A Song of Ice and Fire – The Series by George R.R. Martin

Well, I figured I might as well dive right into a review. And of course, this will be one of the longer ones, as it’s for the longest series I’m covering. This post will be about the series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R. R. Martin. There will be major, major spoilers, as I’m addressing the entire series (published to date).

Having just finished A Feast for Crows, I’m eagerly anticipating A Dance with Dragons, and if there is anything drastically different that comes out, I’ll update this post. Here’s some background on my experience with this series, which includes A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons (and more to come):

I first picked up A Game of Thrones the summer before I was going into 8th grade, at the ripe old age of twelve. Let me preface this by saying that I do not recommend this to twelve-year-olds, as there are quite graphic scenes of incest and mentions of rape, and several vividly described violent scenes as well. I managed to gloss over most of this, but I can tell you that at least two particularly gruesome scenes were burned in my memory for the eight years that spanned my first time reading this series to when I revisited them about a month ago. As the HBO miniseries came out recently, I decided to reread the books and see how I liked them.

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it is a medieval-y fantasy that revolves around the affairs of many different branches of noble families in the land of Westeros. The first book begins with the death of the Hand (the main executive-esque assistant) of the current king, Robert Baratheon. King Robert calls in his close friend, Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark, to take on this role. Ned had helped Robert overthrow the previous king to establish his reign. Ned brings with him part of his family, including two daughters, Sansa and Arya, both of whom are very young when the story opens (ages 11 and 9, respectively). Sansa is a very proper lady, with dreams of marrying Robert’s son, Prince Joffrey, who is a nasty piece of work. And here I’ll make my first digression from a summary.

Sansa Stark 
Joffrey is the ostensible heir to the throne and becomes king when Robert dies, but he is no trueborn son of Robert. Rather, he is the product of an incestuous relationship between Cersei Lannister, Robert’s queen and the regent upon his death, and her twin brother, Jaime. He, however, is unaware of this, and remains so even as he dies. His relationship with Sansa is troubling and disturbing. As a spoiled young man, Joffrey is cruel. When Ned Stark is accused of treason because he threatens to reveal Joffrey’s bastard status and desires Robert’s older brother, Stannis, to be the true king, Joffrey lies to Sansa and promises her mercy for her father, when in reality he has Ned beheaded in front of Sansa. Later, he forces her to go see her father’s head, mounted on the castle walls. The cruelty doesn’t stop there. He has his knights beat her regularly for his entertainment, and once even has them strip her naked in the throne room. Joffrey’s uncle, Tyrion, intervenes, but no one else has the courage to stand up to his capricious whims. Obviously, this relationship is founded on inequality, as he is the king and she a daughter of a traitor, and is abusive in every manner possible. What I found interesting is the way Sansa reacts. In the beginning, she is besotted with Joffrey, when her father is still in good standing. But when he kills her father and begins his systematic battering, she realizes how mistaken she was. As the story progresses, Sansa’s betrothal is broken, and she tells Joffrey’s new bride-to-be about his true nature. Although meek and constrained by her position as a family-less young woman, Sansa’s struggles make her sympathetic, even when contrasted with her much more feisty sister, Arya.

Arya Stark
Speaking of which, Arya, who was my favorite when I first read this series, is the younger Stark daughter, and nothing like her older sister. Loathing the primness of being a proper lady, she takes sword lessons (called “dancing lessons” in the book) and is always getting into mischief. When the chaos of her father being declared a traitor occurs, she escapes, disguising herself as a boy and journeying through the treacherous countrysides, at one point being captured under her false identity by one of the enemy Lannister bannermen. She kills several men before she even turns ten, and staunchly reminds herself of the people who have wronged her family and vows revenge. Unfortunately, her character is not given as much of a nuanced portrayal as Sansa’s, and my more recent reading of her left something to be desired. Nonetheless, for a young girl, reading about a girl who fought against society’s constraints on proper behavior was inspirational and entertaining.

Cersei Lannister
Then there is Cersei Lannister, the reigning monarch and widow of King Robert, is a particularly fascinating character. She is unabashedly cunning, scheming to preserve her children’s power and advance her own role. Her father, Tywin Lannister, was infamous among the kingdom as a powerful and ruthless lord, and it is her dream that one day, he be remembered merely as her sire. One particular factor that nagged me is that throughout Joffrey’s abuse of Sansa, she remains out of the picture. She seems to genuinely not realize how monstrous her son is, as textual clues imply that she would disapprove. This is indicative of a trend of her humanity toward children, as she also did not condone her brother Jaime pushing young Brandon Stark out of a window to silence him. This, though, is where her humanity ends. Jealous and paranoid, Cersei pushes aside Jaime and anyone who would care about her, surrounding herself with traitors and ingratiating schemers. The constant theme of Cersei is power, power, power. And even though she is not a good person, she’s a pretty powerful character, and for that, I respect her. She sleeps around to get her way, she realizes the limitations of being a woman, and though she is short-sighted and at the end of A Feast for Crows seems to have failed her goal of ruling all the kingdoms, she is still a great character.

Daenerys Targaryen
Finally, there is Daenerys (Dany) Targaryen, last child of the king before Robert. She and her brother Viserys fled, though the rest of the Targaryen family left in King’s Landing were butchered. She is at first a meek girl of 14, subject to her brother’s control, and boy, is he controlling. He essentially sells her to a Dothraki chieftain (Khal) by the name of Drogo, to finance his hopes of retaking the throne by utilizing Khal Drogo’s army of horse riders. Yes, folks, the Dothraki are horse people, “barbarians” who live beyond the sea, and incidentally, are dark skinned. Surprisingly, Dany and Drogo fall in love, and their relationship is actually very touching. For their first intimate encounter, Drogo does his best to assuage Dany’s fears, and it is my belief that this was actually a consensual act, which pleased me considerably, because I absolutely loathe the whole medieval-fantasy-means-lots-of-raping-because-that’s-the-way-things-“were”-even-though-hello-this-is-FICTION idea. Viserys gets what’s coming to him, and Dany realizes that she is the true heir to the throne. So she convinces Drogo to help her field an army for their expected son, but then Drogo and Dany’s son dies. But it’s cool, because Dany all of a sudden has DRAGONS and now she’s going to go free all the slaves and tell off any of the Dothraki who are raping the women whose villages they have attacked and plundered. Say it with me people, bad. ass.

However, what does sort of eat at me is the fact that as a white woman, Dany goes in and “civilizes” the barbarians by freeing the slaves and forbidding her followers from raping women. She IS the white savior, making the Dothraki fight in a war that they couldn’t care less about. This conveniently sidesteps the fact that rape abounds in the kingdoms of Westeros, and I am very curious to see if and when Dany takes the throne, she also deals with that situation. Nonetheless, I can’t hate on her, because let’s face it–all these old white men are trying to cramp her style by taking what’s rightfully hers, and you tell me if that doesn’t sound familiar.

Brienne of Tarth
This is an addendum, and I’m so horribly ashamed that I forgot her at first, especially because her storyline reached a cliffhanger at the end of A Feast for Crows, and it’s the one I most want to read more about! A noblewoman who is described repeatedly as hideous and referred to sarcastically as “Brienne the Beauty,” she prefers a man’s garb and was a knight in Renly’s Kingsguard when he was challenging Stannis to the Iron Throne. My first thought: why does she have to be ugly? Why can’t women who want to fill traditionally male roles be attractive? This is a problem that Arya also finds herself in, but it’s mitigated by the fact that people often compare her to her deceased aunt, Lyanna, who was a famed beauty, even if she spends much of the series masquerading as a boy and has little regard to her own physical appearance. So I guess Brienne’s homeliness is incidental. Anyway, Brienne is described as fiercely loyal, and was somewhat in love with Renly. Her ugliness finds her the brunt of many cruel jokes, but her dogged determination finds her the respect of Jaime and another knight, Ser Hyle, the latter having once mocked her quite intensely himself. And respect is the important feature, because haters are always going to hate. With her sword, Brienne’s stature is not a weakness, and she is by far better than basically every male fighter in the book, with perhaps the exception of Jaime (which is a very, very small exception). Also, I have a feeling that she and Hyle are going to get it on, providing they survive (stupid cliffhanger!!), and I will be more than okay with that.

There are also many peripheral female characters, which I would mention, except that this post is already absurdly long. But if anyone is curious, leave a comment, and I’ll come back for more!

The Rating

Overall, I was impressed by the cast of female characters. While I’m a bit dubious about the nature of the Dothraki and the division of the kingdoms, I’m willing to acknowledge that Martin has no qualms about giving his female characters a considerable amount of weight and importance, even in the somewhat-confined-by-medieval-creepy-rape-tropes  “realm of fantasy.” I’d recommend this to mature young adults who like fantasy and adventure, with the caveat that sometimes it’s super annoying when your favorite character gets pushed aside for 75 percent of the novel. But definite feminist potential in this one.

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12 Responses to A Song of Ice and Fire – The Series by George R.R. Martin

  1. E says:

    So you talk about the rape-fixation that ‘validates’ or ‘excuses’ itself on account of the genre of medieval fantasy, because ‘that how things were in those days’, and that got me thinking. How is that a consistent view with the presence of multiple ‘badass femmes’? Now, this is certainly not my area of expertise, but the only medieval badass femme of whom I have any knowledge was burned at the stake and vilified for hundreds of years.

    So I have to immediately question the presence of such female roles in the works. Why are they there, individuals freely moving against the grain in a work whose internal societal values so clearly treat women as second class citizens (if a woman, the monarch, has to use sex to achieve her ends, then women are clearly second class citizens)? Pandering to the audience? Unrealistic elements in an escapist construction? Why does a society supposedly modeled on something we know break from that expectation? Is there a reason extant in the text?

    Moreover, does such a disjoint not make the creepy rape-tropes all the more creepy?

    • Cyn says:

      This probably requires the analysis from someone much better versed in medieval history and literature than I. However, GRRM’s series isn’t exactly historically based, as it’s a fictionalized country, that while certainly drawing upon conjectures of behavior in similar contexts, I’d say little has changed in modern days too. Plenty of women go against the grain today as well, even while still being treated as second class citizens. It’s fantasy, after all–and women fighting against prescriptive, oppressive society is one of mine. And creepy rape-tropes are ALWAYS creepy, and I think their existence even while concurrent with those of unusual women who rebel against generalized gender roles is indeed indicative of how even while the individual may be able to fight against such things, there’s still a cultural construct that deems it acceptable for such things to occur.

      Does that response make sense?

  2. E says:

    Right, but the whole ‘freedom of women to be individuals, not property’ concept is at work with both ideas. Regardless of the fact that women are still second-class citizens, they are certainly less so now than in a medieval setting. And, while in a fictional land, is not based off such a setting? My question, then, is how does Martin justify his society being enlightened enough to let a woman be a knight but unenlightened enough for all the other correlated stuff? Does he, or is it all just handled as being ‘fantasy’, so it doesn’t matter? Is it that way merely because that is his authorial decree? And if he is comfortable making such authorial decrees, how can other things be excused on account of the setting. Would they not be there, in truth, because he wants them there?

    • Cyn says:

      Well, actually, the knight character is absolutely not accepted at all. She’s mocked as an aberration and constantly at risk for rape and torture because she’s a woman in the societal context of Westeros. She has the same difficulties as all the other women presented in the series, which I think is telling because it’s GRRM saying that even if a woman is physically powerful enough to kick anyone’s ass, the fact that she’s a woman still means oppression from the men. Apologies if that’s not clear.

      • E says:

        Alright, that makes much more sense. I’m an internal consistency snob.

      • Cyn says:

        I know 😛

        I guess it is hard because I didn’t think anyone would assume that Brienne would be readily accepted by society, but then again, I’m thinking as someone who has read the books. But yes, Cersei is slut-shamed aplomb, and Brienne is repeatedly referred to by other characters as an animal/lesser-being. However, I think it’s good that GRRM portrays them largely in a positive/sympathetic light (though Cersei is really a terrible and conniving character as of the last book) that highlights their bad treatment at the hands of some of the male characters as a misogynistic issue.

        Read the books. I know you think some people’s opinions are rubbish, but I know (hope? :P) you think a little bit higher of mine. At the very least, that’ll give you more expertise in discussing the points I bring up with me, and I would value that. They might not be the epitome of plot and prose, but they are interesting, and some of the characters’ stories are quite good.

  3. northwestrain says:

    There are other authors ( female ) who do a better job — Anne Bishop is far superior. Male writers in general just aren’t able to write female characters. George rr isn’t Tolkien —

    Favorite all time movie quote
    Witch King: You fool…no man can kill me.
    Eowyn: (stabs him) I am no man.
    ~ Return of the King.

    Thank you for writing this review — I think I’ll stick with Anne Bishop.

    • Cyn says:

      Yay, recommendations! I’ll have to check her out. Tolkien is awesome–he’s my favorite author. Éowyn is a particularly interesting character, so I will probably talk about her a lot when I get around to making my review.

    • Mia says:

      “George rr isn’t Tolkien”
      Martin does a much better job at writing complex and realistic female characters than Tolkien. Actually, I can’t think of a single woman in LotR who was not horribly two-dimensional and strangely passive, something that even the producers of the movies acknowledged when they added scenes in which Arwen was a lot more pro-active than the book character.

      Personally, I also appreciate the fact that Brienne ist not conventionally pretty, and I think the writing explores the burden of ugly women quite realisticallly. I think this is also very unique in the fantasy genre, as I can’t think of a single female protagonist who is not in some way or another depicted as beautiful. Sure, you get the occassional tomboy or the ugly duckling who turns into a swan at some point, but there is no character like Brienne, broad face and freakish height and all.

      • Cyn says:

        Tolkien is a better writer, but not a better feminist. I agree with you that it’s very interesting that Brienne is ugly. I was hesitant because I find that that’s often a storywriter stereotype (strong/warrior women are ugly, can’t cook) but I think that the fact that she STILL faces risk of rape and attacks to her honor DESPITE her unattractiveness underscores the anti-woman era and corrects misconceptions that only attractive women exist in storytelling.

    • ASOIAF Fan says:

      Yeah cause Tolkien is known for his powerful female characters, right…

  4. northwestrain says:

    I just checked out your reading list — and I must say that “Dune” is probably one of my all time favorite SiFi books — I’ve read them all including the ones by his son.

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