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Out of This World

George R. R. Martin and his fantastic universe.

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By CATHY YOUNG
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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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