I have been plowing through A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin in preparation for reading the latest installment. I had forgotten how bloody *enormous* it is! 900+ pages for every book and they just seem to get bigger and bigger as the story progresses. I had also forgotten just how much Martin manages to avoid having Good and Evil people in his story. While there are certainly people who are jerks it reads a lot more like read life than fantasy: People have real reasons for doing things and those that inflict the most hideous cruelties are often nice in other situations and those that seem so honourable and good end up being responsible for tidal waves of blood.
*Warning: Spoiler alert!*
Take Eddard Stark. A stern but just ruler, a man who strives to be honourable in all things. His death near the end of the first book came as a shock to many since he was the central character for Team Good for the story up to that point. But how good was he really?
He warned Cersei Lannister of his intentions, paving the way for Robert's murder. He refused to seize power multiple times when the opportunity presented itself and instead walked into a betrayal that plunged the world into war. Eddard had ample opportunities to leave the realm in peace but he did not do so for one reason: His honour. He weighed the possibility of war and the accompanying deaths of tens of thousands against 'I would feel bad' and chose the former. He decided that it was more important for him to 'do the honourable thing' than it was for him to prevent the realm being plunged into war. This action can't even be justified be looking at his immediate family since they ultimately were nearly wiped out (along with gazillions of their followers) in the ensuing chaos.
Eddard is by no means the only one. All kinds of high lords are happy to cause untold carnage to increase their own power, get revenge for friends or family members that have died or just for the glory of it all. Looked at through a modern lens where the lives of a peasant and a powerful lord are equal their behaviour is universally evil; even the best of the lords places far more import on the life and comfort of someone nobly born. This is obviously pretty accurate as that was the way things were in feudal society, and in fact in pretty much any society until our modern one. Even if the mayor of Toronto could in fact order the people of the city to attack Vancouver he would find absolutely nobody who thought that rescuing his son would be an appropriate excuse for such an action.
The more I read this series the more I appreciate how well it is written... but the more I also appreciate how capable people are of being evil while believing themselves to be utterly righteous.