This quasi-review contains spoilers through the first part of book five.
I can’t really review George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga until it’s complete, but I’ve been wanting to talk about why I’m reading it in the first place, what I’ve found compelling about it, and why I’m afraid I’m going to ultimately wind up disappointed.
First of all, there’s the general writing style. I tend to be very picky about writing, as longtime readers of this blog probably know. I like prose to flow, to either be so lovely or clever I can’t help but notice it or to be completely unnoticeable. A piece of writing should only be enhanced, and never encumbered, by how it’s written. I would not call Martin’s writing beautiful, but it never trips you up, and it is occasionally clever. The only thing I might complain about would be the long lists he likes to include of what people ate at a feast, but to be honest, I enjoy reading those and imagining how all the food might taste.
Structurally, the series is a masterpiece. The detail, the richness, the depth of the world-building is astonishing. It’s a fun mental game keeping track of who all the characters are and what they’re doing, and trying to figure out the politics of all the different corners of the world. One time I was quite thankful to be reading on my Kindle, as I was absolutely certain a character was dead, and I was able to do a word search and confirm it. But mostly I’ve been trying to rely on my memory and Martin’s skill at bringing in references to events and people just as you need to recall them…a spaced repetition approach that I’m finding very effective.
I have only barely gotten into the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons. The fourth and fifth books differ from the others in that they occur simultaneously; this somewhat simplifies the story threads but also allows for some pretty dramatic revelations by keeping certain information hidden from the reader. For example, if we’d been following Quentyn Martell throughout book four, it wouldn’t have been very dramatic when his mission was revealed to Arianne at the end of the book. Similarly, one of the main characters of the first three books is completely absent from the fourth, save for in the mind of his sister, who is terrified of him. If we’d been watching what he was doing the whole time too, we’d know that he was no danger to her at all, and that would have diminished the tension. So while at first I was dismayed that I would be getting “less story”, I ultimately ended up impressed with how the two halves of the world were split into different books; it realistically shows how slow information would flow between the two and adds to the suspense. We’ll see if my feelings change as I continue through book five.
Beyond the way Martin organizes his characters and settings and plots, I’ve been very impressed by the characters themselves. Each chapter is written from a different perspective. There are some characters whose perspectives you never see. There are some characters who are intensely boring. There are some characters who are loathsome, and whenever their name heads a chapter you want to hurl the book across the room. And there are some characters who are good, and who suffer, and you suffer with them. There is one character who goes from loathsome to good, and another who goes from good to something horrific. Regardless of whose perspective you’re seeing, you’re seeing a person. The character is real. For years I’ve considered myself a student of human behavior, and I love that I can see why these characters are acting the way they’re acting. I can see who they are. I can understand them, even if I hate them.
This understanding leads me to a hope that I’m worried is false. You see, I tend towards optimism, and I like to think that people can be saved. As I’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve allowed myself to imagine that the story is building to a resolution that will right many wrongs and perhaps even redeem some characters. There has to be a meaning for all of this, I thought, or what’s the point?
When I first started reading the series months ago, it was on a whim. I kept hearing about the HBO series Game of Thrones, and that made me curious. I got a good deal on a bundle of the first four books for Kindle and dove in.
I fell in love with the Stark family, with Winterfell. Like Arya, I thought Sansa was silly, but I didn’t hate her. I admired Catelyn’s beautiful strength and adored Bran. Ned was my favorite character of all. As things got worse and worse for the Starks, all I could think was that somehow they’d all survive and find each other again and everything would be okay. Bran probably wouldn’t walk again–the setting felt too realistic for that–but then again, this was fantasy, so you never knew what might happen.
Then Ned was beheaded.
I was so upset I literally thought I would throw up.
It was a long time before I started the next book, A Clash of Kings. I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. All bets were off. Was A Song of Ice and Fire nothing more than The Calamity of House Stark? Would I be forced to watch them all die, one by one? But I was in too deep. I had to know. Would the truth come out? Would justice be served?
Of course, as the series progressed, “justice” became more and more muddled. You might argue that Joffrey had as much right to the throne as Robert. Neither was descended from the line of kings that had ruled for centuries. They were both “usurpers” in their way. And even the dragon kings were conquerors, laying claim to land that wasn’t theirs. Even as I started to wonder whether true justice could even exist in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, civilization began to break down in the story.
Now it’s not just a matter of whether or not there will be justice for Ned Stark, but whether or not Westeros itself can survive. Will a new king (or queen) be able to mend all that’s been broken? How many more will die in the struggle? What will be left when it’s over?
This, more than anything else, is why I keep reading, despite the fact that by now I’m sure there’s no deeper meaning, no happy ending to come. I have to know how it ends.