George R. R. Martin

A Song of Ice and Fire

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A Song of Ice and Fire Summary

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A Song of Ice and Fire is an epic fantasy series by American novelist and short-story writer George R. R. Martin. Currently five books long with a sixth being written, the series began with the publication of its first volume, A Game of Thrones, in 1991. Every book in the series takes place on the massive, fantastical islands of Westeros and Essos. Each book is structured as a series of limited first-person narrations from different characters; the volume of characters increases drastically as the series goes on, from nine to thirty-one.

The characters of A Song of Ice and Fire are all entangled in three primary plotlines. The first is a war that rages between the most powerful families of Westeros. The second is the ominous, more existential threat of the Others, led by the Night King, who rise in the wastes beyond Westeros’s northern wall. The third follows the young, exiled ruler Daenerys Targaryen, daughter of Westeros’s deposed king, and her struggle to take back the Iron Throne.

Martin took inspiration for his stories from the English civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses, as well as from Maurice Druon’s novels of French history, The Accursed KingsA Song of Ice and Fire has received acclaim for breaking literary and modern social stereotypes, for depicting a world where women and religions are highly diverse, and for its realism. Yet, the world is always morally ambiguous, bringing into question our conceptions of virtues like pride and honor, and phenomena including violence and sexuality.

A Song of Ice and Fire begins in Westeros, the largest continent of the known world. Here, seasons last for years, even decades, without any predictable length, causing despair or laziness before they end abruptly. The first novel, Game of Thrones, is set almost three hundred years after Westeros’s Seven Kingdoms were brought together by the Targaryen dynasty, led by Aegon I. Aegon and his sisters Visenya and Rhaenys, who acted doubly as his wives, assumed military control using a number of dragons. Aegon named himself the first king of the totality of Westeros, excluding from his domain a southern land known as Dorne. The Targaryens stayed in power for three centuries. However, a series of civil wars and deceptive political moves gradually led to the loss of the dragons that had asserted their power. A Game of Thrones takes place fifteen years after the death of the last Targaryen king, Aerys II, who was known as the “Mad King.” He fell to Lord Robert Baratheon, who became king of Westeros just as a summer lasting nine years came to a sudden end.

When King Robert dies, a power struggle ensues between the Houses of Westeros, with each vying for the throne. Robert’s apparent successor is his thirteen-year-old son, Joffrey. Queen Cersei Lannister, Joffrey’s mother, immediately announces his rulership, stirring bitterness in Westeros. Robert’s former advisor and best friend, Lord Ned Stark, finds out that Joffrey was born of an incestuous relationship between Cersei and her twin brother Jaime Lannister, known as Kingslayer. Fearing Cersei’s eventual control of the throne, Ned tries to dethrone Joffrey; however, his co-conspirators give him up and he is executed.

Meanwhile, Renly and Stannis, Robert’s brothers, individually try to gain the throne, and two of Westeros’s Seven Kingdoms try to secede. The kingdom led by Robb, Ned’s oldest son, names its leader “King in the North,” and Lord Balon Greyjoy tries to regain control over the Iron Islands. The events of the second book, A Clash of Kings, follow the ensuing war, called the War of the Five Kings.

The plot thread involving the North, which is the domain of the Others, takes place mostly beyond Westeros’s northern Wall. The Wall is made of ice that is eight millennia old. Its guards, the Sworn Brotherhood of the Night’s Watch, defend Westeros from primitive tribes known only as the Free Folk, who make occasional efforts to breach the Wall. This narrative is told mainly through the perspective of Ned’s bastard son, Jon Snow. Jon joins the Watch as a child, inspired by his uncle Benjen. He excels at the job and is eventually promoted to Lord Commander, the highest position of the Night’s Watch. By the events of the third book, A Storm of Swords, the Night’s Watch begins to clash with the previously distant War of the Five Kings.

The third and final plotline concerns Daenerys Targaryen, daughter of the Mad King whose usurping ended their family’s dynasty. Daenerys resides in Essos, the continent off of Westeros’s eastern coast. Viserys, her brother, marries her off to a warlord from a violent tribe; nevertheless, Daenerys comes into her own as a cunning and respected ruler. She rises to power after gaining control of three dragon hatchlings. The trio goes on to symbolize the resurgence of Westeros’s dynastic power and the Targaryens’ right to rule. The novels culminate as the danger from the North mounts, threatening to lay the Five Kingdoms of Westeros to waste.

A lengthy, epic, and suspenseful drama, A Song of Ice and Fire builds tension layer by layer, presenting an extensive yet ultimately fragile political system that hinges on the decisions of very few characters. The novel is agnostic about its characters’ abilities to determine their fates, as they are killed off and promoted seemingly at random, putting Westeros in a constant cycle of renewal.