Monday, April 23, 2012

Better Late Than Never

Shishir had described it as The Lord of the Rings meets The Sopranos. One month and five thousand pages later, Nanga Fakir nods his assent (though he's only vaguely aware of what The Sopranos is).

A Song of Ice and Fire - the epic fantasy series that everyone who walks on two feet and displays vital signs has read and critiqued - is very much what people have claimed it is, and more; a great, deep, wonderful, complex, layered, savagely intelligent fantasy series with a rider: it's for adults and adults only. (So if you're thinking of a gift for your little niece who's into Harry Potter and Twilight, you might want to skip gifting her this one.)

A major criticism of Tolkien and the fantasy movement he pioneered was that of lack of complexity of characters, simple bifurcation of the world into those who're good and those who've gone to the dark side and the sacrifice of realism for an over-abundance of high fantasy. Nanga Fakir agrees with such criticisms but still has deep regard for Tolkien in general for having single-handedly created such a high art form. In retrospect though, such oversights were rather obvious and the genre was waiting to be rescued by someone who'd add a dash of realism and complexity to the high fantasy narrative.

George R R Martin has done just that! A Song of Ice and Fire is mostly medieval fantasy - with a very large tract of the (very complex) story taking place as it could've been set on a (say) 14-15th century Europe. (On a slightly different note, it's very tempting to see the Dothraki being fashioned after the Mongolian hordes; the continent of Essos, on the Arabic and Egyptian civilisations while the continent of Westeros is mostly our 14th century Europe/decaying Byzantine Empire.) There is a hint of magic though, barely enough for most characters to deny its existence and yet significant enough for the more imaginative kind to entertain the possibility that it exists.

The masterstroke though, is treating the high fantasy universe as if it were the brutal, nasty and horrific era our medieval history actually was. And so you wouldn't see George R R Martin shying away from taboo topics like rapes, prostitution, incest, coarse, foul language; graphic, detailed portrayals of very gory violence; moral ambiguity, opportunism and yes, deaths of very many central characters. All these were a strict no-no for the genre starting from Tolkien and spreading from his work to that of his emulators (Christopher Paolini and his Inheritance series is a good example (although it tries hard to avoid some standard criticisms, it doesn't totally absolve itself of all sins that the genre is accused of having committed); in fact Chandrakanta - the very popular Hindi medieval/high fantasy series written in the 19th century suffers from these same defects, although being the pioneering work it was, one must learn to appreciate it for what it did given the time at which it was written). Women of common birth, for example in these traditional novels of high fantasy, are not treated as carnal objects, nor is the description of violence serious or detailed; descriptions of torture are almost entirely skipped. (One notable exception is the manga Berserk whose incomplete anime adaptation left NF raging in exasperation for days on end.) Such details shift A Song of Ice and Fire into the realms of Dark Fantasy and Historical Fiction.

And of course, no one who'd ever review the series would forget the complex, morally ambiguous characterisations that are the crown of the saga. The wonderful characters of Tyrion (played by Peter Dinklage in the HBO series, who eventually went on to win both the Emmy and the Golden Globe for his performance); Daenerys, Jaime, Jon Snow, Cersei, Varys, Littlefinger - there is a brilliant array of excellent characters populating the universe of the novel throughout. Add to it the dense and very detailed, complex plotting, and you get the greatest fantasy book NF has ever read!

Bravo George, bravo!!! 


PS: Although Nanga Fakir loves the HBO series, what he's really rooting for, is an anime adaptation by, perhaps, the great Shinichiro Watanabe.


AJEY said...

aye to that!
been a song of ice and fire evangelist for ages!

Mahesh Shastry said...

You mean, "Braavos, George, Braavos."

Nanga Fakir said...

<*Mimicking Ajey*> Aye to that!