Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Song of Ice and Fire--Tremendous series is losing steam

I first picked up A Game of Thrones, the first book in author George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire epic fantasy series, somewhere around 1999. At the time, it was all the chatter on fantasy message boards everywhere. Based on the gushing praise and glowing reviews it was recieving from every quarter of fantasy fandom, I decided to give it a read.

I was not disappointed. In fact, it's safe to say that I was hooked.

At the time, I considered A Game of Thrones and its sequel, A Clash of Kings, to be the best fantasy I had read to that point since The Lord of the Rings. That's high praise indeed, given the pedestal on which I place professor Tolkien's unparalled tale.

While just about every fantasy series these days gets compared to LOTR, trying to draw analogies between A Song of Ice and Fire and the former does not work. Frankly, it's nothing like Tolkien’s trilogy. A Song of Ice and Fire is written in a very modern style, is loaded with graphic, intense battle sequences, scheming kings and noble (and not-so-noble) families, backstabbing, political maneuvering, and treachery galore. There's no fat hobbits, no wistful elves, and no poetry. It's been compared to the historic War of the Roses, and I think that's a very apt parallel.

So what makes it such a great series? Sharp, engaging writing, fully fleshed-out, three dimensional characters, and unpredictable, entertaining, edge-of-your seat plotting for starters. Unlike 99% of traditional fantasy, Martin does not pick favorites and spare them the sword. Anyone, and I mean anyone, is as capable of meeting the Reaper as the next character. Nor is there any obvious sacrificial “red shirts” a. la. Star Trek.

A Song of Ice and Fire is also quite graphic and breaks from the PG-13 level of sex and violence that's the norm in most popular fantasy series (e.g., Dragonlance, Shannara, The Belgariad, etc). This series is NOT for the faint of heart. There’s sadism, murder, cruelties piled upon undeserving characters, heartbreaking betrayals, and worse.

And as great as A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings were, I thought Martin one-upped himself with A Storm of Swords. I won't reveal any spoilers here, but there's a scene in that book ("The Red Wedding") that leaves your mouth hanging open in shock. Once you read it, you realize that Martin has demolished the common conceptions of the traditional epic, multi-book fantasy that chokes the fantasy sections of bookstores these days. It opened a window and allowed some sorely needed fresh air into a genre that many (myself included) felt had grown repetitive and stale. In short, circa 2000, Martin was on top of the world and could do no wrong.

But then something happened. A Storm of Swords came out in 2000, which made sense as its preceeding two novels were spaced just two years apart (A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, and A Clash of Kings came out in 1998). But it took until 2005, five long years, until Martin released A Feast for Crows.

While it proved to be an excruciatingly long wait, the justification seemed reasonable--Crows was shaping up to be very long, longer in fact than the phonebook-sized (900-odd page) A Storm of Swords, and Martin needed extra time to write it. In fact, he ultimately decided to break it up into two books, the second tentatively titled A Dance with Dragons, and release both within a short time frame.

When A Feast for Crows finally came out in 2005, I did something I rarely do--I purchased the hardcover within a few days of its release, so strong was my anticipation. But troublingly, A Feast for Crows (to me at least) marked the first misstep for A Song of Ice and Fire. Already a complex tale with a large cast of characters, and with action occurring simultaneously in multiple areas of Westeros, A Feast for Crows failed to advance the action nearly as much as its predecessors. Mind you, this is a 700-page tome, and while, like the other books in the series, its very well-written, in hindsight, not a heck of a lot occurred between its covers.

By way of comparison, the hardbound The Lord of the Rings I have sitting on my bookshelf checks in at a slim 1,008 pages--all three "books" (Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King) combined. To put that in perspective, A Storm of Swords, alone, is nearly as long as LOTR!

While I've never read Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, that series is much maligned for its massive books that seem to accomplish less with every sequel (of which there are 1o books or so, I believe). In fact, the series has gone on for so long that Jordan unfortunately passed away from a rare disease before he was able to complete it.

Unfortunately, comparisons between The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire suddenly don't seem too far-fetched. It's now been more than two years since A Feast for Crows, and there's still no Dance from Martin. And this this is a book that was supposedly (mostly) already written, as it was supposed to consist of material and characters that Martin had to pare away from Crows.

So where does this leave A Song of Ice and Fire? Hopefully just on temporary hold. Hopefully. I don't want to sound like I'm whining as I firmly believe that Martin is a very talented author. If he truly needs this much time to write these novels, so be it. But there are consequences.

In my own case, my passion for A Song of Ice and Fire has cooled. I've actually forgotten many of the plotlines and characters and anticipate having to again re-read large sections of the last four novels to remember what was going on. Martin has said that A Song of Ice and Fire will wrap up in seven books, but at this pace we can expect to see it concluded in 2018 or thereabouts. By that time it wouldn't surprise me to find that many readers have moved on or fallen off the bandwagon.

My lesson? In the future I will likely refrain from reading a series until it's been completed. I still highly recommend the series, but I'll now add a firm "caveat emptor" to potential readers of A Song of Ice and Fire.

1 comment:

Eric said...

You missed the most important point. He takes his lessons from Shakespeare. Just think, King Lear, Hamlet?