Sep 8 2009 1:27pm

Waking the Dragon: George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

Re-reading these books right now is a mistake. Before I picked up A Game of Thrones (Bantam) again, I had only a calm interest in Jon Snow’s true parentage, I’d forgotten who Jeyne Poole was, and best of all, I only mildly wanted A Dance with Dragons. I sagely nodded when I read that George R.R. Martin is not my bitch. I have every sympathy for this position. All the same, I know that by the time I get to the end of A Feast With Crows I’ll be desperate, desperate, desperate, so desperate for my fix that I’ll be barely able to control myself. I will be A Dance with Dragons-seeky, and is it out? Is it even finished? Like heck it is. And I know I’m not entitled to it but I waaaaaaaaaant it! If I was a sensible person, I’d have waited to re-read until it was ready and I could have had a new installment to go with the old. But now it’s too late.

So what is it about these books that makes me talk about them in terms of a two-year-old snatching at sweets in a supermarket?

Firstly, they have a very high “I-want-to-read-it” quotient. This “IWantToReadItosity” is hard to explain, is utterly subjective and is entirely separate from whether a book is actually good. Who can say why Robert Heinlein and Georgette Heyer and Zenna Henderson have it for me and Herman Hesse and Aldous Huxley don’t, despite the fact that Hesse and Huxley are major world writers? I’ll happily acknowledge that The Glass Bead Game is a better book than Job: A Comedy of Justice, but nevertheless, Job has that IWantToReadItosity, and if you left me in a room with both books and nothing else, it would be Job I’d start first.

Now even within genre this is something that varies a lot between people. The Wheel of Time books don’t have it for me, I’ve read Eye of the World and I didn’t care enough to pick up the others. Ditto Harry Potter, where I’ve read the first three. These are books that have IWantToReadItosity for millions of people, but not for me. The Song of Ice and Fire books do, though, they grab me by the throat. This isn’t to say they’re gripping in the conventional sense—though they are—because IWantToReadItosity isn’t necessarily to do with plot or characters or any of the ways we conventionally divide up literature. It’s got to do with whether and how much you want to read it. You know the question “Would you rather read your book or go out with your friends?” Books have IWantToReadItosity if you’d rather read them. There are books I enjoy that I can still happily put down to do something else. A Game of Thrones is eight hundred pages long, and I’ve read it six times, but even so, every time I put the bookmark in, I put it in reluctantly.

These books are often described as epic fantasy, but they’re cleverer than that. Most epic fantasies are quests. This is a different kind of variation on a theme from Tolkien. In those terms, it’s as if when Sauron started to rise again in Middle Earth, Gondor was in the middle of the Wars of the Roses. They’re about human scale dynastic squabbles on the edge of something wider and darker and inhumanly dangerous. The world is wonderful, with a convincing history leading to the present situation. It has good names (Winterfell, Greyjoy, Tyrion, Eddard), great characters who are very different from each other and are never cliches—and Martin isn’t afraid to kill them, nobody is safe in this world because of being the author’s darling. There are mysteries that you can trust will be resolved, everything fits together, everything feels real and solid and full of detail.

But the thing that really lifts them above the ordinary is the constant balance at the edge of the abyss, the army marching off south to win a kingdom when the real (supernatural) danger is north. There are human problems on a human scale, tragedy, betrayal, honour, injustice, and always the creeping reminder underneath of something... colder.

If you like history, and if you like fantasy, and if you like books where one page leads you on to the next and you can’t believe it’s that time already, you should definitely read these. Also, if you haven’t read them you’re lucky, because you have four eight hundred page volumes to go before you’re reduced to a slavering hunk of waaaaaaaant.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Rob Munnelly
1. RobMRobM
Jo - Yep, that just about sums it up re GRRM.

P.s. Re other books, I'd suggest not giving up on Wheel of Time until after you've read through the fourth book. Book 1 and 2 are reasonably well done but Book 3 is excellent (and tons of fun to boot) and Book 4 is the masterpiece that typically brings the addiction to the forefront. If you make it there and it's still meh to you, then so be it. But I wouldn't cut it short at Book 1 - not a good stopping point.

Similar comment on Harry Potter. Story takes a serious complex and dark turn starting in Book 4 and in Book 6 Rowling pulls the cord with a key plot development that reorients the world and forces you to look back to find out what really was going on throughout the entire series. That's where the fun is. Consider hanging in.

Ian Thomas
2. wildwinter
To anyone else reading this - what Jo said. :-D
Marcus W
3. toryx
Wow, and I thought I'd re-read those books a lot. Still, reading this makes me want to re-read them again. And maybe I will before too long, though what I really want to do right now is listen to them.

Definitely way up on my IWantToReadItosity scale.
James Jones
4. jamesedjones
To anyone else reading this - what RobMRobM said. :P
Jonah Feldman
5. relogical
If you want to know when the next one is coming out, there's this handy site.
Herb Schaltegger
6. LameLefty
I have them all, in hardback, paperback, AND on my Kindle, because they are just that good and I don't begrudge GRRM a penny - he's earned every bit and then some.

Now if he would just finish "Dance" - sigh. As a commentator put it on Scalzi's blog piece regarding Gaiman's "GRRM Is Not Your Bitch", "Every time someone asks when Book 5 will come out, GRRM kills a Stark." : ) (And yes, I realize how utterly, ridiculously meta this very discussion has now become thanks to me. I win teh intarwebs today).
- -
7. heresiarch
"nobody is safe in this world because of being the author’s darling."

Whereas Arya is safe because of being the author's wife's darling.
Christopher Key
8. Artanian
I've gone from wholeheartedly recommending this series to my friends and acquaintances, to telling them to avoid it like the plague, until it's done. Which it never will be. He _might_ get ADWD out sometime in the next eighteen months, but after that? It's just very likely to happen and why would I want to put my friends through that?
Liza .
9. aedifica
RobMRobM @ 1: I'm willing to give a book a while to pick up, especially if I've been warned that it gets better, but why read four books into a series if you didn't like the first one?

Jo: I think we should distinguish between two kinds of WantToReadItosity, because it makes a difference whether you've read the book before or not. There are the books in my house that I've never read, books that looked interesting enough to buy but which I keep ignoring in favor of re-reading an old favorite--those are lacking one kind of WantToReadItosity but may be full of the second kind, the WantToReadItosity that makes you pick Job back up again and again. The problem is, unless I get past the lack of the first kind and actually read the books, I'll never discover whether they have the second kind...
Michael Below
10. ediFanoB
I really appreciate your term "IWantToReadItosity”. You hit that nail square on the head!

There is nothing to add why you should read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
11. confusador
And this is precisely the reason that I haven't read them. I have no doubt whatsover that these books are great writing, not after hearing so many people wax poetic. But they don't become a great story until they have a great conclusion, that catharsis is a large part of why I like reading, and fantasy in particular. Until GRRM can provide that, he's not providing a product I want. Which saddens me a bit, but it's not my fault he doesn't want my money.

Incidentally, it's also the reason I'm glad that Sanderson is finishing WoT: the man knows how to write a conclusion. And when he does then maybe I can start the series.
Rob Munnelly
12. RobMRobM
aed@9 - There's a lot of groundwork laid in the first book that drags a bit but pays off in upcoming books. It also focuses in almost claustrophobic fashion on the core characters. Book 2 starts showing a much broader world and begins to suggest the complexity that is the hallmark of WoT (i.e., Jordan throws a lot of things in the story without explanation and you need to pay attention over the course of the series to figure out what's really going on). Moreover, both Books 3 and 4 really amp up the action and fun. So, my recommendation is to read enough to see what the fuss is about (a quarter to a third of the series) and why so many people get so immersed in the series before rejecting it as unsatisfactory.

Kathy Keith
13. Babokathy
Jo--is this the beginning of a Chapter Re-Read of the Song of Ice and Fire series? Perhaps it is an essay to express our feelings for a different genre of fantasy?

I admit that I was clearly shocked when Martin began killing off all of my favorite characters. ~~Wince~~Oh NO! Even some of the "bad" guys. Without some antagonist, not much story. However long it takes Mr Martin to get the 5th book out, I'll be waiting. Give the man a break, he's allowed to have "writers' block" THIS TIME. 6th and maybe final book better already be on the back burner! Those "supernatural" boogies in the North have to get their "Day".

I would be very interested in going through the chapters a few at a time with "assistence" to better understand the books.

1 Vote for Re-Read of A Game of Thrones:-D
14. Rob T.
Oh yeah. "Waaaaaaaant." That just about describes my attitude about having to wait the next "Ice and Fire" installment(s).

Ordinarily I'm allergic to long fantasy series, but I've enjoyed Martin's short fiction since reading "Sandkings" when it originally appeared in Omni. (Good grief, was that really 30 years ago?) I liked the Game of Thrones excerpt "Blood of the Dragon", and eventually read the full novel when it was up for the Nebula. Been on the hook ever since.

A lot of Martin's short fiction concerns issues of identity. Sometimes this takes the form of possession, which definitely shows up in "Sandkings" and may wind up playing a substantial role in "Ice and Fire". For the most part "Ice and Fire"'s identity issues are less obvious, boiling down to characters mismatched--sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically--with their apparently destined roles.

Being a "bastard", exiled royalty, female in a sexist society, physically unprepossessing to the point of grotesquerie, basically nice while surrounded by evil, suffering from "unnatural"/"perverse" desire, charged with responsibilities beyond one's capacity to handle--these are some of the ways various "Ice and Fire" characters find themselves out of harmony with what their world expects of them, and much of the series's interest comes from how they deal with it or fail to do so.

It's interesting that you should bring up Harry Potter in connection with this. Like "Ice and Fire", "Harry Potter" was an ambitious series that proved more challenging to its creator than she initially thought. I think as a relative novice Rowling had fewer preconceptions about what she could and couldn't do as a writer, while Martin the seasoned professional expects more of himself, and this is why Rowling finished her series while Martin takes years at a time on the latest volumes of his.

I've resolved not to re-read "Ice and Fire" until Martin announces that he's done with the new one. Till then, there's lots of good stuff out there. I may finally get around to reading "Lord of the Rings" (told you I was allergic to long fantasy series) and maybe the "Gormenghast" trilogy as well (ditto); might even get to Don Quixote or Moby Dick or War and Peace (if not all three) before A Dance with Dragons hits the stores!
Elio García
15. Egarcia
It's been gratifying -- as a fan of the series, perhaps even an uber-fan if you count running Westeros.org and its associated forum, wiki, etc. -- to regularly see people note on Twitter or blogs or whatever that they're picking up GoT for the first time (most of them because they've heard HBO may make a series of it, and so it must be good) and raving about it shortly afterwards.

These are compulsively readable books, and I've lost count of how many times I've re-read them over the years.

If there's a re-read coming, I'm in for that. That said, I'd be even more interested to just see your thoughts as you complete each book; especially the final volume, which is maligned here and there, yet I think it has a number of virtues that are often overlooked.
Lawrence Hardin
16. lawrencehardin
This series is an interesting contrast with The Wheel Of Time. Both are giant series that challenge the reader's memory. This is a relatively new problem - - at least on this scale. Robert Jordan chose to introduce sub-plots and then develop them in short sections in later volumes. This is incredibly hard on the readers.

GRRM seems to have noticed this. His sub-plots are introduced later in the series with retrospective explanations added. This is much easier on the reader, though perhaps a few hard-core readers are disappointed by the lack of challenge.
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
Babokathy: A volume by volume re-read. I read too fast to do chapter-by-chapter.
Kristina Blake
18. kab1
I'm also up for a reread of SoIaF (reread, reread, reread- everybody chant it with me!). As I noted over on the WoT reread, I just started rereading them (relistening actaully) to them after I finished my reread of WoT. I'd be willing to do the reread myself, except I don't think my literary skills are up there for the commentary!

I had never reread them (grad school and babies started for me just after my first read) and I forgot how truly wonderful they are. The characters are great, very in depth, and most importantly- they truly capture my interest! However, it had been so long, that I couldn't remember what had happened to certain characters. Yes, I remembered who died, but it was interesting to read it a second time through knowing who was going to die.

They are making my wait for the Gathering Storm decrease, I'm actually now more excited for aDwD than GS! But some of that is of course due to the fact that now I know when GS is coming, but aDwD is still up in the air. I'm almost through aSoS and I know I'm going to go through serious withdrawal after A Feast for Crows.

As far as the "IWantToReadItosity” I admit that I was so into it I kept listening to it on the iPod while chasing my kids around the park!

I'll echo RobM (Hi Rob!) in saying that I'd read a few more WoT books before giving up on it. I'd actually say that Eye of the World is one of my least favorite books of the entire series. The above mentioned SO didn't like the first one that much either, but now is hooked.
Leigh Butler
19. leighdb
I read A Game of Thrones some ungodly number of years ago, and immediately failed to pick up any of the others in the series - not because I didn't want to read them, but because I was already suffering from Unfinished Epic Fantasy Series Syndrome (guess from where), and I resolved that I wasn't going to start another multi-volume series until it was finished.

I have kind of completely failed to keep that resolution in general, but for some reason I've determinedly stuck with it for GRRM in particular. Over the years I've completely forgotten what happened in AGOT, and I've assiduously avoided spoilers for the series at large, which pleases me, as when I start it again, I'll start fresh.

And I will start them; just not yet. I'll read them when the series is done, and not before. But I'm really looking forward to that day arriving.
Patrick Garson
20. patrickg
Ah, Jo, you poor fool. I didn't even read Feast For Crows, determined as I am to wait out the series or die attempting such.

Thank God Robin Hobb has never toyed with me so. It's too heartbreaking, though I suspect also compounded by the nature of GRRM's story-telling - it would be night impossible to provide a nice, _kind-of_ resolution at the end of each individual novel with so many characters in play.
Sean Sakamoto
21. ssakamoto
GRRM has incredible skill when it comes to making starts and setting up excrutiatingly exciting conflicts. But, for this reader, it winds up being the same thing over and over and over.

He is a master at making me what to know what happens next, but the few conclusions that do take place are extremely unsatisfying. He usually just starts more storylines, leaving all the other characters hanging off the cliffs, making me wonder what happened.

He's an exciting writer, with incredible storytelling mojo, but the payoff is always on the next page, no the next, no maybe the next...then cut to another character. I felt like a junkie who never quite got the fix when I read those books. For that reason, there is something excrutiating about reading those books and I wouldn't recommend them to anyone until there is a giant, satisfying conclusion to the series.
22. afterthefallofnight
I only occasionally reread books but I think I understand “IWantToReadItosity”. "Lord of Light", "Waystation", "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" and "Dune" spring immediately to mind as books with a very high IWTRI quotient. I remember enjoying "Glass Bead Game" but it has a very low IWTRI quotient. ("Siddhartha" is an altogether different story.)

Its funny how subjective this sort of thing is. I was inspired by one of your recent reviews to reread "Rite of Passage" and it was every bit as wonderful as I remember it. On the other hand, I read Game of Thrones years ago and never felt the urge to pick up the next volume. Oh well.
Karen Walters
23. Wrenza
I can't re read the series. I loved reading it the first time and even the second time, and then discovering the web sites surrounding it. And preording the book. But I look at the books with a bitter taste in my mouth now. Its going from want to urgh. If the next book ever comes out it this may change - if.
24. Falstaff
I have a very strong "premonotion" that, with the HBO adaptation of ASOIAF creating buzz, GRMM can - and WILL - finish "A Dance with Dragons" within the year, for publication early next.

That's why I'm re-reading the books right now, for the first time since I've started in '97! And I'm TAKING my time! Savoring every morsel and taste of the high drama. I even find myself getting more intrigued by the minor narratives, easily overlooked during the frenzied pace of first reading.

I'm also listening to choice parts of the Roy Dotrice reading/performance. The past few days have been rainy here in my neck of the woods, and the overall effect of re-reading and listening in late, wet afternoons is sublime! :-)
Evan Leatherwood
25. ELeatherwood

I remember it clearly. When Daenarys hatches the dragons at the end of Book 1, I got this warm-fuzzy-cozy-fireside story-wonder feeling that spread from my solar plexus to the rest of my body, like drinking really good whiskey.

The only other writer that's ever done that to me is Charles Dickens. He and Martin both have this ability to make you just absolutely love whatever character they're writing about, and to feel them as a distinct personality long after you've forgotten the specifics of the plot. Tyrion. Littlefinger. Sansa. Arya. Samwell. Everybody in the books, basically. You just want to follow them forever, wherever they go, in a story that has no end.

Martin deploys all the ways to make a character lovable: he makes them vulnerable, he gives them distinct sartorial and personal tics that we love to recognize, he heaps tons of abuse on them, heaps even more, and he gives them really compelling motivations. But he also does something else. It's just a magic touch. And that's where the George R. R. Martin booklust comes from, in my opinion.

I swore I'd never buy one of his tomes in hardcover, but I don't think I can hold out when Dragons is published.
Jim Perry
26. indianajim
For some reason there seems to be a Jordan side and a Martin side, with very few liking both series. I love them both. Both series have that IWantToReadItOsity for me.

Re: Harry Potter, books 1-4 were crap. Books 5-7 were fantastic. If you've seen the movies, just read 5-7. 1-4 basically are the movies. 5-7 have sooo much more stuff in them.
S Diller
27. CuenDiller
I was thinking of picking up these books, but I think I'll stay away until I know they will be complete. Or maybe until WOT is finished. I might need my "WILL THEY EVER BE FINISHED?!?" fix.
Marcus W
28. toryx
I can understand wanting to wait until all the books are out before reading a series but it seems awfully risky. Life is short. Any one of us could be hit by a bus tomorrow. Why risk it? Especially when it's a series as phenomenal as aSoIaF.

Oh, and patience is a virtue. If nothing else, being a fan of the Wheel of Time has taught me that.
S Diller
29. CuenDiller
@28 toryx

haha. I'll have to make sure I watch out for public transportation on my walk to work tomorrow. You can never trust those Philadelphia buses.
Adam Whitehead
30. Werthead
"For some reason there seems to be a Jordan side and a Martin side, with very few liking both series."

There appears to be an extremely large number of people liking both. However, there are definitely vocal subsets in both fandoms: some SoIaF fans dismiss WoT as perhaps too YA with a far too derivative opening, whilst some WoT fans dismiss SoIaF as unambitious, question whether it is really fantasy due to the absence of a magic system and disapprove of the somewhat more graphic sexual and violent content. In addition there's a (considerably smaller, these days) small minority of WoT fans who seem to be slightly bitter over the fact that SoIaF became, almost overnight, very widely regarded as the best epic fantasy series out there at the same time critical opinion of WoT was dropping rapidly. This phenomenon was most pronounced in the early 2000s. Oddly, the same situation has not arisen with SoIaF fans over the rising critical acclaim given to authors like Bakker, Abercrombie and Erikson, despite occasional claims that they've become the new dominant epic fantasy writer of modern times (well, maybe with Erikson, a bit).

I think in general the two series are more closely-aligned in style and substance than a lot of diehard fans admit (criticising one series for faults the other also has in abundance is not uncommon on forums), probably the same reason why the two series do actually have a lot of mutual fans. It would be interesting to critically compare the two series' themes and ideas (rather than on qualitative grounds) some day.

"But they don't become a great story until they have a great conclusion,"

I thoroughly disagree. Very, very few fantasy series, particularly epic fantasy series, have anything approaching a great conclusion. Hobb has problems with decent endings, King's divided people (to the point of violent flamewars) and among recent epic fantasy series only arguably Abercrombie delivered a real, jaw-dropping "Woah!" ending, which was as much down to a clever subversion of the Big Epic Fantasy Battle ending as it was to the writing. And lots of people even moan about that.

The number of otherwise great fantasy stories out there which start off great only to deliver a totally awful ending is pretty high (Greg Keyes being the most recent example), and I think if everyone waited for a fantasy series to have a good ending before reading the whole series, very few fantasy series would get read.

My own personal advice is that people treat the first three books of A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE as a self-contained trilogy with a total downer of an ending and hold off on the later books until the series is finished.
Jo Walton
31. bluejo
Werthead: You might enjoy Daniel Abraham's "Long Price" books, which start with A Shadow in Summer, the fourth and final volume just came out and it has an absolutely brilliant ending.
Elio García
32. Egarcia
Abraham pops up from time to time on the A Song of Ice and Fire forum. I whole-heartedly agree about the quality of his series, though I haven't gotten to the last volume yet. Lots of fans on the forum. :)
Adam Whitehead
33. Werthead
"Werthead: You might enjoy Daniel Abraham's "Long Price" books, which start with A Shadow in Summer, the fourth and final volume just came out and it has an absolutely brilliant ending."

I've read the first two and enjoyed them a lot. Waiting for Orbit UK to publish the last two books in omnibus, which I think is happening in November.
Amir Yoeli
34. Betterthenyouknew
I was subscribed to GRRM's Blog too, for about 2 years, waiting... waiting... Waaaaaaanting... And I've given up. His blog isn't the least bit interesting to me, specifically, and when he finally gets the 5th, 6th, and finally, I hope, the 7th book out, I shall re-read and enjoy.
GRRM is not my bitch, either... but he certainly has disappointed me on his timeframe.


Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment