Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death.” -A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin
(I am reviewing all four remaining of books of George R. R. Martin’s series, so spoilers abound. You’ve been warned).
There’s a reason I chose this quote to open with, and that is that midway through the Song of Ice and Fire series, I started feeling quite a bit like a man of the Night’s Watch. I had signed on for something that seemingly had no end, and which, though it had it a few bright spots of humor and sexiness (hey thanks, Ygritte!), was most often a cold, depressing slog with no out.
I did alright through Clash of Kings. I had seen the second season of Game of Thrones, and though the second book diverges from the TV version much more than the first, there were no surprises that actively dismayed me. And then I read Storm of Swords, and despite some genuinely shocking developments, for the most part it seemed like my favorite characters were well on their way to a satisfying, if bloody, ending.
And then came the fucking Red Wedding, and I remembered what books I was reading.
What makes the Song of Ice and Fire series such a great read is Martin’s refusal to play along the same lines of most mainstream fantasy writers. He refuses, rightly, to make any promises to his readers. Good characters, interesting characters, even villains you assume are going to survive like cockroaches at the Apocalypse (looking at you, Joff) – none are safe from his savagery. It is this element of surprise, this genuine representation of a world where honor is an undervalued currency and power is a slippery prize, that makes the books so entrancing. It’s also what makes them such a pain in the ass to read all at once. Much hubbub has been made of George R. R. Martin’s inconsistent production schedule, but there’s one upside to the sizable gaps: longtime readers didn’t have to suffer through the jaded, world-weary bitterness that results when you try to read all of his books at once.
The end of Storm of Swords was the last straw for me. I finished it right before a weekend trip. I had been fully intending on downloading the next book for the trip, but after the infamous Red Wedding I left it behind, vowing to take an extended break from this series.
This break lasted until the Monday I got back. Because, obviously.
As a result of this what I’ve decided to call Game of Thrones Fatigue, it’s taken me several months to gather the courage to review all four books (the first was reviewed here). For fear of relapsing and being hospitalized from Game of Thrones exhaustion, I’ve decided to review them all in a chunk.
So, loins girded? Let’s do this thing.
A Clash of Kings is, to me, the strongest of his five books so far. It tells a story that is compact and powerful, with a clear ending and a clear beginning. You don’t get the sense that it is filler; instead, though many of the characters are left in ambiguous places physically, emotionally, you feel that they have made a journey. The best example of this trajectory is Arya, who starts out spunky but still very much a little girl, and in the process of outliving father figure after father figure (including, you know, her own father), ends up becoming something else entirely. She’s not a little girl anymore, she’s certainly not a grown woman (keep your Britney Spears jokes out of here), but she’s not an adolescent either – to survive, she has had to become nobody.
Tyrion has a similar character progression, but in the opposite direction – he goes from being an amusing side character to being a leader. He goes from nobody to somebody, which makes it all the more affecting in the next book, when he goes back to being nobody in the eyes of his family and his kingdom.
If A Clash of Kings is where characters and situations are more fully fleshed out, A Storm of Swords is where we really find ourselves in the shit – and, at the end of the book, where that shit officially hits the fan (to those of you who think Eddard Stark’s death marked the shit-fan collision, let me just say, to quote Ygritte – “you know nothing, Jon Snow”).
Despite it’s grim ending, Storm of Swords is still a strong entry. For one thing, it sees significantly features one of my favorite characters, Davos Seaworth – the only honorable man left in the Seven Kingdoms, but with none of the accompanying dumbshittery of Eddard Stark. For another, it features the epic road trip of Jamie and Brienne, BFFs forever. I have been a Jamie fan since the beginning, notwithstanding his attempted child murder, and it is in the third book of the series that he truly comes into his own, displaying an appealing complexity that cuts through the armor of even stalwart Brienne.
Father north, Jon Snow turns out to be much more fun Beyond the Wall. The introduction of Mance Rayder and Ygritte do wonders for his character, which heretofore seemed bland at best. Unfortunately, the same is not true for Bran. Though he’s a compelling character, Jojen is no Ygritte (in case I haven’t made it clear, I have a big crush on Ygritte), so his story plods along about as fast as Hodor is plodding through all that snow.
The real heartbreak of Storm of Swords though, is the downfall of Tyrion Lannister. The fact that Tyrion would survive was never in doubt, but the end of this book introduced us to Bitter Tyrion, who I still love, but a little less than I loved Sarcastic But With Good Intentions Tyrion. It was another, subtler example of Martin turning the tables on his fans’ expectations; we expected against all odds that Tyrion would reconcile with his father, that Shae really does love him, because that it what we are usually fed in pop culture – our hero, conquering large odds to find happiness. But happiness in Westeros is not something you find; it’s something you enjoy for brief moments in between violence and tragedy. It’s a brief spring in the middle of a very long winter.
The grimness of the story does not exactly improve in Feast for Crows, but it does give us some interesting side stories to chew on. As regular readers will know, Martin’s 5th and 6th book were meant to be one book. As a result, the books are split down the lines of character stories, with some showing up for one and entirely absent from the next. It’s an understandable method, but makes it difficult to keep up with the myriad stories that are happening within and around each other. The first part of Feast of Crows is centered around Cersei, with Jamie far away in the Riverlands, on a quest to recapture his lost honor. It’s a relief when Jamie reappears, not just because I’m a Jamie fangirl, but because Martin has done for him what he hasn’t yet managed to do for his sister: provide a complex range of emotions and motivations for her. Cersei is never anything more than villainous – though we are told she loves her children, and that she her anger comes from her second-class treatment as a woman, we are rarely shown it (until a brief moment in the fifth book, which is not quite enough to restore her to my good graces in Jamie-like fashion).
While Cersei’s character gets thinner, Sansa’s fills out a bit. Her marriage to Tyrion was a non-starter in terms of character development – their short marriage said much more about Tyrion’s character than her own – but Petyr Baelish can make anyone interesting. Her progression from highborn to lowborn, from silly to shrewd is surprisingly affecting, to the point that I actually missed her in the next book.
The Wall is absent in this book, but Dorne fills in with the dull strategic content. The Dornish story line filled in some plot holes, and there are a lot of Dornish characters that I should theoretically find interesting, but there comes a point in a series of novels where one reaches critical mass with characters. To put it plainly, a lot more Starks are going to need to die before I can care about any of the Martells.
The most conspicuous absences were that of Daenerys and Tyrion, both of whom, thank God, return in A Dance with Dragons, as does Theon Greyjoy, who had been MIA for the past few novels. My top five of most affecting characters are as follows: Arya, Theon, Daenerys, Tyrion and there is no fifth (except maybe for Jaime, in a distant fifth based in large part of physical attraction). So it goes without saying that I liked this book, much meatier than the previous, and spending scads more time developing my favorite characters that even made up for what a drag Jon Snow has become as Lord Commander of the Wall. Though many of them are stuck in places I wouldn’t have chosen for them: Tyrion in a perpetual state of danger, Dany still trying to govern an ungovernable kingdom, Theon being abused by a Bolton, and Arya stuck in a weird Death House, it’s a relief to hang out with established characters vs. new or undeveloped ones. Nevertheless, though A Dance with Dragons ties up a lot of storylines, it also opens up quite a few of them as well – just when you thought the War of the Five Kings was ending, a couple more potential rulers get tossed into the mix. The gap between character stories was also quite jarring (I completely forgot Brienne existed for the last two books. I am still not entirely clear on whether or not she is dead, which probably means she is not). One the whole though, the fifth felt like the more complete novel than the fourth.
A Song of Ice and Fire is a daunting series, and sometimes a grim exercise. But its moments of transcendence (any moment with Daenerys), levity (any moment with Tyrion), poignancy (any moment with Theon), and pure heart (every moment with Arya) make it worth a go. At least that’s how I feel now. At the end of the fifth novel, I am clearly in too deep to give it up, despite the occasional throwing of the books across the room when they displease me, Cersei-style. A Dance with Dragons left me with a tiny flicker of hope that there might be light at the end of the tunnel, but I am still genuinely concerned that Martin won’t be able to get us there before his (and my) death. But, what can I say. In the dour words of Jon Snow – I took a vow.
Recommended for: Masochists.
Read When: You have absolutely nothing else on your reading or to-do list. Because once you start, everything else is getting deprioritized.
Listen With: This. It’ll make you feel better.