The 11-year-old daughter of a great noble house is brought to court as bride to the crown prince, only to find herself reduced to a hostage against her mutinous family. A king’s fatal injury on a boar hunt may or may not have been an accident—and his two brothers challenge the legitimacy of his heir, unleashing a war that rips the realm apart. A royal cortege crossing a city ravaged by wartime privations is besieged by a hungry crowd, whose pleas turn to anger, and whose anger escalates from obscene taunts to a deadly riot.

Pages from a historical drama? Not quite. These events happen in a series of novels best described as fictional history with a dash of magic and a layer of the supernatural: George R. R. Martin’s bestselling fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire. Its fifth installment, A Dance with Dragons, was released last summer, several months after the HBO cable channel brought the first volume to television in a hit 10-part series.

Fantasy is something of a cultural stepchild, often treated as childish, geeky, or both. When the HBO series Game of Thrones began to air—mostly to glowing reviews—a few critics used the occasion to bash the genre. In the New York Times, Ginia Bellafante made snide jokes about “Dungeons & Dragons,” dwarves and hobbits, and dismissed Martin’s books as “boy fiction.” (In fact, Martin’s fanbase definitely cuts across gender lines.)

Leaving aside, for now, the literary worth of J. R. R. Tolkien, Martin is, as his admirers often stress, an anti-Tolkien of sorts. There is, in A Song of Ice and Fire, no grand battle between good and evil, only a struggle for power and survival in which morality is fuzzy and good intentions tend to end badly. The supernatural elements are fairly marginal. And the only dwarves in this tale are the nonmagical kind—chief among them one of Martin’s best antiheroes, Tyrion, the smart, tart-tongued, cynical black sheep of the powerful Lannister family who quips bitterly, “All dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes.”

The invented world of A Song of Ice and Fire bears a not entirely accidental resemblance to the real one. Its main location, the continent of Westeros, is clearly based on medieval Europe; most of it is occupied by the Seven Kingdoms, unified under one king (until war breaks out) but ruled by their own feudal lords. Lands to the east and south are populated by cultures with a recognizable Mediterranean or Middle Eastern feel, and by hordes of Mongol-like conquering nomads. But this world is also marked by a peculiar climate in which winters and summers can last years (no, this is not a climate-change parable) and by even more peculiar things that dwell in the far north: malevolent humanoid beings known as the Others. Between them and civilization stands a man-made ice wall guarded by the black-clad Night’s Watch—less a romantic brotherhood than a dumping ground for Westeros’s rejects, criminals who “take the black” as an alternative to execution, and high-born bastards.

If nothing else, Martin’s ability to make his universe a rich three-dimensional landscape is truly dazzling. His world has its history and literature, its folk songs and religion, skillfully woven into the narrative without lecturing the reader. The characters inhabiting this landscape are equally impressive: royals or servants, nobles or mercenaries—none feel flat or recycled, and only a few ever skirt cliché or caricature. Some are irredeemably vile, such as Joffrey, the petulant prince turned boy-king from hell. A few are clear-cut “good guys,” notably Eddard (Ned) Stark, a great lord of Westeros and the king’s chancellor in the first book, a man whose honor and mercy lead to all-around disaster. Most are painted in varying shades of gray.

Ned’s wife Catelyn is strong-willed, intelligent, gracious, kind—and coldly vicious to Jon Snow, the illegitimate son Ned has chosen to raise. Sandor Clegane, a Lannister henchman nicknamed “The Hound,” at first seems a despicable thug but later emerges as a tormented man with his own brand of honor, and develops a strange bond of sympathy with child bride-turned-hostage Sansa Stark. Sansa herself is a poignant figure, a sheltered girl whose illusions about “true knights” and fairy-tale romance are brutally shattered. But this story of lost innocence never waxes sentimental, and Sansa is no saintly victim but an adolescent girl who can be egocentric, peevish, and obnoxious.

Other memorable characters include Sansa’s tomboy sister Arya, who flees across a war-torn country disguised as a commoner boy; Jaime Lannister, an arrogant scoundrel who learns humanity in the school of bitter experience; Jon, grappling with conflicted loyalties as a member of the Night’s Watch; and Daenerys Targaryen, an exiled princess from a fallen Westerosi dynasty who is sold in marriage to an Attila-like tribal chief, and unexpectedly finds both power and heartbreak as his wife and, later, widow.

Martin’s ever-growing “cast of thousands” (in his own words) has led to some narrative sprawl. The fourth and fifth volumes were originally meant to be a single book, split into two when it grew too unwieldy; the fourth, A Feast for Crows, is widely viewed as inferior to the first three, and opinions on A Dance with Dragons have been sharply divided. There are certainly places where the story could have been tightened. Yet, for the most part, it remains consistently gripping—and it is gratifying to know that, in the age of Twitter, people will stick with a multilayered epic that takes the time to develop its characters and settings.

A Song of Ice and Fire has other problems that may be the flip side of its virtues: The much-praised “grittiness” sometimes slides into excessive details of bodily functions, over-the-top violence, and sexual grotesquerie that feels like shock-value material. Still, the quality of Martin’s prose, storytelling, and characterization more than offsets these flaws.

The HBO series, cowritten by Martin himself—formerly a television writer—is probably as good an adaptation as one could make of an 800-page novel in 10 hours of TV. Alas, the producers could not resist some gratuitous sex and nudity; but the nuance and complexity of the characters survive, aided by excellent performances (particularly Sean Bean as Ned and the Emmy-winning Peter Dinklage as Tyrion). The production vividly captures the atmosphere of the locales, from the sunny lushness of the southern capital city to the grim wintry world of the Wall.

The Song of Ice and Fire phenomenon will be around for a while. The television show came to DVD in March and returns to HBO for a second season April 1, with a season planned for each volume. And there are at least two more books coming—without, one hopes, the six-year hiatus between A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons.

To say that a work of genre fiction transcends genre may be a cliché—but it is one that, in this case, is true (though it is also true that the genre itself transcends its reputation). Who’s to say that the Great American Novel cannot be set in imaginary medieval Westeros? Ultimately, despite its grimness, Martin’s epic is about honor, courage, love, and compassion enduring—sometimes—against impossible odds. It is the oldest theme in literature, its relevance undiminished.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.

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