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Wild and Wordy Westeros: A Song of Ice and Fire

Book #11 for 2011: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
Book #12 for 2011: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
Book #13 for 2011: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

Let’s see, according to my Nook, I have over the last three months read 3,477 pages of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (including the first book, A Game of Thrones, which I wrote about earlier). It is with great sincerity, then, that I say the following: Whew!

I’m not sure if that’s a whew! of admiration or a whew! of exhaustion, but it’s a whew! of something, that’s for sure. Martin is a terrific writer, one of my favorites, but he does like to go on and on and on and on and on and on and…next month he’ll be publishing another 1,000 pages or so for me to read, with still another two books left before the series is done. Assuming he doesn’t drop dead from carpal tunnel syndrome before he types the final words of the final book, that means I’ll probably eventually read somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 pages of Martin’s writing on this series alone.

A lot of you now know A Game of Thrones through the HBO series and a few of you have even read the book, but if you haven’t gotten beyond the first volume you may be wondering if the rest of the series is as good as the beginning. Well, no, it isn’t quite. But it comes awfully close. Martin’s writing can be trying at times. He likes to spend hundreds of pages setting up a situation, doling out exposition, even letting his myriad characters (and when you start counting the minor characters there’s a hell of a big myriad here) spend entire chapters in talky political wrangling or discussing the latest gossip about people who often have nothing whatsoever to do with the story, but once Martin has his plot wound up, he lets it explode and the result is thrilling in a way that popular fiction rarely is.

Consider A Storm of Swords, the third volume in the series. The first half is so full of characters being taken hostage, being rescued, and being carried to and fro about the novel’s vast countryside that I began to lose track of who was where, who was with whom and where they were supposed to be headed. My attention began to wander. But after I took a week off to read other things, I was blown away by the second half of the (1,068 page) book, where Martin unleashes one killer plot twist after another. By the time the book was over, he had completely changed the playing field and had me excited about plunging into yet another interminable volume of the series. For those plot twists alone I nominate A Storm of Swords as the second best book in the series, and would rank it ahead of A Game of Thrones if it had just been a little more tightly written.

Martin’s writing method is the same in all of the books of the series, or at least in the first three. As in A Game of Thrones, he assembles a group of viewpoint characters (Game of Thrones has eight) and assigns each a plot thread. Every chapter is named for the viewpoint character that will be followed in it, so you immediately know which plot thread you’re in, even if it’s been a couple of hundred pages since that character was last heard from. Sometimes I found I had to go back to the last chapter about that character (something that’s surprisingly easy to do on the Nook) to remember what the hell was happening in that plot thread, but because Martin usually ends his chapters on some important story development or character revelation, I generally found myself eager to learn what the next development would be in that thread.

The one book where this method begins to fail is the fourth, A Feast for Crows. Martin gets carried away with introducing new characters and situations, to the point where the book becomes painfully exposition heavy. Whole new portions of Westeros geography and politics are opened to the reader along with new viewpoint characters and plot threads and Martin expects us to spend an unconscionable number of pages boning up on the details. At times this became way too plodding and I only kept reading because I knew that there was going to be some kind of payoff. (There was: Martin throws in yet another knockout of a plot twist near the end and there are enough intriguing developments late in the book to make me curious where things are headed.) A worse problem with this book is that Martin realized it was getting too long and removed half the ongoing plot threads and put them in the next book, A Dance with Dragons, which reportedly will tell stories taking place simultaneously with those in this book. This means that several of the best characters in the series, including Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, are left out of the book entirely. And because Martin took so long to write these two volumes, that means that these characters have been missing for 11 years. No wonder Martin’s legions of fans are angry!

Fortunately, I only have to wait two weeks or so for the next volume. Not that I plan to read it immediately; I need a bit of a rest from Martin’s huge, beautifully conceived and frequently exasperating world. But I doubt that I’ll wait too long to read it. If I spend more than a couple of months before I rejoin Martin’s multitude of plot threads, I’ll have no hope whatsoever of remembering what’s going on. And though I read the 779 pages of A Game of Thrones for a second time to refresh my memory, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t bring myself to read all 3,477 pages of the first four volumes again!

About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and our cat Lola, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

2 responses »

  1. I completely agree with your assessment. I almost gave up midway through Game of Thrones, but that’s the point in which the plot heats up, so I kept on reading. Same thing happened while I was slogging through the hundreds of pages of exposition in the second novel, until things again heated up. For the third, though, I got a “reader’s cramp.” The hope of a payoff in the last few chapters was not worth laboring through exorbitant intro material. Especially when you consider the frustration of “Which lord is this? Which house is doing that again? What is this character doing again?”

    • Christopher Lampton

      You really should persevere with the third book. For me it had the best payoff of all and it wasn’t just in the last few chapters. It was the entire second half of the novel. Martin fires off one stunning scene after another and it’s worth the wait. I wish I could say as much for the later books, especially A Feast for Crows.


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