First of all, I very much regret my decision not to buy a copy of this book. I waited FOREVER on my library’s wait-list for it, and then when I did finally get it and saw all the beautimous illustrations, I spent about thirty minutes just gazing at them all, and then I put the book down and cried piteously for a while.
The illustrations are a huge draw, but also, the book is just fun. It is most definitely not for casual fans of the show. I might even go as far as to say that only people who have read (or plan to read) the books will get the proper amount of enjoyment out of it. You also have to go into it possessing a certain mindset, which I definitely do. You have to be able to be as curious about and care about the worlds of Westeros and Essos and beyond as much as if they were real. The fun, in fact, is in pretending they are real, a thinking process this book very much enables. It is written from an in-world perspective: a Maester of the Citadel, a scholar, is the author, and he hilariously spends about half of his time being historically accurate, and the other half kissing Lannister/Baratheon butt (you don’t want to be the guy who makes the king and his family look bad). It’s also interesting to see the gaps in the Maester’s knowledge (some of which hopefully Martin will let us in on by the end of the series, most of which he will not), and the Maester definitely lets his prejudices show (against anything remotely implausible or magical, also racially–he uses the word ‘savages’ quite a lot). The biggest example of this is his refusal to believe in the Others (white walkers in the show), so . . . yeah. Those exist, guy.
The biggest thing this book does is clarify the scope of the world that Martin has created. We get all these tantalizing hints in the books about historical figures, distant lands, past kings and queens, cities our characters have never visited, the shrouded origins of dynasties and religions and orders . . . so much you could never ever fit all of it into the main books proper. This book gives us a big part of that, laying everything out in chronological order, or by region. The only thing it didn’t do right was maps. In the ‘Seven Kingdoms’ section, each kingdom’s chapter begins with a detailed map, but elsewhere in the book there are no maps to be found, and that was really frustrating. I had to keep this map pulled up on my computer for reference every time I went to read it. It was so fun to see the in-world writing, as they had so much detail for the things closest to them, both in time and in space. And the farther away whatever The Thing is, the more squiggly the details and the writing get. That’s when stuff starts turning mythic.
The most interesting and the largest section covered the reign of The Targaryens, starting with Aegon the conqueror and ending with the Mad King Aerys death by Kingslayer. That was actually my favorite part of the book, the details given about Robert’s Rebellion. I just want to read a whole book about that. Hundreds of pages, please. I hope we eventually get all the nasty details, either in-book or out. I’m not picky. This section (and the majority of the rest of the book) was written by Linda and Elio from info given to them by GRRM, that he’d already collected. One interview I read stated that they had to cull this section alone from 250,000 words GRRM gave them down to a more manageable 50,000. Actually, let me just quote the whole thing:
“Now, some other details GRRM shared at ConQuest relate to the fact that when he set out to help fill in the blanks—mostly with the Targaryen history—well… the story grew in the telling. What was supposed to be 50,000 words became 250,000, as all the details he had been storing away for some future use came pouring out. It is, to say the least, amazing stuff… but too much, as it happens, for the world book! Linda and I, with the help of our editor Anne Groell, have largely summarized—in a maester’s voice—much of what GRRM revealed about the past, presenting something a bit sketchier and briefer. The full narratives have not been tossed aside, but instead it looks like George has mentioned the notion of eventually gathering all of these texts, and perhaps adding a few more, to create a ‘GRRMarillion,’ which will delve even deeper into the history of the setting. But that would be a post-ASoIaF project.” [source]
As far as I’m concerned, this quote means people should shove it if they’re going to complain this book took time from GRRM writing book six. It didn’t. He already had done all the work in the form of worldbuilding and backstory. Linda and Elio put this together, and GRRM gave them his stamp of approval.
I already talked about the illustrations and how much I want to marry them, but I want to talk about them more. Aside from being beautiful, they are also functional and helpful. Visualizing the world more clearly helps facilitate content. Seeing the faces of characters long dead lends the world verisimilitude. You can see exactly how mind-numbingly enormous the dragons were, and that gives credence to the idea that three people could conquer an entire continent (well, almost . . . Dorne gave them a run for their money) with dragons and charisma as their only weapons. You can see just how freaking cool Braavos is, or how remote Dorne’s cities (and how surrounded by desert). We get to see places we’ve never been, like Highgarden and Oldtown. In most cases, the TV show also can provide some of this for you, but it’s not a perfect medium. TV shows are limited by budget, even fabulously successful ones on HBO. For example, the show’s iron throne is much, much smaller than the one envisioned by GRRM:
The sections with the ironborn in the books (Theon before he’s Reek, Asha, Aeron, and Victarion) have always been my least favorite, and now I know why. They are HORRIBLE people from the beginning or recorded history. Just, they are all dicks. Theon lived away from them and stopped being a dick (sort of . . . anyway he was getting better and having a bromance with Robb Stark), and then he went back and TOTAL DICK AGAIN*. They just inspire it in each other. They are murderers, robbers, rapists . . . on purpose. Their culture codifies those things as something good. The only kings they had who tried to get them to take responsiblity for their actions and start being good human beings they deposed and/or murdered. They are the worst.
*It is more complicated and sad than this, but I am exaggerating for comic effect.
I’ve already sort of mentioned how a bunch of stuff in this ties into stuff we’ve only briefly heard about in the series, like Nymeria (who was amazing), or how the Lannisters got control of Casterly Rock. It’s got practically an entire biography of Tywin Lannister in there (butt-kissing noises!). I’m not complaining thought. That dude is so freaking interesting to read about, and the inspiration behind “The Rains of Castamere” is SO MUCH WORSE than I thought it was. A lot of the sections in here gave me a new appreciation for things that annoyed me previously in the books, like Dorne. The Dorne sections in AFFC were always a bummer, but now knowing the history behind their kingdom, I’m actually looking forward to re-reading those sections.
The whole book made me excited about the series all over again. Unfortunately, it’s also made me want books six and seven even more because it teases so many things we really want to know about. So if you’re looking for something to scratch that itch for you, this might do the trick, but it also might just make you itchier. (I am very itchy right now. Also, salivating. Basically I am a hungry dog that needs a bath.)