Book Series: Song of Ice and Fire Series by George RR Martin

This series is an exceptionally well-written, addictive, and brutal epic fantasy set in an imaginary world based on medieval England/ Europe. It is less of a fantasy and more of a political thriller – some say that it is loosely based on the War of the Roses in England in the years 1455-1485.

The first of the series (A Game of Thrones) was published in 1996 and the series has 5 books (often sold in 7 paperbacks) already published. The sixth and the seventh (whose titles are announced) will be eventually published. Each book of the series has been a bestseller and there are a huge number of fans waiting for the next two books.

The epic has also been converted into a HBO serial. Some video games, based on the series have also become very popular.

Here are the images of the covers of these books:Song of Ice and Fire Series Cover Images

The High-Level Story

The story is set in a fictional world, and most action takes place in two continents – Westros and Essos.

The back story (the background for the series): Seven Kingdoms in Westros have been united and ruled for several generations by the Targeryen dynasty (helped by fire-breathing dragons) –  the old kings of the seven kingdoms continue as vassals. Around fourteen years before the start of the series, the dynasty, ruled by a mad king (the dragons have all disappeared) is overthrown by the ‘usurper’ Robert Baratheon. King Robert maintains peace for a few years.

As the series starts, King Robert dies under mysterious circumstances. That starts mutiple rebellions. There are many claimants to the throne of the combined Seven Kingdoms – the brothers and the son of the dead king. Some of the vassals (descendents of earlier kings of the Seven Kingdoms) break away  from the combined entity and declare themselves as kings of their part of Westros. There are also members of the Targeryen dynasty (now living in exile in Essos) who start their journey to reclaim the throne. The result is a heady mix of chaos, treachery, brutality, intrigue, betrayal, honour, battles, duels, torture, magic, and constant political manoeuver. There is also a severe seven-year winter that is about to descend on Westros.

Broadly, the story is played out in three places:

  1. In the Seven kingdoms part of Westros. Here there are constant battles, and realignment between the various claimants, their supporters and independent kings
  2. At the Wall, in the northern most part of the Seven Kingdoms, where the Wall (guarded mainly by convicts who are exiled from the society) divides the Seven Kingdoms from the cold northern part of Westros – the part that is believed to be inhabited by wildlings, giants, whits, ‘children of the forest’, and a species known as ‘others’. The forthcoming winter is expected to make the people and species beyond the Wall move towards Wall to enter the Seven Kingdoms.
  3. In the continent of Essos, where the descendents of the Targeryen dynasty are attempting to raise an army and mobilize resources (including dragons) to reclaim the Seven Kingdoms that they believe rightfully belongs to them.

The series has reached volume 5 (in 7 paperback books). The story has spread itself in multiple directions.  There are two more volumes planned by the author. Let us hope he starts tying up some loose ends.

The Setting / World

In the Seven Kingdoms on the Westros continent, there is a King. Next to the King there are vassals (lords) who rule large parts of the Seven Kingdoms in the king’s name. These lords have other vassals under them (called bannermen). The titles are passed hereditarily with complex and conflicting rules (each conflicting rule has some precedence) which often lead to disputes (like – is the next in line the eldest son? or daughter? or the brother?). There are knights (addressed as ‘Ser’) who protect the king and each lord. The kingdom is run by a king’s council consisting of the Hand (like a prime minster), the Master of Coin (finance minister), the Master of Whispers (spy chief), etc.

In the northern part of Westros (separated by the Wall from the Seven Kingdoms), there are free folks who have a king whom they have sort of elected.

In the other continent of Essos, there are Free Cities, often run by elected councils or influential families.

It is a harsh world with seasons spread over multiple years. People dread the coming of the winter, which is expected to last for seven years. The terrain is also harsh. There are thinly spread villages, racked by poverty and hunger and often drawn into wars between the lords.

Apart from the kings, lords and knights, there are maesters (healers and teachers), priests (septas and septons), jesters, singers, and so on. Some fighters become sellswords (like mercenaries) and sometimes group together to form a company of sellswords. The king and lords implement some kind of ‘gain share’ with their soldiers by allowing the soldiers to pillage, loot and rape the cities and villages they vanquish. Ordinary people are called smallfolk, and they are miserable irrespective of who rules them. Slavery of some form or the other is rampant.

The world is run by people in the age group of 15- 40 years. There is no place older people. Most folks die before they reach old age. It is also a male dominated world, though there are a few women who are powerful and a few female knights (good as well as not so good). The king, and most lords and knights have ‘bastard’ children, in addition to their legitimate offspring. The word ‘bastard’ is often used as a title/ prefix for such folks.

Children/ siblings of non-cooperating lords are often kept as wards (or potential sons-in-law or daughters-in-law) by the king or the more powerful lords – while they are actually hostages to ensure good behaviour of their parent/sibling. If one party violates some truce, the other party dismembers the hostages or sends them back in trebuchets (or dismembers the hostages and then sends their parts in trebuchets).

Justice is harsh. To be sentenced you just need to be accused by someone powerful, with the accusation seconded by one or two more influential people. Any crime can be converted to ‘treason’ and that invites beheading in public. You sometimes get an option to trial by combat, where you (or your fighting champion) can fight with the accuser (or his/her champion)  – if your side wins, then you are “not guilty”.

Violence is always round the corner. Rape, beheading, torture, flaying, and burning is a daily occurence. Post defeat or punishment, the heads of the dead are stuck on spikes and put up for display in a prominent place (as a lesson for others).

There are multiple religions – the newer ones are well-organized, the older ones are personal equations with a God. Religion does play a significant role in the series.

Like in all fantasy tales, there is magic and there are magical creatures like dragons and direwolves. However, the role of magic is not central to the plot.

It Is Different

I have read quite a few fantasy novels and series. However, this one is different from the others in many ways, such as:

  1. It is not a Disneyworld fantasy. It is gritty, harsh and brutal. Not for the squeamish.
  2. The main plot is based more on politics, power-play, intrigue, violence, and treachery. It is less dependent on magic, spells, and the supernatural.
  3. The same facts are presented in multiple points of view. Each chapter is narrated from one character’s point of view. So, the reader gets multiple views of the same facts. The author makes no attempt to provide the ‘real’ point of view and lets the reader handle the ambiguity.
  4. It is not a reluctant hero’s journey. Most fantasy novel have formula where a young hero, supported by a mentor and a friend (this could be an animal or a magical creature) start off a journey where he/ she eventually vanquishes some evil and also vanquishes his/ her own inner devils. In the process the mentor usually dies, and so on. Song of Ice and Fire does not stick to this formula.
  5. There are no heroes and villains. Most characters are grey, though some are more white (the Starks, Brienne, Jon Snow) and some are more black (Ramsey Bolton, Cersei, Tywin Lannister). Some interesting characters (like Tyrion Lannister) are the most grey.
  6. You cannot emotionally invest in any character and associate with him/ her (black or white or grey). I found this out in the first book itself. I had got ready to see the whole series through the eyes of one of the characters. And out of the blue he is beheaded before the end of the first book. Every time you warm up to a character, any of the following can happen:
    • He/ she dies suddenly and brutally – this is gut wrenching.
    • You are given the impression that he/she is dead (the effect is the same as above). The character resurfaces after some chapters/ volumes (maybe changed in appearance and/ or personality). You warm up again, to be disappointed.
    • The character just vanishes from the story, because the narrative moves to another part of the vast landscape. Over a few chapters and volumes, you warm up to other characters. But then, your original character comes back to centre stage.

I have enjoyed the series till now. Here are a few things that I find negative:

  • It is addictive.
  • There are too many characters by the end of the 5th volume (The appendix containing the cast is over 50 pages long).
  • There are too many threads that have opened up (I hope George RR Martin will tie up some of the threads in the next two books of the series).
  • It is bleak.

Interesting Quotes from the Series

“Why is it that when one man builds a wall, the next man immediately needs to know what’s on the other side?”

-A Game of Thrones

Bran — “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”  His Father — “That is the only time he can be brave.” 

-A Game of Thrones

“There are no men like me. There’s only me”

– A Clash of Kings

“Love’s not always wise, I’ve learned. It can lead us to great folly, but we follow our hearts… wherever they take us.”

– A Storm of Swords

“All men must die, Jon Snow. But first we’ll live.”

– A Storm of Swords

“My old grandmother always used to say, Summer friends will melt away like summer snows, but winter friends are friends forever.”

– A Feast for Crows

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, the man who never reads lives one.”

– A Dance with Dragons

“It is not the foes who curse you to your face that you must fear, but those who smile when you are looking and sharpen their knives when you turn your back.”

– A Dance with Dragons

“You know nothing, Jon Snow”

Over many volumes and the most repeated quote

Here is the full list of the books and the video series.

Sl# Book Available at
1 A Game of Thrones
2 A Clash of Kings
3a A Storm of Swords: 1- Steel and Snow
3b A Storm of Swords: 1- Blood and Gold
4 A Feast for Crows
5a A Dance with Dragons: 1- Dreams and Dust
5b A Dance with Dragons: 2- After the Feast
6 The Winds of Winter Coming Soon
7 A Dream of Spring Coming Later
Set of books: 1 to 5

If you have not yet read any of the books in the series, go for the first one (A Game of Thrones – right away! You will hooked on to it.

And finally, here is a video trailer from the HBO series:

If the video does not load use the url: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PxLidxnAE8

Other Book Reviews are Available Here https://rajeshnaik.com/category/books

Your comments are welcome!


I'm Rajesh Naik, and this is my personal website If you are interested in contacting me professionally, I am available on LinkedIn and I will be glad to accept your invite. You may also check out my professional website, Alignmentor.com.

10 thoughts on “Book Series: Song of Ice and Fire Series by George RR Martin”

  1. Rajesh,

    The story sounds quite complex.
    Not being able to invest emotionally in a “hero” type of character (and thus find an anchor) can be quite disconcerting for a reader. I am personally not sure I can handle the reading of a story line that throws up multiple characters (with non linearity in the family tree !); this would mean one needs to read the story from start to finish in one go?

    The quotes are interesting…I particularly liked the one on “when one man builds a wall…..”.

    I am amazed by the versatility of your reading habits though.

    To you and all the readers of this blog, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Its time for me to catch up on a few novels from my collection and films as the year consumes itself.

    Regards
    Prakash

  2. Thanks, Prakash

    Regarding your question – I don’t think one has to read all of them at one go. The last book was published after a gap of 5 years – the fans lapped it up immediately!

    A Happy New Year to you too!

    Rajesh

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