To my own astonishment, I actually managed to read through this entire massive volume of lore, and finished it last night. Astonishment because the book is quite long, and I expected to take much longer than I did, and astonished because, frankly, most of this splendid-looking work is written in such a boring manner that it occasionally hurt to read, and I was just blazing through the material to get through it, rather than enjoying it. It was quite obvious, in my opinion, what pieces were written by Martin himself, and what was written by his two partners in crime, which unfortunately seems to be most of the book.
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I've expressed my initial skepticism about this book, and it feels, after having slogged through it, that it was justified in some ways. It did have a number of typos and errors in the lore, but it was not nearly as bad as I expected, perhaps because it doesn't matter as much here as it does when it interrupts the flow of a narrative, like it did in A Dance with Dragons. Much of the information found in this volume I already owned, mostly in Green Ronin's A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying products, notably the Campaign Guide - mostly the stuff relating to geography and politics. It is the history - and that is of course what this book is mostly about, as the subtitle The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones suggests - it is the history that will have fans salivating and speculating, and looking for clues that may help solve some of the mysteries of the main saga. I know I spotted more than a few eyebrow-raisers where I wondered, "Is Martin trying to tell us something here?" But the largest mysteries of Westeros (and Essos) remain relatively mysterious, and ironically, when the veil is pulled away I feel I didn't really want to know that much anyway - some things are better when they are insinuated (which is why I fear the rest of the story of A Song of Ice and Fire because Martin needs to get to the explaining).
The book is basically divided into four sections - early history/legendary times, the Targaryen line of kings in Westeros, the Seven Kingdoms, and Essos. Of these, I found the chapters on the Seven Kingdoms the most interesting, because it is Westeros I like and am invested in, and it is Westeros which is the most well developed part of the setting. And I just love the medieval feel of the setting, with the Houses and their mottos and their knights and their sigils. I liked to learn a little more about the Stormlands, the Reach, and the Westerlands in particular, and here we were given glimpses but not exhausting details that takes away the fun. The other presentations of the kingdoms were entertaining as well, mixing geography, (local) history, etc. though a lot of material was omitted as well (not much on the Crownlands). The history of the Targaryen kings was one long account of names doing bad stuff to other names, much of it reminiscent of real medieval history. I am in no way as fascinated by the Targaryens as the authors seem to be, so for me this wasn't all that interesting, not until the book reached the times before A Game of Thrones at any rate; learning more about Tywin Lannister's life was pretty interesting, and I may be wrong, but it seems that Martin basically confirmed a bastard among Tywin's children..
The Essos section was, for me, the least interesting part of the book. Here, in particular, Martin' setting shows its blandness, with the various locations modeled very closely on real world equivalents (it was always about the characters anyway, so it's not a complaint per se, but when you feel you're reading a geography book - with the occasional mention of a giant crab or some other monster - rather than a creatively built world, it just doesn't fire my imagination that much - that being said, I am guilty of borrowing too much from the real world in my own stuff as well). Most of Essos appears to be covered in ruins of ancient civilizations and beyond that there is grass and mountains and a lot of violent conflicts mentioned. It never leaps off the page and makes you go wooooow...also, there's a lot missing, places just mentioned or not mentioned at all that we know exist in the narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire. Knowing then, that this volume isn't comprehensive, takes away some of the joy. Which, again, are thoughts that come into conflict with knowing too much. So, maybe I should just be glad there isn't too much revealed. What I did note was how pervasive H.P. Lovecraft is in Martin's construction of Essos. Really, there are so many references to Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, it becomes distracting and almost a little silly. I found the homage to Lovecraft with the Ironborn's saying, "What is dead may never die" and their Drowned God possibly being a Deep One-inspired thing (a Kraken god?) just fine (and a few place names like Qohor didn't bother me either). I like it when there are small winks here and there, and it doesn't really bother me. But reading through the Essos chapter all these references suggesting the Deep Ones are slumbering beneath Essos felt lazy. Same goes for the men of Ibben, who felt like knockoffs of Tolkien's dwarves, and certain characters just being real world historical figures with a different name slapped onto them. I hate to say this book at times feels lazy, knowing how many years it has been in the making, but that's how it feels even though it probably was not the intention.
Writing the book through the point of view of a maester trying to separate facts from legend is a good choice in the sense that whatever is written here, Martin can change if he feels like it. This, again, feels a bit like a cop-out, but I understand; after all, there are two more books to be written. Most of this stuff will obviously never surface in the main narrative anyway. Will we ever join a character traveling through the Stormlands, experiencing the rainwood? Will we ever get to see Casterly Rock through the eyes of a character (I do hope so, to learn more about Casterly Rock was of particular interest; I was surprised at how...fantasy-ish this location is. I do get the impression that whatever opinions the jester/fool Mushroom had, those were closest to the truth (don't ask me why I feel that way, 'cause I don't know).
The Princess and the Queen and The Rogue Prince, while being historical too, were far more interesting to read because, even though they were presentations, they had a sort of narrative. Here, in The World of Ice and Fire, it's just dry fact after dry fact presented in a dry manner, making the book about as enjoyable as your regular history books (just with more dragons). It has, at least, taught me that I have to reconsider how I'm approaching my own setting (I'm in the midst of writing down everything I've ever made - since the mid-nineties - into a similar type of book so that I have all my material in one place). Using the maester angle is one way to alleviate some of the dryness that is bound to occur in such a text that pretends to be factual; but I find it isn't enough; one problem this book has is that the maester often repeats the same sentences and phrases when describing (or omitting) things. Another is that, as mentioned, much of the material just isn't interesting enough on its own to warrant an exciting description. Perhaps if the book had some interwoven narratives throughout, you know, like pieces from a chapter that read like a chapter from A Storm of Swords to break up the monotony. Some monologues from characters, preserved in writing. A speech by a king, a song by a fool, fragments from a diary, accounts from the court...things to fill out and add to the crippling long main texts.
I did like picking out the small details that might help us understand the main work better; things that could foreshadow future events (in The Winds and Winter and A Dream of Spring); but since the narrator is unreliable, I won't know if I found a nugget of gold or not. Not until the series is complete, anyway. Which leaves it all open to interpretation and speculation when it comes to events and character motivations, and the only material that we can assume is "true" (in the setting) are factoids about geography, really.
The best thing about The World of Ice and Fire, is - you guessed it- the art. There are many impressive pieces here, with the full page paintings often gorgeous to behold. Also, if this book is to be taken as canon, there never was a woman in Westeros who wasn't insanely beautiful. All right, with this volume under the belt, the Game of Thrones Season Four blu-ray on the shelf, and - surprisingly - a 1000-piece puzzle of the World of Ice & Fire (a map of Westeros and Essos, that is) gifted to me by my colleagues for my birthday - I am once again "free" from the game of thrones until something new shows up: First and foremost, we have the fifth season of Game of Thrones coming up. And boy will it be a maker or a breaker. And if we all gather around and pray like really hard to the many, many gods of Martin's world, maybe just maybe we can get some information on The Winds of Winter. Rh'llor, the Old Gods, the Seven, the Black Goat of Qohor, the Goddess of Love of the Summer Islands, that toad statue, etc etc. please. We need to know - will we see the cold Winds rise in 2015? 2016? 2017?