Thursday, November 12, 2015

The World of Ice and Fire review

    George R.R. Martin's world in A Song of Ice and Fire remains one of the most detailed in fantasy, which is saying something given the hundreds of books printed about various Dungeons and Dragons settings. What makes it more impressive is the larger portion of this material comes from George R.R. Martin himself. Before I get into the actual review of the book, I'll share the humorous and interesting story of the book's origins.

    While his fans (im)patiently awaited the release of The Winds of Winter, George commissioned the page owners (Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson) to compile all of his various references into one single coherent history of the setting. This project proved to be intriguing to George R.R. Martin so when they turned in their initial manuscript with many requests for clarification, he wrote thirty and forty thousand words of new notes at a time to answer their questions.

    As such, The World of Ice and Fire is as much another volume in the series as supplementary material. Massive new amounts of information on such subjects as Aegon the Conqueror's unification of Westeros, Ironborn culture, Essos cultures, and such events as the Targaryen Civil War ("The Dance of the Dragons") are all present here.

Beautiful interior.
    In some respects, it's actually rather disappointing since George R.R. Martin gives the complete history of Ser Duncan the Tall and Aegon V. While you can't really spoil the character's story since their fates are detailed in the main series, the detail he goes into gives us a pretty good idea of where the characters are going to be going for the next fifty years of their lives.

    The premise of the book is that it is a present meant for Robert Baratheon of the "accepted" history of Westeros. This proves to be the first of the book's many in-jokes as the book's intended destination changes a number of times with the events of the novels. It should be noted the book spoils many twists and turns in the main series up until the events of A Feast for Crows. They don't go much into detail of the novel's events but a number of major character deaths are spoiled in the opening page.

    The fact the book is written from an in-universe perspective makes it quite entertaining for those up on their Westeros lore as there's numerous facts which are meant to be deliberately wrong. For example, the in-universe writer's speculation the Others are merely a savage group of Wildlings which Northern historians elevated to superhuman levels. Some of these will go over a causal readers head but were a source of great amusement to me.

Amazing character portraits.
    My favorite part of the book is the section on the Targaryens which was, according to Garcia and Antonsson, almost all George. Almost every King or Queen of the dynasty has a fascinating story which would make its own awesome novel.

    I'm particularly fond of both Aegon's Conquest and the Dance of the Dragons period. The Blackfyre Rebellion was alluded to in the Dunk and Egg stories but seeing its tragic, pointless history in-detail was a real treat. I now have many new favorite A Song of Ice and Fire characters thanks to thos section.

    Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn't necessarily hold itself up to the same high standard as this section. The Ironborn section, for example, is basically one long dissertation on what an evil bunch of fundamentalist psychopaths they are. Likewise, I didn't find the sections on Essos to be as interesting as the ones on Westeros. There's also a rather glaring omission in they never bother to name the planet.

    The art in the book is gorgeous, some of the best I've ever seen in fantasy. The many character portraits bring to life the characters described within along numerous locations. Some of the art is wildly inconsistent with itself like Dragonstone or the Iron Throne but I don't mind as what inspires is the imagination is more important than 'accuracy.'

    Unfortunately, the nature of the books' layout means that the ebook version of it loses much of its affect. If ever there was a book to get on paper rather than electronically, this is it. I tried reading it on my Kindle and it proved damn near impossible. It's a book best purchased in its large physical edition format as an addition to your bookshelf because other types of presentation simply do not do its creator's justice.

Good? Evil? She's the woman with the dragon.
    Part of what I love about the book is its frequent use of dramatic irony. Rhaenyra Targaryen is one of the most beautiful women in the world but, ironically, the loss of her looks in old age and after childbirth is one of the reasons her claim to the throne is diminished. Aegon V struggles with trying to improve the lot of the Smallfolk (commoner) due to the fact he didn't force his children to marry who he wanted. Much like the actual A Song of Ice and Fire novels, being a good person or a bad person is no guarantee of success in the game of thrones. In the end, every action has consequences and fondly remembered kings are incompetents while amazing ones are just as often folk whose lose everything with their successor.

    If I had a serious complaint about the book, it would be the Essos section. I mentioned the Iromborn section describes their entire millennium-long history as one long collection of anti-intellectualism, rape, murder, and incompetence. Well, this kind of two-dimensional treatment is given to several other cultures in the setting as well with the Dothraki fairing best but still just what they are now unchanged for millennium. As a historian, it disappoints me to see that kind of unchanging cultural history in a work otherwise so vivid.

    A lot of the Essos cultures suffer from orientalist stereotypes and that isn't helped by the incorporation of iconography from H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard's writing. I like the men and women of Leng in Lovecraft's work just fine but not as a substitute for the entirety of the Chinese history. I suspect George R.R. Martin is making use of the limited perspective and knowledge of the Westeros scholars here but it's still rather troubling.

        The World of Ice and Fire is an amazing work of fictional scholarship. Not all of it is amazing and some of the cultures remain almost painfully two-dimensional but those places which have captured George's imagination are fantastic. There's also some problematic elements in the book's depiction of non-white, non-European cultures. Despite this, it has a huge amount going for it. The description of Assahai and its nightmarish "wrongness" to the abuses of Aegon the Unworthy to the comedy of errors which befell Aegon V--this is just a great world and one I could spend years studying the intricacies of.



  1. The Ironborn are the Norse with all the interesting parts stripped out.

    1. The premise of the Ironborn is they're an impoverished and near-failed state of sailors. Being a Medieval historian, having a fleet of ships and trained sailors yet being impoverished is kind of like having gigantic piles of gold you can't figure out how to make money with.