Spoiler alert: If you like this series, you are going to hate this review. Decide now if the crazy book-loving rage is worth it to you. (Also, there are spoilers through book five.)
Let’s just get this out of the way- I’m talking about the series as a whole, because each book varies in quality. In universally agreed upon terms, we have:
Book One: A Game of Thrones – solid
Book Two: A Clash of Kings – just ok
Book Three: A Storm of Swords – AMAZING
Book Four: A Feast for Crows – terrible
Book Five: A Dance with Dragons – WHAT DID WE DO TO DESERVE THIS PUNISHMENT?
At no point should one amazing book and one decent book justify the existence of three other books of frankly terrible quality. This means that over 50% of the series is utter garbage and people are acting like it is the second coming of a Dickens’ serial. It saddens me to see people doing the modern-day equivalent of standing on a ship dock, waiting for news of a character’s survival. (Spoiler #2: Especially when there’s no point – everyone dies. EVERYONE.)
A Feast of Crows is terrible, because you spend an extraordinary 1,104 pages [paperback, US edition] with awful, uninteresting, non-dynamic people. Seriously, in book world, this is an uphill ultraman marathon level of pages, if only because of how painful 98% of them are. Your main touch points throughout the novel are Brienne; Sansa suffering from a mild psychosis; Cersei, the Worst Mother / Sister / Aunt Ever award recipient sixteen years in a row; Samwell the Ultimate Whiner; Arya much too sparingly; Jaime at the start of his redemption arc; a bunch of people from the Iron Islands no one cares about and a handful of people from Dorne no one cares about. See if you can wrap your head around this: most of the favorites – Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon Snow are, if anything, background characters. Arya’s presence and continued assassin training cannot outweigh spending the rest of the book with bland, irritating or downright dreadful characters, behaving obnoxiously. Three hundred pages maybe, but over one thousand? What-the fuck-ever.
And then you get to A Dance of Dragons and your favorites show back up. Dany is back, hurrah! So is Jon! And Tyrion came back to be the epic dwarf we all know and love and school all these crazy assholes- FINALLY.
But wait, what is this? Tyrion is going to spend the next 1,040 pages [hardback, US edition] having nightmares and whining about the same thing over and over and over again. (For those of you who are unaware of Tyrion’s self-made orphan status, welcome to spoiler #3- he takes out Shae and his father, Tywin, while awesomely remarking on his father’s bowel movements. If you didn’t love Tyrion before that moment, you do after). I can understand having some misgivings about having to flee your rather inhospitable family and birth country, but I cannot spend that much time with someone who can talk of nothing else. It makes Tyrion, one of the top five characters of the entire series, into a complete dolt – Tyrion! The man who always has a plan, a smart remark and an escape route mapped out In That Order.
Now, I am more than willing to journey to a character’s dark places with him or her as long as that journey is well written and emotionally honest. Tyrion’s journey – the physical one he makes to Slavers Bay and the mental one we are forced to take with him – doesn’t take us into his lowest moments in a life full of what must be low moments, but makes him into a – let’s say – thirty year old man acting like a “self-harming,” eyeliner wearing, emo, obnoxious teenager. I’m grateful George R.R. Martin is too old to understand the hipster movement (otherwise he might realize his sea captain hat is on-trend according to some cultural movements) – my body would reject this stone heart if I had to deal with hipsters in real life AND endure a beloved character turning into one.
But you know, thank God we have Dany and Jon back. I mean, all those fan theories are floating around and Jon is fighting a war against darkness here and really, that’s the point of these stories, isn’t it? I can’t wait to see if he turns out to be a Targa- what do you mean he gets stabbed to death by his friends at the Wall? (Spoiler #4: Seriously, EVERYONE.)
Ok, but we have Dany, right? I mean, at least someone is getting stuff done, what with Tyrion tapped out and Jon heinously murdered. A strong, independent dragon lady- who, wait, lost her dragon? And can’t keep her own soldiers from getting murdered? And is engaging in – let’s call them – extracurricular activities with a purple bearded man despite planning to marry a local lord to hopefully stop the killings? What? I’m sorry, what happened to the woman in book three who single handedly freed a warrior class of slaves while earning their undying loyalty and starting a complete upheaval of the status quo in the slaving cities? WHAT HAPPENED TO DANY?!
So now that we’re on the same page about my objection to the last two books (quick recap: objections are mainly that they are poorly written with no emotional or intellectual depth, involve sincerely uninteresting people and twists the ones we did like into malformed approximations of the original characters), let’s talk about the series as a whole.
Answer this question: What is this series about exactly?
When it comes to a series, there is going to be a topic sentence – there is a journey we are going to take with these characters, so there has to be a clear indication in that first book that is going to put a pin in the first step of this journey. Whatever detours, projects or alternate side quests we go on, we are still coming back to that main journey. Let’s look at some examples.
Harry Potter [J.K. Rowling] is about a boy wizard who fights evil with a ragtag group of friends. We knew within the first book he was fighting Voldemort (I can say his name, because he’s dead now, you know) and that this would be the reoccurring plot thread of the series.
Wheel of Time [Robert Jordan] is about a boy Dragon-Reborn fighting evil with a ragtag group of friends. Again, in the first book, we meet the face of evil. We know this journey is going to be an evil fighting one.
The Passage trilogy [Justin Cronin] is about a girl infected with the benevolent version of a murderous vampire virus destined to save humanity from its virus weaponizing mistakes (most of which is dead or under the thrall of one of twelve murderous vampires). Also, God may or may not exist in this world, but that thread continues to be a moot point in terms of importance within the novels.
The Harper Hall trilogy [Anne McCaffrey] (a childhood favorite of mine) is about a girl growing up and finding her way with a school of dragonkin, which involves (as they often do) moving into a cave, outrunning deadly rain, being admitted into the top music school and adventuring to the deadly, sparsely inhabited continent across the sea. It’s a classic Bildungsroman set on a planet with dragons. Win-win-win-win-win.
Les Rougon-Macquart [Emile Zola] is a twenty novel series about a single family and all the various lives they lead as influenced by their legitimate, illegitimate and legitimate-illegitimate bloodlines, all somewhat enhanced or tempered by a single joining factor – the matriarch’s mental instability.
The Hunger Games [Suzanne Collins] is about a girl forced to fight for her life whose unwillingness to kill others for her own survival accidentally sets off a rebellion; the emotional, mental and physical costs of which ultimately liberate an oppressed people, but leave her and her fellow survivors broken. Also, boys are all about her milkshake, but she is too scarred from PTSD to actually notice. (Sorry, I missed the part where Battle Royale was about sacrifice.)
Twilight [I Refuse] is about a girl falling in love with a vampire who sparkles and why this is a bad thing, but also, like, the very best thing. It has a subplot of giving young girls (and middle-aged housewives and general disasters disguised as twenty-somethings) a recklessly bad impression of what romantic relationships should look like.
50 Shades of Grey [I Refuse More Strenuously] is about sending me into a book burning rage and rants about fanfiction, bad writing and why vigilante murder is necessarily illegal. I’ve been told it’s fairly entertaining. Also, it apparently made Arizona citizens way super into S&M, so, you know, there’s that. (I read that somewhere. I’m sure it’s legit. And if not, don’t you kind of wish it were?)
Having a thesis topic – that first plot point that tells us what we’re about to get into – doesn’t make a book simple. Too often, people confuse muddled, unclear writing with complexity. A quick summary of a series doesn’t begin to encapsulate everything that makes it beloved, engaging or personally and culturally important, but it is necessary. It shows clarity of purpose that will drive the story forward for both the writer and the reader.
Now, again I ask: What exactly is A Song of Fire and Ice about?
Let’s look at the possible answers.
1) Winter Is Coming. It’s about a fight of good versus evil (or gray versus grey). We have dragons reentering the world, Red priests and priestesses showing up worshipping a fire god and the Others – a magical ice-based species that has an advanced understanding of necromancy powers – descending from the north. Winter is Coming, is what we’re told. Clearly, this is a story about that.
Except no one in the books really seems to care about this. The only character we are actively engaging with who is trying to find a means to fortify humanity against the ghosts and ghouls from beyond the Wall just got stabbed to death. Granted, in a book where people can come back from the dead (now), death is a pretty cheap state of being. And if death is cheap, why even bother killing off a character? So Jon can come back a little wrong, a little less? Or so the final battle is all zombies? In either case, that’s weak writing.
As an aside: It’s really too bad none of the Reds were around to screw Ned’s head onto his shoulders and magic him back too. I would love to have him in the background as the voice of the morally righteous while Cersei continues to unsuccessfully govern and kill everyone who looks at her sideways. That’s the real missed coupling opportunity, don’t you think? (Spoiler #5: That last sentence was sarcasm.)
2) In the Game of Thrones, Either You Play to Win or You Die. Then again, maybe it’s about the game of thrones, as the first book seems to indicate. The political intrigue, the war mongering, the struggle for power and to be top dog. That must be why the Starks are being cut down like diseased trees for kindling and the Lannisters are walking away with the trophy doing while doing jazz hands, right?
If that’s the case, why the fuck do I have to spend all of book four with people who don’t matter and don’t move that plot forward? No game is played in book four.
Then book five further mires that idea in a series of poor decisions by previous power players. We’re treated to Cersei’s apparent comeuppance that despite all her terrible actions and awful personality, still reads like a Violence Against Women Call To Action pamphlet; and Dany has gone from the Mother of Dragons to overwhelmed babysitter, who just got the phone call that the murderer is in the house with her.
And further, what’s the deal with Arya, Sansa, Bran, Jon, Theon/Reek and Came-Back-Wrong-Catelyn then? What part of the game are they playing? If they are incidental, then they shouldn’t have their own point-of-view chapters. (Please, stop giving me Theon/Reek point-of-view chapters.)
3) Winter Is Coming While You Play the Game of Thrones to Win or Die. There’s A Really Good Chance You’re Going to Die Anyway, Even If You Play To Win. Life is Futile, Amiright? Maybe we’re dealing with a mixture of both – a war between Eldritch Admonitions as played out on a human scale. And again, if that’s the case, in addition to all the previous objections, let’s get to the point. Topple over some buildings, let out a Godzilla like roar, and let us know we need this world’s version of Cloud & Co to fight the Weapons or what have you. There needs to be some signpost that tells us something about this.
The worst part of all of this is that this is all fan theory. Seriously, if the plot for the series turns out to be different than any of the above, there was no indication of it in any of the five preceding books. It’s just not clear in the readings what is going on. There are so many characters, so many points of view and so many subplots, there is no overarching, connecting thread. We are probably headed towards something. Something is bound to happen. In twelve thousand pages, we are bound to see everyone in the same general place at approximately the same time, even the dead ones. Scratch that, especially the dead ones.
But doesn’t that feel more like inevitability rather than destiny? And shouldn’t books, especially multi-novel epics, operate on the mechanism of destiny?
The problem is, is that five to six thousand pages in, what we’re reading shouldn’t even be a question anymore. We’re already, supposedly, over the halfway point in the series. How is it that it’s still unclear what journey we’re supposed to be witnessing?
And unfortunately, that makes the entire series a lot like Tyrion’s journey to Dany – there’s a lot of whining, a lot movement without purpose, some strange sidetracking with a pig and a completely inconsequential character and a surprise heir to the throne (because we don’t have enough contenders for the sword chair yet) that all make up a bizarrely persistent, reoccurring nightmare.