George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, II: The Long and the Longer of It

This originally appeared on May 5, 2011 on the now defunct Barking Book Reviews.

Seven Hells! Inconsistent Prose and Epic Confusion

Editors Note: This is the second part — hence the title — of this review. To see the first part of the Ice and Fire review, go here.

While its length allows Martin to delve deeply into some of his characters, others however remain under developed or underutilized in the lengthy epic that is A Song of Ice and Fire. Furthermore, this is only complicated by Martin choosing to narrate each chapter in a limited third-person point of view, from that of several specific characters for each book. In fact there are no less than 17 (!) characters who serve as narrators for multiple chapters, in addition to eight more who only get one chapter (that is, for the first four books; that number would only grow larger, of course). I first read this on the Ice and Fire Wikipedia entry before I began reading the series a few months ago; I’m not sure I actually believed it. But now that I have the books in hand, I can verify that this is indeed the case.

So its essentially impossible, or at least really difficult, to flesh out other important members of Ice and Fire’s considerable cast of characters. The end result is that the characters you have come to know and appreciate in one book might not make an appearance in the next, or we only find out about their current fates in a tangential manner – one of the current book’s characters receives a report/rumor about another character’s adventures, accomplishments, or demise. It can be a little disconcerting for the reader, to say the least. In retrospect, I think Martin might have done well to utilize an omniscient third-person narrator; he still could have switched back and forth between the various plot threads and locations, ether from chapter to chapter or whole sections of a book.

Jerome Flynn as Bronn

Martins limited third person narrative is a further shame, too, because some of the most interesting characters are the minor ones that may only make occasional brief appearances in the story. While this is inevitable in a work of this scope, there are still several characters I’d like to know a bit more about. Take Bronn, for example, Tyrion’s mercenary personal body guard who eventually gets elevated to the status of knight, gaining the appellation of “ser” in the lingo of Westeros (as opposed to “sir” — no, seriously) for his actions in defending a key holding in a battle for Kings Landing (the royal capitol). Ser Bronn’s not necessarily a sympathetic character, but he’s certainly an interesting one; alas we never get a chance to know what he’s thinking or what his motivations are.

With an omniscient third person narrator Martin could have shed some light on these questions without necessarily adding significantly to the overall length of the story. Littlefinger is another example. A major character introduced in the first novel, he plays a critical role in the third and fourth books. And yet, since he is never actually a chapter narrator; we never get inside his head. We only have a broad idea of his motivations from the recollections of others and his occasional dialog. And in case you are wondering, “Littlefinger” is a nickname based on the peninsula where his ancestral home lies.

On the other sword hand, this feudal cast of thousands is already difficult to keep track of, and that is putting it mildly. There are often points, particularly in reading the latter works, where it is difficult to keep track of who is related to whom, and which knight did what or which lord or family is responsible for what domain. This gets even more complicated when we have many knights and lordlings and ladies with the same last name running hither and yon about Westeros on both sides of the game of thrones. Martin provides lists of each family and characters in the back of the novels; they take up dozens and dozens of pages. I think some flow charts or family trees would also help. In fact there were times while deep into the third and fourth books of A Song of Ice and Fire that I consulted fan sites because I was confused about who Ser Dingleberry of the Long Pants was, and what it was he did or didnt do in the various battles for the various thrones (at one point there are five declared kings in Westeros, if we include the deceased Robert – six if we include Daenerys and/or her brother, who is the heir to the throne prior to the revolution led by Robert nine years before the opening of the first book in the series).

And no, I’m indulging in a bit of hyperbolic parody; there is actually no Ser Dingleberry in Martins books (I think).

Sound Confusing? It Is.

But this is arguably an aspect of the genre; not even Tolkien is exempt as he can legitimately be criticized for the complexity of his elven and Numenorean family trees as well. I love and respect Tolkien so much that I read scholarly works and critiques of his oeuvre, but I’ll be damned if I even I can ever keep straight all of the various Fëanors, Finrods, Fingolfins, Finarfins, Fingleberries, Fimbulbs and Fiddlefarts, etc. and so forth, by the time I get to the end of the Silmarillion. For the casual reader its difficult enough remembering that Pippin is a fool of a Took. So perhaps we can’t quite fault Martin for this, but casual readers of fantasy (those who’ve never been to a con, for example) should consider themselves warned.

The books lengths also contribute to unevenness across the span of the first four books in terms of the prose. I would guess that this has more to do with editing and publishing schedules than Martin’s technical writing prowess. Particularly in Game of Thrones and Clash of Kings, the first two books, there are delightful turns of phrase and vivid expository descriptions. To wit: “Ned had known their faces as well as he knew his own once, but the years leech at a man’s memories, even those he has vowed never to forget. In the dream they were only shadows, gray wraiths on horses made of mist.” This is, of course, describing a dream that Ned Stark tries to recall the next day, a dream about his youth.

Even in the later books, we are treated to passages such as this, told from the point of view of a direwolf possessed by a human in his dream – a warg: “He could feel the high stone calling him. Up he went, loping easy at first, then faster and higher, his strong legs eating up the incline. Birds burst from the branches overhead as he raced by, clawing and flapping their way into the sky. He could hear the wind sighing up amongst the leaves, the squirrels chittering to one another, even the sound a pinecone made as it tumbled to the forest floor. The smells were a song around him, a song that filled the good green world.” A lovely description, to be sure.

But in the latter two books of the series the reader is at times subjected to unwieldy prose and metaphors that just dont work; if I had to hazard a guess I would say these books were ushered quickly through production, as these are things any reasonably good editor would catch and fix, given time adequate to the task – thats what a good editor does.

Here’s my “favorite” example from Feast for Crows: “Her face had been stone before he spoke; then it hardened.” Er, what? I understand what Martin is trying to convey here, but it doesn’t quite work; whats harder than stone? Diamonds, I suppose, but that would make for a pretty silly metaphor. Rather, if we simply rearrange the sentence to read: “Her face had hardened even before he spoke; then it turned to stone.” I think it works much better.

Another example from Storm of Swords: “The tower stood upon an island, its twin reflected on the still blue waters. When the wind blew, ripples moved across the surface of the lake, chasing one another like boys at play.” Um, er, boys at play are erratic. They run around in random, chaotic directions, like noodles in boiling water – not marching like neat, compact waves riding at specific, regular intervals across a lake. Perhaps if there were “stiff winds switching and swirling back and forth, causing little white-capped waves to crash into one another like boys at play,” that might work.

Now before any Martin fanboys get their panties in a bunch, let me add a caveat here: I think anytime you’re writing such a large work, there are always small problems like this, particularly with what at times reads as a first draft. No, I’ve never written a 1,000 page novel (yet), but I’ve written pieces for print and online pubs that get into thousands of words. It is a problem even then, so I can imagine it is multiplied many times over when were talking about a series of interconnected novels. I would say it just goes with the territory when you’re writing hundreds or even thousands of words a day, in a work that is some tens of thousands of words (or in Martins case, hundreds of thousands of words) in length; these kinds of nit-picky errors must be somewhat commonplace in the best writers work – in the first draft. Again, this isn’t so much a criticism of Martin’s writing as it is his editors and publishers; I think its obvious these last two texts in the series were rushed, given the huge popularity of the first two.

Another editing nitpick I’ll throw out here, to both Martin and his editors: more (logical) paragraph breaks, please (at least in the ebook editions). There are some horrendous walls of text in Ice and Fire (I know, I know, pot and kettle, black, etc.).

Nitpicking the Expository Necessities

Another issue with the length of the series, complicated by the fact that it is ongoing for another planned three books (for a total of seven), is that while each is written more or less as a standalone novel, they are clearly written as part of a whole. Some subplots get tied up more or less neatly from book to book; others just seemingly taper or off or get left hanging, ostensibly to be picked up in an ensuing book.

Furthermore, while I’m sure Martin’s tale has grown with the telling, as Tolkien put it, clearly he’s had the main plot ideas in mind for Ice and Fire from the start. As a result, there is some repeated expository passages in the later books, here and there, to tie things together for readers who may not have read one of the previous books. I’m nitpicking here, to be sure; for someone who has already read the previous books, it’s a minor annoyance at best. But I think all readers would have been better served with a “story so far” synopsis at the beginning of each book following the first one – one that readers in it for the long haul could skip.

This would also better serve readers coming into the series in the middle; it would give them a chance to get to know the major characters better. It would surely be very difficult for someone who may have picked up the third or fourth book by chance to understand some of the characters and why they are doing what they do or are in the situations they are in, in the later books – Samwell Tarly and Arya Stark come to mind, for example. But this last is a trifling matter, really, in the larger scope of this very large tome; most readers of this work will naturally start at the beginning – particularly now that Game of Thrones has become a series on HBO.

It’s Not (Splatter) Porn (But Sometimes It Seems Like It’s Trying)

Editors Note: There are some naughty words and whatnot ahead. If that is a problem, stop reading — and if you’re that conservative in your sensibilities, A Song of Ice and Fire ain’t for you; better head back to Narnia (not that there is anything wrong with that; I’ve been known to spend time there myself).

In the 1990s I remember picking up a magazine of questionable repute called Future Sex whenever I went to the tattoo parlor, piercing shop, or alterna-coffee shop. A Song of Ice and Fire could be subtitled Feudal Sex. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But I could also suggest that the series ushers in a new fantasy subgenre called “sword and gore,” or “(flesh) sword and debauchery” (as opposed to sword and sorcery, for those that need it spelled out) and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration. There’s plenty of each in A Song of Ice and Fire.

While its not as gratuitous as some critics might have you think, some of it, quite frankly is plainly gratuitous. If this is a problem for some readers, again they would do well to avoid the series. But generally speaking, the sex does serve either plot or character development.

You do know that thumb is just a stand-in, right?

Take the following for example: “Tyrion put down the candle, took her hand in his, and pulled her gently to him. She bent to kiss him. Her mouth tasted of honey and cloves, and her fingers were deft and practiced as they found the fastenings of his clothes. When he entered her, she welcomed him with whispered endearments and small, shuddering gasps of pleasure. Tyrion suspected her delight was feigned, but she did it so well that it did not matter. That much truth he did not crave. He had needed her, Tyrion realized afterward, as she lay quietly in his arms. Her or someone like her. It had been nigh on a year since he’d lain with a woman, since before he had set out for Winterfell in company with his brother and King Robert. He could well die on the morrow or the day after, and if he did, he would sooner go to his grave thinking of Shae than of his lord father, Lysa Arryn, or the Lady Catelyn Stark.”

Here we learn some important things about Tyrion. At this point we already know that Tyrion is extremely intelligent and nobodys fool. But here we learn that he’s not always the cold and calculating intellectual cynic; we learn that he can be a bit sensitive – as opposed to the ravishing whore monger he might have us believe otherwise. Not to mention the fact that he’s like anyone else; he craves the comfort of a warm body in his bed the night before a day that could be his last. And yet hes intelligent enough not to fool himself, at least deep down, about the nature of a prostitutes expostulations of love.

Indeed, it is through his sexual relationship with the camp follower Shae that we gradually come to learn about Tyrion’s childhood and one of the turning points early on in his adulthood. It is an event that comes back not only to haunt Tyrion, but his siblings and father as well. So arguably some of these sex scenes are necessary, and more interesting than just having a narrator tell us whats going on in Tyrion’s head.

On the other hand, a few books later we have this scene between Tyrion and Shae:

Tyrion turned to look. … The hidden doors are here somewhere, they have to be. That was as much as he had time to think, before Shae turned his head to kiss him. Her mouth was wet and hungry, and she did not even seem to see his scar, or the raw scab where his nose had been. Her skin was warm silk beneath his fingers. When his thumb brushed against her left nipple, it hardened at once.

“Hurry,” she urged, between kisses, as his fingers went to his laces, “oh, hurry, hurry, I want you in me, in me, in me.” He did not even have time to undress properly. Shae pulled his cock out of his breeches, then pushed him down onto the floor and climbed atop him. She screamed as he pushed past her lips, and rode him wildly, moaning, “My giant, my giant, my giant,” every time she slammed down on him. Tyrion was so eager that he exploded on the fifth stroke, but Shae did not seem to mind. She smiled wickedly when she felt him spurting, and leaned forward to kiss the sweat from his brow.

“My giant of Lannister,” she murmured. “Stay inside me, please. I like to feel you there.” So Tyrion did not move, except to put his arms around her. It feels so good to hold her, and to be held, he thought. How can something this sweet be a crime worth hanging her for?

“Shae,” he said, “sweetling, this must be our last time together. The danger is too great. If my lord father should find you … “

“I like your scar.” She traced it with her finger. “It makes you look very fierce and strong.”

He laughed. “Very ugly, you mean.”

“M’lord will never be ugly in my eyes.”

— from A Storm of Swords, the third book in A Song of Ice and Fire series

At this point I think we could have skipped the sex and cut straight to the important dialog. The reader knows long before now that Tyrion’s father has forbidden him to bring Shae to Kings Landing, and yet he has. The reader also knows that the current plot line is coming to a head. Clearly here is an example of gratuitous sex; it’s certainly not the only one. Besides, much as I really like the guy, I really dont need Tyrion having sex in my minds eye for the upteenth time. Thats not a knock against dwarves per se; more a matter of aesthetics — I’m sure no one would want to see me having sex either, for that matter, myself included. Then again, if that turns your screw — noseless dwarves having sex with wanton young women in a eunuch spy master’s bed (no, really, its all in Ice and Fire), you’re in luck: popular fiction  is now catering to your desires. No longer must you hide in shame in the dark.

Anyway, as for violence, well, its an epic story about war; war inevitably involves killing – typically the removal of peoples blood and guts from their bodies, and occasionally limbs and heads as well. Like the sex, sometimes what we see as the reader is necessary for reasons of plot and characterization; at other times, it is arguably war porn. As I read Ice and Fire I would catch myself thinking at times “Yes, yes, weve covered this. Battles with swords involves lots of gaping wounds, spilled guts, chopped off limbs, caved-in skulls, etc. etc., and the smell of blood and shit. Got it. Lets move it along.”

But I wouldn’t say that Martin goes to extremes at every opportunity; not by a long shot. In fact one of the best battle scenes in the book involves little to no gore, and is yet one of the most gripping and well written battle scenes in the whole series to date in A Storm of Swords. Here John Snow, bastard of the Lord of Winterfell consigned to the Nights Watch because of his illegitimate status (spoilers in-bound; sorry) ends up commanding the remnants of the Nights Watch as they defend Westeros’ northern border – dubbed The Wall for good reason – against a Wildling attack on the one open gate within the Wall. Here Martin takes us inside John’s head and lets us experience every aspect of the battle, from the tension before it begins, to the constant rise and fall of adrenaline and exhaustion during the fighting, to the shell shocked yet emotionally intense and difficult aftermath; there’s nary a stringy bowel or spurting, severed limb to be seen.

When Martin’s on his game, its good stuff.

And in Conclusion (Seven Hells, Its About Time)

So, if you made it with me this far, you probably dont need a summation. Nevertheless, here it is (this is the way they teach you in writing school).

George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is not without merit; quite the opposite, in fact. At times it is a ripping good example of the realistic or gritty fantasy subgenre – gut- and bodice-ripping, that is. But it is not without its weaknesses, although these generally don’t detract so much from the end result as to simply make it less enjoyable at times.

Furthermore, one more warning — provided you skipped to the end — if you’re troubled by gratuitous sex, violence and ambiguous morality, don’t pick up the Ice and Fire series.

P.S. If you’ve seen the first two episodes of the Game of Thrones television series on HBO and are considering reading the books now, I think it’s safe to say if you like the show you will like the books well enough (assuming you like to read, that is). I think the show is more or less true to Martin’s work, at least so far (as of this posting, HBO has broadcast the first two episodes). Like most literary works brought to the screen, I think it’s inferior to the written work – although it works much better as an ongoing series, rather than it would have as a movie or even a series of movies. Would that Lord of the Rings had been given that treatment; then perhaps Peter Jackson wouldn’t have butchered the plot line of Faramir in The Two Towers quite so badly. But that’s another wall of text for another time.

P.S. II, Electric Boogaloo: I made it to the end before I made a joke/reference to Pat Benetar’s Fire and Ice. This, opposed to Ice and Fire. Is that why Martin called it that?

P.S., The Reboot: I think I’ve already linked to the Wikipedia entry for A Song of Ice and Fire somewhere above or in the first part; here it is again. It’s a handy reference for both new readers and veterans of the series. Also an excellent fan site/invaluable resource is The Tower of the Hand, especially this awesome map of Westeros.