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.

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