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.