Saturday, May 10, 2014

Exploring the Nebulas Runners-Up Edition: A Song of Ice and Fire

Always a bridesmaid never a bride: that seems to be the story of A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic High Fantasy series by American author George R.R. Martin. With five books available and two more expected after 2015, Martin has two more shots at winning a Nebula Award for Best Novel. But as of now, Martin has yet to take it and this blog entry will discuss the first three novels of the saga: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1999), and A Storm of Swords (2001) all of which were short-listed for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in the year of their publication but did not win. Welcome to the first ever "Blogging the Nebulas: Runners-up Edition"!  

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, (Bantam Spectra, 1996). This book lost the Nebula Award for Best Novel to The Slow River by Nicola Griffith.

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin (Bantam Spectra, 1999). This book lost the Nebula Award for Best Novel to Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler.

A Storm of Swards by George R.R. Martin (Bantam Spectra, 2000) This book lost the Nebula Award for Best Novel to The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro. The fourth and fifth book of the series, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, were both nominated for the Hugo Awards but not the Nebula Awards and are not discussed in this blog entry. 
To call A Song of Fire and Ice epic is an understatement. With A Game of Thrones clocking in at over 800 pages, A Clash Of Kings at 1000, and A Storm of Swords at 1100, these books are not for the faint of heart or attention-span deficient. The series tells the story of the familial relations and geopolitics of the Seven Kingdoms, a large imperial body located on the fictional continent of Westeros, and the drive of its major houses to rule from its "Iron Throne." The principal protagonists are members of House Stark, the house paramount of the largest kingdom-province named simply and appropriately, the North. The head of House Stark at the beginning of the story is Ned Stark, the dutiful, stoic and honest "warden" of his sparse yet peaceful province. Among the Starks key rivals is the wealthy House Lannister, led by the ruthless and diabolical Tywin Lannister. Tywin is Warden of the West and rules the Westerlands, an area of the Seven Kingdoms that is rich with gold and mineral deposits. House Lannister also features the dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, who at first engenders ambivalence but soon becomes an important and entertaining protagonist in his own right. Other important houses of Westeros include the Tullys who govern the Riverlands, the Tyrells who govern the Reach, the Baratheons who govern the Stormlands (and amongst whom includes the King of the Seven Kingdoms himself), and the Martells who rule the largely independent and separate region of Dorne. The northern marches of the Seven Kingdoms is bordered by a massive 700 foot high ice wall which is manned by a quasi-monastic order called the "Night’s Watch." These brothers serve the important role of keeping the "wildlings" and others who live north of the Wall from invading the Seven Kingdoms. 

Image from George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones: The Graphic Novel, Volume I. Adopted by Daniel Abraham with art by Tommy Patterson (Bantam Books, 2012)
Heading a large family of six children (which includes one bastard son who becomes an important character to the story), Ned and his noble wife Catelyn (née Tully) deal with the same issues that most parents do and their lives are otherwise peaceful. This all changes however when it's announced at the beginning of A Game of Thrones that Ned’s old friend and ally King Robert Baratheon, plans to visit Winterfell, the Stark's seat of power. Robert is married to Cersei, daughter of Tywin Lannister, so a visit from the king is not entirely a welcome thing for the Starks. And this proves to be exactly the case, when the Stark's second son Bran mysteriously falls and severely injures himself and the king further asks Ned to move to the capital city and serve as the "King’s Hand" a role analogous to prime minister. Robert won the throne decades earlier from the exiled House Targaryen, who themselves conquered and united the Seven Kingdoms three hundred years before after invading Westeros from the ancient (and now ruined) city of Valyria, off the larger continent of Essos. The final exiled issue of the last Targaryen king is a young woman named Daenerys and she eventually becomes a key character of the saga as she travels throughout Essos in search of an army and allies as she prepares to mount her claim for the Iron Throne. Daenerys biggest weapon is the same that were brought by her ancestor centuries earlier and a long-time key to House Targaryen's power – Dragons! 

Image from George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones: The Graphic Novel, Volume I. Adopted by Daniel Abraham with art by Tommy Patterson (Bantam Books, 2012)
Naturally, this review has only covers a fraction of A Song of Ice and Fire but I hope it gives you a sense of the massive scope of these books. And they’re very good books too. Being a long-time fantasy reader, I really enjoyed them because they speak to me as both a lover of the fantastical, but also someone who loves fictional history too. Indeed, the quasi-medieval politics is so carefully constructed and impressively coherent that at times it often seems like real history. And I think this is what makes them so popular and accessible for mainstream readers who may be interested in modern or historical fiction too. Indeed, indelible marks of medieval France and England and Renaissance Italy are all over these tomes and despite their being dragons and other fantasy themed beasts, A Song of Ice and Fire remarkably straddles genres and cannot be boxed into a corner. I know this isn’t at all scientific, but I’d offer up as two example of readers who don't enjoy fantasy but loves these books as my -- father and sister. Both have read portions of the larger saga but are not at all interested in overtly fantasy titles like The Lord of the Rings no matter how much I tell him they should be. Each chapter is divided not by numbers but by the principal character which it discusses which also makes the book more manageable. Of course, because there is so much "history" to the book, and I do recommend having a tablet computer or map close to get a better sense of what is going on. George R.R. Martin is a remarkable world-builder and sometimes this is the most daunting part of the books!    

Image of the Iron Throne from the hit HBO program Game of Thrones. Image from HBO's website.
In recent years A Song of Ice and Fire has exploded onto other mediums, most notably the highly popular HBO television program Game of Thrones. This show which recently entered its fourth season in April 2014 has exposed the source material to legions of fans who might otherwise may have missed it in the late 90s. Evidence of this is the fact that A Game of Thrones made it onto the New York Bestseller list in 2011 – 15 years after its original publication. Game of Thrones has proven popular across a number of key demographics and has increased viewership for its premier episode each year going forward, with women also making up a significant portion of its audience.  Less scientifically, it has also been the source of a number of Twitter trends and been cause of a number of pop-culture, perhaps most significantly the (in)famous "Red Wedding" which occurred in the penultimate episode of the third season in 2013. A Song of Ice and Fire has also spawned comic books, video games and a number of time wasting online activities, my favourite being linked here.

On the whole A Song of Ice and Fire is a very good read. They’re long books and take time for average-speed readers like you humble blogger. But they’re worth it and watching the characters and geopolitics unfold is a truely enjoyable experience. So if you've seen the HBO show but have yet to read the source material, I highly recommend you give these books a shot. They may be Nebula runners-ups, but they're all fantastically good books regardless!

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