The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, Elio M. García, and Linda Antonsson
George R.R. Martin’s The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones is a companion to his A SONG OF ICE & FIRE novels. It provides modest spoilers for the series and is probably best if not read until readers have finished the third novel, A Storm of Swords, or finished watching the third season in the television series. (And the same is true of this review.)
Given that the title of this book — The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones — references both Martin’s novels and the television series, some readers may be surprised to open the text and meet Maester Yandel, who greets King Tommen and wishes him luck in his rule over the Seven Kingdoms. Yandel explains that it has been his lifelong passion to study the past and distant places, and he has always wanted to write a book that would appeal to “humble but lettered men.” Although “The Untold History of Westeros” is a catchy title, a more accurate title might be “Yandel’s Popular History of Westeros and the Lands Across the Narrow Sea.”
Maester Yandel mostly organizes his book chronologically. He begins in the Dawn Age, providing an overview of Westeros when the giants and the children of the forest dominated it. Yandel then summarizes the history of Valyria, its Doom, and the rule of the Targaryen kings in Westeros. At the risk of sounding like King Joffrey, who has little regard for history, I found these histories of the Targaryen kings less interesting when I read them back-to-back. At times, A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE can focus so much on politics, lust, and intrigue that it turns the story into a soap opera. The history of constant treachery, suggested illicit liaisons, and rumored assassinations, repeated over generations, causes these normally shocking betrayals to become mundane. The same can also be said of the history provided of each of the Seven Kingdoms, though I’m sure Maester Yandel would disagree.
Martin’s decision to rely on Maester Yandel as a narrator at times enriches this companion work. Yandel is an enjoyably conversational historian, mentioning maesters that have come before him and assessing in detail, say, whether the Ironborn are descended from the First Men or if their Seastone Chair comes from beyond the Sunset Sea. Yandel is an unreliable narrator who rarely neglects to praise Queen Cersei or Tommen’s Baratheon ancestry. Yandel as narrator adds a level of ambiguity to the text that many will enjoy and that others will likely feel is well suited to a history, especially a history of Westeros. On the other hand, every reader of the series knows that Tommen does not have Baratheon ancestry. They also know that Giants and the Others do exist. It can be annoying to seek out some information on the Others and find nothing useful.
After all, while Tommen might someday read The Untold History of Westeros, most customers are buying The World of Ice & Fire, the name of a reference book if there ever was one. To be honest, I preferred reading The World of Ice & Fire to The Untold History of Westeros. By this I mean that I enjoyed the book more when I ignored Yandel’s chronological history and instead skipped ahead to Asshai by the Shadow and then back to the Kings of Winter and then ahead to the Shivering Sea. And given that the books in this series are sometimes published five years or more apart from one another, being able to look up characters in The World of Ice & Fire is a welcome alternative to re-reading the entire series when preparing for the next novel. Although Yandel offers Martin much as a narrative device, he limits the book’s usefulness as a resource since the maester cannot offer many details about the Faceless Men or the building of the Wall or the prophecies that Rhaegar studied before he died. Yandel’s limits are completely understandable and even faithful to Martin’s depictions of the maesters, but some readers will be frustrated by the limits he places on The World of Ice & Fire.
Few, however, will complain about the artwork. I’ve often found that the graphic novel adaptations of A SONG OF ICE & FIRE are not as visually stunning as the television series can be, but this book’s depictions are often spectacular. The castles are always great, but the representation of Dragonstone is truly cool. The Iron Throne is very impressive, and the depictions of Robert Baratheon fighting Rhaegar Targaryen are perfect for someone that wants their imagination to drift into another world for a few minutes. I found most of the portraits less impressive, though perhaps some readers will enjoy seeing each of the ultra-blonde Targaryens and their consorts. Though the history of the Targaryens may have been my least favorite section of the book, it does make room for a lot of depictions of dragons. And there are maps — who can resist maps? (No one.) If anything, I would have preferred still more maps.
The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones is sort of a history, sort of a reference guide, and maybe a cash grab that will happen again when the revised and expanded edition comes out after the last of the books is published. While I would have preferred a more complete reference book, Yandel’s histories are almost always compelling, especially if read in isolation, and the art is often awe-inspiring. Longtime fans of the series are unlikely to regret checking out this companion book whether they approach it in-world as a student of Westeros’s history or from outside the work as a curious/forgetful fan of the novels. I don’t doubt that the people of Westeros will benefit if Daenerys reads it after she conquers the Seven Kingdoms.
With the show having come to a close and the release of the next book still unconfirmed, Game of Thrones fans will be looking for something to scratch that itch, and The World of Ice & Fire (2014) might just do the trick.
A big, glossy, detailed tome that contains histories, illustrations, map and family trees, this is perhaps the most valuable of all the supplementary material that’s inevitably released on the coattails of a cult phenomenon, simply because most of the information contained within is penned by George R.R. Martin himself. As such, it provides canon background as to the world that the current generation of characters are living in, several tantalizing clues as to where they might end up.
For instance, if you’ve only watched the show, The World of Ice & Fire provides you with details that are only hinted at there: the meaning behind “The Rains of Castamere”, the reason why Dorne was able to evade Targaryen conquest, and the background of Brynden Rivers (who eventually becomes the Three-Eyed Raven), for example.
The volume is divided into three main parts: the Targaryen Dynasty, the Histories of the Seven Kingdoms, and the Lands Beyond Westeros — though there are other, shorter chapters about places and people lying outside these categories.
The first (obviously) deals with the history of House Targaryen: how they escaped the Doom of Valyria, their first stronghold on Dragonstone, their Conquest of the Seven Kingdoms, and their dwindling power up until the birth of Daenerys Stormborn. There’s some fascinating stuff in here, though the fact so many characters share the same name gets a little confusing.
The second provides stories, descriptions and histories of all Seven Kingdoms, from the land’s geographical features to the unique culture of their people. Some are more interesting than the others (I’m sorry, but nothing will ever get me interested in the Iron Islands) with a strong narrative running through them; others are a bit more piecemeal, but it gets rather exciting when distant historical figures give way to familiar characters from the first generation of Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons and other houses that appear in the novels.
Finally, the third part leaves Westeros and explores some of the lands that exist to the east. This was what interested me the most, as plenty of what was compiled here is brand new information, totally unfamiliar to anyone that’s watched the show OR read the books. And Martin really unleashes his imagination. Here are deserted cities, zebra-riding nomads, warrior women, god-kings, ancient temples, shapechangers and more.
Heck, by the end of it I was disappointed that the main story is set in Westeros and not Yi Ti or Sothoryos or the Summer Isles. I want to know more about these places!
One clever feature of the whole thing is that it’s presented as having been written by one Maester Yandel as a coronation gift to King Joffrey. It’s obvious he wants to curry favour with the Baratheons, so his treatment of them in the histories is extremely flattering — often glossing over events and characterizations that any reader of the novels can spot.
(Furthermore, this was clearly incomplete by the time of Joffrey’s death, and the dedication has hastily scribbled out “Joffrey” and replaced it with “Tommen”).
On a wider note, the fact that the author is actually a character living within the history of the Seven Kingdoms informs the way the information is presented in The World of Ice & Fire. Oftentimes he will present several variations of the same events, or insist that a particular piece of information must be fabricated, or remind the reader that his knowledge is fallible. Other things are more ambiguous, and you can smile with the knowledge that you (as a novel reader/show watcher) have inside information that Maester Yandel doesn’t.
I’ve always been a quasi-fan of the SONG OF ICE AND FIRE franchise: there are some things I’ve enjoyed, and some things I definitely haven’t, but if there’s one thing that I’ve always appreciated, it’s the sheer breadth and depth of George R.R. Martin’s world building. In many ways, I preferred reading this supplementary material to the actual novels, as my favourite part of the books has always been the incredible detail and skill that went into the creation of Westeros and Essos.
The illustrations are provided by a range of different authors (twenty-seven in all) though their individual styles don’t clash with each other or the tone of the book (honestly, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were all done by the same person). The book’s pages are glossy and well-formatted, and designed to look like the pages of a yellowed scroll.
If there’s one failing, it’s that there no world map with clearly marked countries and cities. Within the book itself there are plenty of “close-up” maps of whatever region the subsequent chapter is about, but the only world map at the beginning of The World of Ice & Fire is inexplicably unmarked. Once you get to the third part of the book, it’s therefore impossible to get your bearings as to where the strange foreign lands actually ARE in relation to Westeros.
Of all the information contained here, it’s hard to know what might be important to the ongoing story, and what’s just window-dressing. It seems unlikely that far-flung continents and cultures could in any way relate to the political drama of Westeros, and yet there are plenty of fascinating recurring themes and motifs — like the fact that stories of the Long Night are found all across the world.
• full-color artwork and maps, with more than 170 original pieces • full family trees for Houses Stark, Lannister, and Targaryen • in-depth explorations of the history and culture of Westeros • 100% all-new material, more than half of which Martin wrote specifically for this book
The definitive companion piece to George R. R. Martin’s dazzlingly conceived universe, The World of Ice & Fire is indeed proof that the pen is mightier than a storm of swords.