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Contemporary Fantasy authors fall into two broad categories- those who follow faithfully In Tolkien’s (and Howard, Leiber, Lewis’s) wake, doggedly sticking to the established formula, and those who decide to take the circuitous route of laboured originality. Martin places himself very firmly in the second category, acknowledging the influence of inherited tradition but simultaneously undercutting most conventions of fantasy. In his world, the distinction between hero and villain is blurry, main characters die with unfailing, unsettling regularity and sex and violence proliferate in all their explicit glory. Martin’s chief claim to originality, however, is his preoccupation with and partiality for political intrigue and the battle over magic in the series.
The series, comprised of seven books, two of which are yet to be released, chronicle the events which take place on the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos. The core story is the dynastic struggle between various houses for the control of Westeros, represented by the now-famous Iron Throne. Battles get bloodier and politics gets dirtier as the Lannisters, the Starks, the Greyjoys and the Baratheons stake their respective claims to the Throne. In the Free Cities, Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled daughter of a king murdered in a civil war prepares an army to claim what she sees as her rightful inheritance. Meanwhile, greater problems brew behind the Wall that protects the seven kingdoms of Westeros as the free Wildling folk prepare an invasion and supernaturally chilling creatures known as the Others rise to haunt the living. As everyone and their grandmother knows by now, Winter is Coming.
The world of the books is incredibly, painstakingly detailed with its own history, myths, legends, beliefs, faiths and practices. The people that inhabit this rich tapestry of words are numerous and detailed too, with over a thousand named characters making an appearance. The political machinations show the complexity and depth of their real-life influences- War of the Roses and Imperial Rome. But as is almost inevitable in a tale that spans over four thousand pages plus counting, some chapters and passages drag and are tediously repetitive. The misogyny present in the books cannot be explained away entirely by reference to its medieval setting. All women are presented through the intrusive male gaze primarily in terms of their body and physical desirability. Also, the interior complexity granted to male characters like Eddard Stark, Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow to name a few, is largely denied to the female characters who tend to be stock figures. The two women who do possess a modicum of power, Cersei Lannister and Melisandre, are vilified. Brienne of Tarth, the only woman to wield a sword in the books, is made out to be a hideous spectacle, her supposedly compassionate portrayal being rather undercut by a pathological need to describe her ugliness every time she is mentioned.
Some flaws aside, the series is at its heart an extremely interesting story. Fantasy buffs should not miss it. For the rest, if you have the time and the inclination to pursue seven heavy tomes, it is very much recommended.
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