Let’s be fair, I am a huge fan of Game of Thrones , so I might not count as the most impartial of the reviewers. However, people who are not already fans of a Song of Ice and Fire are unlikely to reach for this title… so perhaps in a weird way I am representative of the target audience.
First of all, the book’s design is gorgeous. The loving attention to detail is omnipresent – from the embossed Targaryen dragon beneath the book jacket, through the gorgeous endpapers showing Dragonstone on one side and the battle between Robert Baratheon and Rhaegar on the other, to the dragons wrapping their tails around the index.
Most Game of Thrones fans will be happy just flicking through the illustrations of the book. But it’s definitely not just a picture book.
This is a book that George R.R. Martin has co-written with Elio M. García Jr. and Linda Antonsson, founders of Westeros.org and Song of Ice and Fire superfans (check out an interview with one of them here ) . It’s basically meant to be a source for all the background information readers dream of having – such as: how did Aegon Targaryen conquer Westeros? Where did the Lannisters come from? What’s the difference between Ghis and Qohor? Who was Bran the Builder? And so on and so forth.
The book is supposedly a history of the realm of Westeros written by Maester Yandel during the reign of Robert Baratheon’s reign and hastily revised to be appropriate for the reign of King Tommen. It is not an easy read, as it is basically as a textbook. You really do have to be interested in Westeros in order to plough through it – but if you are A Song of Ice and Fire fan you will find it very useful. I am somewhat tempted to start re-reading the books, just to see how much my reception of them will have changed now with all the knowledge I’ve acquired (and also by the possibility of using this rather hefty tome as a reference book).
It’s great to fun to trace elements of medieval and ancient history present in the world of ice and fire: through the parallels between the ironborn and the vikings, to the numerous discussions of whether women should be able to inherit the throne (note the similarity between the dance of the dragons, and just to pick at random the war between Stephen and Matilda in England).
Yet there are some patterns that are overall slightly disturbing: there’s the constant incest, a taste for the bloodiest types of executions, and most disturbingly – there’s a definite concern about race throughout the book. Though it may be suggested that this comes from the bias of Maester Yondel, it is still slightly disturbing.
Note that the dragon lords, the Valyrians, ( the race of the conquerors) are famed for their ‘great beauty… with their hair of palest silver or gold and eyes in shades of purple. ‘ Now compare that description with that of the people of Ib, a race of people living far to the East
“their faces, characterised by sloping brows with heavy ridges, small sunken eyes, great square teeth, and massive jaws , seem brutish and ugly to Westerosi eyes, an impression heightened by their guttural, grunting tongue; but in truth men of Ib are a cunning folk… Though the men of Ib can father children upon the women of Westeros and other lands, the products of such unions are often malformed and inevitably sterile in the manner of mules.”
The men of Ib are not the only ones who cannot father children with the Westerosi – the same is said of the men of Sothoryos. The only explanation for this that is not absurdly racist, is that Martin conceives those two completely different types of humans, such as the Homo Sapiens and the Neanderthals. The only problem with that is, that of course, as a recent discovery proved, Neanderthal genes were passed on to modern humans – so that not only were those two species able to mate, but they were also able have healthy offspring. So what is going on here? Also, if the men of Ib are a seperate species unable to mate with the inhabitants of Westeros, then how are the Valyrians with their purple eyes not a separate species? Because they happen to be pretty?
Not only that, but one of the illustrations in the book is labelled “A YiTish male and a Lengii female”. But it is a man and a woman in full clothing that the picture is depicting. The only difference between them and the inhabitants of Westeros is that they look visibly oriental.
I know I will immediately be told that this is because the book is based on medieval accounts of the world. But I’m still not quite convinced that this is a valid excuse. Now I was not quite convinced when John Boyega accused the TV series of racism. It is true that non-white characters are a minority in the TV series, but at least they are active and interesting – I love Missandei. Equally, in the main body of the books, the Dorne plot is much better developed and I dare anyone not to sympathise with the charismatic Doran Martell. It is a tough criticism to crack as most contemporary fantasy fiction and film is overwhelmingly white. I feel even the slightest attempts to be inclusive are something to be acknowledged.
In the case of The World of Ice and Fire, if you simply avoid the section entitled “Beyond the Sunset Kingdom”, the problem of race doesn’t really leap out. But, I can’t pretend that this section doesn’t exist.
But if John Boyega was referencing this book – I do see that there is a source for complaint. This doesn’t mean I will stop watching the Game of Thrones, or not read the next book written by Martin, or anything of the sort. I am far too much into it to let go now.
It does however make me more wary of David Benioff and DB Weiss’s next planned TV series, The Confederate, which imagines a world in which the Confederates won the civil war. Initially, I didn’t see how it was that much different from The Man in the High Castle, the TV series that imagined a world in which the Nazis won. Both, by the way, are ideas that I find appalling, and I definitely wouldn’t watch either TV series. But if one was for some weird reason socially acceptable, then why wasn’t the other? But in the context of the frankly bizarre focus on race in The World of Ice and Fire – I can see why there might be some serious objections to that project.
I just can’t wait for Marlon James’s promised African fantasy trilogy…