A Song of Ice and Fire (George R.R. Martin)

ASOIAF*Spoilers for the books series A Song of Ice and FireGame of Thrones is a different kettle of fish, so won’t be referred to below (though it is marvellous).*

A tale twenty years in the making, the characters from A Song of Ice and Fire have become household names.  But has this sprawling series got away from its author?   I’m not so sure.

Many readers grumble that the series loses its way after Storm of Swords – and the first time I read the books, I thought so too.  After steamrolling through the early books, I hit Feast for Crows like a brick wall.  We’re bombarded by new characters from places we’ve barely heard of, and the older characters we’ve come to love have their progress slow to a crawl.  I’d sigh whenever a Brienne chapter came along. And whenever we saw Bran.  Or Tyrion.

Even Martin himself acknowledged the difficulties of maintaining forward momentum with so many characters and plot lines on the go.

He also took some peculiar editorial decisions.  These are long bloody books, and when Storm of Swords became too long for a single edition, he simply cut it roughly in two, and released them as two parts.  So far, so straightforward.  But when he encountered the same issue with Feast for Crows, he made the decision to split the book not chronologically, but geographically.   This had the unfortunate effect of pushing all of the most interesting characters – Jon, Dany, Tyrion, Davos (#TeamStannis) – into the later book, Dance of Dragons.  These characters re-merge with the rest in the latter half of Dragons, but it further exacerbates the sensation of slowness.

These later books aren’t without their memorable moments – Tywin’s death, Dany’s flight from Meereen, Stannis’s fight for The Wall – but I was just itching for some resolution.  The Starks have been butchered – I want red vengeance!  What’s going to happen to Jon?  Will Dany ever get to Westeros?  So I ploughed on regardless, hoping for answers.

Which of course, never came.  The series is unfinished.  Martin has plans for two more books: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring.

And yet, despite these flaws (and while working full time), I knocked off the entire series in about six weeks.  I haven’t encountered books so readable, yet so rich and satisfying, since Harry Potter.  And there is no higher praise from me than that.  Actually, Martin’s writing style seems to encounter similar criticism to Rowling’s – excessive use of clichéd language and so on.  While there is some truth to that – everyone in Westeros wipes their mouth with the back of their hand after having a drink – the world building he has done is absolutely staggering.   There are at least 5 different religions established in the books.  Not to mention all the various houses and social groups, their histories and interactions.  And the geography of two continents.  The balance between real-worldly political intrigue and pure fantasy elements is also brilliantly managed.

Part of this success comes from Martin borrowing heavily from real history.  The Wall could be inspired by Hadrian’s or the Great Wall of China.  The Lannisters have parallels with the Borgias and The House of York.   Braavos could be mercantile Amsterdam, or perhaps Venice.   Yet this is done very cleverly – familiar enough to be believable, particular and fresh enough to be engaging.  It also subtlety suggests that Westeros is a bit of a backwater.   It feels very medieval, whereas the Free Cities have an air of the Renaissance about them.  Even the names are perfect, with variants on old fashioned names (Margaery, Alliser, Eddard) mixing with pure inventions that don’t at all sound like inventions (Hoster, Tyrion, Aegon).  It sounds like a simple thing, but how many fantasy stories have ridiculously contrived names, full of unnecessary X’s and K’s to make them sound exotic.  Martin actually mocks this particular trope with the ‘unpronounceable’ names he gives to the Meereenese.  And marking them as different and faintly indistinguishable from one another also suggests that Dany doesn’t really belong amongst them.

In fact, Martin subverts almost every fantasy trope in A Song of Ice and Fire.  Noble Robb tries to avenge his murdered father, and is promptly dispatched himself.  Virtuous maidens are abused and neglected.  Parents end up destroying their children and vice versa.  The most capable rulers aren’t always the most likeable.  Beautiful people can be evil and ugly people can be good.  Magic is a more of a burden than a quick fix.  The most successful in this world aren’t the ones that fulfil expectations, but the ones who respond best to changing situations.  And of course, even important people can be killed.  Again, it may seem simple to subvert expectations, but it’s no mean feat to pull off inversions like these.  We have tropes for a reason; they tend to make bloody good stories.  And it’s fair to say that some of the issues Martin has are a result of his determination to avoid the obvious.

The depth and quality of the world building is also borne out by the number of fan theories that have sprung up.  R+L=J is practically canon, and there are various convincing theories about Dany’s prophetic visions in The House of the Undying.  Can Bran go back in time and alter the course of events?  Can he stop the the Walkers?  Has he already tried to and sent poor Aerys mad, thus causing all of this?  Who is Coldhands?  Are Jaimie and Cersei actually secret Targaryen’s?  Is Tyrion?  (I think no on the last two, but they are a lot of fun).  On and on it goes, so many mad and brilliant ideas.

I recently re-read the series, much slower than last time.  And the response I had was quite different.  Partly because I could really savour the characters and world, but also because it changed my understanding of how the series is structured, and why the later books feel so different to the first three.

So.  It seems likely that The Winds of Winter will be split into two books, followed by A Dream of Spring.  If that’s the case, the order of the series looks like this:

A Game of Thrones

A Clash of Kings

A Storm of Swords (p1)

A Storm of Swords (p2)

A Feast for Crows

A Dance with Dragons (p1)

A Dance with Dragons (p2)

The Winds of Winter (p1)

The Winds of Winter (p2)

A Dream of Spring

 

But if you do this…

 

ACT 1 = A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords (p1), A Storm of Swords (p2)

ACT 2 = A Feast for Crows, A Dance With Dragons (p1), A Dance With Dragons (p2)

ACT 3 = The Winds of Winter (p1), The Winds of Winter (p2), A Dream of Spring

 

…you get your basic three act structure.  Looks pretty neat, doesn’t it?  Considering how much groundwork has to happen in the first book, all three Acts look fairly equal in length.

I really like this structure because it explains several tricky aspects of the series.  Primarily, why is Feast For Crow such hard work?  Because it’s the start of a new Act.

Act 1 establishes the world and the main players and sets our main plot in motion.  Act 2 pulls back to a wider viewpoint, showing how the events of Act 1 have far reaching consequences.  Hence we learn much more about the Dornish and the Iron born and The Citadel.  It also explains Brienne’s tedious jaunt around the Riverlands – we are being shown the horror of war, and how it disproportionally impacts the smallfolk.  This is also why we get the viewpoints of several minor characters, when until now we have only heard from high-borns: the actions of the ruling class are rippling outward.

This continues in Dance of Dragons.  Stannis is forced to The Wall as the North reels from the downfall of the Starks.  Tyrion’s chapters’ show how much he has personally lost by casting off his family, and how deeply the murder of his father has affected him.  But he’s also getting a crash course in the importance of rank in Westeros – Aegon is only a Targaryen if the people around him say so, and Penny shows how different life is as a dwarf when you have neither name nor fortune (hint – it’s rough).  Without Tywin keeping a lid on things, King’s Landing spirals more and more out of control as the Lannister-Tyrell alliance fractures, and The Sparrows step into the void.  Dany is shown the difference between conquest and rule.  Peace is not an absence of war – it’s hard, thankless work, both tedious and relentless.   Jon learns that politics doesn’t stop at The Wall, and that even a common enemy is not always enough to unite people.  These last two threads end on a particularly tantalising note: Dany and Drogon turn away from Meereen to chase a Dothraki hoard, and Jon … well, things are definitely going to change for Jon.

In fact there are several hints that we are now moving into Act 3, where all the threads come together for the final, dramatic conclusion.  Tyrion is back in a position to do a bit of honest manipulation and King’s Landing is a tinder box.  Victarion is racing East, while Young Aegon is racing West.  Brienne has met up with Jaimie, Myrcella is coming home.  And the final, decisive battles are coming to Meereen and Winterfell.  This latter prospect has me salivating, as Martin does a fantastic job of building the tension at both Winterfell and Stannis’s camp.  The sense of a reckoning being due is almost palpable.  The pieces are all in place.  Time for the finale.

Your move, Mr Martin.

So, what do you think?  Is the 3 Act structure working for you? Had you already spotted this, or am I talking nonsense?  Have you any idea when Winds of Winter is coming out?  Do let me know!

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