A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons are the 5 written entries in George R.R. Martin‘s (purportedly) 7 book epic fantasy series: A Song of Ice and Fire. And yes, like thousands of other people, I started reading the series because of the show on HBO.
Fair warning: there’s going to be some spoilers.With around 5000 pages worth of content to cover, I could be writing about these books for a month and barely cover it. I will do my best to keep things brief.
What I liked:
-Martin has taken one of the most cliche laden and formulaic genres and created a rich and complicated story out of it. He has consistently worked to subvert the tropes and expectations that come with a fantasy series, and managed to make a really involving epic story. His willing to put sympathetic characters through incredibly painful situations creates some surprisingly powerful and effective scenes.
-The story is populated by three dimensional characters, rather than cardboard cutouts. Everyone has different desires and world views and feelings about the events around them, and they change based on what they see and who they are, rather than as the plot dictates. Game of Thrones initially irritated me, as all of the villains seemed flat and almost cartoonishly evil, but he has since given every major character the depth and motivations of believable human beings. At this point it is tough to say that there are any true central villains, or at least any human ones, only people working at (often selfish) cross-purposes.
-The story provides a huge amount of detail, which breathes life into the world that he has crafted and pulls you into it as an observer, rather than a reader looking at a list of funny names and places with no conception of what they mean.
-There are subtleties and nuances to his writing that you don’t always expect. I can’t say that his prose is especially stunning, but there is a lot more going on with it than I initially realized. As many have noted, a close reading is required to catch all of the clues and story of any given encounter.
-It’s a series that gets you excited and keeps you wanting more. Elements of ASoIaF has been central to most of my conversations with friends for weeks, and I am eagerly awaiting the next entry to the series.
What I didn’t like:
-Martin is a writer desperately in need of a stern editor, and he’s far too famous to ever get one. Each of his books is a thousand pages or more, and in many cases (especially with the last two books) it feels like hundreds of those pages are filler. It feels like he has lost the economy and momentum he had when starting the series, and now the books plod along on dead end storylines and far too much detail about clothing and food. It’s not that I dislike his attention to detail, it’s that he needs to know when it is and isn’t required. Whatever his feelings about being true to his characters and their development, progression and entertainment value don’t need to be sacrificed to show every nuance of a personality. A one thousand page book should do more than just move a few pieces into place, and the series did not need to take five books, five thousand plus pages and fifteen years to get where it is now.
-On a related note, the more recent books have become overly repetitive in annoying ways. Where the books initially felt it was necessary to bring up an idea once or twice for a character, now we are told over and over, in every chapter. This is especially annoying with Tyrion, who feels like mentioning killing his father twice a chapter, but most of the characters follow the same pattern by constantly recapping their motivations and favored phrases with exhausting frequency.
-The nearly endless misery Martin puts the characters through becomes rather tiring after a while. Every story needs dynamic change, and the constant suffering of the most likeable characters eventually becomes dull and monotonous. There needs to be levity and happiness occasionally before further pain occurs, otherwise the pain has no real meaning.
-Similar to the above, Martin’s constant obtuseness and misleading statements feel overused. There have been so many fake out deaths that no one buys into important character’s deaths anymore, robbing climactic deaths of their impact. No one believes Jon Snow is dead, though he was repeatedly stabbed, just like no one believe the Cleganes have died, though both have been explicitly pronounced dead. On occasion, Martin will allude to some secret that is obvious to every reader or that has an answer that is so unimportant that the secrecy is just frustrating. The most egregious I think would be hundreds of pages of cryptic references to the forging of a chain for some unknown purpose, to finally find that it’s used to stop a few ships. If the deaths are fake, and the mysteries are obvious, the reveals mean nothing to the reader.
-This last one is probably nitpicking, but I have trouble buying the world that Martin has crafted as a functional one. He’s done more to flesh out the lives and existence of the peasants of the realm, but it seems that he wants it both ways. He wants a world that is unique, but he also wants it to functionally work as a parallel to Medieval Europe. Apparently everyone speaks the same language, down to the idioms, without any regional dialects or significant variation. Even buying into his impossible weather cycle where winters can last for decades and pile 50ft of snow on a region, how has the species not become culturally conditioned to store huge piles of supplies and stop everything else when the first hints of winter show? Why have culture, technology and strategy remained at the same level for hundreds if not thousands of years. Why are so many groups sworn to celibacy? How can society function when the intellectual class is apparently restricted to one man in every city, who has to act as advisor, doctor, tutor and scribe at once? Not a single major peasant rebellion or successful rebellion in the hundreds of years since the dragons died? Taken as it’s presented, the world is coherent and follows its own rules, but there are so many nagging questions that bug me too much to really accept it as a functional fictional reality.
-Martin likes to pick certain words and phrases and work them in to the story as he thinks of them, then over use them like crazy. “Neeps”, “leal”, “words are wind”, “much and more”, and so on. They are sometimes effective, but overused.
-For some reason, only some of the creatures and foods are given new or medieval names. Alligators are lizard lions, but horses are horses. Squids are krakens, but elephants are elephants. It seems so arbitrary what he decides to change and what to keep.
-The different viewpoints are nice, but they’ve gotten away from him. Not every person needs their own chapter.
-I really hate Caitlyn Stark. Sansa is a bit better, but only after a massive amount of work.
-I really really hate the Greyjoys. They just aren’t compelling characters.
The nitpicking and complaining aside, A Song of Ice and Fire is a really fantastic series, and probably the best fantasy writing since Tolkein. I hate that it will probably take a decade or more for the series to end (and I’m skeptical that he’ll finish with only two books left), and I sometimes worry that the ending will be as unsatisfying as the last lengthy series that completely drew me in, but I eagerly await the rest of the series. Focus Mr. Martin!