant’s “Gone” series.

Cross Stephen King’s Under The Dome with Lord of the Flies, add a dash of X-Men, and you get Gone: the disturbing tale of what happens to a small California beach town when an impenetrable barrier slams down–but traps only the fourteen-and-under crowd inside. Kids begin to mutate alarming powers and a mysterious darkness is growing, but the most interesting part of the story for me is seeing a shy teenager named Sam grow into hero and leader as his brainy girlfriend tries to re-invent a Constitution that will govern fairly and effectively over the increasingly desperate and violent band of children. The fourth book in the series, Plague, will be release April 5, 2011.

5. George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series.

Is there even the smallest chance that we will see Dance of Dragons this year, given that it is now at least two years overdue? One character has been left hanging from a tree by a noose, another rots in jail, a third is stricken suddenly blind, and others have been MIA since the previous book. Oh well, this massive fantasy series remains my favorite in the fantasy genre, about which I am usually fairly unenthusiastic. Martin keeps his work close to history, and I always have fun finding the War of the Roses in-jokes or the Stuart Kings parallels. Let’s hope we finally see the fifth installment this year.

These are only my top five series. I’ve got a lot of reading to do this year, and I look forward to it. Special thanks to the publishers of Michael Grant and Jim Butcher, who were kind enough to schedule Ghost Story and Plague to be released the same day as my second book, Daughters of Rome. It’s always a bit of a head-scratcher figuring out what to do on the day of your novel’s release. It’s not a movie, so there’s no premiere to attend in a fabulous gown. You can’t start checking your online reviews yet, since most people (even assuming they buy the book on the first day) still need to time to read it. You can’t even go down to your local bookstore just to gaze at your book on the shelf, since most bookstores don’t stock your book the minute it is released unless you are JK Rowling or at least Richelle Mead. Last year when Mistress of Rome was released I wandered around my apartment and bit my nails a lot. This year when Daughters of Rome is released, on Tuesday April 5, 2011, I will be nose deep in the adventures of either Harry Dresden or the scrappy mutant kids of the FAYZ. Thank God for distractions.

And for those of you who were kind enough to tell me you were happily anticipating Daughters of Rome as one of your 2011 reads–well, it’s still three months till publication, but I did get permission to post the first chapter. Read here if you would like a sneak peek!

Stretching The Bounds

I enjoy fantasy, but I always approach it warily. So much of it is a retread: a band of heroes trekking across a vaguely medieval landscape in search of some magical McGuffin that will save the world. Swords, magic, quests; valiant heroes, scheming wizards, lovely ladies. The best fantasy novels exemplify the genre–and there is one writer out there who is reinventing it. That would be George R.R. Martin: his massive fantasy series “The Song of Fire and Ice” is breaking the bounds of the novel in general and fantasy in particular. Even if you are not a fan of fantasy, here are five reasons why this series is worth your time:

1. Realism. His novels might take place in a fantasy land, but they are solidly grounded in the sometimes-squalid realities of fourteenth-century medieval history. Magic, so often over-used in fantasy until it becomes a deus ex machina to get the hero out of trouble, is laid on with a light hand here. There is magic in his world but it is unreliable, unpredictable, and rare. The book’s plot and characters are solidly based in the struggles of the powerful to acquire a throne, their rivals who try to stop them, and the little people who want only to avoid getting hurt. And there are a lot of historical parallels: Martin creates deliberate echoes of the War of the Roses, the reign of Edward IV and his scheming queen, the Stuart Kings across the water, and many other real-life events.

2. Backstory. How many fantasy novels begin with a lengthy prologue that intones In the dawn of time and drags the reader on an endless history and genealogy lesson, before the story has even begun? Martin’s series boasts an exceptionally complicated backstory–a rebellion against a mad king is still making waves a generation later–but he never puts the reader through a history lesson. Rather, he imparts the information through the often-conflicting memories of his characters, and then leaves you wondering whose version of the past is the truth.

3. Characters. Martin has a lot of them, and they all have their own hopes, their own desires, and their own agenda. They are all the hero of their own story, rather than standing about respectfully watching the larger characters have all the fun. And characters change–heroes become villains, villains become heroes, and every possible variation in between.

4. Scope. Martin’s world is vast, and only getting vaster. He fearlessly introduces new characters, new storylines, new plot twists, and expects you to keep up. Each family has crests, mottoes, backstories, allies, loyalties, and secrets, and you are expected to keep track of it all. So refreshing after books that get shorter, easier, and breezier with every passing year, supposedly to keep up with the public’s short attention spans. Martin isn’t afraid to make demands of his readers–time and attention, and the reward is huge.

5. Length. There are four books in the series, each topping at least five hundred pages. This amounts to thousands of pages of reading, and there are at least three more books to come. The last book could not even be contained in one volume, but had to be published in two. The “Song of Fire and Ice” has grown so enormous that it is breaking the boundaries of the novel itself; stretching it further than it has ever gone before. If Tolkien invented the fantasy genre, Martin is extending it. Who knows when his series will be completed, but the world of fantasy will never be the same.

If you like fantasy, you will love this series. If you dislike fantasy, you will love this series. These aren’t books you read; they are books that devour you whole. Buy the first one, and enjoy being eaten.