Some Early Thoughts on Song Of Ice And Fire Series

5 06 2012

I have been reading the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin (sometimes called A Game of Thrones series, although that is actually the name of book 1). I haven’t finished the first 5 books yet (and there are apparently going to be 7 in total), but there are things about the series I find intriguing.

SPOILER ALERT: If you decide to read on, there are SPOILERS. If you don’t want to see them, please don’t keep going. You’ve been warned.

Interesting Structure Requires Focus

The series has been a bit of challenge because of how the author chose to structure each chapter. Each focuses on a single character, their actions and what is going on around them. This is interesting, because it allows you to see things from their (sometimes twisted) perspective. It means we get to hear their internal monologue from time to time, but it also means we don’t always get into their head when that same character appears in a chapter focusing on a different character.

This approach has also meant we tend to jump around in time a lot. Rather than the usual filler “they travelled for many days”, we just sort of skip over that bit and move ahead to the next major point in time. It does make the flow of the story a bit herkey-jerky, but it also makes it interesting because we sometimes read the flashback to fill in what did happen.

There is a downside to this type of writing, and the sheer complexity of the cast. It can make keeping track of who is who, where they are, and what they are doing, a bit of a challenge. Some characters disappear for long periods of time, and then a chapter for them pops up, and I find myself wondering what was going on last time. This form, and again the vast array of players, requires some degree of concentration and focus that other series don’t generally need. This isn’t a series that is easy to put down for a few days or a few weeks, and then try to pick back up again.

Different Focus, Different Intrigues

One key element of this series, that seems to be largely absent from pretty much everything else I’ve read, is the willingness of the author to kill off important, if not central, characters. I would say that more than half of the characters we saw in book 1 are gone by the start of book 4. New characters and new perspectives have appeared in their stead. The number of active “story lines” remains largely unchanged. But the author’s willingness to take a story line and either just end it, or make it turn in radical ways, can be both refreshing and frustrating. Part of the issue: there isn’t really a “hero”, no main protagonist that we are rooting for, or are expected to follow. It takes nearly all of book 1 to truly realize that even the biggest “names” are expendable.

In many ways, though, this forces the reader to try to look at the bigger story, as told through the snippets and snapshots we get as we visit each character’s part of the overall story. This isn’t like reading a history book, where the main plot is obvious, and we can pretty much tell the good guys from the bad guys. This is more like real life: bits and pieces of information, some of it discovered some time after the fact, allow us to assemble a whole story. It’s more like a quilt than a single blanket, but a quilt where we don’t get to see all of the pieces (at least, not all at once). You can feel the story building to something, but it isn’t entirely obvious what the might be. We can envision and foresee multiple outcomes, but all options are open.

This is so very different from the typical “quest” or “this is our mission” that is more common in fantasy: win this war, and the story is over. Do this task, and the story is done. Get the One Ring to Mount Doom. Find the Dark Tower. Defeat Lord Foul. These stories generally allow us to identify who is on what team. Sure, there may be some level of intrigue and in-fighting, but nothing like the Song of Ice and Fire series. This series makes the intrigues, plots and schemes in Dune look like minor-league stuff.

This lack of a single, defined outcome also gives us texture to the various character’s actions and motivations. This isn’t just “beat the other team”. Each character has their own motivations, and sometimes they are at cross-purposes with even their own allies. It feels as if there will be some great, central conflict, but so far, what that might be isn’t entirely obvious. The author has set up similar situations (like the attack by Stannis on King’s Landing) and forced the story into a sharp turn (Stannis is defeated, broods for a bit, and rather than giving it another go, appears at the Wall). The story seems to building to some kind of conflict between Daenerys and the Lannisters, but who knows if Stannis Baratheon is going either be a 3rd party to the conflict, possibly displaces the Lannisters, or is simply wiped from the board? Again, the author’s willingness to terminate characters that are instrumental to the story arc at the time means that any outcome is possible.

Unpredictability, But Plausibility

The occasionally unpredictable behaviours of characters is refreshing, because it lines up more with real life: once in a while, someone good will do something a bit evil in the name of good. And once in a while, someone bad will temporarily recover their humanity and do something good. The characters are believable and generally stay within type. But even some of the so-called “good guys” are selfish and self-centered. Sometimes they only think of themselves, at the expense of the bigger picture.

There isn’t so much “good or evil” as there are shades of gray. A “good” character like Sansa Stark will kill soldiers because it is easier than trying to “spare them”, even though it means knocking off some poor kid who just happened to pick the wrong side. A “bad” character like Sandor Clegane actually takes risks to save Sansa, despite his earlier willingness (when Joffrey’s Hound) to simply snuff her out of existence. These acts aren’t enough to push them to one end of the “good vs. evil” spectrum or the other. It just makes them realistic and rounded characters. Few characters in the book are truly neutral, and do tend toward one aspect or the other. But most of their motivations, good or bad, aren’t always about some higher, noble purpose. It is about what they need to do, here and now, to accomplish some short-term goal.

Looking Forward To the Outcome

The twists and turns are heading somewhere, but where that is may not be as it seems now. It all seems to be building to a final confrontation between the Lannisters and Daenerys Targaryen. Who knows, though. Cersei’s stumbling and bumbling could result in a marginalization of the Lannisters and fragmentation of Westeros, meaning that the ‘confrontation’ is actually a re-unification under a new Dragon Queen. Or our lady of the dragons could find herself eliminated, and the real fight is between Baratheon and Lannister. Maybe the Frey’s make a deal with the Greyjoys, take on both Baratheon and Lannister, and they then have to face Daenerys. This isn’t a simple “who will win the war” because the war itself continues to shift and move. This should be interesting.

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