Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

A Song of Fire and Ice: Books One and Two

For my birthday back in June I got the first four books in George R.R. Martin’s famous (by now) series A Song of Fire and Ice, and just finished the first two books, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. Overall I thought they were good but not as amazing as I had been led to believe. Let me tell you why they are good but not great. THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER-FREE!

Why it’s good:

  • Despite their impressive length (>800 pages each with what looks like 8pt font), the books are definitely not boring. There are lots of great characters, and lots of characters in general. This gives the feeling of a big open world and although it sometimes is hard to keep track of who is related to who, this really only crops up in the first book and once characters are incrementally introduced by the second book, it’s not that bad. Tyrion is my favorite character so far, which is probably not a surprise because others seem to like him a lot as well. As the series’ only vertically-challenged member, he’s often mocked by others but far exceeds them as far as intelligence goes. That definitely comes in handy, because there’s a lot of political maneuvering going on (plans within plans) and friends can become enemies very quickly (and vice versa).
  • Martin knows that he has a ton of characters and realizes that many of them need to die through natural or other means throughout this series, and doesn’t flinch at killing main characters. This is a big of a mixed bag, but in general is a positive move: killing beloved main characters evokes a lot of emotion and in general, they leave behind enough family/friends to continue the battle after they’ve left. Thus far really only a single main character has died that I really didn’t want to die (everyone who has read the first book likely knows who this is) and reading the second book really brings out a lot of emotion as to the legacy he left behind.

Why it’s not great: * There is a lot of maneuvering going on in this series so far, with no sign of it letting up in the next few books. What I mean by maneuvering is ‘interactions / showdowns between various characters’, and I guess this is to be expected, with the series at five books so far and not yet complete. However, this presents two problems:

  1. Since the maneuvering between different characters often doesn’t result in any of the parties being killed or expelled from wherever they’re operating from, it’s hard to get really excited when two of the big characters have a showdown, and when something interesting actually does happen, it completely blindsided me and I had to keep re-reading those sections to make sure I didn’t miss anything. As I go to the next chapter I would say something like “wow let’s see what trouble Tyrion gets himself into now” but at the same time realize that there’s a high probability that it will be nothing decisive. The chapters are all interesting, so I wasn’t bored at any part of the books (again, amazing for ~2000 pages), but it’s hard to commit to even the next chapter when you know that there will really only be one or two big plot twists in the whole book. I am aware that this is often referred to as “character development”, but for me it just meant that not much of any real value goes on for a lot of the book. So far, it hasn’t been the case that any character has developed so much that their decisions couldn’t have been guessed from knowing who they were when they were first described in the first book – that is, their development really hasn’t changed them to any noticeable degree.
  2. The layout of at least the first two books seems to be designed to prevent being immersed in it. Each chapter typically focuses on a different character than before, and in some cases the characters are on opposite ends of the world with nothing to do with one another, so the second I’ve gotten into the story and really want to know what happens next, I have to put down everything I know about, let’s say Tyrion, and remember everything I know about Bran. And this is a massive pain in the ass – I really want to see more of Tyrion and don’t really care much about Bran (don’t worry about the names too much). I get that the story has to progress on all sides, but this completely kills my drive to read more because now I have to care about Bran and the second I’m interested in his story, BAM! now we’re talking about Davos, who is nowhere physically close to the other two characters, and while I like Davos, now we’re back to step 1 and I have to remember his story…

Each of the first two books have had climaxes where they stop switching between faraway characters and either stick with one character or switch between characters very close to one another, and these are easily the best parts of the books. These are the parts where Martin really shines – he’s a great writer and this is where he gets to show us it. Unfortunately, the rest of the time it suffers from what I will call True Blood Syndrome, in which I have a minority of characters that have really interesting stories but I have to waste a lot of time seeing the other characters dick around to fill time. Note – I’ve only seen that TV show, so the books could be different. If you’ve seen the TV show you likely can sympathize – the main plot focuses around this whole vampire thing but the second-tier characters steal a surprising amount of screentime with their adventures that I couldn’t care any less about, and the series as a whole would be a lot better if they bit the dust.

So how does that apply to A Song of Fire and Ice? Well, let me give you a little bit of spoiler-free info. In the second book, A Clash of Kings, there are many kings who are clashing to be the one king who rules over all (see! no spoilers!). But while we want to be reading about these kings and their clashing, about half of the time is consumed by second-tier character maneuvering. Granted, the second-tier characters here are a lot more interesting than in True Blood, but by the end of the book they’re in pretty much the same shitty situation as when they started. And to top it off, the clashing is the most interesting part but doesn’t come up that often – it’s more of a “what happens to the world when kings decide to clash” as opposed to “hey some kings are about to clash, do you want to see that?”

A Possible Saving Grace

So in the second book a lot of the tier-one characters (the interesting ones) are conspicuously missing in action. I’m not saying they’ve been captured and thus don’t get screentime, I’m saying you hear about things they’ve done after it’s happened from the second-tier characters. A natural response I had was to say “well what the hell happened to them?”, and in typical fashion for a multi-book series, the next book hints at the answer – it runs in parallel to the second book and will have the missing points of view. The book, A Storm of Swords, hints at many battles and tells us right at the beginning that it will not keep the timeline in sync anymore. What that means is spelled out pretty clearly – while everything so far has alternated between characters with events happening more or less at the same time, this book will jump wildly around in time and space to retcon something epic into the story.

Retconning is a very dangerous plot device – I have been on record for hating it as a cheap way for authors to add drama to the story that they forgot to talk about when they wrote the story the first time, and a whole post will be devoted to this later, but it presents a big risk: the next book (for me) has the potential to make or break the series. A particularly stupid retcon could easily kill the series, but if it turns out that the first two books have set it up nicely then it could put a lot of new life into the series and keep it going strong for me.

Although I’ve spent more time talking about the negatives than the positives, I do recommend at least the first two books, especially if you’re into fantasy books. it also showed me how Dan Carlin has killed my love of fantasy and made me a lover of history – he can talk about the fall of the Roman Republic for TEN HOURS and have it be amazing and exciting throughout. There are a crapload of characters there but he knows how to give each of them the screentime that they deserve (which I think is a lot harder since the figures are all real people) and make a seriously engaging story out of a ton of source material. That’s also best kept for another post though, so let me reiterate what I said near the beginning: I’ve read about 2000 pages of A Song of Fire and Ice without getting bored, and that’s a great sign.