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 Westeros.org 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.
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.|
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.|
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.