May 10 2013
Five weeks, five books. I’ve finally made my way through practically 5,000 pages of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and it’s been quite the literary journey.
I don’t think I’ve ever read so much of one series over such a short time frame before. Yes, there were seven rather lengthy Harry Potter books, but after the first three, those were spread out over a period of years. Rather, I’ve read all Martin’s books in a month or so, all the while watching a show BASED on the books at the same time. I’d be on Game of Thrones overload if such a thing was even possible.
And really, it isn’t. Despite the ups and downs of the series, it’s not one you want to see end, and the need to read the next book is instant and overwhelming. But now, after A Dance with Dragons is done, there is no next book. Not yet, anyway.
A Dance with Dragons is the second half of A Feast for Crows, more or less, due to Martin’s odd structuring of the final two books out of the five he’s released. Crows only had the POVs of half the cast, Jaime, Cersei, Arya, Sam and so on, while Dragons has the others who were missing, Jon, Tyrion, Daenerys, Bran, etc. Both occur simultaneously in time, but then there’s an added level of complication when by the end of Dragons, both timelines converge and start to inch forward another few chapters for various characters who were only in the last book.
A heard a Feast for Crows wasn’t terribly good compared to the other books, and that was an assessment I agreed with for the most part. Outside of the splitting of the story, there simply was not much of interest that that happened. Unlike the past three books, there just weren’t the kind of memorable moments that make the series great.
Reviews told me that A Dance with Dragons was as bad or worse as Crows, so I braced for impact. Turns out, I didn’t need to.
In truth, I actually quite liked A Dance with Dragons. No it’s not as good as books one or three, but it’s far better than Crows, even with the split. I suppose at least knowing what the other characters are up to helps, but it’s more than that.
Rather, the books is full of powerful moments, the first one for me being when new Lord Commander Snow struck of Janos Slynt’s head for being an insolent asshole. For me, it’s a toss up between which plotline was better, Jon in the North or Daenerys in the East, but I’ll talk a bit about the former for now, as it leads to perhaps the most dramatic development of the book.
I really liked the way we saw Jon Snow’s character evolve in this book. Kill the boy was the repeated refrain in his own mind, and despite the fact that he’s only 16 or so, he has to be the man the Watch needs in order to ensure its survival. He has to balance pleasing Stannis with defending the wall and making peace with the brotherhood and the Wildlings, no easy task.
It was interesting to see his efforts to integrate the Wildings with the Night’s Watch, who has been in desperate need of reinforcements for years now. As his brothers protest, I particularly liked his line where he cites the vow saying how they must protect men. “And what are the wildlings if not men?”
Over time in the book, you start to see that the Wildlings are actually better men than these “honorable” sworn brothers in black. They’re generally friendly, loyal and brave, whereas the Night’s Watch is made up of rapists, thieves and criminals for the most part. They are the worst of Westeros sent to do perhaps the most important job in the realm. With all the good ones like Lord Mormont, Halfhand and Donal Noye dead, Snow is stuck with a rag tag assortment of cowards and schemers, and it ultimately leads to his downfall.
Martin does not like happy endings, and it should have been a clear sign that something was about to go wrong when I felt elated after Snow’s rousing speech about how he was going to march south to kill Ramsay Bolton in a bastard vs. bastard brawl.
And then they killed him. Probably. Possibly.
The last we see of Jon, he’s being stabbed by his own brothers claiming they’re doing it “for the Watch.” I guess between his aide to Stannis, recruitment of the Wildlings and promise to leave the wall to fight Ramsay he broke about every rule you could in his position, but still, I was astonished at the betrayal. When people told me that NO ONE is safe from Martin and he will kill characters you love, I figured that eventually Arya, Tyrion or Jon would die in the books, but after Robb met his end in Storm of Swords, I thought perhaps the others were safe as that was the death everyone was referring to.
I guess not.
But is Jon really dead? I’m not sure I believe it. Martin has a penchant for acting like he kills characters and bringing them back. He did it with Catelyn, he did it with the Onion Knight, he did it with Beric Dondarrion six times and he could do it with Jon. Yes, by the time we leave him he’s slipping into unconsciousness with four stab wounds in him, but I’m not convinced he’s dead. If I had to guess, I’d say his Wildling friends swooped in to save him, and he’ll be injured, but alive. Or perhaps Melisandre can bring him back with Dondarrion-esque Lord of Light powers.
Why do I think this is the case? It’s not just because I refuse to believe Martin would kill possibly the best character in the books (other than Tyrion, of course), it’s that we still have the central mystery of who Jon Snow’s parents are that hasn’t yet been solved. And what WOULD be the point of solving it after he’s completely dead? I think he’ll survive, but we’re going to have to wait a while to find out if that’s the case.
Alright, time to move a bit faster or this article will be as long as one of Martin’s books by the end. As mentioned, the Onion Knight did not indeed die as proclaimed in A Feast for Crows. I thought it was odd to kill him offscreen, but it turns out it was all a ruse by Lord Manderly. That scenario has Manderly being secretly loyal to Stannis while Karstark is secretly loyal to Bolton, resulting in the clusterfuck that was the siege of Winterfell that is left unclear by the end.
We saw both sides camping out in the snow for weeks, but never saw an actual battle, yet there apparently was one. Ramsay Bolton’s letter indicated that he had smashed through Stannis and won the battle. He says that Reek (Theon) escaped with his bride (fake Arya), so I’m not sure how that happened because they were with Stannis. And unless I misread, Stannis himself isn’t specifically mentioned as dead, only his men. I suppose what really happened at/outside Winterfell is supposed to be a lingering mystery.
Theon’s character was incredibly well written in this book after being absent for two full novels. Martin painted a harrowing picture of a completely broken man, one that refuses to even remember his own name or his old life. Similarly, he’s made Ramsay Bolton the most evil villain in the series to date, even moreso than Joffrey. As the book says, Joffrey was cruel but stupid, and Ramsay is cruel and smart.
Theon eventually regains some fragments of himself near the end, at least enough to escape with Jeyne Poole, the fake Arya, and somehow avoid capture after Stannis is (supposedly) defeated. Where are they now? With his sister? I have no idea.
I don’t like how Martin sometimes just makes characters disappear completely for seemingly endless amounts of time. That happened with Davos after he spoke with Maderly, he simply ceased to exist in the story. And the same happened with Bran as well. Once he meets the Children of the Forrest and the Greenseer, he simply stops existing in the second half of the novel. I really do not understand where his storyline is going if the most relevant thing he does now is have his face pop up in trees occasionally.
Outside of the North, the other major storyline is in the East this time which involves a Dornish prince, Tyrion, Daenerys, and another lost Targaryen.
It was quite a shock to learn that Aegon Targaryen was in fact still alive after reportedly being murdered as an infant. It means he has the strongest claim to the throne out of anyone, even moreso than Daenerys, who is busy with her own problems. Rather than attempt to wade into a war to woo her, Aegon now lands in Westeros and starts trying to win the country without her or her dragons.
The Khaleesi’s other suitors don’t give up quite as easily. She has so many in this book, it’s hard to keep track. Everyone wants to wed the mother of Dragons, and acquire the power that comes with the union. There’s the Dornish prince who we follow for a long time (too long if you ask me) and he’s eventually roasted by her dragons in a misguided attempt to win her favor. To me, his was the story that felt the most like wasted pages.
There’s also Victarion Greyjoy who is sent to get the queen for Euron, his brother, but thinks he’s going to take her for himself. Last we see of him, he’s close by, but doesn’t lay siege to any of the cities or anything yet.
And then there are the two that get closest to her, Hizdar and Daario. Daario is the sellsword she loves (well, lusts, at least), while Hizdar she must marry to keep the peace in her city. It’s never explicitly revealed if he’s treacherous or not, but it’s heavily implied that’s the case. During a gladiator fight to celebrate her wedding to him, Drogon the dragon swoops in and eats people and then Daenerys rides him out into the Dothraki Sea. In her absence, it’s up to Barristan Selmy to take control of things and keep her king in check, and I loved when the book shifted to his point of view. He’s a really good character, and I hope we see a lot more of him.
Tyrion’s story was perhaps the oddest of the bunch this time around, as he’s passed from sellsword to slave owner to eventually being paired up with another dwarf, a teenager named Penny, and forced to be in a folly where he jousts riding a pig. He’s more of an observer than anything this time around, and through his eyes we got to meet Aegon Targeryen, Jon Connington and reunite with battered and broken Jorah Mormont. Now he’s signed up with a sellsword brigade after fleeing slavery, and I’m not sure what his next move will be. I didn’t mind his story, but I did wish he was a little more intimately involved with the major plot developments in the book. The same goes for Varys, but I suppose he had disappeared for so long to be able to pop up as a surprise in the epilogue, killing Kevan Lannister and Grandmaster Pycelle “for the realm.” A cool scene, but it’s hard to imagine Game of Thrones without Varys for so long.
It was odd to finally switch back to Jaime and Cersei and Arya near the end of the book, and I really hope that Martin ceases and desists with this need to split all the characters up in future stories.
Jaime goes off with Brienne where he’s promised to find Sansa Stark, but will find Catelyn Stoneheart waiting for him instead. Arya trains to be a Faceless assassin in Braavos, and though it’s a cool profession, it’s not the most riveting of storylines.
I thought Cersei had one of the most impactful moments of the book, the one where she’s stripped naked and paraded through the streets of Kings Landing before her trial, starting at the spot where Ned Stark was beheaded. That scene was fantastic, as the great queen is stripped of everything from her clothing to her honor and mocked and jeered mercilessly, possibly facing certain death. I can’t imagine how that’s going to play out on the show a long while for now. Lena Heady would have to be extremely brave if they’re going to remain faithful to the book there.
I liked this book, I really did. When you miss meals and lose sleep because you can’t put something down, you know it’s done its job, and while Crow was a chore to get through, Dragons was the opposite. I think Martin made a mistake splitting the two books the way he did, and hopefully he can learn from it, but I can’t wait to see where he’s going to take us next.
Now that I’ve finished all five books, this leads me to the ultimate question that so many people have asked me since I started reading. If I love the show, is it worth it to read ahead in the books?
It’s hard to say.
The books are amazing, don’t get me wrong. I love this universe, and it’s probably the most invested I’ve been in a fictional world since Star Wars. Martin’s rich history of Westeros is something you only get a glimpse of on the show, and if you want to get the true scope of what he’s created, the books are a must read.
That said, it used to be that I was practically bouncing up and down in my seat when the Game of Thrones theme started playing every Sunday night. I was SO excited to see what the hell would happen next in this show which so far has had more unexpected twists and turns than I can count. But now? It’s still good, obviously, but it’s different. The excitement isn’t as intense, and now the question isn’t “what’s going to happen??” it’s “how are they going to handle this?” or “what will they change?” Those kinds of questions aren’t nearly as fun.
But it’s hard to say which is MORE impactful. Reading through the Red Wedding on my Kindle, or watching it actually play out onscreen. I was frozen in horror reading it in the book, but would it have been even more intense on the show? I can’t say.
There’s some comfort in knowing what’s going to happen, as you free yourself completely from spoilers. For someone like me who lives on the internet, I was simply unable to avoid them and that was a main reason I sat down and read the books. But it wasn’t the only one.
Rather, it’s nice to simply read a part of literary history. In my opinion, Martin is better than Tolkein, and certainly more accessible at the very least. These are fantastic books and everyone should read them at one point or another.
But this isn’t as easy as saying that yes, clearly the Harry Potter books are more enjoyable than the movies or yes, you’ll probably like The Lord of the Rings movies better than the books. It’s honestly hard to say one way or the other.
If being surprised is your favorite part of the show, I say save the books for later, or simply read the ones attached to seasons that have already aired. If the universe itself is what you love, and you want more of it and can’t wait four years for the show to catch up to the books, then by all means, read them.
As for me, being surprised WAS my favorite part of the show, but even still, I can’t say I regret my decision to read the books. As an aspiring author myself, Martin has much to teach me and I love being able to browse the internet free from the plague of spoilers. But I do miss that extra twinge of excitement each week not knowing what’s about to happen.
That’s all for book by book discussion, but look for a post next week about the lingering mysteries of the series that I didn’t get to discuss here today.
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