The World of Ice and Fire is not part of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series proper, but it’s as close as one can get while we (im)patiently wait for the next novel to come out. It’s not an encyclopedia, although that’s an understandable assumption after taking a glance at it. The World of Ice and Fire is in fact written as a text that a character in A Song of Ice and Fire might read. The “author” of the book is a maester (for the uninitiated, think of a mix of a monk and a scientist) who is alive during the current events of A Song of Ice and Fire. The afterword of the book even makes mention of some current events involving Daenarys, Joffrey, and Tommen.
However, the text is primarily concerned with the events of George R. R. Martin’s universe that led up to A Song of Ice and Fire. Eagle-eyed readers will notice some missing backstory, backstory that either the maester does not know or purposely omits, and some possible clues for the future. The detailed and chronological account of the events leading up to Robert’s Rebellion against the Mad King Aerys is full of nuggets of deceit, foreshadowing, and surprises. For those wondering about where everyone stood during Robert’s Rebellion, the book offers some interesting revelations, especially surrounding Prince Rhaegar, a character whom most view as a villain. Others who want to know just how the kingdoms of Westeros rose will be delighted by the extensive accounts of the Andals, the Children of the Forest, the Valyrians, and the Targaryens that covers the first third of the book. For those who just want a taste of Martin’s world while they wait for The Winds of Winter this book will also serve as a joy. Despite being a historical text, it is filled with the striking imagery that has helped Martin’s series become so popular. The Targaryen Civil War, known as the Dance of Dragons, is beautifully written about and comes with gorgeous illustrations. The illustrations, which crop up throughout the entire book, are all beautiful. They are done by different artists which makes each one something special, a unique take on the fantasy world.
What makes the content of The World of Ice and Fire twice as interesting is that we don’t get all the information we might desire, as odd as that might sound. The maester writing admits that it is impossible to fully know all historical events and that some records contradict one another and he therefore gives us both. There are certain events that appear concrete, but some are still ambiguous enough to keep us wondering. Some are even incorrect, a fact I’ll return to in a little bit.
For fans of the television adaptation, Game of Thrones, this book is also an excellent resource. The adaptation makes mention of many historical events, but does not go into as much detail as Martin’s books do so this could serve as a nice companion when fans choose to rewatch the show and are put off by having to read five one thousand page books, but still want to get more background information.
For those who haven’t read the books and haven’t watched the series, the book remains surprisingly accessible. It assumes little to no familiarity with events and while there are small moments that will please fans more than anyone else, the writing style is engaging and has more than its share of wit (the sections on the rebellious dwarf Mushroom are a treat).
Fans of history might take to this book more than most. Not only does the book outline the history of Martin’s world, it also engages with many of the struggles when it comes to analyzing history and deciding what did and did not happen. The section of the book on the Night’s Watch and the Wildings is short and certainly inaccurate when it claims the only threats from North of the Wall are the self-proclaimed “free folk.” Readers and watchers will know that events North of the Wall are of prime importance but they only get a few pages in this chronology because, to most of Westeros, that information is not seen as important. The brief mentions of the Long Night hint to the reader that what lies to the north could be crucial, but the maester who writes this chronology is blind to it.
The outlining of the original kingdoms of Westeros shows a similarity to our own history as it gives tales of imperialism, slavery, and capitalist endeavors, all of which lead to the injury, impoverishment, and deaths of thousands. The writer is forced to tackle with the reality that the founders of many of the Great Houses in Westeros were not exactly the most honorable of warriors. They threw out, or killed, the Children of the Forest, destroying their trees and many of the other peaceful settlements in Westeros. But since the maester is writing for the descendants of those Great Houses, he is forced to walk a careful line and it’s interesting to see him do so and to take stock of how our own history texts do so, as well.
Also coming into play is the time period that the chronology is written. House Baratheon is in control and it’s therefore not a surprise that the maester refers to his reign as “The Glorious Reign,” further complicating how reliable we should take the text when it discusses the history of the Baratheons and their allies.
The books three writers, Martin, Linda Antonsson, and Elio M. Garcia Jr, began this project in 2008 and it took six years for it to be finalized. The time and effort put into it shows. Far from a cash-in on a popular franchise, The World of Ice and Fire is almost as necessary as the novels in A Song of Ice and Fire.