Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Song of Ice and Fire: George R.R. Martin's Never-Ending Story

As I pack my bags and settle my affairs before I embark on my journey to my new home, the tent city on George R.R. Martin's front lawn, I think back to how it all began... 

I swore it would never happen to me. I was bound and determined not to read the Song of Ice and Fire for a variety of reasons.

  1. I am not a huge fan of today's fantasy novels, never-ending doorstop fantasy series in particular.
  2. The series is not yet finished and I don't want to be Dark Towered into waiting years between books or having Martin pull a Robert Jordan and die without completing it.
  3. Hype. Anytime someone tells me I have to read something, I almost always dig my feet in and resist. One of these days, I'll stop being stubborn when people recommend me books. Sure, most of them read probably 20% as much as I read in a year but there are reasons why certain books sell thousands and thousands of copies.
So after my girlfriend and I blazed through the first season of Game of Thrones in a weekend, I figured it was time to cave in and give it a try. My fears were unfounded. The Game of Thrones took over my life while I was reading it. Even after watching the first season of the TV series, I couldn't be bothered with things like cleaning house and eating properly. I was captivated by the tale of the Lannisters, the Starks, the Targaryens, and the rest.

  A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When the King comes to Winterfell, Ned Stark soon finds himself given the post of Hand to the King by King Robert. All is not well in Winterfell, however. Stark's son is gravely injured and signs point to the King's wife's family, the Lannisters. Stark will soon find out that when you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or die...

Okay, so it's way more complicated than that but it's hard to write a teaser for an 800+ page kitten squisher like this.

I read an interview with George R.R. Martin where he mentioned liking historical fiction but hating knowing the ending before he started. Game of Thrones feels way more like historical fiction than it does fantasy. While there are magical elements, they don't dominate the story. The story is the battle for the throne of the seven kingdoms and intrigue behind the scenes by various factions. It feels way more like Pillars of the Earth than it does epic fantasy.

For me, the main strengths of the Game of Thrones are the characters and GRRM's willingness to do horrible things to them. While fantasy is usually about good vs. evil, nothing is so black and white in the Game of Thrones. King Robert is a man with a drinking and whoring problem. Ned Stark fathered a child out of wedlock. The Lannisters are a bunch of well-meaning scumbags. Jon Snow looks down upon his companions because of his noble upbringing.

As for GRRM's willingness to do horrible things to his characters? Don't get too attached to anyone. There were several shocking deaths in Game of Thrones and I'm told it gets worse from here on out. I can't wait for someone to settle Joffrey Lannister's hash!

For me, one of the marks of a good book is if it makes me want to rush out and write something similar. It happened with the Dark Tower, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Elric, Hyperion, Amber, and now this. Speaking of Amber, Martin thanks Roger Zelazny in the acknowledgments. I already knew he and Zelazny were close. Now I'm wondering if the machinations in Game of Thrones were in any way inspired by the ones of the family in Amber.

Differences between the book and the first season of the show are pretty minor. One thing that really stood out was that a lot of the characters were younger in the book. Also, there weren't so many women being taken roughly from behind in Martin's text. Other than that, it was mostly chronology and a few minor scenes that were missing.

That's about all I can say since I don't want to give too much away. This book is a monstrous tome but it didn't feel like it. There's always something going on and everyone better watch their backs. After all, Winter is Coming...

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, #2)A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the wake of King Robert's death, four men lay claim to his crown. The Mother of Dragons builds her khalazar as magic slowly returns to the world. Jon Snow braves the wilds beyond the Wall. Tyrion Lannister struggles to hold the power behind the Throne. And Winterfell harbors a viper in its midst...

Like I said before, it's hard to write a teaser for a book this size. Look at it! You could club a narwhal to death with it if you were so inclined.

The epic of The Song of Ice and Fire continues to unfold in the second volume. Robb Stark, the King in the North, continues his campaign to avenge his father and take the Iron Throne. His sister Sansa remains in King's Landing, still betrothed to the vile Joffrey. Arya, well, she has quite a bit going on. Jon Snow continues being my favorite character as he ventures beyond the wall, probably marking him for death sometime soon. I'm wondering if the Starks will ever be reunited.

In non-Stark news, Tyrion Lannister continues being the best character in the series and pulls the strings behind the scenes. The conflict between Robert's brothers Stannis and Renly came to a head much earlier than I thought. Jaime Lannister is still in the clink and I'm hoping he and Robb Stark get more screen time in the next book. And Theon! What a colossal douche! Cercei Lannister has a lot more facets to her character than I originally thought.

Much like the last book, most of the action happens near the end. I love the constant intrigue behind the scenes. The battle of Blackwater Bay was my favorite battle in the series so far.

Since I read this without seeing season 2 of Game of Thrones, I'm looking forward to the following events being depicted on the show:
1. Jon Snow beyond the Wall
2. Tyrion's dialog with Cercei early on
3. the battle of Blackwater

That's about all I have to say. I liked Clash of Kings almost as much as the first book.
A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, #3)A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three kings contend for the throne and King Joffrey's wedding day grows near. Can he hold the throne with Robb Stark and Stannis Baratheon nipping at his heels?

Yeah, that's a woefully inadequate summary but it's not laden with spoilers, either.

The third installment of Weddings, Beddings, and Beheadings is my favorite one so far. Martin outdid himself this time.

First of all, there were quite a few deaths in this one. I wasn't expecting Robb Stark to go out like that. Tywin and Joffrey more than had it coming, however. The Red Wedding was pretty surprising, as was the trial by combat for Tyrion's fate. Speaking of Tyrion, his wedding to Sansa was also quite unexpected. I'm still not sure where things are going with Davos Seaworth but I'm already itching to find out.

Jon Snow continued to be my favorite character, from his stint with the wildlings to his defense of the Wall to his imprisonment and eventual election to commander of the Night's Watch. The prospect of Snow becoming Lord of Winterfell is an intriguing one and I'm anxious to see how it unfolds.

Another plotline I'm particularly enjoying is that of Arya and the Hound. The Hound could easily be a scene-chewing villain but is a surprisingly deep character. Arya is shockingly bad ass for a preteen.

One character I'm surprised I've grown to like is Jaime Lannister. He's an arrogant unapologetic bastard and I love him for it. I'd read a whole book of Jaime's exploits.

Also, how about Petyr Baelish? What a bastard!

I'm giving this five stars with an exclamation point next to it.

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, #4)A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The throne of the Iron Isles is contested. Queen Cercei conspires to keep King Tommen's young queen from influencing him. Jaime Lannister adjusts to having only one hand. Sam Tarly and Gilly head south. Brienne quests for the missing Stark daughters. Littlefinger holds the Vale. A lot of stuff happens in Dorne. Arya Stark continues being one of the more interesting characters in fantasy...

After a years-long void, the Song of Ice and Fire returns. Well, they can't all be home runs. Sometimes you have to settle for a triple.

Aside from the lack of Jon Snow, Dany and the dragons, and one Tyrion Lannister, I enjoyed A Feast for Crows as much as the previous volumes. At this point, Jaime Lannister is hot on the heels of Arya, Jon Snow, and Tyrion as my favorite character. I could read a few hundred pages of Jaime Lannister walking around being an asshole. Sam got some time to shine and I think he'll do big things before the series is over. I love what's going on with Arya. I still don't care about Sansa or Catelyn Stark.

The bits with the Iron Isles and Dorne got a little wearisome, feeling like Martin might have wanted to keep the biscuit wheels on his gravy train for a little while longer. Still, I liked where things went despite not involving any of my favorite characters.

It's a testament to Martin's skill that he has made me care about the Lannister twins, first Jaime and now Cercei. I'm chomping at the bit to find out Cercei's fate and to see if Brienne is really dead.

On a final note, there were way too many characters whose names started with the letter E in the same chapter. Mix it up a little, George.

Four stars, although I'd probably give it a high three if I'd been one of the people who had to wait years between books.

A Dance With Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5)A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stannis Baratheon marches on Winterfell from the Wall. Daenerys's empire is threatened from within. Tyrion finds himself enslaved. Cercei finds herself in chains. The Crow's Eye desires Daenerys for his own but so do several other would-be suitors. And Jon Snow faces dissent from his brothers of the Watch...

In the latest installment of Incest and Intrigue, more of the pieces are placed on the board. Daenerys can't trust anyone. Jon Snow can't trust anyone. Iron Lords cannot trust their own brothers. Sellswords in general cannot be trusted. In short, no one can trust anyone while the Game of Thrones is being played.

This one had its share of memorable moments, both good and ill. I really like how Arya's story is developing but I don't see how it's going to tie back into things. The revelation of Young Griff's true identity was a game changer and its repercussions will be felt in the next couple books. I liked that Brienne is still alive and that Jaime Lannister chose to follow her instead of rushing to Cercei's defense. Jon Snow getting knifed on the Wall by his sworn brothers didn't sit well with me. I'm really hoping he's still alive come next book, whenever that may be.

It looks like Theon is headed for redemption but I'd rather see him dead or taking the black. Bran is progressing nicely. Whatever happened to Ricken and that bastard of Robert's that isn't Gendry? And who is Cercei's new champion Robert Strong, the Mountain, perhaps?

And that brings us to our current situation.  I honestly don't think Martin will be able to wrap things up in two more books, not with all the balls he has in the air. Plus, it would be all too easy for him to throw more players into the mix to keep the saga going. Still, with A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin has made an Oathbreaker out of me. I once swore I'd never get caught up in a neverending fantasy series. In fact, I believe I said I'd rather eat my own testicles. However, I'm pretty caught up in this one.

So, what happens now?  Even if they split books 3-5 into two seasons each, the Game of Thrones television show is going to catch up with the books in a few short years.  Then what?  I've heard that Martin is considering adapting the novels set in the GoT world for additional seasons.  Also, he's wanting to work on other projects.  Maybe it's time to farm out some of the work to a James Patterson-style sweatshop of authors.  Just give each one a couple characters and an outline and let 'er rip.  Either that or die before the series is finished.  Whichever you're more comfortable with, George.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to join the tent city.  I'm hoping to get a spot next to the garbage cans so I can get first dibs on any discarded fragments George sees fit to bless his subjects with.  Or maybe I'll try to fight my way close to the house and pray I'll get a glimpse of the king himself when he chances by one of the windows...

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