A Song Of Ice And Fire: Why I Both Like And Deride It


I’ve been planning on writing a retrospective on A Song of Ice and Fire once I finished all the published books, which I finally did last week. I previously did a quick review last year, but I’m hoping to be a bit more comprehensive. In that, the following will probably seem all over the place.

I like ASOIAF. I do. But there is a hell of a lot wrong with it. I often find it’s easier to discuss flaws and negatives at length than positives, so allow me to get the praise out of the way good and early so it made clear that I don’t actually consider this series to be a train wreck.

Martin is a good writer of character for the most part. He writes them well, they evolve well as the books go on. He’s good at writing characters that adequately change internally due to the events that they go through, he’s good at creating men and women who act true to the values and traits that are ascribed to them. I’m never really thrown for a loop with anything a character does in ASOIAF, even if it is part of a shocking plot twist. Irrationality, betrayal, steadfastness, courage, cowardice, are all present and accounted for in their right places. When Littlefinger betrays Ned, when Joffrey orders his head cut off, when Theon balks at cutting down Bran and Rickon, when the Freys massacre the Starks, when Tyrion kills his father, when the Watch gives Jon the Ides of March treatment: they are all twists, shocking in parts, but none of them, in fairness to Martin, left me thinking “that character would never do that” or “that’s completely out of left field” (though it might not be smart).

Martin is also, for the most part, a good writer of dialogue (one glaring exception, which I will discuss later). I like the way his characters talk, the way scenes are written and presented. They have a flow and they are rarely boring. I look forward to scenes between certain characters (especially Tyrion with anyone) because I know I’m going to be reading some dialogue that is truly notable.

Martin is good at world building, a point that needs no other expansion. It’s plain for the reader to see. In fact, he’s too good at it and indulges the impulse too much.

Martin is good at writing books that keep you reading, with plot and sub-plots that keep you interested right to the end. Only on one occasion did I consider quitting the series (more in a minute) and his finales for individual books are uniformly decent. He is able to hook you in and keep you there.

Martin has written a book series that has become the modern bench mark for fantasy, a saga that is having an effect comparable only to The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. He deserves credit for that.

Right then. What do I find wrong with ASOIAF?

Some are obvious. Complexity is a staple of the fantasy genre, and it rapidly becomes a problem in ASOIAF. So many characters, so many families, so many places, so many plots, so many intrigues. It’s all a bit much and one wonders whether we really need to know about all of Lord Frey’s bastard children or the intricacies of diplomacy in any one of the free cities. There is such a huge level of depth here that it is easy to get lost. After so many books, Martin has turned a positive part of his world building into a negative, insofar as it is frequently hard to distinguish between certain, nominally important, characters and the reader is often wondering “Wait, who is that?”

The other flaw is that nothing happens. A simple, but effective, way to put it.

The very first chapter/prologue shows how the “Others”, a supernatural and deadly threat to Westeros, have returned. One of the main plots of the first book is the rise of Daenery’s Targaryen from meek younger sibling to “Mother of Dragons”, coming back to Westeros to reclaim the throne that was taken from her family.

A Game of Thrones. A Clash of Kings. A Storm of Swords. A Feast for Crows. A Dance with Dragons.

Here we are, a million words later and the Others are still hiding somewhere behind the wall, and Daenery’s is still across the narrow sea.

I would subscribe to the theory that the “Others” returning is the main plot of ASOIAF, with Daenery’s and her Dragons (along with Jon Snow) the main force opposed to them. But aside from their brief appearance at the Fist of the First Men, the Others are elsewhere and Daenery’s has been faffing about forever in what at times seems like a completely different book. Just when is the “Song of Ice and Fire” going to get to the main point?

That’s the main example but everything drags, everything is padded. Jon becomes Lord Commander of the Nights Watch, we don’t see him again for a whole book. Tyrion kills his Dad and departs across the sea, setting up a tantalising union of characters with Daenery’s. Two giant books later, he’s still on his way to meet her. Bran Stark’s sub plot creeps along in a torturous fashion. Davos gets put in prison again.

Daenery’s does her thing for five books, then suddenly she gets trumped by the returning Aegon, who comes out of nowhere and does the thing she’s been planning on doing – land in Westeros – with a great degree less time spent planning. I’m not sure if Martin realises just how bad that makes the Daenery’s sub-plot look. Jon Connington? Who? Why should I care? What’s Daenery’s doing? Aren’t the dragons the important thing? Do we really need another faction this late in the series?

The plot moves forward, but so slowly as to encourage despair in the reader. It isn’t on a Robert Jordan level – his Wheel of Time is the benchmark for unnecessary books and padding – but ASOIAF just drags and drags. Whole centuries of pages seem to pass without much pushing beyond the surrounds of that particular book. Martin pads and pads, description of food being his major sin aside from the unnecessary characters and world depth.

The quality on display in terms of dialogue and character evolution keeps you going, but there are times when you just wish Martin wouldn’t belabour the point so much.

ASOIAF also goes with some unwise POV choices, the sub-plots it chooses to give time and attention to. Bran Stark, whose meandering, directionless adventures left me skimming his chapters, is the cheap culprit. The kind of obvious magic that those chapters are based on seems oddly out of place with the rest of the story, and the characters involved just irritate me. But there are other offenders. The more recent Dorne chapters, attempting to give prominence to a family and region that has been pushed to the side for the previous books. Don’t care enough and nothing of much importance actually seems to happen. Martin does well to not let us into the minds of Littlefinger or Varys because they are supposed to be mysterious and scheming characters,  and it is this very reason that Melisandre should remain observed from without, not within. Barriston Selmy got some headspace time, but all that did was divert the reader from more time with the critical Daenery’s character, with Selmy simply being Ned-lite. And Brienne, well Brienne. She is what she is, which is somewhat boring and frequently whiny. Her character is, in a general sense, interesting, but her thought process and dialogue has become predictable and dismissible.

I should point out that I find most other POV choices acceptable, and actually well picked. Catelyn, Sansa and Arya are frequently depressing and moan-filled, but written decently. The Greyjoy families provide an interesting Game of Thrones of their very own. I’ll always love the Lannisters, and their scheming makes the books what they are. Jon, Theon, Ned, Jaime, Davos and Tyrion remain my favourites, though I am not so enamoured with the Dwarf as so many others appear to be.

Something that I mentioned before, that drew comment from friends, is my dislike of the sexual overtone prevalent throughout the series. To be more specific, I think “less is more” is apt. So much of ASOIAF comes down to raunchy sex scenes, or scenes filled with crude sexual imagery and dialogue. Cocks, dicks, tits, cunts and mounds abound, physically and verbally. It gets a bit overloaded and distracting: every other conversation and scene contains at least some sexual imagery or wordplay, if not outright displays of sex. It doesn’t fit right, it doesn’t seem natural. Forced is what it is, as if Martin is pushing the “gritty” part a bit too much. Nobody talks as much about sex or uses sexual metaphors and allegory as much as characters in ASOIAF do. There are only so many vivid descriptions of Tyrion having his way with women before I begin to think “too much”. It’s just more padding I suppose, but is especially unnecessary.

And that goes, to a lesser extent, for the gore as well. Just a bit too much violent imagery and dialogue too, which causes the same problems.

Death is a large part of ASOIAF and no one can read these books without noting how easily Martin can kill off anyone. Ned Stark paves the way, but nothing matches the Red Wedding later.

The Red Wedding was the moment I previously mentioned where I nearly gave up on ASOIAF. It disgusted me, how casually Martin threw away important characters and sub-plots, having spent so much time building them up. Even in that book itself, A Storm of Swords, a large amount of space had been given over to Robb’s quest to reclaim the north, Winterfell and continue his war against the Lannisters.

Then, Martin seemed to run out of plot and decided to just end it. Better people to write for I suppose. I liked Robb and I liked that sub-plot. I’m a sucker for your classic “son trying to come into his own” plot (probably why I like Theon so much) and Robb’s was a good one, one that deserved a better conclusion then “rocks fall, everybody dies”. Catelyn gets to come back in a gruesomely stupid fashion, a bit of magic that fits about as much as Bran’s does (and now threatens to suck in a much better POV, Jaime, into its black hole of nonsense).

Martin had such a good time killing off those characters, he decided to do it again in the same book. Joffrey chokes. Joffrey I liked as a villain, I loved to hate him. He was a genuine piece of nasty, the real outcome of incest, more Aerys then Jaime. But while his death was a fitting end – choking and spluttering, unable to get out one last spiteful word – it was still the same thing as Robb Stark: can’t think of more plot, off with his head. Instead of what seemed like the more obvious route with potential – Joffrey coming into his own and turning on his bitch of a mother, the Nero tale – we get Cersei being the maniacal puppetmaster of the non-entity that is Tommen for another book. Cersei never has to face the thing she created with her ungodly union with a sibling, and just gets the stage to become crazier and stupider.

I miss Robb and I miss Joffrey. I wanted them, the sons inheriting the sins of their fathers, to meet one day. I’ll admit I wanted Robb to take Joffrey’s head, even if that would have been a predictable plot, a counterpart to the larger threat of the Others. Not to be. Instead, Bran Stark gets to keep on breathing. I suppose you could argue that Robb dies much like his father did, betrayed while trying to do the right thing. But it rankles, how quick and easily Martin just chucked him out of the way.

As for the other deaths that draw comment, I’m not so annoyed. Most of them make some degree of plot sense, or involved characters I didn’t have an special attachment too. I mean, if you think I felt too bad about Ygritte kicking the bucket after a books worth of a repeated verbal tick, well, you know nothing George Martin. I mean, she was a cool character, but she only seemed to exist so Jon would have a moral quandary and get laid. She was never going to last too long.

And I’m done. ASOIAF is good, very good, but it has plenty of flaws which detract from the experience. I hope Martin can, in the two remaining books, provide an acceptable conclusion. Winter is here, and now, Others are coming.

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8 Responses to A Song Of Ice And Fire: Why I Both Like And Deride It

  1. Jim says:

    This is how the books end, so far as I am concerned: Everyone faffs about, murdering and mutilating each other senseless, having obscene banquets and fucking the maids, while the Others get stronger and stronger.

    Then, the Wall falls, and Fair Folk Apocalypse happens. Everyone dies.

    Also, is it just me or are we in agreement that whenever Martin isn’t sure where to go with his plot, he kills or horribly mutilates a character, then spins some new subplot to occupy a few chapters?

    • HandsofBlue says:

      I’ll credit Martin with slightly more foresight then that, but I do think he reaches for that option far too much.

      I can actually imagine that Robb’s story was supposed to be Ned’s, before Martin decided his first book needed that kick.

    • ASOIAF Fan says:

      I can find only one single important (confirmed) character death that hasn’t been forewarned in a way or another (dead stag + dead direwolf mother), Dany,Melissandre or Qaith visions/prophecies etc… and that would be for Tywin, the character that has been killed two times (poisonned by the Red Viper and Killed by Tyrion before the poison finished the job).
      Every other important character death are either not clear (not confirmed) or they were heavily foreshadowed in previous volumes but you have to be sure that you know how to read to get them.

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  3. George says:

    It seems to me the the author could not decide what to write: A historical novel or a fantasy novel. He tried to combined them and in the end it is neither… I was hoping that slowly the focus will shift on the magical but reading this post seems that it will not….I will try to finish the 4 volumes that I have but…It is already clear to me that I do not like this series.
    About Robert Jordan you have to admit that until the 6th volume it was a really enjoyable reading…Afterward it came the dragging….And yes, I have to admit that my nerves lasted only until the 8th volume…

  4. As George above said, almost every death was planned years in advance. You simply lack the intellectual capacity to pick it up. Joffrey’s death is hinted at at the end of ACoK, when Sansa gets the poison-circlet from Dontos (Littlefinger). Almost everything is plotted out ahead to an excrutiating degree; he’s not an author to fly by the seat of his pants.

    I’m not an apologist for GRRM however. His books take waaaay too long to come out. I’m more annoyed by people ike you, who’ve never written anything worth reading in their lives, yet think they are qualified to b***h about who are ‘acceptable POV’s’ and who aren’t. If you dislike the detail GRRM puts into his world, go write your own book with no details but that which is necessary, and see how well it sells.

    • HandsofBlue says:

      Now, usually I’d just delete this kind of comment, because I hate seeing any kind of moronic abuse in any comment section on any website. The world tolerates it way too much in my opinion. But here, man I can’t help myself. When the mindless fanboys and girls turn up, grating at the thought that anyone is criticising their idol, you have to think you’ve done something right.

      I mean, here, you’ve decided to leave a nasty comment on a piece that was just as positive about A Song Of Ice And Fire as it was critical. You’ve zoned in on those criticisms and you’ve decided to get nasty.

      I imagine you’re quite young, teens maybe. I imagine you’re the kind of person who has, at some point, made some comment about how long George R.R. Martin is taking about bringing out his books and how he should be “writing more” like the entitled fanboy you are. I imagine you complain about changes in the TV series. I imagine you’ve left some variation of the above comment on a hundred message boards.

      I find that it is a common refrain from some when it comes to criticism that “You just aren’t smart enough to get it” is thrown back. It’s great. It’s an easy way to denigrate your opponent and make yourself feel better because, it follows, that you “get it”. This is nonsense of course, especially in this case. You can claim as much as you want, point to whatever fleeting references to BS as much as you want but you know, I know and the world knows that Martin is definitely pulling stuff straight out of his head as he writes these stories. Otherwise he wouldn’t be taking five years between installments and wouldn’t be killing off characters at totally random intervals in order to keep the reader interested.

      And then the kicker, the ultimate sign of how deluded and sad you really are. “You’ve never written anything as good so your opinion is invalid!” Ah, that stale pile of horseshit the fanboys like to lather themselves in. Don’t worry, back in my younger, immature days of worshipping Tolkien like he was some sort of God I probably said the same. See, that old trope would, if true, make 99% of all critique and review ever done in this planets history incorrect. It would invalidate nearly every customers opinion. Do you think this is true? Do you think that the vast, vast, vast majority of people on this planets opinions are invalid? I suppose such a thought would, if genuinely held, make you feel pretty special. Or, you know, deluded and self-important.

      Now, maybe you’ll read this, maybe you won’t. I don’t especially care because the last thing I want to do is get into any sort of dialogue with someone like you, because its about as productive as, well, the Red Wedding was for the overall plot. But, if you do, don’t bother replying, because I won’t read it. Just step away from the Westeros forum for ten minutes and go outside, because if you get this riled up about some basic criticism of this novel series, you need to reevaluate a section of your life. Thanks for reading.

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