A Song of Ice and Fire: Further Thoughts

August 18, 2010 at 5:16 am | Posted in Essays | 36 Comments
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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 discussion of Martin’s writing issues. There’s been a pretty vigorous discussion there as well some interesting comments here, and since I don’t have time to reply to everything individually I thought I’d make a follow up post here. Before I get into the objections some people have raised, I want to make sure a few things are clear.

Unlike some I’m not criticizing Martin for the series’ delays. Writing fiction is hard enough and writing series fiction may be the hardest kind because no one lives long enough to get a lot of experience at doing it. JRR Tolkien, to take just one example, had enormous difficulties writing Lord of the Rings and spent fifteen years in a failed effort to finish the Silmarillion. I wouldn’t dream of second guessing him, or Martin either. By the same token I also am not criticizing his many fans. Unfortunately it didn’t quite come together for me and my post was an attempt at thinking about why that was. I think that with a tighter plot this series would be even more popular, but who knows? Finally, and maybe most importantly, I don’t have any more access to Martin’s mind than anyone else. Maybe less…my guesses about the origins of his work are based almost entirely on the text itself and his Wikipedia article, although over the years I’ve read the odd interview and some (but not nearly all) of his blog.

One more note: I stuck to fairly general observations in my previous article but this time there will be more spoilers, so if you haven’t read these books, you should probably go do that first. While I’m obviously not crazy about the series, there’s an excellent chance you’ll love them and in any case you can do far, far worse when it comes to fantasy.

Now, finally, let’s talk more about some of the responses people had to what I wrote.

An air of realism was the intended effect of the plot structure – I’m definitely willing to say I may have not given him enough credit here. I reasoned that since the standard elements of fantasy were present, just relegated to being second-class citizens to the realistic political story, that he wasn’t intentionally going for realism. But a few people have said he wanted to meld the two together and that could well be right. If so, I don’t think it was very successful. I think the problem is that the fantasy elements are relegated to the geographic sidelines. Almost all of the story (my guess was 85% but I think the io9 piece gave it more credit than a completely wild guess deserved) is set in Westeros, but the fantasy is where Daenerys and Jon Snow are, outside the borders.

The later books are going to tie all this together. – Some will object (have already objected actually) that I’m jumping the gun here. And I totally agree that all this is going to come to a head within the borders of Westeros before the end. But I don’t think it’s correct to say a series that, when complete, will probably be well over two million words can be structured the same way as an eighty thousand word novel, and more than a short story should have the same pacing as a novel. There are limits to the amount of material a reader can internalize. Fans who have reread the extant series ten times can probably speak comfortably about every narrative thread, but for the vast majority the disproportionate detail of the Westeros material is an obstacle to appreciating Martin’s project.

It’s wrong to write off the politics as “window dressing” because all of this will become important in later books. – Well, I disagree. Yes, a unified Westeros seems like it would be able to fend off the evil from the North as well as defeat Daenerys on the beaches when she arrives. But after reading the four books, is it anyone’s impression that but for some small chance this would have happened? The impression I got was that there were absolutely massive fault lines under the surface of King Robert’s nation that would inevitably rip it apart once it was put under the slightest stress. And once apart, all the King’s men are patently unable to put it back together. If Sansa hadn’t told Cersei about Ned Stark’s plans, perhaps Stark would have gotten an advantage for a short time, but would Tywin Lannister have given up his ambitions for his family? I think not. That’s just one example, but for me the takeaway was that Westeros is hopeless without some foreign overlord like the Targaryens to impose order.

But if efforts to staunch the bleeding in Westeros are futile, then why are we subjected to such endless detail of people trying? If a point is being made about power and ambition, why do we need the explicit fantasy sections at all? Why cloud the picture with the evil and the princess when you’re actually talking about mundane human government? And if the point is that in the face of these existential threats the government still cannot function, well, this would be more persuasive if more time was devoted to the existential threats. I think before the fourth book there were, what, ten or twenty people in Westeros who know anything about Daenerys? And if most of the Night’s Watch doesn’t believe they are facing a supernatural evil, or even remember how to fight it, it seems unreasonable to expect the rest of the country to take it more seriously.

Robb and Ned Stark are definitely main characters – Oh, I agree they are absolutely main characters of A Game of Thrones. I just don’t think they are main characters in A Song of Ice and Fire since, as I discussed above, no matter what they did they were going to be ground up in the mill of Westeros before the Ice and Fire parts of the story actually get moving. This is the heart of my concerns. The series is called A Song of Ice and Fire and most would agree that’s a reference to Daenerys and Jon Snow’s stories, but the individual books spend all of their time on Westeros politics. Notice that despite the series title, the titles of the books that have been released (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows) all refer to events in Westeros. The unreleased book titles (A Dance With Dragons, The Winds of Winter, A Dream of Spring) all seem to be referring to the fantasy side of the story.

(Incidentally, apparently Daniel Abraham is a good friend of Martin’s…if so it’s humorous that he swooped in and got to the season-based titles with his Long Price Quartet after Martin had announced the last two book titles but before either were written.)

The story is really about the Stark children – My guess is the story is about Daenerys and Jon Snow (and that Snow is not, in fact, a Stark child) but I could be wrong about that. However if it’s true that Sansa, Arya, and Bran are more central than they appear (without a doubt they’ll ultimately have a significant role, the question is how central they’ll be) then I have a different complaint: why have the main characters been stuck being passive for such an excruciatingly long time? Robb was hugely active but was killed off for his trouble. Sansa, Arya, and Bran have changed due to their experiences, but have spent most of their viewpoint scenes being carted around by other people (and are totally absent from all other viewpoints). It’s nice that Sansa isn’t quite such an idiot any more and Bran has gone about two feet down a two mile spirit journey, but if this is so important why haven’t they been given more to do? Arya does get a lot of screen time in Feast for Crows but unfortunately it was mostly spent on what seems like it’s going to be end up being ninja training, probably the most generic part of the entire series. If the series’ realistic tone is such an asset (and I do agree that, while I’d like more structure, it’s an asset) is it helpful to turn a main character into a ninja? I’m all for strong female characters but I’m anti-ninja (male and female alike) in fiction which aspires to even a passing relationship with reality. Oh well.

This gets back to what, if anything, is “window dressing” in the series. It matters that Robb Stark was killed, in that he won’t be around later, and it matters that Arya has been forced to kill people and become a ninja. But given the number of pieces likely to be left on the board when we start approaching the final act (i.e. way, way less than the number of dead characters) was all the endless detail necessary for the story that was told? I think the answer is no. I know the fans liked that detail, and I certainly liked some of it as well. But surely most people would agree that there’s a point where it gets to be too much. We all draw the line at a different point. Maybe some fans could spend a hundred books of this size on Westeros politics and the characters caught up in it. I felt like my point was somewhere in Feast for Crows. Other people (including the io9 writer I think) didn’t make it that far.

Martin wasn’t “distracted” by the political side of the series, he was focused on it from the beginning – Apparently he’s talked about how he was inspired by the Wars of the Roses, he grew up fascinated by knights, and so forth. I’ll cop to being flippant when I said he got distracted by the politics. Whether or not he intended it from the beginning, certainly neither Martin nor his editor could fail to see it was the focus of Game of Thrones once there was an actual draft. But looking at the first four books together (since that’s how I read them) I still say that it is trying to be a fantasy story. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, except that the fantasy structure has been distorted by the narrative emphasis given to the unstructured politics. Being realistic doesn’t mean you have to give up on an orderly plot…I’d point to The Wire as the best recent example of a story that feels real despite keeping tight control over the plot at all times. I think, and I emphasize it’s my opinion, that the series would have worked better with me and probably a lot of other readers if it was written both with a better sense of narrative direction and momentum.

When I was in high school English class we got in groups of about eight and each group performed a Shakespeare play for the rest of the class. For time reasons, we had to abridge the plays, and if I recall part of the grade was based on how well we boiled the play down to its essentials. It felt like sacrilege (and I had the misfortune to be given the role of Macbeth…it turns out that when you boil down Macbeth the best way is to cut out everyone else’s lines and Macbeth just talks to himself and mostly silent people around him for the whole play). I don’t think anyone would ever come away thinking our butchered versions were even close to as good as the original texts. I think it’s a rule of thumb in writing circles that less is more. Less fluff, that is. The most effective stories are lean stories. I couldn’t tell you how true that is but if you’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire you can now decide for yourself. Are there scenes that can be removed without damaging the story? No doubt you’ll consider some of these scenes too good to cut. But remember other people are going to want to cut the scenes you liked and keep the ones you didn’t. I think this is why writers are told to “kill their darlings” and cut everything that isn’t needed regardless of how neat it might be. If that was done to A Song of Ice and Fire what would it look like?

We’ll find out one answer when the HBO series airs. I certainly don’t know the right answer. This question is hard, and having to answer it is yet another reason why writing is hard. Fortunately for us, backseat driving on the Internet is a lot easier.

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  1. “but the fantasy is where Daenerys and Jon Snow are, outside the borders.”

    The majority of the fantasy is at the margins … but not all of it, and it’s become increasingly less the case as the series goes on; the magic is leaking back into Westeros, drip by drip. The extraordinary seasons that have always been there, the direwolves and the children’s connection to them, Bran’s and Jojen’s prophetic dreams, skinchanging in particular, the alchemists and their wildfire, Melisandre’s various sorceries, the cases of Beric Dondarrion and Lady Stoneheart, the Ghost of High Heart, Euron’s horn, a defrocked maester’s necromancy, the archmaester and his burning dragonglass… I’m probably forgetting some others.

    I’d say that the narrative is moving towards a balancing out of the fantasy and political elements, and it seems to me that the end point is a mirror of the start: the magic returns (the opposite of past epics in many cases, Tolkien’s work first and foremost), the politics becomes the secondary element. The narrative in the east has shifted from an innocent girl entering strange lands filled with strange, magical peoples to a young woman leading a slave’s rebellion and then trying to learn to rule in a hostile city. The narrative in the west has shifted from stability to instability, and in the breakdown of social order the role of magic is increasing in a place where it was practically nonexistent up to now.

    It seems a deliberate strategy. As to whether it’s successful or not, that probably is subjective.

    I would say that the narrowing of the plot is inevitable. We are, in AFfC and ADwD, at the “thickest” point, where the breakdowns and the creeping shifts or inversions of structure, status, and magic are at their busiest. If the latter half of the story mirrors the first half, we’ll be seeing the narrative tighten once more once the author’s points are made.

  2. I’m enjoying Martin’s exploratory method of writing. I agree with Elio’s comment above, that the tension builds across the books regarding the several sub-plots, the main plot being the large looming unseen disaster posed by the ice zombies. (Cue shark theme from Jaws.) Along the way, a world unfolds, with many human-sized dramas, involving characters that you may or may not care about, who die or live, and the reader lives along with that.

    No, if you expect fiction to be well-structured and tidy and meeting your expectations, you will not be satisfied. If you don’t mind the mess, if you relish deeply embodied characters struggling with moral questions and suffering in a vivid world, you’re in for a hell of a ride. I’m of the “life is messy” school, and I’m captivated with what Martin is doing here.

    Yes, I agree with you, Martin is indeed struggling with “the knot”, but he’s man (and writer) enough to take on the challenge. We (the fans) are holding our breath.

  3. I found your analysis to be interesting and thought-provoking. It is true that many fans consider Daenerys and Jon to be the two central characters of the series, yet their storylines are almost completely separated from the ‘main’ storyline of the civil war in Westeros. I think this boils down to a structural approach that Martin was aiming for when he mapped out the series as a trilogy which has now been lost due to the expansion of the series.

    Originally there were three books planned: ‘A Game of Thrones’, ‘A Dance with Dragons’ and ‘The Winds of Winter’. I always took this to mean that the three storylines would be given equal billing across the series, with the civil war in Westeros the central storyline of Book 1, Dany’s misadventures in the east forming the spine of Book 2 and Jon Snow and the war against the Others being central to Book 3. Instead, the events of ‘A Game of Thrones’ expanded to cover three books and we then got an unplanned book, ‘A Feast for Crows’, filling in some of the originally-conceived five-year gap between the first and second acts. ‘A Dance with Dragons’, as it is currently envisaged as the fifth volume, will finally move us into the long-ago-planned second act of the series and will move Daenerys’ story into prominence, with the civil war story dropping away almost altogether.

    Of course, the expansion of the first volume into three does mean that Dany did get more material in those books than first envisaged, so the movement of her story into prominence in the next volume will hopefully not be too jarring. As always, we will find out when the book arrives.

  4. Thanks for writing this, it was interesting.

    I will say that I think you are partially wrong about the main characters – Dany and Jon, are (btw the evidence suggests to me that Jon is a Stark-Targaryen cross-breed). But, IMO, one or both of Arya or Bran is most certainly a main character as well. They’re the true-blooded Stark, and what would be the point of setting that family so prominently at the heart of the story if none of the true-born offspring are important.

    Arya seems important because she has grown the most through the series, although, to be fair, Sam Gamgee grew the most in LOTR, and he is really just a spectator to the overall plot.

    In addition, or possibly alternatively, Bran seems important – his spirit journey seems like it has got to be critical to any chance of defeating the Others, using the mystic power of the Children of the Forest. Arguably, Dany provides the power, Jon the moral leadership, and Bran the mystic wisdom to tie them together. In that case, Arya may simply end up being the assassinating troubleshooter, and Sansa the politically savvy troubleshooter, both present simply to remove roadblocks that prevent Dany, Jon and Bran from defeating the Others.

    I will agree with you that at this point, Martin has invested more-than-sufficient capital in the instability of Westeros, to the point that no-one seriously believes it could possibly either defeat the Others or Dany. Mission Accomplished, time to declare victory and move on.

    Like the plot, it’s time to let the Fantasy start to take over, and drive the story, instead of the gritty politics. Here’s hoping.

  5. […] Matt Hillard gives 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 makes probably one of the better arguments that I’ve read about the “knot” that George has been battling with for the past five years. As you can probably guess though, once an intelligent argument is made, it’s time for the GRRiMlins to circle the wagons and defend George, led with the ‘He’s not your bitch’ argument, and the mocking of ‘Finish the Book George’. It was disappointing that after making such a thoughtful and intelligent post that he would back track on much of what he said. […]

  6. Elio and Opally: Agree regarding the escalation of magic. The good news for fans is that unlike a lot of writers in this situation, he seems to have a pretty good idea where he is supposed to be going. The bad news is, the expansions and sidetracks he’s made from his original plan are going to it difficult. For example, for a while the matter of Jon Snow’s birth was kept in the forefront, but the longer he and Catelyn Stark were apart, the less interesting this became and while I haven’t checked I’d bet it’s hardly mentioned at all in the third and fourth books. Fans of the TV show “Lost” will know what it’s like to have formerly interesting mysteries resolved long after the audience has become more interested in other questions. To abuse Chekhov’s analogy, the gun was carefully hung on the wall but it was a long time ago and since then the party has drifted into a different room. Jon Snow’s lineage is just one example of this.

    In music there’s this idea of a “closing cadence” that signals the piece is over. For a very short song this might be two chords. For a long symphony it might take a minute or two. Fiction is similar in a lot of ways. The ending Martin planned for his trilogy probably seems unsatisfying at the end of a massive series. Just one aspect of this to consider: usually one expects all surviving characters to participate somehow in the climax. In Return of the Jedi, this demanded oddities like Lando flying the Millennium Falcon with a random alien in the final battle. Martin is going to have a real challenge squeezing his characters into a finale, no matter how high the death rate gets.

    Adam: Sounds plausible re: the original idea of the trilogy. In television sitcoms it’s not uncommon that a supporting actor turns out to outshine the rest and becomes the unofficial protagonist. I think something similar here has happened with the civil war storyline. For TV shows, they just go with the flow and orient themselves around the new central character. Martin’s outline for the second half of the series probably worked a lot better when the fantasy elements were central than it does now.

    jb: You’re right about the Stark children but the comparison with LOTR is not a flattering one. You’re right that Arya changes the most, with Daenerys close behind, but the rest of Martin’s hardly change at all. Instead he reinterprets them, and while in my opinion that was enormously successful with Jaime, for the rest the effect isn’t as interesting. I’d say that all four hobbits in LOTR change far more (in a similar timespan and a much shorter series) than anyone in A Song of Ice and Fire.

    While your guess about how the ending will shake out seems plausible, it doesn’t sound very satisfying to me. Three kids show up and defeat the ancient evil at the last second? I don’t know. That’s fine for the fantasy segment of the story, but Westeros needs some sort of dramatic constitutional reform to continue as a going concern and just having Daenerys become queen kind of by default is going to be a tough sell. If guys like Ned Stark and Tywin Lannister were ground up by Westeros, we need to see someone (Tyrion I guess) make a superhuman effort to forge a new kingdom.

  7. Matt,

    Must respectfully disagree re:changing – Tyrion, for example, makes some choices that seemed impossible for him at the beginning. And Jon, as well. Hell, even Stannis seems to grow up a bit by the end of AFFC.

    Also, re: Constitutional reform – not that it’s impossible, but the book doesn’t seem to be agitating for democracy. The greatest period of peace and prosperity in Westeros’ history was when it was ruled by a non-mad Targaryen with one or more dragons. I would expect it would return to that model. And if Dany can’t have kids (which is implied after the stillbirth of Rhaego), it falls on Jon to be the progenitor for the future Targaryen/Stark family – the magic of dragons bound to the magic of the Children of the Forest. Having said all of that, Tyrion will definitely play a big part in speaking for the *ahem* little people.

    Yeah, it’s formulaic, and maybe Martin could surprise us all, but I can’t see how – the Others are the existential threat, Dany, Jon and (Arya|Bran) are the main characters, and they have to be critical to defeating the existential threat, or what the hell is the point?

    Thanks again for your comments.

  8. “For example, for a while the matter of Jon Snow’s birth was kept in the forefront, but the longer he and Catelyn Stark were apart, the less interesting this became and while I haven’t checked I’d bet it’s hardly mentioned at all in the third and fourth books.”

    It is mentioned in the third volume when Arya meets Edric Dayne, who claims that his wetnurse Wylla (Ashara Dayne’s maidservant) was Jon Snow’s mother. This is interesting as it confirms that Jon’s parentage remains bizarrely vague (whilst King Robert believed that Wylla was also the mother, Eddard did little to disabuse Catelyn that it was Ashara herself), reinforcing the suggestion that Eddard was deliberately confusing and furthering the mystery for his own ends (which makes sense if you believe that Lyanna and Rhaegar are really Jon’s parents and Ned is trying to cover that up). And an excerpt chapter for Book 5 proceeds to throw the entire mystery into further confusion. So it’s still a present and important mystery (even if it gets little to no mention in Book 4, due to Jon’s absence).

    “Sounds plausible re: the original idea of the trilogy. In television sitcoms it’s not uncommon that a supporting actor turns out to outshine the rest and becomes the unofficial protagonist. I think something similar here has happened with the civil war storyline. For TV shows, they just go with the flow and orient themselves around the new central character. Martin’s outline for the second half of the series probably worked a lot better when the fantasy elements were central than it does now.”

    I think there is an argument for that. One of Martin’s explanations for the expansion is that originally the entire storyline was to be told from strictly just the POV characters in Book 1. Adding a POV, such as Davos and Theon in Book 2 or Jaime and Sam in Book 3, means adding a fairly substantial new storyline to the series as that character now has to have his own arc, his own resolution and his own subplots, all of which adds immense numbers of pages (and eventually whole new books) to the series. Ironically, I think his change of approach in Book 4 which a lot of fans dislike was an attempt to address this. Characters with titles, such as Areo Hotah’s ‘Captain of the Guard’ and Arys Oakheart’s ‘Soiled Knight’, appear to just be there to serve a brief plot purpose (reveal internal Dornish politics, expand on the ironborn succession) and then disappear again without the need for a full story arc and vast reams of material. How successful this has been, especially with the revelation that Aeron and Asha Greyjoy and Arianne Martell will have more chapters in future books anyway, remains to be seen.

  9. Matt – I’m very much enjoying your perspicacious comments about this series and GRRM’s challenges in completing it. You betray your expectations in your musical analogy: a modern sensibility doesn’t rest inside classical structures, and a modern resolution could mean a lot of things. I like your point about TV series evolving beyond writers’ expectations, presenting a challenge in creating a satisfying dénouement. The best solutions at these later stages of plot development look back at where the story has grown, and don’t try to force those new tendrils of growth into conformity with the original plan, but try to find out where we are, now. That is, after all, the creative process?

    I like your point about the problem of setting up tension peaks that are mislaid in the ensuing sub-plot developments, but hasn’t this been a common problem for writers since Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Shakespeare — I don’t have examples off the top of my head. I remember impatiently reading LotR and wondering “but what’s happened to so-and-so during all this side-plot folderol?” If the side-plots become very interesting, however, the reader is successfully distracted, and willingly goes along for the unexpectedly enriching side-trip. I think there is actually quite a lot of tolerance in an audience if their patience isn’t overly stretched and of course, as long as they’re not bored. I disliked GRRM’s choice to break the 4th novel into two books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance of Dragons, because I thought it was too long to wait for Bran’s plot developments (and more, but I guess I was successfully distracted, because I’ve already forgotten what it was I was missing!)

    jb – I’m enjoying your comments, too. I agree with you that Martin does allow his characters to develop. Whether they do, or not, when faced with dire conditions and suffering, is a moral question about their capabilities. They become worse, they become better, they cling to their demands, or they start to lose their bearings in life, in quite a modern and psychologically studied way.

  10. Adam – thanks for reminding me of the intriguing plot developments. It’s been so long since I read the books. How could I forget that Jon wasn’t even in AFFC? I think Martin’s knack for writing multi-leveled characters leads him down these roads, but I think he is right to take the challenge. Weren’t most of us readers happy to gain insight into Jamie Lannister? I hear that some readers didn’t like Brienne, but I found her POV quite compelling. I’ve been wondering why so many pages have been spent on Theon Greyjoy and his clan, and Davos; I expect they have important roles to play in the future. IMO, one of the worst aspects of most fantasy fiction is the shallow characters – Robert Jordan being a notable offender, to my mind, so ASOIAF is a welcome improvement in the literature.

  11. I agree with most of your assessment, actually, though I agree with one of the earlier comments, that Bran is likely to reappear as a main character.

    But in the end, yes, it is Jon and Dani who are the central characters of the series… though I suspect that Tyrion may also fit in the finali.

    I also suspect that Martin has fallen a bit too much in love with his own minor characters, and that this explains why Brienne get’s a whole, somewhat pointless, section in FFC.

  12. jb: I agree that people change but it’s a matter of degree. After 1.4 million words I expect people to have changed a lot, but the differences are subtle. Tyrion for example seems like he is still the same combination of good-hearted/hurt/cynical at the end of Feast that he was from his debut in the first book, he’s just a little less inhibited. But of course we’re only halfway through.

    By constitutional reform I didn’t mean democracy, I just meant the noble houses and the alignment of power needs a huge shakeup if there’s going to be a united Westeros in the future. After years of chaos and disorder it’s hard to see how anyone could accumulate the strength and legitimacy to create a lasting reign. I guess dragons are historically associated with legitimate rule so that’ll help.

    Adam: Interesting point re: Areo Hotah and Arys Oakheart (I noticed the titles instead of names while reading but didn’t make the connection about why) but I’m not sure if I agree the number of POVs is strictly the issue. It’s true that in most series each POV gets approximately equal time, but Davos and Theon have been dormant for ages, presumed dead (and therefore presumably alive). Like the matter of Jon Snow’s parentage, I guess they’ll pop up later, after casual readers have forgotten about them entirely, and be important in some way. The alternative to this, though, means keeping the characters visible via dreary holding patterns (Brienne, Sansa, and to some extent Arya). Not sure there’s a right answer here.

    In the Malazan books I’ve read Erikson seems to focus on telling a story (self-contained stories early on) and lets characters drift in and out as necessary. But while of similar length that’s a more diffuse series (or so I recall…we’ll see, I’m going to be reading through it later this year since the last book is coming out).

    Opally: Disagree with your dismissal of classical structures. I think modern popular art uses new techniques to distract the consumer from an intense loyalty to traditional patterns (non-pop art is a different story, but as I categorize things Song of Ice and Fire is nothing if not popular). The TV shows that successfully change gears are those that don’t have a very specific large-scale structure. Happy Days could turn itself into The Fonz Show without betraying what had gone before or what was originally intended to follow. Shows with a continuing narrative like Heroes, Babylon 5, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, etc. have had severe difficulties when they departed from their plan (or could no longer disguise that they didn’t have one at all, in some cases).

    Thomas: Brienne’s time in Feast is really, really pointless but I assume that with her, as well as Theon and Cersei, the outline requires they play some important role later on so Martin wants to make sure we have the proper context. Unfortunately that doesn’t make those sections any better. I’m reminded of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy where a huge amount of time was spent with a hugely unlikeable character. In the end, that character grew into an admirable heroine but I didn’t feel like following this transition made up for the amount of time I had to put up with her in her insufferable phase. Hopefully something similar is in the works with Cersei but I don’t know if her chapters in Feast are redeemable.

  13. […] Matt Hilliard tangles with George RR Martin […]

  14. Very interesting analysis, but I really think you’re missing what it is that readers find so compelling in SoIaF, particularly plot-wise.

    Consider that while the global plot is indeed very slow, the story is actually composed of many local, individual plots – mostly one per POV per book, although not always. And each of these plots is clear, compelling, and tightly written (for “each,” read “most”; for “most”, read “most up until Feast” :P). Personally, I’ve always been awed at GRRM’s skill at dissecting the overall plot into so many distinct plots, giving each POV arc such a clear beginning, end, and story arc, in each book.

    So, if you will, consider SoIaF in a different structural light – instead of a single epic narrative, try considering its structure as a group of intertwined novellas – and the global plot is gradually advanced along by the local ones. The first three books have novellas which largely concern the collapse of the new order that Stark and Baratheon, founded out of nobility and necessity, in the face of the greedy and the ambitious; the last three books will deal with the return of the fantastic to Westeros, and the threat from beyond the Wall.

    I think you’re misreading when you assume that the plot begins with the very first prologue – the first hint of the return of the Others – and will end when Dany and Jon confront this threat. Those are elements, certainly, but they seem to me the huge process in the background, not the core of the plot – precisely because the story places very little weight on that thread, and certainly on its ultimate outcome. Even the threads that do lead in that direction feel more concerned with other matters – Westeros’s criminal-yet-oh-so-human neglect of the Wall as hard work with no short-term benefit; Dany’s struggle to use her might in order to rule “justly,” etc.. I think you’re right in saying that there’s no single plot that unifies the series, and I don’t think I ever noticed that before. OTOH, I don’t think I miss it, because there’s plenty of plot strands holding my interest at any point.

    This view of the structure explains why SoIaF can get away with that – because it’s a bunch of intertwined stories, not one single, monolithic story. It also explains why “less is better” isn’t relevant here – it’s very relevant on the level of the single plot thread, or novella, which I think is why Feast, with its characters roaming aimlessly, was so poorly received. But an anthology of 10 great stories isn’t better than an anthology of 12 great stories just because it’s shorter – quite the opposite. And the multitude of different viewpoints and stories creates a rich, complex world – not by offering a mere multitude of details, but by having solid, intriguing stories touching on many facets of the world and of the global plot.

    I’m not saying that the fans think of SoIaF as an anthology series – they don’t stop mid-story and consider whether or not all the threads are heading towards a single climax. I’m just saying if you want to analyse its structure, I think that’s the direction to go, and the structure that describes the series best.

  15. Ziv: I think that the Daenerys viewpoint chapters from Game of Thrones were actually published separately as a novella, so that certainly is in line with what you’re saying. I’m not sure if I really agree that each of these sub-stories has a traditional beginning, middle, and end, but maybe part of the problem is I read Feast more recently and so I keep thinking of counter examples from there.

    Even if you’re right, the fact remains this isn’t laid out as an anthology (Lord of the Rings was, come to think about it…interesting that aspect wasn’t copied by the legions of imitators). By intertwining the narratives, the multi-viewpoint author bets that he or she can make them equally interesting, or near enough at least to satisfy the reader. I’m generalizing past Martin here because this is in fact quite common in long fantasy.

    What’s different about Martin’s work is where as typically a 300K word multi-viewpoint fantasy epic will be built out of, say, 7 or so 42K word “novellas” that begin together and end together, Martin has more viewpoints and has shifted the beginnings and endings so they are stopping and starting all the time. It’s an interesting effect but much more difficult.

  16. This series is a deconstruction of the fantasy genre, of historicism and romanticism in popular literature. To pit its plot developments against those of historicising or romantical novels and to then dismiss them betrays your rather unmodern standards.

    “In music there’s this idea of a “closing cadence” that signals the piece is over.”
    Yes, of course. A valid formal device.
    In the nineteenth century…

  17. Sadly, though wordy and erudite, your understanding of fiction, and fantasy fiction in particular, is woefully inadequate. You seem stuck in the 70s of fantasy fiction, and I for one pity you.

    However, you are certainly entitled to your opinion. Not everyone can recognize a master piece when they see it. I am only disappointed that io9 linked to you, since that gives you a lot more influence than you should have.

    *Interesting theory: Rhaegar and Lyanna are the true main characters of the story, but they have already been killed. Rhaegar is the classic fantasy hero, but he did not understand his role. The books shows us what happens when the main characters in a fantasy novel are killed before it even started, leaving the bit players to take centre stage.

  18. Skyweir said:

    The books show us what happens when the main characters in a fantasy novel are killed before it even started, leaving the bit players to take centre stage.

    I like that theory. The emerging heroes in the aftermath are dark, weak people, more like you and me (dare I say.)

    But no need to be rude to Matt, he’s writing a careful, thoughtful blog, and if we all agreed with him, we wouldn’t have much to talk about.

  19. Luckily, Skyweir, you vastly overestimate my influence, so however baleful it may be, but the damage is surely minimal.

    Interesting theory re: Rhaegar and Lyanna. The Harry Potter series ended up being almost more about the previous generation (Harry’s father, Snape, Voldemort, etc.) than the “present day”, although I’m not sure that was really a good thing. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is a story that is explicitly set after a typical fantasy novel went off the rails.

    WAH: For actual deconstructions of fantasy fiction, I’d recommend Thomas Covenant (well, sort of: didn’t like it myself, but it’s certainly interesting) or, more recently and much more enjoyably, Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. Abercrombie may have been influenced by Martin but I don’t think you can read that trilogy and not see how different his approach–genuinely subversive and deconstructing–to fantasy is from Martin’s realism.

  20. Many interesting views here.
    I do not share the view that Daenerys and Jon Snow are the main characters. Tyrion is not less important. And do not forget Robb.
    I was shocked when Robb was killed, even more than when Ned was killed. Mr.Martin likes to kill our best hopes.
    But he made more surprises than any author I had read before, so I would not be surprised if he revives Robb (as some mythical creature).

    I am really looking forward to see how all this will be resolved; it looks now almost impossible to get all together, in a consistent way. And I hope that he will not just jump over some ideas he introduced and leave them as a scratch (Robb’s falling in love was too much of a scratch, it deserved more attention).

  21. After reading this post, and the comments, I find that I appreciate the series even more.

    Matt, I find it interesting that everything you point to as a failing in the series, is part of what draws me to it, and many of the things you like, I could do without.

    Interestingly, I had never considered the possibility that Jon could be Raegar and Lyanna’s child. The ultimate decider for me is Ned’s honor: Would Ned consider it more honorable to lie to the world in order to protect his sister’s child, or would Ned consider it more honorable to sleep with someone other than his wife. (Not that he is the decider in Jon’s ancestry, but I think this will provide us with the greatest insight to it.) Personally, I think the second is more likely, as Robert would likely have spilled the beans at some point, because he definitely would have known if Lyanna had a child.

  22. After reading this post, and the comments, I find that I appreciate the series even more.

    Glad to hear it, Tony. To me, this is one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said about my reviews. Sometimes (particularly with these novels, it seems) people get caught up in attacking each other’s opinions and trying to show who’s “right” and “wrong”…but we are talking about art, not ethics. We need not agree to learn from each other.

    Matt, I find it interesting that everything you point to as a failing in the series, is part of what draws me to it, and many of the things you like, I could do without.

    I suspect this is frequently the case with very popular stories. No one pleases everyone all the time, so one route to popularity is pleasing most people most of the time. The trick is mix various types of material to satisfy different types of readers without alienating all of them. HBO’s constant refrain that the series is “Sopranos in Middle-earth” is their way of drawing in people they hope will be hooked by the political side of the story (no need to worry about people interested in fantasy…where else are they going to get their fix on television?).

  23. Most of this stuff, I see your veiwpoint, and agree to disagree, or something like that. Some of it I even agree with! My one issue is you saying that “The most effective stories are lean stories.”, while at the same time saying that Tolkien is (one of) the best fantasy writers ever. He had page-long descriptions of rolling hills, with beautiful evocative writing. Did I mind? No, but it still wasn’t lean.

    Or take for example my favourite hobbit chapter, Riddles in the Dark, (been my favourite since I was 6). A chapter devoted to riddles isn’t necessary , and Bilbo could just have stolen the ring and run off. Yet that wouldn’t be interesting, or playful, like the chapter is. If you want to read lean fantasy stories, get a great writer to do plot summaries, but I would say that the places where most fantasy series excel is where they break from the lean aspect of it. And though GRRM may do it so much for some, I would attribute any dislike of it to personal preference, and not a comment on the quality of the series.

  24. Actually Gspin, Tolkien is quite an exception to the rule for one very key reason: his style is completely different than most Fantasy novels. GRRM, and most other Fantasy writers, use modern language in their descriptions, while Tolkien intentionally used archaic language structure in his prose.

    He also used archaic story structure in his style, intentionally manipulating the story in a manner to mimic the traditional saga form of story telling. Thus, when Tolkien has a long miandering story bit that seems to serve no purpose to the overall tale (Tom Bombadil), it is in fact serving a structural purpose. This is not truly the case with GRRM, where he follows interesting (to him anyway) story lines even though they are not brining us closer to the stories end. Bombadil, and Riddles in the Dark both serve extremely important roles in the heroes quests, but really Brianne’s tale could have been dumped.

  25. Well than couldn’t it be argued that GRRM is doing something similar? By recognizing that each character is living his own life, and not just interacting with a few central character, he creates a more realistic landscape. So each character has their own heroes journey, and in many cases, we don’t see it all, but he recognises its there and doesn’t disregard it, and includes it for the period during which we know the character

    In the case of Brienne, you can see her struggle against being different, the development of skills, the leaving her island, falsely accused and then having to find a new path, on which she makes some very difficult decisions. Maybe not integral to the final climax (or it could be, who can tell), but he decided it was a story worth telling, and who are we to say no? He was the one who decided this entire story of Westeros was worth telling, and I say if he thinks a story is worth telling, he should tell it, and not care whether it contributes to the final climax or not, just accept it as a story that GRRM wants tot ell.

  26. The most effective stories are lean stories.

    This one assertion could benefit from an exploratory essay. One only needs to glance at a list of what many of us call “great literature” to see that much of it is anything but “lean.” Reading is a passion. It is an absorption; an ecstatic entertainment. A journey. The art of it is to abstain from “filler,” which is justly disdained, yet provide a delicious, satisfying, and nutritious meal, if I may borrow a metaphor. One would not want to simply drink a protein shake.

  27. Reduced down to that single sentence, I don’t even agree with it. In context, I was referring to advice given to writers and wondering how true it really was. That wasn’t rhetorical; I wondered then and still wonder how true it is.

    The example of The Hobbit is an interesting one. I’m not that fond of it, and the diffuse, episodic narrative is a big part of why. I’m also not sure I agree with Thomas Evans (and Tolkien himself) that the Bombadil interlude served an important purpose in Lord of the Rings. And while I think Tolkien was categorically different in his aims than most fantasy writers (the whole mythopoeia business) he’s not so different from Martin in the tools he’s using. Both of them use a lot of detail to make their worlds seem lifelike.

    But when we get to Brienne I will part ways with Gpin. I agree that if Martin thinks a story is worth telling, he should tell it. I’m not out to censor anyone. However, as a reader, I reserve the right to disagree with the author, even one as succesful as Martin or Tolkien. The “lean stories” rule is ultimately trying to say that if something doesn’t make the story better, it should be removed. I don’t think that’s actually very controversial. But the biggest thing I’ve learned from talking about stories online over the past few years is that no one reads the same story. Brienne’s fourth book wanderings detracted from the story for me. They seemed pointless while I read them and even more pointless when I had finished the book. By that point in the series there was a big list of things I was interested in and nothing in that segment made the top 50, so it was frustrating. But people like Gpin disagree. They were interested in different things, so what was pointless (“filler” as Opally puts it) to me wasn’t to them.

    This implies, by the way, that for a story to become really popular, like Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, it probably shouldn’t be too lean. Bestsellers please most people most of the time, not some people all the time. A really great novel that is extremely lean won’t get the same following (I would put forward Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as an example).

    I still have some more to say, but that’s enough for one comment. Maybe you’re right about the essay, Opally.

  28. I’m looking forward to more of your thoughts on this question, Matt.

    “Epic fantasy” is its own genre, and its readers have certain expectations; “lean” writing style is not one of them. On the one hand, we have Jordan’s bloated, empty filler in Wheel of Time in which many words are used inelegantly to tell us little and advance the story not at all. It’s mostly an editorial failure. Yet there are legions of Jordan fans who say they are greatly entertained. (I think, in a more confessional mode, many of them will own up to the dreariness of much of those books.) But I find A Song of Ice and Fire to be delightful. I loved Brianne. Her experiences gave us a new view of Jamie Lannister. I’m sure GRRM would agree that there could have been some paring down, but I for one don’t mind his exploratory, whole-hearted engagement with his characters and their stories. One finds much the same in Dostoevsky, after all. Does it come down to a matter of taste and genre?

    You know, the world exists differently in each person, and Martin gets that quite well. I thought that Brianne’s point of view on the ASOIAF world was an enrichment. It’s more than just storytelling.

  29. This post has been very helpful, i lost all hope in the series when Robb died. he had become the only character i even remotely cared about. i thought that if grrm was gonna kill him like he did Ned he would have done it by now so i put all my hope into him and then he was killed and desecrated. after reading this i realize that grrm is telling a huge tale that dwarves the lives of even major characters.

  30. Dear lord you are so right in your reviews of this series. It just drags so unnecessarily. So much extra sh–stuff. I was riveted by the first two books. There are complaints regarding the fourth book? I can’t even make it thru the third book. Mainly because I can see it coming, the slow grinding of the plot to a halt, even this soon.
    “Catelyn watched from the battlements, waiting and watching as she had waited and watched so many times before.” <— that's me! Waiting and watching and waiting and watching, frakking h#^%l.
    Every three pages I switch to the browser and search "SOIAF, no plot progression" or something like that, to see if others agree. Martin is talented, but he's lost the plot. For real. That's the realism right there…he's lost it. And I've lost interest because I can tell it's going nowhere. Ice and Fire has come together to form a mushy lukewarm mess.

  31. Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written
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  32. Matt,

    I’d like to expand upon your explanation of how and why the series went wrong. After deciding that a trilogy would not suffice for the story he wanted to tell, Martin wanted to break the series into two separate series, with a five year gap between. This would allow Dany and the Stark children (and I disagree with you here, Bran, Arya, and maybe even Sansa are absolutely main characters, or at least in the process of becoming main characters) to grow up. Clearly, the original intention was to split the Stark family up as children, set them on paths towards fulfilling very different destinies, then having these older characters fulfill their roles (and perhaps reunite). What has worried me is that we’re in the 5th book, and both Bran and Arya seem to just be getting started with their ‘training.’

    Martin went wrong when he ditched that gap and got caught up in Westeros’s intrigue. Without that ‘5 years later…’ transition he now has 5 years of events to fill in before we get back to what was his original conception of the story.

  33. […] This review has prompted a fair amount of discussion. I’ve written a follow-up post to answer some of the objections people have […]

  34. I agree that the supernatural arc is probably going to turn out pretty conventional (which is why I’m glad Martin hasn’t been spending all too much time on it to this point; more elaboration isn’t going to make it less conventional, most likely). And I, too, don’t particularly care who’ll ultimately end up on that chair.

    But just because the whole thing probably isn’t going to end with a conclusive victory of good over evil, the rightful heir reclaiming his throne, and the lands restored to their natural order, doesn’t mean the story lacks forward momentum or thematic coherence or that Westeros is forever doomed to be stuck in that particular mire of feudal rot. Martin spends a lot of pages describing what exactly is rotten in the state of Westeros, but his analysis argueably goes a bit deeper than “people are too busy fighting each other to unite against the bigger threat”. In fact, the story repeatedly shows us people potentially capable of transcending the petty infighting in order to see the bigger picture – and it also shows what they are up against, what kind of structures prevent even the less-myopic, even the well-intentended from accomplishing anything.

    I’ve always favoured the reading of ASOIAF as a story of institutional failure (and maybe, possibly, institutional reform). I might not care who sits in King’s Landing at the end, but I absolutely do care whether Dany can abolish slavery, whether Jon can reform the Nightwatch and sustainably improve Westerosi/Wildling relations, whether Asha can wean the Ironborn of their reaving ways, whether Stannis and the Northern coalition can bring the Boltons to justice and establish a more defined, consistent rule of law. All these – just more narrative strands muddying the waters, maybe, just another unnecessary complication, another distraction. But to me that’s the heart of the affair. Because those are the victories that matter in actual history. The game of thrones is always inconclusive, but politics is not just about the rise and fall of individual players in the nation-wide power-ranking – at least not the kind of politics I’m interested in.

    (For instance, I don’t think that either Jon or Dany will be King or Queen in the end. But I’m fairly convincend that their legacy will be more important to the shape of Westeros then whoever is left over to snatch that title in the end.)

  35. […] * 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. […]

  36. Cover Photo

    A Song of Ice and Fire: Further Thoughts | Yet There Are Statues


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