When I heard that the last Song of Ice and Fire book would be released this summer, I called bullshit like everyone else. In hindsight, I suppose skipping over The Winds of Winter was Martin’s best move. The sixth season of the TV series did more than steal his thunder; it underscored how badly he had fallen as a writer. Like the early novels it moved mountains of plotting, and some critics are calling it the best season yet. If Martin ever does bother finishing The Winds of Winter he should simply adapt the TV-script with minimal modifications. Weiss and Benioff showed him up big time this year, and the message was loud and clear: Remember who your readers are, George — what they signed on for, and what you used to be capable of.
Martin was evidently worried this might happen, because for the past year he’s been rushing to crank out book seven. Yes it’s really here, and it’s pretty damn good, certainly the best entry since A Storm of Swords, though it shows signs of haste. At 574 pages it’s the shortest volume (even Feast for Crows topped 600), and overloaded with shocks, deaths, and surprises that come flying out-of-nowhere and sometimes feel forced. Above all it betrays an author who is pissed at how superior his story has become in the hands of TV adapters. A Dream of Spring is Martin’s desperate appeal that he can still write a good story, and his blatant attempt to go out with a bang before the show writers can. He’s largely successful in this regard. He was too under the gun to craft anything close to a masterpiece; but where he does score, the payoffs are grand.
Huge spoilers follow, so stop now if you don’t want to hear them. Bran is the character who demands the most attention, but before his memorable lead in the first chapter comes a six-section prologue which in some ways — and I hope I’m not damning the book on whole by saying this — is the most suspenseful part. Martin’s novels have always relied on prologues to set the stage, but they’re usually brief and seen through the lens of trivial characters. In A Dream of Spring he serves up what is virtually a short story about the Citadel conspiracy in Oldtown: six chapter equivalents from Samwell’s point of view. (I’m sure most of these were originally intended as Samwell chapters for The Winds of Winter.) Sam has basically traded warfare at the Wall for an intellectual battle at the Citadel, in which sorcery clashes with science and leaves no easy place for his allegiance. It doesn’t hurt that the “antiquated” school has colorful conspirators carrying the flag, nor does it help that “progressive” maesters do little more than sit around and pass gas; Sam is torn both ways, starting as a key player for a Targaryen comeback until shafted by Sand Snake Sarella — a shocking twist that pays dividends as he ultimately throws in his lot with the dominant faction.
In some ways the Citadel conspiracy is my favorite part of A Dream of Spring. It has the tight focus we haven’t seen since the early novels, before Martin spread his story over too many minor characters. And the drama is tense as hell. I was sweating trying to figure out who was doing what to whom. Truths are revealed as half-truths and lies, allies more lethal than enemies, the kind of intrigue we saw in book 1 as Ned was trying to figure out who killed Jon Arryn, and in book 2 when Tyrion was playing all sides against the middle. The transition to Bran was almost a come down after this cracking intro; Martin should consider writing mystery thrillers. This is all to say that the rise and fall of the Citadel conspiracy is deftly executed, brilliantly complex, and proof positive that Martin hasn’t lost his touch. He still has the mojo when he applies himself. He perhaps over-applies himself, however, with Bran.
Bran’s homoerotic passion for a Forest Child will be extremely controversial, not least because of his age. In the TV series Isaac Hempstead Wright has become a strapping youth of 17, but in the books Bran is still only 10. (Four years have passed since the first chapter of book 1.) It is implied that Bran’s greenseer powers have accelerated certain aspects of his biology, but this is still disturbing territory, and there are heavy shades of Ishmael, the androgynous figure from Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. In that film Ishmael physically caresses the prepubescent Alexander, encloses the boy in his arms, and together they will the death of Alexander’s abusive stepfather. Pollen caresses Bran and empowers him in a similar way to murder someone leagues away, but the carnality is much more overt; Pollen is blatantly sexually assaulting him until Bran’s rage turns to passion. It’s an extremely well-written scene, and I’ve said in previous reviews that Martin’s best writing comes in the Bran chapters. But it’s a scene you will feel ashamed of reading.
Bran’s chapters will be controversial in other ways. He’s the most important character (he gets 14 chapters out of 62, almost a quarter of the novel), but his seminal moments depend on changing the past in ways that don’t really change it at all. That worked brilliantly in the TV series in paying off the character of Hodor, but at this stage the results are too predictable: It is Bran Stark who raises the Wall 8000 years ago, unleashing an explosive force of weir-magic through his ancestor Bran the Builder. It is likewise Bran Stark responsible for the mysterious vanishing of the Others in that same year, as he summons them forward in time to the point of four years ago, in order to precipitate the events which will lead to Jon’s alliance with the Wildlings. And he is also Bran the Breaker, who in a fit of epileptic fury defeats the Night’s King and solves the riddle of Joramun’s Horn. Time travel is always risky business, and for the most part Martin handles it well, but again, the events are rather banal once they are telegraphed; we’ve seen this kind of thing done before in fantasy and sci-fic. On the other hand, it’s a solid payoff to Bran’s warging abilities combined with his weir-magic that gives him a near godlike omniscience and omnipresence across time.
The lady Starks get good chapters and surpass themselves. It’s impossible to not feel elated for Sansa as after so much torment in the previous books she assumes control of both Winterfell and the Eyrie, and shafts Littlefinger by consigning him to the Wall. Arya assassinates literally hundreds of Freys and Lannisters before being snared and gang-raped by hundreds more. Her prolonged torture and death is inflammatory by even Martin’s standards, and while this isn’t exactly a complaint on my part, there does seem to be a “My dick is bigger than yours” thing going on between the novels and TV series, as if Martin and Weiss/Benioff are competing to outshine each other with shock value. I wonder how Martin’s spouse-equivalent has reacted to this. Arya is her favorite character and was originally slated to die in book 2; it’s well known among fans that she forbade Martin to kill her off. Arya is my favorite character too, and while I don’t object to her dying unjustly, I’ll certainly say she deserved to go out better than this.
There are shocks around every corner, and by far the most gratifying one is the Iron Throne’s literal rejection of Cersei Lannister. While there have been hints that the Throne is sentient (“Some days you can feel it eating into you,” said King Robert in book 1), the reawakening and arrival of dragons in Westeros seem to have triggered a full-blown animation. The First of Her Name pronounces war on Dorne and the Reach, speaking her awful judgment from the throne only to be gruesomely impaled by its blades. It’s a bit cartoonish but I was cheering; Jaime is another matter. His murder at the hands of Ser Enchanted-Gregor is anything but cartoonish and rather upsetting. We’ve come a long way with Jaime since he threw Bran off the tower, and it’s safe to say he will go down a big favorite of many fans. He finally opposes his wretched sister, and makes a sacrifice for Sansa so sublime that brings perfect closure to the arc with Brienne. All of Martin’s characters are believable, but none more so than Jaime. He has been Martin’s most authentic character by far.
As for the showdown between the Hound (villain turned hero) and Lady Stoneheart (hero turned villain), it’s entertaining but the tone is all wrong, like something out of a B-grade horror film. In chapters like these Martin was clearly taking the piss in his hurry to finish the book. Euron is another case in point. The Greyjoy thread was my favorite part of A Feast for Crows; it was loaded with potential. But Euron’s story devolves into a caricature of sadistic kinslaying — brandishing Theon’s head in public while dressing up in his niece’s skins to terrorize his fellow man. On the other hand, Aeron Damphair gets a standout chapter. His toxic prayers against Euron backfire (literally: he’s killed by a sea-storm so wild it may as well be the Drowned God incarnate), but his righteous tirades are the most entertaining I’ve read in a work of fiction.
The battle between the dragons and the Others is what we’ve long waited for, and it’s good if somewhat by the numbers. On TV next year it’s sure to be mind-blowing. The identity of the dragon with three heads is as I predicted — Dany on Drogon, Aegon on Rhaegal, and Tyrion on Viserion, until Tyrion dies (more on that in a moment) and Jon supplants him. It’s surprising that so many readers dismissed Aegon as a phony pretender. If that were true, Dany’s revelation in the House of the Undying would make no sense. Besides, there is a Martinesque poetry in two bastard sons (Tyrion from Aerys, Jon from Rhaegar) “sharing” a dragon, and the way Viserion’s reins are handed off to Jon is extremely well played. At the Wall, Littlefinger makes the most treacherous move in the series — even I was appalled — and Tyrion dies saving Jon, closing the loop of their friendship established in book 1 when Tyrion visited the Wall on a whim. As for the character of Aegon, he’s somewhat a mixed bag. He began as a cipher in Dance with Dragons (I’m not surprised the show writers dumped him, at least so far), but he’s more interesting now; the problem is that he doesn’t get enough chapters warranted by his role as “the song of ice and fire”. On top of that, much of his story would have been fleshed out in the unfinished Winds of Winter, and so we’re left to fill in the blanks without assistance from the TV series.
Fans have expected Jon and Dany to fulfill the ice and fire prophecy — Jon being the ice and Dany the fire. In fact, it is Sansa who is the ice (she being a complete Stark, unlike Jon), and Aegon the Targaryen fire as promised. I didn’t see it coming with Sansa, even though a fringe group of fans have been predicting a Jon-Sansa pairing. I rejected that theory and am now eating crow. Their passion for each other is intense, though somewhat cheap; I didn’t care for the way Sansa’s red hair evoked memories of Ygritte every time she and Jon were in the sack, nor for their cheesy promises to each other. The Iron Throne does seem to be where Jon is headed until Martin pulls a fast one, leaving the rule of Westeros to Aegon and a heartbroken Sansa who reluctantly then resolutely steps up as queen. Jon and Dany practically fade to black, saviors of Westeros whose cousin and nephew will wear the crowns. That is Martin’s song: the marriage of House Stark and Targaryen’s most capable members.
Many will object to Dany’s ending, but I honestly never thought she would rule Westeros. Her departure for Mereen may seem anti-climactic, but for me it works, especially considering the unfinished business there on top of Daario Naharis’ assassination. In the end she is truly concerned about oppressive injustices more than a prestigious birthright, which is Aegon’s anyway. She accepts that she is a tyrant despite her cause for the dispossessed (unlike Sansa who is naturally tender and knows cruelty firsthand); Jon sees that he’s idealistically naive (unlike Aegon whose integrity is balanced by political realism). I love their farewell at the Wall, and no they don’t get married. In the epilogue Jon is ruling Winterfell without a queen, by all indications as celibate as when he wore the black. And as grim: the Wildlings seem to be a major problem. He reaps what he sowed by his noble intentions, like Dany in Slaver’s Bay. Which is all fine and well. A Song of Ice and Fire was never slated for the most happy ending, and it deserves to live up to its grim reputation. The closing chapters do that, leaving us with only a dim hope, or dream, for a better Westeros.
I doubt that Martin will ever bother finishing The Winds of Winter, and at this point that’s probably just as well. The TV series told that part of the story better than he could ever hope to. I’m just glad he was able to pull his shit together for A Dream of Spring and produce a satisfying conclusion. Even without a leg A Song of Ice and Fire now stands as one of the best epic fantasies of all time.
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
The Winds of Winter — ?
A Dream of Spring — 4 ½
(Previous volumes reviewed here.)