Reading, like eating Nutella straight out of the jar or re-watching The Office until your eyes gently dissolve inside of your skull, is an essential part of getting over a romantic relationship. At least, it is for me. I like to look at every breakup as opportunity to read more (and to justify at least one questionable haircut). After weeping and raging and un-following my newly minted ex on social media, I turn to books. If I can't cry, I read. And, the older I get, the more I find my post-breakup comfort in the strangest of literary places.
My favorite book characters as an impressionable tween were always the tragic romantics: The Phantom of the Opera, consumed with longing in his subterranean lair. Eponine, dying in Marius' arms, knowing he'll never truly love her. Jane Eyre, striking out alone on a windswept moor, pining for the ugly-yet-passionate Mr. Rochester (this was before I could grasp how deeply problematic it is to lock your mentally ill wife in the attic for years on end and not tell your new girlfriend). I'll even own up to liking Twilight when it first came out.
Clearly, I had a... skewed idea of healthy romance back in the day, but I knew what a literary break up looked like: Gothic heroines on horseback, retreating into the fog. Right?
In college, when my boyfriend and I would break up approximately once a month (consistency is key), I read a lot of Dorothy Parker. I didn't want to read grand, sweeping romance anymore. I was old enough to understand that kidnapping women and wearing capes is not the stuff of true love. Instead, I much preferred Parker's acerbic wit, her fiercely feminist pessimism, her vindictive rhymes. Dorothy Parker was there to commiserate with heartbreak, if not to heal it.
By the end of college, I was supplementing Dorothy Parker with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Margaret Atwood, Mindy Kaling, Roxane Gay—modern women, authors who inspired me to mope less and write more. I had finally found a respectable break up reading list: that sweet spot between funny and romantic and feminist fury.
But alas, we cannot always curate our break up reading lists so carefully. The damaged heart wants what it wants. Post-college, I found myself in a relationship that lasted for over a year, and I completely fell out of practice with breakups. When that relationship ended, I was rusty. I was angry. I was not in the mood for my classic breakup reads.
So, for my most recent breakup, I went full fire and blood.
To be fair, I was already reading A Song of Ice and Fire before being unceremoniously dumped. But after the break up, I mentally packed up and moved to Westeros.
George R.R. Martin wouldn't usually be my first choice for a post-break up shoulder to cry on. His books don't do much in the way of reinventing that standard, faux-medieval, Euro-centric fantasy set up. His female leads, while better served than their TV counterparts, are far from perfect. His writing is fun, sometimes even beautiful, but he's no Dorothy Parker when it comes to biting feminist humor.
And yet, I could not. stop. reading.
I burned through books three, four, and five in a matter of weeks (for the record, the entirety of A Song of Ice and Fire could already fit the whole Lord of the Rings 3.7 times over, and there are still two books to go). Then I read the World of Ice and Fire, the "world-building" book that is essentially one long, dispassionate list of facts about a made up universe. I was devastated when I reached the end.
That's it? No more insight into the political history of Volantis? Nothing else about the Maze-Makers? No hint at what lies beyond the Sunset Sea?
Of course, there's a reason we call fantasy "escapist" fiction. It's not hard to see the appeal of skipping town to hang out in a fantasy nonsense land full of dragons and snow zombies when your reality is sad and lonely and full of Ben & Jerry's.
Nor do I think that there's anything wrong with reading for an "escape." Stepping into another life or another world for a few hours is sort of the point. Surely, we don't want to live in a world in which every novel is about our daily lives, starring us? Surely we can understand that reading about dragons and keeping up on the dumpster fire that is current events are not mutually exclusive?
But A Song of Ice and Fire offered me more than pure escapism. It offered me perspective.
As many reviewers have already noted, the HBO adaptation of the books is sort of like House of Cards with dragons. It's gearing up to be a dragons vs. ice zombies smack down to see who wins the Iron Throne.
With the books, Martin has actually done a lot to subvert classic tropes of high fantasy: main characters die, sometimes for silly, ignoble reasons. Bad people do good things, and visa versa. Both sides have valid claims to the throne, because monarchy only has as much power as people give it. It's your classic swords-and-sorcery world, but with all the mind-boggling political complexity of an actual medieval nation state.
Despite the plethora of prophecies and magical enemies, a lot of the problems come from our protagonists' poor decisions: Dany has her heart in the right place when she tries to free all of Slaver's Bay, but she should probably have taken a civic's class instead of trusting in her white savior complex, because she ends up destroying the global economy, fueling terrorist groups, and killing thousands of the people she meant to protect.
"Ice" and "fire" might present a dichotomy, but it's not a series about good vs. evil. It's a series about being one tiny thread in the enormous tapestry of world history. Each point of view character is trapped in their own perspective. It's only by reading the entire series that you get a bird's eye view.
And sometimes, what you need is a reminder that you're one small part of something much bigger (and hopefully a little bit less violent). The world is huge, and full of subplots. The world is messy and gross and horrific, and yet there are still good, flawed people trying to save us all from the White Walkers. Kingdoms fall, heartbreaks fade, and even the longest of winters will eventually end.
(...plus, y'know, you can't stay sad when you're burning your enemies alive from the back of your dragon.)