"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground."
Game of Thrones
"The longer he lived, the more Tyrion realized that nothing was simple and little was true."
A Clash of Kings
"You know nothing, Jon Snow"
A Storm of Swords (and pretty much every book since)
"War makes monsters of us all."
A Feast for Crows
"The reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one."
A Dance with Dragons
I’ve been putting this off for far too long. I started reading George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series in February, motivated in part by countless recommendations as well as the then-impending HBO series. I cannot recommend these books highly enough. I’m a big fantasy fan, despite not having read nearly enough of what qualifies as “canon” in the sci-fi/fantasy nerdverse. But I devoured this books like a starving man at a beautifully laid out feast. A warning to those reading this review – SPOILERS ABOUND. I waited to write this review till I could do them all at once for a reason – I want to be able to discuss EVERYTHING. So if you haven’t read all five books, you might want to skip the rest of this review. I don’t promise to keep chronological (honestly, I’m not sure I’m even capable of separating the books in my head anymore since I read them one after the other over the last 6 months) so you can’t even say “hey, I’ll just read the first paragraph and that’ll save me!” NO! You’ll be just as safe as any character in this ‘verse if you do that, which is to say, not at all.
Martin has created an incredibly deep and lush world here. Westeros, while not someplace I’m dying to live, is a place I definitely feel like I’ve been to after spending the last 6 months reading about it. I think I know the geography of the 7 kingdoms better at this point than that of my own country (which is pathetic, but probably true). Martin fills this world with incredible characters, none of whom is really a good guy or a bad guy. I think that may be my favorite thing about the series – moral absolutes are just for songs and fairy tales. If you try to live by them in Westeros, you lose your head (RIP Ned Stark). The characters are motivated by the same selfish and selfless things that we all are. They do what they do for love, revenge, fear, safety, anger, hate, passion, sex, money, power and every other thing you could think of. That’s what makes it feel real. The “good” have to compromise in order to survive, and the bad sometimes have more going on than you realize (like my darling Jaime Lannister).
Martin also creates a world where you can never feel safe about any of the characters you fall in love with. The most obvious demonstration of this was the beheading of Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. Since the scene at Baelor’s Sept is shown from the eyes of young Arya Stark (one of my favorites through all five books), I genuinely did not believe it had happened at first. Arya turns her head away at the last moment, which leaves room for doubt. It wasn’t until several other characters confirmed it in later chapters that I could accept the reality that Ned was dead. Once that happens, all bets are off. It’s like living in the Whedonverse – if you love them, odds are something absolutely horrible is going to happen to them.
The most true example of this is the scene Martin has said he had the hardest time writing – the Red Wedding. And, to a different extent, what is done to Theon Greyjoy, a character I’ve grown to feel an enormous amount of pity for. The Red Wedding is a completely brutal and unrelenting event, watching characters like Rob and Catelyn die in ways that are simply not ok. What they do to Rob’s body with his wolf took me to a visual place that still makes me shudder. And I was genuinely less troubled by Cat’s death (which upset me a lot) than I am by her second life, courtesy of Beric Dondarrion.
There are characters you always love, like Arya and Tyrion; those you love to hate, like Cersei and Joffrey (and holy crap did I cheer when that little shit choked to death at his wedding); and those you learn to love or at least like, like Jaime and Theon. And none of them are ever safe.
I have not been able to put these books down. That is not to say they are perfect. Occasionally Martin gets bogged down in details and heraldry the way Tolkein did with Elvish. While it’s all very pretty, it’s not always worth slowing the story. A Feast For Crows was a slow book and one that took some work for me to get through. Many characters I thoroughly enjoyed were abandoned until Dance with Dragons, and there are some subplots I still don’t really care about (eg I am so sick of the extended Greyjoy family at this point). And as far as Dance with Dragons goes, I’m glad the last quarter of the book was so awesome, because the middle of that was a fairly miserable slog as well. Martin seems to have written himself into a corner with Meereen, and I hope he gets further out of it. I am sick of the pale mare, and the Brazen Beasts, and the Wise Masters. I want Dany to take those dragons and go kick some ass, and I think that’s where this is heading.
I will admit I am mildly concerned about two things. One, I don’t think Martin has any idea where he is going with this. He doesn’t have a plan in his head the way JK Rowling did with Harry Potter and that frightens me. It makes it too easy to meander and end in a way that doesn’t actually feel like a resolution. Two, I am TERRIFIED that the man is going to die before he finishes writing it all. There is a reason that everyone bemoaned the SIX FUCKING YEARS it took between the last two books – that is a long fucking time. And Martin is neither young, nor particularly healthy looking. And keeps saying (possibly jokingly, I hope to God) that he could write more than the next two books to finish this series. DO NOT ADD TO THIS, GEORGE! You have a goal. Finish The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring and END IT. Before you die. Or we all get sick of you. Or HBO catches up and is like “wtf, mate, we need the end.” All of those.