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Year of the Dragon: The Epic Imagination of George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin’s wonderful fantasy series, 'A Song of Ice and Fire' has finally been televised to much critical acclaim. Writer Samit Basu takes a close look at 'A Dance With Dragons', the latest book in the series, and considers the complete oeuvre of a writer who has had an incredible year by any standards.

SAMIT BASU  20th Nov 2011

A scene from the first season of Game of Thrones, based on Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire series

inter is coming. And as 2011 draws to a close, George R.R. Martin will heave a sigh of relief. It's been the biggest year of his career; the much-awaited release of A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume in his epic A Song of Ice and Fire series, a long stint on the New York Times bestseller list, a place on Time's 100 Most Influential People list, the roaring success of Game of Thrones, the incredibly detailed, lavishly produced HBO adaptation of the first book in the Ice and Fire series (now on Indian television). Martin was the executive producer of the TV show, and wrote some episodes; the second season is on its way. Somewhere in between, Martin also got married. A full year by anyone's standards.

I just finished rereading A Dance With Dragons — you have to read each Martin book twice, once to find out what happens and once again to savour the writer's skill. With ADwD, Martin is back to top form, and he brings some of his best characters back into the spotlight — Jon Snow, Danaerys, and the incredible Tyrion Lannister. The tale stretches across the seven kingdoms of Westeros, all of which are in chaos, and across the sea to the wild, corrupt cities and steppes of the Central Asia/Middle-East/Byzantium/Hyperboria-inspired Eastern continent. Once again, Martin's story is twisted, dark, bleak, plots unraveling, turning, expanding with that rare combination of breakneck pace and intricate detail. The world is utterly ruthless; the hundreds of fully realised characters that fight, flee, flounder and fornicate across it amazing in their complexity, in their ability to be both utterly strange and powerfully human. Martin's Westeros is not a world of heroes, of hope and redemption; it's a world full of people stabbing one another. The heroes of epics, histories and other fantasy stories wouldn't have lasted very long in it. A Song of Ice and Fire is supposed to be based on the Wars of the Roses; it reminds me most of the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata without its allegorical/educational aspirations, where no one's pretending to be on the side of good – where each of the hundred Kauravas are as complex as Karna, and where you honestly don't know whether any of the protagonists are going to stay alive when you turn the page. If Martin were to retell the Mahabharata, a crippled, maddened, monstrous Nakul would have been the only Pandava survivor of the Great War; Arjuna wouldn't have made it to adulthood.

Once again, Martin’s story is twisted, dark, bleak, plots unraveling, turning, expanding with that rare combination of breakneck pace and intricate detail. The world is utterly ruthless; the hundreds of fully realised characters that fight, flee, flounder and fornicate across it amazing in their complexity

George Martin is more than the inheritor of Tolkien's epic fantasy legacy; this is because the Ice and Fire series goes far beyond what's traditionally seen as the fantasy genre. It's storytelling at a whole other level, beyond genres and other marketing-imposed barriers; others have journeyed towards this singularity from the other side – Borges, Mitchell, Murakami, Chabon. But even among this stellar list, Martin stands alone largely because of the sheer scale of his work; the only other narratives I can think of that feature as many well-rounded protagonists are Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics and the TV show The Wire – each of which is justly celebrated as a step forward for storytelling in its respective medium. And this at a point where George Martin's about halfway through what was initially planned as a trilogy, and now seems unlikely to be just seven books. Each volume of A Song of Ice and Fire so far is above 1,000 pages. Book Five is actually Book Four B; it runs in parallel with A Feast of Crows, the fourth book. How on earth will Martin put it together? This is, thankfully, Martin's problem. His greatest success, though, lies not in the millions of copies he's sold, or the awards he's won, or that the TV adaptation has brought his work into the mainstream spotlight. It's in the extreme degree of involvement his work inspires in his fans. Visit and you'll see what I mean; hundreds of people have worked together to not only create a comprehensive wiki of the Ice and Fire world, but also huge discussions on every aspect of the world, dozens of theories about how the books might end, and speculations on each and every one of the Easter eggs Martin's placed over more than 5000 pages; I've read each book in the series so far twice, but this would probably place me very far on the outer fringes of Martin fandom; the truly obsessive have read meanings into every passing child's rhyme, every choice of clothing. Every writer should visit this site, just to realise what reader engagement could really mean.Image 2nd

And this is where the key to Martin's success lies; it's been achieved through years of incredibly hard work; writing, more writing, meeting readers at conventions, more writing. He'd been writing for decades in various media before he started A Game of Thrones; even now, he multitasks, refusing to set aside writing and editing work on other projects even as his fans bayed for the next instalment of Ice and Fire. Last year, growing fan resentment about Martin not finishing Dance with Dragons quickly enough led to a famous Neil Gaiman blogpost explaining to an over-eager fan why it was wrong to expect Martin to deliver this novel at a pace faster than the one he, Martin, deemed right. 'George R. R. Martin is not your bitch,' explained Gaiman as gently as he could. The image of millions of readers waiting eagerly for the next giant outpouring of story, growing angry when denied their Westeros fix year after year, adds a very 21st-century touch to the Martin story, the art of writing as live performance with an audience watching your every move, moaning every time you decide to take a toilet break. But this frenzy is something the author should feel genuinely proud of; this is an excitement generated not by marketing, not by insider networks, not by merchandise (no Ice and Fire fan will ever feel the heartbreak I felt when I discovered as an adult that the He-man cartoons were made to sell the toys), not by conveniently-timed controversies, not as a result of author glamour (unless you have a slight Santa Claus/Peter Jackson fetish) but by superb storytelling skill and more than a decade of hard work.

This is all the more extraordinary when you consider the shallow, celeb-culture times we live in, when the global attention span appears to be shrinking every day, where popular wisdom tells writers to keep it short and simple so as not to confuse the reader's feeble mind and send him scurrying back to the arms of Facebook. So the next time someone tells you that there's no chance of something both smart and complicated succeeding in this dumbed-down world, hit him on the head with a George R.R. Martin boxed set. And when you go to jail for murder, spend the time constructively by reading the series again.

The five books comprising Martin's series "A Song of Ice and Fire" are published by Bantam Books and available in all good bookstores. Game of Thrones (season 1) airs on HBO on Wednesdays at 9PM

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