One of the most popular multi-volume fantasy epics of modern times is George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – a popularity which has been magnified tenfold by the success of the recent HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones. Martin’s immense saga, which spans five books and around four thousand pages already, with a further two volumes (at least) to come, has been a fixture on the bestseller lists since the first volume was published back in 1996. Overall, the series has sold more than seven million copies in the USA and more than 15 million copies worldwide, winning genre awards in the process. Critically and commercially acclaimed, the series was untouchable in fantasy circles until the turn of the millenium. It was only when the fourth book was published after a five year delay that the dissenters began to appear, starting a trickle of criticism that eventually became a flood by the time of the fifth book’s publication just last year. By this time the intervals between volumes had begun to get longer – it had gone from the two years separating each of the first three books to five years between A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows, then six years between that book and A Dance with Dragons. We have titles for the sixth and seventh books in the series – The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring – but no timetable as to when they will appear. In a sense, however, the delays only appear to be part of the problem and the last two entries in Martin’s saga have been criticised for being slow-paced, filled with padding, unnecessarily introducing lots of new characters and not sufficiently advancing the main plot. Are these criticisms justified and, ultimately, is this a series that is worth following and one that will stand the test of time?
First, the background. The setting for the books is the continent of Westeros, in a world both like and unlike our own, where the seasons last for years and sometimes decades. As the first volume opens, the reader learns that three noble families had conspired to depose their insane king and take control of the kingdom. The Lannisters, the Baratheons and the Starks all exist in an uneasy truce that is soon broken when the current king, Robert Baratheon, asks Ned Stark to come down from the northern city of Winterfell and help him to rule, giving him the coveted title of Hand of the King, which makes him the second most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Ned’s efforts to solve the murder of his predecessor in that role soon embroil him in conflict with the queen and her brothers. The balance of power among the great families is thus unsettled. As the ‘game of thrones’ grows deadly, even more sinister forces are stirring in the north, behind the great ice-wall that protects all the realms of men. A civil war threatens to sweep the land when the Lannisters attempt to seize power, opposed only by the Starks and Baratheons. Meanwhile over the sea in the eastern continent of Essos, Daenerys, heir of the insane king and last of the royal Targaryen bloodline, is seeking allies and an army to help her to reconquer the Seven Kingdoms. The succeeding volumes depict the unfolding and resolution of the terrible many-sided conflict that racks this troubled world.
A truly groundbreaking and well-written series, it was not long before A Song of Ice and Fire became one of the most successful, popular and highly-regarded fantasy sequences of all time. What set Martin’s saga apart from many of the identikit fantasy novels which had been appearing until the mid-1990s was its greater use of realistic elements. While many fantasy authors appeared to be inspired by mythology (when they weren’t just copying Tolkien), A Song of Ice and Fire was more clearly influenced by medieval and early modern history, most notably Jacobitism and the Wars of the Roses. Martin wrote frankly of sex and violence, gleefully threaded his novels with strong language and took even greater pleasure in routinely subverting and kicking over audience expectations. As such Martin is often seen as one of the forerunners of a new wave of ’gritty’ epic fantasy authors that followed, including Joe Abercrombie, although in truth he didn’t do anything in his novels that hadn’t been done before by masters such as Poul Anderson and David Gemmel. Martin’s achievement in this regard really stemmed from the scope and vision of his novels, which in the field of fantasy are only rivalled in their depth and complexity by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. A veteran author who had for years before he turned his hand to A Song of Ice and Fire written for stage and screen, Martin excels at dialogue and juggling multiple plots and characters. This can be seen in the televised version of Game of Thrones, which is striking for how little has been changed in terms of plot and dialogue (contrast this with the Lord of the Rings movies, which feature much more adaptation of Tolkien’s work). In fact the most notable thing about Game of Thrones for those who have read Martin’s novels is that the extra scenes added by the director really do stand out as being of much poorer quality than the author’s original work.
So what could there possibly be to complain about? Well, unfortunately for Martin, quite a lot. Martin originally intended the series to be a trilogy and it really shows by the time you get to books four and five. Despite each being almost a thousand pages long, the first three volumes are tightly-plotted and fast paced. Not a word is wasted and as a reader you get the feeling that the author has been working to a well-thought out plan. Character arcs are advanced, plot seeds grow to fruition and there are a dozen little pay-offs and set-pieces. Whilst Martin’s gift for vivid dialogue and characterisation remains undimmed in the fourth and fifth books, his grasp on the plot seems to go AWOL. To take one example, the ominous phrase ‘winter is coming’ is threaded throughout the very first novel in the series, giving you the strong sense that the resolution of the supernatural threat in the north plotline is imminent. Five books later, however, we are still waiting, without having seen any really major developments in this regard. In one sense Martin may well have made a rod for his own back because – without wanting to give away any spoilers – a number of his major characters die. This inevitably means that there are fewer sympathetic characters for the reader to invest in by the time you get to A Feast for Crows and, to move the story along, Martin has had to introduce lots of new characters. Whilst some of the scenes involving the new cast – in particular the Viking-like ironmen of Pyke – are fun to read, you just never end up really caring about them in the same way as you do with the ones whom you first come across. This may well partly be because you become cautious about investing in characters given Martin’s penchant for brutally killing them off, which is perhaps another problem that he has made for himself. Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against a few short, sharp shocks here and there but, after four thousand pages of that happening non-stop it starts to get a bit old!
Martin has suffered for his approach. Although A Feast for Crows reached the top of the bestseller lists and garnered positive critical reviews, reader reviews on Amazon were very mixed, with 3 stars (out of five) earning it the lowest rating of any book in the series to date. A Dance with Dragons gained similarly mixed reviews and was greeted by a somewhat lukewarm reception from fans of the series. In particular, Martin’s idea of splitting the books so that, in his words, they told the whole of the story for each set of characters rather than half the story for all of the characters, fell flat. Martin further alienated many of his readers by working on other projects during the intervening years between the release of the latest novels, leading some to believe that he wasn’t really interested in A Song of Ice and Fire any more. To his credit, Martin has gone on record to say that the delays stem more from the fact that he wants to make each book as good as he can rather than for any other reason (and I believe him). It remains to be seen whether the success of the HBO series will have an adverse or beneficial effect on the speed at which the remaining books in Martin’s series are produced. I for one hope that they do appear sooner rather than later because in my view Martin is genuinely one of the very best authors in the fantasy field today – a field which would be all the poorer without A Song of Ice and Fire in it. My only hope is that he learns a lesson from the mistakes of the past and that the conclusion of the series sees a return to the majestic form of the first three books.