A Song of Ice and Fire 1 – 4 by George R R Martin

August 14, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 53 Comments
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Game of ThronesTo say I’ve arrived late to the George R R Martin party would be an understatement. At their height, I think it’s fair to say these books were as popular as it’s possible to be without crossing out of the genre audience like Harry Potter or (eventually) Ender’s Game did. Fourteen years after the first book, A Game of Thrones, and almost five years since the most recent volume A Feast for Crows was published these are still very popular books. This is really a two-for-one epic, in that by reading it you experience not only the epic storyline, but also participate (albeit as a bit player) in Martin’s epic struggle to actually complete the series. The series is well over a million words in length already, but even more words have been written about it online, so I will dispense with both the plot summary and the recap of Martin’s authorial adventure and instead relate my experience coming to these books in 2010.

I’ll begin by answering the most obvious question: given that I obviously read a fair amount of fantasy, why haven’t I read these before? Some people who had read a lot of my reviews will know that I almost always wait until series are finished before starting them. Although this was prompted in part by lapsed series that never paid off (Chtorr for example), the main concern was time. Whenever a series tells a continuous story, I don’t feel like I’m getting the full effect of the later books unless the preceding stories are fresh on my mind. This led to me reading the first book in a series, then the first book again before the second, then the first two before the third, and so forth. For trilogies this was barely acceptable but as I only have a limited time for reading it becomes quite inefficient for longer series. So I swore off incomplete series right about the time that A Game of Thrones was soaring in popularity.

Clash of KingsBut I’m sure this only raises a further question: why read them now? There are again a couple reasons. The first came when HBO greenlit a TV adaptation of A Game of Thrones. I’m one of those people who goes out of their way to read a novel before its screen adaptation, and I was definitely interested in the HBO series, which struck me as at last the appropriate way to adapt a complicated novel: spending a whole season on it instead of cramming into a movie or even miniseries. Then there was the increasing chance that the series would never in any case be finished. It has grown in projected books faster than Martin has written them, and cruelly Martin himself ages at the same rate as the rest of us regardless of how quickly the series moves forward. Who knows whether he will live to finish it? Even if he does, while I’m considerably younger than Martin, nothing is certain in life and I might not make it that long either. Tolkien founded the modern fantasy genre with a trilogy he said was about death, so I guess it’s only fitting that series like this one and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time have themselves unwittingly become grim memento mori for authors and fans alike.

But the final straw was the feeling that I had already read A Song of Ice and Fire by reading other books. Just as Tolkien spawned countless imitators, Martin is widely credited with sparking a flood of hard-edged, cynical fantasy, and I’ve read my fair share of it. For instance, Wikipedia cites no less than four prominent authors as being heavily influenced and although I wouldn’t call myself extremely well-read I’ve already read all four (Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, and R Scott Bakker). I’ve also read Glen Cook, whose Black Company books are thought to have influenced Martin, and indeed this influence was probably the reason Cook has remained prominent enough for me to seek out his work. I even make comparisons to Martin’s work when reviewing fantasy on this site. Well, not his work itself, but to perceptions of it at least. This is starting to get ridiculous, I told myself. My first real contact with epic fantasy was reading Lord of the Rings, after all. Wasn’t I grateful that I hadn’t first waded through imitators like David Eddings, Robert Jordan, and Tad Williams that, whatever their actual quality, fall short of Tolkien’s masterpiece?

A Storm of SwordsSo I started reading A Game of Thrones for the first time in the position of someone who had never read the series before but thought he had a pretty good idea what it was like. I knew nothing about the plot or characters for I had avoided all such details knowing I would eventually read the books, but from countless asides in conversations with friends and reviews of other books, I primarily associated two attributes with Martin’s work: First, an unromantic approach to fantasy that emphasized intrigue and realism over magic and elevated prose. Second, the implacable and ruthless slaughter of major characters. Beyond that, while I’d heard some criticisms of Martin’s prose and the decision to split the fourth book into A Feast for Crows and an as-yet unpublished fifth book, the overall extremely positive reception of the series made me expect an exciting, even addicting, set of books.

Having now finished the extant series, I can say that despite this apparently detailed foreknowledge, the series Martin wrote was quite a bit different than the one I had expected to read.

Let’s start with the gritty realism. It’s not Martin’s fault, but here my exposure to later writers has probably completely changed my reaction from what it would have been had I read the series as it came out. Plenty of authors have tried to imitate Tolkien’s archaic yet evocative style, yet no one has come close to equaling it. It was reasonable for me to suppose that Martin’s realistic style would work the same way. Reasonable, but wrong, and obviously so in hindsight. Tolkien’s work hasn’t been matched because he was uniquely suited both in temperament and profession to write the way he did. Throwing out the excesses of epic fantasy in favor of gritty realism is not nearly so challenging. In fact, it’s easier than trying to stay the course. It’s no surprise then that Martin’s work was not the apogee of this trend but just another stop along the way. Compared to Joe Abercrombie, just to pick one name out of probably a dozen, Martin seems like a hopeless romantic. It’s interesting that these days the people impressed with Martin’s grit and realism are the people writing about the HBO series (“It’s like the Sopranos in Middle-earth”), since when it comes to epic fantasy in television and movies Lord of the Rings is still very recent and the natural benchmark.

Feast for CrowsThen there’s the character slaughter. For me, the textbook case of this is in the film Serenity. Before that film I have to admit I thought of killing characters as cool and subversive, but afterward I started thinking about how a work of fiction has an unwritten contract with the audience. In some modes, I decided, killing a character might be an effective move while in others it is a betrayal of audience expectations. The fact is, A Song of Ice and Fire does indeed kill off characters, a great deal of them. But contrary to my expectations, I argue that it does not, in fact, kill off major characters. Rather, the reader is understandably mistaken about who is a major character and who is not, for reasons I will get into at length in a moment. So while it’s true there’s a lot more death in Martin’s series than in most fantasy (including many, like Tolkien’s, where theoretically lots of blood is shed yet almost no named characters die), it didn’t nearly live up to its reputation in this respect either, although that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

This leaves the most important issue. Is this the masterpiece of modern fantasy literature that it’s made out to be? No, not even close. I’m genuinely disappointed about this. Like anyone, I sometimes start reading a book or watching a film with some bias one direction or another (for instance, all the hype made me go into The Matrix looking for a fight, so while I didn’t think it was very good, a lot of that reaction is probably my fault), but in this case I was definitely hoping to love these books. For years I’ve checked up on Martin’s progress hoping he’d hurry up and finish so I could find out what the fuss was about. I thought there was a great chance I’d love it, along with certainly some fairly small chance that I’d hate it, or at least strongly dislike it.

I never expected to end up saying: Well, I guess it’s not bad. It’s okay.

The highlight is probably the worldbuilding. Tolkien and his imitators have emphasized the landscapes of their fantasy worlds. Even the Thomas Convenant series, which seemed at first glance like a rejection of everything Tolkien brought to the genre, spent a lot of its time (and won a lot of its fans, I suspect) on landscapes. Although there are some maps to be found of Westeros and its surrounding countries, Martin’s efforts in geographical construction and detail are merely adequate. Instead, more than any author I can recall, he has constructed a social landscape. Looking now at a map of Westeros, the names of cities, rivers, and castles bring to mind the characters who live in or near them. I can’t really tell you anything about what Casterly Rock looks like, for example, but just mentioning it evokes the wealth of detail that Martin has invested in the Lannister family and the twists and turns of their fortunes. The Lannisters are perhaps the series’ most prominent family, but by the end of the fourth book well over a dozen noble families have been sketched out in impressive detail. The variety in personality, character, and history is impressive and gives Martin’s Westeros a different and possibly greater sense of solidity than the traditional naturalistic approach.

The other aspects of the world are considerably weaker. The society seems reasonable enough, but various references to the ancient past ask us to believe that technology levels have been roughly unchanged for thousands of years, and further that not just one but almost every society is historically self-aware of their progression throughout this time. Each of the four seasons lasts for years, but after the first book it is hardly mentioned and I frankly almost forgot about it. Agriculture and economic planning don’t seem to be any different from generic feudal despite this massive climatological difference.

Although initially confined to a few children, the series rapidly expands to encompass a large set of viewpoint characters, and this works better than in most pluralistic narratives, probably because Martin is more willing to kill off minor characters and thus prevent his cast from becoming too unwieldy at least until the fourth book. After a seemingly good guy/bad guy approach, Martin shades in a surprising degree of nuance as the series progresses. That Tyrion would be a fan favorite character was obvious from the start, but I was particularly impressed by the handling of Jaime Lannister. Not every character is a success, to be sure (if I never read anything more from Cersei’s viewpoint I won’t complain) but I don’t have many complaints with the characterization. Except for the youngest, the Stark children all act about five years older than they actually are, but that’s par for the course (I’m looking at you, Ender’s Game).

Then there’s the plot. Ah, the plot. Goodness. Where to begin?

I think most of the series’ fans would point at the plot as being its strength. I can see why they might like it, but I’m going to call it a disaster. Oh, it’s not an unmitigated failure, but a tragic one, for there’s a good story somewhere in all this quicksand trying to claw its way out. It pulls the reader in, keeps them going through the four massive books that have been published so far, and amounts to nothing. To understand this, think about just what it is this series is about.

You see, in the prologue of A Game of Thrones, some throwaway characters venture past a great wall to patrol the wilderness of the far north. For millennia, we learn, the Night’s Watch has manned this wall against evil, but for long centuries this threat has been dormant, the people shielded by the wall have become decadent, and the Watch is now too weak to reliably stand against bandits, much less a terrifying supernatural evil. But now there are signs that evil might be stirring! Kill the throwaways and bam, cut to chapter one. I think it’s safe to call this an extremely conventional way to begin a fantasy novel. The ur-epic fantasy, Lord of the Rings begins with the shadow of the past stirring once more, and its Mordor was once carefully guarded before its watchers became lax. Since then thousands of fantasy books have begun this way, and I have read dozens of them, as have most of Martin’s audience. But I don’t think any of those books took Martin’s approach to developing this story in the rest of the first book: never mention it again in any way.

All right, that’s a slight exaggeration, but not by much. He spends more time on Daenerys, a young princess in exile who must overcome all manner of obstacles both internal and external before she can start walking down the road toward reclaiming her throne, but this well-worn storyline is also strictly a sideline item. The second book, A Clash of Kings, even spends a little time on a King who is increasingly led down dark paths by a foreign sorceress, but this too gets only a little space in the ongoing story. Any one of these stories, properly developed, would be enough for a fantasy novel and probably an entire trilogy. Incorporating them all would definitely make for a lively fantasy series. Mind you, anyone who has read a reasonable amount of fantasy can sketch out roughly how these stories will evolve. For example, although a few people sound the alarm most deny the existence of the ancient evil despite increasingly clear evidence, then it sweeps down and everyone is very sorry they didn’t listen earlier, and it seems like it is too late and all civilization will perish, but just at the bleakest moment some enterprising individuals manage to win an unlikely victory. Despite his reputation as an innovator, Martin doesn’t appear to be deviating from the standard storyline here. Yet by the end of the fourth book, after 1.3 million words and nine years, the ancient evil has only just begun to sweep anywhere, and the other plotlines are even further behind. And no wonder: I don’t know how much of all those words went into developing them but I think fifteen percent would be a very generous guess.

Instead, most of the series has been devoted to the titular game of thrones as countless nobles struggle for power in Westeros. Unlike the plotlines I just described, this main thread does not follow normal conventions. It is almost completely without structure. Events happen one after another without any kind of cohesion. It’s not that they don’t make sense…everything seems fairly logical and Martin proves to be a very inventive spinner of intrigue and conspiracy. Yet this all proceeds outside of the narrative structure that has characterized western literature for centuries. There is no development, there is no sense of progression of any kind, there is no climax. It’s the plot equivalent of someone banging an endless series of chords, each unrelated to the next, on a piano. Now I readily admit to being far more interested in the way stories are constructed than the average reader, but I think this has many important downsides even for those who aren’t consciously aware of the dissonance.

What was immediately noticeable to readers of the first book in 1996 was the way they had no idea what was coming next. Why should they? Long experience has taught us how plots work in almost all fiction, but here was a book that was resolute in ignoring these conventions. To be sure, the immediate result is a fairly refreshing feeling of suspense. But these narrative conventions exist for a reason. Although A Feast for Crows has other shortcomings, I think one of the biggest reasons it wasn’t as well received as the first three books was that without a sense of where the narrative is going, the reader doesn’t feel any momentum. Since there’s no plotline developing and advancing towards a climax, the reader realizes there’s no reason why the intrigue surrounding the throne of Westeros can’t go on indefinitely. And if the plot goes on indefinitely, then the individual events are completely deprived of meaning. In particular, one realizes that the characters can’t win any victory that won’t just be undone by further events two hundred pages later, so why bother rooting for them at all? When all is said and done, whoever is left standing in the ruins of Westeros will be swept aside by Daenerys and Jon Snow as they confront the evil out of the north, so isn’t this something of a waste of time?

Incidentally, I believe this was also how Martin got the reputation as a killer of main characters. Floating in a vacuum of story, readers latched on to what they assumed were main characters only to have them unexpectedly swept aside. Initially, Eddard Stark and his son Robb seemed like central characters, yet with the benefit of hindsight even from a position only halfway through the series, it’s obvious they are bit players. In a typically sized fantasy novel, they’d have a page or two of screen time. In fact, the actual main characters of the story, like Daenerys, are just as bulletproof as any normal story’s protagonists.

The unpredictable and unstructured nature of the central plotline has a literal realism to it and I’m tempted to see it as a bold artistic statement on Martin’s part, but alas all the evidence points to this being an unintended effect. This was originally supposed to be a trilogy, after all, but has defied every prediction its own author made regarding its eventual length and publication schedule. Martin surely was writing a conventional fantasy novel about an ancient evil and an exiled princess but somehow got distracted by what probably was summed up in some original one page outline in about one sentence (“Westeros monarchy weakened by infighting and succession problems”). Having fallen in love with what was supposed to be a bit of window dressing, he has continually expanded its role within the series even though it threatens to completely drown out what the series was supposed to be about in the first place. Is it any wonder that he has suffered from the contemporary genre’s most famous case of writer’s block? I’m sure that long ago he planned what would happen to Daenerys and the Night’s Watch, but now he feels obligated to give equal time to characters like Brienne who are likable yet serve little purpose to the central narrative and are instead dragged through increasingly arbitrary make-work scenes to keep them available for some later bit of relevance.

Although I’ve been critical, I will defend Martin of one charge frequently lobbed at fantasy authors. I don’t think he’s stretching things out to make more money. The typical pattern for fantasy series is to start out with an exciting and action packed first book and then to become ever more bogged down in extra viewpoint characters and minutiae. Although it’s true A Feast for Crows is somewhat bogged down like this, really Martin deeply invests himself in the minutiae right from the start, and even the fourth book moves at a faster clip than typical doorstop fantasy. Likewise, where typical slow fantasy seems to get stuck always approaching but never reaching some critical point, Martin blasts through critical points all the time. The central plotline is a meat grinder that constantly chews up minor characters, spits them out, then pulls in more. If there’s a record for the fictional work that kills the most named characters then this series is right up there with the Iliad.

I’m glad I read A Song of Ice and Fire but less because of the story itself and more because I find it interesting how unbalanced the story is. On one hand, it’s probably a testament to how a work that does one or two things really well can become extremely popular even if it does other things very poorly. Writing about Wheel of Time, Adam Roberts attributed some of its popularity to “fans who want to know every atom of the imagined world” and I think something similar is at work here. On the other hand, I think that the series’ weaknesses get magnified as the story goes on even if the quality of the books remains constant, leading me to suspect the series will never be again be as popular as it was when A Storm of Swords came out. Unfortunately for Martin, I think the series will only get harder and harder for him to write as he tries to provide some sort of climax and closure that justifies the endless profusion of aimless detail he’s provided so far. I’m even a lot more skeptical that HBO can successfully translate it into an effective television show, although being forced to provide an abridged version might end up being beneficial.

Hopefully I’m wrong and Martin eventually manages to both finish the series and somehow produce a satisfying second half in the process, but I won’t be holding my breath. Fortunately, looking back at the writers bearing Martin’s influence who I mentioned before, it seems like they have each taken something good about the series, amplified it, and then coupled that with a more conventional narrative structure (“conventional narrative” sure sounds like an insult, but that’s why reading Martin has been so helpful…breaking convention is a risky thing). Even if I never read any more of this series (the most likely possibility I’m afraid) I will at least be able to read other books that continue down the trail Martin blazed.

Update: This review has prompted a fair amount of discussion. I’ve written a follow-up post to answer some of the objections people have raised.

July 2011: I’ve written some thoughts on the HBO Game of Thrones first season, including some brief notes on how it’s made me re-examine the series’ first novel. A more comprehensive revisiting of this discussion will have to wait until I’ve read A Dance With Dragons (probably a week or two).

August 2011: I did finish Dance in a week or two, but actually writing a review of it took two more.

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  1. While I disagree with some of the points, this is a brilliant review.

    While overall Ned Stark maybe a bit player, in Game of Thrones, it’s his choices that set this entire story in motion. Given his role in the first book, and how often his memory is invoked in the rest of the series, I still believe he is a major player.

    Rob, however, is bit player. He never has his own POV chapter, but we learn so much about him from Caitlyn’s point of view.

  2. Interesting review.

    I can agree with some points, others not so much. Robb, was a major player in the “game of thrones”. Except we learn very little about him because he never has his own point of view. It’s what Martin does a lot it seems, especially in the earlier books. He makes a lot of the less important characters POV chapters so we learn about the major players from a distance. Major players being Tywin, Robb, Littlefinger and so on.

    You bring up an interesting point about the slow moving plotlines. Those you bring up are not in A Feast for Crows. I wonder if it would be the other way around if Martin had decided to do Dance with Dragons part first. Perhaps then you’d be wondering why the plot around the war in Westeros is moving so slowly.

    It’s been awhile since I’ve read Feast, but I do recall several characters heading towards Dany. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

  3. Everyone, I have an idea. We need to initiate an uprising. We should create a gigantic HTML banner with the words: Finish the book, George!
    This, we will plaster all over his website. Who’s with me?

  4. Splendid review. Courageous in the face of legions of diehard fans. You called a spade a spade and are not afraid of calling it out for what it is.

    All the points are well-made and I agree with them. For some, I will even go further.

    For me, this has been easily one of the worst series of books that I have read in recent years.

  5. I have given up on the series.

  6. Though I enjoyed your review and agree with some points I think you’re off the mark in your comments concerning the novels plot progression. I have no special knowledge of what Martin’s initial plans were or where the series is heading but if I had to guess the title references an eventual alliance of forces (primarily family Stark and Targaryen) that will thwart the mysterious forces to the north. If we transpose what we know against the classic story arc: put a man in a tree, throw stones at him, then get him down; we are right in the middle of throwing some stones at that potentiality.

    Otherwise, I enjoyed your observation.

  7. I never thought about it that way but your idea of the games of thrones part being expanded beyond what he first planned could be write. I do like it and hope it ends well.

    On your point that all the Starks are 5 years older then then they are I figure thats cause it is a feudal where you were treated as an adult when you hit your teens so they were expected to be more mature then modern children.

  8. I am not a writer. I am a consumer.

    I expect after investing 70 odd dollars so far, and over 100 before it’s all done, to be well and truly entertained.

    So far first two provided – that third, not so much.

    Writers are remembered for their stories – don’t care if he flosses his cat with chicken wire at home. I do not have any idea what freewriting is… and don’t really care.

    If he rights this story and brings it around in an entertaining fashion – I will have considered myself satisfied with my purchase of a good tale… and more importantly I think he will be remember as the writer of a great story. And despite all the tics and foibles and distractions, that is what his legacy will be. In 20 years when I hand these hard covers to my kids – it won’t matter that it took 6 years or 16 between book 3 and 4. The story will still be good (so I hope).

    I don’t begrudge any artist success or the freedom to pursue better paying success in lieu of lesser paying success – I would do the same and so would all the alleged \pure\ artists who claim they only write for themselves and their dogs. If enough clams were waved in their face for the rights to their story – they would sell out in a minute. And those that wouldn’t aren’t likely to have created anything all that terribly good anyway (statistical odds alone favor me on that).

    He owes me nothing if he stops now. I am 2/3rds satisfied with my interaction with GRRM. That’s actually pretty good considering the state of fantasy fiction in general now days. I’m typically lucky to be better than 1/3 satisfied.

    I would like to see it finished and finished well – but hey – hassling the guy night and day isn’t going to help. If all the people criticizing him were busy creating as high a quality a product – the fantasy fiction market would be a much better place overall.

  9. Sorry pasted that from another review-ish type of thing.

    This was a good straight up calling out of the problems with this series. Measuring good serial books is hard enough even after they are complete (and some for 60 years or more)- this one is tough.

    Well done to the reviewer and likely this will fall down rather than stand up as a “great one”.

    I will finish it – I never like to leave them unfinished – but it will be with heavy heart unfortunately.

  10. [...] | Leave a Comment Tags: George R R Martin Recently Charlie Jane Anders on io9 linked to my thoughts about the first four books in A Song of Ice and Fire, pairing them with a Martin fan’s [...]

  11. [...] an interesting review of the first four books of George’s  A Song of Ice and Fire series, at Yet There Are Statues.  He’s pretty critical of the series as a whole, and I recommend everyone read it.  He [...]

  12. [...] Hilliard tangles with George RR [...]

  13. An excellent review, and accurate in many ways. I particularly like you notation of what percentage of George’s words have actually gone towards forwarding the main plot regarding the impending evil.

    I’ve posted a link to your review on Finish the Book, George, our little corner of the internet for angry fans of the series. Thatnks for the good read.

  14. Basically, ASoIaF is an extremely good soap opera. Fans watch soap operas precisely *for* the neverending panorama of people plotting and scheming and forming and breaking alliances, multiple ongoing storylines occasionally bombarded by seemingly arbitrary events, with plenty of exciting mini-climaxes. Maybe there’s a *big* climax once a season or so, or a storyline eventually comes to an end, but that’s not really the point. This is a different art form than the classic novel, so judged as a novel, or by someone who doesn’t care for soap operas (nothing wrong with that), ASoIaF naturally won’t come off very well.

    With A Feast for Crows the quality of the soap opera did noticeably decline: boring filler substituting for juicy interpersonal drama (the Brienne chapters), at least one ridiculous caricature of a POV character (Cersei), et cetera. Hopefully all this was to maneuver people into position for a return to past form.

  15. I find it most interesting that your entire review/analysis is built off where you think the narrative is headed (and your assumptions about how this will play out, as you clearly state) and your dissatisfaction with where the plot has moved so far. I’m not going to debate the delivery problems/series completion issues – but to ignore their effect on your review is absurd. You stop the series in the middle of multiple plot lines, at essentially the exact middle point of the entire saga, and complain about the pacing/direction/focus? AFFC ends at basically the exact middle of the story itself, making it fairly obvious that the story would be unresolved and incomplete. If you can honestly claim that you read the first three books through and felt that “its not that bad. It’s okay” – then I can’t comprehend your opinion at all. Up through the end of ASOS, it has been a brilliant series with great characters and a structure that few, if any, other genre writers could pull off. Sure, you mention Abercrombie, Lynch, Bakker, etc – but those writers couldn’t hold a candle to Martin; and the emotional impact of every character they kill off together couldn’t match the impact of a single one of many of Martin’s “kills.” Some people like different styles, sure – but to pick up the series now, read through AFFC, and attempt to make any definitive analysis stand up is an exercise in absurdity; and your “analysis” proves that pretty clearly.

  16. I enjoyed your analysis, and while I don’t agree with all of your predictions, I do agree with your overall assesment.

    What I find particularly interesting, however, are the comments. Specifically those from individuals who love the series whose views can be summed up as: No criticism allowed.

    This is sad because all writers deserve criticism. Those who are considered above it are usually substandard.

    Keep up the analysis.

  17. I’m an avid George R R Martin fan and I agree with most of your analysis.

    What people don’t realise is that the overall plot has changed from what Martin first envisaged it to be and because of this he has tied himself into a knot because he listened to his readers. Martin revealed in several interviews a long time ago that he wanted to fast forward into the future so that an older Rickon and Bran could avenge the Starks with Dany playing a role but because fans loved the existing characters he couldn’t do this anymore. I can’t find this on the Internet anymore but I remember reading this 2 years ago. He has taken so long because he changed the story simple as that.

    I disagree with your point about Ed. Ed died in the first book so of course over the four books he becomes insignificant. Martin created his reputation because he killed off a major POV character which we invested in. Eddard name even appears in the back cover of the “Game of Thrones” so the reader gets a sense that he was a main character.

    A Feast for Crows was well written but because it did not have a lot of the popular characters and featured an unpopular Cersei I did not enjoy it and yes I agree the story appeared to move slightly forward and then sideways.

    Dance with Dragons was going to be a parallel story.
    Technically AFFC was not even going to be published but because his original story was too long his publishers told him that he needed to split the book. He made the mistake of spliting the characters instead of splitting the book or shortening it.

    Now the story of Dance with Dragons is going to run partially with AFFC with the aim of moving the story forward.

    All the changes have impacted the overall plot.

  18. You’ve relegate Daenerys’ epic to a side story? You are aware that this is a Song of Ice and Fire, right? Her side is as central as Snow’s.

  19. A very interesting and well-written review. But after reading some of your other reviews, I think you want to believe what you write but you think otherwise.

    I think you love the books, but it’s better for your blog to write a kind of negative review. One more positive review parising ASOIAF would just be ignored.

    Advance answer: Of course I’m wrong.

    Greetings and sorry for my english :)

  20. This was a rather thought provoking article for me and for the most part I would agree with the analysis though I would disagree that makes Martin’s work bad or even just so-so. Carrieamber point about this series being a rather well written soap opera makes sense to me and is a form of entertainment I can get into if its well done (which a SoIaF definitely is for the genre). That also bodes well for the TV series where soap operas are much more typical.

    That being said there is one area where I disagree with your analysis and that is your point on the medieval stasis. While your point about a typical feudal regime in a country with summer-winter cycles that last decades is well made and a valid criticism, I disagree with the idea that the societies are too static and have too complete a grasp of history. For one thing, you’re making the dangerous assumption that the timelines and histories these people know are accurate. Even in the novels some doubt gets cast on this (Samwell Tarly at one points notes the improbability of the ages of the legendary kings and the stories about knights before knighthood existed). We are still talking several thousand years here from the First Men’s arrival in Westeros to the present but that’s also a shift from the Stone Age through the Bronze Age through the Iron Age and thus, several thousand years is what you would expect. As for the knowledge of that period, its clearly in legend form not in definitive history. The Maesters try to work out a definitive history from the legends but that doesn’t mean they have real historical records going back that far.

    Another thing to consider would be the proliferation of magic in the old days which would contribute to slower technological change. If you have magic to do things, there is less pressure to invent new technologies. The Maesters probably see this and that’s why they actually seem worried about the idea that magic might return. They are in the middle of trying to get a Renaissance-type situation started and the return of magic could derail all their attempts to institute technological advancement and the scientific method.

    All this means that between unreliable dates and stories, the actual length of time that you would expect a society to take from stone age to medieval-level society, and the influence of magic until the last couple of centuries means that Martin’s “stasis” is less static than it initially appears and what stasis remains is justified.

  21. Chris: Perhaps you’re right about the stasis issue. I guess one read-through isn’t enough for me to say one way or the other. It’s true that magic might suppress technological development but it seemed like the humans in Westeros never had it…the Elf-analogues and the Numenor-analogues were the ones with the magic. As for history, very ancient history is spoken of very authoritatively, but perhaps these are really myths and misconceptions.

    If you’re right about the Renaissance and magic vs. science stuff, that’s neat, but I wish all this was made a little more clear.

  22. I dont consider the Night’s Watch storyline to be the main storyline. the fact that it hasnt progressed very much isnt that big of deal if it is only a secondary storyline. i think the fact that it was the first thing we read and that it is a generic fantasy storyline leads us to believe that it is the primary reason for the book when in fact it is not. thats my theory anyway.

  23. Actually, I think you have a perfectly valid point about stagnant societies without technological or sociological development. Even if certain key discoveries are not made (or at least joined together) to develop technology, it seems extremely unlikely to me that any society would have undergone a little sociological change over the thousands and thousands of years they discuss in this book.

  24. So what the hell was the point of the entire crack-claw side adventure? I have read that bit several times and beyond boring the crap out of me what did it do to progress the plot or the development of Brienne? GRRM has lost his way and his character wander in an aimless landscape of despair. I’ve almost given up on the series.

  25. Between Robert Jordan’s over-emphasis on ridiculous details without moving the story prompted me to think he was milking the series. So, between Jordan and Martin I have decided to read no more unfinished series. But, at least Martin did not publish crap in between what he really wanted to publish. Based on this review and Martin’s actions, the lengthy intervals speak more to unintended direction and less to maximal impact. Maybe if he reviewed the initial story outline and took some ritalin he could finish it already and get back on the comcon circuit without guilt.

  26. My original question when reading this review was: how can a tv series be made for a book series that has no end?

  27. Actually, a book with no end is ideal for a TV series… they can keep it on air as long as the ratings are good.

  28. What date in March does the miniseries starts?

  29. What date does the miniseries starts?

  30. At some points, I feel your review is spot on, at others, completely off the mark.

    Your point about Martin’s “characterscape” is undeniably true, but I could never put my finger on it before, I thought of Westeros as a very fleshed out world, but in fact, its the people there that are fleshed out.

    However, your point about the plot being off course seems horribly wrong to me. I find that the lack of major climaxes is part of what makes this series so great. When I’m reading a book with an obvious climax, I’m entertained, but it doesn’t seem real to me. Life very seldom has periods where everything falls together and you know how things are going to turn out. Neither does ASoIAF, when you feel a climax coming, it often happens, but its not what you expect. I feel that this is what makes the series excellent for me.

    Your points about the ever-common plots of fantasies (evil force brewing, Exiled princess returning, King being led off course by a witch) seem to be right, but I greatly appreciate that. I’ve found that I care far more about Tyrion (who would be of no use once The Others broke through) than Ii do about Dany returning to Westeros.

    Furthermore, I don’t think its fair to say that Dany hasn’t recieved enough attention when GRRM specifically mentioned this at the end of AFFC. Remember that currently Tyrion (I believe) The Dornish kid, and several other characters are on there way to her at the end of AFFC. I would not be surprised if Dany recieves as much attention on ADWD as Cersei did in AFFC.

    I’m sorry for the format of this response, I’m not very good at putting my thoughts into text.

    Also, the main storyline in my opinion is definately the fight for the Iron Throne, sure the impending invasion of The Others or Dany’s attack might be more important in the long run, but we can read countless other books with similar themes, and I’m far more interested in the ultimately pointless power-struggle.

  31. P.S.
    I haven’t read your second post at the time of posting this, it’s very possible that you addressed some of the points that you raised.

  32. [...] I really enjoyed Matt Hilliard’s even more critical response to the books. I disagree with the author’s take, but it’s a compelling [...]

  33. [...] extreme tardiness in continuing the series. There are some fascinating theories about the books (this proposes that Martin wanted to write a mostly standard fantasy but got sidetracked by fans into…), and I had heard lots of good things, but despite being comfort food, fantasy isn’t high on [...]

  34. I’m confused as to how you could give a review of the series as a whole before it has been finished. It’s almost like this is a shameless attempt to generate hits for your site by bashing a wildly popular series. Have you ever stopped reading a book halfway through, and then posted a random number of stars for it on your site? You would be justified in posting your opinion on each book and rating them individually, or even putting up an asinine article like this for the series to-date without some sort of value attached. However, giving a rating to it pretty much confirms that your system is arbitrary. How about this- I stopped reading your review three paragraphs in, and I give your entire site one star. Wow, that actually felt pretty good. Maybe your half-ass way of inflicting your opinion on the world has an upside…self-gratification.

  35. Swimming: thanks for your feedback. I don’t suppose there’s much point in responding, but you actually do have point about the series review. I explained why I did that in the three paragraphs you read, of course, and a year ago with no A Dance With Dragons in sight it seemed like a reasonable approach. Your “generate hits through bashing” thesis is troubling, since I’m working right now on a review of the wildly popular HBO adaptation, and, alas, I’m quite positive about it, to the point that I like the books (well, Game of Thrones at least) better after having watched it. So much for getting more hits.

    Anyway, I have been planning on updating this to indicate it’s just about books 1 through 4, but I was waiting until I could also link to the HBO piece, because sometimes WordPress’ dodgy RSS feed bumps updated posts and I didn’t want to screw up people’s feeds twice in quick succession. In a week or two (OK, maybe three or four) I hope to review A Dance With Dragons separately. Haven’t read it yet so I’m not sure if it’s going to be humdrum praise or glorious, hits-generating bashing, but I’ll work extra-hard on the first three paragraphs in case you decide to come back.

  36. [...] a brilliantly written review of what has been released of George RR Martin’s magnum opus (not anymore, given A [...]

  37. [...] some people, and I am one of them, feel this way we have to go back to something I talked about in my commentary on the first four books and split the series into two stories, the fantasy story and the political story. “When dead [...]

  38. Very good review.
    Or maybe I just think so because our views agree. Specially what you said about the 4th book loosing sight, or just downright abandoning, what the Song seemed to be about (when there was still an “about”).
    I don’t need to remake your review citing all the things I find right on the spot, so I’ll just finish the comment by saying that regardless if conventions should be upheld always or not, in the case of this series (that like so many of its minor characters brought me in and then disposed of me), sometimes a bit of those guidelines could have been used here and there to make it work: Climax. Closure. The 4th book should’ve been that.
    Like you, I don’t think I’ll be reading more of him (after trying for weeks now to finish Dance with Dragons). And I would have never thought it possible when I was putting down book 3.
    Pity.

  39. when i read book 1 i tought i’d love the series but now reading the book 4 i decided stop reading this serie and agree with someone who says that is the worst serie i’ve read by this days….
    book 4 is boring, the players are week there’s nothing binding the story and the best players have been murdered….at last sometimes it seams like he just write things to give the books many pages but are just useless things for the story…. the only player still worth is Arya…and that won’t make me read the rest of the serie.

    the author just lost a reader….

  40. i bought the first five books in the series.. but i dont have the courage to read them… should i?

  41. Martin is not going off track he is simply creating alot of external factors that will affect the outcome of the plot while trying to create a perfect picture of the characters and landscapes in our mind and hence conveing his style vividly.duuuuuuuuuuuuh

    rashika read the books if you do not like them stop.

  42. I’m sorry, but you actually sound like someone who is mad with the story because you can’t predict what is going to happen in it. Spoilers from all books ahead.

    You claim the structure is flawed but you don’t actually say why. You try to state that it is bad because it doesn’t evolve much. But if you take the Jon Snow from Book 1 and compare to the Jon Snow from his first chapter on book 5… or when you take the Sansa from book one and the one from book 4… I’m sorry but that is evolution. How could not exist a sense of progression?

    You may say it is random and structureless. But I don’t see very solid arguments to that either. There is, like you said, traditional narratives, that obey some archetypes, but there is a kind of narrative that exists exactly with the purpose to break, twist and play with these archetypes, since the 19th century. Sopranos (since it was mentioned) is kinda like that. Spoiler alert: At first, the series is preparing a plot where Tony’s mother is threatening him to give incriminating evidence to the police. When you set your mind around that idea, his mother simply dies. Like that. Then the series adapts to this shift and builds a new plot around the new situation. To me, this happens in ASOIAF all thye time. The plots are never weak, they are always, always full of conflict, and drama and tension. The difference is that they shift all the time, not in an arch like in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but in a line attacked by a series of interruptions and breaks of expectations, like in in a Fellini film.

    It does’nt make sense either to say that Martin got sidetracked by his original idea. To say that, you have to ignore prophecies that are made in the 1st book and are fulfilled in the 5th, for example. Even last week I was debating in a forum a possibility that Robb Stark could have been poisoned with a “love potion”. There are strong clues that point to that in the first book, in the third and in the fifth. Ashara Dayne’s fate is a mistery that is brought up in almost every book, and that motivates various different theories. The relation between Tywin Lannister and Aerys Targaryen, the Ghost of Highheart and hear relation to the fire at Summerhall, the slow evolution of the mistery of the Old Gods and their real nature. The list goes on, and on, and on, and on, and is so long that I still uncover new things everyday. If you say that Martin is writing things accidentally and actually had the intention to write a story about Jon and Dany freeing the land from the Others to any fan that knows about all these things I said, they will laugh. Hard.

    But the thing gets ugly when you state that “There is no development, there is no sense of progression of any kind, there is no climax.”. Anyone that read the series could tell you the main climaxes of each book and each storyline. Is’nt the Battle of the Blackwater a climax? The birth of the Dragons? The Red Wedding? Catelyn’s ressurrection? Even Feast for Crows brings a climax for Cersei – she goes from ruler to prisoner of the Faith. Like I said before, every character is evolving. They’re just going to unexpected directions.

    And no, narrative conventions doesn’t exist because they’re supposed to be followed. If that was true, James Joyce would be a terrible writer. Narrative conventions exist to be messed up with too. If you’re unconfortable with it, ok. But it certainly isn’t unstructured, not in this case. I don’t think anyone can point a chapter in the five books that doesn’t bring at least one information or event that changes the whole story. The story IS moving forward.

    For me, the joy of reading this books lies in the pleasure of finding the story’s secrets, of reading Martin’s prose -which I find extremely beautiful -, of imagining the infinite possibilities of the story (it actually gives me momentum, contrary of what you said), and trying to understand the character’s motivations.

    I can certainly find some flaws in ASOIAF if I try really hard. But to me, you just didn’t enjoy reading the books, like I did. Maybe if you gave it another go… But trust me when I say the flaws that you listed don’t show the books’ problems. At all. They show your personal insatisfaction with unpredictable fiction.

  43. I think my biggest problem with these novels – and some of the comments written here – is the overload of reality
    The reason I read fantasy is that I can forget about the real troubles of the world for a while, and that the writer can save my favourite character with a few coincidences. Martin seems to always decide to make the coincidences work in favor of killing them instead!?
    I thank you for this review and for making me realise why I, almost done with the third book, suddenley want to stop read it ^_^

  44. goto…

    [...]A Song of Ice and Fire 1 – 4 by George R R Martin « Yet There Are Statues[...]…

  45. Stopped reading the saga at the 3rd quarter of the second book. I imagine you know what point is that… :-/ Frankly, I was trying to stomach the cruel story for some time until there, because I know this is all very “realistic” and all, and the series got me captivated. I grant the author that. But just as lova has said two comments ago, this is far too much to bear. Yeah, I don’t expect pretty-witty stories that tell me the great deeds of knightly warriors and princesses of pure heart and beauty… but, again, this series go too far for my sensibility, which is great I fear… This is solely my opinion, of course. I totally respect the author and all of the fans, but I cannot continue reading this saga. I prefer to continue living delusioned if you will and think the Humanity is (now or will be) far better than all of those m*therfuck*rs which appear at these books and get away with their terrible deeds. :-(

  46. I know this post is years old, but people seem to keep posting, so I’ll chime in. In particular, I’d like to talk about your reaction to the “gritty realism” in Martin’s series. You say that reading other authors who used a similar style made Martin seem less unique. I think this says less about Martin and more about the fantasy genre as a whole, or at least the better authors. The smart authors know not to imitate Martin, because they know that they won’t be remembered if they do.

    Tolkien cast a huge shadow over the fantasy genre, and continues to do so today. Decades ago, many authors tried to break out by copying Tolkien’s romanticized mythicism. Nobody could get away with that today, and many of those authors (Brooks comes to mind) are mocked nowadays for their lack of originality. The smarter fantasy authors who want to write gritty books remember the mistakes of the past, and have chosen not to repeat them. They have written gritty books, but with a very different style, to make it clear that they are not copying Martin. In fact, many are not even inspired by Martin; Cook published before Martin, and Erikson began writing his series before Martin was published (he also claims not to have read any of ASOIAF past AGOT.) I think this doesn’t say all that much about Martin, but about how the fantasy genre as a whole has matured and gotten more creative over the past few decades.

  47. I LOVE the top header image, very well done. did you do it yourself?

  48. i’ve read the article, i love the series, but yes i do find there are some flaws in the story so far. before i get to the flaws, i just want to point out that a Song of Ice and Fire is a story split into 7 parts. each of these books really don’t feel a stand alone and actually feels like a big story. Lord of the Rings was originally as one book, but you know the book was split into 3 parts. do you see what i’m trying to say? that’s what i love about A Song of Ice and Fire, a long story. one more thing i really want to talk about is the title meaning. “Why is it called A Song of Ice and Fire?” as many people will ask. well here is my way of why it’s called a Song of ice and Fire. A Song of Ice and Fire title has many meanings. Ice is winter, cold, harsh, back stabbing, deaths, bodies, bones, evil deeds, betrayal, killing, lying, angry, war, and anything to do of what the characters do bad things to one another. Fire is fire, summer, good deeds, triumphs, warmth, loving, families trusting each other, falling in love, passionate, compassionate, caring, trusting, and anything to do with characters treating each other right and fair. this is what i really think of why the title is called A Song of Ice and Fire. you may agree or disagree with me. i believe i watch an interview where George RR Martin said about the title meaning. i don’t remember which one, but all i know that interview is hard to find. sorry if some of you guys wanted to check it out, i wish i could help you.

    now for the flaws. long? yes each of the books are very long and i do wish that George and the editors would cut down on some of the things. not to much, but i feel that each of the books could have been 600-700 pages each. a Storm of Swords is very good book, based on half of it of what i’ve read, but i know i’ll love it in the very end. it’s enjoyable, very interesting, complexing but in a good way, and so unexpected. l’m loving the hell out of it so far. if there flaws in it, there are couple. one is sometimes some of the characters don’t do much in their chapters. it’s not my choice, it’s Martin’s choice. when i mean when some of the characters weren’t doing much is when it will get a little draggy. but some how, when a chapter is really good and the next 5 to 7 chapters are good, are worth it. it’s feels like a roller coaster ride. where you start the roller coaster ride slowly, then you go down fast, up slowly, and then fast again. i don’t know if that is a good thing the book does this. either way, the book is really an emotional ride for readers. and one more flaw in the book is sometimes Martin will talk and talk and finally gets to a point. it’s mostly descriptive things when Martin will write about that shouldn’t be as descriptive. but hey, that’s Martin’s style and sometimes as a reader, you’ll just have to suck it up and move on.

    it’s not just a Storm of Swords that has those flaws, but it’s all the 3 books that i’ve read so far. i do plan to keep on reading, even though the series is not finish yet. once i’ll start reading a series, i’ll typically won’t stop, especially the good ones. i would typically won’t stop the first book and i would see if the second book is any better. if a second book is no better, then yeah i would stop reading it because what’s the use of wasting your time on a series that you don’t like. just sound like you’re doing your least subject in school.

    i do hope that Martin will finish the story, but not right away. don’t want Martin to rush it or take to slow on finishing the story. we readers don’t know what will happen in the very end. all writers will have their bad years in writing books. in this case it’s book 4 and a little bit in book 5, as i’ve heard. we all have different opinions on each of these books. one of my friends said that book 4 was slow that she decided to reread again. even though she said book 4 was slow and wanting to reread again, shows that she loves the series as a fan. i’ll decide for myself when i’ll read book 4 and 5.

    now for the HBO? AWSOME!!!! love it. glad that season 1 was pretty close to the story line and the source materials. the acting (the phenomenal Peter Dinklage playing Tyrion, born to play him), the writing, the directing, the sets, the lighting, the camera angles, camera shots, the cinema photography is beautiful, the costumes, the special effects (computer effects, CGI) and the visual effects (effects done live on camera). i know i’ve just sound nerdy, but just saying how cool the TV show is.

  49. I would not get disheartened by all the fanboys throwing hate your way. The points you outline are spot on. You notice the dissonance in the story because you intuitively understand concepts such as narrative structure, character development, setting, pace, conflict, and resolution. And why these elements are critical to professional level writing and storytelling.
    The argument that we’re wrong to lay critisism to the series because it is incomplete and will eventually resolve itself is flat out invalid.
    Even though the series is yet unfinished, each book should still follow certain guidelines to get the audience to a certain narrative place. Just as much as a series needs an arc, so does each book, each chapter, each paragraph, each sentence, with all of it coming together to leap frog the story to its natural conclusion.
    Instead the entire beast just plods along with no direction and no momentum. No matter how much “shock” the author injects if there is no context there is no meaning. I enjoyed the first three books and still recognized the glaring lack of focus. The fourth book was nails on chalkboard. Ditto fifth.
    This “freewriter” mentality has turned some strong potential into a sprawling, incoherent, pointless mess that is further bogged down by weighty verbiage.
    The chief question here is “Does any of the action we’ve seen so far in this series serve the higher purpose of the story?” It almost entirely does not. No matter how exciting some of the activity is, (and even that becomes a rarity in book four and on) it does nothing for the greater over arching theme. Therefore it all becomes a series of meaningless events with no context. It promises a thesis and fails to deliver.
    Structure is anathema to Martin who compares himself to a gardener rather than an architect. But following proper narrative structure is not akin to writing boring, conservative prose with predictable outcomes. In fact, I’d argue that he’s fallen victim to a worse hackneyed storytelling genre – Soap Opera.
    There is more to storytelling than bucking convention for the sake of shock value. Martin should heed that lest he writes himself into a corner. Oops, too late.
    For all his fertile, abundant imaginings, Martin is an amateur storyteller.

  50. I couldn’t agree more with you Tashchen.

    I stopped reading the series when it told more about the ‘how’ than the ‘why’. Being a character killer doesn’t turn anyone a great writer, only an awfully ruthless ‘gardener…’ :-P

    Soap Opera it is.

  51. […] people have this idea that back when Ice and Fire started as a trilogy, you had an outline where there was […]

  52. Hello! I could have sworn I’ve visited this blog before but after browsing through some of the articles I realized it’s new to me.
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  53. […] * If you want a vision of the future, imagine George R.R. Martin writing Game of Thrones tie-in films, forever. Is Game of Thrones unfinishable? Followup. […]


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