By my reckoning, the most important preoccupation in modern literature is the balance between gritty, hardcore hyper-realism and romanticism. There is a temptation among modern writers and modern producers of plays to lean extremely towards the former. The recent production in London of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, featuring James McAvoy in the eponymous role, was set in a post-apocalyptic modern world full of grime, where men drink copious amounts of alcohol from plastic milk bottles and eat from rusty tin plates. While Macbeth is a gruesome play, with perhaps its key motif being blood, it is still possible to enjoy and appreciate the tragedy without going to these extremes. Roman Polanski’s 1971 film adaptation managed to be both realistic and watchable, without making the viewer want to vomit. At the other end of the scale, it is hard nowadays to get away with idealistic levels of romanticism. All characters must, quite rightly, be flawed. Heroes and heroines cannot get away with being personfications of virtue. I would argue that neither of these extremes should really be acceptable. The fact is that tragedy can be emotional and thought-provoking without being gruesome, and most of us get by in the ebb and flow of life without focussing on the most revolting details, but we are not content with unrealistic characters who perpetually refuse to make mistakes.
A Song of Ice and Fire is a series that comes close to being the perfect balance between these two extremes. While it may be a fantasy series, it is realistic within the context of its own universe. Though supernatural elements crop up time and again, the psychologies, politics and interactions of the characters are as believable as any historical fiction set in the real world. While a couple of the central characters are heavily idealistic, their ideas are repeatedly proved wrong; Martin more or less constantly populates his story with such a vast cast of characters of so many moralities, corruptions and dispositions, so many of them abusing their supposedly honourable titles, even reminding us once or twice that any knight can make another knight, that what might have been a story of chivalry and virtue rivalling the Arthurian legend becomes instead an exploration of humanity as in depth and striking as modern “realistic” fiction.
The books are not devoid of grit and grime. Sex and murder are described in detail and with great frequency. But the focus of the sex is on the physicality, emotions and motivations of the scene and its characters, not on the unpleasant details of bodily fluids, and murders are explored through their psychology and political implications.
George Martin’s ability to write is phenomenal. His narratives are engaging and rarely dull. Description of landscapes does not go on for pages on end, and events are unpredictable. The entire course of the narrative is sometimes literally be altered in the space of one sentence. The third-person Point of View telling of the narrative makes sure the reader can understand why characters make decisions, the reasons for their mistakes. In fact, the exclusion of certain characters’ points of view from the first few books leads the reader to question their original judgements later on, when the characters in question are finally allowed to speak. The downside of this narrative structure is that disliking one of the point of view characters results in anything from boredom to frustration when it is their turn to be the window into Martin’s story.
In general, however, these books are not only expertly balanced between hyper-realism and hyper-romanticism, they are also gripping, unpredictable, believable, and highly emotional. It is my personal experience that, excepting one, each successive book is better than the last. I remember being enormously impressed by A Clash of Kings for breaking the sequels-are-never-as-good rule, only to find that the third instalment, A Storm of Swords, was better still.
Believe what you read on the covers: A Song of Ice and Fire is an epic fantasy in a way that Lord of the Rings never was, a staggering story told by a master craftsman.