For many fans, the HBO series Game of Thrones was their first introduction to a world where seasons can last for decades and a gigantic Wall of ice guards the civilized world. But long before people even imagined a fantasy show could be nominated for an Emmy, others were following the saga in print. Now, after a six year hiatus between publications, the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, has arrived.
The books, collectively known as A Song of Ice and Fire, are set in a fantasy world that combines the splendours and colours of the High Middle Ages common to the genre with the unfamiliar grit and cruelty of the Dark Ages. There are castles and knights and tourneys, yes. But there are also bastard children and orphans, mercenaries and whores. There are dwarfs too, and not the ones Tolkien wrote of, but the sort that are stared at in the streets and despised for being deformed.
There is little else that marks the series as a fantasy, since it departs from many conventions of the genre. There are none of the heroic quests, noble heroes, or epic battles between good and evil that characterize Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.
In fact, an unspoken rule of the genre is that before the reader reaches the first couple of chapters, there are some certainties. Frodo will destroy the Ring. Harry will vanquish Voldemort. No such promise exists in A Song of Ice and Fire. In fact, “Frodo” died a long time ago and many readers will find it quite upsetting when “Harry” gets stabbed to death by his friends in this fifth book of seven.
The world is unfair, and intensely so. Prayers go unanswered and gods are non-existent or absent. The powerful are strong or rich, and everyone else has to struggle to survive. Innocent children and beloved pets die. Babies die. There is little escapism to be found in the books’ pages and it can be an emotional trial to bear witness to the events that unfold.
The saga involves three main narrative arcs that interweave as they unfold: in the kingdom of Westeros, a civil war brews as noble houses vie for supremacy; in the north, the under-manned and neglected Night’s Watch defend the Wall of ice from a rising threat known only from myths as the Others; and across the Narrow Sea in exile, the last scions of the Targaryen kings plot their return 15 years after a traumatic civil war ended with the butchery of their entire house.
In the first three books, many of the noble houses were decimated. Those left standing were bloodied. The fourth book centred on the recovery efforts in the south and the characters dwelling thereabouts.
Those left out of that volume are dealt with in A Dance with Dragons. The bastard Jon Snow, unable to avenge his destroyed family because of his vows, is left with command of the Night’s Watch and the impossible task of mounting a defence against the enigmatic Others. The Queen in exile, Daenerys Targaryen, must choose between returning home with her assembled army to claim the throne and abandoning the slaver city she conquered along with the slaves she liberated within it. The dwarf Tyrion Lannister, on the run from Westeros and his sister’s plots to execute him, must seek out the Targaryen in exile for his only chance at life.
These and other characters are all haunted by the ghosts of regrets or loved ones lost.
The scars of the first three books have set in, and before they can fully heal, author George R. R. Martin deals his readers some fresh wounds they may not be ready for. And even though it is the fifth instalment of seven, anything remotely like a happy ending seems nowhere in sight.
Adrian Saldanha is a freelance journalist and photographer, and has recently completed an internship with the CBC’s bureau in London, UK. He has spent many years reading and translating epic literature as a hobby.