'A Song of Ice and Fire'
Author George R.R. Martin's fantastic kingdoms
(CNN) -- If George R.R. Martin's three-books-and-counting fantasy series "A Song of Ice and Fire" were made into a movie -- well, OK, at least a 10-hour miniseries -- it would require a director on the order of D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille. For the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are indeed made up of a cast of thousands.
Among those thousands are some deeply realized characters in what are (even by fantasy-literature standards) freshly imaginative and intricate situations.
It begins with the first volume, "A Game of Thrones," published in 1997, and continues to the latest, "A Storm of Swords," released in November by Bantam Dell Publishing, a division of Random House. Between the titles is the second novel in the series, "A Clash of Kings."
In all, the series stands at 2,647 total pages, and describes a world where summer can last for more than a decade and dark winter can grip a generation. The families of the kingdom's great houses scheme and pitch battle with hosts of knights and soldiers for the Iron Throne, while sinister, otherworldly forces mass to the far north beyond the Wall, an ancient, 700-foot barrier of ice.
The series is full of tales wonderfully told, and Martin makes no apologies for the length.
"I wanted to do something that was epic in scale," said Martin. "And I wanted to tell it with the best power, not necessarily the best economy. I wanted a certain richness."
The series has a wealth of fans, too. As one enthusiast noted in an Internet chat room, "Martin discards all the cliche fantasy elements (and) instead of dazzling reader with trolls or spectacular magic, he aims at the reader's raw emotions."
With an emphasis on "raw." Stories feature battle scenes replete with crunching skulls, spilling brains and armor-punching crossbow quarrels. "A Song of Ice and Fire" is thoroughly grounded in the brutality of the age, and the author's descriptions are far more frank than those found in the works of other fantasy authors.
Still, mature as the themes sometimes are, they remain true to the story, and to the many central characters who are revealed in delicious detail as the chapters unfold. Each chapter is devoted to a different character, and the story weaves through differing points of view in a skillful mix of observation, narration and well-crafted dialogue that illuminates both character and plot with fascinating style.
The 52-year-old author honed his dialogue gifts in Hollywood, where he wrote for feature films and television, including the popular series "Beauty and the Beast," starring Linda Hamilton of "Terminator" fame. "Dialogue is what carries a film," said Martin, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "... I think 10 years of working out there made my dialogue certainly better than it was before."
Martin speculated that his fantasy series is in part a reaction to the strictures of film and television -- an attempt to satisfy a longing to create a richly textured world and people it with compelling characters that small and large screens cannot deliver.
"A lot of fantasy, unfortunately, is so simplistic that it colors our reading habits," said Martin. "Someone is described as a bad guy, but you never hear his viewpoint, his reasoning, or why he wanted to do what he did."
To Martin, whose stories feature heroic characters capable of violence and marital infidelity, where even children can be targets of murder plots, it's much more rewarding to explore characters from many sides. Forget about white hats and black hats.
"Gray characters, to my mind, are more interesting to write about," he said.
Three more books
The series probably will take six volumes to be fully told, said Martin, who's working on the fourth installment. It will called "The Dance with Dragons."
He initially envisioned a trilogy, "But even before I finished the first, it became clear that I had too much story."
The series itself crept up on him, Martin recalled. He was working on a science-fiction novel when a scene -- the discovery of direwolf pups in the snow beside their dead mother -- popped into his head. The image of pups became a scene-setter in the first chapter of "A Game of Thrones." Martin gave up the novel and began exploring a new world of fire and ice, and thus was the series born.
"I certainly get letters from fans, asking me to continue writing the series," he said. "When I finish, the question arises, 'What will I do next?' I think: something different."
He doesn't rule out additional stories on the seven kingdoms, but probably won't continue in that vein immediately, Martin said.
Fans and favorites
Readers, meanwhile, stay in touch, guessing about future plot developments. "Some are very close, and some are extremely far away, but I don't want to give away any of my secrets," Martin said.
He will admit to a favorite character among his cast of thousands -- Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf of Casterly Rock. A "bad guy" at first glance, Tyrion develops into a mini-Machiavelli with a cutting, David Letterman-like wit.
"I forget who it was who said that the villain is a hero to the other side," Martin said. "(Tyrion's) chapters are easy to write."
A native of Bayonne, New Jersey, Martin has worked as a VISTA volunteer in Chicago, Illinois, and a journalism instructor in Dubuque, Iowa, in addition to his Hollywood stint.
He visited Santa Fe after attending a world science-fiction convention in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1978. In 1979, Martin moved to the New Mexico state capital, which he loves despite the town's habit of undergoing "periods of extreme trendiness."
Martin still continues visiting science-fiction conventions, but these days it is as an honored guest.
In July, he will be in Giron, Spain, for a crime-fiction convention. In September, it's Millennium Philcon, a world science-fiction convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Will he be able to finish "A Song of Ice and Fire" with so many commitments? Martin strives, he said, to finish each installment in 18 months.
And sorry, book No. 4, "The Dance with Dragons" is only a few months along. Devotees of his mythical world will just have to wait.
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George R.R. Martin Official Web site
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