July 2011 is a month that will live in nerd infamy. Harry Potter finally bit the dust, only to rise again like a bespectacled Jesus to slay his noseless nemesis Voldemort. Over 100,000 costumed weirdos descended upon San Diego for Comic-Con. Captain America finally got turned into a movie. But perhaps most importantly, George RR Martin finally released A Dance with Dragons, the fifth novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, after an excruciating six-year wait.
I mean, it wasn’t excruciating for me. I love plenty of geek crap but I really hadn’t read a fantasy novel since my librarian aunt handed me a bunch of Anne McCaffrey books when I was a tween—and those didn’t make much of an impact since all I remember about them is they had something to do with dragons. I pretty much figured that modern fantasy writing was strictly the domain of mead-chugging Renaissance Faire attendees and World of Warcraft players. Not that I am any better than those people, I love comic books and own a hand-whittled vampire-killing stake I keep next to my Buffy DVDs. It just never occurred to me that any of this stuff was worth a second look. I was a fucking idiot.
The Game of Thrones show on HBO is based on the ASoIaF books, which I didn’t realize at first—and the ads didn’t particularly sway me into watching. Moody shots of dirty, vaguely Medieval people sitting on a big, spiky throne… it looked like a less-inspired Lord of the Rings kinda deal, only no elves. But when a trusted friend told me Game of Thrones was based on a series of popular fantasy novels he’d become addicted to, I got sort of curious. He was definitely not the Renn Faire type, yet he swore up and down these books were on point. After watching the first episode of the show, which in 60 minutes managed to pack in orphaned baby wolves, incestuous royals boning and brutalizing each other, swarthy warlords speaking in made-up languages, feasts and beheadings, randy dwarves banging prostitutes, and a sweet little kid getting pushed out a window—I was sold. I bought the first four ASoIaF novels (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows) and blasted through them within a month. I finally understood why these books have sold 15 million copies worldwide. They are the shit.
As a latecomer to the phenomenon, I only had to wait about two weeks for A Dance with Dragons to show up after finishing the first four books, thank Christ. I’d been sucked in so thoroughly that I completely got why longtime fans of the series were getting so frustrated by the wait for it. I couldn’t put it down, to the point where I incurred a sunburn while reading for way too long at the beach, using a piece of driftwood as a bookmark. Totally worth it.
This series is not a read for those who fear commitment. Each book clocks in anywhere from 700-1,200 pages. There are a ton of characters to keep straight (the appendices in each book help), and each chapter is told from a different person’s POV. The books follow the movements of several different factions who are all vying for a seat on the Iron Throne of Westeros, a land where seasons can last for years, a harsh winter is coming, and rumors abound about strange doings beyond The Wall. The Wall is a massive, frozen structure in the icy North which is manned by an ever-dwindling guard made up of criminals, refugees, and tarnished knights known as the Night’s Watch. Their job is to keep out the free folk (aka “wildlings”), who are like medieval hillbillies who thumb their nose (and throw their axes) at the “kneelers” of Westeros who obey royalty. But when even the wildlings start to flee for parts unknown, the Night’s Watch begin to suspect they have a lot more to fear than these unruly fuckers.
Magical forces have been laying low for quite a while in this world, but as civil wars erupt and lords and ladies scheme and plot to stake their claims, the exiled daughter of the assassinated former king (who was batshit crazy and boiled people alive in their armor) lays the groundwork for her own return to the ruling class. Her efforts kick off when she hatches three fossilized dragon eggs, an act which seems to hasten a re-emergence of some fantastical elements not seen in the realm for thousands of years. While Martin never loses sight of the human aspect to his story—these characters are grounded in an oft-painful reality—there is a serious jolt provided by the appearance of giants, shape shifters, undead ice zombies, Franken-knights, sorceresses, greenseers, Children of the Forest, and other such freaks.
If you’re already a fan of this series, you’ve no doubt ingested some Red Bull and made your way through all 1,040 pages of A Dance with Dragons by now (it came out July 12). There’s no point in my rehashing it for you. If you’re not a fan (but maybe you caught the show), I hesitate to give away too many plot details or spoilers… and in Martin’s world, even the mention of which characters are still alive at this point in the series could be construed as a spoiler. So instead I present to you the top three reasons you should start reading these books.
1) Like I said… Martin is ruthless. This is an author who is not afraid to cut a bitch. Part of what I loved about Buffy the Vampire Slayer was Joss Whedon’s willingness to kill off his characters—even beloved, important, main characters—in service of the story. Martin is much the same. Despite our attachments to certain storylines and people, you just can’t count on anyone surviving from book to book. Sure, there are some near death experiences in ASoIaF, but there are also a hell of a lot of death death experiences. Conversely, some characters we assume are dead pop up in later books and make us go WTF?! One such character, long assumed dead, is revealed to be alive and well in the newest book and it comes as a genuine shell-shocker. This new information may turn the whole game (of thrones!) on its ear.
2) Layers! This story has layers. It's not about white knights and innocent maidens, wickedly cackling villains and formulaic good versus evil plot lines. A major benefit to the constantly-shifting POV device employed by Martin is that a character you may have hated in one book becomes better understood—maybe even liked—in a later book, once a chapter is told from their perspective. New motives and back-stories are uncovered, which can open up all new questions and cliffhangers. There may be a few truly sinister and crazy motherfuckers who are balls-out killer in their own way, but overall this is a story full of multifaceted characters, not typical fantasy archetypes.
3) This shit is gritty. There’s a ton of sex, which can be a bit goofy at times (I’m thinking in particular of the Daenerys/Khal Drogo scenes from the first book), but it’s cool that Martin doesn’t pull any punches in this regard. And this being Ye Olden Days, sex can often lead to consequences like disownings, bastards born out of wedlock, deformed and stunted children, suicide, blood oaths, prophecies, and so on. I also admit to enjoying the rampant use of swear words and humor in his descriptions of pissing, shitting, eating, and fighting. The violence in particular can be viscerally effective, with skin being flayed, fingers being chopped off, body parts rotting, infants smashed against walls, faces held into fires, and more. The language Martin uses can evoke a mood of true darkness that has more in common with straight up horror than anything else. I have felt actual creeped-out dread at certain points in this tale. At the same time, this is an author who tells a mean joke and goes giddy at describing dish after dish in a 77-course wedding feast—to the point where some fans started a blog where they attempt to recreate the foods described in the series. In the new book, Martin spends almost 100 words describing a bowl of stew. It’s kind of awesome.
Don’t be stupid like I was, seriously. Buy these books and start reading them now, before Season 2 starts airing in Spring 2012. I’ll be waiting.