The many and varied reasons why everyone should read A Song of Fire and Ice

March 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

A Song of Fire and Ice (more commonly known as Game of Thrones) has been a big part of my reading life over the last year, and I sadly finished the fifth book a couple of weeks ago. For the present there are no more, and not likely to be for the foreseeable future. I read on a random blog that Martin was only going to start writing the next volume in January, so it looks like another five year wait. Le sigh.

Realistically if I were to write a review of A Dance with Dragons, it would consist of me scrawling ‘AAAH’ and ‘IT’S AMAZING’ across the screen.  A Dance with Dragons cannot really be taken as a stand alone book; it is meaningless unless you have read the rest of the series. Also if you are unfamiliar with the whole Game of Thrones world it is impossible for me not to reveal spoilers for the earlier books. There are five books currently, detailing the fight for power over the fictional Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The cast of characters and their various feuds, battles and allegiances is dizzying, which is why I recommend reading the books one after the other without stopping. I read the first one last August, and although I read other stuff the only significant break I had was between the fourth and fifth book.

Anyway I said I was going to give you reasons why you should make this massive commitment, and reasons I have!

1.       No character is entirely good or completely bad

Game of Thrones begins with Ned Stark lopping off the head of a teenage boy, and as a character he’s about as moral and noble as you’re going to get. However, even the characters that seem totally evil are hard to hate once Martin gives you a glimpse inside their heads. In the last volume I even found myself sympathising with Queen Cersei (I KNOW!). By allowing different characters to narrate the story, a method made popular by Wilkie Collins and Bram Stoker, Martin ensures that no one view point is presented. This is in keeping with his obvious intention to present a full history of a political conflict between many different factions.

2.      Martin is inspired by history

A Song of Fire and Ice is a medieval fantasy based in a fictitious world, but inspired by the wars, betrayals and political intrigue of real history. The medieval period has often been an inspiration for fantasy, but Martin wanted to more realism into the genre, and focus more on political intrigue rather than magic. He also wanted to show the gritty, hard reality of medieval life. The Wall was inspired by Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, and Martin was also inspired by the history of the U.K, such as the Crusades and the Wars of the Roses.

3.    There are some really great female characters

Women are relegated to the status of property in Westeros; raped, sold, married, murdered, brutalised, and mocked. It is hard to read sometimes, but I guess that’s how things used to be. Despite, or perhaps because of this, there are some really interesting and awesome female characters trying to make their way in a Patriarchal society. My favourite is Arya, who manages to escape while her more refined sister Sansa is trapped. There has been controversy about the treatment of women in Westeros, especially since the TV series, but the issue hasn’t stopped me enjoying the books.

4.         The books are unpredictable

In Lord of the Rings, it is obvious that Frodo is never going to die and that he is going to succeed with his quest. In A Song of Fire and Ice nothing is certain and no character is safe. This once led me to cry out loud with shock and disbelief on a packed commuter train.

So you’ve heard my reasons, and really the best advice I can really give you (this may be odd coming from the writer of a book blog) is to watch the HBO TV series. The first season has just come out on DVD and the second will be shown starting April 1st. If you love it, as I did, then the books are definitely for you.



Don’t go back to Pemberley.

March 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today feels like the first day of spring. I may be being overly optimistic, the beginning of March is a little early after all, but it feels like the time of reading books wrapped up in bed is coming to an end for this season. One of my best memories from last summer is devouring almost the whole of One Day sitting under a tree in the park, before going for a leisurely al fresco meal. It’s not often that Sheffield feels like being on holiday and I want those days again. Last weekend I finally finished reading A Dance with Dragons and I feel bereft. I know that I face another five years of waiting before the next book comes out, and I’m FURIOUS that I’ll lose the momentum I’ve built up reading the whole series at once. In danger of letting my reading lapse in favour of becoming George R.R.Martin’s full-time stalker, I needed a proper pick-me-up of a book, something that would stop me googling the price of airfare to New Mexico. So I made the mistake of going back to Pemberley.

I am a huge Austen fan, I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was twelve. I did not in any way appreciate it at the time, but I’ve read it countless times since. In fact I’ve read all Austen’s novels multiple times, a side effect of having to study her at university. Check me out, my expensive education may have been pointless and ultimately resulted in me being in debt forever, but I sure know my Austen. A hollow victory perhaps. Due to my love for Austen, and my snobbish Lit student attitude problem, I tend to be dismissive about sequels. I don’t want to go back to Pemberley; I don’t want to know anything about Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage. Austen was wise enough to leave things at the altar; she knew that no marriage could be perfect. I also suspect that Austen realised that the excitement of her novels results largely from the uncertainty that came before engagement; once a young lady had made a good marriage she was settled and her place in society largely secured. And Austen’s young ladies all make fabulous marriages.

I tried, and failed, to make it through Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and have distant memories of a terrible trashy novel I read as a teenager where Elizabeth was barren and Darcy distant. So I wasn’t exactly excited at the prospect of Death Comes to Pemberley. It is at least, I thought to myself, an original idea, and it’s written by P.D. James so it can’t be totally awful. And it wasn’t; it just wasn’t great. The novel centres on a murder in the woodlands of Pemberley, which involves all of our favourite characters from the original novel. As this is a mystery story I don’t want to give spoilers, but I can say that I had no real issues with the plot. It was a perfectly well written, serviceable murder mystery. It was just a bit dull, missing the spark of social intrigue that makes Austen so readable. The novel is 300 pages long, and nothing happens for the first 100 except setting up for a ball that never happens. Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in my opinion was the murder happening the night before the ball instead of during it. Lydia staggering hysterical into a ballroom full of the cream of society, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered would have been an excellent scene. Alas, it was not to be. Fellow Austen fans will be relieved to know that everything is sorted out fine in the end, and Elizabeth even manages to get Darcy to open up about his feelings. Yeah right, like that would ever have happened.

I have never read anything by P.D. James, so I have nothing to compare Death Comes to Pemberley with, but I’m going to assume that her success is well deserved. However I think that imitating Austen is a step too far for even the most accomplished writer. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but I think everyone should resist the urge to go back to Pemberley. It never turns out well.

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