It is, perhaps, fitting that it’s taken me so long to finish these books (and write this review). I started reading A Game of Thrones at the end of June (and started this review on the 28th), and I’m sitting here well over a month later. I’ve read a couple other books in that time – but I’ve mostly been working my way through this series. It’s taken me longer to read these four/five books (4,300+ pages) than it did to read Harry Potter (4,000+ pages) last year, but not quite as long as it took me to read the Dresden Files (almost two months to read all 6,500 pages).
It’s also fitting that this is probably the longest review I’ve written.
For all of that, I don’t really know how to approach this series in a way that hasn’t been done before – especially since the show ballooned into a cultural phenomenon. There are, literally, millions of new fans to these books since the last I read them, and many people far more insightful than I have picked them apart. This is kind of like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, in that regard: virtually everyone has read these books. We’ve reached such a level of cultural saturation that I could probably just give each of these books a rating and be done with it.
But, as this is the Cannonball Read, I’ll still write a couple thousand words.
I first came across this series in 1997, and picked up my first copy of A Game of Thrones because the cover had a blurb of Robert Jordan calling the book “brilliant.” Strange to think, now, that Robert Jordan sold George RR Martin to me. After reading A Game of Thrones, I would never be able to read The Wheel of Time quite the same way again.
At the time, Jordan was the biggest name working in the genre, and was probably second only to JRR Tolkien in terms of popularity. Today…. I don’t know that it’s fair to say he’s been forgotten (he most definitely has not been), but I think his books have been surpassed by a genre more heavily influenced by Martin’s writing than his own.
But in 1997, all it took for a 15 year old me to start a new epic series was the abridged praise of a now second tier master.
Though this series was begun in the mid-90s, it is the quintessential post 9/11 fantasy series.
The central theme of the series is the dichotomy between expectation and reality. Every character is altered in some fundamental way. The good guys become bad, the bad become good, and everyone ends up inhabiting some hazy gray area. Heroes fail, villains succeed, and the characters lurking in the background take center stage. The only safe bet in these books is that your expectations will seldom be met with anything but heartache.
And this is, without question, the single most criticized (and marketable) thing about these books. There are countless reaction videos on Youtube illustrating how shocked people were by particular scenes in the show. It’s a vritual certainty that each book will have at least one shocking death, and they’ve all inspired memes commenting on Martin’s perverse joy at breaking the hearts of his fans.
But I don’t see the books that way. I don’t think Martin is trying to rip the beating hearts from our chests, or that he’s even trying shock. I think Martin was simply a man tired of a genre built on the fabricated success of a heroes journey. Fantasy books typically take place in a Medieval European-type setting, but the characters seldom have to go through what that era brought with it.
I remember reading an interview with Martin, years ago, where he expressed deep dissatisfaction with Gandalf’s story-arc in The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, that a character, once killed off, should remain dead. War is a violent thing, and the danger in which characters find themselves means nothing when everyone knows that important characters won’t be killed off.
These books are known for their shocking viscera – but the context that birthed the horrors detailed here is frequently left out of the equation, I think. George R.R. Martin spend much of his adulthood working in television (the Ron Pearlman Beauty and the Beast show from the ‘80s chief among his projects), and the dissatisfaction he built up working in Hollywood pushed him into writing these books. He didn’t want to worry about budgets, or television censors, or network limits put on his ideas. He wanted to write stories too big for television, with sex and violence and actual consequences.
That’s what these books are. Ironic, then, that television would push them into a level of popularity that he never could’ve dreamed about in his career’s previous incarnation.
But there’s another level to the story he created. These books presaged a world that saw the mightiest and wealthiest nation in human history fall to terrorism, paranoia, corruption, and economic collapse. Martin created an adult fantasy series – perhaps the first of its kind designed for mass consumption. This isn’t a small series; unlike, say, Gene Wolf, these books are written to appeal to as broad a range of people as possible.
Your typical reader of epic fantasy (circa 1995) knew what to expect from the genre. Just as, I think, most Americans knew what to expect on the morning of September 11. Is it hyperbolic to say neither group really knew what they were getting into? Well, yeah. Of course it is. But I do think this strained analogy can be used to the extent that it illustrates how much I believe these books up-ended the genre. Or, at the very least, from the point of view of the 15 year old who first encountered them oh so many years ago.
By eschewing the heroic sentimentality of The Lord of the Rings or the trite predictability of much of the genre, Martin’s world has become particularly relevant to our own. Westeros is divided amongst itself, with factions warring for control, truth existing only in the most nebulous sense, and honor succumbing to venality more often than not.
Everyone loves honor, until things actually need to get done. In A Song of Ice and Fire, honor is a hindrance, not an asset. Gird yourself too much in its embrace, and you are like to be smothered. Similarly, I think George W. Bush was a fairly honorable man in his own way – and his reliance on confidence, trust in his subordinates, and belief that faith wins out over contemplation consigned the world to a great deal of torment. Indeed, Martin gets bogged down in what became known as the “Meerenese knot” during A Feast for Crows/A Dance with Dragons. The political conundrum from which he couldn’t extricate his characters has many parallels to the war in Iraq.
Now that I may have you rolling your eyes at my histrionics…I’ll actually review the books.
(I’m trying to keep my spoilers at a minimum – but they can be found throughout the remainder of my review. I think all my spoilers are contained to the books following events described. So if you don’t want to know what happens in A Clash of Kings, absolutely don’t read the review for A Storm of Swords.)
48. A Game of Thrones (5 stars; 17 reviews, 4.25 average)
The central conflict of the series is implied in the title: A Song of Ice and Fire. The world exists on a pendulum, swinging unpredictably between summer and winter, with the seasons lasting years. We begin in summer, and the book both introduces us to the world, and sets the stage for all that is to follow. The first book in the series is told (as are all the books) in multiple points of view, and in three main storylines: the Starks (both in the North and in King’s Landing), the Wall (through the eyes mainly of Jon Snow), and across the Narrow Sea (from the perspective of Daenerys Targaryen). The central conflict, at first, appears to be between the Starks of the North and the Lannisters of Casterly Rock, of whom the queen of the realm belongs. As the story progresses, things become more complex, and multiple important players become visible.
Approximately 15 years after staging a rebellion that saw the overthrow of the mad king Aerys Targaryen, the realm of Westeros exists largely in a state of equilibrium. But the Hand of the king (the chief court official) has died suddenly, and the king, Robert Baratheon, rides north to raise his old friend, Eddard Stark, to the now vacant position. Pulled away from his cold and unforgiving home in the north, Stark is pulled into the complex and illusory politics of the court. Uncompromisingly noble, he is ill-suited to the role given him. Precluding the division that eventually tears the realm apart, the Stark family itself is pulled apart by his move south. Stark takes his two daughters with him, Arya and Sansa, and leaves behind his three true-born sons and bastard.
Jon Snow, bastard son of Eddard Stark, chooses to join the Night’s Watch when his father heads south to become the Hand in King’s Landing. The Watch guard the realms of men from all threats north of The Wall, a long fortified wall stretching across the North. At one time the Watch was seen as an honorable service to the realm, but it’s now mainly a tool to rid the realm of criminals, who can earn a full pardon for their crimes by committing themselves to a life’s service. Jon Snow, knowing that his status as a bastard will forever relegate him to an inferior existence among his siblings, sees honor and respect on the Wall.
Simultaneously, the Targaryen heirs to the kingdom, Viserys and Daenerys, are wandering across the sea. They were taken out of Westeros after the successful rebellion of Robert Baratheon, and Viserys has now become a beggar king in exile. Prone to violent tantrums frequently directed at his younger sister, he lacks a realistic understanding of his place in the world. Daenerys is the focus of this second storyline, however.
I talked my wife into reading these books not long after we started dating. I watched her closely as she neared completion, waiting to see how she’d respond. As she neared the fateful scene with Ned Stark, I prepared to either defend myself or console her….only nothing happened. She kept reading, turning pages with interest but little concern. Bewildered, I delicately asked her what part she was at, and whatever chapter she was reading was after the EVENT. Confused, I sought further explanation only to find out that her mind simply refused to admit that events happened the way they actually did. In her mind, in fact, nothing happened. She didn’t know what I was talking about.
I think this is probably the best reaction I’m aware of: denial.
I mean, she eventually came around, but it was ultimately less devastating for her than it is for most people. She would not always have it so easy with these books, however.
49. A Clash of Kings (5 stars; 17 reviews, 3.77 average)
The previous book ends with an incredible cliffhanger, as Eddard Stark is beheaded, Sansa is held in captivity, Arya flees King’s Landing. Jaime Lannister is captured by Robb Stark, now declared King in the North, and Tyrion is now in King’s Landing, attempting to offset some of the turmoil brought about by his inept sister and cruel nephew, King Joffrey Baratheon. Daenerys’s dragons have hatched, and she leads what’s left of her khalasar through the Dothraki sea.
The book progresses at a brisk pace – despite being more than 700 pages, and we get new perspectives in this book: Davos Seaworth (a knight in King Stannis’s service) and Theon Greyjoy (former ward of Eddard Stark, heir to Pike). This book serves as a kind of “call to arms” for the realm, as Robert Baratheon is dead, and Eddard Stark has been unceremoniously executed by the order of the king. The North has risen in rebellion, as have Renly and Stannis Baratheon, Robert’s brothers. The Greyjoy’s of Pike begin raiding in the North, as well. Meanwhile, Jon Snow is beyond the Wall, trying to uncover the reason for widespread migrations of the Wildlings.
As much as I love A Game of Thrones, I honestly think book 2 improves in every way. The stakes are higher, the characters more developed, less exposition is required to explain back stories and set up future events, and the remaining characters have all gone through significant changes. And, this is the last book in the series before Martin starts to get bogged down, so the story moves along pretty briskly (relatively speaking).
50. A Storm of Swords (5 stars; 18 reviews, 4.38 average)
When I first discovered this series in 1999, A Storm of Swords hadn’t yet come out. I remember buying the hardback and being both thrilled at the sheer size of the thing (nearly 1,000 pages) and disappointed that it wasn’t longer – there was no way Martin was going to be able to resolve all the storylines here. But, he seemed to be writing at a fairly good pace – so I shouldn’t have to wait too long for the next book.
This book doesn’t pick up after quite so devastating a plot twist as A Game of Thrones ended on, but there is so much going on, it’s hard to put the book down nonetheless. I’ve read this series, beginning to end, probably three times now – and I’ve watched the first few seasons of the show – so I’m pretty familiar with what happens. But I was still thoroughly engaged throughout the re-read.
But this book is the beginning of the story starting to runaway from Martin’s control, I think. Each of the previous two books were approximately 300k words, but A Storm of Swords tops 424k (that’s almost as much as the entirety of The Lord of the Rings). He’s added more character point of views (Jaime Lannister and Samwell Tarly), and continues to follow the broken and tattered remains of the War of the Five Kings, which has left the Riverlands an ash-covered abattoir. If any reader has a shred of innocence coming into this book – it’s been utterly ravaged by the Red Wedding.
And, perhaps, no single character better represents the journey of this reader than Sansa Stark. Which is perhaps a bit ironic, because I’ve always found her chapters the least interesting, and I’ve always found her, particularly, to be the most insufferable. Well, no. That’s not true. Joffrey is a little shit, and Viserys was pretty terrible. But Sansa was a pre-pubescent child for much of these books, and becomes a “woman grown” in this book (in that she begins menstruating). She dreams of falling in love with a knight, and loves the romantic gallantry of courtly virtue presented in song. She is so unabashedly naive, that she inadvertently leads to the capture and eventual beheading of her own father because she’s so distraught at being taken from King Joffrey that she reveals her father’s plans to Queen Cersei. By the end of this book, she’s plotted to flee King’s Landing and ends up in the hands of one of the more powerful wild cards in Westeros: Petyr Baelish, otherwise known as Littlefinger. Under his tutelage, she learns to become braver and wiser to how wretched the world can be.
Similarly, I came to these books as a teenager, having grown up on JRR Tolkien, David Eddings, and Robert Jordan. The fantasy writing that I had previously read – no matter how good (Tolkien) or mediocre (Terry Goodkind) it could be – always followed a familiar path: you were introduced to good guys (the Starks) who would be confronted by bad guys (the Lannisters) and come out victorious. What Martin does so well in these books is that he subverts our expectations by deliberately setting these books up to destroy the iron nobility of the men and women we identify with, while simultaneously redeeming those we abhor as monsters.
But Sansa Stark exists to be the avatar for our distress. Just as we feel tortured by the execution of Eddard Stark, she is literally tortured at the command of her father’s murderer, Joffrey. Just as we are left numb and broken by the Red Wedding, she is left an empty shell at having to declare her brother a traitor deserving of death. Just as we must learn to cope with disaster and unfulfilled hope, she is forced to find inner strength and wisdom as a different person in the Vale of Arryn. She has even lost the physical manifestation of her familial ties to the North: her direworlf.
Despite all that, she perseveres. She has survived as much as anyone, and retains a level of humanity that almost everyone else sheds. In that way, I think we are all Sansa Stark, to some degree. No matter what this world hurls at us – we keep coming back back. Devastated, heartbroken, and changed – but we’re still here. We still want to know what happens. And we aren’t going to give up.
This book is a great addition to (may, in fact, be the best of) the series, but utterly devastating in it’s piercing brutality.
51./52. A Feast for Crows/A Dance with Dragons (5 stars; AFfC 15 reviews, 3.55 average; ADwD 16 reviews, 3.42 average))
Also called A Feast with Dragons, I read this as one book. More specifically, I bought the individual books, combined them into one, and bound them together. It was no small task (I knew nothing about book binding prior to starting the project), but I found it rewarding. My copy is complete enough to read, but I haven’t actually bound it with a cover yet (I plan on doing a leather hardback – but that’ll be a future project).
I remember the disappointment when A Feast for Crows was published. Hell, I felt it. No Jon Snow!? No Tyrion!? No Daenerys!? Going into A Feast for Crows, these were not only three of the most popular characters, they represented more than a third of of the 221 chapters published in the previous three books (39%, to be precise). To excise them completely from the narrative was….frustrating. And if you look at Goodreads, this initial impression of the book holds true a decade later:
A Game of Thrones – 4.45
A Clash of Kings – 4.40
A Storm of Swords – 4.54
And then A Feast for Crows has a 4.10 rating. This is true almost anywhere you go: it’s the lowest rated book in the series on Amazon and Audible.
A Dance with Dragons is somewhat more highly regarded (4.31 on Goodreads), but the complaints about Martin’s writing speed has so overwhelmed every other aspect of these books, it’s sometimes difficult to recognize any praise at this point.
But when you combine the two into the format originally intended…..You get a truly monumental work of epic fantasy. There’s really no better way to read these books than as one massive ~1,700 page tome. Seeing all the threads being woven into a complex wave of forward momentum, I feel, does change the texture of the story. This book feels like the keystone to the entire structure. It is the most crucial part, and holds the entire frame together. It’s a shame that he got bogged down in the book so much that he had to split it up, because I feel like something was lost.
I’m sure you get this from the show – as much as that can be done as characters are left out, combined, and storylines are altered, but there’s really no substitute for the real thing. I hope, at some point down the road, Martin’s publishers issue legit versions of what I’ve attempted to do here. I think more people should have access to this version of this part of the story.
There’s a steady, grinding repetition that drives the shifting focus of A Feast with Dragons. Tyrion has fled Westeros asking the question, “where do whores go?”, seeking the answer to his father’s dying words. Jaime, seeking redemption, obsesses over Tyrion’s parting sally that Cersei fucked “Lancel, Kettleback, and Moon Boy” for all he knows. Theon, broken, repeats his new name as if it’s his only lifeline to sanity, “Reek, Reek, it rhymes with sneak”. Some have found this annoying, but I think it serves as a kind of counterpoint, keeping time as the loose and disparate threads of this story beginning to coalesce. It’s like steady background music that, individually, sets an uneasy rhythm to the story but, together, forms a pleading desire for fulfillment.
But if Martin has taught us anything, it’s that we aren’t going to be fulfilled. This book embraces disappointment and shattered expectations. He wants you to reach for the expected note so that he can push the minor key you didn’t see coming. Martin is a maestro when it comes to leading you towards a fulfillment he has no intention of giving you. While this frustrates everyone, and enrages many, I think it’s a brilliant subversion of a genre that – for so long – has relied on wish fulfillment and familiar tropes.
This is the book upon which the story hinges. Characters and storylines have been sloughed off in preparation for the world being made new. The War of the Five Kings is all but over, Queen Daenerys has, perhaps (by the end), come into her own, and the North has begun to gird itself for the true war that is on the horizon.
And, more than anything else, Winter is coming…