[There are some deliberately vague book/series 1 spoilers in this piece].
“Who the fuck are you?”
While reading and watching George R R Martin’s magnum opus, this question has been on my lips many times — and with over one thousand named characters over five books with an average length of 1,000 pages, can you blame me? In Book 5, Dance with Dragons, I almost finished a key chapter before I remembered who its main character was and had to start it again.
But I love it. I am absolutely crazy about this franchise.
Like another of my favourite books, War and Peace, the number of characters and storylines threatens to overwhelm you, but the plots’ detail and the care with which they are handled mean that instead, you care about each main character as much as you might care about the protagonist of a shorter book.
Reading it isn’t just an escape into a well-developed fantasy world, it’s an exercise in how much information you can keep in your head – and how much emotional trauma you can withstand at the hands of some words on a page. As you have probably heard, Martin is absolutely ruthless: when one of the characters is in danger, they really are in danger. Absolutely no one is safe; if characters don’t actually die, they suffer in ways that are unspeakably cruel.
These are “medieval” times; there are no laws here. But the best thing about this franchise is that nonetheless, actions have consequences. Things get more and more messed up not because of generic “evil” (for the most part), but because doing the right thing is really hard and you can’t please everyone.
A great example of this is that many of the characters with the most responsibility are teenagers. Daenerys is an exiled princess trying to return to her homeland and reclaim her throne, but has no idea how to lead an army or command a city. With every naive decision, things get worse: she tries to follow principles while everyone around her lacks any. Robb Stark, teenage commander of an army, has noble ideals but can’t work out how to behave correctly: whether kind or cruel, he just makes things worse. Being a teenage boy, he also can’t ignore his heart — or the thing between his legs. Theon Greyjoy is desperate to win his father’s love and pride, but is reckless and testosterone-filled and pays a terrible, stomach-churning price for his inexperience.
This being an epic fantasy series, you can be sure that the world is pretty damn rich. But it is rich in areas that a lot of similar series neglect. Both religion and sex are usually skimmed over in epic fantasy novels, but they have key roles here. They are fundamental dimensions of the human condition, after all.
Martin has said that one of the flaws with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is that no one worships anything. In ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, there are four main religions. Some of them have real power that affects the story (this is fantasy, after all), but mostly their role is the same as in our world. Religion provides comfort, it legitimises actions, it allows power to coalesce, it provides the basis for conflict and it supplements culture.
It’s well-known that the number of boobs in the TV show is incredible — I think it goes a little overboard. But what I like about the books is that everyone is sexual. People make love, they have sex, they fuck (and they rape). When they’re attracted to someone, they don’t just think “he’s so good-looking”, they think “I wonder how it’d feel to have him inside me”. As with religion, this is a key part of life: we are all sexual.
As I said, the sheer unruliness of the text makes getting through these books an absolute mission, and even with the best will in the world, you cannot get a handle on the allegiance, background and fate of even half the minor characters. Remembering the major characters is enough of a challenge. But the reward that comes from the hard work – the insight, the emotion, and the sheer entertainment – is one of the greatest I’ve ever gained from reading a book.