A Song of Ice and Fire: Where We Are After Five Books

In Literature, Opinion

King's Landing (Dubrovnik)

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SPOILER ALERT: If you have not read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire up to and including Book 5, A Dance with Dragons, you should not read this.

The world that Martin has built and expanded upon at greater and greater depth is never short of engrossing. The Seven Kingdoms and the Free Folks’ lands beyond The Wall—Essos beyond the Narrow Sea, from the Free Cities of Braavos and Volantis to the slaver cities of Yunkai and Meereen—even places long gone, like Valyria before The Doom—these are Martin’s greatest achievements.

I say this as both praise and condemnation. On the one hand, to simply spend time in this world is a joy. Martin could dredge the least and meanest story from the bottom of his imagination and I would read it eagerly if only it shed a little more light on a place I did not fully know well. On the other hand, it can become easy to forget that character and plot trump all—that the world exists to serve the story and not the other way around.

What began as a tale of House Stark vs. House Lannister has ballooned to involve just about every mover and shaker in the known world, the obstacles in their way, the pawns they move, and the collateral damage they leave behind. It is a story so big that adjectives like colossal or gargantuan only serve to limit it. After A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, no one can deny Martin’s ambition, and before I spend the rest of this writing condemning said ambition, know first that I respect it too.

The trouble is that Martin is seemingly so engrossed in this world that he appears loath to leave it before he has told every story, no matter how small and irrelevant. He is infatuated with Westeros and Essos—not love but infatuation—and it has clouded his good sense as a storyteller. There are entire chapters in Dance that serve little purpose beyond conveying a history lesson. One character becomes our substitute professor and conveys to another character (the reader’s proxy) a page out of Westerosi history. Even if the history lesson is interesting—even if it will one day prove relevant—it does not alter the fact that chapters go by with no action taking place. That is not good storytelling.

Remember when ASOIAF was a tale where Big Things happened frequently? Remember when Bran was pushed from a high window by Jaime Lannister—Ned lost his head to the sadistic Joffrey—wildfire burned Stannis’ fleet on the Blackwater—the Red Wedding—Daenerys conquered and freed the slaver cities—the Mountain crushed Oberyn Martell’s skull with his bare hands—the living corpse of Catelyn Stark pointed an accusatory finger at a Frey? Books 1 – 3 were the home of Big Things.

Compare all of this to Books 4 – 5. A good bulk A Feast for Crows belongs to Cersei—too small-minded in her jealousy and lust for power to realize she is about to be brushed aside by more competent and righteous people. We read a great deal about Brienne’s search for Sansa Stark, although we the readers are fully aware that she is in the Eyrie—an unconquerable mountain fastness that has taken no part in the game of thrones. She is in the capable (albeit conniving) hands of Petyr Baelish and in no need of rescuing, yet we are expected to care about Brienne’s pointless quest. Then there is Samwell’s journey to Oldtown to forge his maester’s chain. He is a likable character, but we have been given no evidence to suggest why this journey is worthy of so many pages and could not simply be summarized at a later date. Ditto with Jaime Lannister, who is essentially on clean-up duty, fighting and reconciling the last stubborn holdouts against House Lannister’s grip on the Iron Throne.

In Feast, the only stories really worth telling were those on the Iron Islands and Dorne, and thankfully sufficient time is spent on both. They felt important. We come to realize, reading these peripheral stories, that the fight for the Iron Throne is only protracting for the moment and that additional parties—strong, capable parties—will very shortly rekindle the mayhem. There are three books after this one, and we the readers should understand that Martin needed to take the time to develop additional storylines that would propel us into these future books.

However, this development should not have come at the expense of sufficient payoff. Each book should stand on legs of its own. Neither Feast nor its companion/follow-up A Dance with Dragons do.

In Dance, how does the imminent, looming battle surrounding the walls of Meereen never happen? How does the occupation of Winterfell not get settled? How does Lord Commander Snow spend an entire novel preparing the Night’s Watch for a war that doesn’t even start? Martin balloons the conflict to such epic proportions that he is unable to bring any of them to a head within the almost-bursting book bindings.

His objective seems clear enough: he is setting the stage for Big Things to come—the centerpiece of his great manipulations being the Far East city of Meereen. But I have to question the wisdom of detailing every character’s every move when those actions require an entire book. A time lapse would have been preferable. It would have gotten us where we were going much quicker, leaving sufficient pages for the climax we must now wait until the next book to read. I do not understand how Martin thought he could write a book that consisted of 100% buildup and expect his readers to come away happy.

Perhaps he is under the impression that a multi-volume story is fundamentally different from a single-volume one. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are varying ideas on the structure of a plot, but most people will tell you that a climax is required. While I do not expect the climax—a solitary ruler atop a pile of corpses, having won the game of thrones—I do expect a climax to a significant storyline in every book.

Feast promises Big Things from Dorne and the Iron Islands that it does not deliver. Martin doubles down on that omission by delaying its climax(es) yet again in Dance. Dorne remains on the sidelines with Quentyn Martell’s death and the fact that Aegon and the Golden Company arrive in the Seven Kingdoms through the Stormlands. Victarion, who we last see in Feast being ordered to Meereen is still sailing there at the end of Dance. Given that Martin cannot provide any proximity of a climax for storylines started in Book 4, it is not surprising that Book 5 is similarly unfilled (and unfulfilling).

What we are left with is a serious logjam of storylines that Martin needs to dedicate himself to resolving in the next book. If he does—if The Winds of Winter brings all of the climaxes he has long delayed—it could be his best book. However, if it is the best, it will be at the expense of Feast and Dance, and I think that was too high a price to pay. Who will re-read those books? How many of us will skip from Book 3 to Book 6 when we return to this series for another reading? Many, I fear.

That is the heft of my criticism against George R. R. Martin and his Song of Ice and Fire that I love in spite of it all. My remaining qualms are much more minor and personal. They involve the characters he allocates his pages to and an unusual amount of repeating prose.

He decided, after those first few books, to tell a bigger story. That was not a bad idea. What I take objection to is seeing him shirk his foundational characters—in particular the Starks—in favor of a growing lineup of POV characters. Bran blunders into a full-blown fairy tale in the Lands of Always Winter. Arya continues her transformation from little girl to ruthless assassin. Sansa is at the center of the manipulations of Petyr Baelish—the man secretly pulling most of the strings in Books 1 – 3. How many chapters has he given these characters lately? In Dance, Bran gets two chapters, Arya gets two chapters, and Sansa gets zero chapters.

This upsets me a great deal. If Martin was to tell us, “but Bran, Arya, and Sansa have no further part to play at the moment,” then I think he has failed as a storyteller. He has wandered too far from his foundations and is now telling a story that is entirely too long and meandering. Those kids are the backbone of this story, and what’s more, they’re interesting. Who doesn’t want more Bran? There is so little actual fantasy in ASOIAF—embrace what little you have introduced! Arya could have her own series of books, I find her story to be that rich and intriguing of a character. There is something perversely satisfying in watching a simple, sweet romantic like Sansa Stark get dragged through the mud in Martin’s ugly, vicious, and merciless world. On top of that, he added an interesting wrinkle to her story by pairing her with Baelish. Goodness knows we do not see nearly enough of him.

As a final criticism, there is a great deal of repetitious prose:

  • “He/she was not wrong”—17 times. Is no one ever right in this novel?
  • “Much and more”—30 times
  • “Little and less”—11 times
  • “Words are wind”—13 times

This is lazy. It is just plain lazy. Any respectable editor should have caught all of this on the first draft and demanded revisions. With the POV format, putting us in the heads of many different people, these people should be thinking and speaking differently from one another. “Words are wind”—is this some saying that has crossed all borders, languages, and cultures? Bullshit. It’s the voice of George R. R. Martin, and we shouldn’t hear his voice coming out of multiple mouths.

Happy waiting, ASOIAF fans.

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