A Song of Ice and Fire – Book List

Epic fantasy through the lens of a harsh and gritty realism. A Song of Ice and Fire chronicles the brutal dynastic struggles of the noble houses of Westeros. George R.R. Martin establishes a truly ensemble cast, where no one is a hero and no one is safe.

I first started reading this series in Grade 7. After my experience with David Eddings’ Belgariad, I was eager for some more epic fantasy. The doorstopper hardcover edition of A Game of Thrones seemed to fit perfectly. I devoured the first three books promptly, and then A Feast for Crows when it came out. With everyone else, I waited impatiently for A Dance With Dragons, taking the time before its release to re-read all four existing books and post my reviews of them.

I also enjoy the HBO series based on the books. Not only have the writers done an admirable job of adapting the story for screen, but they call attention to details one might miss while reading. The performances of Peter Dinklage, Sean Bean, Lena Headey, et al. truly bring the characters to life.


A Game of Thrones

by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 835 pages
Bantam, 1996

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I know I keep telling this story over and over, and I feel like I've been talking about those books I consider "formative" to my interest in fantasy and science fiction rather a lot lately—probably because I've been re-reading some of them. So apologies if the anecdotes have become tiresome. Nevertheless, it is necessary in this case for the wavey lines of flashback to cascade down your computer screen, for A Song of Ice and Fire played such a big role in kindling my love for fantasy that it would be criminal not to examine it in this light.

My tastes as a child ran decidedly toward mysteries: first I devoured the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, then I discovered Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I read Lord of the Rings in grades five and six, along with Dune, but I view those experiences as separate from when I truly became enchanted with science fiction and fantasy a year later. They were mere dalliances, flirtations with the field prior to my actual deflowering. I read them and enjoyed them, but they did not inspire me to read more widely in their respective genres.

That all changed in grade seven. A classmate and friend lent me a massive book containing the first three volumes of The Belgariad, by David Eddings. It blew my mind, and with all the enthusiasm an impressionable 12-year-old boy can muster, I thought it was the best thing ever. My evaluation of the series' quality has mellowed over the years, but I cannot discount the importance it has as my gateway book into fantasy. After I devoured The Belgariad, I was like a zombie starved for braaaaains. I needed something more, and my local library delivered up to me exactly what I wanted.

I read the first three books in the Ice and Fire series in their hardcover editions. It would be an exaggeration to say I could barely lift them, but they definitely stood out from your average hardcover novel, and are much more remarkable than the mass market paperback edition I read this time. The sheer doorstopper physicality of these books made an impression on me that lasts to this day.

A Game of Thrones and the two sequels that existed at the time were not my first foray into fantasy, nor were they what got me hooked on the genre. They were the crucial second series that cemented my love of fantasy, confirming to me that I had made the right choice. The intrigue among the characters fascinated me, and I couldn't wait to see what happened to them next. (I do not recall what I thought about the sexuality, if indeed I noticed it at all.) And, as with The Belgariad, I brought my unhoned ideas of literary quality to the table when I read A Game of Thrones, and I'm sure I thought it was among the best books I've ever read.

So we come, in the most direct route possible however meandering it may seem, to my point. I do not still rank these books among "the best I've ever read;" I'm lucky enough to have read quite a few good books since then. Although I still love this series and really enjoyed re-reading this book, my adult self is better equipped to evaluate it critically. That's why I re-read books that made a difference for me as a child or adolescent, such as this one, A Wizard of Earthsea, and Fifth Business. I don't do it to destroy the illusions I hold about how great they are but to put my childhood admiration for them in a context my adult self can understand. The story I told above is a great memory, but it's just a story. It's not what actually happened, just a fragmentary recollection of how it might have happened. I have romanticized not just books themselves but their place in my younger life, and this is a way of bringing them down off their pedestal and making them more real to me.

A Game of Thrones is also kind of a reality check for the romanticization of medieval fantasy in general. The book is not so much realistic—it is, after all, set in an alternative world where there be dragons—but the way Martin depicts life in a medieval setting is a lot more reminiscent of British historical fiction than classic epic fantasy. It's one thing to have a story set in a monarchy with knights and nobility and peasantry; it's quite another to claim one's setting is "medieval" or "feudal" in a true sense of those words. Reading this book, I'm reminded of something David Brin wrote in his afterword for Glory Season:

While I have the floor, here's a question that's been bothering me for some time. Why do so few writers of heroic or epic fantasy ever deal with the fundamental quandary of their novels . . . that so many of them take place in cultures that are rigid, hierarchical, stratified, and in essence oppressive? What is so appealing about feudalism, that so many free citizens of an educated commonwealth like ours love reading about and picturing life under hereditary lords?

I remember thinking at the time, and I still think, that Brin's entirely right to question the status quo in this way. I don't know if there is a proper name for this type of folly—we could call it "the pastoral illusion" after all those people who think we should return to "a better way of life" by returning to a past level of technology—but it is not present in A Game of Thrones. Life in the Seven Kingdoms is not all that pleasant by our standards, and it mostly has to do with a fundamental lack of freedom—a lack of choice.

I have come to understand, in no small part thanks to my awesome Medieval & Tudor Drama prof, how fundamentally different life was in a feudal society compared to what we experience today. The cognitive dissonance Brin finds so distasteful is a result of our attempts to map our own cultural conceptions onto feudal society. In particular, our Enlightenment-driven ideas about individuality and self-determination often tend to get in the way. It goes deeper, however, extending beyond how we live to how we think. The society of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros captures this lack of individual choice by showing us the obligations the characters have to their family, their positions, and the realm itself.

The Stark children are a great example. Robb Stark is destined to succeed his father as Lord of Winterfell, and he seems rather suited to the role. His brother Bran suffers a fall that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. This shatters Bran's life and his understanding of his place in the world. Westeros has precious few slots in society for thinkers and sedentary people, and the masculine role is very much one of activity, and for nobility, fighting and hunting. Bran will never be a warrior now. He has alternatives, of course, which Eddard Stark lists for Arya when she asks what Bran can do now. Then she asks:

"Can I be a king's councillor and build castles and become the High Septon?"

"You," Ned said, kissing her lightly on the brow, "will marry a king and rule his castle, and your sons will be knights and princes and lords and, yes, perhaps even a High Septon."

Arya screwed up her face. "No," she said, "that's Sansa." She folded up her right leg and resumed her balancing. Ned sighed and left her there.

Arya, bless her heart, does not want to conform to the role of women among Westeros nobility. It's not that women are powerless—Cersei Lannister and Catelyn Stark belie that idea—but they have to be very careful in how they wield their power, for there is quite a bit of misogyny present even among the "good" characters, like King Robert. The phrase "just a woman" and its ilk gets repeated throughout the book. Women have power, but they lack the respect (or fear) that accompanies such power when wielded overtly, martially.

Sansa Stark is almost the exact opposite of her younger sister. And while it's impossible not to have a special place in one's heart for Arya, who is well on her way to being a Lady of War, I also feel for Sansa. She's not likeable: she's naive, selfish, and self-absorbed. Yet she almost feels as if he's a stand-in for the reader: she's constantly looking for a hero, and every time she thinks she has found him, her hopes are betrayed. Joffrey is not Prince Charming; Ser Loras Tyrell is not the chivalrous knight in shining armour; her father cannot save her. There are no heroes in A Game of Thrones, just fallible human beings.

This is a book which truly embraces the idea of an ensemble cast. Some characters shine more than others, but there is no single character one can isolate as "the main character" or "the hero." I won't go so far as to suggest that every character is morally ambiguous or that there are no protagonists or antagonists. The conflict is pretty clearly between House Stark and House Lannister. The former are the "good guys" who stand for truth, honour, etc.; the latter are "the bad guys" who manipulate, deceive, betray, and so on. Martin makes us want to cheer for the Starks and boo the Lannisters—but that doesn't mean the Starks are all good people who only do good things and who are above manipulation or deceit. In many ways, they remind me of Houses Atreides and Harkonnen from Dune. There's the same mixture of epic scope with intimate family relationships.

The conflict also draws from the real-life Wars of the Roses. Martin, like Bernard Cornwell, portrays not only the harsh realities of feudal society in terms of relationships and choice but also the political instability often present in such systems of governance. I'm enamoured with British history, because it's just so juicy, and if you read enough about it, one of the overwhelming themes is one of fragility. The country gets invaded quite often, kings fall, new dynasties arise, and then those ones fall too. The idea of a single, unified army is a myth; armies consist of a few knights but mostly conscripts whose day jobs are much less militant, and the conscripts are loyal to their lords, not to the king. Martin reminds us of this fact several times throughout A Game of Thrones, notably in the relationship between Robb Stark and the force he raises to march upon the Lannisters. Later, when Arya overhears a conversation among some common people about King Robert, we are reminded that these folk don't really care who is king. One ruler will likely be just as bad as another.

So the causes for which the nobility, and in particular House Stark, fight are actually rather divorced from the concerns of the common people. Toward the end of A Game of Thrones, Lord Eddard has to choose between supporting a false claimant to the throne, which would save his family and supposedly preserve the stability of Westeros, or supporting the "rightful" king, even though he's probably not the best guy for the job. I love this dilemma, and I love Martin for putting Eddard in this situation where there are no good choices. It's great to see characters forced to choose between two bad alternatives—and it's even better if the character can somehow come up with a third option.

Eddard's choice, as I'll call it, brings to mind two things. Firstly, nobody in power today got there unless that person or a predecessor took power from someone else. Today's "rightful" leaders are yesterday's revolutionaries; history makes this abundantly clear. Eddard considers House Baratheon the "rightful" ruling house of Westeros—this is after he was instrumental in the rebellion against the previous "rightful" kings, the Targaryens. Viserys Targaryen, likewise, considers himself the rightful king of Westeros and is rather bitter about it. Secondly, in the chaos that quickly unfolds throughout A Game of Thrones, Martin has created a delightful downward spiral of events. The kingdom is well on its way to civil war before Eddard's choice, and any suggestion that by choosing to support one claimant to the throne over another he'll be preserving the stability of Westeros is a lie. Hence, fragility: a chain of events that starts with minor skirmishes among the noble houses turns into all-out civil war. A confluence of independent choices made by characters scattered across the Seven Kingdoms makes matters worse.

For all my praise about Martin's depiction of medieval society and its political intrigue, A Game of Thrones is curiously deficient in its portrayal of religion. Oh, we get the exposition. There are two religions in Westeros: the "old gods" are still prevalent in the North and are worshipped through the trees of a godswood; the seven gods are worshipped in aptly-named churches called "septs." Religion is not absent from A Game of Thrones, but its presence and its influence on the state of affairs is a lot more subdued than I would expect in an otherwise full-featured work of fantasy such as this. The High Septon gets mentioned a few times and shows up once or twice, and that's it. Does the church have money? Does it exert influence on matters of state? How did it feel about the deposition of the Targaryens?

Viserys Targaryen might be my least favourite character in A Game of Thrones because he is so obviously mad. The first few chapters featuring Viserys and Daenerys are a little painful, since the dynamic between them is both obvious and creepy. I sympathize with Daenerys, for she's about to get prostituted by her brother in return for an army, and she's only thirteen years old (not that prostituting one's siblings is acceptable at any age). And Daenerys undergoes considerable growth in this book, quickly becoming a formidable person who embraces her sex and sexuality and heritage with gusto. There is nothing sympathetic about Viserys. He's just insane. While I sympathize with Daenerys and, to some extent, even like her, I can't help but hope she fails at her plans to retake Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms, because that just means more bloodshed.

The unfortunate and wonderful truth about what George R.R. Martin has wrought, however, is that there will necessarily be more bloodshed. There is no way all the characters I like can escape unscathed or even alive from the madness that has descended upon them. The way shall indeed be steep and thorny and almost as tough for us as readers as it will be for the characters.

I'm probably a GRRM fanboy. I love this series, both because of its associations with my youth and its depiction of medieval society. Keep all those things in mind, though, if you consider my enjoyment a recommendation. This is a long book—and by no means a perfect one—so as well as being a doorstopper, it embodies the idea that "your mileage may vary." As with plenty of popular titles, A Game of Thrones suffers from its hype as well as benefiting; I think a lot of people build up an idea about this book in their minds, and when it fails to conform to that idea, they become disillusioned and kick it to the curb.

I'm just as guilty for building up illusions of what this book is and isn't, though in my case it's because I read the first three books in grade seven and haven't returned to them since. Re-reading A Game of Thrones was mostly a happy experience; plenty of times I found myself giggling gleefully or scowling at some turn of events. It's also been useful, because now I am free from the burden of memory and hazy recollection: when I talk about this book, and when I laud it, I can do it with the confidence instilled by having read it recently and finding it every bit as good as it was the first time around. A Game of Thrones isn't the best book ever written (it probably won't even make this year's top ten list), but it still holds a special place in my heart. Ultimately, it helped encourage me to continue reading fantasy. If it weren't for this book, I probably wouldn't be the person I am today.

To call something the exemplar for an entire genre is foolish and snobbish, and although I am at times both, I am seldom both at the same time. I think it's fair to say that A Song of Ice and Fire has had an influence on fantasy comparable to Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. Neither is the master template for the genre, however, and I won't join the fanboys who call it such. There's something special about A Game of Thrones that keeps people coming back and keeps people reading, despite the notorious lengths of the books and lengths of time between publication. Whether that brand of special matches your personal brand of madness will have to be for you to decide.

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A Clash of Kings

by George R.R. Martin

A Clash of Kings  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 1009 pages
Bantam, 1998

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

N.B.: When it comes to spoilers, I'm going to be talking rather liberally about the events of A Game of Thrones, so if you have not read the first book and want to remain spoiler free, stop reading now. I have avoided major spoilers for this book.

Suddenly everyone and his butler wants to be king!

In A Game of Thrones, we had the distinct pleasure of watching a kingdom fall apart as various individuals and their families jockeyed for positions of power. With A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin moves beyond the ambitions of individuals to show how FUBAR the situation in Westeros has become. In the first book, there was a sense of impending doom, but there was also the hope that it could be averted if certain people only worked together. Perhaps the death of King Robert could have been prevented, perhaps Ned Stark's life could have been saved, or perhaps Renly and Stannis would not have faced off against each other, both surviving Baratheon brothers claiming the throne for themselves. As A Clash of Kings opens, it's clear we are beyond the point where peace is an option. The scales have tipped firmly in favour of war, war, war, and it just gets messier.

Tyrion is, hands down (no pun intended), the best part of this book. He arrives in King's Landing to assume the post of Hand at his father's behest. He professes love for Cersei and Joffrey and loyalty to the Lannisters, but he has his own unique way of showing it, and Tyrion often works at cross-purposes to Cersei. He does terrible things, arranges for people to die or be sent to prison, and of course he's fighting for the Lannisters, so it's not like we want him to succeed—but there are times when I just couldn't help myself. Tyrion is just such a delicious, devious character that I can't help liking him even though he does terrible things for the Lannister cause.

Furthermore, Tyrion's machinations as the Hand are the most coherent of the political intrigue running throughout A Clash of Kings. He knows what the endgame has to be: either Stannis or Renly or both are going to attack King's Landing, which is woefully under-defended. All of his efforts go toward securing the city. Yet he has more to worry about than the external threats. King's Landing is suffering through a famine that he has no way of relieving, and it doesn't help that Joffrey is a tyrannical brat who prefers to watch people fight to the death and beat back rioters with a crossbow to, you know, actually helping the people he nominally rules. Tyrion also has qualms about the extent to which he relies upon Varys, the realm's eunuch spymaster with creepy-good intelligence-gathering skills. Finally, Cersei has her own schemes afoot, and Tyrion finds himself constantly countering or co-opting them for his own purposes.

Cersei comes across as much more emotional than she did in A Game of Thrones. Now she's an overprotective mother, and she is desperate to free her brother/lover from the clutches of the Starks. This, in my opinion, makes her a much less formidable enemy and therefore a much less interesting character. Nevertheless, her attempts to protect Joffrey are an important influence on his stunted emotional maturity: he can never hope to become a man, much less a real king, if his mother is always trying to keep him safe.

There's plenty of parallelism here if you want to look for it, because there is another king who has a somewhat protective mother as well. Robb Stark's retainers proclaimed him "King in the North," and now he is doing his best to live up to that title. Catelyn finds herself disquieted by the changes in her son. She wants to give him counsel, but unlike Cersei, she is aware of how that would undermine Robb. Even though she was one of the more bloodthirsty characters in the first book, wanting to hold Tyrion responsible for the attack on Bran and bring all the Lannisters to justice, Catelyn is the voice of reason throughout A Clash of Kings. She pushes Robb to send terms for peace back to King's Landing, and she serves as Robb's envoy to Renly.

So thanks to Catelyn and Ned, Robb grew up to be a mature, responsible, upstanding young man who is well on his way to becoming a great leader. Thanks to Cersei and Robert, Joffrey is a snivelling, immature, misogynistic brat. There is a lesson here about parenting, and about the values we pass on to our children. Because for all its vast and epic drama, A Song of Ice and Fire is also a story about family: family loyalty and family rivalry. It's the cohesion of all these elements, and Martin's wonderful job of balancing them, that makes this series so successful; A Clash of Kings is no exception in that regard.

In comparison to its predecessor, however, there are faults that make this book the less impressive of the two. Mainly, I didn't like any of Daenerys' story in A Clash of Kings. She spends the entire book leading her Dothraki diaspora east, eventually arriving in prosperous Qarth, where she has some dealings with a merchant and a warlock. Whereas we saw Daenerys grow from a young girl serving as her brother's pawn into a powerful, confident queen and leader in A Game of Thrones, this book has no corresponding developments. Her dragons grow larger, and we hear all about how she has no ships and no army. Frankly, it's a little depressing. Although I don't relish the consequences if Daenerys' achieves her dreams of invading Westeros, I still, as I do with Tyrion, want her to succeed; she's just such a compelling character. It's a shame she is wasted here.

Similarly, Bran Stark and his younger brother Rickon have a difficult time. Bran is slowly waking to the idea that magic is real and he is psychically connected to his direwolf, Summer. Of course, Maester Luwin is sceptical about magic and attempts to dissuade Bran from putting stock in any such nonsense. We can't discuss Bran without talking about Theon Greyjoy, and this is something I think worked well. Theon's story feels almost like a separate novella woven into the rest of the book, and it's a very tragic story. In his expanded role, Theon is a foolish and ambitious young man who would be king. He returns to his father only to find himself softened by his adolescence among the Starks; he is no longer an Ironman, and everyone can tell (except maybe Theon). Also, he sucks as a strategist, and almost every decision he makes later contributes to his ruination. Theon is a character with doom hanging over him for the entire book, and it's a little bit terrible that I get so much satisfaction from seeing him laid low. Nevertheless, the consequences of his bid for power are far-reaching, especially for Winterfell and the Starks.

A Clash of Kings lacks the novelty that is part of the appeal of A Game of Thrones, and Martin attempts to compensate by increasing the depth of the intrigue and the gruesomeness of the tragedy that befalls the characters. Arya, in particular, has a very interesting time posing first as a boy on the way to the Wall and then later as a serving girl for a lord allied with the Starks. I loved her tenuous alliance with Jaqen H'ghar; she saves his life and those of two other criminals bound for the Night's Watch when she could have let them perish in a fire. So he grants her three "deaths" (kind of like wishes). Remember that Arya is only nine, maybe ten, and here she is with the power of life or death over three people. This is a surreal and serious situation, and it was one of my favourite subplots in the book. (I also like the revelation of Jaqen's "real" identity, which is subtly done but obvious enough if you read closely.)

Arya's sister, Sansa, doesn't have an easy time being a hostage and betrothed to King Joffrey. She experiences Joffrey's fits of pique firsthand, and it reinforces the disillusionment that begun to seize her at the end of A Game of Thrones. Sansa, who until now has inhabited a semi-fantasy world where knights are chivalrous heroes, gets a very rude awakening. And she fast starts maturing into a much more self-aware character. She doesn't have the same skill for dissembling and deception that seems to come so naturally to other characters, but she is definitely far from the innocent, starstruck young girl we met in the first book.

With the HBO series based on the first book now being broadcast, I couldn't help but read A Clash of Kings with an eye for how it will appear on television. If anything, this just made me more excited about the book, because there are some really great scenes I can't wait to see. Still, if my review seems scattered, I hope it's not too presumptuous to suggest that's due, in part, to the scattered nature of this book. A Clash of Kings is a little messy—to good effect—and it carries the burden of the story begun in A Game of Thrones as well as can be expected. There's plenty I didn't discuss here because I just want this to be a casual review, not a in-depth analysis, and even that hope seems rather vain at this point! I guess if I'm supposed to be addressing the question of whether you would care to read this book, the easy answer is: yes, if you liked A Game of Thrones. If you didn't, then A Clash of Kings is not suddenly going to endear you to A Song of Ice and Fire. If you did, then I won't guarantee you are going to fall in love with this book, but I found it a solid successor.

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A Storm of Swords

by George R.R. Martin

A Storm of Swords  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 1128 pages
Spectra, 2000

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

N.B.: As with my review of A Clash of Kings, I will avoid spoilers for this book but not for previous books.

We had a good thing going back in the beginning of A Game of Thrones. Robert Baratheon was King of Westeros, and while he wasn't a great guy, at least the kingdom was stable. Then he died and it all went to hell. Now we have more kings than castles. Joffrey and Stannis both lay claim to the Iron Throne, and Robb Stark has managed to get himself declared the King in the North and anger both of them in the process—not that Robb has much of the north any more, because Balon Greyjoy, ruler of the Iron Islands, has invaded that while Robb is away fighting Lannisters. Oh, and across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen continues to dream about returning to retake Westeros in a blaze of dragon-assisted glory.

So the situation is a mess, an ugly mess, and it only gets worse. And, having lured you into this review with my friendly assurances that I won't spoil anything about this book, I now betray you. (Please imagine me laughing maniacally and twirling my non-existent moustache as you read the next sentence.)

A lot of characters you probably like die in this book.

Of course, everyone who has read A Game of Thrones knows there are no "safe" characters in these books. Martin will kill off anyone, but the body count does rise considerably in A Storm of Swords. A lot of reviews I've read express disappointment in this, especially when the reviewer considers some of those who die the "protagonists" of the series. There is one comment on a review (which does contain spoilers for this book) that captures this attitude quite nicely, and at the risk of skirting spoilers, I will quote from it:

Maybe that's life. Maybe it's "real life" pure and simple and Martin should be lauded as a genius for injecting that grim reality into his fantasy series: life sometimes sucks and on your way to glory, you just die. But that's not what I personally want to get out of something in which I invest countless hours of reading. I want the payoff. I want to see all the struggles and triumphs of the characters mean something. The Starks were the heroes in this world - they were a family and I wanted to see that family come back together again.

I want that too. It's a reasonable want to have, because regardless of the Starks' status as protagonists, they embody attributes of goodness that make us want to see them succeed. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen, and not just because Martin is dedicated to a grim portrayal of the medieval reality. It's not going to happen because that would not make sense given the political situation in Westeros. And it goes all the way back to A Game of Thrones and the death of King Robert.

Robert's death broke the kingdom, and we cannot put it back together again so everything will be just as it was. None of the claimants for the Iron Throne are going to pick up where Robert left off: Joffrey is a mean-spirited boy controlled by the Lannisters; Stannis is rigid and joyless; and Daenerys is inexperienced. Regardless of whichever faction eventually emerges victorious, the new Westeros will be very different from the Westeros as it was under Robert. And in none of these versions of Westeros do I see much place for a reunited Stark family—certainly not after Robb seceded from the Iron Throne. Perhaps if the series ended with Robb successfully cementing his place as King in the North and leaving the southrons to fight amongst themselves for the Iron Throne—but that once again assumes the conceit that the Starks are the protagonists and that theirs is the central story of this series. I'm not prepared to do that. As much as I like the Starks, viewing them as protagonists severely restricts the scope of this series, at least in my opinion.

I think it's fine to be disappointed with A Song of Ice and Fire for failing to meet that expectation. But there's also a bit of caveat emptor going on here: what did you expect, really? Martin goes to great lengths to point out that his world is not like a fairy tale. We see this in the brutal awakening Sansa receives in A Game of Thrones, and again in A Clash of Kings, and again in this book. She's a little slow on the uptake, but she is finally beginning to grasp that she is a chess piece and life is not like a song, that few knights are truly brave and noble and honourable, and that she cannot trust anyone, not even those who claim kinship with her. Martin has never promised us, explicitly or implicitly, that the Starks were going to get a family "happily-ever-after." He has always been upfront about the "grim reality" of Westeros. So while I understand and empathize with those who want something different, I won't criticize Martin for failing to deliver something he never so much as hinted at giving us. As I concluded in my review of A Game of Thrones,

… a lot of people build up an idea about this book in their minds, and when it fails to conform to that idea, they become disillusioned and kick it to the curb.

Martin's grim approach to his fantasy actually makes finding meaning in "the struggles and the triumphs of the characters" possible. A Song of Ice and Fire has a cast of thousands of characters who are all at odds with one another. With those dynamics, telling a traditional fantasy story with the conventional tropes of heroism would be rather hopeless. And so, in order to make the struggles of his characters meaningful, Martin needs more than a single, symbolic death or a crucial moment of self-sacrifice; he needs to inflict upon each character unique and harrowing hardships. Although these trials often share similar themes, their particulars are always different: e.g., Arya and Sansa both receive a cascading series of reality checks in this book, but each receives them in a different way.

Some of the most interesting developments in A Storm of Swords come not from the Starks but from the Lannisters. There is a new sheriff in King's Landing: Tywin Lannister is now the Hand, and he manages to alienate not one, not two, but all three of his children! He treats Tyrion with nothing but loathing and disgust. He undermines Cersei's position as Queen Regent and Joffrey's adviser, plotting instead to remarry her to anyone he needs as an ally. And he and Jaime come to sharp words after Jaime decides to assert himself. All three Lannister siblings suddenly discover that they are not quite as powerful, as clever, as well-positioned as they thought they were. I liked watching Tyrion come to terms with his treatment at Tywin's hands; I loved watching Jaime. Martin adds depth to the Kingslayer, thanks in part to an intriguing chemistry of honour and duty between him and Brienne of Tarth. While that does not make up for what Jaime has previously done, it lets me sympathize with him. In many ways, he has been as much a pawn his entire life as Sansa has been. A Storm of Swords is a rude awakening for him as well—in more ways than others—and there is a glimmer of hope that he will turn down the path of redemption. It is hard to tell, though, with the chaos in King's Landing at the close of this book. (More moustache-twirling here, muwhahahaha.)

At this point, I am having a difficult time deciding who I want to see win the throne. I am still trying to determine whether Littlefinger is just an opportunist or secretly a Chessmaster manipulating all the events from behind the scenes. If you really want to know, though … I wouldn't mind seeing Daenerys on the Iron Throne.

After a disappointing story in A Clash of Kings, Daenerys returns in A Storm of Swords and kicks ass. In A Game of Thrones we watched Daenerys grow from victim and young, scared girl to the leader of a tribe of Dothraki and mother of dragons. Now she is becoming a queen in her own right, not to mention a pretty savvy general. More importantly, Daenerys is the perfect mix of outsider and familiar face that the kingdom of Westeros needs right now. She is a Targaryen, a member of the family that ruled for hundreds of years until Robert's rebellion. So her claim is pretty solid. Unlike her father Aerys, however, she seems to lack the madness that made a continued Targaryen rule problematic. So far her approach to justice has been a lot easier to stomach than Stannis' troubling religious fervour or Joffrey's … well, everything. So I am officially declaring for Team Daenerys, at least for now—I reserve the right to jump ship at the first sign that Jon Snow decides to be King of Awesomeness and name Sam Tarly his Hand.

Speaking of Jon and Sam, A Storm of Swords finally hearkens back to the threat of the Others. I appreciate Martin returning to this plot after putting it on the backburner for A Clash of Kings. The tension created by his portrayal of a diminished and nearly-beaten Night's Watch reminds me of the sense of foreboding that accompanies Robert's dying days in A Game of Thrones: it is going to get worse before it gets better. After all, winter is coming.

It's true enough that Martin is asking a lot of us. With each book, the lines between protagonist and antagonist blur even more, and it seems less and less clear who we should want to see victorious. That demands a certain level of faith from the reader, faith that Martin will present a resolution that, if not the happily-ever-after we are so trained to expect, at least crystallizes the series into a final, definitive state. I can see why this type of demand would give some readers pause. The fact that Martin makes it while continuing to deliver stories replete with intrigue and plots, promises and betrayal, and love and war means that I am willing to wait and see where he takes us next.

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A Feast for Crows

by George R.R. Martin

A Feast for Crows  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 1053 pages
Spectra, 2005

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

N.B.: As always, this review does not contain spoilers for this book, but there are significant spoilers for previous books in the series.

All right, I am going to swim against the tide here and come out in unabashed admiration for A Feast for Crows. This book has had to bear an incredible burden: not only has it been "the most recent book" in the Song of Ice and Fire series for six years, but it is infamously "half a book" in the sense that it only follows roughly half of the series' main characters. Plus, with Martin's prediction that there will probably be seven or so books in the series, we're starting to get into the territory where some people level charges of "middle book syndrome". These factors combined, along with some probably justified criticism over certain stylistic elements of the book, mean that A Feast of Crows has largely gotten a bad rap. Undeservedly so, I say!

Increasingly I feel like my reviews of this series are becoming, in part at least, responses to other reviews and reactions, both from fellow Goodreads members and from fans and critics at large. And this feels quite appropriate for a series that has garnered such appeal, both from die-hard fans of fantasy and now, thanks to the acclaimed HBO series, mainstream readers as well. It's appropriate that we are having conversations about these books and analyzing them—if some universities have Beatles studies and Buffy studies and Harry Potter studies, then I totally support a curriculum based on studying A Song of Ice and Fire. Also, I just can't think of any other way to review these books, because I feel like I could blather on about the exact same topics I've discussed in my previous reviews of the books in this series. So I'm going to spare you from that and instead argue why A Feast for Crows is not the best book in the series but also far from the worst.

I'm not going to touch this whole "Martin is taking too long to write the books!" issue with a three-metre ninja/pirate-proof pole. No, sir. No way. Neil Gaiman and, more recently, John Scalzi have eloquently explained why we should not expect Martin to "write faster" or believe that Martin is somehow deviously twisting his moustache and milking the series for as much money as possible. Of course, you are welcome to the natural anticipation and impatience that accompanies any series while waiting for the next forthcoming book. (I, for example, am drooling an embarrassing amount over the new Dresden Files book, and going through withdrawal because I have been trained to show up at Chapters in April for them.)

Only slightly less notorious than the lengthy delay in the release of A Dance with Dragons is the afterword to A Feast for Crows, "Meanwhile, back on the wall…". It's in this afterword that Martin informs his readers why we don't see Daenerys, Jon, Tyrion, et al in A Feast for Crows and, worse still, expresses his devout hope that those characters will return in the next volume next year. OK, so one year became six, and here we are. Old fans and newcomers alike seem to target the structure of A Feast for Crows as a major reason that it is, apparently, "the weakest book of the series":

Most of Crows’ problems stem from Martin’s decision to divide the story by geography, and focus mainly on the action in Westeros that takes place south of the Wall. That means that the dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, Martin’s greatest creation, is missing. So are Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. Not only are you losing fantastic, multidimensional characters with whom we’ve traveled for hundreds and thousands of pages, you lose the heart of the story. As far as I can tell (and I’m sure I’ll be wrong), Martin’s endgame seems to point towards two events: the struggle at the Wall against the onslaught of the walking dead (the song of Ice); and Daenerys’ struggle to reclaim the Iron Throne with the help of her dragons (the song of Fire). Neither of those crucial points get any play in Crows. Instead, it’s 700 pages of B-side.

This is a very interesting and cogent observation from Matt's review. For the most part, I agree with his basic analysis—although, I'd like to add that the "song of fire" can also refer to Stannis and Melisandre's Lord of Light, and the battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light that we see developing on the Wall. However, I disagree that Martin's choice of POVs to include in A Feast for Crows loses "the heart of the story" and results in "700 pages of B-side".

It's undeniable that certain characters have become fan favourites, particularly Tyrion, Daenerys, and Jon. I myself have expressed my love for these three characters; as I said in my review of A Storm of Swords, I'm on Team Daenerys, unless Jon and Sam join forces to take over Westeros. (And here's a tantalizing hint: it's possible to interpret some elements of A Feast for Crows as foreshadowing that Daenerys ultimately accedes to the Iron Throne, or what's left of it.) Even Martin, who created all of these people, calls Tyrion his favourite. But Martin's ensemble cast is an element I've pointed out and praised in previous reviews: there is no main character, or no set of main characters. Our elevation of certain characters to stardom is a creation of our own minds, for Martin has forsaken such discrimination and embraced Shakespeare's adage that "all the world's a stage", turning his characters into the players that populate and motivate a much wider, richer drama.

At least, that's how I interpret it. I suppose it's a little insulting to suggest that if you are dissatisfied with A Feast for Crows you are reading it wrong. And there are plenty of other reasons to find the book disappointing—for example, unlike the previous two books, there is much less overt bloodshed and there are fewer battles; once again, we have returned to the dialogue-heavy, intrigue-centred world we saw in A Game of Thrones. Nevertheless, I suggest that if you can adapt to Martin's subversion of our conventional way of thinking about main characters, then it is possible to interpret this book as something other than a B-story episode. Instead, Martin focuses on the fallout from A Storm of Swords, and particularly how it affects Southern Westeros, which is the home of six of the seven kingdoms.

George R.R. Martin is scary good at a lot of things, and choosing the titles of his books is one such talent. A Feast for Crows, like all of the Song of Ice and Fire novels, is exactly what the title implies: since the Battle of the Blackwater concluded, the civil war has been conducted at a large remove from King's Landing. Thanks to the pact between the Lannisters and the Freys, Robb's rebellion has been prematurely terminated, and aside from Riverrun, the river lands are once again in the hands of the Iron Throne. The North, while not exactly quelled, is not an immediate problem. King Stannis has removed himself to the Wall, and although he poses a threat, he is once again quite distant from King's Landing. But with Tywin Lannister dead, Tyrion missing, and Jaime down a hand, we are treated to families divided and loyalties torn asunder.

At the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire, the Lannisters and the Starks were each unified in their hatred of each other. Lannisters fought against Starks and vice versa. Now the Lannisters begin to turn on each other: Tywin treated all three of his children like shit in A Storm of Swords, and now Jaime and Cersei bicker even as the latter proves desperate to find and kill Tyrion. Although nominally still the most powerful family in Westeros, and the power behind the Iron Throne, the Lannisters' position is precarious. The Tyrells are the new Lannisters in town: unified in their quest for more power, with their own brother-sister pairing of beautiful young queen and shining knight of the Kingsguard. The Lannister sun might actually be setting, and it's very interesting to observe Cersei's actions in this book.

Cersei utters that famous line in the first book: "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die." And it's ironic, because with each book I'm more and more convinced that Cersei really sucks at the game of thrones. She's by no means as bad at it as Ned Stark (who shouldn't have trusted Littlefinger), but Tyrion and then her father both ran circles around her. Now, in A Feast for Crows, she makes a series of increasingly-poor decisions, and their result is almost the opposite of what she had intended. Cersei's missteps don't come from a lack of cunning or guile so much as what I perceive as inattentiveness and negligence on her part. The demise of Joffrey and Tywin in quick succession, and Tyrion's roles in those deaths, have hit Cersei hard. Her manic concern for the wellbeing of Tommen is palpable. With her network of trust shattered, she is casting wildly about for people she can make into her creatures, and this causes her to reject some of those who are closest to her, such as Jaime and Kevan. Perhaps the most telling sign of her negligence comes from Cersei's hasty deal with the new, zealous High Septon. Thus far, the new High Septon has refused to endorse Tommen as King, a ceremonial yet important gesture. He craftily agrees to do so in exchange for Tommen reversing an ancient decree that disbands the Faith's own militant order. Cersei, with her Tommen-centric blinders on, agrees readily and thinks she has solved multiple problems with a single conversation. Unfortunately for her, it is all too easy to predict how this decision is going to come back to bite her, and it does.

The Lannisters are the most prominent, and probably the most interesting, example of the eponymous, metaphorical feast for crows, but there are so many more. The Greyjoys fight over their Seastone Chair even as they begin raiding Westeros in earnest. Jon does appear briefly in this book, in a scene with Sam, whom he sends with Maester Aemon to Oldtown and the Citadel. Sam is going to train to be become a maester. His adventures during the journey to Oldtown via Braavos, however, demonstrate the extent to which Jon's elevation to Lord Commander is straining their relationship. Jon dispatches Sam and Aemon as part of a calculated, reasoned decision that is far from the passionate bastard we first met on the Wall. And once Sam arrives at the Citadel, we quickly see that the maesters have their fair share of corruption and ulterior motives. And finally, there is a whole new subplot in Dorne around Prince Doran, his vast family, and the Princess Myrcella.

In the first three books, Martin chronicled the downfall of the Seven Kingdoms through the machinations, misjudgements, and malfeasance of the powerful Houses. With A Feast for Crows, he focuses on the infection that has now set into the gaping wound left behind by civil war. He shows us that not only are the powerful families fighting amongst each other, they are actually turning on their own. Moreover, he is eager to demonstrate that this corruption and decay is widespread throughout Westeros and endemic to a system devastated by war. And that's why this fan does not view the Brienne chapters as a waste of time. Brienne's story is pivotal to this theme of corruption and decay, because she is our eyes into the effects of war on the peasantry and common folk. As she travels through the outlaw-ridden riverlands in search of Sansa, we see the chaos and destruction left behind by armies on the move. Brienne also falls in with a wandering septon, and he delivers a passionate anti-war speech about how battle breaks men and condemning the fact that the majority of an army never understands why they are fighting; it fights only because it is commanded to fight by its lord.

This commoner's perspective is something that has largely been absent from the series so far, and I think it's very important. It emphasizes the folly of a hereditary power structure and belies the idea that any family has a "right" to rule. The common people don't fight because they care who is king; they fight because their lord chooses a side—and the lord chooses, more often than not, out of avarice and opportunity rather than loyalty and honour. While battle claims lords and knights as well as common folk, notice that those lords who survive, such as Edmure Tully, become well-treated hostages. The common people who survive are sent home—or worse, just left wherever the army happens to be where it disbands, which could be nowhere near home—and told to get on with their miserable existence. So allow me to amend Cersei's famous saying: "In the game of thrones, nobility wins, dies, or becomes a hostage; the common folk always lose."

A Feast of Crows suffers from a combination of poor timing and what is admittedly a significant departure from the established structure of the narrative. Yet these qualities alone are not sufficient to earn it the label of "weakest book of the series". If you want my opinion (and this is my review, so I don't really know whose opinion you'd expect except mine), A Clash of Kings was the weakest book. In particular I found the sheer number of characters and POVs daunting and messy. Maybe that's why I found A Feast for Crows so refreshing. Although it is somewhat heavy on dialogue—and no, I don't know what a groat is either—I enjoyed the opportunity to get inside each character's head for longer periods of time. For me, the structure of A Feast for Crows was unusual, but it was also a boon. This book certainly has its share of weaknesses, as well as a myriad of strengths I did not have a chance to extol in this review. Overall, however, I think it continues in the tradition Martin has established, one of rich detail and a canny complexity, that makes A Song of Ice and Fire so compelling and beloved.

A Dance With Dragons

by George R.R. Martin

A Dance With Dragons  cover image
Hardcover, 1016 pages
Random House Publishing Group, 2011

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Valar morghulis. All men must die. And in A Dance with Dragons, everyone dies.

OK, I'm teasing you. But I'm also being completely serious.

N.B.: As always, this review does not contain spoilers for this book, but there are significant spoilers for previous books in the series. I know you're still going to read it though, *Dad, even though you haven't read the books and it's going to spoil the TV show for you.*

A Feast for Crows focuses on the political situation in and around King's Landing in the aftermath of the Battle for the Blackwater and the Red Wedding. With Tywin dead, the Lannisters are melting down in a big way: Cersei feels she can't trust anyone, and she is desperate to stymie the growing influence the Tyrells have over her precious Tommen, our Boy King. This ultimately gets her into a lot of trouble, and later in A Dance with Dragons we learn the consequences. But first we get to catch up with all the characters absent from A Feast for Crows: Jon Snow and Stannis at the Wall; Daenerys, Barristan, and Jorah in Meereen; Tyrion the fugitive; and Theon. Yes, Theon. You didn't think he was dead, did you? When Martin kills a character, he does so in a bloody, onscreen way. Heads roll—literally.

There is more than one way to die. We see this emphatically across the cast of A Dance with Dragons, in Jon, Theon, Arya, Gilly's boy, Tyrion, Daenerys, Cersei—you know what, I'm just going to stop, because I could probably list the whole cast. Here's what I mean though, and this is why A Dance with Dragons, even with some very noticeable flaws, not a disappointment. The entire cast is undergoing a cataclysmic crisis of identity. For some, like Arya and Sansa, this has been happening since A Storm of Swords. For others, like Tyrion (or Brienne), it has been a part of them their entire lives, because they do not fit into the normative moulds, but lately even their carefully-constructed senses of self have been eroded by events. Others are merely overwhelmed by the enormity of the tasks they face: Jon Snow is now Lord Commander of the Night's Watch and must deal with a flood of refugee wildlings; Daenerys must decide whether to stay and defend Mereen against the slaving masters or cut and run for Westeros. Martin is not afraid to kill off characters for real—there are a few well-established characters who meet their deaths, and a few who are, by the end of the book, not quite dead but in definite mortal peril. Nevertheless, practically every member of the main cast is dramatically changed between the beginning and the end of this book.

Jon Snow has long been a somewhat problematic character for me. He is endearing, both for his earnestness and his loyalty, and I cheered when he became Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. But let's be honest: he's also a little of a Marty Stu (TVTropes alert). I mean, he's been a member of the Watch for how long? He's how young? And he still gets elected Lord Commander? It's a bit of a stretch—one that Martin uses to demonstrate how truly desperate the Watch is for men and for leadership. If they are electing the green Lord Snow as their commander, things must be dire indeed. Jon is gone though, and Lord Snow is now in charge: Master Aemon advises Jon to "kill the boy", and Jon takes this to heart. We were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of Lord Commander Snow in A Feast for Crows, when he dispatches Sam to Oldtown. We relive that conversation from Jon's perspective this time, and it's an interesting experience, because we see which parts of the conversation Jon gives priority in contrast to Sam's perspective. But sending away arguably his best friend (not to mention his best adviser, Master Aemon) and forcing Gilly to switch her baby are just the first of Jon's hard choices. The entire book is a litany of Jon attempting to do what he considers right for the Night Watch, and for the realm, even though he knows it will be unpopular. He must walk a careful line as he treats with Stannis—the Night's Watch shall take no part in the affairs of the realm—and attempts to make peace with the wildlings.

I'm also really intrigued by Arya's continued mission to become no one. Both she and Jon are children of Eddard Stark who seem to be pursuing a path that irrevocably severs them from their former lives. There are … opportunities, perhaps one might even call them temptations, for Jon to abandon such a path before it is "too late", if ever it will be too late for him. Arya, on the other hand, maintains her identity as a Stark—for now. But who will she be tomorrow? The next day? She is being trained to do more than kill, to be more than an assassin; she is an acolyte in a religious cult that worships a god of death and brings that god's gift to those who ask. It's creepy and compelling to see what's being done to someone who, remember, is still just a child.

Everyone's identities might be in flux, but that doesn't mean they're all in flux an equal amount, or with an equal amount of interest for the reader. Theon Greyjoy begins A Dance with Dragons as Reek, a creature of Ramsay Bolton. He has been tortured and flayed and treated like less than an animal. Yet circumstances require "Theon" back, and so he is slowly brought out of his shell, and I find this recovery far too hasty if Theon is really as far gone as Martin depicts. He too quickly regains his sense of individuality and volition, and I'm aware that A Dance with Dragons is already long enough as it is, but it still felt rushed.

At the other extreme, Daenerys' story advances more slowly than I'd like, and it's not just because I'm on Team Dany. I think she'd make a kickass Queen of Westeros, and I'm anxious to see her descend upon the Seven Kingdoms. I am looking forward to Cersei Lannister learning that Daenerys fucking Targaryen has returned on the back of a dragon and leading an army of freed slaves. I understand, however, why she feels she must linger in Meereen. Firstly, she does not want to abandon the city or let her subjects feel she has abandoned her. Daenerys has begun to turn herself into a legend: she is the Mother of Dragons; she is the Mother of us all. That is a tough act to live up to. Secondly, Daenerys has been on the run her entire life. The closest she has come to home has been a house in Braavos with a red door, or maybe it was Drogo's tent on the Dothraki sea. In either case, Daenerys has always been on the move, and she has never had control over where she was going. For once she has an opportunity to rest and choose her own moment of departure. I think she is relishing this new type of freedom, even if that is not the wisest way to spend her time.

Still, if there is any big problem with A Dance with Dragons, it has to be the paucity of dragon scenes. Dany gets one big crowning moment of awesome that I won't spoil, and Quentyn Martell has the audacity to try to steal Dany's dragons and bring them back to Dorne. (Yeah, that doesn't work out well.) But come on, Martin! We've been waiting for these dragons since they hatched at the end of A Game of Thrones! I'm not asking that Dany tame all three of them and start riding them into battle immediately. So far, however, they seem like more of a liability than an asset, and I keep waiting for someone with some dragon lore, like Tyrion, or that maester who left to find Daenerys at the end of A Feast for Crows, to show up and become her dragon whisperer. I like to think that I am someone who can appreciate the slow burn, the gradual but incessant build up to a final, gratifying climax. And I know Martin is working toward that. But I just wish he could have thrown a little more dragon dancing our way. Or maybe just some dragon cavorting. Dragon promenade? I'm flexible.

Last time, I mentioned that Cersei sucks at the game of thrones. In A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin makes it clear that everyone sucks at the game of thrones. But it's not their fault, not really.

The dramatic shifts in POV with each chapter offer us a unique sense of duality when it comes to viewing the political situation in Westeros. In King's Landing, the councillors squabble over the threat from the Iron Islands and how to finally dispatch Stannis. Thanks to Cersei, the Iron Throne's debt continues to grow, and she has somehow managed to empower the High Septon even as she incurs his disapproval. Good job! So among the inner circle around Tommen, there's a certain sense of unease; no one is feeling secure at the moment.

In the North, there is a similar atmosphere, but the insecurity is directed toward Stannis. Davos becomes an emissary and attempts to secure some support for Stannis, but Stannis' strength seems to be flagging: he has few men, little coin, his fleet is in tatters, and winter is coming to the North in a big way. So even as Stannis continues to wage his war, because he is a man governed by duty and not sense, the consensus among the North seems to be that he's not destined to rest his laurels on the Iron Throne.

What this, along with Cersei's own situation, shows is that all of the claimants to the throne are in a precarious position. Even those who have the Iron Throne at this moment aren't sure they can keep it. Meanwhile, every other claimant, from Dany to Stannis, has more immediate problems to face before they can march on King's Landing. And, just to shake things up, Martin tosses a new claimant into the mix. We finally get a glimpse into Varys' machinations, and while the new contender does feel like he's coming out of left field, it totally fits with Martin's motif of mistaken identity. I stand by what I said in my review of A Storm of Swords: it doesn't matter so much who finally ends up ruling Westeros as it does how much of Westeros will be left when the dust settles. The Seven Kingdoms are fracturing, crumbling, and decaying. And winter, and the Others, are coming.

A Dance with Dragons doesn't deliver what I expected. Somehow, though, it still manages to deliver enough to make me enjoy and appreciate the book, as well as its contributions to the Song of Ice and Fire. Martin indulges in a peculiar new way of titling his chapters, using somewhat fanciful names like "the Prince of Winterfell" or "the Queensguard" instead of proper character names. To be fair, it's not exactly hard to discern whose POV it is. Perhaps this is supposed to emphasize each character's shifting identities and priorities. Because A Dance with Dragons lacks a watershed moment like the Red Wedding, but just like A Storm of Swords, I finished this book with a clear conviction that nothing is ever going to be the same, and that we are heading to one hell of a final confrontation.