This is a nigh on 1,000 page fantasy novel, fourth in a series called A Song Of Ice And Fire. In the main I dislike fantasy novels and series both – not to mention books resembling doorstops. Martin, however, wrote a fair few short stories and novels in his early career that I greatly admired (even including a vampire novel, Fevre Dream, and I cannot usually take vampire stories seriously) so I was prepared to give his fantasy a go. I still resisted starting off reading A Song Of Ice And Fire as Martin hadn’t completed the cycle and I didn’t want to be kept waiting too long for the conclusion. When this fourth volume came out the fifth was promised soon, so I embarked on the first, A Game Of Thrones, and was immediately enthused.
This is a fully envisioned world. This feels real. You could call the setting a default mediaeval one but there is a grittiness to this and an attention to detail that sets it far above most fantasy novels. Every named character, even minor ones, even ones we meet only fleetingly, has an extensive back story and a fully fledged psychology. The environments and habitats described are also convincingly delineated and differentiated.
It’s a cruel, nasty and vicious world to be sure. There is so much killing, rape, pillage and worse that it makes you wonder whether Martin’s world will run out of people to suffer these outrages or take part in the various battles, conspiracies etc but then this is what happens when the dogs of war are let slip and anarchy is loosed upon the world.
It is possible that Martin is reworking the Wars Of The Roses in a fantasy setting. (There is a set of warring houses, one of which is called Lannister, a crookback prince, battles galore, with various crowns changing hands, betrayals and shifting allegiances; there is strife within as well as between families.) If he is, for an American to be doing so is remarkable but (to my limited knowledge of those times) he has strayed far from that template. The scope of A Song Of Ice And Fire is enormous.
So much so that at times the detail can be overwhelming. How Martin keeps track of who is who among his assorted Kings, Lords, Ladies, Bannermen, Knights, Squires, sellswords, bandits and smallfolk is a miracle as it can be confusing to the readers if they do not pay enough attention. A helpful cast of characters listed by Royal House is appended to each book. This is one of the few occasions where such an affectation may be justified.
Each section has a different viewpoint character, some of whom are antagonistic to each other. Martin manages to make all of their internal musings believable and even to engage our sympathies with them all, despite their conflicts, as the unfolding story is revealed through their individual activities and interactions. His technique echoes that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, not in that he reveals the meat or meaning of a scene at the start, but that he grows it towards the climax. In A Feast For Crows this more often than not twists the story in a new direction.
The setting of A Song Of Ice And Fire is largely inimical to Martin’s female characters, of course, but, as is natural for our less hide-bound 21st century times, he gives his readers a fair few strong ones, some of whom kick against the prejudices inherent in their world.
There are some suggestions in the text that this may actually be Science Fiction rather than fantasy, that people arrived on this world some time in the distant past from elsewhere and wiped out the original inhabitants. Phew! Fantasy prejudice saved. However; here be dragons! (I’ve always wanted to write that.) The dragons, though, are merely mentioned in A Feast For Crows. We met them earlier in the series but there is so much here that their story and that of some characters encountered in earlier books have been held over for volume five. There are also: a profusion of religions, reanimated corpses and apparently supernatural weirdnesses of other sorts. (In previous volumes we had direwolves with a telepathic link to particular humans and wights who can only be killed with obsidian.) So maybe not SF then.
Four years on we are still waiting for publication of the fifth book, whose content Martin has significantly foreshadowed in A Feast For Crows. Martin has been subject to criticism and even abuse for this delay. I’m not surprised he is experiencing difficulty, the number of corners he has potentially painted himself into.
As far as I’m concerned Martin can take as long as he likes to finish; or not as the case may be. I want the rest of the series to be as good as the first four offerings. He needs time to make sure it/they are. If it/they never arrive we’ll all just have to make up our own fitting endings. And we’ll still have a feast in the books already printed.