N.B. Didn’t actually read this recently, but I figured I’d write it up — I think I’ve drained the whole book sip by sip, anyhow. –wgh.
I expected nothing out of this tie-in gazetteer/history when I got it as a Christmas gift shortly after it came out in 2014. But it’s excellent: a pure hit of Martin’s expert ‘worldbuilding,’ digging into questions suggested but unaddressed by the novels (who paid for the great tourney at Harrenhall? what’s with all those black stone structures? what was Valyria like at the end?) and suggesting entirely new ones (why are there no children in Asshai?). The history of the Targaryens and gazetteer fly by — this is one of the best D&D setting books yet written — but it’s obvious that extraordinary pains have been taken to ‘make sense’ of the world. Martin clearly relished his chance to place the deep history of Westeros and Essos front and center, and he’s done much more than dump his campaign notes here; by his own account, he contributed about a quarter-million words to the manuscript, and obviously put enormous energy into the work.
The story of Aerys and Tywin is perhaps the most affecting part of TWOIAF — there are hints in the novels that Tywin was once a happier, less cruel man, and the tragedy of his failed partnership with Aerys (later ‘The Mad King’) is one of the axes on which the entire series turns. Martin’s recounting of that tale, like several portions of this ‘tie-in’ book, feels like a necessary part of the Westerosi saga; the novels are in retrospect incomplete without the ‘backstory’ related here.
I’ve long felt that ASOIAF’s historical consciousness is its most impressive attribute: it seems simply correct to me in its depiction of political transition, cultural reaction, and generational turnover, and unusually broad in its cultural perspective. Martin has joked that the origins of the saga lie in the question How Did Aragorn Set Tax Rates? Indeed, ASOIAF has often been called ‘realpolitik Tolkien.’ But I’m less concerned here with the ‘realism’ of the books than with their scale and scope, the way they take in every aspect of Westerosi life: the politics of mercantile exchange, sex roles and knighthood, and — yes — taxes/levies and the ‘smallfolk.’ The center of the novels isn’t the present-time action, exactly, it’s Robert’s rapidly mythologizing Rebellion, the event which ends the Targaryen dynasty and, as it metastasizes into the rule of the almost accidental king Robert Baratheon, sets the stage for the destructive War of Five Kings a generation later. At every turn, Martin depicts major fantasy-world-shaking events as messily connected to everyday Westerosi lives, explicitly rejecting (say) the Tolkienesque frame in which victory in a war of wizards and gods magically and instantly transforms the land. Westerosi magic doesn’t work at the setting-level, so to speak, minus of course the hyperextended magical winters — peasants and kings are bound up in the Big Magical Plot Events, but they react to them continuously, day by day.
(I’ll note here that Tolkien was smarter than his critics gave him credit for, in this regard among others: his hobbits represent the mundane-historical, connected to, but also insulated from, the mythic-magical world beyond the borders of the Shire. The ‘anticlimactic’ Scouring of the Shire reconnects the transhistorical events of the War of the Ring to the mere physicality and historicity of northwest Middle-Earth. Tolkien’s conception was far more sophisticated than checklist-‘critics’ are permitted to admit in public.)
The World of Ice and Fire foregrounds the ‘backstory,’ the historical texture, which elevates the novels’ present-time shenanigans. When I say the novels aren’t complete without this additional text, I don’t mean you can’t pleasurably read them without knowing all this extra material — of course you can, decades of readers have. (The first three volumes of the series are unimpeachable.) But TWOIAF makes it clear that the slow-rolling historical transformation of Westeros, the complex interplay of historical forces over decades and centuries rather than the few years of the novels’ plot, is where the real action is, in Martin’s conception. You’re supposed to maintain that historical awareness as you read, not because GRR Martin has all this backstory to share, but because the argument of the novels is about history rather than destiny or species-character or the buried mythic character of a nation. Characters move through the story like figures in an historical narrative rather than Protagonists, for the most part, and their own historical awareness reflects the way real people relate to history.
Martin aims, in other words, to be ‘true to life’ with these stories in a crucial sense, and TWOIAF furthers that aim. It’s not as purely entertaining as the novels, but it makes the Song considerably richer.
(And of course, TWOIAF’s formal conceit — a maester’s history and gazetteer — allows Martin to play a Borgesian game of imaginary scholarship, with various dead masters’ competing theories building to a mutually contradictory polyphony. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’m programmed to love, and Martin’s good at it. Indeed, he’s good at nearly every aspect of his job, except making his weekly pagecount…)