For Christmas I gifted myself a physical copy of The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones. I actually went down to the local bookstore, but balked when I noted that Amazon charges $25 while they were offering $50 retail. I don’t go for cheap in every case, but that was a ridiculous difference. After reading the reviews and browsing a bit at the bookstore (yes, I’m a bad person!) I wasn’t too surprised with what I received (no, I was not getting the ebook version because the illustrations matter for this, and ebook renderings are often suboptimal). It’s not The Silmarillion, because George R. R. Martin is just not the “world creator” that J. R. R. Tolkien was. I think it’s fair to say that Martin’s world has been created as a vessel for the stories, while Tolkien’s narrative served to flesh out his world. As someone on an Amazon review stated much of what you find in The World of Ice & Fire will be online soon enough, so why purchase the book? Mostly because though many of us are fans of Martin’s series we’re no longer obsessively reading over websites like Westeros. We’re OK with getting the authorized gist.
And that’s what this book is. The subhead is mildly misleading, because most of the text is predictable if you read between the lines of the book, and fill in missing pieces of the histories alluded to in passing. Also, some of it strikes me as a bit hasty. In online interviews Martin seems to basically admit that he had to create some elements of the background on demand, because he actually didn’t have anything in mind. This reminds of Tolkien complaining that he received letters from bontanists demanding a more thorough treatment of the biogeography of the plants of Middle Earth.
My main gripe is that I could have done without the section on the Targaryen kings. Perhaps this is setting the scene for prequals to the current series, but that seems getting ahead of yourself if I may say so. Also, the Targaryen practice of brother-sister royal marriage is probably not as genetically sustainable as it seems to be in the family tree depicted at the end of the book (no, I haven’t calculated the inbreeding coefficient). I say this after reading The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, where it seems rather obvious that some royal lines simply expired due to inbreeding.
Finally, I was rather surprised that it seems that the Martin’s world is inhabited by three species of humans. The inhabitants of the southern continent, originally labelled Sothoryos, seem to be analogous to a robust Australopithecus. The people of Ib seem to be Neandertal analogs. Both of these populations are explicitly stated to not be inter-fertile with other human populations due to post-zygotic barriers. I have to wonder if this was just created on the stop to add exotic color to the book, since it seems pretty outlandish.
Note: I have not watched the HBO show. Nor do I plan to in the near future.