Originally Published at Rob.BearSwarm.com on 2010-08-16.
Almost a year ago now I started reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Currently I’m around 200 pages from completing the third book, A Storm of Swords. While I know I still have another massive tome to go before I’m caught up I wanted to write some commentary after the events of last night’s reading. For anyone who hasn’t read them yet I’ll be sure to clearly label where the spoiler section begins. Don’t expect much out of this. Just a few random thoughts.
I had been meaning to try this series for a number of years before I picked them up. I’m not a huge fan of fantasy but all my friends raved about the books so I figured I at least should know what they’re talking about. Who knows, maybe I would even enjoy them. I didn’t expect to like Harry Potter, but I did. Last November I was laid off from my job and I figured there was no better time to start reading 4,164 US paperback pages. I plowed through A Game of Thrones in around a month but when I hit A Clash of Kings I really slowed down. In fact, I had set the book down for months at a time between reading. This pace kept up until about half way through A Storm of Swords when I really started to enjoy the story again. It’s not that aCoK was a bad book, it was just slow. Oddly paced. At times it felt like the plot didn’t move forward. Plus the inclusion of more and more magic really started to bother me.
What initially attracted my attention to the series is how real it felt. It reads more of a fictional history that a fantasy story. When you first hear of Eddard Stark he sounds more like an actual knight then a Arthurian legend. And while there was some fantastical elements in there, the first book opens with creatures that are clearly monsters, it always seemed more rooted in reality. The monsters were in the North and no one had seen them for thousands of years.
Before I get into spoilers I want to thank www.ToweroftheHand.com. After reading close to three thousand pages a lot of the details have shifted. Not only does TotH give great summaries but it also has a Scope Filter. The Scope filter allows you to select the last book you finished and from there out all character, house, and location articles will be limited to details that occur in that book. It’s quite genius. Really, I’d love if they had a more granule scope filter that could sort by chapter, but that’s a lot more work.
Here be Spoilers
Now that that’s out of the way.
I started having issues with the series towards the end of aGoT. When Daenerys hatched her dragon eggs I rolled my eyes. Up until this point the main narrative had been rather well focused on a non-fantasy world. Now, astute readers will point out that earlier than that Jon Snow saves Lord Commander Mormont from a wight. That’s pretty fantasy right? Here’s where I start to get semantic. I dislike the tropes of Fantasy and to me the opening scene and the fight with the wight felt more like a Horror trope than a Fantasy trope. The introductions of actual living and breathing dragons. They established earlier that the last “Dragons” died off over one hundred and fifty years ago and even they were small misshapen lizards and not true “Dragons”. For me the “Dragons Skulls” could have easily been akin to our dinosaurs, and not flying firebreathing lizards. Once Daenerys hatched traditional Dragons the books took a turn to the Fantasy that just doesn’t interest me. Luckily, Daenerys is so separated from the rest of the narrative I could manage to go on.
Then came the scene in aCoK where Melisandre used magic to create a shadow that killed Renly. No ifs ands or buts about it, that was fucking magic. First it tasted bitter because of my disdain for Fantasy but then it grew sour when I realized it was the cheapest way to have possibly killed one of the main characters. Martian killed Renly in the most hand-waviest, open-ended, weakest way possible. “Magic.” This is my numero uno issue with Fantasy. The reliance on “Magic” as an unexplained means to an end. When I ask how did something happen and you tell me it was Magic I feel like I’m a small child you think is too stupid to bother explaining things to.
“But Rob!” you might exclaim, “You like Star Wars and they hand-wave everything with ‘The Force’!” While you would be right, I don’t like Jedi. What attracts me to Star Wars, or at least the originals, is that the Jedi and Magic play a supporting role. Obi Wan gets cut the fuck down and Luke doesn’t know shit about magic yet. Plus it has Han Solo and Boba Fett. Fuck yeah. Anyway, ask my friends. Whenever we play a Star Wars RPG I prefer to not play a Jedi. What made the original KotOR great to me was that I started as a non-Jedi. I loved that first chunk of the game. Even after I became a Jedi I still preferred Scoundreling to Lightsabering.
Anyway, the books have continually pushed more and more fantasy at me. In aSoS Jon Snow introduces Giants and Mammoths. Sam shows us all magical doors. And Melisandre does a ton of voodoo that one could argue isn’t anything but the results make me skeptical. Still, the rest of the books are strong enough to keep me going. At least for now.
Last night I read the chapter that features The Red Wedding. I was literally angry about that. To make it worse later when Joff finally gets his comeuppance it seems trivial next to the horrors inflicted upon Robb. The Read Wedding not only robbed me of Mini-Eddard but it stole the satisfaction I should have felt when the vile Joffery died. Yet, unlike the Fantasy Tropes, I don’t find myself pushing the books away because of it. If anything I’m more interested. Robb’s death at the hands of the Freys felt believable. Horrific but not outside the realm of believability.
Something else I want to reflect upon while I’m thinking of it. The first book had 8 PoV characters, the second book had 9 and the third book had 10. I have complaints about this. While I had no trouble with the first book and jumping perspective the stories get so spread out at times in the later books. Sometimes it takes literally hundreds of pages for me to get back to the events of an area. While sometimes (ie: Daenerys) it isn’t an issue there have been a few times (ie: Jon) that I really didn’t give a shit about what else was going on in King’s Landing, I wanted more of Beyond the Wall. I hear the next book has 12 PoV characters. Hopefully the plot, being split between two books, will be a tad easier to follow.
I feel that I have focused very heavily on the negatives so I’m going to talk about some of the things I really like about the series thus far. Right after I get two more gripes out of my system. There is way to much focus on food and clothing. I get it, it’s scene setting. You can tell the level of society people are functioning on by their food and clothing but sometimes it gets a bit much. Recently, at Joff’s wedding, it was ridiculous. There were literally paragraphs that did nothing more than describe food. I can stomach the food (hehe) but the descriptions of shirts and pants really wears me thin (hehe). Ok, got a couple of puns out of my system.
The books have a wonderful sense of suspense. Chapters tend to end, more often than not, on cliffhangers that leave me wanting to just keep reading about that character. The intervening chapters serve to draw out that sense of anticipation while not feeling like bloat. More often than not I read a chapter only to get angry that there isn’t more of that character immediately but get so caught up in the next character that by the time I get to the next ending I’m angry I don’t see more. It’s a wonderful pacing mechanism and I think it’s employed brilliantly.
I love the fight scenes too. While it bothers me that there is more detail given to food than to fighting it feels appropriate. The fights are quick, dirty, and brutal. Men are scarred, killed, and maimed. It reminds me of the Mass Murder rules in Houses of the Blooded. When someone gets into a fight in aSoIaF, someone dies. It’s just that simple. While I don’t need pages of blow-by-blow coverage there needs to be more than a passing mention and its a balance that the books strike quite nicely.
Then there are the characters. I love me some strong characters and these books are filled with them. Even the non-PoV characters are fantastic. My only complaint is that there are so many characters they get had to keep track of at points. Luckily I have www.ToweroftheHand.com to connect the dots for me. Seriously, I’m not sure how people coped with keeping track of everyone when the first book came out in 1996. Despite their abundance none of the characters feel cardboard. Even characters that are mentioned in passing seem to have motivations and agendas all of their own. Even characters like Ser Arthur Dayne who are long dead and only mentioned by other characters have a life to them.
My biggest fear right now is that the series will never see completion. George R. R. Martin is already sixty-one years old and he still has three books to go in the series. It was five years between the third and fourth book and five years has passed on top of that. If a Dance with Dragons comes out this year and we can expect a five-year gap that means The Winds of Winter will be out in 2015 and A Dream of Spring in 2020. Although to be realistic there hasn’t been a release date for Dance with Dragons set yet and I wouldn’t expect it before 2012 at the soonest. I just hope Martin has another good twenty or thirty years left in him.