When I heard that the last Song of Ice and Fire book was finished, 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 finished but for now only available through special channels. Those of us who have had the privilege of reading it can say 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, and I’ll start with his homoerotic passion for a Forest Child, which will be controversial for 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 a key figure 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 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 having Arya execute him. Before this, for her part, Arya assassinates literally hundreds of Freys in a glorious payback for the Red Wedding. She tries this stunt much later on a Lannister host, and is gang raped for her efforts when Qyburn sees through her faceless talent. 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, not least the devastation unleashed by Drogon. As the Dothraki assault the Lannister army returning from Highgarden, Dany unleashes an inferno that channels Balerion the Black Dread. By far the most gratifying shock, however, 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 Mad Queen treats herself to a court slaughter, only to be gruesomely impaled by the throne’s blades. The scene is awkward, because one minute Ellaria Sand and Missandei are being raped and dismembered, and the next Cersie is being shredded in a cartoonish fashion. I was cheering in any case. 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 works up the stones — or to be precise, he disciplines them for a change — to oppose his wretched sister. 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 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 (Jon) on Rhaegal, and Tyrion on Viserion, until the last pair die at the hands of the Night King who then raises Viserion as a zombie-dragon. There is a Martinesque poetry in two bastard sons (Tyrion from Aerys, Jon from Rhaegar) being Dany’s right and left wings, and of course the usual Martin-nihilism when one of them is killed at the worst moment. Tyrion does save Jon as he goes down, closing the loop of their friendship established in book 1 when Tyrion visited the Wall.
Which brings me to the Wall’s fall. It’s the most pulverizing event of the series, and the Black Massacre makes the Red Wedding look like a tea party. It calls to mind the ninja assault on Osaka’s castle in Shogun and indeed Martin’s characters are almost stand-ins for Clavell’s: Borroq the new Yabu, allowing the horde of wights through the Wall to overtake Castle Black and Oakenshield; Val sacrificing herself like Lady Mariko. Unlike Mariko, she fails miserably to save the day, and Jon is left quasi-deaf thanks to (the real) Joramun’s Horn; unlike his Shogun analog, Captain John, whose ears recovered, Jon’s are forever infected, as he is strangely able to hear people leagues away while having to strain to make sense of those in front of him.
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 (Jon) 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 Dany is headed (Jon is fucking her too, by the way) until Martin pulls a fast one, leaving the rule of Westeros to an incestuous pair, as per the Targaryen standard, but with House Stark comprising far more of the bloodline. Dany fades to black, a savior of Westeros whose nephew will wear the crown. 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 always had reservations about her ruling 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 finds herself concerned about oppressive injustices more than a prestigious birthright, which is Aegon’s (Jon’s) anyway. She accepts that she is a tyrant despite her cause for the dispossessed, unlike Sansa who is more naturally tender and knows cruelty firsthand, and different also from Jon who has learned to balance his Ned-like integrity with the realities of politics. All is not well and tidy by the end, however. The epilogue is ominous as the Wildlings seem to be a major problem. Jon reaps what he sowed by his noble intentions, like Dany returning to a mess 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.)