The Inaccessible Nature of Fantasy (and why A Song of Ice and Fire Makes it OK)

Much of my free time in the past three weeks has been swallowed up by fantasy literature, and it’s all George R.R. Martin’s and, in large part, HBO’s fault. As a general rule, I am not a fan of the fantasy genre. I’ve made a huge exception for Harry Potter and, to a lesser extent, the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. But by and large, it’s just not something I can sink my teeth into.

Fantasy gets a bad rap, does it not? Mention dragons and alternate histories and the braveness of knights to any given person, and it’s likely their eyes will roll rather than light up. While fiction is in some sense meant to take us away into a different world, there’s a pretty thick line between Nick Hornby introducing us to the world of working at a record store and Gandalf leading a charge against a swath of mythical creatures. The second something feels just a touch too unreal, with the addition of your garden variety witches and mages and Lord knows what else, the general consumer gets turned off.

Now, enter A Song of Ice and Fire.

It was recently stated on Parks & Recreation¬†by resident chic geek Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) that the HBO adaptation of the first book in Martin’s series, Game of Thrones, is ostensibly a human drama in a fantasy setting. And though the line was played for laughs, it’s a valid assessment. Sure, Game of Thrones may open on what looks remarkably like a zombie attack, and there may be mentions of mythical creatures here and there, but the show is so much more about power and corruption and the way people interact when they are thrust into difficult situations. Consider the character of Eddard Stark (Sean Bean). Eddard, or Ned, is forced into becoming the second most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms, the world in which GoT takes place. He doesn’t want to accept the responsibility–his life with his family in Winterfell, his lifelong home, is much more important, rearing his children and loving his wife and running things smoothly in a much smaller place and capacity. But he takes up the post of Hand of the King anyway, and is from there thrown into a world of assassinations, conspiracies, power struggles, and all manner of difficult situations caused by simple human error.

The strength of the books and the adaptation comes from a combination of well-executed drama and richly written characters, from Ned’s bastard son, introvert Jon Snow (played by Kit Harington in the show) to Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen), a slippery, too-clever-by-half member of the king’s small council. There isn’t a weak character in the bunch, and while you certainly settle on your favorites within a couple hundred pages (or a single episode), there’s not a single piece that feels like a slog.

Granted, I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who’s read the first book and a chunk of the second. But here’s what I can say right now: A Song of Ice and Fire is slowly but surely turning me into an appreciator of the fantasy genre. It’s gripping, it’s fun, it’s tragic–and, like every piece of media I love, it’s full of sincere, never-falls-flat heart. If the mere concept of dragons makes you cringe, then maybe it’s time to give them another chance.