Review: “A Song of Ice and Fire”

Aidan Backus, Editor-in-Chief

And they say, they say chivalry is dead
But let a real man pick up the slack and treat you with respect

So goes the mantra of the 2015 hit song by Trevor Wesley — and yet when The Winds of Winter, the sixth novel of George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire is released in 2016, it will undoubtedly continue Ice and Fire’s absolute rejection of “chivalry” as an honorable code under which knights protected women, children, and innocents from evildoers.

Ice and Fire debuted in 1996 with A Game of Thrones (after which the series’s hugely successful HBO adaptation was named) in which the nation of Westeros collapses into civil war after the death of the King’s adviser, Jon Arryn, and assassination attempts on Bran Stark, a son of protagonists Eddard Stark and Catelyn Tully. After the Starks’ investigation leads them to question the legitimacy of Joffrey Baratheon — supposedly the son of Eddard’s close friend King Robert Baratheon and his wife Cersei Lannister, and known among fans as King Justin Bieber for his immaturity — Robert’s brothers, Renly and Stannis Baratheon, both claim to the rightful king. Amidst the chaos created by the war between the Baratheons, independence movements arise, the daughter of the deposed king, Daenerys Targaryen, grows into womanhood and begins plotting her own rise to power, and nearly all factions ignore the ruin both they have brought to the peasantry by war and a zombie apocalypse that threatens to kill them all.

A Game of Thrones is a fast-paced drama in which even lead protagonists can fall to the headsman’s blade; its prologue follows a scouting party that is ambushed by wights and whose sole survivor is later executed by Eddard for treason. However, unlike most fantasy series, it is not really a struggle of good and evil; Catelyn’s motivation is primarily to protect her family, but she largely fails. Meanwhile, Tywin Lannister also fights for his family, but he is willing to massacre hundreds of civilians to achieve that goal.

Game is followed by A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, in which the so-called War of the Five Kings is fought out. Storm is a whopping 992 pages, but its climax, in which the war ends decisively but the winning party begins to fall from power, is the most shocking scene of the series. Point-of-view characters continue to tell their stories to the reader up until their assassination, weddings become more terrifying than the battlefield, and the last paragraph of the book shows just what happens when childhood romance goes very, very wrong.

Readers whose beliefs about the Middle Ages mirror Wesley’s will find their changing viewpoints paralleled by the Stark daughters, Sansa and Arya. Sansa starts off innocently believing in chivalry and hero-worshipping the beautiful Joffrey, but after finding herself being used as the pawn of the Lannisters and witnessing Joffrey’s atrocities firsthand, she becomes deeply cynical about the “game of thrones” that the nobility of Westeros plays. Arya is forced to go on the run and becomes utterly ruthless even though she is just nine years old, praying every night for the deaths of her enemies, stabbing one of them to death at the first opportunity.

The conflict winds down in the last two books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. The image of “feasting crows” — literally, birds feeding on the corpses of fallen soldiers after a battle, but metaphorically describing the nobility fighting over the ruins of Westeros — comes up often in Feast, which describes famine, sacking, religious fanaticism, and other consequences of the war. The deep-rooted pessimism of the Stark motto, “Winter is coming,” comes both literally and metaphorically true in Feast. Interestingly, much of Feast is told from Cersei’s point of view. Because she is paranoid and vain, Cersei makes for an incredibly bad leader and a despicable villain, causing her own downfall as she replaces competent subordinates who criticise her foolishness openly with those who are either stupid, corrupt, or secretly plotting against her. Being able to see into Cersei’s mind only makes the reader cheer for her Scarlet Letter-like fate in Dance further, just as being able to understand a hero’s thoughts would make one emphasize with them.

Unfortunately, no “dance with dragons” happens; though Dance’s chapters depicting torture at the hands of the sadistic Ramsay Bolton make for gruesome horror, compounded by Martin’s detail-obsessed writing style, little happens outside his quarters at the Dreadfort. The war has reached a stalemate, and a weakness of the series finally overtakes its positive traits: there are so many characters, so many locations, and so much attention to detail that nobody’s stories can be told. Much of the fascinating lead cast of earlier books was wiped out in the climax of Storm, and have been replaced in Feast by characters from undeveloped locations such as Dorne and the Iron Islands, which the average reader will be indifferent to.

The novels also raise the question of when a healthy level of realistic cynicism becomes an overdose. Time and time again, characters’ honorable but foolhardy idealism leads to their defeat while seemingly “evil” characters turn out to have respectable but corrupted motivations, which creates a fascinating battle between morally gray characters mid-series, as the “heroes” have all either chosen to fight dirty or have fallen from power, but eventually reaches the point where evil seems to always win. Not even Martin, the great deconstructor of fantasy tropes, is likely to end the series with “Daenerys and the Starks are all dead, Cersei and the Boltons rule the land, and the White Walkers are about to kill everyone,” so if evil always wins, a sort of deus ex machina in reverse, no progress is made in the plot and the series can never end!

That said, even the slow-paced later novels are carried by Martin’s writing, characters, and sense of irony. The famous “Frey pies” incident in Dance, a subtle nuance never stated outright but left to reader interpretation, combines all of the above as well as Martin’s love of food (when characters complain to the reader about the poor quality of their meals, it’s sure foreshadowing that disaster is about to strike) to showcase the brilliance of A Song of Ice and Fire when Martin is at his best.

Though they are not without shortcomings, the novels of A Song of Ice and Fire allow the reader to look into medieval Europe through a surprisingly realistic fantasy analogue, in which no one faction is right and no character, no matter how sympathetic, is safe. The song of intrigue and knighthood shall be sung for years after its completion … assuming that date ever comes.