Fiction Reviews

Songs of the Earth

(1996 / 2011) George R.R. Martin, Harper Voyager, £8.99, pbk, 803pp, ISBN 978-0-007-24854-0

In previous reviews, I have tried joining Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series and Stephen Donaldson’s 'Thomas Covenant' saga in medias res, as a result of blandishments from publishers that the books concerned were good introductions to the respective series, for new readers. Neither worked for me, so it is a welcome change to join A Song of Ice and Fire at volume 1.

Well, almost at volume 1. Late last year I reviewed Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, and made it my cue to read Martin’s anthology Dreamsongs (Gollancz, 2006), including 'The Hedge Knight' which he introduces as: 'a prequel… set amongst the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros about ninety years prior to A Game of Thrones. I did not want to give away anything about the end of A Song of Ice and Fire or the fate of its principal characters, so a prequel seemed the way to go.'

Indeed, it is not a spoiler, but it does highlight one problem I have with fiction of its type. If you didn’t follow the lines of descent from the characters of ‘The Hedge Knight’ to Game of Thrones (as this edition is titled), how would you know ninety years have passed? In the former there were still dragons within living memory (just), in the latter the weather’s getting worse in the north, but fundamentally, nothing has changed. The series is set in what I have come to call ‘Fantasyland’, which is essentially mediaeval Europe before the Black Death, but frozen in time. It always has silk from the east, but never gunpowder; it has towns, merchants and guilds, but the power of kings and princes over ordinary people is unbroken and virtually unchallenged. What it does not have is the kind of social changes which came with the windmill and the horse-collar in the 12th century (Jean Gimpel, The Mediaeval Machine, Gollancz, 1977) or the explosion of new fashions that followed the invention of buttons and pockets in the 14th (Ian Mortimer, The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Vintage Books, 2009).

Since Game of Thrones first appeared in 1996 (this 2011 edition is released with the broadcast of the TV series adaptation), maybe the territory is so familiar because many have copied it. At any rate, it is a tribute to George R. R. Martin’s writing that the problem quickly disappears, as he gets the reader involved in the lives of the multiple characters. Inevitably it is a feat of memory and concentration to remember who and where they all are, and the frontispiece maps are definitely helpful – so I found it frustrating that one entire story track, following Daenerys (an exiled descendant of baddies in ‘The Hedge Knight’) takes place in a Mongol-type kingdom off the edge of the maps to the east, reached by overland trade routes which I cannot figure out. She is still off the map at the end, though her clash with the other characters in later books is taking shape.

There is no need to summarise the multiple interactive plotlines here. Structurally, it could be a weakness that much of the plot is driven by the whims of spoiled children. In fact, there is enough emphasis on children and adolescents to make me wonder, for a while, if this was aimed at young adults – though few of the younger protagonists are desirable role models. Another curiosity is that when introducing ‘The Hedge Knight’ in Dreamsongs, Martin tells us this is a fantasy without magic. Yet Daenerys meets with it in the south and so does Jon in the north, both clearly destined to use or to experience a lot more of it. These are minor issues, though. Overall Game of Thrones is an enjoyable and gripping read. Although I knew a TV version was in the offing, I do not have Sky and it was far advanced before I knew it was on, so I cannot comment on how far the broadcast version does it justice. Harking back to my earlier point, I did wonder how much it would differ visually from Cadfael or other mediaeval dramas of late, though the vertiginous setting of the Eyrie in the Vale of Arryn cries out for CGI. With that, as with Minas Tirith in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, I also wondered how the sheer rock faces last for so long. At the very least, the geological strata must have become very stable since they were uplifted.

Duncan Lunan

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