Man vs Bookshelf

Man vs Bookshelf: A Song of Fire and Ice

This entry is part 86 of 104 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

I studied History at university.

Well, “studied” is a strong word. I did lots of sleeping, and it says History on the 2.2 I walked away with.

Stole away with.

I choose the wrong subject. Think I should have done Business Studies, but that’s not the point.

Point is my reason for choosing history was a good one. It comes from my love of fiction. My desire to be a writer.

See, if you go back far enough, two, three hundred years, history quickly becomes like a story. It’s a different world, they say, which makes it like fantasy.

Trying to imagine living in Henry VIII’s world is like trying to imagine living in Middle Earth. It’s that Alien.

And the shit they did was equally crazy.

It’s this feeling that I was reading a story that made me want to study history, and it’s the reason historical fiction is so popular.

I learned, upon arriving at university, that studying the topic in great detail wasn’t for me. It’s for this reason I didn’t do well, and why I wouldn’t try writing a historical novel myself.

I have, however, considered taking events from the past and twisting them into a proper fictionalised version of the past with the feel of real history but with different characters and battles and events.

This would give you the freedom to take a story to some great places, without real historians coming out with their “rah rah rah; this isn’t what happened.”

One of the parts of history that first inspired me to plan a potential fictionalised history novel (which in the end came to nothing) was the story of the Yorks and the Lancasters. Elizabeth Woodville and the Princes in the Tower, Henry VII and the War of the Roses.

There’s so much great potential there for a fantastic story.

I saw that, and, when I was only a few years old, so did someone else.


The whole point of this challenge was to get me to read the everpresent books on my shelf. The ones I’ve never got around to reading.

It’s worked a treat, as you know, and it’s helped me throw away fifty to a hundred books I hadn’t read but couldn’t bear to throw away because I hadn’t read them.

That was great, but it’s also broadened my reading horizons.

That’s not to say they were narrow, because they weren’t (I’m quite an eclectic reader), but there were certain genres I would not touch for love nor money.

Fantasy being one.

I like my books set on Earth (and by Earth, I mean England or, at a push, America), and I tend to avoid dragons and other high fantasy elements wherever possible.

There are plenty of fantasy books I’m sure I still won’t like, but what this challenge has shown me is there is a multitude of different fantasy sub-genres, some of which are quite good.

Take, for example, the four fantasy series I had on my shelves when this challenge started.

First, Discworld. We’ll discount these because I’d read them before and they don’t count because they are funny. Any genre can be grand when it’s a comedy.

The other three were The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Tower and A Song of Ice and Fire. Three series I might once have lumped together as “not set on Earth” (though a fair bit of the dark tower is.) But that is to miss the point that these are three very different series.

I read The Lord of the Rings first and hated it.

I know, blasphemy. I said so at the time, but that’s the truth of it. The characters are one dimensional, the prose is slow and boring, and the plot is simplistic.

This was everything I’d expected a fantasy series to be (and more), and it only compounded my belief that fantasy as a genre was crap.

Then came The Dark Tower.

Now, I knew I liked Stephen King (though, of course, he has his issues), but for a long time I held off reading The Dark Tower series because it is fantasy, whereas none of his other books (Eye of the Dragon notwithstanding) are.

But when I got around to reading The Dark Tower for this series, I realised how wrong I was to rule them out for so long.

King has always been known for writing strong characters, and the cast of The Dark Tower was brilliant. Real multi-faceted characters you could get behind and love. The main group grew and grew and grew until, when King starts offing them in the final book, you’re ready to cry at the loss of them.

The later books have been targetted for being weaker, plot-wise, and that might be true, but the story as a whole held together.

A lot of it was set on a different world, but it was a cleverly constructed world, and the story focused on the people, rather than classic fantastical elements like magic and dragons (the former of which was thin on the ground, the latter absent entirely).

It was a winner for me and meant by the time I got to the next fantasy series; I was quite excited.

A Song of Ice and Fire

Martin and King seem to share some common beliefs when it comes to their fantasy works, with Martin believing magic should be used moderately in the epic fantasy genre, leading to a story with less emphasis on magic and more on battles, political intrigue and the characters. In Martin’s eyes, “magic needs to represent strange and dangerous forces beyond human comprehension.” His implementation of this leading to a story that reflects King’s, where magic and technology are not understood and are therefore frightening to the main characters, as they would be should they turn up in our world.

Both series also feature multi-dimensional characters. What King does with The Dark Tower is take multi-faceted, grey characters and slot them into a classic Good vs Evil fantasy structure.

Martin takes a similar approach to character, populating his world with morally ambiguous people. Bad guys become good, good guys become bad. Many stay the same. And the multi-POV narrative allows us to see these characters from multiple angles, depending through whose eyes we are looking.

However, Martin goes further than King by rejecting the Good vs Evil trope as unrealistic. In a Song of Fire and Ice, having a strong set of morals and refusing to betray people will get you killed while being a conniving prick might take you far.

Goodies have died, baddies have triumphed, all of which creates a gripping narrative with the reader regularly left guessing if our favourites will live or die, and knowing that while good might triumph over evil in the end, they also might not.

What led Martin down this road is his love of history (see, I was always going to come back to that). To build the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin drew on many historical sources, creating a Westeros that resembles England during the Wars of the Roses and a story that is more about politics than magic, more about war and power struggles than slaying dragons.

All of this combined to create a novel that features a fantasy world, with magic and monsters but is gripping because of how real it is. How truthful.

What all this leaves us with is a story that feels as gritty and real as the medieval and renaissance periods of European history would have been, but with the added benefit that we don’t know what is going to happen next. The wars playing out before our eyes are happening for the first time.

Martin’s writing style helps all this. These are long LONG books, but the prose never drags. The chapters vary in size, but they always open right on a pivotal moment of the section. They do not dwell on unnecessary elements, just get on with it. Each chapter ends on something of a cliffhanger or a reveal which is always welcome.

The characters too are well written and mostly high quality. Of course, there are always going to be more boring characters. I often find myself dulled by chapters featuring Sansa, Ayra or Bran, but this is more than made up for by all the brilliant characters including Jaime, Cersei and Tyrion.

What this all boils down to is a fantastic story, ready to grip anyone and drag them through the thousands of pages on offer. A world that isn’t ours, but feels like it might be, some hundreds of years ago. There is political intrigue and more unpredictability than you will find in most other stories. There is love and battles and triumph and heartbreak and everything else you might want from an epic series.

Also dragons.

Next Time

Next up we’ll be delving into the sci-fi world, with a look at a couple of Doctor Who based books.

First, The Writer’s Tale, detailing Russell T. Davies last couple of years as show runner of Doctor Who and, second, at The Man Who Invented the Daleks, a book about Terry Nation, the man who, um, well you get it, I’m sure.

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International worst-selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). An author of mystery and suspense novels including the James Perry Series of mysteries.

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