From the first pages, A Song of Ice and Fire has the feel of unorthodox fantasy, especially given the constraints of the genre back in the ’90s when the early volumes were published. Unpredictable plotting, understated magic, and heroes near indistinguishable from villains are a rare enough combination, but when you sit on top of this a sprawling epic in a world with enough history and geography as detailed as our own, you’ve got the makings of a landmark. At heart, it’s a story about power, and what happens when nobles pursue ruthless ambitions, the resulting devastations, and ultimately, what it takes to make people see beyond local politics if they can at all.
A Game of Thrones (1996) kicks off with solid promise. We’re introduced to eight characters who include men, women, and children, and completely immersed in their heads so that thought rules the narrative. This approach is critical, because the characters are so compelling, their inner turmoils as engaging as their actions. Most of them are Starks, including Ned’s bastard Jon Snow, and it’s easy to identify with this decent family. Tyrion Lannister is also point-of-view, a hideously deformed midget, and secret hero of sorts (Martin says a reflection of himself in many ways), half loyal to his ruthless family, though considerably more kind, and entirely unmatched in shrewdness and wit. Finally there is Daenerys, and it’s impossible not to fall in love with her, even if the Targaryens are genetically mad and fancy themselves above the gods.
The gritty realism of A Game of Thrones adds to its success. Unexpected tragedies rub our noses in the fact that we’re light-years away from Jordan-fantasy, not least the horrors which befall the Starks. Bran gets pushed off the castle wall and is crippled for life. Sansa’s wolf is slain as a scapegoat through no fault of her own. Most stunningly, Ned — the novel’s central character and only lead political figure who can truly be called a “good guy” — is publicly executed after being promised mercy, and we’re left as pulverized as his daughters. By the end of the first novel, it’s clear that happy endings will be foreign to A Song of Ice and Fire. Robb’s acclamation as King of the North, while uplifting, is precarious in the extreme. Despite his defeating the Lannisters at Whispering Wood, he’s a fifteen-year old struggling desperately to fill his father’s shoes, pitted now against not only the Lannisters in the West, but the southern forces under Renly, who is also contending for the Iron Throne.
The cutthroat politics are thrilling and add a layer of mystery to A Song of Ice and Fire, as we mull over who’s pulling whose strings. Obviously someone has been fomenting war between the Starks and Lannisters. At the start of the story, Catelyn is told by her sister Lysa that Cersei killed Jon Arryn, and when she comes to King’s Landing she’s informed by Petyr that Tyrion tried to murder Bran. We know, of course, that it was Jaime who pushed Bran, but only to protect his incestuous secret. It’s not clear that the Lannisters are behind Jon Arryn’s murder, and Tyrion is clean of foul play in any case. Based on Arya’s encounter under the Red Keep, it would appear that Illyrio and Varys are plotting to restore the Targaryens and thus want the realm in chaos. Petyr is evidently involved with the plot, but also may be be playing his own murky game. It’s hard to portray tangled motives and hidden agendas in a way that respects readers without jerking them around, but Martin is as good as Stephen Donaldson in this regard, especially in the way he makes allies more lethal than enemies.
Plotting is used superbly to reveal geography. Winterfell and King’s Landing are opposite in every way, and not just climate-wise. The northern fortress is a bastion of honor and stability, while the southern capital seethes with treachery and constant danger. Noble personalities mirror locale to a tee, with the Starks being simple as their rustic domain, the Lannisters as subterranean as Maegor’s Holdfast. Meanwhile, between them in the east, the secluded and near impregnable Eyrie perches high on a cliff, a cluster of seven towers reachable only by a mule trail or dumbwaiter — a perfect seat, as it turns out, for the paranoid Lysa Arryn, as well as the sickly heir who still, alarmingly, suckles her breast at the age of six.
Speaking of the Eyrie, Tyrion’s captivity is arguably the most memorable piece of drama in A Game of Thrones. Catelyn is convinced that he tried to kill her son, which of course plays right into her sister’s claims that Lannisters murdered her husband. They waste no time getting Tyrion thrown into the Eyrie’s infamous sky cells: dungeons which end in walls of open air overlooking a 600-foot drop. His imprisonment, his shrewd manipulation of Lysa and Bronn, and the way he ultimately wins his freedom from the mountain stronghold are some of the most engaging sequences written in fantasy literature, and the first things that come to mind when I think of this novel. On top of this, his later recruitment of the unsavory mountain clans is most fitting and results in endless entertainment: Shagga’s repeated threat to “cut off people’s cocks and feed them to the goats” is classic, but I laugh uproariously at the part where this barbaric runt crashes the war tent of Tywin Lannister (of all people), snaps a guard’s sword over his knee, and bellows obnoxious demands.
The focus on backbiting court intrigue only accentuates the supernatural trouble brewing in the north, where of course the real threat is coming from. As Osha the wildling remarks to Bran, “it’s north that Robb should be taking his swords, not south”. Political ambition and hot-headed vengeance seem rather trivial next to the cold, undead menace about to be unleashed after an 8000-year silence, and the fact that the Others haven’t made an actual appearance yet (save in the prologue) only makes the threat more palpable; this is a patient series, not one that rushes into cheap thrills. As for Daenerys in the east, she at first appears to be just another contender for the Iron Throne (albeit an obscure one), until we realize she is able to tap into and resurrect an ancient magic that once devastated islands and continents. When Ned protests King Robert’s decision to send an assassin after her, we applaud his integrity even knowing that he’s being drastically unwise. It’s nothing short of brilliant the way Martin can make the continental game of thrones so dominating and compelling while also trivializing it under the over-arching “ice and fire” plots of the north and east.
And on the subject of the east, the lack of a map for this region is frustrating though admittedly heightens the mystery of exotic places like Vaes Dothrak and the Free Cities, and that was apparently Martin’s intent. There is a well-known guesswork attempt drawn up by a fan, though Lhazar is glaringly misplaced. We know this based on Drogo’s turning point, when he decides to overcome his Dothraki-bred fear of the ocean and go to war on Westeros on Daenerys’ behalf. (His vow to her after she narrowly escapes the assassination attempt is grand: “I will take my khalasar west across the black salt water as no khal has done before, kill the men in the iron suits, rape their women, take their children as slaves, and bring their broken gods back to Vaes Dothrak to bow down beneath the Mother of Mountains.”) He leaves Vaes Dothrak, “striking south and west across the plains”, but arriving in the next chapter at Lhazar, which on the map is east. So something isn’t right, and hopefully a real map will be forthcoming.
For a story we know will span seven volumes, A Game of Thrones closes perfectly: Robb and Renly are proclaimed kings in the north and south, in opposition to Joffrey; the Night’s Watch is about to go beyond the Wall to find out what Mance Rayder and his wildlings are up to; Daenerys loses her husband and unborn child to treachery, but gives “birth” to her dragons. A perfect stage is set for the second book, which could take us almost anywhere.
If A Game of Thrones laid the bedrock for a promising epic, A Clash of Kings (1998) shows how to surpass it: raise the stakes, twist in the hopelessness, and put your characters through even more hell. With their father dead and mother negotiating with Renly in the south, the younger Stark children are left to fend for themselves, and it’s hard to say whose plight is worst: Sansa’s at King’s Landing, Arya’s at Harrenhal, or Bran’s at Winterfell when it falls terribly to Theon’s treachery. This book is about kids having to grow up in the worst ways when everything is taken from them, surrounded by as much hostility as Dany in the far east, and forced to come of age before their time. It’s a story of grim journeys and brutal introspection, which allows the novel to breathe organically, almost like a Dickens classic crossed with a war novel.
But A Clash of Kings is ultimately Tyrion’s story, as the dwarf assumes the mantle of the King’s Hand (barely with his sister’s blessing), and takes lead over the realm. Like Ned Stark before him, he gets the most chapters; unlike his predecessor, he proves mighty effective in getting what he wants. Some of my favorite sections involve his rude japes and schemes against various members of Joffrey’s court. His banishment of Janos Slynt is priceless; his manipulations of Pycelle, Petyr, and Varys to find out who is Cersei’s pawn is deftly orchestrated; his poisoning of his sister as he goes behind her back and robs her of her protective guard grandly amusing; and his engineering of the city’s defense (with wildfire and chain) against Stannis brilliant. If Ned’s honor was his downfall, Tyrion’s cunning is his salvation: he knows exactly how to play Cersei’s game and undercuts her every move. It’s in this book I think we really see what Martin means when he says that Tyrion is much a reflection of himself. His internal thoughts and dialogue are so believable that he almost has to be a real character.
The chaos left in the wake of Robert’s death is felt on every page. At the end of A Game of Thrones it looked like there were three contenders for the crown (Joffrey, Renly, Robb), plus an obscure fourth (Daenerys), but we quickly learn that there are two more (Stannis, Balon), and if the “King Beyond the Wall” (Mance) is included as a viable threat, that brings the count to seven. If this is the kind of civil war Illyrio and Varys were aiming for, they sure got it, but it isn’t clear how it’s supposed to help Daenerys, who is having a hard enough time coming up with an army of her own. Things are out of control, especially in the central riverlands; battles are ugly, unglamorous affairs, and there is plenty of rape and torture. Arya’s chapters in particular show the casual effects of war on countryside commoners, and with Sansa we’re treated to a brutally convincing portrait of starving, riotous mobs inside the capital. Even more so than A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings feels like a medieval history lesson rather than a fantasy, with lines between good and evil blurred to near invisibility, and certainly no hope for last-minute rescues by wizards and heroes.
Ironically, at the same time, we do get more hints of sorcery. Daenerys has her dragons now, and they draw obsequious devotion from dangerous people, most notably the blue-lipped warlock Pyat Pree. The novel’s most dramatic chapter occurs in the House of the Undying, where she receives her prophecy as the Child of Three, and barely escapes with her life. Here we learn the key identity of her nephew Prince Aegon (“his is the song of ice and fire”), who was supposedly murdered in infancy, forcing interesting questions about the identity of the “dragon with three heads”. There is also Melisandre, the eastern priestess who serves Stannis, proclaiming him the messianic Azor Ahai come again. Despite the less than impressive sword he pulls from the wreckage of the blasphemously burned statues of the Seven Gods, Melisandre does not appear to be a fraud. Her shadowbinding skills are undeniable, and Renly’s death quite disturbing. It’s intriguing that the only effective religionist so far in A Song of Ice and Fire follows neither the Seven Gods nor the old ones of the north, either of whom seem more benevolent than this fire deity who lets loose shadow creatures to murder on a whim. Real power comes from the east, whether in the form of dragons or gods, and one suspects that some form of this “fire” magic is ultimately what will be needed to combat the icy menace of the north.
Speaking of which, that threat remains hidden yet palpably real as Mormont’s expedition moves beyond the Wall. Abandoned villages and Craster’s news of a wildling assembly hint at an impending invasion, as if the supernatural threat of the Others weren’t bad enough. Craster is bad news himself, more than just a pig who keeps women as chattel and uses his daughters as sex slaves. He apparently sacrifices his infant sons to keep the Others at bay — according to Mormont, “the boys are his offerings, or prayers if you will” — but it’s not clear whether the babies are offered for appeasement or transformation (do they evolve into Others or wights, or are they just devoured?). We still haven’t actually seen an Other since the prologue of the first book, and while this backstage approach has built excellent tension, we’re about due for a pay-off in the next volume. Amidst all this, Jon holds his own in a brotherhood of scumbags, and I should say that I’ve become a complete fan of the Night’s Watch. I like that this noble order is comprised of ignoble people; I enjoy the furies and frustrations of mean characters, and am delighted to see more of them.
Which brings me to Theon Greyjoy. Making him a point-of-view character was a good move, since it allows us not only a window onto the grim culture of the Ironborn, but an inside look at someone less admirable than a Stark. Tyrion and Dany, for all their Lannister and Targaryen baggage, are likable characters. Theon isn’t likable at all. He’s petty, small, cruel, and an incredible turncoat. He’s also the butt of endless ridicule from his sister Asha, and this breaks out in hilarious indignities such as her grabbing his cock, slamming a battle-axe into the table in front of him (to the laughter of onlooking warriors), and putting a fine line on his “valor” in killing Bran and Rickon (“Tell me true, who gave you the fiercest fight, the cripple or the babe?”). I hope the miserable shit returns in future volumes, assuming Bolton’s bastard hasn’t left him dead.
Davos, on the other hand, has almost zero interest value, and is really just a pair of eyes to show us Stannis. His best chapter is at Storm’s End, where he ferries Melisandre under the stronghold and witnesses her hideous birthing of the shadow creature which kills Cortnay Penrose (a replay of Renly’s fate). Davos’ perspective leaves little doubt that the shadow is an offspring of Stannis and the priestess, and for all his grace’s pretensions to righteous justice, he has evidently sold his soul to something as vile as the Others.
Like the first book, the second closes suitably while pointing forward: the Battle of the Blackwater sees the ignominious defeat of Stannis, with the Tyrells going over to the Lannisters; Jon is ordered to become a double agent and goes over to the wildlings; Daenerys flees a city whose rulers want her dead, and prepares to go overseas. Gods only know where the poor Stark kids are going. Martin has served up twice the dread of A Game of Thrones and left us with a fifth of the hope, and if that sounds suffocating, be sure it’s a wave of fresh air in a moribund genre. And a storm is coming…
That A Storm of Swords (2000) was published only two years after A Clash of Kings convinces me that Martin is at his best under pressure. Not only is this book a giant (200 pages more than either of the first two books), its quality matches the quantity, opposite the fourth volume which would be published after a five-year interval and leave a bit to be desired. The man must have been possessed when he wrote it. Nothing else accounts for the Olympian narrative and quick roll-out. Make no mistake, A Storm of Swords is a page-turning monster, a roller coaster of shocking twists and brutal climaxes that leave us wondering what hit us. It’s the most gratifying and satisfying novel I’ve read since Shogun.
The cast has grown tremendously by this point, and it’s a wonder Martin can juggle all his characters and keep them so interesting, even the non-point-of-view ones. Tywin Lannister steals the show at King’s Landing, as he picks up where Tyrion left off, while undoing all of his son’s accomplishments in a stroke. He runs over Cersie as effortlessly as breathing air, something no other human being can boast, most notably with her forced marriage to a Tyrell cripple. Tyrion, of course, does his best to keep a straight face and not laugh his ass off at his sister’s fury — until his father turns around and shafts him with the hand of Sansa Stark.
But by far my favorite non-point-of-view character is Lady Olenna, the tiny old shrew known as The Queen of Thorns. It’s almost as if James Clavell wrote the chapter in which she and the Tyrell ladies question Sansa about Joffrey; the hennish preliminaries are a riot. Olenna holds forth on the oafishness of men, slamming her ladies with dismissive rejoinders, and I even felt like I was in the shoes of the servant who unwisely said, “The cheese will be served after the cakes, my lady,” as if the obvious retort wouldn’t follow, “The cheese will be served when I want it served, and I want it served now.” She only gets one full chapter, but a very memorable one, and I marvel at the way Martin can breathe this kind of mundane lady-talk and make it so engaging.
There is also the growing twist in perspective, as we learn that the more loathsome characters aren’t as bad as we thought. Jaime, now point-of-view, is wonderfully complex. That a murderer of kings and children can be made sympathetic shows the strength of writing on display, and it helps that Martin enjoys the Lannisters to no end. Underneath Jaime’s obnoxious arrogance lurks a conscience, but it’s his incestuous sex drive which rules him, at least until the fall out with Cersie. I’m certainly not going to pretend to like him as much as his brother — and I’d be lying through my teeth if I opined that he didn’t deserve getting his hand chopped off — but when he’s not in thrall to his sister’s cunt, he can show integrity, and let’s be frank, someone saddled with a father like Tywin Lannister deserves some leeway.
It’s often asserted that Martin boxed himself in a corner with this book, because “everyone dies”. In fact, not a single point-of-view character is killed. (Catelyn is the partial exception, strangled to death at the Red Wedding; in the final pages we see that she’s a half-resurrected creature out for blood.) But the illusion that everyone dies is real, since supporting characters are as compelling as major ones. I was stunned by the murder of Robb Stark; I seriously thought he would win back the north. Tywin Lannister’s demise is equally memorable, though for different reasons, and perhaps the novel’s most priceless scene: a furious Tyrion confronts his father, who treats him with customary arrogance; the dwarf shoots him with a crossbow, his bowels unload, and the sight and smell of this spectacle puts to bed a hilariously comical myth — that Tywin Lannister shat gold. As for Joffrey, his death was long overdue, and a final good riddance. I’m not crying over Lysa Arryn either, though Petyr’s sudden treachery caught me off guard. I am saddened by Ygritte, and I miss Lord Commander Mormont; I was hoping to see more of Balon Greyjoy; and I really liked Oberyn Martell, and really thought he was going to succeed in killing Gregor.
The deaths of Robb and Joffrey are especially brutal. As upsetting as the Red Wedding is, it’s the novel’s best chapter, and could serve as a template for “what fantasy authors should do more often with their protagonists”. I really didn’t see it coming, though there were enough cues: Grey Wind’s feral snarling, the frenetic atmosphere of booming music and torrential rainfall, and general sense of impending doom. The narrative escalates and pounds like the drums in Walder’s keep, until the heads finally roll, and that Arya comes so close to reuniting with Robb and her mother before they’re killed twists in the knife mercilessly, as if Martin needs to prove beyond a doubt that he’s at home with nihilism. The King’s Wedding, meanwhile, runs brilliantly parallel to the Red, and again the narrative crescendo takes us over the edge. Joffrey’s choking spasms are as violent as the outrageous abuse he has heaped on Tyrion, and while on one level we applaud the fates, on another we’re left aghast. As loathsome as Joffrey has been throughout the course of three long novels, his death disturbs for originating at the same source as Robb’s. Melisandre is, to me, the most hideous and terrifying individual so far in A Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s an added brilliance that she’s the true assassin, working her regicides through supernatural forces across the sea at Dragonstone. Walder Frey and Lady Olenna would appear to be proxy killers in the grander scheme of things, which forces interesting questions about the nature of free will and fate in Westeros.
These horrors, however, have nothing on the events in the north, where after patient development over the previous books, everything suddenly explodes. The Others assault the Fist of the First Men, the wildlings assault the Wall, and Jon finds himself going from renegade to lord commander, nearly losing his life on both sides to get there. Jon, in fact, is arguably the central character of A Storm of Swords (if the book can be said to have one: there’s so damn much going on that it’s hard to pinpoint someone like Ned in the first and Tyrion in the second), and the battle for the Wall is the payoff we’ve been waiting for. The early chapters are excellent too, as we meet Mance Rayder and are immersed in the wildling culture. The wildlings are essentially primitive libertarians, deciding how they live, which battle squads they join, and while men marry women by stealing them, they’d best treat them decently if they don’t want to get knifed in bed; we even learn that men have no say in women’s abortions. Mance is known as the “King Beyond the Wall”, but he’s an anti-king (no one kneels to him), a war leader who holds the respect of the clans by constantly earning it. Aligned with this theme of anti-kingship runs Jon’s struggle with Stannis’ offer of the north, which he ultimately refuses, electing to remain in the Night’s Watch instead of becoming the new Stark of Winterfell and have his bastard status wiped clean.
Speaking of which, there has been no end of debate as to Jon’s parentage. (Good overviews of candidates can be found at The Citadel and The Tower of the Hand.) Most favor Rhaegar and Lyanna, and it’s an admittedly compelling theory. Enough hints have been dropped that these two were in love before Robert’s Rebellion, and that Rhaegar, unlike his father, was a decent character and perhaps hard to envision as a rapist. Ned’s internal thoughts from the first book are marshaled as the strongest evidence: he remembers Lyanna dying in “her bed of blood”, which could refer to childbirth instead of being slain; he recalls his promise to her (Promise me, Ned) at strange times, for instance when Sansa begs for Lady’s life, the comparison makes sense if Lyanna had also been pleading for a life (Jon’s) rather than a northern burial; on top of this, there is the touching scene between Ned and Arya where he affirms the necessity of honorable lies.
Whether or not Jon has dragon blood remains to be seen, but meanwhile, the dragon in the east is growing teeth like her newborn. If the Red Wedding is the best (though most upsetting) chapter, and the battle for the Wall the most apocalyptic, Dany’s blazing ride down the ranks of the Unsullied in Astapor is the most thrilling. I was convinced she was about to lose Drogon, but even though that’s a feint, Martin doesn’t cheat: her victory over the slavers is shrewdly earned, and I get chills at the point where she cracks the whip and thunderously cries out, and her dragons roast everyone in sight. Her subsequent takeover of Mereen is epic, and whilst her decision to abide in the city has irked those who can’t wait to see the Targaryen move on Westeros, it’s the right move. True to form, Martin refuses to rush things with his characters; Dany, like her dragons, still has growing to do.
As with the dragons, so too the wargs, who are also three in number. Martin does an especially good job developing Bran, whose frustrations as a cripple make him want to lose himself in Summer completely. Jon is a rather interesting case, because if he is Targaryen, that makes him a dragon-warg, which could have endless implications. As we’ve long suspected, Nymeria is still at large in the riverlands (where Arya was forced to abandon her in the first book), and though we only glimpse her through hazy visions, her savaging of the Bloody Mummers is a fine comeback for the she-wolf. As far as I’m concerned, Arya’s journey has been the most arduous of the three wargs: she may not be a cripple or battling undead armies, but she’s been out of enough frying pans and into as many fires just trying to survive. The only reprieve has been amongst Beric Dondarrion’s outlaws, a band of Robin Hoods who persist in following Ned Stark’s command to bring Gregor Clegane to justice. Thoros of Myr is as benign as Melisandre is malignant, a red priest who can resurrect people from the dead if imperfectly, and again we see that real power comes from the east. Even Arya’s magic coin is foreign, and I somehow suspect she’s destined to be reunited in the Free Cities with the Braavosi assassin.
Tyrion is also sailing east, and he requires special attention. His mummer trial, “confession” before the royal court, and demand for a combat champion harks back to the Eyrie, of course, but the drama is more stirring. When Shae testifies against him with the astounding lie that he raped her while making her call him “my giant of Lannister”, his reaction to the crowd’s laughter is spot on: I saved you all, he thought, I saved this vile city and your worthless lives. What he says, then, is supremely dignified: “Of Joffrey’s death I am innocent. I am guilty of a more monstrous crime — of being a dwarf. I didn’t kill Joffrey, but I wish I had. I wish I had enough poison for you all. You make me sorry I am not the monster you would have me be.” This scene is pivotal for Tyrion’s character, completely cements my adoration for him, and will surely mold what is to follow in the east. He’s completely had it, and even given up on Jaime whose revelation about Tysha is the last straw. Justice is finally delivered in A Song of Ice and Fire when he disowns his brother and kills his father.
I can’t conclude without mentioning Samwell, who is sort of a secret hero of mine. What he does for Ghilly is precious, and his manipulation of Cotter Pyke and Denys Mallister brilliant, but before those his confrontation with the Other — the first white walker seen since the prologue of the first book — is superb, and puts me in mind of the other fat Sam who faced off Shelob. I don’t think it’s an accident that the Other rides an undead spider, and while I would certainly not accuse Martin of riffing Tolkien, the cues are hardly subtle. It’s a great homage.
It’s painful turning the last page of A Storm of Swords; the story’s momentum feels like it could carry a thousand more. But it does end opportunely, with Bran going over the Wall, Arya and Tyrion fleeing overseas, and practically everyone else on the main continent dead, half-dead, or isolated. It’s the kind of novel that suggests the author had me in mind as his sole audience, as every part of it is saturated with exactly the things I look for in fiction. Truth be told, heights like this are almost never attained by fantasy authors — and they’re quite difficult to maintain, as the next volume in the series would prove.
Much vitriol has been heaped on A Feast for Crows (2005), even by hardcore Martin fans, as a glance through enough blogs and amazon reviews will make plain. “Much ado about little”, “inconsequential”, and “dull” are some of the most frequent charges leveled, but frankly this fourth volume is nowhere near as bad as many claim, though I’m somewhat damning with faint praise. The fact remains that it isn’t as good as the previous books.
There are two reasons for this, one of which is forgivable, the other inexcusable. The forgivable one involves the gargantuan size of what was supposed to be the fourth book, A Dance with Dragons, and Martin’s reluctant decision to split it in two. The end result is a bonus novel, A Feast for Crows, which lays the foundation for new developments in Westeros after the devastations of the third book, with story arcs in the north (Jon, Bran) and east (Daenerys, Tyrion) getting postponed. With the “ice and fire” plots held in abeyance, A Feast for Crows feels incomplete, but that’s fairly an illusion, since it’s an extra leg. We’re not actually being short-changed, just left frustrated by having to wait so long to see what happens with our favorite characters.
And it turns out to be a wiser move than Martin perhaps thought, because after A Storm of Swords, it doesn’t hurt to step back and breathe. To go from those searing narrative crescendos into more of the same could ironically fatigue the series. The fourth book effectively serves as an interlude, showing the grasps for power in the aftermath of the war of the kings. In this light, I’m not overly resentful of not seeing my favorite characters in a novel that was never supposed to have been.
What I do resent is the inexcusable crime of making Brienne a point-of-view character, and a significant one, at the expense of important people who needed more fleshing out. Brienne is less interesting than Davos and a chore to read in every sentence. Even worse, and unlike Davos, her story itself is empty, a pointless quest to find Sansa, spanning eight whole chapters and doing nothing whatsoever to advance the plot. Martin clearly had no direction here, and his struggle to fill pages is transparent. These wanderings should have been scrapped and more space given to critical areas: the upheaval in the Iron Islands, the goings-on down in Dorne, and, most obviously, the Eyrie. If you’re going to suspend your key characters for an entire book, you’d best make the others worth reading about, and Brienne is anything but.
Cersie, on the other hand, is a treat. I was hoping Martin would get inside her head at some point in the series, and I got my wish tenfold. A Feast for Crows is clearly her story, as she not only gets the most chapters (ten), but many of the best, and from which we learn she’s more a narcissist and less the cold bitch everyone thinks. This complements the “real Jaime” we’ve been exposed to since A Storm of Swords, though unlike her brother, Cersie isn’t any more likable for knowing her better. She positively seethes with paranoia (seeing a devilish Tyrion under every rock), sexual frustration (I love her cheerless lesbo fling with Lady Taena), raging insecurity (stacking the royal council with blindly loyal dimwits), manipulative cruelty (framing Margaery for treason, consigning innocent people to torture), and even a madness worthy of Aerys (burning down the Tower of the Hand and getting her rocks off it). Jamie understands her all too well by now, knowing that crows will feast if his sister continues on her self-destructive paths. When she’s finally imprisoned by the high septon, it feels like a justice rarely seen in Martin’s world, and even more so when Jaime throws her plea for help into the fire.
Contrary to the impressions given by Martin’s hate mail, his skills as a writer haven’t diminished in A Feast for Crows,; he still breathes engaging narrative. (There’s not much fiction I can tolerate these days, but Martin at his allegedly worst still has me turning pages.) Yet this is precisely why I’m nonplussed by the cliffhangers he evidently saw the need for to compensate for a less dramatically paced novel. Brienne shouting an unclear word that stays her execution at the last moment is an outrageous way to end her story arc, as is Arya waking up blind, as is Samwell encountering the prologue’s villain in the book’s final sentence. The George Martin of the first three volumes didn’t need to go out so desperately; his narrative arcs were strong enough without the added supplements of sophomoric suspense-teasers. Even if this interlude novel doesn’t carry the dramatic intensity of the previous books, it’s for the most part decent on its own right, and would have fared better with organic closure.
The best chapters in fact belong to the Ironborn, and it’s here the crows really come out to feast, at the kingsmoot on Old Wyk, as the Greyjoy rivals lay aggressive claims to the Seastone Chair. Victarion promises to finish Balon’s campaign in the north, Asha offers peace with minor territories along the western shore, and whilst each is persuasive, it’s the cruel and ungodly Euron who wins people over with the dragonhorn acquired during exile, promising conquest of all Westeros. However the “dance with dragons” plays out in the next novel, he will surely plague Dany, and it’s difficult to predict who is in for the ruder awakening as he sends Victarion off to Slaver’s Bay to “retrieve” her as his wife. My favorite Greyjoy is the priest Aeron, whose homiletical stings tickle me to no end, and who clearly has no intention of letting Euron keep his kingship, insisting that “captains raised Euron up, but the common folk will tear him down”. But I somehow suspect it will be a certain Targaryen who brings him down, unless that dragonhorn can do what he says it can without killing the poor fool who blows it.
If A Feast for Crows has been overly maligned, it does leave us hungering for the return of critical characters and things only hinted at. The sorceries being worked on Gregor Clegane point to an unspeakable monster, but this thread is woefully underdeveloped. Catelyn is another undead horror — and she’s evidently turned Beric’s outlaws from Robin Hoods into Dirty Harrys — but Brienne’s wasted excursions were not the best way to get us back to her. Other tasty treats fill the vacuum, however, not least the regenesis of the Faith Militant: readers of this blog will know that I’m delighted to see aspects of the crusades coming to life in A Song of Ice and Fire. Let’s hope the fifth book makes as resounding a comeback as the fervent soldiers of the Swords and Stars.
A Dance with Dragons (2011) turns out an embarrassment of riches, compensating for the sometimes questionable purpose of its counterpart A Feast for Crows. Old characters feel like long lost friends (even the insane one now horribly tortured), and new ones are just as juicy. Sometimes it feels unwieldy for being all over the place with ancillary plotting, but for the most part there is proper focus. This is in fact the real feast, whereas the previous book danced around center stage.
And if the previous was about opportunity in aftermath, this one is about being captive of one’s own command. No sooner have emancipations been inaugurated than they are cancelled by cutthroat tactics and betrayals. Jon’s decision to make common cause with the wildlings and join them to the Night’s Watch is nothing less than treason (as he is rightly accused of), not to mention naive. Like Ned he’s a rare goodness making a questionable leader. But even he doesn’t hold a candle to Dany, whose crusade in Slaver’s Bay is collapsing around her ears. Astapor’s “liberation” has resulted in a simple inversion of power, and she sits powerless at a distance as the city is sacked and burned. She can’t even rule her own capital, assailed from within and without, and hit with maddening contradictions: liberated slaves find their lot worse than before; the closing of the fighting pits kills Mereen’s economy — and even the “freedom” of pit fighters who miss their glory. When Dany advises them to join her army or become sellswords, one scores a zinger by retorting that he should fight neither for her nor anyone else, but for himself, as a slave, as he damn well pleases.
It doesn’t help that her dragons are out of control, requiring the imprisonment of Viserion and Rhaegal, and that Drogon goes missing in action after he roasts some poor Meerenese child. Drogon has become a favorite “character” of mine, and that’s saying something for a rather unspeakable beast. His dance in Daznak’s Pit is everything I hoped for, the novel’s best chapter, outdoing even the Astapor roasting in A Storm of Swords. My heart skipped a beat as I thought he was about to flame Dany point-blank, but he knows his mother in the end. And the final chapter is simply transcendent, as Dany, all fevered, ascends on Drogon’s back, sweeps down on a Dothraki rider, and with her dragon eats her kill on the grass sea.
And a further word about Dany. Her lousy leadership has pissed off many readers but gratifies me hugely. Martin continues to make the make the right moves and refuses to supply superheroes. I love the sexual power Daario has over her, and the bedroom scenes of slutty adolescence; I respect the way her passions against slavery leave her paralyzed and unable to make good choices for Mereen. Ironically, her only responsible decision ends up being the worst: marrying a Meerenese nobleman who can influence the Harpy’s Sons and stop them murdering freedman, when in fact Hizdahr is the one pulling the strings if he’s not the Harpy himself. It seems clear, at least, that he’s the one who tried poisoning Dany in Daznak’s Pit; Barristan’s agonizing decision to arrest his new king is well played, as is his implementation of a council to rule in Mereen until Dany’s return.
Tyrion too winds up a prisoner of his situation, and literally a slave. Humiliated beyond end, he’s forced to ride the back of a sow, but is amazingly able to accept ambiguous truths about slavery, which is more than can be said for Dany. As a highborn Lannister he can’t share Penny’s desire to remain owned, yet sees her point of view: Slaves were chattels, yes. They could be bought and sold, whipped and branded, in a sense no more than dogs or horses. But most lords treated their dogs and horses well enough. Proud men might shout that they would sooner die free than live as slaves, but pride was cheap; when the steel struck the flint, such men were rare as dragon’s teeth; elsewise the world would not be so full of slaves. Penny just wants someone to care for her and tell her what to do, as has always been her station, and that pretty much sums up the desires of many slaves. I suspect Martin did a good deal of research on the subject when writing this volume. The chapters set in Volantis and the Slaver’s Bay area exude reality to the extent they feel like a history lesson funneled through entertaining fiction.
Some of the best writing is delivered with Bran, whose frequent warging of Hodor would no doubt give Stephen Donaldson a conniption. (The worst sin in the Thomas Covenant Chronicles is possessing someone, even for good purposes.) It’s quite possible that Bran has become the most powerful character of the series, an immobile tree granted, but immersed in a virtual reality that holds potential for near omniscience. I’m a sucker for forest-type heroes, and his new greenseer identity as a weir-warg makes him my third favorite after Caerroil Wildwood and Treebeard. His sister meanwhile undergoes her own metamorphosis into a faceless assassin, and the writing on display is again strong. Arya’s preparations to take out her first victim involve a bizarre transmutation into a distorted ugly girl, accompanied by sensations of choking, bone crunching, and even a near heart attack.
Identity conflict is in fact such a major theme in this book that it intrudes on the basest possible level. And this brings me to Theon Greyjoy. As we’ve long suspected, he’s been kept alive since the takeover of Winterfell, starved, flayed, and dismembered at the Dreadfort until completely insane. His Reek identity has been pounded into him that he chants it like a mantra, as if to ward himself in advance against consequences from fancying himself a lord. And as Reek he becomes a curiously pathetic hero. Drawn into rescuing the fake Arya, he’s the last line of defense against Ramsay’s attackers as the wildling spearwives die around him. Once again, Martin shows redemptive possibilities in even the most despicable people, in Theon’s case made possible only by extreme degradation. (On a lighter note: his sister Asha gets in a good rape fantasy with Qarl, showing how degradations can be enjoyed.)
But if A Dance with Dragons takes much to the next level, it isn’t perfect. Frustratingly, it repeats the cliffhanger strategy of Feast, ending narrative arcs on aggravating abruptions worthy of the latter day Guy Gavriel Kay. As if to underscore his incompetence in handling Brienne, Martin leaves us with her sudden appearance at the end of Jamie’s only chapter, meaning we’re still clueless about Stoneheart. The last we see of Davos is learning from Lord Manderly where Rickon is hiding, though we are left to guess. These and others betray an insecure purpose to wake the reader up in last moments, as if we could have been dozing to begin with. The single exception is Jon’s cliffhanger, which is quite good, and more reminiscent of Stephen Donaldson (the master of cliffhangers) than Kay. His sickening murder at the hands of his sworn brothers follows logically and after plenty of pay-off in his story arc — not least the revelation that he is the real Azor Azai.
And speaking of prophecies, it’s worth discussing the dragon with three heads. For reasons that escape me, fans are crying foul over Aegon. It was clearly established in A Clash of Kings that the series title refers to him, and since the House of the Undying I’d been assuming that he was indeed in hiding somewhere. His return “out of nowhere” isn’t a cheat, and I’m astounded more fans didn’t see this coming, though perhaps there’s been willful blindness: we’ve wanted Dany to inherit the Iron Throne for so long now and resent her upstart nephew who hasn’t proven himself a fraction as much as she has. That’s Martin’s world. On the other hand, just because Aegon’s role “is the song of ice and fire” doesn’t mean he must be a dragon head. The jury’s still out on Jon: if he is a Targaryen, he could be destined to show down the Others on dragonback, though I confess I’m losing faith in this scenario. Azor Azhai has enough to fulfil without taking on dragon prophecies. I think it will be Aegon who supplements Dany and Tyrion, though I can envision Tyrion ultimately working with Jon, or even trading his role, on account of the friendship established in A Game of Thrones. There would be a Martinesque poetry in two bastard sons (one of Aerys, one of Rhaegar) sharing a dragon like this.
My opinion of Melisandre has undergone something of a revision now that we get a special chapter from her viewpoint. In A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords she came across genuinely terrifying, indeed the most frightening character of the series — with the ability to see threats to her person well in advance, killing kings at a distance through sorcery, and birthing hideous shadow assassins that seem impervious to any sort of attack. Even if it was never likely that Stannis was Azor Azai, and her dualistic worldview suspect, she has been an imposing sorceress with lethal skills. Now inside her mind, we see how fallible she is. Her confusing Alys Karstarck for Arya, not to mention her astounding inability to recognize Jon’s messianic identity when served on a silver platter, hints at prophetic incompetence, though this isn’t exactly a complaint. It’s just true to the world of A Song of Ice and Fire in which people aren’t so daunting once you get to know them. Ironically, this fallibility casts her utilitarianism in a more benign light, as the willingness to offer blood sacrifice is more misguided and less coldly calculating.
Though it’s painful leaving Essos and the north, I’m grateful that Martin revisited King’s Landing and left us there, as it points nicely forward. Cersie is in a hard way, and amusingly so: the charges leveled against her by the faith, including deicide, are irrefutable, and it’s entirely fitting that she atones for her sins by being shorn and paraded naked through the streets. The cap-off is good too, as Kevan Lannister gets the same rude surprise his brother did — shot by a crossbow at the announcement of winter’s arrival. A Dance with Dragons may sag under the weight of pointless side-stories, but it’s a satisfying epic on whole.
A Game of Thrones — 5
A Clash of Kings — 5
A Storm of Swords — 5+
A Feast for Crows — 3
A Dance with Dragons — 4
Update: A Dream of Spring — 4 ½