Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Recommended reading: George R. R. Martin

Another article on recommended reading is admittedly long overdue, and as George R. R. Martin topped the recent poll of 'Best F/SF authors' on Westeros (as admittedly subjective as that poll was), I thought it fitting to write a few lines about him and why everyone should read his books.

Martin is something of a genre legend. While most authors tend to stick to one genre, occasionally dipping their toes into another genre to test the water, Martin has had work published in all three major speculative fiction genres: fantasy, sci-fi and horror. Furthermore, he's equally skilled at writing in each one.

The recipient of a number of Hugo and Nebula awards, Martin has written a slew of short stories, novellas and novels stretching all the way back to the 70s. Some of these shorter works can be found in his Dreamsongs collection. It is, however, his epic A Song of Ice and Fire series that has truly brought Martin to the attention of genre readers and has earned plaudits from so many corners, not to mention winning him thousands upon thousands of fans.

It's easy to see why. With A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), Martin has written one of the most thrilling, absorbing, shocking and unpredictable stories that the fantasy genre has ever witnessed. The series really does have the lot - battles, exotic settings, adventure, mysteries and political intrigue (and backstabbing) by the bucketful.

All good stories are driven by the characters involved, and ASOIAF is no exception. Shunning the multi-race worlds of many of his fellow writers, Martin has created a world where humanity is the dominant force, and as such the novels focus on these human protagonists. By telling the story through the eyes of a number of POV characters in alternating chapters, Martin brings us very close to both the characters and the action. We therefore get to see all of the foibles of humanity at first hand: pride, fear, jealousy, hatred, joy, courage. They're all in there. The best thing about Martin's characters is that they're so intricate, so flawed. All have their own goals, their hopes and fears, their needs that drive them on. So convincing is Martin's writing and characterisation, that for each chapter you feel as if you are looking through the POV's eyes, seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, feeling what they feel. Few writers handle human emotion as well as Martin does.

Subsequently, there are some fascinating characters in ASOIAF: Eddard Stark, the noble head of House Stark who is wracked by a mysterious guilt; Tyrion Lannister - The Imp - whose razor-sharp mind and wit makes up for his physical shortcomings; Varys the eunuch spymaster, who seems to have his fingers in more pies than a beggar in a bakery; Daenerys Targaryen, the innocent slip of a girl who becomes general of an army; Cersei Lannister, the devious she-serpent who will stop at nothing until she controls the throne...they, and dozens more besides, all have their parts to play, and will let nothing get in their way. One of the immense pleasures of the series is watching the sparks fly in often spectacular fashion.

Of course, in epic fantasy worldbuilding is also rather important. Martin more than delivers on this front as well. He's created a world steeped in history and myth, a mix of both the familiar and the more exotic. Westeros, the continent where most of the action takes place, may on first sight appear to be little more than a feudal medieval Western-European land. The truth is somewhat different: from the sun-kissed domes of Dorne, to the frigid forests of the land beyond the wall in the north, from the mountainous Vale of Arryn in the east to the harsh Iron Islands in the west, what Martin has created is a dynamic, diverse land of extremes that is layered in history. The old houses and families are linked in a constantly shifting landscape of alliances as they all struggle for influence over the continent. While the focus is very much on the human relationships at the centre of the struggle, Martin has not forgotten that he's writing a fantasy. Subsequently, we have the haunted forest of the north, seemingly home to a terrifying race of supernatural creatures of snow and ice - the Others - that wield power over death itself. 

Westeros itself is a great setting, with plenty of scope for a terrific story. Martin however wasn't content with just the one continent, so we also have the nine free cities of the East; influenced by a range of real-world cultures ranging from Egyptian to Mongolian. These lands give Martin free reign to include all kinds of cool things, like the 'Unsullied' (undefeated eunuch legions), the Faceless Men of Braavos (secretive assassins) and the blue-lipped warlocks of Qaarth. Martin's world is also notable for other distinctions, such as the fact that seasons can last for many years.

The best thing about ASOIAF is the storyline itself. Epic and yet intricate, it is a masterful weave of twists and turns, secrets and surprises. None of Martin's characters are indispensable, leading to a number of deaths - some of which are immensely surprising, shocking even. There are so many brilliant set-pieces in the series and some scenes are brutally visceral. Martin's been hailed as the forerunner of the 'gritty' genre. While this is a fair comment, Martin also embraces the more exotic, fantastic elements of his world. No fantasy series has spawned as much discussion as ASOIAF, as thousands of fans discuss the various mysteries of the books online. 

The ultimate result of Martin's endeavours is an utterly absorbing saga of love and betrayal, ambition and vengeance in a dynamic, vibrant world. Martin's skilled characterization, masterful plotting and indomitable imagination have created a stunning fantasy epic that will do doubt remain a defining work for decades to come. 

Recommended First purchase: A Game of Thrones

The first ASOIAF novel. The best prologue ever written, and the whole book is an excellent start to the series. 

Recommended follow-up purchase: A Clash of Kings

The second novel, and a real monster to boot. Events really start to hot up in this second instalment. 

Recommended wildcard purchase: Dreamsongs

If you're still unsure whether to commit to ASOIAF, then check out Dreamsongs - a collection of Martin's short fiction from all through his career. Proof that Martin can write equally skilfully in any speculative genre, and in shorter fiction as well as novels. There are some brilliant stories in this collection, such as the award-winning 'Sandkings', and the wonderfully unnerving 'The Pear-Shaped Man.'

Hmmm, all that has got me craving some Ice and Fire action...with the next instalment due later this year, perhaps now is a good time for a (third) re-read...


T.D. Newton said...

Sounds fantastic. I'm reading Red Seas Under Red Skies now and then I have Dawnthief but I think I will put A Game of Thrones after that. I've been meaning to read it for awhile as my friend Gabe highly recommended it months ago. Now I have no excuse to avoid it.

By the way, me reading the second Gentlemen Bastards book seems fortuitously coincidental since I'm going to Las Vegas tomorrow and that's precisely what I think of when he describes Tel Verrar... I feel kind of dumb for not wanting to read it at first but I just really liked most of the characters that got axed. Anyway, thumbs up to fortuitous coincidences and thanks for the Martin recommend and description.

James said...

Good stuff, if just one person reads Martin as a result of my piece then it was worth it! I hope you enjoy ASOIAF. In fact, I'm sure you will.

As for Red Seas...it's nowhere near as good as Lies but is still a reasonably entertaining novel. And the Sinspire is very much like Vegas. :)