Tuesday, April 5, 2011

When Fantasy Grows Up, or How Babies are Really Made


You've read Tolkien and you've read C.S. Lewis and maybe even all those Eragon books about dragons by Christopher Paolini. Maybe you're thinking, this is great stuff: dragons and swords and magic and all that. Can't get enough of it. But maybe you're also thinking, isn't something missing?

Well, yes. I'll tell you what it is: sex.

If you're old enough that you actually know how babies are made and you don't find the process "icky," then try out George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series. The series opens with an enormous epic novel, A Game of Thrones, which provides plenty of sex. It is, in fact, primarily about how babies are made, or specifically, how kings and queens are made, which, it turns out, is in the same way as the rest of us.

As the title suggests, A Game of Thrones main action centers on the monarchy of a vast empire called the Seven Kingdoms. The desire for this throne inspires all kinds of baby making as well as murder, deviousness, infanticide, arranged marriages, and ultimately, blood and war.

At the outset of the novel King Robert, who rules over the vast lands of the Seven Kings has just lost Jon Arryn, his most trusted advisor to illness or poisoning, if Jon Arryn's wife is to be believed. This leaves Lord Eddard Stark with two problems. One, is that his good friend King Robert has asked him to be the new Hand of the King, which means he'll have to leave his beloved home of Winterfell as well as his wife and much of his family to serve in his new position; the other is that his very high principles won't let him overlook the murder, so he has a mystery to solve, which could get him killed in turn.

At the same time a number of other characters have designs on the king's throne and the novel shifts it's point of view among them. The Lannister family, for instance, including Robert's wife, Queen Cersei , are known for their limitless ambition and their unprincipled behavior. Two children from the previous ruling family, the Tragaryeans, still survive, in exile, the son plotting his return and revenge. Throw in a kingdom populated with any number of bastard children (there are often undesirable consequences to all this sex) and you have, in short, a political mess.

It's enough of a distraction that you could forgive the characters of this epic for not really noticing the dark supernatural power threatening from the north. The Seven Kingdoms have forgotten magic, killed off the world's dragons, and walled themselves in against other powers exotic, mystical and magical. It seems, though, they are about to be reminded.

Martin is writer who demands patience. While something is always happening in A Game of Thrones, major plot points come slowly. There is also not much in the way of the fantastical in this opening novel of the series. Ninety-nine percent of the novel could have happened on a real medieval Earth. But the fantasy elements are their, glowing like the fire under a bubbling cauldron and the reader patient and observant enough is immensely rewarded.


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