A Song of Ice and Fire: Skip the Books, Watch Game of Thrones

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This week I finished the fifth book in the series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ by George R.R. Martin. I wanted to read the books before starting to watch HBO’s television adaptation, because most of the time, the book is better than the movie or TV show. I discovered that ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ is an exception to that rule; Game of Thrones as a TV series is what the book should have been. Let me first give a short, spoiler free excerpt before explaining why.

A Game of Thrones

The story takes place in Westeros, a conglomerate of seven kingdoms in a semi-feudal society. It tells the story of the ‘game of thrones’. The person occupying the Iron Throne of Westeros wields absolute power. Interestingly, the noble house that lies at the center of the story, House Stark, is the only house with no interest in intrigue and scheming. If it were for Ned Stark, they would stay at Winterfell and live their lives in peace. But then the King visits, and appoints him be the new Hand of the King, his right hand and second in command. Suddenly, House Stark is pulled right into the heart of the game of thrones.

Lady Catelyn Stark begs her husband to stay, but Ned thinks that he needs to do his duty and go anyway. He leaves for King’s Landing with his two daughters, Sansa and Arya, the first betrothed to crown-prince Joffrey, the other to be groomed at court, against her wishes. Ned tries to find out why the previous Hand was killed. His honour brings him in serious problems and unwillingly, he causes a domino effect that brings down the Kingdom in the War of the Five Kings. Some things are better left alone.

The Wars of the Roses

For people who are familiar with the history of England, the books are reminiscent of the Wars of the Roses, which was a series of wars for control of the throne of England. The main fight was between supporters of two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the House of Lancaster, and the House of York. Also mixed in is a good deal of Imperial Rome. It’s clearly used as a template, but it doesn’t match completely, it’s not an allegory or parable.

Viewpoints versus Chapters

Most, if not all, books I’ve read so far, use chapter-driven storytelling. Every new chapter advances either the main character(s) or the locations. Usually there are only a few locations with a limited set of core characters.

Martin tries to do something different. Instead of writing chapters based on events, he uses ‘viewpoints’. You see the plot unfold through the eyes of a specific character, which means that every viewpoint is from a first person perspective. But since the story jumps around via many characters, it takes a while before you realise who this is again and what he or she is referring to. This is okay if there are only a handful characters, but in A Song of Ice and Fire, the number of characters expand with every new book. Jumping around 20-odd characters at one point isn’t an exaggeration. To top it, the characters are spreading all over the map as well, so now you have to remember the locations and how they refer to each other in addition to every character. It’s a mess. It doesn’t really work.

To make things even worse, there are the many plot lines. There’s a main plot occurring outside the scope of the Seven Kingdoms, which is the strange events happening north of The Wall, then there’s plot B, which is the game of thrones and then there are all sorts of side quests, people not being really dead and doing things in the fringe of the setting without really influencing the main story line. They are nothing but loose ends and should have been cut out in the editing process, but they weren’t.

A Litany of Events

It’s no wonder that a story like this becomes unwieldy after a while, both for the reader and the writer. The fourth book is so long that it was un-publishable and he had to split it up in Book Four and Book Five. The cut happens at the end of Book Four with an epilogue where the author jumps in and talks directly to the reader in a letter of sorts, explaining why we don’t hear anything about Essos. He also explains he clustered events in Westeros for Book Four and will pick up the story in Essos for the other characters in Book Five. This means that the beginning of Book Five is parallel to the beginning of Book Four instead of being a follow-up. Breaking the fourth wall this way was a very strange experience for me.

Since the story in Book Five is about a longer period, we see characters from Book Four popping up. In one case, we get a duplicate scene from Book Four, but seen from another character’s point of view. I think it would have been better to cut out small plot lines and characters living in the fringe and compress the story so it would fit in one book. Something tells me that this may very well be one of the reasons why Book Six missed several deadlines. Writing is the art of omitting. George R.R. Martin is too fond of his story to cut out unnecessary stuff. For this reason, Book Five became more a Litany of Ice and Fire than a song. Reading became a chore. I hope Martin’s editor will do his job for Book Six, but I’m afraid it will only get worse with more unessary characters and plot lines.

Forget About the Books

I love history, I love fantasy. I love it when a story has a certain amount of realism despite the obvious fiction. A Song of Ice and Fire has all of that. It has great world building, I love the language which is an archaic form of English, using words in a particular way that gives the story a distinct ‘otherworldly’ feeling. Characters break their fast instead of having breakfast. They wear ‘small-clothes’ instead of underwear. People don’t pee, they ‘make water’. There is magic, but it’s not the unicorns and rainbow kisses kind of magic. It’s more like supernatural events with some people knowing the physics of these occurrences and thus have the power to influence or wield it. All the ingredients of a great saga are there. It’s just a pity that the execution is so lackluster.

In interviews, George R.R. Martin explained that he loved history and all the nuts and details of it. In his books you can tell that he does. And it is his Achilles heel. He tries to cram too much into it. The screenwriters for the HBO series merge several characters in one, use existing characters for certain plot-twists instead of introducing yet another one. They manage to do it right. The pace is far better, without all the unnecessary clutter. If you want to enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire, watch Game of Thrones, forget about the books.

Giving the books 2.5 stars out of five. It’s an okay book with great potential, but written poorly.