Tue
Jan 21 2014 12:00pm

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

What Makes This Book So Great Jo Walton Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin

Jo Walton’s new book What Makes This Book So Great (U.S. / U.K.), is a collection of some of her best Tor.com posts honoring, analyzing, and reassessing science fiction and fantasy. The full collection, featuring over 130 essays, is out on January 21st and includes great opinion pieces like this, originally published in September of 2009.

Re-reading these books right now is a mistake. Before I picked up A Game of Thrones 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 for 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 were 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 The 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 won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, and the World Fantasy Award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. Her several other novels include the acclaimed “Small Change” alternate-history trilogy, comprising Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown. Her novel Among Others won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012.

11 comments
Paul Keelan
1. noblehunter
I don't know if I was in agreement with this post when it was written, but I certainly was before A Feast for Crows came out. Everytime I re-read the first 3 books, I was infected with bone-deep want.

After Crows and especially A Dance with Dragons, I stopped caring. I want to know what happens, but I don't particularly want to read the rest of the series. I can't even get through A Game of Thrones anymore. So whatever IWantToReadItosity the series held for me has vanished. Which is as interesting as why it had it in the first place.
Rocky
2. spacechampion
I think of ASOIAF as a gothic epic saga. Gothic, for the atmosphere of loss and horror and supernatural forces in play; epic, for the sense of a moral universe out of whack that needs to be fixed, and the heroic roles the characters may think of themselves; and saga, for the dynastic struggles of the different families at war.
Ursula L
3. Ursula
...if you left me in a room with both books and nothing else...
Okay, I'm imagining someone cruel enough to leave Jo in a room with only two books available, and it hurts my brain to imagine anything so awful.
bdaniel
4. bdaniel
I find this amusing. The fans of this series are dwindling quickly and even faster than the new fans come on board. I started this series just before Game of Thrones came out and I have waited, and waited, and waited, and waited, then Geroge R.R. Martin put up a blog post that said he had finished the series, but then he changed his mind, then he said he was done with it again, then changed his mind again. Now I realize that he no longer cares about his fans, the ones that put money in his pocket and stirred up interest for the screenplay. But George was born with a spoon in his mouth, and I think it was probably muselage. He has not failed to disappoint since Feast of Crows and he promises to continue to disappoint all the more since he is now famous and believed to be a great writer. He is a fair writer with no commitment to his craft nor his customers.
Katharine Duckett
6. Katharine
Stepping in as moderator--everyone's entitled to voice their opinion, but let's keep the tone towards everyone involved (authors included) civil and respectful. If you're not sure what qualifies, please refer to our moderation policy, and keep the rhetoric to a minimum. Thanks.
bdaniel
7. CHip137
bdaniel -- \what/ sort of spoon? GRRM certainly doesn't come from privilege; he grew up in one of the gritty parts of Bayonne, NJ. I'm not sure how I feel about the latest volume (and I'm not sure he is still in control of the plot -- I remember when he said it would be finished in five books), but I don't think he's out to abuse or slough off his readers.
Lawrence Hardin
8. lawrencehardin
I started skipping some sections with Book 3 (A Storm Of Swords). I continued that with Book 4 (A Feast For Crows). Although I bought "A Dance With Dragons" I let the hardback sit on the shelf unread for years. I finally bought the whole set in ebook this summer (2013) using a gift card and started reading it on my PC. Right from the start I found it explaining mysteries going back to the very first book. It helped that I had a zoomable JPEG map in an icon at the bottom of the screen from http://www.sermountaingoat.co.uk which made the text much easier to follow. By the end of Book 5 I had to reread the first 4 books. This time I finally knew enough to properly understand all the story instead of getting confused and lost amid all the sections. Also, I used "A Wiki Of Ice and Fire" at http://awoiaf.westeros.org/ without fear of spoilers. That proved to be very important. Don't use it on the first read but the wiki is great for rereads. This series is too sprawling to understand on the first read but after reading A Dance With Dragons I can finally follow the story on both sides of the Narrow Sea.
Church Tucker
9. Church
The fans of this series are dwindling quickly and even faster than the new fans come on board.
Tell that to the retailers, who kept the publisher delaying the ADWD paperback because the hardcovers were selling so well.
bdaniel
10. Blueflute
I think of the series as a fictional war of the roses overlaid with elements of magic in the background. I don't enjoy reading his books entirely because they are so grim and violent, and any sympathetic characters reliably meet with a bad end, however the first 3 books at least were difficult to stop reading for me, at least in the sense that train wrecks are oddly compelling. But, yes like noblehunter I am no longer particularly interested in what happens next.
bdaniel
11. pjcamp
I refuse to start them until he finishes the series. That's not necessarily petty. I just have trouble remembering where things leave off.

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